Pushing vs Easing Off

Let me begin by saying I’m fine.

We’re riding this little heat wave in Minneapolis, like much of the country, and my new apartment doesn’t have air conditioning. So I sweat. Whether I sit completely still, sleep, or move around unpacking boxes and tubs, I sweat. The only difference is the amount of sweating – movement takes it from a “sheen” to “pouring out of my skin”. Since sweat was happening anyway, and RAGBRAI starts on Sunday, I decided a long bike ride was in order. For some reason, sweating always feels better outside and as the result of physical exertion.

I knew something wasn’t quite right within the first hour, when I had already emptied my water bottle and was dreaming of stopping for something cold to drink. Mind you, I planned to ride between 4-6 hours, which would hopefully net about 60 miles of road. I had to stop at 9.8 miles – I’m not usually really warmed up for a long ride until double that distance. So I stopped at a restaurant and drank a large glass of iced tea, followed by another of iced water. I refilled my water bottle, then ate. I’d guess I had about 96 ounces of liquid, plus my lunch, sloshing around in my stomach when I took off again – bad idea. I was not feeling well, but I had a goal in mind and I intended to get there. So I pushed on.

Let’s just say another 90 minutes of riding saw unpleasantness happening – and my water bottle was drained again. At this point, I was way out on a trail near nothing – no people, no businesses, no shade. Now, I had no choice but to push on. To be very clear – I was miserable.

Eventually, I reached a shopping center and stopped again. A bottle of water, a glass of ice, and a tall iced coffee in my possession, I took a seat in the shade and watched the clock – I intended to sit still for a full half hour. Then I would decide whether to continue riding or just head the last couple of miles home. Happily, the thirty minutes resulted in a refreshed Jenion. I took the scenic route home, circling both Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun before heading for my apartment – where I took a long cool shower and applied medicated powder to areas of chafing and heat rash.

The reason I am sharing this story is that it contains a lesson I’ve been slow to learn in my life – namely, knowing when to push and when to ease off. In observing myself, I’ve discovered that I often make exactly the wrong choice – I push when it would be in my own best interest to ease off, and I ease off when it would be best to push.

This summer a magnifying glass seems to be focused directly on this issue for me – interpersonally, psychologically, emotionally. When I began making plans for the time I would be between jobs, it looked very different from how it has turned out. I was pushing hard and applying for jobs I couldn’t possibly imagine myself doing, driven by fear and panic. Every single one of those applications resulted in rejection – though some were quite lovely and thoughtful rejections (“We actually think you’d be a good fit for us, just not in this position.”) The message eventually came through – I was unclear about my direction, and running around in circles just to be able to say I was trying was not a productive use of my time and energy. Relaxing into a two-month hiatus from pushing on the employment front has not been easy – no matter how it may look from the outside. But it has led to some amazing experiences of joy when I can release into being in the exact moment I am in.

A perfect example was the Basilica Block Party last weekend. Back in May, Mike suggested we sign up to volunteer, and we did so in spite of my complete lack of knowledge about the event, and the fact that it would be my first weekend living in my new city (even though at the time, I was still hedging on whether I would choose Minneapolis). Our job was to wander the venue and self raffle tickets – something I would normally hate. But I was free from expectations – my own or anyone else’s – and it was a fun and engaging experience on several levels.

When it comes to interpersonal interactions, I have always been the equivalent of a dancer who steps on her partner’s toes. When I can relax and let things flow between myself and another, things go really well. The four days I spent with the Dennis’ in Cedar Rapids between my trip to New Mexico and my move to Minneapolis were perfect in this way. But when I get all bottled up with unspoken expectations and emotions, or I am untruthful or withholding of my feelings in order to maintain stasis, it always leads to pushing at the wrong moments, stepping on toes. So I have been trying to notice the moments when this is occurring and back up, take a better more true run at it. Here’s an example: on Sunday I got together with my grad school friend, Kathe (which was wonderful, by the way). Later, I was telling Mike about Kathe’s feeling that I should be writing for submission, looking for ways to make a living with this talent and endeavor that I love. Mike said, “And did you roll your eyes at her like you always do at me when I say that?”  I started to pooh-pooh the idea that I roll my eyes at him, to deny his experience and push my own version. The truth is, I probably have looked at him as if he has two heads. But it isn’t because I discount his opinion. It is because the idea of going after what has always been a dream is so scary. So I backtracked, and told Mike, “I’m going to say this, for the record: I have always appreciated your support and encouragement about my writing. It means a lot to me. If I’ve rolled my eyes, it isn’t because of what you said, its because I haven’t known how to respond.” Which led to a brief but important push on Mike’s part – when he ended the conversation with the question, “What do you have to lose?” Touché, Mike, touché.

