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.)