Things I Learned While Away from My Computer

Blogging after a long break means my words feel as wobbly as a toddler learning how to walk. But here I am.

 

canstockphoto1469876I’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.

Think Little

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.

canstockphoto293181.jpgLearning 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.

canstockphoto3731968.jpgI’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?

canstockphoto7124977Shortly 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.

Moving Forward

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.

40 Comments on “Things I Learned While Away from My Computer

  1. Sounds like your sabbatical was time very well spent. Kudos for investing time in yourself. It’s good to have you back Michelle.

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  2. It’s good to see you and your thoughts back in the blogging world, Michelle. It sounds like you had a thoughtful and rejuvenating break. As ever, I enjoy your reasoned comments.

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    • Thanks – reason was becoming a rare commodity in my brain as it rushed wildly from one angry thought to another. In the end, I definitely found stepping out of the loop to be edifying. And there is a vengeful part of me that thinks no matter what anyone says or does, I will maintain civility and integrity just to spite them (not everything has to be altruistically motivated!).

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  3. YAAAAY you’re back Woooo hooooo happy dance!! 🎉💃🏻❤️
    So glad you are feeling well, and it looks like, more balanced. That Republican is not racism article is in the queue, I will read it this weekend. These days our attitudes and approaches to people, especially to those with whom we disagree, can make or break our relationships far more readily and dangerously than our words, I think. Welcome back, Michelle! Big hug!!

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    • It was initially hard for me to read that article. I had to breathe and open my mind and shut down all knee-jerk reactions. I always feel like it’s a gift, no matter how it is wrapped, if I can walk away with more ideas and thoughtfulness. I feel a hunger for more balanced voices from all along the ideological spectrum. They’re out there, but just hard to hear amidst all the red-faced shouters.
      Thanks for the welcome back – so glad to be here.

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  4. I’ve just started reading Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark.” I don’t believe in hope (or the Easter Bunny), but I wanted something that might help me be open to it. Think I found it.

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    • It’s funny, openness is on my holiday wish list. I’m trying to read things and look at issues from different angles – with a level of observance, without a rush to judgment. It’s amazing how freeing that is – your mind is then beholden to no one. I’d love to hear what you think of that book – I haven’t read it yet. I do very much enjoy her writing – one of those clear voices that doesn’t pull punches.

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  5. Welcome back, Michelle. I was glad to see you post again and look forward to more as time unfolds. You’re reading Shakespeare: wonderful! I was just in the library yesterday and came across 3 re-tellings of different tales: The Winter’s Tale = The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson); The Tempest = Hagseed (Margaret Atwood), and Hamlet = Nutshell (Ian McEwan). Picked up the Atwood. Thought you might be interested in these, too.

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    • Thanks and wow – what great suggestions! I am reminded of one of my favorites: King Lear = A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I’ll keep those in mind as well. Less screen time is doing amazing things for my reading appetite.

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  6. Nice to hear from you Michele. That Atlantic article was very balanced and thoughtful. Thanks for suggesting it. I have also been trying hard to resist going off about everything that bothers me about Trump and the GOP because I sense that the more I rail the less anyone wants to listen to me. I’m trying to share my thoughts in a more issue centered manner so people don’t take it personal and shut down to it. It’s still frustrating because of the level of cognitive dissonance out there, but like you, I’m fighting those knee jerk reactions and trying to find a calmer more centered energy which results in clearer thought processes. Welcome back to WP and Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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    • Thanks, Ilona. It seems odd, I suppose, but I worry about my thought process not only in regards to politics, but also in regards to aging. So often I see people clinging to the same frames of reference their whole lives without ever adapting to new information. In these emotional times, we have a tendency to stubbornly hold onto biases, which really hinders learning and connecting with others. At least that’s what I hear…
      Glad to be back, not so thrilled with the holiday season (without snow, it seems premature!), but I wish the same for you and yours.

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  7. Hello! Another book to understand the psychology of behavioural change is «stick with it». It is a scientific approach to changing habits. Love your blog 🙂

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    • Thanks for the kind words! I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and while it is essentially the same idea, Small Move, Big Change does a better job of breaking down how to create an attainable goal, in terms that resonated with me. I really like the idea of the habit not just being a step to a bigger plan, but something worth doing in its own right, no matter how small.