Pushing to achieve something – an accomplishment, a better understanding in relationships, personal growth – is a good thing and definitely has its place. I don’t want to stop pushing myself. But pushing for the sake of sticking with a plan that isn’t working, or to manage feelings of insecurity or fear, is rarely a good or beneficial idea. The same is true for easing off – doing so in order to create time and space for growth, to allow an interpersonal interaction to develop naturally, or to regroup are all good. Easing off in order to avoid hard truths or to maintain false amity with others is a self-betrayal. Figuring out which is called for in a particular moment is a skill – and like all skills it improves with practice. Sometimes, like on my bike ride yesterday, you learn the hard way how to recognize whether to keep pushing or to ease off. Luckily, at other times, you learn through making the right choice – and those are the lessons I’m learning to cultivate this summer.

Berries (not pearls) of Wisdom

“…autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in those fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels . . .” – Charles Dickens
 

On a photo excursion with Mike this past weekend, I discovered that nature has more lessons to teach me than I realized. This particular day, the lessons were about how we view the world, the filters and perspectives through which we look at our lives or the events that comprise our days. And my teachers? The bright autumn berries that abound in the woods through which our path rambled.

Shortly after hitting the trail at Prairie Park Fishery, both Mike and I noticed luscious red berries. They were lit by the sun and glowing red amid yellow and green flora. I wanted desperately to photograph them, but they were on the wrong side of a chain link fence. So, I attempted to photograph them through the fence. The result? The fence got in the way, giving the berries second billing.

Berry Lesson #1:  In order to see things clearly it is important to clear your field of vision.

Remove or get past extraneous stuff that clutters up your thinking. This is so much easier to say than do, even when taking a simple photo on a Saturday afternoon. But when you are contemplating decisions about big things – your relationships, your livelihood – it is easy to pile nonessential pieces into the picture. Suddenly you’re focusing on something tangential, and you’ve distracted yourself from the central issue. Clear out the psychological and emotional clutter, and your vision will clear as well. Trust me, the end result is worth it.

A bit further along on our walk, I noticed a tree with vines curling around its trunk. I loved the look and the texture of the bark, the  symbiosis between tree and vine. So I took a photo…

…and continued on my way. Eventually, Mike and I turned around and began to retrace our steps at a leisurely pace. Mike moved ahead when I stopped to get a closer look at something on the ground. When I caught up with him, I noticed Mike was avidly shooting pictures. As I moved up next to him, I saw that he had in his viewfinder a profusion of bright yellow berries which contrasted beautifully against the brilliant blue sky. As I admired his find, I suddenly recognized what I was looking at – the tree I had already photographed. I had been so focused on the textures and the winding vine, I had completely missed the presence of the berries!

Berry Lesson #2:  There IS such a thing as being too focused.

While focus and single-mindedness can be great, we’ve all heard cautionary tales of people who were so focused on achieving a particular goal that they missed out on some beautiful opportunities in their lives. When I was originally photographing the tree, I would have sworn there were no berries in the  vicinity – yet, take another look at the tree photo and you’ll see yellow berries. They are clearly visible to all (except to me as I honed in on the trunk and winding vine).

On our photo excursions, Mike is forever reminding me “Don’t forget to look up!”. It’s a great reminder to change my perspective, to switch up the view from which I am looking at things. Too much focus keeps our eyes locked straight ahead, causing us to miss important things in the periphery.  When I finally did look up, thanks to Mike’s example and exhortation, I saw this:

After a while, I began to think I had already snapped photos of every possible view or item on the Fishery trail. Then the low battery light started flashing on my camera, and suddenly I was in a frenzy to grab a last few pictures before the camera shut itself off. This led to some hurried and/or random shots, such as this one:

What’s it a picture of? Its just nothing – no interest, no composition, no focal point. When we are in too big a hurry, momentum takes over. Sometimes, momentum carries us forward, sometimes it just keeps us moving. I often think that our culture, obsessed as it is with multitasking and speed and noise, mistakes all this activity for meaningfulness. As I was racing along, hurriedly snapping, I didn’t take one worthwhile shot.

Berry Lesson #3:  In daily life, and photo excursions, you’ve got to slow down and breathe deeply in order for the best things to happen – and to recognize them when they do.

After I snapped the shot above, I looked up to see Mike standing still. His camera, however, was clicking rapidly as he tried to capture a moving target. He said that several blue birds were chasing each other around a particular thicket. I joined him, but I was no match for those little birds – I couldn’t find them with my lens no matter what I did. I trotted back and forth across the trail for a minute, in an unproductive attempt to outrun the winged critters.

Then I stopped, laughing at myself. I let my shoulders relax into the warmth of the sun shining down on them. I smelled the crisp and slightly decaying scent of the leaves piled on the ground. I thought, briefly, “I am happy”. I could see some movement in one tree, so I lifted my camera until I could just barely glimpse something that didn’t look like a leaf. I didn’t care about the end product; I cared about the fact that I was – that second – where and with whom I wanted to be, engaging with my surroundings in a fully conscious manner. And in that moment – CLICK!  – one of the best things happened: