Getting Unstuck

 

About a decade ago, I took piano lessons for the first time. It went pretty well for the first couple of months. My instructor gave lots of positive feedback but pushed me forward at a pace that my middle-aged, busy mom self found pretty relentless. Perhaps she was equating my brain’s plasticity with that of the college students with whom she spent most of her working hours, and my practice hours with those of students attending a music-based school. At any rate, when I progressed to needing to make my two hands do completely different things at the same time, there was a train wreck in my brain. I could actually feel and hear it.

This year has made me feel that way – over and over and over again. It has eroded my creativity, motivation, enthusiasm, and energy. Knowing that this year especially, we are so fortunate to simply be employed and healthy, makes me not want to say anything that could be construed as complaining. Hence being stuck.

A few things have helped… Our cats provide lots of entertainment, purrs, and kitty hugs. Completing projects around the house makes me feel somewhat productive when I’m not accomplishing my primary goals. Sewing masks for family and friends has been a good distraction that was also useful. Journaling gives me space to write whatever’s on my mind with no editing, either pre- or post-writing. Talking to friends when I can’t see them is a balm to my soul. Learning a new programming language has been an absorbing pastime that keeps my mind focused.

In The Upside of Stress, research psychologist Kelly McGonigal details that the way in which we view a stressful situation impacts our likelihood of success. If we view something as a challenge, we are more likely to succeed than if we view it as a threat. In an interview about the book, she stated that successful stress management is associated with a significant capacity for uncertainty, and that viewing stress as a growth opportunity is helpful.

I am a planner through and through. Unsolved problems keep me up at night, and although 3AM is an excellent time to deeply and thoroughly ponder just about anything without distraction, it’s not the greatest time for completely coherent thinking. 2020 has already provided many occasions to learn to embrace uncertainty, and it seems like more will follow. Here, then, is an excellent opportunity to both grow and extract something good from this year… so my goal for the coming months is to accept and learn to welcome the uncertainty.

What tools help you with uncertainty?

Return to intention

CC0 image from Pixabay

All I’m going to say about the past few months is this: It has been and continues to be grueling and arduous, for everyone, in so many ways, at so many levels.

My days, weeks, months have felt unfocused, mechanical. It’s been far easier to get things done than to sit down and think or write. While working and programming have forced times of focus, clearing brush and weeding, painting and organizing, and walking the dog are all meditative on their own and have provided time to sort thoughts, to mentally plan and file, while permitting distractions. As I view the shrinking number of days to the fall semester, I realize that the task at hand is to ready myself to support and mentor, and to do that I need to get into the quiet space that has been uncomfortable.

I need a plan.

There are many ways that I could improve my lifestyle, but I have a specific goal and want quick results. For the next week, I’m going to eliminate my biggest time waster: reading news and other things online. I’ll add my most effective tools for reflection and purposeful time: journaling, which I do on the computer, and my catch-all notebook, in which I log various lists, ideas, etc so that I can get back to what I’m working on. Morning and evening, I will sit with these tools and clear the mental clutter of these months.

20 Minutes of Silence

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I sat with a pencil and scrap of paper in a silent room and waited.  All week I had that feeling of jammed thoughts and ideas… they just couldn’t come out in the daily hubbub.  And no matter how many times I demonstrate to myself that I don’t need a huge slab of time for the mental productivity to begin, I continue to wait for an unplanned day or afternoon, an event that probably will never come.

Since I was quite young, no matter how long the journey, I always packed a book to read, paper, and pen (my mental image: 10-year old me and a stack of books in the backseat of the car on the 10-minute drive to the grocery store).  I still do, because even though most of my actual writing takes place on a computer, it nearly always begins on paper, as a captured thought or some random scribbles that were part of my problem-solving process.

Today, my default when given a small block of time is to spend it swiping on a smartphone.  I’m aware of it, but I still do it, and I see countless other people do the same every day.  What I know is that this never gives me a feeling of time wealth.  Most of the time I don’t learn anything new or useful, and those minutes just disappear from my allotted lifetime, completely insignificant.

But one morning last week, I sat with pencil and paper instead, even though I had only about 18 minutes.  There was nothing initially… maybe a minute of sitting, poised to write.  Then I began with the usual lists.. nothing interesting, but useful in planning my week: the meal plan, the tasks and schedules, the shopping list.  The simple act of writing turned on my brain like a switch, and ideas began to flow.

I am posting this to remind myself to let the silence in.  The thoughts swirl all day, every day, and I know that I lose most of them.  Monkey mind is a specialty of mine.  Picking up the pencil invites creativity to visit, and that can happen anywhere I might have turned to the phone.

 

 

Imagining

Autumn on the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail Loop, Minnesota
The view I imagine while stuck in traffic.  Image: Autumn on the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail Loop, Minnesota by Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I popped Mari’s well-worn CD of Anne of Green Gables into the car stereo this morning and from the first lines was whisked to a comfortable home in my memory. My mom bought this book for me when I traveled with my aunt at the age of 9. Once I got through the wordy descriptions in the first page, I was hooked. I finished it and immediately began reading it again. I read the series countless times over the years, continuing to read it into adulthood on occasion. The books have always been an escape for me; I recall taking an Anne book and my lunch to a park near my engineering job, sitting under a tree and reading to forget work stress for a while.