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      • That’s beautiful, Michelle. I’ve read Duhigg and must now read Small Move, Big Change. I use the guidelines of BJ Fogg for changing Tiny Habits: a free and excruciatingly simple course in which you start three new habits by deciding on 1. a trigger 2. an action (must take 30 seconds maximum and 3. a reward. Your story reinforces this for me. And I’m applying something similar to the process of aging…

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        • I think most attainable goal programs seem to run along the same concepts. I found it useful to think of the life I intend and then walk back to the very smallest step to work on it. I’ve lost so much confidence in myself over the years, by trying to take gigantic, unrealistic steps. I need a win these days!

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        • So hard, when every market-driven aspirational blog and every round of New Year resolutions is essentially saying “you’re no good as you are: become a new person, be the best, be a (ie the) winner!” I hate that, and it eats away at our confidence because it’s not only mean, it’s impossible!

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  8. Hi Michelle! I like the microresolution idea, it reminds me of Kaizen, when I got introduced to Lean philosophy in the production workplace. That idea of very small improvements, or iterations…versus the grand, more egoistic gutting the house, I guess. I think I kind of actively block the news. I sample about five minutes worth from the Washington Post on my phone each morning, but some days just the headlines. I don’t know how I feel about that, but it’s self-preservation maybe. There was a shooting near our kids’ school recently but we’re here in Germany (it must have happened right after we got here) but I kind of don’t want to know about it. We learned about Sandy Hook this time of year in 2012 when we were riding from the airport in Frankfurt to my mom’s place, strange. So….hope I didn’t just fart or drag dog crap into your blogging space here with that but have a great day and nice to see you again my friend! Bill

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    • Hi Bill!
      I think it’s funny how often very similar ideas get repackaged and reiterated. Learning how to trim down goals to the smallest components is a valuable lesson for me – it’s a longer, more meditative road to change and less inclined towards confidence-weakening failure.
      I have to admit to being a bit of a news junkie, so any controls I put in place are artificial. Fortunately, reading online is not enjoyable from a tactile perspective, so having subscriptions to hard copy magazines gives me an alternative.
      I thought of you when I saw that shooting in Seattle and was glad at least that the school’s lockdown procedures spared lives, But it makes it clear that the dystopian society that writers have imagined for eons is already here.
      Have enjoyed reading your missives from Germany – hope that you and yours have a lovely holiday!

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  9. Welcome back! Winter’s a great time to spend indoors blogging and reading. Teaching English is a fantastically positive way of ‘making the change you want to see’. That’s a pretty big thing, actually, but alll the small things add up, too. Whenever I try big changes, it goes pear-shaped. If I try and clear up Marie Kondo-style, for instance, a huge translation job will arrive and take up all my time, my house will end up looking like a bomb hit it for far too long, my husband will threaten to leave me (which is why I do this while he’s away working), I’ll only have time to cook pizza, pasta and tortillas and my children will suddenly crave vegetables, chaos descends and then my husband comes home and is convinced I spent the last week on the sofa, reading and eating chocolates. The only thing that keeps me going is my weekday escape to the gym every day. If I don’t do that, almost every day becomes one where I start too late and finish nothing. Small steps are definitely the way to go. Note to self: blog posts can also be posted when you haven’t found out every single thing there is to say about a subject. It’s not an encyclopedia! I really enjoyed your summary of what you’ve been up to and I’m looking forward to discovering what else is coming up on your blog in the weeks and months to come.

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    • Thanks! I’m deciding to revolt on the whole dinner prep thing. My family has a very limited palate, so there’s no joy in it and when they do like something, they descend like a pack of wolves, snarf it down, and run away. One of my next resolutions is to prepare myself a decent meal, light a candle, grab a book, and let them fend for themselves. I’m a little hungry for not just good food, but joy in preparing and eating it.

      You are absolutely right about blog posts. I struggle with posts sometimes because I get stuck in “research” mode. I am trying to do more essay writing offline, learning logical rhetoric, finding sources. But I have to separate that kind of writing from blog writing.

      As for working with English learners, I have to admit language makes me giddy, so I get a lot out of that experience as well.

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