It’s Not Worth It

October carries a heavy load. Not only does it host ghosts and goblins, it has also been hallowed National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Rideshare Month, and perhaps others I am unaware of. In addition, the first week of the month contained the little-known celebration Rachel Freak Out Week.

Man freaking outApproximately everything stressed me out last week. Approximately everything included but was not limited to: a report for work, every time someone tried to talk to me when I thought I should be working on said report, every task that took time away from the report. Plus, because these lists breed like rabbits, all the usual suspects, such as my peculiar inability to clean things and my not yet having found the meaning of life.

Sometime midweek, a friend, we’ll call him John, and I were walking between meetings and met a coworker whose wife’s job is grant-dependent. The coworker, in good spirits, said an upcoming grant renewal deadline was “do or die,” and John said, surprisingly seriously, “No, it’s not.”

Both John’s wife and granddaughter faced and fought off cancer. Both have been in remission for a number of years now, but I’ve gotten the impression that these two illnesses changed his thinking about life in general and work in particular.

After this meeting, when I felt like keening over sections of the report, my mantra became, “It’s not worth it.” Unfortunately, the mantra did not lower my stress level, but it did help me realize it was optional. In the midst of my Chicken Little syndrome I could at least tell myself I had a choice, even if I was incapable of acting on that choice. Somehow knowing the stress was self-inflicted helped me retain a sheen of sanity.

We need a lot of reminders in this life—of what is and isn’t important, of what choices we do and don’t have. One way of interpreting those reminders is the now familiar, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” But maybe some of it is breathtakingly precious stuff, too precious to obscure with anxiety.

Pausing Between

California provided four astonishingly gorgeous days in a row last week—those sunnier-than-Disney fall days that have all the crispness of a good apple. On the fourth day, I felt sad about something I cannot now recall. Sadness can take the shine off a day, but this time it coexisted with the beauty, neither overcoming the other.

A few days later, a friend reminded me of another pair of oppositions most of us have to deal with: being happy where you are while simultaneously being ambitious. Life offers these inconsistencies over and over, but I usually rush past them rather than spend any time in the middle.

As usual, the idea of sitting between items in tension—sadness and beauty, contentment and ambition—without choosing isn’t new. Keats probably didn’t invent it, though his negative capability captures it well: “The ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.” (This is a definition I just happen to like from the Keats’ Kingdom website; it’s not a direct quote of the poet.)

Between contradictions is generally not a comfortable place to live. I usually want to throw my weight into one corner or the other and force one side to come out on top, make one right and the other wrong. If life would fess up and let me know how it really is, surely I’d feel happier, more peaceful, more confident. But when I try to prematurely choose between whatever is creating tension, I succeed only in making myself frantic.

There’s a prayer I’ve always sort of hated that says, “Let all things be exactly as they are.” Have you checked on how things are? Because they’re not that great. Maybe I’ve misunderstood, though; maybe the prayer points to what Keats argued in favor of: “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Perhaps we are most in tune when we sit with all the competing pieces of our lives without seeking resolution.

William Stafford once again said it better than I can in the last two lines of his poem “Representing Far Places”:

It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

Built to Last

Two pieces of advice: 1) Don’t throw away your junior high yearbook. 2) If someone invites you to spend an evening with four best friends who haven’t seen each other in fifty years, do it. And stick around until the yearbooks come out.

I lucked into just such an evening recently. An old friend of my parents had recently attended her fifty-year high school reunion, and her closest friends from that time had gathered together for a few extra days. She invited my mom and me to spend an evening with the group. It didn’t occur to me until the drive home that I’d just been honored to spend an evening with my elders.

Because we don’t much practice respect for our elders, the term for me conjures up tribal matriarchs in smoky tepees giving sage and perhaps difficult to understand advice. This is wisdom—mysterious in both content and transmission.

The evening bore no resemblance to that picture. The stories told ranged from hopping on a stranger’s motorcycle with a frog in order to arrive in Calaveras in time to register for the jumping frog contest to sneaking into the priest’s side of the confessional and accidentally hearing someone’s confession, complete with absolution and penance.

