Resisting Finite

My lesson for the week: when the curried tomato coconut soup explodes all over the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday night, it’s time to admit there’s no way you’re also making bulgur pilaf for a Monday night dinner gathering.

Here’s one of the things I don’t understand about myself: why does it take exploding soup to get me to realize this? Simple addition would do the trick. Number of hours between present time and guest arrival: 20.5. Hours that should be spent sleeping, working, or getting to and from work: 19. Time it takes to make bulgur pilaf: too much. After all, there is now a big mess of soup to clean up.

Needless to say, I ordered pizza. And poured everyone large glasses of wine.

Earlier that very day my mom and I had discussed the radical concept of accepting our limitations. We spend a lot of time in this culture pretending we can overcome any shortcoming with hard work and will power, but that’s just silly.

I am never going to be an Olympic high jumper, for example, or win the Nobel Prize in Physics. I’ve pretty much gotten over both of those. For some reason, it’s harder to accept that I’m never going to approach Martha Stewart-ish, even though I don’t actually want to make matching, spring green, baby-duck napkins, placemats, and table runners out of recycled aprons for Easter brunch.

Other difficult ones: I will never be the uber-productive, uber-efficient, uber-thrifty member of any randomly selected sample of American women aged 27-45. Or any other age for that matter. I will almost never get anything much done after 9 p.m., except this blog. I will probably never succeed at any diet that includes less than a lot of chocolate. I feel I ought to be able to make myself have these capabilities, but I don’t.

It’s possible I’ll once again be cleaning soup off the butter, the counter, the floor, the cookbook, the real estate papers before remembering any of this. At that point, I hope I also remember to laugh and order pizza.

On Big and Small Steps

Any sane person knows that “a.m.” shouldn’t really be combined with “5:30” in any sort of active sentence. Nonetheless, I sometimes run with friends around this time before work.

Some days are harder than others, not because we run farther—we don’t—just because they are. On these days, I talk us through the last few blocks about 20 meters at a time. It goes something like this, “Just make it to that car, now to that mailbox, now to the tree.” It’s amazing how much more possible it feels to finish these small chunks than to finish the whole run.

But do I replicate this practice in my day to day life? Not so much. I prefer to concentrate on the end product as a giant, overwhelming thing to freak out about.

Never mind that everyone from the Buddha to E.L. Doctorow to David Allen to bad ‘70s sitcoms have pointed out that it’s not actually possible to complete an entire journey, novel, project at once. They all subscribe to that one step at a time philosophy. When else have an enlightened being, an author, an efficiency expert, and Hollywood ever agreed on anything? I mean aside from the time they all shared a box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate sea salt caramels.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen explains how you can’t actually do a project, say landscape a yard, you can only do the smaller actions that add up to some state you consider done—pull out the old plants, fertilize the soil, etc. So the idea of focusing on the journey instead of the destination may simply be practical advice instead of deep and mysterious spiritual direction.

And yet it’s usually my last resort, somewhere after pulling out my hair and before drinking. My resistance might have something to do with the previously discussed lack of patience or perhaps some slightly unrealistic expectations. If you have suggestions on how to join the ranks of the contented and well-organized step-by-steppers, leave them in the comments. In the meantime, pass the caramels.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. Merry Christmas, belated Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice—enjoy your various celebrations of the returning of light.

Not Going to Extremes

In my hometown, keeping up with the Joneses didn’t have anything to do with the brand of your car or the size of your house. It meant running an ultramarathon the day after your soccer tournament. At 10,000 feet elevation. In the snow. Backwards.

Being surrounded by people rock climbing, skiing avalanche chutes, and boating class five rapids made it easy to believe that these activities made you feel the most alive. I often thought I should be doing something more death defying, dangerous, or at least generally uncomfortable. If you’d asked me why, I would have said those things counted more, though I might not have been able to tell you what we were counting.

