From Just Plain Stupid to Stupid Easy

4 02 2016

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!

 

 

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Talking to Myself

13 09 2012

At age 16:

May 22, 1977 
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write. I guess it all started when I became old enough to read. Books seem to bring something in the imagination alive that didn’t really exist before. Reading used to be my only haven, for a while you can forget everything else and beome a new person. Books have brought so much to my life and mind that if I could write and make my characters live in the minds of the readers, I’d be happy.
 
Today has been a very thoughtful day for me. I’ve been remembering books that I’ve read, like “The Camerons” and just thinking about them again brings a tear to my eye. Then I think that I’d love to be a writer.
 
I saw the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. “Jane Eyre” was on too. I loved it. But as I was watching it, I thought that all I wanted from life would be to be loved. Later was a special on Grace Kelly – Princess Grace of Monaco. She was elegant, graceful, and tasteful – not to mention rich enough to support these habits. I thought I’d love to have elegance, beauty and poise – not to mention enough money to support these habits!
 
I suppose, then that this is an outline of what I want my future to be:
  • Slender and graceful – always showing exquisite taste in the clothes that I wear and in everything connected with life.
  • I want to be a rich, well-known novelist and journalist.
  • And I want to love and be loved like in the movies and in books. 
Not necessarily in that order.
Do you think it is too much to ask?
***********************************************************************************************

At age 25

December 27, 1986
The sun is shining down on the woods and streaming through the glass doors. I am sitting at an old wood table, dappled with the sun. I am smoking and drinking whatever they call that concoction of instant tea and Tang and listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash. I have just had a long, hot shower – my hair is wet and I smell like the wonderful carnation-scented lotion Jeff and Marsha brought me from London. It is 1:15 on a Satuday afternoon and at 3:00 my friend Cathann is coming over. I have just finished reading the Prydain Chronicles (the Black Cauldron books) and I really loved them. What more could I ask from any day?
 
And yet, I am not as happy as I feel one should be on a fine day in a fine setting. I am worried about the future and money — all the things that can dampen spirits. Why can’t I put them aside for even a short while? It was easy to forget them back when I could have saved myself from this trouble. Will I ever have control of myself?
 
Also, the books I’ve just finished make me long to be a truly wise and good person. I know I am not – but how does one get there? Or are any as good as characters in novels? Probably not. But why not?
 
So here I am, in my annual year-end anxiety-ridden existential dilemma. Some year I’ll have only hope and eagerness for the future instead of mainly regret for what the past year was not. And on that day, will I have attained wisdom?
 *************************************************************************************************

At age 38

December 30, 1999
I remember in grade school being asked to calculate how old I would be in the year 2000. Wow – 38! I didn’t think of it as elderly, I just thought of it as being so old that in Sister Irma Mary’s third grade classroom it was impossible to extend my imagination that far.
 
And yet, here it is. No longer something to imagine – now something to be lived. On the one hand, I know intellectually that the calendar is a human construct with arbitrary origins and therefore has no intrinsic meaning. On the other hand, I’m swayed. We humans have given it meaning through the force of custom, history, even invention. The whole Y2K issue has forced this particular turning of the years to have meaning in a way that even the all-seeing Sister Irma Mary could never have expected…
 
…Despite my self-admonishments, I have felt a prickle of fearful anticipation upon hearing these reports. I can’t forget my recurrent nightmare of panic and holocaust and my attempts to reach my parents…this seems like the time if ever such a horrible vision were to come to pass.
 
And yet, there’s so much more going on – there’s the positive excitement, also. On the winter solstice last week, the moon was the brightest it has been in 133 years, an auspicious sign. And it was so beautiful in the sky that night. I was out for dinner with Joe R. and we drove around a little afterwards. But Joe didn’t seem very interested in the concept, so I cherished the experience quietly in my heart, just as I did with the comet a couple of years ago. The people I know who might also feel the romance and sense of personal significance that I do on such occasions are always far away from me.
 
And in my personal life I have felt myself approaching a new crossroads and know I will be taking a turn from my current path – like the moon I’m at a rare point in my circumambulation of the universe.
 *************************************************************************************************

I have kept a journal, off and on, for most of my life. I was inspired to share these excerpts with you upon reading a poem by Pamela Alexander, “Talking to Myself at 34” from her book Navigable Waterways. Reading the poem, I was truly struck by the idea of my journals as a form of talking to myself, of telling myself what it is I know. I grabbed three of the many notebooks that have served as my journals and selected these excerpts randomly. (Well, the December 30, 1999 entry was the first in that notebook and seemed like too good a date to pass up!)

Alexander’s poem speaks of two women, the real one and the imagined one. As I sat in a cozy chair in this house I love, reading bits and pieces of my journals, it came to me that there has been purpose (as well as meaning) in this never-ending conversation I’ve had with myself. The purpose has been to bring these two versions of myself, real and aspirational, closer together inside my skin. I’m not the woman I dream of being – not yet, anyway. But I grow incrementally closer.

The end of Alexander’s poem reads:

Hey, you,

in an old house

with tools that want to be used.

A few cracked windows. Outside them,

cars and radios and shouting people

make a city.