It was a pleasant way to spend the commute – listening to L.M. Montgomery’s loving descriptions of the natural beauty of Avonlea, every sentence a mark of her craft. The activities of the characters were a reminder of the world pre-technology. Anne fantasized about living near a babbling brook and spending the night in a wild cherry tree; she didn’t spend all her hours with earbuds and a smartphone. Rachel Lynde observed everything that happened in the neighborhood because she wasn’t parked in front of a TV. An 8-mile horse-driven buggy drive was a pleasure, not a time-sucking chore as it can be today in a much faster car. I’m sure there will be a million more examples; I’m only on chapter 2.

For many years, it was my fantasy to live far from the bustle of cities and suburbs, in a country cottage with a large garden and abundant physical and mental space. My parents moved to such a place when I was in college, and on my occasional visits I loved the sounds of the owls at night and roosters and cows early in the morning, the always changing landscapes of the Shenandoah foothills, and the lack of busy-ness. Oh, there was lots to do: painting outbuildings, harvesting berries, making jam, weeding, hanging laundry, painting the long stretches of fences – but there was also time to climb into the hills and marvel at the views, to enjoy a visit with the sociable barn cat, or to just think. For about a decade until upkeep became too much work for my aging parents, it was a much-loved refuge for me from the various cities in which I lived.

When, as of late, I begin to feel a real need for that refuge, I know that I need to step back and reconsider commitments. When home feels less like a cabin and more like a hotel, I know I am too busy. Recently, the fantasies of moving to the country resurfaced, and I asked myself why. It’s been a busy few weeks back to work and school, and we’re all still adjusting: we will adjust. I have given myself the position of always-willing-to-drive mother for Mari and her friends; while this can take a lot of time, there are benefits, such as knowing they are all safe, and the opportunities for conversation in the car. This is also temporary and will likely ease by the end of the winter; after her friends have navigated Minnesota winter roads, I will be more likely to consider them safe drivers.

When I was finishing my grad degree, I realized I had always been waiting for the next stage. As a young child, like many kids, I always wanted to be older. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get to college. The rapid, always-changing pace of college suited me, but I was eager to finish. The summer job I had between college and grad school was perfect in that within a few weeks I was ready to be a student again. And then I was done — I moved across the country and I was on my own… to discover that the grass was not as green as I had expected.  After a couple of years I just wanted out of the corporate world. I realized that there was always something to be finished, always something new to begin that probably wasn’t going to match my expectations.

The stress of this time will pass, and I will have some fond memories of it. Doing what I can now to make each day enjoyable for all of us will give us each a better time now and better memories in the future. And part of making every day better for all of us means giving myself more breaks.

A year ago I read the idea of a “20-minute daily vacation” in Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock.  It’s time to implement it!

We are all ephemeral

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Virginia bluebells by Fritzflohrreynolds,CC BY-SA 3.0

My mom and her two surviving siblings live in different states from me and from  each other, but last weekend we were all together in the same place for the first time in about 4 years.  My uncle, the youngest among them, was clearly shaken by how the years have affected his sisters, and resolved to make more of an effort to travel.

Time is fleeting. Everything is temporary.

A friend has been fighting a particularly deadly cancer for a couple of years, and I thought she had beaten it back.  But today a package arrived in the mail that worries me deeply.  It contained memorabilia of the connection that we share, and no note.

More reasons to be mindful of every day, put away the phone, prioritize time spent with loved ones and doing activities that bring goals closer to fruition.

Reclaiming Time from Technology

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I began a partial news fast last week.

I don’t watch the news, and I don’t read a newspaper daily… but I had fallen into checking the news on multiple sites and selectively reading articles at least a couple times each day. It’s another way of procrastinating, I think, inspired by the smartphone and its promise of passing any unfilled time painlessly. But it also creates unnecessary tension, and the fact is, I can’t do anything about most of the things happening in the world or even my country.

The breakneck speed of technology has enabled instant information about everything, everywhere. In some cases, such as an approaching tornado, this is life-saving. But most of the time, it’s not that essential. Whichever side of the political divide you favor, odds are any news source delivers jolts of anger or fear throughout the day. In taking a news fast, I am choosing to limit these reactions.

Because this is a partial fast, I am staying informed, by reading a non-sensational world news source no more than once daily.  I plan to use some of the time I save to write my legislators issues that are important to me, an activity that, for most of the past 15 years has fallen into the category of “I wish I had time for…”

I recently read Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism. I found the thoughts in his earlier book Deep Work to be very useful, and have been looking forward to harvesting tips toward reducing digital time since I heard of the title of his latest work.

Newport proposes a 30-day digital declutter to break away from the strong pull of technology and rediscover how we used to or how we want to spend our time. After this period, during which unnecessary technology is eliminated, components can be added back… mindfully.

He suggests that, prior to this declutter, goals and priorities are planned so that the lack of technology is less of a black hole. He recommends a clean break – not slowly stopping the technology train, but jumping away from all nonessential use.

Prior to reading this, I found my own slow approach to digital decluttering. I began by removing all potentially time-wasting apps from my phone, and proceeded by unfollowing almost everything on my social media feed, which led to largely abandoning social media. It is a great relief to not have to react internally or externally to all of the minutia, vacations, news, and vents shared there. The pull of the phone remains, though: like one of the individuals cited in Digital Minimalism, I have found myself reading the weather for lack of something else to swipe on the phone – which reminds me that it’s time to put it away.

I don’t call myself a minimalist in any regard, but I appreciate the mindfulness afforded by a little bit of space in my time. Making it more difficult to waste time on the pocket computer that we all call phones has brought more of that space into every day.