Life Experiment #7: Nesting

Nesting Storks

Last week, I was served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage in evic­tion pro­ceed­ings. I’m not happy about this, but such is life. This is my real­ity. So what am I going to do?

Not sur­pris­ingly, I’m really anx­ious. I have a house­ful of stuff – books, art, fur­ni­ture, dishes, appli­ances, writ­ing projects, not to men­tion a cat. The idea of mov­ing in less than a month is hugely stress­ful. Friends have reas­sured me that, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, I likely have far more time than the legal paper sug­gests, given our state’s landlord-tenant laws and the nature of judi­cial pro­ceed­ings. But things are already unpleas­ant enough. At this point, I just want out.

Still, get­ting out takes time and effort. Much as I might wish it oth­er­wise, I can’t mag­i­cally snap my fin­gers and be some­where else. The ques­tion: How to make the best of this par­tic­u­lar bad sit­u­a­tion? How to go about reduc­ing its impact on the rest of my life?

A com­ment from my friend Alle­gra was help­ful here, point­ing out how the specter of evic­tion likely evokes past threats and rejec­tions. “I’ve never known a notice to quit not to hurt,” she observed, speak­ing metaphor­i­cally. Sep­a­rat­ing the past from the present strikes me as emi­nently use­ful. How much of my reac­tion is about now? How much is about then – about newly retrig­gered pain surg­ing from the past. (“Now is not then,” Havi says, over and over and over.)

That said, I’m def­i­nitely con­fronting a very real present-day chal­lenge, one that goes to the core of how I live and work. Even if I don’t want to fight evic­tion, I already feel embat­tled. It’s affect­ing the qual­ity of my days and my abil­ity to get things done. I have a hard time sleep­ing. I awake awash in cor­ti­sol, already on overdrive.

Years ago, I took a class in Early Freud at a psy­cho­an­a­lytic insti­tute in Man­hat­tan. (“Early Freud, that’s great. Stuff even Freud doesn’t believe any­more,” a friend dryly remarked.)  Most of what I learned there is long for­got­ten but one prin­ci­ple stayed with me. “Never deal with a neu­ro­sis by attempt­ing to uproot it. Always work to build up other aspects of the per­son­al­ity,” our teacher said (or some­thing pretty close to that; it’s been a long time).

I see an anal­ogy here. On the one hand, I could focus on the bad thing hap­pen­ing. Or I could train my sights on the life and home I’m hop­ing to cre­ate. What are the qual­i­ties I want them to have?  Where – and how — am I most likely to find them?

And here’s where the idea of nests comes in (another thing inspired by Havi). What are the qual­i­ties of a nest? (It holds EGGs. It’s a place where small crea­tures grow from help­less­ness to self-sufficiency. It’s a prod­uct of instinc­tual needs. That’s a start.) What am I look­ing for in my nest? (Safety. Sup­port. Ease. Con­tent­ment.) How can I cre­ate it? (That’s what I’m sit­ting with now.) The nest metaphor feels espe­cially apt given the sus­te­nance I’ve gained in recent months from both bread­crumbs and bas­ket weav­ing.

So that’s it: Life Exper­i­ment # 7 will be all about nest­ing, watch­ing how the metaphor works and (I’m hop­ing) starts to shift things.

Update on Life Exper­i­ment #6: Present Me is delighted that Past Me got rid of some of these pesky nag­ging tasks, espe­cially given the pres­sures Present Me now faces. I sewed on the but­ton! And did some 20 other things besides – got my bike tuned up, hemmed a pair of linen pants, got a long-overdue hair­cut.  I didn’t make it through all 30 things, but I def­i­nitely made progress. And as I’ve learned through these Life Exper­i­ments, that itself is cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

Metrics to the rescue

My Plan B Nation tool kit holds a col­lec­tion of strate­gies, and choos­ing the right one for the chal­lenge at hand turns out to be really impor­tant. You don’t pick up a ham­mer when you need to cut a piece of wood, and I’m find­ing that my Plan B Nation tools have equally spe­cific uses.

Met­rics are a great exam­ple — and by met­rics I mean clearly estab­lished quan­tifi­able goals. This is how I got two nov­els writ­ten, by hold­ing myself to the writ­ing goal of 500 words a day. Some days I wrote more. Some days I didn’t write at all. But even on the days when work didn’t get done, I knew that the goal was there, and that made all the difference.

Because met­rics have been so use­ful to me over so many years, I’ve tended to rely on them a lot — to my mind, a lit­tle too much. On the upside, met­rics are great (for me) for get­ting things done. On the down­side (for me), they can also lead to a task-focused sort of grim­ness — where the only thing that mat­ters is for­ward motion, not how I feel in the mov­ing. Since I really value light­ness and play, this can be a prob­lem. That’s why I’ve been try­ing out dif­fer­ent tools, espe­cially bread­crumbs.

