From Just Plain Stupid to Stupid Easy

foot prints in the sand

(Image from Pattysphotos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/34121831@N00/4592567496)

Lately, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time writing responses to posts on social media that either anger or disturb me. Sometimes, I carefully craft my response, being careful to choose words that are not intentionally incendiary, removing any accusatory or judgmental language. Other times I allow my fingers to type quickly, spewing forth the outraged reactive language running through my mind.

And then I erase them.

As I think about the swift passage of time, the ways my days run together and my weeks come to an end before I have time to blink, I realize that this has been stupidly wasteful of my time. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I erased these comments before posting them. But if I tried to add up the minutes of precious time I’ve wasted writing/erasing/writing/erasing them…well, let’s just say there are better uses for my time.

What often happens when I finally face the inanity of one behavior, is that the absurdity of other things I do becomes impossible to ignore as well. For example, on Saturday I spent the better part of the morning taking an online IQ test, simply because a friend on Facebook had challenged others to do so. After something like seventy-five pattern-recognition questions burned out my retinas, I discovered that I would have to pay $9.95 to get my results. No thanks.

Not all of my bad habits are internet related (though most of my time-wasting ones are). If I were to create an exhaustive list it would include things like getting halfway through writing a letter or card, stopping, and never finishing it. Or (God help me!) watching “My Diet is Better Than Yours” instead of turning off the television and picking up a good book. Or staring at the still unpacked boxes in my apartment, thinking about where I will put the stuff they contain…when I actually get around to it.

Everyone has bad habits and self-indulgent time-wasters, I know. I am too old and, hopefully, too wise to strive for perfection in my own habits. On the other hand, experience has shown me that I can spend a lot of time spinning my wheels through inattention – that weeks and months and years of a life can disappear with little to show in terms of actually living in them. There’s the poem about how a man dreamed he was walking with God and saw his life as a set of footprints on a sandy beach. Often, there were two sets of footprints in the sand, but at the times in his life that were hardest, there appeared to be only one set. When he asks the Lord about this, suggesting that he had been abandoned in those times, he is told, “Those were the times I carried you.” My dreaming mind changed this story into a walk down the beach where, looking back, there were no footprints. Not because I was abandoned by God, but because I was abandoning my own life.

A week or so ago, I ran across a post on Break The Twitch, in which Anthony Ongaro shares his strategies for intentionally changing his habits. He talks about needing to establish good habits to replace the bad ones we wish to excise from our lives. Anthony says:

“I often refer to this quote from Annie Dillard when thinking about how to structure these specific actions:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

The hours of our days become the weeks of our months and so on. If I want to accomplish these goals, I have to do things that will get me closer to them every single day. To create these daily actions, here are the qualifications:

Stupid-easy. Each daily action needs to be stupid-easy, as in, so easy for me that I would feel absolutely ridiculous not doing it. Essentially, take a desired action and breaking it down to the no-possible-resistance level.

Focus on action, not the outcome. I focus on celebrating the successful completion of each daily task, not the outcome that it created. Some days, the outcome is great — other days, it’s crap. That’s why I’m focusing on the habit itself, so that I don’t get discouraged. If I complete it, I am #winning.

Establish early success. The two points above contribute to early success – establishing a habit of succeeding immediately. Quickly creating a successful chain of daily actions from the very start.

Start immediately. From there, I’d start immediately and refuse to wait for a new year or a certain day to get started. If I failed on any particular day I would not wait until a specific day of the week or turn of a year to start again.”

The very first qualification that Anthony shares, “stupid easy”, is a game changer for those of us who have difficulty establishing new, more proactive, daily habits. So many times, I’ve found myself setting expectations that, in execution, are too Herculean to actually accomplish: exercise for an hour a day; always wash the dish(es) I just used; 100 crunches as soon as I get out of bed in the morning; no sweets. (This gives you an idea of what passes for “impossible” for me, anyway, as beginning goals!)

But “stupid easy” – that’s something I think I can be really good at! After all, my time-wasters are already both stupid and easy! In order to begin, I’m going to pick one positive habit I want to establish: taking time at the end of each day for reflection and quieting of my mind. I’ve realized that taking some time to do this is a way for me to set aside the day’s anxieties while setting myself up for a more calm and peaceful sleep. If I just sit quietly, I tend to fall asleep – but not comfortably, nor having put to rest the worries of the day – which sets me up for restless sleep and middle-of-the-night wakefulness. And if I don’t make a ritual of it, I’m less likely to actually do it. So I need an activity that can become rote, while not also revving my brain up to further wakefulness. So here is my “stupid easy” habit, instituting today:

Habit: Daily, brief reflection before bed.

