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.

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.)