Moving Grasshoppers

Well, this week wasn’t an “I’m here” kind of week. It was an “Oh *!%*#” kind of week, a week of being stuck on a level of relating to the world that is pretty useless.

Someone at work told me about a wasp that kills grasshoppers and then takes them back to a tunnel it built in the ground. Before it takes the grasshopper into the tunnel, it flies through the tunnel to make sure no one has invaded it. If you move the grasshopper away from the tunnel entrance, the wasp will move it back and then go sweep the tunnel again, no matter how far you move the grasshopper, no matter how recently it swept the tunnel.

The tunnel I’ve been running through with great zeal this week is the “I’m not good at my job” tunnel. And because I am really clever, I’ve been moving my own grasshopper by repeatedly trying to assess how bad of a person I am for having missed some deadlines. Don’t try this at home—it’s for advanced monkey minds only.

The problem is, as Cynthia Bourgeault would say, that I’m running the wrong operating system. Whether building myself up or tearing myself down, I’m still basing my identity on job performance.

It’s interesting that over identifying with job performance does not improve it, at least for me. Quite the opposite. If my sense of self is based on whether or not the magazine comes out on time and there’s no way the magazine is going to come out on time, I’m pretty screwed. My personal reaction to this situation is paralysis, which is generally not conducive to getting work done.

Jim Finley says we need to find our identity and security in God alone. That sounds pretty good. I think I’ll start judging myself on how close I’m getting to that standard instead. Excuse me, there’s a grasshopper I need to attend to. Bzzzzzz.

Remind Me

This Friday, we’ll celebrate a Big Event at work. I have allowed preparations for the festivities to take over a rather significant portion of my life and mental space and use up most of my stress allowance. (Wouldn’t it be great if we really had a stress allowance and when we reached the end, we were cut off? Nope, sorry, that’s all the stress that you’re allowed this week.)

To counteract this, my mom has been sending me reminders every day of the things that are truly important, like love and smiles and miracles. We humans need a lot of reminders. The urgent easily sweeps us away from the important. I don’t know why. Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers as saying, “Why is not a useful question.” It’s the way we are, no reason attached, like the way chocolate tastes better than broccoli.

I have not remained in a blissed-out state of gratitude all day every day because of her notes, but the people around me have probably breathed a little easier. For example, when someone has said, “I have a question for you,” I’ve replied, “No” with good cheer instead of snarling.

There will always be a next big event, and we can always forget the important stuff when deadlines loom. Important stuff includes wondering at the way light falls from the sky through those specific clouds on that spot in the ocean that will never look exactly the same again, accompanying your co-worker to the storage room because there might be rats and that is creepy, remembering that it is all gift and that it is important to treat each moment, whether it is in preparation for a big event or not, as the gift it is.

So let’s remind each other—of love, of beauty, of heartbreak and the healing that comes afterward, of friendship, of grace.

Getting Un-Busy

When someone asks us how we are, there are so many responses we never use: ecstatic, grieving, lonely, joyful, sad, afraid, pensive, loved, happy. The acceptable emotional range runs from pretty good to fine on the positive side and can’t complain to hanging in there on the negative side. But if we want to make it clear that we are suffering nobly we say, “Busy!”

I hear busy more often than any other answer at work. It is accurate. Most people wear more hats than comfortably fit on their heads and have been tasked with more than can be accomplished in forty hours a week, or fifty or sixty.

I sometimes feel myself competing to be busier than others because it equates to working harder and being a more responsible, valuable employee and therefore a clearly superior human being. Because that’s the point of life, really—to be better than everyone else. That will lead to fulfillment and a sense of profound peace every time.

A few months ago, I decided to stop focusing on the busy-ness, stop comparing overwhelmingly behind horror stories, and find some other way to describe my state of being. I was doing pretty well. Until last week.

Then I got really busy. Emails went unanswered. Projects fell off my plate, pushed off by more urgent projects. When people asked me how I was, I didn’t say overwhelmed or distracted or struggling to enjoy my accomplishments because the next task is always looming. I said busy. I’ve been saying it ever since.

The week before last, a hummingbird came and hovered in front of my window and commenced turning flips in the air. This is the kind of thing I don’t notice when I’m caught up in having too much to do. This is the kind of thing I think is most important to notice in this life.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is another one from William Stafford that suggests a possible alternative to a constant focus on our ever-growing to-do list.

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

Losing the Edge

The edges of my life are fraying. I like edges. They look clean and crisp and clearly mark where one thing ends and the next begins. I never was a color outside the lines kid and didn’t appreciate it when others played fast and loose with the boundaries in my coloring book.

But life apparently prefers watercolors and things are bleeding into each other at an alarming rate. By things I mean work and life because clearly work isn’t life; it’s some alternate universe we enter at eight and leave at five. Through the door in the toadstool after eating the mysterious cake.

The idea that a little less than 5/7 of my time doesn’t count as my life is a little absurd to begin with. It’s even stranger if you consider that people from work become good friends and are invited into the other realm. And of course no membrane prevents work experiences from infiltrating the way I think about the world or vice versa. To switch metaphors, the peas got mixed up with the mashed potatoes long before now.

Yet I’ve always considered work as other, probably because then it can be contained in a neat, little package and dropped at the side of the road when my real life comes along. If work doesn’t count, then I haven’t, for example, irrevocably not published a book because I’m not truly committed to anything else.

Maintaining this level of self-delusion requires serious talent. Let’s examine some evidence. If the amount of time I spend thinking about work while cooking dinner or taking a shower is any indication, I do value my work, thank goodness. Who wants to spend all that time doing something that feels like a waste? And believing that holding work as unimportant will help me accomplish other goals is like training for a marathon by not swimming.

It’s scary, though. If I give work official life status, what’s to keep it from smearing purple crayon all over the coloring book? This concern is probably as relevant to my life as the fear that I may become a couch potato, which, when discussed with a friend, elicited the response, “As if.”

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.

Moving on

Even the best of beginnings inevitably entail endings. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around the reality that change involves the breaking—or at least loosening—of some bonds and the creation of others.

I will start a new job soon, a job I’m excited about. This week, though, I’ve felt rather wistful and melancholy about leaving my current office. I like to think of it as overachieving to get nostalgic about a place while still there.

Some things that make me sad:
•    No longer being on the About page of our website
•    My desk not being my desk
•    Not being invited to birthday lunches anymore
•    Most of all, no longer seeing the people I currently work with on a daily basis

We choose so few of our relationships in life. With the exception of spouses, the selection of the people we spend the most time with—our families and our coworkers—is beyond our control. We get to pick among the applicants for a job, but because a person is so much more than a collection of skills, an hour-long interview gives little idea of who will walk through the door.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my current officemates and how much we enjoy each other. Everyone knows the work-day rituals; there is comfort in the well-worn grooves of relationships and the familiarity of our banter. We laugh a lot. And these people all make really good food—the importance of that talent cannot be underestimated.

I will see these folks again, but lives get busy and there is no substitute for time spent together. The group I’m joining is similarly tight knit and good humored, so the future is bright. But for now, I want to acknowledge how much I appreciate my current crew and how much I will miss them.

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.

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.