Stupid-Easy method: Write three short statements in my bedside journal each night – 1. Something I’m asking for help with; 2. Something I am grateful for; 3. Something “Wow” or awe-inspiring from my day. (Based on the premise of Anne Lamott’s book “Help, Thanks, Wow“)

I’ll let you know how it’s going. If this “stupid easy” habit gets established, I’ll add another. The idea is that positive daily habits, as they are established, crowd out the just plain stupid ones – the time-wasters and energy-suckers. I don’t know many things for sure, but I do know that life is too short not to inhabit each and every day. If I dream again that my life is a walk along a sandy beach, I want to look back at where I’ve been and see at least one set of deeply etched footprints.

 

Note: Will you join me (and Mr. Anthony Ongaro!) in trying your own highly beneficial daily activity(ies)? If so, I invite you to share in the comments!

 

 

A Mouse, and the Conundrum of Forgiveness

I don’t hate the mouse that is running around my apartment. In fact, I’ve only seen it once, and it appeared to be as frightened of me as I was of it. It’s fall, and little critters (like the rest of us) are just looking for a way to survive the bitter winter. This particular bold rodent happened upon a way into my cozy space and decided to take up residence. Who could blame it – I have a nifty and warm place. I’ve forgiven the little thing for moving in, but let’s face it, a mouse is simply not wanted. Does forgiveness require that I live with the mouse? I don’t think so. Therefore, I’m going to set a trap for it, without rancor (but with some squeamishness).

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Which gives me pause to think about forgiveness in other circumstances. If someone has harmed me or hurt me, and the harm or hurt is real (not simply a matter of pettiness), how far do I have to take this forgiveness thing? Can I forgive without forgetting? Is it forgiveness if I can’t return to former feelings of liking or respect for the individual? Have I forgiven someone if I remain unwilling to allow them close enough to hurt me again? Have I forgiven them if the experience continues to color my judgement of their words or behaviors? Can I forgive a person but still not welcome them back into my life?

These are important questions. The kind of questions for which easy answers are rarely forthcoming. But I had to give it a shot, right? I googled “quotes about forgiveness” and found the sort of wisdom you might expect:

“Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.” – Oscar Wilde
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” –Mark Twain
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

These statements aren’t much good for those of us seeking some practical insight or advice about forgiving and moving on. Then I came upon this:

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” ― Anne Lamott

Perfect! A measurement I can really use. I don’t need to hit back. Does that mean I’m finished? Unfortunately, I’ve never been the type of person who hits back. I’m more the “stand-with-mouth-haning-open-and-mind-suddenly-blank” type. So lacking the urge to hit back may not be the best measure of whether I’ve forgiven someone. But it’s a good start.

“Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.” ― Rick Warren

Forgiveness does not require that I immediately trust the individual again. Trust requires a track record, and IF I continue to be in direct relationship with this individual that record needs to be established. In fairness, this idea of a track record also means that if the hurtful/harmful behavior is an anomaly in a relationship of demonstrated trust, then trust might be called for sooner rather than later. Clearly, one sign that we’ve actually forgiven someone is that we’re able to regard them with fairness.

You may already have guessed that these questions, and my search for answers, are not purely academic in nature. I’ve always believed myself to be good with the forgiveness thing – but in the past, forgiveness hasn’t posed much of a problem because I was dealing with family and dearly loved friends. These individuals forgive me, and I forgive them, easily and often. The experience of forgiveness directed toward someone who was not emotionally as close but whose ability to hurt me was still high is a new one for me. I believe that forgiveness is key for my own growth and ability to move forward in life – which is why I am spending time living with these questions. And even though there is a specific application in this case, it never hurts to revisit our beliefs about such important life questions as the nature of forgiveness.

In the meantime, I have some business to resolve with a little mouse.

Managing the Cowbird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
              –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
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The patio at my parents’ house in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is one of my favorite places to be. From the front, their house is unremarkable – a neat, cared-for home in a neighborhood of similar (if less-cared-for) homes, in a city in a desert where a three-year drought has turned the entire place into a matchstick waiting to be struck.

Except this back yard.

