I always find the time at the beginning of the new year to be particularly poignant. It’s around this time that I turn into an internet detective, in search of the people who were, for years at a time, part of my life and then no more. Where had they gone? Who had they become?
As a writer, I put it down to an inveterate curiosity about stories. How did their story turn out? Some of it is predictable. The roommate who allowed her cats to replicate into a plague has postings full of cats. The boyfriend with the boob fetish married a large-bosomed woman. But then there are the surprises – the compulsive gambler now crime investigator. The ladies’ man with his life partner, Steve.
You see the broad arc of their lives and wonder about one’s own trajectory. Have I changed much over the years? If someone looked at my life from the outside would they just nod knowingly and say yep, that’s no surprise. Or would they raise their eyebrows? Really? Wow, I never thought she’d___________.
What isn’t a surprise is how we age. We all seem to be leaning towards a pumpkin shape with lots of gray hair or none at all. I’d go to a Facebook page and it would seem like the person was posting youthful pictures of themselves, but they would be pictures of their children and grandchildren.
It leads me here, thinking about what truly brief lives we live and how many details are packed into those lives. Internet searches are reductive, distilling our lives down to one-dimensional facts and pictures. Whole lives cannot be reflected on a screen. If the devil is in the details, the devil is what makes us who we are.
The picture of a glamorous couple smiling from a beach in Aruba cannot show that they met in a support group for grief or alcoholism. It cannot show the nights of tears or the lack of trust they had to get through in order to become that picture. It cannot show that he’s been cheating on her the last four months and that she has given up on being loved. It cannot show that on the second Tuesday next month, at 7:32p.m., on their way to visit his mother at the nursing home, they will be killed by a drunk driver.
It is only one detail, this picture, a single moment in their lives. It does not tell their story.
To look at a picture is only a short segment of thread in the rich tapestry that makes a human life. Our characters, our weird twitchy little habits, the things that give us pleasure and enrage us, what we think is funny or sexy or ridiculous, what makes us weep – take one human being, imagine those details and multiply it by 7 billion.
Perhaps this is why I sit here, full up on visual images, but famished for stories. It is not enough to see the photo flip book of someone’s life, multiplying and aging and losing shape. I have the momentary urge to write, call, or email. What to say? Can you tell me what happened between Point A, when I knew you as the person who could drink me under the table, and Point B, when you posted a picture of a very large collection of paper-mâché elephants?
The take on this, like most perspectives, is a matter of choice. Let the melancholia wash over me for lost friends and connections. Or realize that what lies behind portends what is ahead. The continued shuffling through more of humanity, the lives we touch and are touched by. The writer’s mercenary safari for more material and character studies.
I’m of the school of thought that the past is past for a reason. That we grow and change and hopefully evolve beyond our initial capabilities. Looking back only serves to remind us of progress and of the many lessons we’ve learned on this journey, with its inevitable end. Perhaps all we can do is bow our heads in thanks to those who, for better and for worse, met us on the road.
I’m struggling with everything right now and when I’m struggling, I can get a little grumpy. I’m still working the microresolutions from the last couple of months, putting in time every day on the novel, and trying to make better choices despite the winter discontent creeping in. But occasionally, I need to poke a few vent holes and let the steam escape.
When I hear people be passionate about whatever they’re passionate about, I wonder what is wrong with me. Why don’t I have fiery rhetoric? Why is everything I say automatically followed by brakes (is this right? is this necessary? is this helpful?). I used to admire people who lacked self-consciousness, who burst forth with whatever emotion they had on the tips of their tongues. It seemed like fearlessness. But that has all changed.
Now that blurting has become a socially acceptable, nay encouraged, form of communication, it’s just irritating – from a President with Twitter diarrhea and an incomprehensible syntax, to the digital lynch mob of ideological purity, intent on destroying people’s careers and lives, choosing the “difference without distinction” approach to all offenses, no matter how minor or grievous.
Is it irony to wonder on a blog, if people talk too much and listen too little?
I just read about Life Time Fitness choosing not to show cable news channels in its gyms saying that cable news was not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Amen. Immediately people were crying censorship and that the gym was interfering with their time management. Ohforchrissake. News reports stream out of every technological orifice in our society. In waiting rooms, restaurants, on our computers, our phones, even at the gas pump. Take a breather, do your workout, the world will still be turning out shitty sound bites after you walk out the door.
Holiday cards have become postcard versions of Facebook – a collage of pictures of all the prettiest moments during the year. We get more of these each year, replacing cards that have actual handwritten notes. Just text us with a link next year, so that we can continue to know as little about you as possible, except for your dental work and where you vacationed. I’m thinking about taking pictures when our family has the flu, when our drains in the basement back up, and the last pile of cat barf I had to clean up. People will take us off their list right quick.
After I drink my kombucha-snail slime smoothie, do my Freezer Cold Yogilates, spend an hour saying inane positive things to myself in the mirror (I am a stable genius, I am a stable genius), buff my skin back to my seventeen year old self, organize my spice rack by geographical location of their fair trade markets, Feng Shui my house so that everything faces whichever direction cultural appropriation comes from, and strap on all the devices to monitor just how much of a lazy shit I will be today, I need a nap.
Sometimes when you’re bone tired of trying to improve yourself, don’t you just want to find a self-help guru and tell them to fuck right off?