Now, I work with faculty members who are equally extreme but in a different way. The number of projects their jobs demand they juggle both impresses me and makes me dizzy. A hypothetical one-person sample: teaching three classes, running their own research—which includes supervising students—organizing a conference, preparing reams of documents for their professional review, being a mom/dad, not to mention those unexpected items life throws at you.

I used to feel like a slacker compared to people who run their lives this way. Recently, a new feeling has crept in—sanity. I worry a little bit (because after all, what’s life without at least some fretting?) that no longer expecting myself to keep up that pace means I’m getting old and complacent, but the amount of activity we expect ourselves to do in this culture is not reasonable or healthy.

A few people might thrive on constant motion. But no one I know rattles off impossibly long to-do lists with joy, and my colleagues so often look slightly harried.

As usual, someone else has already said it better than I can. This time it’s the Sufi poet Hafiz. He says,

When all your desires are distilled
You will cast just two votes:
To love more,
And be happy.
(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

I don’t think a longer list will help us with either one of those.

Just Five Minutes

I have a little problem with cleaning. A few months ago, a couple of friends gave me some good advice: spend fifteen minutes a day cleaning and the house will be in shape before guests arrive. I shortened it to five. Then things got a little out of control.

I liked the idea so much that my list of five-minute-a-day tasks would now take approximately 28 hours to complete. And no, I never even did the cleaning part.

Trying to be hyper-productive, useful, scheduled, and organized doesn’t really work for me. (The results are well and hilariously illustrated on Hyperbole and a Half.) I know people who are naturally this way, and surprisingly I like these people. But when my five-minute-a-day list starts to grow, I am likely trying to make myself OK by achieving all my goals right now. Which means, of course, that whatever I am now is not OK.

Albert Einstein supposedly said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The extreme five-minute-a-day approach definitely stays at the same level; it reinforces the not-OK assumption and buys into the achievement myth big time.

Playing, relaxing, praying, and being grateful truly change my thinking. They don’t have much use for not OK because they’re pretty excited about how amazing and fun life is.

When I picture my fully-achieved life (cue background music of heavenly choirs), I feel content. I used to think content was a bad word because it meant stasis and complacency and sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching endless TV, but maybe it’s just a change in thinking. Maybe it’s gratitude run rampant.

And maybe I should practice it now so that on that day when my kids happily inhabit my clean house and my novel is published to great acclaim, I won’t be taken too much by surprise.

Morning Matters

The other night I stayed up past my bedtime, which happens often and generally leads me to resent having to brush my teeth. Sometimes, though, when I’m too tired to be useful, small epiphanies arrive. On this particular night, a peaceful feeling bubbled up and with it a thought: maybe the little things we do in the morning are enough.

Morning isn’t really complicated. Many of you may have figured this out already. Tasks tend to repeat on a daily basis: shower, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast. Remarkable.

The thing is, I have a little reality problem. In the evening, I arrive home around six. My evening to-do list generally reads something like the following:

  • Exercise
  • Sell novel
  • Clean entire house
  • Cook dinner
  • Play with cat
  • Answer all emails
  • Go to bed by 9:30

This list produces mostly guilt and a doomed attempt to stuff the unfinished items into the following morning. My vanmates can attest to the success of this approach.

I did not invent the possibility that getting dressed and eating breakfast is enough. Wise people have been telling the rest of us that for a large chunk of human history (most notably for me Paula D’Arcy, Kathleen Norris, and William Stafford). But despite hearing them say it, I’ve practiced it precious little.

The word “enough” often connotes just the opposite for us Americans. “Enough” in this case means “holy,” not “only.” Which inevitably raises the specter of the G word: God.

About God: I do not claim to know how you should call that power or connection or love, how you should interact with it, or even whether you should believe in it. The previous admissions make clear my lack of qualifications for that judgment. I will write only about my sense of and experience with God. Please translate freely into any language or frame of reference that helps you.

In my way of relating to this existence, God gave me a tiny taste of what it would feel like to honor daily tasks, an enticement, a temptation. If I could welcome the morning instead of launching myself against it, that peaceful feeling might seep into the rest of the day and, one can hope, outward to those I meet.