That said, there are times when met­rics are just the ticket, and now is one of those times. Yes­ter­day I talked about being in a bit of a sum­mer slump. Projects that just days ago filled me with zest now fail to spark my inter­est. Noth­ing really feels worth the effort. Every­thing feels impos­si­bly large, not to men­tion thankless.

It came at me out of the blue, this feel­ing, and I can’t entirely explain it. But regard­less, this is where I am. This is what I have to work with.

Here’s why met­rics are great (for me) at times like this:

1. They take the focus off how I feel and put it on con­crete actions.

2. They encour­age me to break up ambi­tious projects into small pieces, which are far less likely to feel over­whelm­ing. They offer a way in.

3. They tie suc­cess to some­thing within my con­trol — to actions, not outcomes.

Right now, I’m work­ing with two met­rics — you might call them micro and macro.

The first one: 5 things a day.  What this means is that, every day, I take five con­crete steps for­ward (which, as always, I track in my desk diary). Today, one of these is writ­ing this blog post. Another will be get­ting exer­cise — a walk or maybe yoga. The ratio­nale: I know from expe­ri­ence that if I just keep this up things will even­tu­ally shift. For me, this is what faith is — a belief in cause and effect borne out by experience.

The sec­ond: 100 pitches. (In case you didn’t guess, this would be the macro.)  Look­ing for work is really tir­ing, the more so, the longer you do it. Using this met­ric feels like a way to turn it into a game, to imbue it with the qual­i­ties of curios­ity, play, and fun. What is a pitch exactly? That’s up to me. Reach­ing out to a poten­tial client, draft­ing a mag­a­zine query — these are two exam­ples, but I’m sure I’ll come up with more.

But even as I take up the met­rics tool, I’m also aware of its lim­its. For me, it’s always the means to a goal, not the goal in itself. I think of met­rics as the propul­sive push a plane needs for liftoff. Once you’re air­borne the job is done. Met­rics fall away.

On breadcrumbs & basket weaving (aka Life Experiment #4)

Young bird

So if you think I haven’t been blog­ging as much: you’re right.

Over the past few weeks, my per­sonal Plan B Nation has become an increas­ingly busy place, and while that’s mainly a very good thing, it’s also entail­ing some read­just­ments and recalibrations.

As you may have read, last month’s Life Exper­i­ment—tak­ing a photo every­day as I learned to use my new dig­i­tal cam­era—came to an abrupt end only days after it began.  I real­ized I sim­ply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. While at first I saw this as a fail­ure (bad!), I ended up real­iz­ing that it was doing what any good exper­i­ment should: Giv­ing me use­ful information.

In that spirit, I’m tak­ing this month’s Life Exper­i­ment in a some­what dif­fer­ent direc­tion. Instead of focus­ing on an activ­ity, I’ll be play­ing with metaphor and shift­ing perspective.

I recently wrote about how I’m try­ing to bring more play­ful­ness into my life—to still get things done but to have more light­ness in the doing.  For much of my foray in Plan B Nation, Get­ting Things Done has felt like accom­plish­ment enough. On some days sim­ply get­ting out of bed felt like a pretty big deal.

But lately, I’ve come to won­der if things have to feel so grim. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve been think­ing about the role of metaphor. Which brings me to bread­crumbs and bas­ket weav­ing, aka Life Exper­i­ment #4.

On Bread­crumbs …

Instead of march­ing through a to-do list, I’m a bird fol­low­ing bread crumbs.  Bread­crumbs are: Nour­ish­ing.  A bird doesn’t order itself to fol­low a trail of bread­crumbs. That comes nat­u­rally. A trail of bread­crumbs invites you on. You don’t have to think about it.

I’ve been play­ing with this over the past few weeks, and I like how it’s feel­ing.  Look­ing for the next bread­crumb is way bet­ter than push­ing myself to Be More Productive.

and bas­ket weaving

Another big chal­lenge has been feel­ing that I’m mov­ing in too many dif­fer­ent direc­tions. By nature and habit, I go for depth rather than for breadth. I like to focus on one thing, to give it my full attention.

Of course, that isn’t always possible—it isn’t for me right now—so I’ve been mulling over how I can keep doing lots of things but feel a lit­tle less stressed. The answer, at least for now, seems to be bas­ket weaving.

Instead of see­ing life as pulling me in dis­parate con­flict­ing direc­tions, I’m think­ing of my var­i­ous activ­i­ties as strands in a sin­gle  bas­ket. The chal­lenge is weav­ing them together. The chal­lenge is cre­at­ing a whole. What I was view­ing as a source of stress has become a cre­ative project.

Which isn’t to say that I really like being all this busy. I’m hop­ing (expect­ing) that by April’s end, things will have set­tled down. In the mean­time, I plan to do what I can to hold the sit­u­a­tion lightly—to fol­low the trail of bread­crumbs and prac­tice bas­ket weaving.

Note: My inter­est in how metaphor can shape expe­ri­ence was sparked by The Flu­ent Self’s Havi Brooks–if you’re inter­ested in read­ing more, she’s writ­ten loads on the topic.

Basket Weaving