We’ve had a few atypical days weather-wise here. Last night, I went walking in spring-like temps. I live in a suburb where a lot of streets do not have sidewalks and where the lighting is sparse. Having spent more of my life as a single woman than not, I think through worst-case scenarios. I pay attention to the shadows in the dark, remind myself of pressure points, jiu-jitsu moves, and make sure I know what direction I’d run in.
These days, I’m more concerned about being picked off by an errant driver than running into a criminal with perfect timing. I think getting hit by a car is one of the more ignominious ways to die. To prevent that, I dress up like a damned Christmas tree just to go on a walk. LED lights on a vest with option of blinking when I really want to look like a construction site.
Then last night happened. I passed a man walking his dog with bright blue lights flashing all over his doggy coat and a woman with a vest where two vertical lines of red lights cascaded up and down her front, like she was a human landing strip. Perhaps we’ve just created a more ridiculous way to be found dead.
So what do you do when the dark mood descends? I have a couple of different approaches. Eat until I fall into a carb-induced coma or workout in a manner that suggests I’m preparing for a death match. Today it’s a workout in the hopes that I can follow it up with some heavy duty writing. If you’re a moody person like me, I find it helps to write the dark scenes when I’m feeling grim, to use the emotions already floating about in my head. Afterwards, I feel spent, but marginally better.
Do you find yourself writing according to mood?
I just finished reading a collection of essays by a much-loved and well-respected novelist. And it just made me sigh. All writing is not equal. It’s a new thing, taking a disparate group of blog posts, slapping them together, and calling it a book. Rarely has this been done well.
The struggling writer could only wish for a day when they are so honored and revered as a writer, as a name, that someone would be happy to compile their scraps of writing, make a pretty book cover, and sell them to a large base of established fans, ready to eat them up. The reality seems to me, to be just a little sadder, like the honoring of a formerly beautiful building, just before it’s torn down.
So often these collections are a hodgepodge of journal entries, ordered in such a way that it is like binge-reading a blog. That seems like a fairly unedifying way to spend one’s time and it doesn’t get any better in hard copy. It is not just the ordering or grouping of blog posts that can be jarring in a book format, it is the quality and nature of the writing.
As I write more and more offline, I’m finding out something about myself as a writer. I don’t do the long game well. I write in short, disconnected spurts, even over the course of several hours. This is what blogging has trained me to do. And it’s not good for the purposes I intend.
It’s an indicator of what I’ve spent more time doing over the last five years. There are writers who write books who do not blog, or do so sparingly. Their writing skills are already strongly established. But if you’re coming at it the other way round, your struggles may just be beginning. Mine are.
Writing has changed so much over the last century. I think about the impact of cameras and televisions – the communal knowledge of images. No longer needed were the lengthy descriptions of a sycamore tree or satin dresses propped up by crinoline or Times Square. Scenery is not painted for the reader, but merely referenced. Everything is written in technological shorthand.
This is not to say that change is bad or that we should stay rooted in nostalgia, but it does speak to our attention span and how we process what we read. The trend towards more information and fewer curators, means that our writing is vying for attention in an increasingly scattered collective.
With the advent of social media, or writing in an endless array of formats, it’s a necessary thing to think about what kind of writer you wish to be. It is important in the sense that who you are is what you do and read. Or at least what you spend the majority of your time doing and reading.
Some would say, “Well, hell, I’ll do any kind of writing that makes me money, or gets me published.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of honesty that keeps you from frittering your time away trying to be literary or artistic. To say that I want to produce good, solid work offline that has a few readers, doesn’t make me anymore highbrow or respectable, but it is a reminder about how I need to balance my time.
It’s been too easy for me to feel like I’m getting somewhere, when the kind of writing I’ve been doing is not what I intend. The kind of writing I do on a blog is not the same needed for a novel. I am learning this the hard way and the dissonance can, on occasion, be disheartening.
There are writers who switch easily between mediums and their blog compilations aren’t herky-jerky. I’ve read John Scalzi’s Whatever blog for many years and am amazed how quickly he can go from writing a novel, to blogging, to Tweeting and back again. But he has worked for years, established his credentials and skills, as well as having an understanding how to integrate all his platforms. Shit. I have to learn how to work on one scene without creating 25 subplots.
As I put more and more time in on fixing my train wreck of a novel (that’s some good publicity, isn’t it?), I have become more cognizant of what I am accustomed to doing versus what I need to do. There is, despite the struggle, a spark of happiness in my brain about this. It means I have so much more to learn and explore.
I’ve started late. I will not have a lifetime career in which I am honored and lauded because of a large body of work. The opportunity to be blog-compiled will likely never be presented to me, but I’m okay with that, because I have to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.
Are You Doing the Kind of Writing
You Intend to Do?
It was -7F/-22C, not including the wind chill factor yesterday. It took me half the day to convince myself to go for a walk. With the family home for a couple of weeks and driving made less desirable due to ice and subzero temps, I was feeling antsy.
You’d think, after living in Minnesota for the last 19 years, I’d have special cold gear. There would be outfits ritually unpacked each winter – thermal underwear, snow pants and jacket, accessories all matching in color.
Apparently when it comes to fashion, I like free-styling it. So I put on some compression shorts, long underwear pants, sweatpants, two pairs of socks, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a fleece-lined raincoat (to break the wind), mismatched hat and gloves and scarf. I slathered on some lotion and lip balm to cut down on the wind burn.
