3 themes for 2013

Just because I don’t make New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions doesn’t mean I let the years come and go unac­knowl­edged. To the con­trary, I love this time of tak­ing stock – espe­cially the part where I remind myself of every­thing I’ve got­ten done over the past 12 months. (I’ve always been sur­prised by just how much there is, espe­cially dur­ing these obstacle-strewn Plan B Nation years.)

I also look ahead, but instead of mak­ing res­o­lu­tions, I tend to reflect on themes – points of ori­en­ta­tion rather than des­ti­na­tions. This year, over the past few weeks, I’ve set­tled on three.

The Year of Con­nect­ing – and Re-connecting

I can’t imag­ine hav­ing got­ten through the past few years with­out my friends, old and new, vir­tual and real-life. This year, I look for­ward to expand­ing on this rich­ness, reach­ing out to peo­ple I’d love to meet and strength­en­ing exist­ing ties.

For me, this will be what Tara Sophia Mohr refers to as a gift goal – a goal that is also a joy in the doing. I love spin­ning the web of human con­nec­tion. Peo­ple often tell me that I’m a great net­worker, which always catches me off guard. In real­ity, I’m good at this only when I enjoy it. No one would have ever described me thus when I was prac­tic­ing cor­po­rate law, ensconced in a world that never really felt like mine. It’s an apti­tude that sur­faces only in con­nec­tion with peo­ple who strike me as poten­tially being mem­bers of my tribe (or tribes).

And it’s not only about peo­ple. The theme of con­nec­tion (and re-connection) res­onates for me in many spheres. It’s also about con­nect­ing – and re-connecting – with places, inter­ests, and ideas that have been side­lined if not for­got­ten. It includes a yet-to-be dis­closed law-related project I’ve been mulling over for years now. (Because while prac­tic­ing law wasn’t my path, there is much in that world that still speaks to me, and with which I’d like to re-connect.) It also includes my recur­ring thoughts about pay­ing a visit to the place I grew up and get­ting back to a reg­u­lar yoga prac­tice (aka re-connecting with my body). In times of con­fu­sion, I imag­ine ask­ing: What do I need to con­nect with?

The Year of Emp­ty­ing and Replenishing

I got this one from Havi, who has pro­claimed it the theme for her year. Inter­est­ingly (at least to me), my first reac­tion on hear­ing it was: Not for me. I’m busy, busy, busy. But for some rea­son the idea lin­gered. Because, in fact, it is for me. Busy is a symptom.

I see this as being about both pri­or­i­tiz­ing and refu­el­ing – about let­ting go of things that don’t enhance my life while cre­at­ing a greater capac­ity for the things that will. Dur­ing my years between full-time jobs, I often strug­gled to fill days and weeks in ways that felt mean­ing­ful and likely to me for­ward. Life as a blank page, that’s often what it felt like. Today, I strug­gle with what seems like the oppo­site dilemma: How to carve out time for  work I care about when my days are already more than full.

I have only the faintest glim­mer­ings of how this theme will evolve. Yoga? Time in the coun­try? A more orderly home? I don’t really know. The themes are bread­crumbs, and for now, that’s enough.

The Year of Being with Things As They Are

I find it so end­lessly easy to slip into bat­tle mode – Me vs. Things As They Are. My goal: Make Them Dif­fer­ent. Life is so much more pleas­ant when I can remem­ber to let that go, to treat real­ity as a friend, rather than an adversary.

Do you have New Year’s res­o­lu­tions, themes, or mus­ings that you care to share? Please leave them in the com­ments sec­tion – and best wishes for 2013!

You can’t find the answer if you don’t know the question

3D Character and Question Mark

Live the ques­tions now,” the poet Rainier Maria Rilke famously exhorted in Let­ters to a Young Poet, a mes­sage that has since found its way onto count­less inspi­ra­tional greet­ing cards and posters. “Per­haps then, some­day far in the future, you will grad­u­ally, with­out even notic­ing it, live your way into the answer.”

Great advice so far as it goes but also incom­plete: For the Question-Driven Life to work, we have to choose our ques­tions wisely.

What is wrong with me?

Why is this tak­ing so long?

What is his problem?

I’m pretty sure these are not the sort of ques­tions Rilke had in mind, and yet all too often they’re the ones I find myself living.

In Real­ity Ther­apy, a book I skimmed some months back while unpack­ing boxes from stor­age, psy­chi­a­trist William Glasser stresses the impor­tance of stay­ing focused on our basic needs in the here and now. (In Glasser’s view, we have two core psy­cho­log­i­cal needs: the need to love and be loved and the need to feel that we are worth­while to our­selves and oth­ers.)  In this spirit, I’ve found that ask­ing the ques­tion “What do I need right now?” can be a big help in cut­ting through cir­cu­lar brood­ing tape loops.

