Tag: Prioritizing

20May

Twenty-Minute Vacation

I woke up this morning in deep dark funk territory. You know it, yes? That mapless bog of unfocused angst reeking with a sense that you should be doing something else! but no clarity as to what that something is or how you should summon the energy to do it? That one.

For me, the funk is almost always tied to a lack of writing time. Words are my anchor to the human race, and I can’t drop the daily practice of communing with them without also relinquishing my hold on sanity. I know this… and yet my relationship with writing is a complicated and painful one that I walk away from on a regular basis. All it takes is one day of tasks clamoring for absolute precedence; others step into their place the following day, and within the week, I am clinging to a defeatist mantra, a lifesaver carrying me out to open sea—I can’t do it all, I’m not enough, I have to let the inessentials go, let the hobbies go, let anything remotely falling within the self-care category go. There is no time for self-care selfishness, no justification for pouring valuable hours into something without direct and measurable benefit to my family. I can’t do it all; I just have to suck it up and accept that there is no room in my life for writing.

The funk inevitably follows, though I can sometimes power through for weeks before admitting I’m lost. Sometimes. Other times, the crash follows hard on the heels of a busy weekend, and I wake up to a beautiful wide-open morning with complete paralysis of soul. When this happens, there is little I know to do. Nearly every option I come up with is dredged in my sense of futility and promises to make me feel worse about myself. Wash the dishes? Sure! If you’re okay with my letting the occasional plate shatter on the floor in a fit of Kirkegaardian misery or my stabbing the occasional husband with an errant steak knife. Go for a run? Why not! I need another reason to feel the breathless, side-crampy extent of my failure at life. Read the Bible? Clearly you don’t know much about my mangled relationship with that particular text. Work on taxes? Are you f-ing kidding me??

However, I say nearly every option because I have discovered one—am discovering one—that lifts me out of the bog rather than engineering new sinkholes under my feet:

Meditation.

Now, before you indulge the mental picture of me in the lotus pose with a beatific smile and a halo of silent tranquility gracing my head, please understand that I am awful at this. Truly terrible. My meditation practices would give the Buddha high blood pressure were he unfortunate enough to witness me sitting crookedly against a pile of sofa cushions with my phone timer ticking down twenty minutes beside me. All the worse if he could see my mental process, which involves a lot of chasing thoughts down rabbit trails and yanking myself back on a leash and precious little of the focused silence I’m trying to achieve.

Still, I’m always shocked when the timer goes off and twenty minutes have passed in the guise of three. I know I’m terrible at meditation—buzzing around the spectacle of my own spiritual practice, hyper-aware of everything from my newness at this to the sound of traffic outside—but it works anyway. While my mind spends those twenty minutes fighting its golden retriever tendencies with all its might, my overwrought soul gets a twenty-minute vacation. It sips margaritas on the beach and naps under the palm trees and returns to me in a kind of time-warp glow. I might not be stumbling onto enlightenment or ascending to new spiritual heights here, but I am giving myself a desperately-needed break from my own mental bombardment.

Meditating makes me realize how much attention I typically give to each and every thought that comes bounding into my head, how I ascribe equal importance to them all even when logic would demand I place some on hold for more appropriate times and throw others out on their destructive asses. I have no thought-filter. I simply absorb and interact with each new string of mental clatter as if it were valuable and urgent and true. Purposefully deprioritizing the yammer in my head, however, is showing me how subjective it all is—how reflective of emotion and circumstances and the weather outside my window. It is not all true, and almost none of it is urgent. When I forcibly silence my thoughts (or at least try to) is when I finally begin to understand them, to see their origins and motives and what it all means for my penetrable heart.

You should know that the funk didn’t entirely disappear with my meditation this morning. The twin pests of impatience and indecision were waiting on the other side of those twenty minutes to be swatted away again and again throughout the day. The difference was that I had the energy to swat them away. I had the optimism to lace up my running shoes and head to the park before lunch. I had the confidence to push all the complications and doubts and martyr complexes to the side and start writing this for no other reason than that I needed to write it. I had a lookout tower there in the funk, above the funk.