The first leg of my usual 3.5 mile walk headed west, straight into the wind. I felt the chill down to my bones. I kept having a conversation with myself. You can always go back if it’s too much. I wonder just how stupid I am being. My cheeks are always the first to feel the burn. I pull up my scarf, already covered with the crystals of my exhalations.
My tracks from two days ago are still the only ones on this stretch, crisscrossed by rabbit and squirrel tracks. I found myself stepping the same way, habitual and careful. Slipping in these temps can have a deadly outcome. It brings an element of meditation – each step is the only step you have to worry about.
A large flock of mallards flies overhead. Their conversation fades and I’m left with the sound of snow crunching beneath my hikers. Human beings are scarce and when I pass them, they are assessed quickly.
The dog people are easiest – hastily dressed people shivering, bouncing on their feet as their dog sniffs and putters. At any other time of the year, this would be a relaxing jaunt for them and to the dog, it still is.
I pass an older man. He is carrying a plastic drugstore bag and not dressed for the weather – in lightweight khakis and stiff leather dress shoes. I smile and say “hi”, but he keeps his head down. All I can think is that his legs must burn now, if they have any feeling left at all.
I pass by the empty outdoor skating rinks, the school lot where one vehicle sits, music thumping, exhaust sending up smoke signals. It’s an odd place to make out or sell drugs or do surveillance. More likely, and less of interest, they’re lost. Streets here are often interrupted by cul-de-sacs and sports fields only to be continued on the other side.
I’m in the last half mile of my walk. While I’m surprisingly warm everywhere else, my cheeks no longer have feeling and I know it’s time to get inside.
I pass by the church where I was married. It’s why I still have my maiden name. I am not a believer, but my husband is, so I said yes we can marry in a church, but…Occasionally he makes a pointed comment and I just shrug. I like my last name better than his.
A woman comes toward me carrying a cloth bag and a backpack, glasses iced up from the cold.
“Excuse me, but is there any place close, like a business, where I can get warm?”
She is in her twenties and has a Slavic accent. She was meeting some friends at the church and she got dropped off early, but the church was locked. She’d been out there for nearly an hour and sounded desperate.
I offered to walk her in the direction of a grocery store I knew a shortcut to, but it was still a six-block hike. I looked at her boots – fashion boots that I so often see women in Northern climates wearing and cannot comprehend. Thin black leather boots with a heel and no tread at all on the bottom.
She smiled uncertainly. I can be helpful when I’m in the mood and I felt rather sorry for her. So we began walking to the grocery store. I asked where she was from.
“Moscow. And it’s not as cold there as it is here!”
“Да, это очень холодно.”
I was delighted to practice a bit of Russian with her. She was an exchange student in a program in South Dakota, learning English to be a translator and visiting friends in the Twin Cities. We had a nice conversation, but I could tell she was concerned when I started to lead her across a wide field.
We finally reached the bottom of a small hill and I pointed her in the direction of the store. She smiled and thanked me profusely, likely out of relief that I was neither going to rob her nor try to bring her home to my serial predator boyfriend. I smiled the rest of the way home thinking up all the bizarre options that could result from following a stranger.
I woke up this morning uncharacteristically optimistic.
Over the last week, I’d been feeling some anxiety, noticing how much my body and face were aging. Thinking about how quickly time is passing by. Surprise heartburn two nights ago had me looking up heart attack symptoms in women on my phone in the middle of the night. My daughter just got her notification for high school open house and several relatives are in the last stretch of their lives. Time and mortality and fear were weighing on me heavily.
The unexpected encounter on my walk reminded me about what a fantastic world I live in. That I could be out on this routine walk in my little suburb and run into a Muscovite, have a conversation in Russian, and then be on my way home. Unexpected and surprising, which is what life really is, if you’re paying attention.
Wishing you a Year Full of Little Surprises & Big Meaning!
I’ve never been someone at a loss for things to write about, but sometimes I wonder at my ability to overthink things. That’s a lie. I don’t believe there is such a thing as overthinking – at least not in a climate where people are egged on to abandon their own thoughts in favor of memes and outrage.
This morning I was reading a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin called No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters. It made me think about details. One of the essays was called “Chosen by a Cat”. It was a rather long essay about her cat. At first, I felt an edge of disinterest telling me to move on. But I stuck with it and the more I read, the more compelled I was to finish. Why would an essay about a cat be compelling?
I have cats. One would think I’d have an innate interest, but my cats require a lot of time and care and attention. I’d rather not give my time over to the cat that is not mine to truck to the vet and not one whose random effluvia I encounter on a regular basis. Much like I didn’t want to hear about other babies while mine was keeping me awake all night long. Still, phrasing and details and perspective can make the most dull, inane subject seem interesting.
This post is a bit of a writing practice. Take something ordinary and write about it. Free associate. Meditate. See what comes to you.
Food with a View
Since I am up at 4am, breakfast is a solo affair. Lately, I’ve come to enjoy the slow process of slicing up onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. I toss them in a pan with an egg and some spinach. I eat with leisure, pouring over The Economist or reading essays as the coffee maker burbles out its magic elixir.
When I was young and fantasized about what I’d do and be, I thought I’d be a journalist, traveling the world, taking on lovers here and there, and being an entity unto myself. The snapshot in my mind of this amazing life was me, drinking coffee, reading a newspaper on a balcony with an ocean view.