Inside, I discover the door’s duplicity

by looking at wood carefully for the first time

in years. Real wood

made into imagined wood.

.

So the you I’m calling to,

the you that is me,

the one who wants to tell me

everything I know

is both real and invented,

the woman whose name is on the front door

and the imagined person, the one

made with small strokes

on this paper

that used to be trees.

 




Dear Diary: A Response and Reflection

31 01 2011

On his blog, “Somber and Dull”*, my friend Randy Greenwald has posted two articles on diaries/journal keeping.  In the second entry, Randy shares thoughts on whether personal diaries or journals can be considered accurate portrayals of the lives of their authors, given the pressures of writing for posterity or self-improvement.  He finishes with this reflection, “My own journal keeping occurs early, early in the morning, when sometimes my soul is as dark as the sky is outside. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of my whole view of life!”

In the past couple of weeks, I have been reading random diary or journal entries I’ve written over the past 30+ years, with the intent of sharing some along with my “Flashback Friday” photos. As I’ve read them, I’ve been struck by several thoughts. Most prevalent is the wish that I had written more detailed content.  Many entries are quite descriptive of my emotional response to specific events, but leave out any facts about the events themselves. At 15 or 25, I apparently believed that the daily occurrences that shook my world were all memorable enough that I would only need access to the momentary emotional condition to bring them back. I clearly had not reckoned with the effects of age and immoderate alcohol consumption in my late adolescence on long-term memory!

Second, as I have looked through the assorted spiral notebooks, bound blank books, and record keeping folios in which my journals are written, I have been struck by the repetitive nature of many of my reflections. It is humbling to realize how the particular challenges of my personality in relationship to the world have been ongoing and relatively unmediated by age, experience, wisdom. In her book, The Work of Craft: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Crafts and Craftsmanship, Carla Needleman says that she used to labor under the illusion that, once she learned something, it was hers forever. But that now she sees that the things worth knowing are difficult to grasp, and must be learned over and over again. (Sorry, I can’t put my hands not the exact quotation, so I’m paraphrasing from memory here.) My journals prove Needleman’s conclusion, by showing that I cycle through the same life issues, relearning the same insights. I like to think of it as an upward spiral, because I do inch along to greater understanding each time. But it is an incremental improvement.

The third thing I’ve discovered in rereading these notes is that I have no difficulty telling the difference between when I was writing from my heart and when I was striking a pose for the benefit of some “future reader”.  I have actually laughed aloud while reading some of my more pretentious entries.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve stumbled upon while reading my journals, though, has been the compassion I feel for my younger, less mature, self. Life happens, and we do our best to stay a step ahead of the tidal wave. Sometimes, we manage pretty well. But at other times, we stumble and get wet as the wave rushes past. I had no clue how to stay out of the water. Writing in my journals has been one way I’ve tried to learn from my missteps. I have often said that I know when I haven’t been writing in my journal because I feel untethered. That the time to reflect is as necessary to my life as taking the time to eat…well, ok, maybe as necessary as taking the time to exercise. I can go days, even weeks, making excuses. But I don’t really feel well without it.

At this point in my life, I find my need to reflect in prose is greater than ever. I write this blog, and keep two journals: one for normal daily reflections, and one in which I write about a specific set of life issues with which I am wrestling. Like my friend, Randy, my tone changes to reflect the moment in which I am writing, and individual entries cannot always be trusted as a true reflection. However, taken as a whole, the disparate parts tell a coherent story of one woman’s life: mine.

*Check out Somber and Dull if you’re interested in a thoughtful, well-reasoned and well-read Christian perspective. The blog’s name is meant to be humorous, and does not reflect the site’s content!





For the love…

10 01 2011

Once, in my early thirties, a friend told me that if she knew she would never get married, she would prefer to just die right then and save herself the effort of more lonely years.  I was shocked, since it had not once occurred to me to think such a thought about my own life.  But there was something tickling at the back of my brain, trying to help me remember that I had felt that way, once.  About…what?

When I moved into this house that I love, I wanted to surround myself with only those things that were meaningful to me.  This necessitated a gigantic purge of stuff that I had held onto long past the time to let go.  Thankfully, my friend Sue came with her large truck.  We sorted and hauled an unbelievable amount away — two full truckloads of books, for example.

There was one storage tub I refused to open until Sue had driven away.  In 1973 I was given my first diary.  Since then, I have been a regular, if episodic, journal keeper.  I have never had the discipline to write daily, so there are few journals which are full cover to cover.  Also, I’ve experimented with a variety of styles, both in my journal writing and in the physical journals themselves.  The one thing they had in common was their place inside a large storage tub which had been unopened (except when I tossed another one inside) for years.  Once the rest of the house was in tip-top shape, I had an overwhelming urge to open the tub and start reading.

And there it was, in a hardcover bookkeepers account log.  An entry from my sophomore year in high school (1977):  “The only thing I want to do with my life is write.  If I knew I couldn’t be a writer, what would be the point?  I would just lay down and die right now.”

So now you know: the heart of why publishing jenion has been such a joy.  And what lies behind the decision to take on the postaday 2011 challenge.  I am doing it for the love…of writing.

(Gentle reader:  If you have something you love this much, I would genuinely like to hear from you about it — please share by posting a comment.)