The Flu­ent Self’s Havi Brooks offers another take on this ques­tion that I really like, one that incor­po­rates her own quirky lex­i­con: “What can I do right now so I can feel safe, sup­ported, and sov­er­eign?”  (As a side note, when I first played with this ques­tion a cou­ple months back, one of my scrib­bled responses was to try join­ing Click Work­space in hopes of mak­ing my writ­ing day feel a bit less iso­lated. Guess where I’m writ­ing this post right now? And quite hap­pily, I might add.)

A few more ques­tions that have served me well recent months:

What is use­ful in this?

Is this necessary?

What do I need to take time to appreciate?

Such ques­tions have the advan­tage of being both dis­tract­ing and empow­er­ing. It’s far eas­ier to stop dwelling on a topic when I swap it out for another. (Baby, meet paci­fier. Dog, meet chew toy.) Plus ques­tions tend to put me in a prob­lem solv­ing mode. They’re a way to take con­trol of a prob­lem that seemed to have con­trol of me.

The­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Werner Heisen­berg deter­mined that the mere act of obser­va­tion affects the behav­ior of quan­tum par­ti­cles. While the sci­ence of this is far beyond me, I see an anal­ogy here: The inter­pre­tive frames through which we view our thoughts trans­form the thoughts them­selves. View­ing a prob­lem through the right ques­tion may in time turn it into an answer.

What does “live the ques­tions” mean to you? Please share your thoughts below.

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

Playtime in Plan B Nation

Girls skipping at an athletics carnival

I launched this blog late last year with the goal of explor­ing strate­gies for deal­ing with the psy­cho­log­i­cal after­math of the Great Recession.

Since then, I’ve cast a pretty wide net, with posts focused on eco­nomic and labor pol­icy as well as per­sonal tac­tics for nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation, but in a world where so much is beyond our con­trol, I remain espe­cially intrigued by how we make the most of the lim­ited swath within it.

To that end, I’ve spent count­less hours reflect­ing on what behav­iors and approaches best equip us thrive in these tur­bu­lent times. A recent (and sur­pris­ing) addi­tion to my list: The qual­ity of playfulness.

A big push in this direc­tion came some weeks back when I started read­ing Havi Brooks’ seri­ously play­ful Flu­ent Self blog. And when I say “seri­ously play­ful” that’s exactly what I mean. As I dove into the magic-kingdom secret-language world of The Flu­ent Self, I watched myself soak up play­ful­ness like a parched plant soaks up water.

In par­tic­u­lar, I was drawn to Havi’s explicit atten­tion to the deploy­ment of language—the invent­ing of new words and metaphors to trans­form expe­ri­ence. It’s some­thing I’ve been play­ing (play­ing!) with for the last cou­ple of weeks, and while the whole thing is still a work in progress (game!), it’s been a fas­ci­nat­ing exploration.

Play­ing with lan­guage often seems to help me step back. To detach from what­ever expe­ri­ence I’m hav­ing, and assess it from a dif­fer­ent angle. It stops being The Truth. It becomes Some­thing to Look At. Play­ing with lan­guage can be an act of kind­ness toward myself.

An exam­ple of what I’m talk­ing about:

The other day, I was feel­ing espe­cially oppressed by the run­ning “Project List” I keep on my com­puter. Tak­ing a leaf from Havi’s book, I decided that—just for fun, as an experiment—I’d try call­ing it some­thing else. I jot­ted down my five pri­or­ity items and labeled them “Scruf­fles.” Strange and even kooky as this may sound, I instantly light­ened up. “I need to do my Scruf­fles,” I told myself, and quickly knocked them off.

Sim­i­larly, when I recently found myself brood­ing over some­thing that I’d thought through zil­lions of times before, I coined a new word for the expe­ri­ence: Quan­dri­fi­ca­tion (the prac­tice of pro­lif­er­at­ing quandaries).

As with “Scruf­fles,” this new word also made me smile.  And once I was smil­ing, I began to see dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble ways of being with the under­ly­ing feel­ings.  I didn’t have to keep re-playing my thoughts like a bro­ken vinyl record. I could ask myself “What do I need right now? What would make this better?”

A lot of what I’ve writ­ten about on this blog is famil­iar territory—things that I’ve known in some shape or form seem­ingly for­ever. Prac­tice grat­i­tude and patience. Invest in rela­tion­ships and com­mu­nity life. Con­nect with a sense of pur­pose. Break big goals into the small­est pos­si­ble steps.   It’s not the con­cepts that are new but rather the chal­lenge of weav­ing them into life in Plan B Nation.

But play­ful­ness? I hadn’t really given it much thought. And if I had, I likely would have dis­missed it out of hand. This nose-to-the-grindstone feel­ing of mov­ing stolidly for­ward, isn’t it to be expected? Isn’t that sim­ply part and par­cel of life in Plan B Nation?