Here I am, a married suburbanite parent. I love my life and my family. But a little part of me still longs for that sense of possibility and luxury. Making myself a fresh breakfast, reading the news, sitting in my quiet kitchen, my latest lover (of 18 years) dozing a couple of rooms away, a child I never imagined. I’m pretty sure I hear the ocean.
They Grow Them in Cans, Don’t They?
My favorite thing about slicing mushrooms is that they look like what mushrooms have always looked like in pictures. The knife slices easily through them like butter. I throw what looks like a half pound of mushrooms in the pan, but the heat makes them sweat away their size and color until they little resemble how they started.
Until my late 30s, I’d never eaten a mushroom except out of a can. I remember watching an episode of Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” in which elementary students could not identify common vegetables. But growing up poor can be like that. You get cans from emergency food shelters. Cans are often cheap and on sale in large quantities, and they last a long time.
Mushrooms that weren’t a greenish gray seemed foreign to me. I made no connection from them to the pictures, either in storybooks or cooking shows of white, perfectly sliced plant food. I’d never seen or eaten a kiwi, either. Economics and education and accessibility – these change one’s menu and palate.
Alice in Wonderland Shrooms
Once I was at a music festival in Canada. There was a small caravan of the Canadian versions of Cheech and Chong next to our campsite. Like a movie caricature, every time they opened their door, pot smoke would come pouring out. A Canadian being high is an odd thing – how do you get more mellow than mellow?
Several people were eating “magic” mushrooms. They were seeing things and were subsequently paranoid and lost. They stumbled about campsites, disoriented and babbling. I’d never even known that was a thing. With my midwest upbringing (before the advent of rural meth labs and the current opioid crisis), booze and pot were the drugs of choice.
By that time in my life, I’d become a teetotaler. With a family history of alcoholism and a bad reaction the last time I’d smoked pot, I was completely sober amidst a crowd of drum-beating, mushroom-eating stoned drunks. It’s an odd experience, like walking through a circus. Your normal no longer seems normal and you become the oddity.
Sometimes I ride myself about all the navel gazing and self-reflection that I do when writing. The thing is, once you realize the details of your own life – the complexity, the stories within stories, the layers of history and habit, you see others differently. We’re in an age that chooses to gloss over individual details, to caustically lump each other into easy categories. To imagine one person’s life and all the details that make them who they are, we have to look past politics and geography and gender and economics. Details make the story and everyone has their own.
21 days to create a habit is a popular misinterpretation of a study published in 1960. Like anything personal, the length of time to establish a habit depends on the individual. And how do you know when it’s a habit?
That’s what I’ve been asking myself as I hit the four-week mark on my two resolutions: to write 250 words as soon as I logged into my computer and to log out every night by 7pm. This is the time when I have to think about working on more resolutions. Had my current ones become habits? Did I need to wait, before adding on? Would I set myself up for failure if I moved too fast?
I’ve decided to start two new ones, but only because my first two now feel relatively easy. They were easy to start, easy to continue, and even easier to keep doing, since the habit autopilot is starting to engage.
I’ve spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall. If a goal didn’t work, I’d just try harder. Each and every time. Finally, the answer seems clear to me. It doesn’t work because it’s not attainable for me, given my personality and environment.
If I feel myself faltering in meeting my daily resolutions, I will have to step back and reassess. That’s key to setting any resolution – if it’s not working, don’t stick around to beat yourself up about it. Go back to the drawing board. It’s time to adjust downward, set some new cues, or just realize it is not the right resolution for you.
Yes, It Is About You
When I started working on my next set of resolutions, I got ambitious and thought I’d do three. One of them was that after lunch (and presumably a morning of writing), I’d make myself change into workout clothes. That was it. I would do that in the hope of actually working out, but it was not required. So I did a dry run this last week before I planned to implement the resolution.
I hated it and I resisted it.
My lunch time was not a reliable cue. I get up at 4am, so sometimes I’d have lunch at 10am or I’d be so focused on something that I’d put lunch off until 2pm. Sometimes I felt like going for a long walk before lunch, which negated the need for a set workout. I just couldn’t see how I’d be consistent and wanted a little fluidity in my day, so I crossed it off the list.
Resolutions that work are very personal – they’re defined by your goals, your everyday habits and schedule, how much time you have to work with, and what is tolerable to you. That’s really the key piece so many of us miss. We can’t copy what someone else does and expect the same results. Spending more time up front defining your resolution, doing some dry runs, and thinking about whether or not your resolution is something you could do on your worst, most busy, most tired, most depressing day is critical.
Building Blocks for the Next Resolutions
Since I’ve established the habit of writing 250 words as soon as I log into my computer, I’ve decided to build on that habit. As soon as I finish what I’ve come to call my daily journal entry, I will open a new document and write a 250 word scene in my novel. I’m at the computer, I’ve gotten warmed up – I am ready to do a little more work.
When I realized that much of my evening snacking was eliminated when I got off the computer at 7pm, it only highlighted a particularly bad habit. Being at the computer had become a cue for snacking. And it wasn’t just limited to my evening surfing. It was all day long. I’d been doing it for nearly 15 years – ever since I’d gotten a job where I had my own office. It is a deeply ingrained habit of mindless eating.
That helped to define my next resolution. I have resolved to only eat at the dining room table when I’m at home. This is going to be a tough resolution, but because it has a physical component – a change of venue, I suspect it will not be as hard as I imagine and that after the first couple weeks will be fine.