Tomorrow, I very well may wake up neck-deep in the muck and malaise again. If not tomorrow, then next week, or the week after. It’s going to happen again. But maybe next time I won’t need to cycle through my roster of futile options before admitting that less is more and what I really need to do is to not do—to sit and be and fight-rest my way toward the silence that lifts me up and out.

~~~

Do you meditate (or have you ever tried it)? Are there any meditation practices that work especially well for you? 

26Mar

Life Tetris

I’m at the gym spying on the girls’ swim lesson with one eye and watching the clock with the other. Twenty-nine minutes until I’ll need to whisk them into their bathrobes, usher them to the showers, and begin the forever-long process of drying and lotioning and braiding. They’re off to Kidsville then, and it’s to the weight room for me, followed by Zumba, followed by supper and the girls’ bedtime routine and the reluctant winding down of evening. Twenty-seven minutes now, a pittance.

My mind has always bent clockwards this way, warily monitoring that old taskmaster Time. Each minute registers as a loss punctuated by a quick chime of guilt, so I tend to play my days like Tetris, filling every possible space and trying to best the previous day’s score. It’s a crummy way to live, and I know that, but old perspectives die hard, and I long believed “redeeming the time” meant treating each and every second as an emergency.

(Nineteen minutes now.)

I write about prioritizing so often because it is an all-encompassing part of my thought life. When I was a child, prioritizing was a biblical mandate; now, it is simply how I try to make practical sense of my limited and ever-full time. Even if the passing of time does not qualify as an emergency (a point on which I still waver), I still have to choose what will get done and what will be callously neglected not, and folks, it’s hard! All the things I want to do with my time are good things, worthy things; I’m not agonizing over how to fit an extra hour of Angry Birds in between soap opera reruns here. My debates are over how best to love the people around me while taking care of myself and finding satisfaction at the end of the day… and the process might as well be ancient Sumerian calculus for how well I comprehend it.

(Twelve minutes.)

According to my imagination, finding balance would involve morphing into a Pioneer Woman-style superhuman who lovingly raises a houseful of children, cultivates a social life, cleans All The Things, and keeps up with the latest TV shows while rocking at her dream career. In the real world outside my weird and dramatic head, balance probably means something a lot less glamorous—choosing between quantity and quality, for instance, or accepting sleep deprivation as a way of life. Almost certainly, it necessitates making peace with that clock on the wall, so that’s where I’m focusing this afternoon.

Tick. Not an emergency. Tock. Not even a minor peril. Tick. Definitely not the end of the world. Tock. Not evidence of failure either. Tick. You’re okay. Tock. No, I really mean it. Tick. Even if all you’ve done for the last three minutes… Tock …is stare into space looking for the right word. Tick. It’s part of the writing process. Tock. Just as listening is part of the relationship process. Tick. Just as sleeping is part of the daily process. Tock. Just as breathing is part of the living process.

(Zero minutes. Enough.)

~~~

Do you play Tetris with your time as well? What helps you release your grip on the controls and relax into the process of living?

8Feb

What I Know to be True

The sky shifts and stretches, and sunlight spills through the elongated gaps. It’s still too hazy to see the mountains, but light is reflecting off a hundred smoking chimneys and dancing on a million silvered olive leaves, and I think I might take my coffee—a regrettable but necessary second cup—out into the joy of it. I make it nearly two steps onto the balcony before my Texas bones start shaking in protest. Sunny or not, this is still the crux of winter, and I in my morning zombie trance am no match for the cold.* I retreat to the kitchen table, backhand a swath of crumbs out of my way, and sigh long and deep.

* Disclaimer: I realize that my calling a sunny Mediterranean winter “cold” is causing some of you to smash your heads repeatedly into your desks right now. I apologize for any resulting trauma and invite you to come sunbathe on our balcony at your convenience.