I’m begin­ning to think not. At least not most of the time. Yes, play­ful­ness can seem friv­o­lous, an unnec­es­sary add-on. But that’s only until we start to see that it’s absolutely essential.

Why the Internet is like snow

It’s not a Mac. It’s a Lesnowvo ThinkPad.

Sat­ur­day was really busy though I got almost noth­ing done. I did, how­ever, spend a lot of time lost in cyber­space.  If the day passed in a blur, my take-away was clear: The time has come for me to reclaim my so-called (online) life.

But how to go about it?

In the social media cul­ture wars—Face­book, force for good or evil?—I come down unabashedly on the pos­i­tive side. Thanks to the Inter­net, I’ve recon­nected with child­hood friends and made many new ones. I’ve found jobs, kept up with the news, learned where to get my bike repaired, and heard about new nov­els.  Sim­ply put, I can’t imag­ine my time in Plan B Nation with­out the sup­port, good cheer, and humor that I’ve found online.

That being said, there are lim­its. I hit mine last week­end and went look­ing for strategies.

I started with one of my favorite blog­gers, Havi Brooks, who thinks of the Inter­net as a river and has a com­pre­hen­sive tech­nique for man­ag­ing her time there. I liked the idea in the­ory, but it didn’t really speak to me. Then I came upon an image con­jured by R. Tay­lor, who said he finds it use­ful to think of the Inter­net as a mall.

The Inter­net as Mall. Bingo! I felt a click.

It’s said that Eski­mos have hun­dreds of words for snow. In fact, this turns out to be the Inuit equiv­a­lent of an urban myth, but nonethe­less it got me thinking.

There isn’t a sin­gle Inter­net. Rather our Inter­nets are legion.

There’s the infor­ma­tion kiosk-Internet, the water cooler-Internet, the research-library Inter­net, the employ­ment office-Internet, and the linen-and-housewares-store Inter­net, to name just a few that I frequent.

There’s also the Giant Gabfest Party Inter­net, and that, too, has its place.

It hit me that the prob­lem wasn’t inher­ent to any one of these. The prob­lem was in my not being clear on which one I planned to visit. Ditto for what I wanted to accom­plish there and how long I planned to stay.

Over the past two days, I’ve been work­ing on this. Here’s what I’ve been doing (most of the time, any­way): Before I sign on, I ask three ques­tions: Which Inter­net? For what? How long? I jot down the answers. For exam­ple: “Infor­ma­tion kiosk. Find out how to delete track changes com­ments on a Word doc. 5 min­utes.” Or: Water cooler.  Check FB & email. 15 minutes.”

And you know what? Once I have this sort of plan in place, I’m pretty good at stick­ing to it. I don’t drift mind­lessly from email to Face­book to web surf­ing. Instead, I do what I came for, and then I leave.

Build­ing on this, it occurred to me that, if I were plan­ning a trip to the mall, I could use a shop­ping list. In life offline, I don’t drive to the mall to buy printer paper, get home, and then five min­utes later, drive right back to buy cat food. No. I keep a list of what I need to do at the mall, and when I get there, I do all it at once.

So that’s what I’ve started doing for my trips to the Inter­net mall. When I think of an email I need to send or some­thing non-urgent I want to look up (as in: What movie is play­ing this Fri­day at Pop­corn Noir?), it goes on the Inter­net shop­ping list. It can wait for the next sched­uled trip.

Not sur­pris­ingly, plan­ning my Inter­net trips and using my shop­ping list has made me increas­ingly aware of my ten­dency to reflex­ively jump online for no real rea­son except that my mind is wan­der­ing and the Inter­net is there.

When that Go-There-Now impulse kicks up—and I’ve never seen a bet­ter depic­tion of its siren call than this essay in Orion—I’ve found it’s use­ful to have a list of Things To Do Instead.  For exam­ple: Make tea, pick up 10 things, read the news­pa­per and put it out for recy­cling.  Or, to take another tip from Havi: What lit­tle thing can I take care of right now that would make life bet­ter for Slightly-Future-Me?

It’s always struck me as silly to say that the Inter­net is LIKE THIS or Face­book is LIKE THAT—akin to say­ing that the tele­phone is LIKE THIS or hand­writ­ten let­ters (if you remem­ber those) are LIKE THAT.  All of them are just means, ways to con­nect. As it hap­pens, Eski­mos don’t have hun­dreds of words for snow. I, how­ever, could use at least that many for my Internet.

Note:  Have you found help­ful strate­gies for man­ag­ing your time online? If so, please share them below.