Getting Psyched Up
They’re small. Unimportant to anyone else. Your resolutions won’t change the world. But they’re important to you and it’s worth the effort to make them as enjoyable and attainable as possible.
For my first couple of resolutions, I set my computer up to open a blank page as soon as I logged in and set a musical alarm to remind me to log off at a specific time. I wrote the resolutions out on my white board, to include the list of immediate benefits. I’ve now updated my board to the second set:
Writing 250 words for my novel would do this for me:
- Create daily professional habit
- Make progress on novel
- Relieve psychological distress about not being done!
I quickly realized that if I opened up Scrivener to work on my novel, I would go straight into editing mode, so my workaround is to write or re-write a scene in a blank Word document for importing to Scrivener later. Taped to my computer is a note: NO A.M. EDITING, ONLY WRITING.
Dining at the table will do this for me:
- Bring more pleasure/mindfulness to eating
- Reduce calories
- Keep desk clean and professional
Above my desk, I’ve written in giant letters: DINE AT TABLE. WORK AT DESK. I also prettied up the table settings and deep-cleaned my study before my start date.
Yesterday was the first day. I’ll write a monthly follow up post as I continue to work through my resolutions. As always, a work-in-progress – one small step at a time.
Here’s hoping that 2018 is a year of healthier, happier habits!
This is the second part of a three-part post. You can read the first here.
I am in the giddy, excited stage of discovering something new that most people already know, but I’m a slow learner. If my friends and family hear the word microresolutions one more time (“It’s not even a real word!”), they will likely be making some of their own that involve earplugs and duct tape.
Inspired by a lot of reading and a desperate need to make some changes, I made two small resolutions four weeks ago. As a result, I sleep better, read more, eat fewer calories, and have written 40+ pages (10,500 words) in the last month that I would not have written otherwise. Painless, immediate results.
What is this magical elixir you speak of?
I log into my computer in the morning and then I log off at night.
Wait – what? This post is a scam!
Hear me out. I have two major personal goals in my life right now. I want to be a paid published writer and I want to be as fit and healthy for as long as I can be. I am not published and my shirt buttons could become deadly projectiles should my belly continue to expand. This is all to say, that my reality is far away from my goals.
The authoritarians among us would just bark “Write!” and “Calories in, calories out!”. Most of us know that easy answers are easy to give, but much harder to live. And if you’re truly skilled, like me, you’ve built layer upon layer of self-defeating behaviors. No single action could pierce that crust of hardened habits. The first stop on the way to any resolution is an honest assessment of those habits.
Finding the Tipping Point
I’m on track, taking care of business for the day and before I know it, I’ve blown the day doing things that aren’t remotely useful for meeting my personal goals. Where did I go wrong? It seemed to me that it was logging into the computer that did it. From that point on, all good intentions were gone and I was pulled along by habits – news reading, email sorting, blog surfing. Logging into the computer was where I needed to start with a resolution.
I decided that my first resolution was that I would immediately, upon logging in, write 250 words (a single page, double-spaced). I could do nothing until those words were written. I didn’t care what they were. It just needed to be the first thing I did.
In conjunction with that, my second resolution was that I’d log off the computer every night by 7pm.
Making It as Easy as Possible
Despite my long history of making life more difficult, I focused on making my resolutions as easy as possible to accomplish with additional cues. I set up my computer so that a new Word document would open as soon as I logged in. The first thing I’ve seen on my computer every day for the last 28 days is a blank page. I’ve written poetry, rants, laments, essays, and silly lyrics. The task took me all of 15 minutes and I wrote an average of 380 words per session.
Every night at 6:45 an alarm goes off, letting me know that I will need to log off by 7.
Letting Everything Else Go
These were my only resolutions. That was all I had to do. I had to let go of all my goal baggage. There were things I wanted to work on – working out more consistently, improving my diet with more nutrient-dense foods, sharpening my foreign language skills. I still did some things to support those goals, but they were not required and didn’t sidetrack me if all didn’t go to plan. I only had to do two very small things.
Framing the Present
Let’s start off with a few clichés. Life is short. It’s the journey, not the destination. Be present. All of these are about today. When working out my resolutions, I made myself write down what the immediate benefits would be.
Writing those 250 words would do this for me:
- Start my day off productively
- Start my day off positively (no news is good news)
- Improve my writing skills
Logging off at 7pm would do this for me:
- Prepare me for good night’s sleep.
- Leave room for better choices, like reading or interacting with my family.
- Less likely to make poor eating/caffeine choices to stay awake.
Scope Creep and Resistance
Initially, my resolutions seemed paltry. How was I going to get healthier this way? How was I going to get my novel past the revision stage? I felt the old tug of desperation tugging at me to do more, that these things couldn’t possibly be enough. I had to fight the urge to GO BIG. I’d gone big before and for the three days it lasted, it was glorious. Going small is for the long game.
If you’re like me and you get all happy-lab-puppy excited about new things, you might decide to tell your friends and family about your resolutions. They are also part of the GO BIG culture, so will likely be underwhelmed by your mini-goals. And they’ve heard your intentions before. The nice thing about easy, attainable goals is that you don’t actually need a support group for them. Maybe keep it under your lid. Wet blankets can often dampen resolve.