I’m in so many mental ruts right now, ruts within ruts, that it’s hard to distinguish which one is suddenly closing the walls of our kitchen around me. My eyes wince across the trail of soup pots and mixing bowls waiting to be washed. In the next room, laundry is draped over radiators to dry; another load sloshes in the washer, and my lungs feel like they’re wrapped in damp socks. Chores multiply like rabbits around here in the winter, and beating them off with a broom could be my full-time job. I wonder if it is. Last week while reading a picture dictionary to Sophie, I asked her if she knew any janitors, and she answered brightly, “Yes, you!” And yet our floors still feel like syrup and sand and one has to use parkour to navigate the guest room and mealtimes feel like punishment.

This is a doozy of a rut, this resentment of my domestic life and its endless repetitions of damage control. Home should feel like sanctuary, so I try to distract myself from the messes spawning like video game villains across my universe. However, distraction turns out to be its own form of rut; my mind wanders and flits until I realize with a jolt that I haven’t felt my own soul’s pulse in weeks.

I should have picked up on it earlier, the very minute that the dust congregating on our windowsills became a universe to me. Even as I say that though, I recognize that I have no easy answers for how to push back at the shinkwrap, how to keep filling my lungs with the air of a wide wide world while the four walls of our house clamor so loudly and the cold seals them shut.

Yesterday, I read a bit from two women whose words light fires inside of me, and for those ten minutes, my heart remembered how to move again. It pumped away my zombie fog and stretched out, out, beyond our sleepy Italian valley and the mountains standing guard, out across oceans, out past the stars. My universe expanded to make room for eternity, and the only thing I could ask beyond that is the strength to hold onto it more than ten minutes at a time.

I’m writing now from the bittersweet place of awareness without answers, trapped in a rut with eyes full of stars. I know who I am—the true me, the eyes-wide-open me who isn’t afraid her life’s work will boil down to laundry—but I’ve never worked out just how to keep those fires lit. One of Shame’s favorite adjectives for me is “selfish,” and I hear it now in the clacking of the keys while the soup pots go unwashed. I hear it in the turning pages of a book and in the stillness of attempted meditation, in any pursuit of my own personal peace. The clock becomes a rushing sound in my ears, and I scramble to get back to the duties that pile around my vision like blinders.

Or… I write, because Shame is not going to stop advancing any sooner than the laundry pile is, and if I’m willing to hinge my worth on damage control, why not start with the soul-damage? Why not battle to climb out of the rut instead of battling to keep it mess-free?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I know the answer, and the answer is Shame itself. Shame is the bully pinning us down while taunting, “Why don’t you just get up?” Shame is the dictator citing himself as the source of truth. Shame is the fear profiteer. Shame is what makes us feel unworthy to fight the burden of unworthiness, and how do you pull yourself up from that if not by looking the bully square in the eye, saying his name out loud—S C R E A M I N G it if necessary!—and informing him that he no longer calls the shots?

Here is what I know to be true:

  1. No one will die if the dishes go unwashed until tomorrow (although I reserve the right to boycott the kitchen in the meantime). Repeat: No one will die.
  2. My soul will die, slow and purpling like frostbite, if I don’t allow her the unhurried time she needs to connect with God, refresh her focus, and do what her heart is nudging her to do.
  3. Sometimes that will mean half an hour; sometimes it will mean the entire day.
  4. That is not selfish.
  5. It’s not selfish because a whole and peaceful me brings direct good to the world around me, even the little one within our walls, while a resentful and distracted me spreads negativity.
  6. It is much easier to keep eternity in my perspective when I’m prioritizing the eternal things—soul-ties, relationships, art, justice, kindness—and letting Mount Laundry take whatever energy I have left over. Not the other way around.
  7. Shame has no redeeming characteristics. Not a one. I will gain nothing by listening to it, ever. That voice sneering at me that I’m selfish and worthless and a big fat failure? deserves no acknowledgement other than a big fat ass-kicking.
  8. Shame might masquerade as a bully or a dictator, but I can always recognize Truth; it’s the one shifting and stretching my mind, spilling light through the elongated cracks, lighting fires, imparting courage.

~~~

What do you know to be true despite Shame telling you otherwise? 

15Jan

Life, with Style

We’ve been an exclusively freelancing family for a year now—not a drop of guaranteed income since December 2011—and just to write that requires a deep breath and several pinches on the arm to verify that I’m still here, that we’re still here. It doesn’t seem possible. We’ve had nothing more substantial to stand on than the prismed airstreams of faith and hope and inspiration, and I’ll be honest, the hardest part of our year came after my post on accrued miracles.

We landed on the doorstep of 2013 as shaky and windswept as if we had been flung off a roller coaster, but just as exhilarated too. For all the instability of this lifestyle and the havoc it wreaks on my imagination, we feel like we’re en route to our best selves, and that’s been enough to overrule surges of panic and impulses to snatch up ill-fitting jobs. We pray like schizophrenics, listen to heart-nudges, eat lots of soup, and try to keep our forward momentum into new realms of possibility. It’s a morale-saver, that possibility.

It can also be a soul-snuffer, at least where my manic work philosophy comes into play. Without a clearly defined workday or bite-sized goals, I view all that possibility as my direct and urgent responsibility. Must! accomplish! All The Things! NOW! Inevitably, after three or four days of frenzied work and no play, Jack isn’t simply a dull boy; he’s a burned-out, scary-eyed, hormonal mess of a zombie housewife.

(This is what happens when a lover of hyperbole is allowed to freelance.)

I’ve always been quick to prioritize the life out of my time, though I know well how it leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction and burnout and despair and snooze button abuse, followed by a reluctant admission that my brain belongs in rehab and a resolve to do better (which I add to my to-do list because I’m also a lover of irony). Really, though, that is my mission for this year: to put the life back into my lifestyle. To recondition my sense of accomplishment and let myself feel happy dammit!, even if the only thing I’ve managed to do in the day is love well. To choose margins for my time instead of wallowing helplessly in too-much-to-do. To care for my physical, spiritual, relational, and creative self, you know, on purpose.

This is probably the hardest resolution I could make for myself right now. I’m more comfortable with sacrifice than I am with solace, and I’ve adopted versions of this goal in the past without it sticking any better than my resolve to give up sugar (I tried that once in high school for a whole day; I know better now). I have to figure this out though if I plan to enjoy our second year of freelancing adventures.

Which I most absolutely do.

17Dec

Our Right to Thumbs

As soon as I opened Facebook this morning, the site recommended two pages for me based on my friends’ likes:

Guns and Shooting.

Guns and Shooting, and my friends’ names alongside pixelated thumbs of approval. Guns and Shooting, and a Facebook feed bristling in defense of assault rifles. Guns and Shooting, and quotes from religious figures implying that God allowed the tragedy as an act of revenge on a school system that no longer sponsors him. Guns and Shooting, and the caps-locked screams of loved ones fighting for their unhindered right to weapons of destruction.

As a culture (and I speak in sweeping generalities here), we Americans have accepted that violence can only be counteracted with more violence. We see war as 100% necessary and place our hope in the Jack Bauers of the nation. We think that the only way to defend ourselves from guns is to put more guns into circulation. We claim that if only the Sandy Hook teachers had been packing heat, Friday’s tragedy would have been averted. We believe in our hearts that we will have to use deadly force against another human being at some point in our lives, so it’s best to be prepared. We state that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but we forget to count ourselves among the potential killers because we’re on the good guy team.

We respond to the massacre of twenty young children by defending the weapons that killed them.

As a child, I had fun shooting targets and small animals, and the cold cruelty of a machine made to destroy never entered my mind. Guns were just something every family kept in the coat closet. Even at university, when a classmate was expelled for stockpiling weapons and ammunition in his dorm room, I absorbed friends’ indignation on his behalf. “He would never use them to hurt anyone!” we all said. And on this point, we were probably right. My classmate enjoyed hunting, and where could he store his gear if not in his dorm room?

However, our university had rules in place to reduce the risk of mass murders, so they expelled the student who, regardless of motives, had stocked up on devices specifically designed to kill. And this is what the gun debate comes down to for me—risk reduction. No, there is no amount of legislation that will prevent psychopaths or terrorists from enacting violence. Yes, there will always be a healthy black market for weapons of destruction. Yes, people should have the right to defend themselves, especially on their own property. No, peace is never guaranteed.

But can we just step back for a moment from the mentality that violence is our birthright? Can we stop letting fear dictate our morals? Can we have the courage to take a fraction of the risk off the shoulders of innocent schoolchildren and hold it ourselves, in their stead? Rather than amending our lifestyles and outlooks and job descriptions to include more violence, can we consider amending the availability of its instruments?

I am not arguing to abolish gun ownership altogether, though my husband and I believe that as followers of Jesus, we need to take his teachings on nonviolence to heart. However, we need to talk and talk hard about why civilians are allowed to own assault machinery, why it’s easier to get bullets than to get Sudafed, and why the fiercest fight in the aftermath of Newtown is waged on behalf of the murder weapons.

We need to consider what we are saying about human life with our thumbs-up.