This is real wisdom—the gathered stories and laughter of lives fully and well lived, a love that survives an absence of fifty years, the sharing of both. We don’t find wisdom by trying not to make mistakes, by staying safe, or by striving to be good, as I often mistakenly believe. Wisdom finds us when we wade into life, when we enjoy the ride, when we look on the other side of the screen.

I’m certain none of those present thought of the evening as anything other than time spent with good friends. I can’t think of a wiser use of an evening.

Escaping Achievement

Saturday was a Day of Planned Non-Productivity. Translation: I stayed in my pajamas until an hour that cannot be mentioned publicly and proceeded to do nothing at all. On purpose. It was fantastic.

box of popcorn and film with movie framesPlease do try this at home. Instructions: Rent as many movies as you can comfortably watch in a day. Comfortably is important. This is a day for floating not for becoming an expert on the history of film. Documentaries or dramas about the world’s problems are not allowed. This is not denial—it’s a break. I highly recommend renting the night before so you don’t have to leave the house if you don’t want to.

I chose a cartoon, a romantic comedy, and a supposedly heartwarming slice of life. Warning, save Mike Leigh films for productive days: they will likely teach you something about somebody’s problems.

Suspend all obligations and attempts at self-improvement, including those eternal ones such as, “It’s a nice day. I should go outside and enjoy the sunshine.” Remain vigilant: obligation creep is insidious and can disguise itself in cunning forms, such as the door knob you’ve been meaning to fix for months or Great Aunt Mildred who is 92 and recently bought an iPad and has sent you a week’s worth of emails you have not yet answered.

Lie on the couch in your pajamas and watch the movies. Eat cereal for three meals, or frozen pizza, or popcorn and hot chocolate. Only eat vegetables if you enjoy them as much as you enjoy ice cream; do nothing for the sole purpose of being healthy—“being healthy” is code for obligation and self-improvement all rolled up in one. Scary, I know.

Guilt may tempt you. We Americans have a productivity addiction problem. We measure our days by how much we accomplish rather than whether we enjoyed what we did or were kind to the people we met. We don’t consider it odd to answer the question, “How was your day?” with “I got this and that done.” We are accustomed to confusing doing and being.

Planned non-productivity takes this mentality into account and transforms doing nothing into an accomplishment. You don’t have to change all your unhealthy cultural norms to take a day off; you simply make relaxing a goal and voilà! an answer to that voice in your head telling you you should be doing something.

I confess that Sunday Night Guilt, second cousin of the gunk monster, caught up to me when looking at the piles of unwashed clothes and the pot rack still covered in paper two weeks after painting. (Yes, seriously.) But Saturday itself was a rare event for me, a day during which existence sufficed without any attempts to mold it. Let’s hear it for cartoons and popcorn.

Falling Back In

Going back in time is a dicey proposition. I tested it out last week in Chicago when visiting with some friends I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years.

We had not kept in close touch. I am a lousy correspondent; five Christmas cards constitute an overachiever year for me. I also tend to get wrapped up in the local day to day, leaving little time for those far away.

The bus ride to my old neighborhood gave me a jarring sensation of the familiar turned foreign, as in a dream when you know you’re at school but the building is clearly your Aunt Millie’s house. Visiting with old friends, on the other hand, felt surprisingly normal—no awkwardness, no tension, as if I dropped by for lunch on a regular basis. Though we had only an hour and spent most of it catching up on life details, simply being in each other’s company gave us all a good deal of joy. Something within us still fits together in whatever ways first drew us to one another.

These people’s presence in the world makes me happy. It still matters to me how their particular corner of life is turning around. Their idiosyncrasies still charm me. How can I claim all that when we rarely take the time even to shoot off an email? I suspect that friendships are amazing, elastic things, and our capacity for love exceeds the time available to us, taken up as it is with the necessities of work, laundry, and the like.

There are people scattered across the globe whose daily lives used to intersect with mine but now diverge completely. Some of them I can reasonably hope to see again; others I likely never will. Yet I find it comforting that I care what happens to them and that they may return the favor.

Rolling On

Though both Steven Tyler and Ralph Waldo Emerson buy into the life is a journey concept, I have always preferred to reach the destination. Never mind that the writing of a novel lasts ten years and the finishing of it but a moment. Who wants to be quietly happy for ten years when she can have her existence justified in one grand flourish? This weekend, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself occasionally enjoying a process, namely painting.