In the mornings, we get up at 6:30 a.m. and, when it isn’t too windy, bring our coffee onto the patio. The early morning sunshine is warm, and the day’s watering begins almost immediately. This attention to watering is what has helped my folks create an oasis of green in their little postage-stamp sized piece of the desert. I sip my coffee and marvel at the ordered beauty of this yard and patio.

At some point, Dad gets up and tends to the birds. Every day, he fills the feeder next to the bird bath with seed. Almost as soon as he walks away, the birds swoop in. They eat, occasionally they squabble. They take a quick dip in the bath. If the hummingbird feeders are nearing empty, Mom has already boiled the water for the preparation of sugared water that fills them. Soon, the tiny thrumming bodies are zooming around our heads. All kinds of birds come to this yard – finches, doves, robins, thrushes, jays. Humming birds, ruby throated and ferrous. One morning, Mom pointed to the back wall (which is just above waist height) and there was a covey of wild quail, notoriously shy of humans, nervously deciding whether to get any closer to the feeding frenzy.

Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that, when I’m in New Mexico, my camera is typically attached to my hand. But these morning bird-watching sessions, though offering a great opportunity to practice, have remained unphotographed. My camera, and often also my cell phone, remain inside. I have wanted to keep this time as peaceful as possible, to be fully in it as opposed to having the experience mediated by a camera lens.

The past few mornings, especially, I’ve welcomed this coffee and bird time. It has come at the end of nightmare-filled nights. The dreams have been filled with bugs, betrayals and residual stressors from a job I no longer have. It has occurred to me that my waking self has been avoiding thinking about the enormity of the tasks waiting for me at the end of this New Mexico interlude, though my sleeping self is clearly in touch with that reality. Taken as a whole, the process of starting over feels overwhelming, regardless of the adventure and excitement inherent in such a move. It will be a lot of work to find a job, to move into a place and settle in there. It will take time to establish new relationships and renew old ones. It has been so long, do I even remember how to do any of these things?

When things feel overwhelming or tasks feel insurmountable, there is a tendency to experience a certain paralysis. Not that the will stops being willing, just that the brain stops being able to process it all. Just that the heart quakes a little with fear that you might not have within you whatever it will take. This fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from tears “for no reason” to heart palpitations to nightmares like mine. The first step in mitigating the effects of feeling overwhelmed has always been, for me, recognizing it for what it is. The second is learning to break it down into smaller pieces or component parts and creating a plan to tackle those pieces one at a time. This is one situation in which seeing the trees may be more important than seeing the forest – forests are vast, while trees are familiar and huggable (i.e. we can get our arms around them). An important note about creating a plan – for me, having a plan is key. However, sticking to that plan is not – which is a good thing when the way forward is riddled with unknowns. I’m usually pretty flexible and adaptable; I can adjust in mid-stream.

Which brings me back to the birds in my parents’ yard. Some come every day, expecting to be fed. Others happen upon the feast and gladly partake. All of them have to take what comes – whether that is delicious feed or an attack from larger, predatory birds who swoop in and cause the avian crowd to scatter. Each morning on the patio, I watch these creatures respond to what they find, and I am fascinated. Sometimes, the variety of birds that happily co-feed is surprising. Sometimes, the larger birds bully the smaller ones – a few of whom give up right away and fly off looking for a more peaceful breakfast venue. But others are more tenacious. They dart away then back quickly, avoiding the bully skillfully, if cautiously. Some birds approach the food tentatively, perching on the edge of the birdbath to take a look. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but it sure looks like joy when they discover the bird bath has water in it, and shower their wings with cool droplets tossed from their beaks.

The Irish writer, Robert Lynd, said “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.” Morning coffee on my parents’ patio isn’t silent, but it does offer a pause before the start of the day’s activities for us humans, to enter briefly into that world the birds inhabit. It is impossible not to relax and let the lingering effects of nightmares dissipate in that world. Birds definitely live in the “now”, and when you watch them, you do too. That is the gift “Dad’s birds” offer each morning.

The birds offer a lesson, as well as a gift. Their lesson is beautifully captured in this quote from J.M. Barrie, creator of the magical Peter Pan: “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” The future holds what it holds, regardless of your plans, they tell me. This moment holds seed and water and sunshine – make the most of it. Tomorrow, or the next day, there may be a brown-headed cowbird bogarting the seed. You’ll manage the cowbird when it happens: have a little faith, and take things as they come.