In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hang­ing out at Sip yes­ter­day, doing my usual thing: Get­ting a lit­tle writ­ing done, drink­ing a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself dis­tracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were inter­est­ing.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awk­ward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fin­gered two busi­ness cards I’d pulled from my bag and con­tem­plated next steps. For a few min­utes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smil­ing. Cau­tious smiles in response. I blath­ered some­thing about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so inter­est­ing that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not sur­pris­ingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Imp­ish, a “mis­chie­vously play­ful” Northamp­ton children’s store that I’ve vis­ited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a for­mer busi­ness law stu­dent of my pro­fes­sor friend Jen­nifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex mar­riage cam­paign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as say­ing “Always err on the side of gen­eros­ity.” This encounter got me to think­ing how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direc­tion should we risk erring?

Always steer­ing towards human con­nec­tion strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very prac­ti­cal reasons.

Look­ing back, I see that, time and again, the choice to con­nect has enriched my life in many and var­i­ous ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A cou­ple of recent exam­ples relat­ing to this blog:

After writ­ing about celebrity blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my sur­prise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely com­ment, which lifted my spir­its on a day that my spir­its needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Flu­ent Self’s mag­i­cal Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expec­ta­tion of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s high­est traffic-ever day—and, in the process, con­nected me with a bunch of really won­der­ful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the per­son being con­nected to rather than the con­nec­tor. The fact that I’m liv­ing in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the afore­men­tioned Jen­nifer (my law school class­mate) wrote me a warm con­grat­u­la­tory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Car­olyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with fos­ter kids and left a com­ment on my blog offer­ing to send a copy of Rais­ing Abel, her fos­ter care mem­oir. As it hap­pened, I’d already heard about the book on Work­stew and been mean­ing to find it. (“A woman of remark­able resource­ful­ness single-handedly raises a trou­bled child all the way to man­hood in this inti­mate and inspir­ing blog-to-book mem­oir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writ­ing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to con­nect will yield the hoped-for con­nec­tions. In another life, when I was writ­ing thrillers, I mus­tered up my courage, and placed a call to some­one I’d been friendly with in col­lege, who some­times reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Think­ing about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excel­lent exam­ple of the human “neg­a­tiv­ity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Han­son, our brains are “Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences but Teflon for pos­i­tive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from get­ting eaten, not with the goal of assur­ing that we live happy and pleas­ant lives. As Han­son sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choos­ing con­nec­tion is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human con­nec­tion, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.

I should be you

140/365 Envy

The mind gets a lot of crazy ideas.  (Well at least mine does, and I sus­pect if you pay atten­tion, you’ll find that yours does too.)

In recent weeks, it’s taken to sug­gest­ing that I should be some­one else. Now who this per­son is varies, depend­ing on the day, my mood, and what I’ve been read­ing or think­ing about.  And the fact is, if you lined up all the peo­ple my mind tells me I should be, you’d find that their behav­iors and beliefs are often quite clearly at odds. But my mind doesn’t care about that. It’s quite con­vinced that it’s entirely right—and it’s out to con­vince me too.

My mind has been espe­cially insis­tent since dis­cov­er­ing The Flu­ent Self, a blog-cum-transformational play­space cre­ated by Havi Brooks.  “You should be Havi,” my mind clam­ors. “She is doing such inter­est­ing things, and she talks about them in such inter­est­ing ways. You should be her not you! I can help you do that.”

It’s taken some time, but I am finally get­ting my mind to accept that this is not going to hap­pen. A major break­through came when I showed my mind this video of Havi doing her Shiva Nata yoga prac­tice wear­ing a pink wig.

You see that?” I said to my mind. “That is Havi. That is not us. We can learn from her. But we are never ever ever going to be her.”

On hear­ing this, my mind became a bit dis­con­so­late, though after watch­ing the video twice, it allowed that it was likely true.

As is often—if not always—the case, the trick is to find some­thing between the all and the noth­ing. What does my mind’s crush on Havi have to tell me? For one thing, it’s about my need to be more play­ful. It’s about doing more to find my tribe and build­ing a com­mu­nity. And maybe it even means trav­el­ing to Port­land to attend Rally (Rally!)

It also helps to remind myself that how­ever crazy in love my mind may be with some­one else’s life or work, there are oth­ers to whom my own life and work speak in sim­i­lar ways. This came home to me a few months back, when I became friendly with a writer I’ve long admired. I was thrilled when she told me she liked some­thing I’d writ­ten but then rushed to send her an essay that I thought was way better—one of my all-time favorites penned by another writer.

Some days later, I got this care­ful response:  “As for X’s piece…honestly? Between us? It’s not really my thing .… I hope it’s okay to say that—she’s clearly a smart writer.” The fact that this writer I so admired could pre­fer my piece to the one I’d just sent came as a revelation.

As it hap­pens, my mind is still not entirely con­vinced that I shouldn’t aspire to Havi. But I’m pre­pared to wait. Soon it will be on to some­thing else. (And if not, I still have the video.)