While I could imagine the possible benefits of my two small habits, they’ve turned out to be so much more – in measurable ways. I was at the point of thinking that maybe I needed to give up my ideas about being a writer, but I rediscovered how genuinely happy writing makes me, not just as an end-goal pursuit, but in the moment. This meant the overall tone of my day improved. I was not seeing the headlines first thing in the day. It meant that before I absorbed the bad things in the world, I was first in touch with the joy.
Sleep had become a real problem for me – whether it was hormonal or anxieties, I was not well-rested, stayed up too late, and woke repeatedly at night. Logging off my computer earlier changed how I spent my evening. First of all, it made me realize how very tired I really was – a missed cue masked by a surfing habit. At loose ends, I prepped better for the next day, settled in with a book, or just engaged with my family a bit more. I slept better and longer. It also ended my nighttime snacking habit, which meant less heartburn, fewer calories, less restlessness. Good sleep is a magic potion unto itself.
So while I can write my self-satisfied posts about my new habits, I am still far away from my big picture goals. Trying to decide what to do next was like starting all over again…
Tune in tomorrow for So You Want to Start a Resolution, Part 3
Building your resolutions, Jenga Tower or Rock of Gibraltar?
It’s the time of year when many of us fall into the cyclical trap of “this year sucked and next year will be so much better because…”. We take the bait and before you know it, we’ve decided to completely re-vamp ourselves from being human to being perfect. And by February, it turns out we’re still human, but just a little less self-confident than before we failed that resolution.
I am known as The Goal-Maker. Okay, I’m not. As hard as I’ve tried, that nickname has never caught on, no matter how many times I tell people to call me that. Friends and family will tell you that I am, however, a perpetual goal-setter. I have been all my life. Out of the womb, my first goal was to get grownups to talk jibberish to me. Goal accomplished.
From very early on, I set diet goals, workout goals, reading goals, writing goals, nicer person goals (that never panned out), and financial goals. As a friend pointed out, I don’t wait until January 1st – I do it year round. Part of this pattern of behavior is pathological – the never good enough syndrome hit me at a young age. It’s taken me a decade or three to untangle that web and come to terms with whoever it is that I am.
Over the last few years, I’ve set and failed goals at an alarming and increasingly rapid rate. I justify this pattern by saying that even a failed goal is partial success. I tell myself that some progress is better than no progress. The truth is that, while I’ve made some steps forward, the failures and the lack of positive, permanent outcomes have chipped away at my confidence. In the last year, I set goals halfheartedly and gave them up at the first sign of resistance.
Goal-setting became a rote reaction to getting on the bathroom scales, noticing a loss of muscle, not sleeping well, feeling stupid, panicking about how old I was getting, or feeling an overwhelming sense of personal underachievement. Goals made in a reflexive panic are the least likely to be thoughtful, reasonable, or attainable.
I have, over the last year, had a slow epiphany about speed and time. We are inundated by the quick-fix mentality that focuses on outcomes and not process. The seductive before-and-after picture, the TV show that shows extreme personal changes in what seems like one week. It sets up the idea that self-punishing rule-setting in the short term will bring us happier long-term outcomes.
I bought into every bit of this. I consider myself a fairly rational, intelligent person, but in the area of goal-setting, I’ve been a bit of an idiot. I knew I’d hit a point of just going through the motions, as if any attempt at self-improvement was actual improvement. It wasn’t. It was damaging my belief that I could change anything. It was bringing me to a point of bleak acceptance. Not the fuzzy warm self-acceptance that people go on about, but the dismal, aren’t you a complete shit kind of acceptance.
Whenever I come up against a wall in my life, I do the research. I read everything I can get my hands on, I take notes, and I spend some time letting it all knock about in my noggin. In a movie, this montage would be accompanied by “Chariots of Fire”. I went to outside experts. I have the good fortune of having a personal trainer/life coach/friend who asks all the right questions when I’m trying to get things sorted.
Even with all that, I am at a point in my life that could cause despair. I turned 50. I have no career. I’m still unpublished. I’m heavier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m in an ongoing battle with aches and injuries. I still wrestle with depression. On the flip side, I have a wonderful family, great friends, accessible resources, and that magical, exasperating quality of persistence.
A month ago, I fell for it again. I resolved to make changes. I wrote everything out. I worked my way through my intentions, I thought through the obstacles. I mentally practiced in the days prior to my goal start date, adjusting my goals to be more attainable.
Today, I have met both the goals I set every single day of the four weeks. And it was relatively easy. As I write this, it feels like this is one big ad for a book I read or a system I want to promote. I write this because it feels like a small miracle. And when you experience a small miracle, you want to blab to everyone about it.
I had been doing it all wrong. I’d blamed my lack of willpower or self-control for failing to meet goals. I blamed it on my depression and hormones or circumstances beyond my control. The real reason for my failure was that I didn’t know how to set attainable goals. My ambition and overestimation of my abilities always got ahead of reality. I expected myself to be someone different or my life to somehow function differently tomorrow. The reality that I wrote the goals for was not the reality in which I lived.
A lot of people have written blogs and books about changing habits and setting goals. Some things made sense to me and hit home and many others did not. But I think this is a key point – meeting resolutions starts at the very beginning, with the resolutions you select. If the resolutions aren’t right, no amount of willpower is going to get you to your goal.
As a result of my two small resolutions, I sleep better, read more, eat fewer calories, and have written 40+ pages (10,500 words) in the last month that I would not have written otherwise. Immediate results. No pain.