I am neither a skilled nor a speedy painter, a reality that once would have caused me great emotional and mental turmoil. Now, though my lack of speed in many areas still astonishes me, I don’t always find it necessary to bludgeon myself because of it. Loosening the death grip on perfectionistic tendencies appears to make life less painful.

The breakthrough came when my mom and I had stopped for a pie break. I was mentally cataloging everything that remained to be painted when Mom began telling stories of when I was a baby. Apparently I used to make a little three-fingered Buddha sign sometimes when I fell asleep.

When she told me that, I thought, “Sitting on the patio eating pie and listening to your mom tell stories is more valuable than a professional paint job.”

I usually reply to myself, “The trim I painted looks like crap.” Instead I said, “You are probably right.”

Several times throughout the course of the weekend I believed that doing whatever I was doing, regardless of how poorly, mattered more than some as yet unrealized result. I don’t know where this ability to value the here and now came from, but I do know it resulted in a general lowering of the frenzy level.

So let’s look at the stats:

  • Electrical plates remaining to be reattached: all of them
  • Door knobs that escaped unscathed: 0
  • Spots I completely missed (current count): 2
  • Days I will feel guilty for locking my cat in the garage for three days straight: varies inversely to the number of times he draws blood
  • Walls that probably need another coat of paint: 1
  • Degrees lighter and cheerier the downstairs feels with fresh paint: immeasurable
  • Changes in the “my life may be OK as is” meter: a few priceless notches up

Mama Told Me There’d Be Days Like This

Sunday was one of those days most sane people prefer to skip. You may know the kind, the ones when some Monster of Gunk deep inside you decides to rise up and disgorge purplish-black sludge all over the otherwise harmless world. Though absolutely no outside circumstance has changed, you know as soon as you open your eyes that the only possible way to survive the day is to never get out of bed.

gunk monsterPerhaps the uber-sane among us find some use in these days. Maybe the Dalai Lama wakes up, spies the gunk monster, and says, “Ah, another opportunity for instruction!” But I like to think he wakes up, bangs the heel of his hand against his forehead, and says, “Oy!” (Because everyone knows the Dalai Lama is secretly Jewish.)

I don’t know of a way to enjoy these days. I’m not particularly sure how to be grateful for them. I am certain they exist, for some more often than for others, and I know it’s important to recognize and share that existence. Otherwise we start to think everyone else’s insides are full of daffodils and butterflies and we alone are capable of spewing such ugliness for so little reason.

These days do end. On Tuesday, I spent the evening joyfully eating steak and drinking very good wine with my aunt and uncle. On Sunday, I could neither feel joy nor quite believe in its possibility. The best I could do was to remember that nothing lasts; this too shall pass, and God, though obviously absent and clearly inept, is in charge. Remembering does not yield great comfort during gunk monster and me bonding time, but it keeps the bottom from falling out of things. Comfort comes only later, when the world has righted itself through no effort of my own and the blue sky and sunshine seem once again to have some relation to me.

The Sum Thing

I love stealing stories. This story is stolen.

old-young-holding-handsWhen he was young, my friend’s brother went to their grandfather and said, “I want the something.”

“What exactly do you want?” the grandfather asked.

“The something,” the boy replied.

“What does it look like?” the grandfather asked.

“You know, the something,” the boy said.

Then, much to his credit, the grandfather asked, “Do you know where it is?”

“In your office,” the boy said.

The old man and the young boy retired to the office where the grandfather held up thing after thing to no avail until he produced the calculator. At this, the boy nodded his head vigorously and held out his hands to receive the sum thing.

I often look for the sum thing in life, the experience or theory or explanation that will make everything add up, that will impart meaning to even the most drib drab days, the most miserable failures, the most painful losses. I don’t think it exists. In fact, I think it’s bad for us, like eating too many Twizzlers, because it keeps us living in future tense rather than present. It puts both hope and contentment (not to be confused with complacency) always just out of reach.

My spirits don’t exactly rise when I acknowledge that nothing waits around the next bend to transform my life into a complete and sensible and beautiful whole. A rather scary alternative presents itself: I create my life, which will likely come out messy and haphazard and undisciplined and wildly inconsistent and may, for all that, still be beautiful.