~~~

Further reading:

On Violence by D.L. Mayfield, who shares her thoughts on how to do radical pacifism

Breaking News, Bearing Arms by Rebecca Woolf, whose husband is with her today because of his stance on nonviolence

Do We Have the Courage to Stop This? by Nicholas Kristof, who shows that we’re more worried about regulating ladders than about regulating firearms

Speed Kills by William Saletan, who holds Friday’s tragedy up against school attacks outside the U.S.

God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule by The Onion, who brilliantly, profanely, and heartbreakingly speaks the obvious

Love Your Enemies by Jesus, who lived it

Feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments!

7Dec

The Gift of Inclusion

My word was “read.” I’d dipped my hand into a whole bag of self-care verbs, and this was the one drawn by chance or metaphysical mischief to kick off my personal Advent experience. Read. I almost scrapped the whole concept right then and there.

Not that I’d been sure what to expect in the first place.

Advent has never meant much more to me than a religious term for the countdown to Christmas. I tried to absorb its significance even as a child, pressing my little-girl fingerprints into purple wax and burying my nose into poinsettias on the church altar, attempting to infiltrate myself with the sacred significance of these long December days. I never felt it though, the holy hush of expectation that draws so many people to the heart of the Nativity. My skeptic-mind never made that mystic-connection, and I’ve spent many holiday seasons standing outside this brightly lit soul-window wondering why I can’t just escort myself in.

With my daughters, I’ve held onto the countdown aspect of Advent without trying to force it to mean more. They open calendar windows to find chocolates or Legos, and it’s a fun component of our family tradition. Still, there’s the wistfulness of finding myself a stranger to my own religion and the longing to feel more, to explore the mysterious nuances of Christmas spirit and rediscover wonder.

That’s why I joined Mandy Steward’s #adventwindows experience this December, albeit one week late and more wishful than hopeful that it would be my missing link between Advent-as-a-countdown and Advent-as-a-spiritual-journey. Mandy created this series of self-care prompts as a way to be “intentional about discovering wonder,” which, yes please. If anything could draw me into deeper appreciation for the season, it would be this guided dance between the practical and the intuitive. And then, as if years of seasonal loneliness weren’t hinging on its significance, the first word I drew was “read.”

Let me just tell you what “read” means to me:
It means guilt for how I lose myself in the pages of a good book and crackle with resentment if responsibilities pull me away before I can finish.
It means overwhelm when I look at my want-to-read list, the many, many, many inspiring books that hold pow-wow in my friends’ hearts while I slip further behind.
It means jealousy for those with access to well-stocked libraries and unhurried hours.
It means the heartsickness of looking back on an old love.

I didn’t realize any of that until I drew the word though, and I was caught off balance by my reaction—the sudden punch of tears, the impulse to throw away my little Advent experiment and forget I’d ever tried. That reaction more than anything is what told me Wait. This is important. One innocent verb meant to nudge me in the direction of wonder and self-care had triggered a sister strain of loneliness, and my goodness. When “read” affects you like a weapon? You stop, you take off your shoes, and you pay attention.