Wow – what miracle did you procure? What magic wand did you wave? And can I send you $19.95 for it in six installments?
But wait, there’s more…
Tune in tomorrow for So You Want to Start a Resolution, Part 2
How to play resolution roulette while avoiding trap doors, anvils, and wet blankets.
Great Resources for Figuring Out Goals and Resolutions:
Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold
For whatever reason, this book resonated with me. The basic concepts are covered in the first half and then loads of examples are given. I also watched her talk at Microsoft. Her approach is the incremental building of positive habits to slowly push out the negative habits.
Mini Habits: Smaller Habit, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise
Similar concept, smaller book. Especially useful in working on exercise resolutions, since that is his main example. He also writes a blog.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
This covers a lot of the science involved with habits for people who need more than the “do this” kind of explanation. Runs more to the business and productivity talk, but the concepts are the same. It also approaches it from the perspective of breaking negative habits. He explains the cycle of habits here.
Now that the competitive shopping marathon has begun and social events designed to crush the soul are in full swing, I’ve grumbled my way through a mall, a holiday party or three, and the receipt of numerous greeting cards with pets and coordinated outfits, and sometimes pets in coordinated outfits. I’m in the mood for unsolicited advice-giving. You’re welcome – in advance of the overwhelming gratitude you will surely feel.
Let’s get the respective holiday greetings out of the way. Merry Happy Holiday Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Ōmisoka (大晦日), Three Kings Day, Winter Solstice, Festivus, Quaid-e-Azam Day, and fill-in-the-blank Day. And for people like me, good luck with avoiding hugging, food poisoning, and advice from well-meaning and sometimes just mean relatives, on how to be someone other than who you are.
In addition to my much-loved (by me) post on how to survive the holidays as an introvert, here are some other invaluable tips:
Shopping for Gifts
Remember that we all die. Remember what happens to our stuff when we die. Remember what other people do with the stuff we give them – usually before they die.
One year I gave a relative a yoga set – a mat and DVD. She’d been talking about her stress and various aches and pains and was considering yoga. The next year when I went to visit her, she’d cut up the yoga mat and made treads out of the pieces to keep her from slipping on the stairs. Indeed, it likely served the purpose of reducing her stress and prevented injuries, but actual stair treads would have been cheaper.
Don’t spend a lot of money on stuff. Sure, it makes the economy go round, but after the latest tax “reform”, we’re going to be in a recession in a few years anyway. Save your money. You’re going to need it for healthcare when you lose your job.
I hate going to the Y in January, because the resolution gang is there trying to work off holiday pounds, accidentally flying off treadmills, talking more than moving, taking workout tips from any random employee who will talk to them, and wandering from machine to machine without wiping any of them off after use. I’m all for working out and for people finding their groove, but come mid-February, when my retinas will have recovered from all the neon polyester workout clothes, I’ll look around only to see me and four senior citizens.
So don’t do, eat, drink or buy anything that requires a follow-up resolution, pregnancy test or bankruptcy filing. Or at the very least, don’t go to my gym.
If you’re a writer, there’s a fun little exercise you can do. Find that relative that makes you want to flip a table and back into their car as you tear out of the driveway. Watch them. How would you write them? What would their death scene entail? Or less violently, which Muppet would they be? Which reminds me of a great way to enter (and exit) any gathering:
Practicing Gratitude. In the mirror.
Get your game face on. Someone is about to give you a really ugly, useless gift that has nothing to do with any of your interests or personality. They either a) want you to change or b) don’t remember anything about you c) received it last year or d) are viciously delighted that you’ll be forced to put it out every time they come to visit.
There’s the nostalgia/long distance relative gift. Your aunt remembers that when you were 11, back in 1978, you used to collect porcelain hedgehogs and she just happened to see one in a souvenir shop in Nashville that says I ♥ Tennessee on it and thought of you. Smile big now. She thought of you, even though you’re 50 years old and traded that collection in for boys when you turned 13.
I joke a lot, but my favorite gifts are good pens, pictures, a cherished poem written out, any creative endeavor, books if you know me, socks if you don’t or Ghiradelli’s Limited Edition Peppermint Bark Chocolates (always be specific on which chocolate you like, or you’ll end up with spackle-filled samplers). This is all to say that I’m a cheap date and most people, with a little thought and a whole lot less money, are too. And if they’re not, make sure you give them a card that tells them you’ve donated money in their honor to some charity you know they’ll hate.
Look for the Moments
It’s an odd year. I’m not much inclined towards commercial or cyclical sentiments in the first place, but this last year has been a real test of the idea of joy and what that means. I know it doesn’t mean the holidays, which entail too many expectations, too much work, too much of everything.
There are moments, though, that give one pause. My daughter’s orchestra performed in the middle of a busy shopping mall (hence the forced mall visit). The music swelled and drowned out the chatter, expanding up to the high ceiling. A full orchestra of kids from every background, playing this beautiful music. My eyes welled up as I listened. People slowed down, taken off guard by an orchestra in the middle of everything. I like those moments. Moments that transcend shopping.
Some moments are just unexpected. I joined a voting rights organization earlier this year and made myself attend their holiday party in spite of my inclination to hide. I ended up sitting next to the city mayor and had a great conversation. I’m a bit of a political junkie and learning about city level politics fascinates me, as well as learning about the people who are willing to enter that arena. I met quite a few interesting people. What I thought would be merely tolerable, was surprisingly enjoyable.