We don’t need to take on this life creation alone, though. If our lives belong to us, they are ours to share. We have friends, family, and communities to help us. We have grace. When all else fails, we have Ben and Jerry’s. And who knows, if we stop focusing on an unattainable totality, we may discover we like what we’ve made.

Workin’ for a Livin’

“Create a life you actually want for yourself,” poet David Whyte says in his Footsteps: a Writing Life CD set. And I think, “Yes!” Who can disagree with that fabulous Yorkshire accent, much less the sentiment?

“Isn’t there something we can do besides working?” a friend and colleague says. “Yes!” I reply and then spend roughly half my waking hours doing just that.

Work offers definite benefits beyond the simply monetary. Some people practice professions they enjoy. Offices or factories provide forced community, teaching us how to live alongside those we might not invite to dinner. I’ve developed skills at work I may never have discovered otherwise. Couldn’t all that happen outside of work, though? Absolutely.

If you take a look at the vast scope of human history, the majority of the population has spent most of its time growing, killing, and cooking food. And cleaning. I’d much rather write novels than the accreditation reports my work demands, but I’d much rather write accreditation reports than beat dirty clothes against rocks in the river.

As a species, we’ve just begun this diversification of tasks, and perhaps we haven’t chosen as wisely as we could have thus far. Perhaps we’re going through a stage, like adolescence, but tell a teenager she’s miserable because she’s a teenager and see how much comfort you’ve conveyed.

So how does one persist in work that is tolerable but not that which one actually wants for oneself? If you have a fabulous answer, please leave it in the comments below.

I try the following, which sometimes help and sometimes don’t: vacation; gratitude for not having the myriad of jobs I don’t have, like bus driver or president; lots of potlucks; sunshine breaks; gratitude for the things work has given me, such as a car, a house, friends, perspective.

And as often as possible, I remember a time when I was sticking small labels on tabs, a task whose eventual obsolescence no one will mourn. One moment life consisted of a mindless routine, and the next I felt I was in exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing. I didn’t even mind that the right thing was affixing small pieces of gummy, flexible plastic.

I’ve never felt that way again, but I choose to think it’s always true. That doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray my job description will read well-paid novelist before the next accreditation report rolls around, but it opens up the possibility that this work we sometimes resist and often don’t understand can place us, against all our expectations, where we need to be.

A Sporting Chance

Though some may not realize it, the most important sporting event in the world took place a couple of weeks ago: the Women’s World Cup. If you don’t yet recognize the Women’s World Cup as holding that lofty position, you may leave your misguided comments below.

For days following the final, people who have no particular interest in soccer came up to me and said, “Did you see that game?” I don’t know whether they watched the entire 120+ minutes or saw highlights on the evening news, but their comments made it clear that sports create a point of connection.

They’re not always the healthiest connections. People trampled to death at soccer matches or assaults on opposing fans following American football games don’t foster open, accepting community. But if you take the sum total, from AYSO to the Olympics, sports teach both players and fans the building blocks for creating community more often than not.

I recently joined an ultimate Frisbee league. Ultimate has no refs, so players make their own calls, which inevitably leads to contention over fouls, which leads to grumbling, a few snide comments, and a lot of sideline conversation. But then it’s done. No one rolls the previous game’s complaints forward to the next week. Given the fact that for years I resented my sister getting a rabbit when I only had a bird, this letting go impresses me.

The opposing team isn’t always the difficult bunch. At the end of a recent game, one of the young women on our team gathered us together and, in an act of courage I could not have equaled at her age and perhaps still cannot, reminded everyone to respect each others’ opinions, regardless of experience level. My team responded by affirming her request and apologizing—no defensiveness, no ego. Remarkable.

As a kid, I hated both participation and sportsmanship awards because you only receive them when you lose. The more I play, though, the more I realize how sometimes difficult and ultimately rewarding participation and sportsmanship are. Only being competitive doesn’t require much maturity, and winning doesn’t always require the strength of character losing does.

We will all fail in both small and spectacular ways: not get a job offer, get dumped by a boy/girlfriend, make a joke nobody laughs at, do or say something that hurts a friend. These moments may matter more than the dropped catch, the missed goal, but if we’ve practiced how to behave on the field, we might remember when we really need to.