And here is the truth hiding under all my defensive reactions: I fail miserably at self-care. I don’t treat myself to books—even those old favorites growing dust-beards on our shelves—because I don’t feel like I deserve to. I don’t feel like I’ve done whatever arbitrary and impossible feat would earn me the pleasure of curling up for an hour and immersing myself in story. I haven’t once checked out the English shelf of our local library to see if they have anything of interest because there are so many other books to which my interest already feels indebted… and even if I did check something out, I would run straight up against the problem of merit again.

This isn’t limited to books, of course. You may be familiar with this quote by Anne Lamott: “Every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” This quote has always given me truth-hives. On the one hand, doesn’t St. Anne know that my Self needs to earn a reprieve from busyness by acting extra busy?  But on the other, don’t I know that’s rubbish? Self-care is not something to be earned or quantified or stolen or withheld. It can only be received, and only once we recognize our own deep worth. 

This is part of the intentional discovery of wonder, isn’t it? Facing hidden loneliness head-on and extending the gift of inclusion to ourselves? For me, today, that is going to mean pouring myself a hot tea, wrapping myself up in a far-too-large blanket, and getting lost in the pages of a good book. Tomorrow, it might mean ignoring the dishes and sitting down to build Lego cities with Dan and the girls. It will mean going to bed when weariness first tugs at the corners of my thoughts and then tiptoeing to the kitchen before dawn with my Gorey journal on the contrail of dreams. It will mean painting my toenails even though they rarely leave the refuge of fuzzy socks these days. It will mean cooking one-serving gourmet when my husband’s away on business. It will mean standing a long moment outside at night to drink in the ice-studded sky. It will mean making room in my day-to-day life for amazement and joy… room for the true heart of Advent to invite mine in.

~~~

What does self-care look like for you? What do you wish it involved?

30Nov

Depth Perception

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I’ve spent much of the week doing this:

Depth perception 1

(and almost equal amounts of this):

Depth perception 2

Here’s where I disqualify myself from Pinterest forever by admitting that doing crafts with my children ranks somewhere between taking the car to the shop and cleaning shower grout on my list of preferred leisure activities. (At least where the grout is concerned, I’m not left having to explain the permanence of glitter to our landlord.) Scrap paper fills my soul with foreboding, tacky glue with ill-will toward men. When you’re the designated mop wielder and laundry whisperer of the family, few things are more fearsome to behold than a paintbrush in the hands of a happy child.

…Which is why I’ve shocked myself by enjoying every messy, giggle-splattered moment of this week. (Okay, not every moment, but you get the gist.)

Operation Mommy’s Dreaming Of A White Wine Christmas is in full swing, leading us to stock the freezer with yuletide goodies here in November. The whole point is for me to be able to spend the holidays roasting in front of an open fire rather than chipping royal icing off the walls, but I’ve been surprised to discover that this isn’t something I just want to get over with. (The dishes, yesOMGhelp; the Christmas craftery, not at all.)  It has been so very… well, fun hanging out for uninterrupted afternoons with my girls, hearing their thoughts on poop (a word invented for the express entertainment of five-year-olds) and boys (she’sonlyinsecondgradeOMGhelp). Even the mess has been fun—the kind of sloppy, delightfully imperfect creativity I hadn’t indulged in decades.

I’m realizing that I owe a large part of my perspective this week to what was happening at this same time last year. I was working outside the home then—teaching English in the mornings and evenings, translating in the afternoons, scrambling to plan lessons and run errands in my time-margins, and having very, very little of myself left for the girls. I was only here to tuck them into bed three evenings a week, and I missed them so heavily that it felt like my heart would collapse in on itself. I didn’t have time to take care of their basic mommy needs, much less to help them paint the kitchen in sugar.

While I might not have turned into the patron saint of carpe diem as a result, the experience did serve as the perfect backdrop for gratefulness. It added the contrast, the depth missing from my perception of our little family circle. Each night after putting the girls to bed this week, I’ve been knocked off my bearings once again by what I can only describe as a wave of wow. An I get to tuck them in wow. An I have time to be an intentional mom again wow. A just… wow wow. And to think it was brought on by something as terror-inducing as craft time…   

Wow.

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