Those moments sometimes find us, but most of the time, we have to keep our eyes open, be willing to say yes, not burden them with our nostalgia or expectations. It’s important to find the time to give ourselves room to breathe, to slow down, to step back. And to imagine a piano falling on the head of that relative who dominates every conversation with bumper sticker politics or vivid descriptions of their fungal issues. Pass the eggnog, indeed.
Wishing you and yours an uneventful holiday season, and a whole lot of peace!
Blogging after a long break means my words feel as wobbly as a toddler learning how to walk. But here I am.
I’ve spent the last month reading voraciously, walking miles, getting sleep, reconnecting with friends and family, working out more regularly, and spending a lot of time staring off into space. It’s been good and necessary and I came away with a brain filled with thoughts and ideas and no sense of what to do with it all.
I’ve always been a “This Old House” kind of goal setter. In the course of a few episodes or hours, I plan to completely rip out my old life and become someone entirely new. Someone who doesn’t binge watch bad 80s television or eat an entire bag of Ghiradelli Peppermint Bark Chocolates in one sitting. I will no longer be the person who whinges on about writing and drags myself begrudgingly, bitterly, to the gym. I will like people in general and not avoid them like the plague. And it will all happen…tomorrow.
On one of my random library strolls, I discovered Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold. While I’ve read similar approaches, her process resonated with me.
Learning to meet small goals, to not let their scope creep through ambition, and to whittle things down to the smallest component, is an exercise in patience. It’s walking as far away from the insta-fix mentality that afflicts late night ads and reality TV as possible. I’m in week three of meeting small goals and it is difficult only in the sense that I must resist my urges to go big, to fall victim to my enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations.
Sound and Fury
There’s a lot of dying and death near me now – aging pets, aging relatives, the roller coaster of illness and recovery and diminishing returns. Winter is only tentatively here – killing everything in sight, but without the civility of covering it up with a blanket of snow. Nothing meets this head-on better than reading Shakespeare. Drafty, damp castles, ribaldry, murders, and words, words, words.
I’m no intellectual heavyweight, so I was delighted to discover the No Fear series of Shakespeare’s plays. It includes the full text of his plays with plain English on the opposite page. So far I’ve gone through Hamlet and Macbeth. So much of our literature, even our conversation, finds its origins with Shakespeare. For people who love words, whether written or spoken, Shakespeare is worth revisiting. It’s Julius Caesar and Richard III next – apropos of our current political climate.
The Politics of Anger
The news during my break is enough to crush one’s heart. Two mass shootings. The cultural dominoes tumbling down over grabby hands and penis exhibitions. The continuing government’s trend towards authoritarianism and the willful embracing of that by a portion of the population, regardless of moral or ethical conflicts.
The natural and unnatural disasters seem to grow exponentially by the minute. Before I took a break, I imagined all forms of apocalypse, found myself ideologically entrenched and rigid, depressed by the widening crevasse between my beliefs and the beliefs of others.
Somehow, it’s different now, because the question I’ve begun to ask in earnest is: what is helpful? Was it useful for me to read the news twice a day, get enraged and depressed and frustrated about things over which I had little control? Did I act upon those feelings in such a way as to change it?
Shortly after the 2016 election, I did what I felt were the right things. I contributed to organizations that supported causes I value, which are being threatened: reproductive rights and women’s healthcare, the environment, and civil rights. I started volunteering to work with English learners at a local public high school, feeling like I was cancelling out a couple of white nationalists in my efforts. I sent emails and made phone calls and wrote self-righteous, heated letters to politicians.
Still, I was depressed and felt little sense of relief from any of my actions. Nothing I’d done up to this point seemed to make a difference, except for the thing I was actively doing. Giving money, emailing, and leaving phone messages (rarely did I reach a person) – these are all relatively passive things. Working with English learners had a real time payoff every time someone proudly showed me a great paragraph they’d written or told me when they’d gotten their first part-time job.
And then, there is this inexplicable thing – a softening in political attitudes and a desire to not be so angry. Anger made me stupid. My thought processes and words had become twisted. I had to step back and regain my composure. I started with my own words. I paid my teenager money every time I swore in front of her and after the first ten bucks, I stopped. I love a well-placed swear word, but my anger had eroded even basic civility. It gave me a sense of entitlement – to rant, to not even try to sound like a reasonable person.
Next, I sought to neutralize the click bait nature of online or televised news. I used a site blocker on my browser to block the news sites I visited frequently. I still read the news online, but now I have to make a deliberate decision to turn off the blocker and many times that decision is to leave them blocked – the delay makes me mindful. I read most of my news delayed now, by getting The Economist (a serious bang for the buck, but get out your reading glasses – the print is small) and The Atlantic (edifying long form writing). It’s amazing what changing the immediacy of news can do for one’s day.
Reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions reminded me that anger cannot stay anger – it has to be something else. In Ms. Solnit’s case, it became some outstanding writing on complex issues. I read an article in The Atlantic, “Conservatism without Bigotry” (online title “Republican is not Synonymous for Racist“) by Peter Beinart that has made me really think about how we talk to each other and how to move beyond the shouting of memes at one another. There are so many rational, reasonable voices to counter the provocateurs who seek to divide us.
My brain reservoir has been replenished. I am well-rested. And I have a lot of things to write about. I’m glad to be back and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow bloggers, having conversations with readers, and doing my part to contribute a civil voice to the internet.