I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks. It’s funny how a brief note to myself, frequently glanced at, suddenly grows into a vital, dynamic idea compelling me to weave a net of words and capture it.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
For most of my life I’ve been a compulsive list maker. I had lists of lists and carefully checked items off as I dealt with them. I thought of lists as tools to keep track of things and remember what I needed to do, and that may have been partly true, but an uglier aspect was how useful they were as weapons of self-hatred for not working hard enough, not being productive enough.
After I moved to Maine, I came across the idea of making reverse lists; that is, listing what I did accomplish rather than what I thought I should accomplish. This reduced my ability to schedule shame myself, but my nasty internal critic was never satisfied. No matter how much I’d done, he thought I should have, could have, done more. However, reverse listing allowed me to see more clearly that I actually accomplish quite a lot most days, and that helped me push back against the internal critic. He lost a little power.
Still, my sense of self-worth was entirely tied to production, to doing rather than being.
Over time, my reverse listing became more of a series of short, journal-like notes, part of my daily routine. Now and then I looked back at them to see what day I’d run an errand or made a phone call, but I never stopped to consider the real value of reverse listing.
A few weeks ago, I realized the purpose of reverse listing had become a way to hold myself accountable, to be sure I didn’t slack off or forget everything I have to do to justify my existence. I needed to keep an eye on myself because I’m so lazy and undisciplined. If I don’t watch myself all the time, I won’t do any work at all. The practice was a daily no-confidence vote for myself.
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
This is so ridiculous I had to smile. I am many things, but lazy isn’t one of them. And if I do spend a lazy hour sitting in the sun with a good book, who cares? The world doesn’t stop.
I asked myself a daring question: What if I stopped making reverse list journal notes every day? What if I closed that notebook and put it away? What if I adopted an attitude of complete confidence in myself, my value, and my effectiveness, no proof required?
Hey, less clutter on my work table!
Immediately, I felt guilty and a little scared. If I didn’t write down tasks as I did them, where would the evidence justifying my existence be? How would I hold myself accountable, keep an eye on myself, make sure I’m being useful?
Honestly, sometimes the inside of my head appalls me. It’s good no one else is in there.
Along with all these thoughts and feelings was something else. A gleeful, childish feeling of getting away with something big, a sense of freedom.
So I closed the notebook and put it in a drawer. I got up the next morning, went through my morning routine, wrote, went to work, swam ¾ of a mile, came home. And the next day. And the next day. I did laundry and cleaned the bathroom. I cooked and fed myself. I swept cat litter off the floor and took the compost out. I paid bills, took walks, and ran errands.
I lived my usual life and not one single authority came knocking at the door demanding to see my reverse list in order to decide if I was allowed to go on taking up space.
Not even me.
Which brings me to the realization that finally brought this post into being.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
I build myself all kinds of jails. Lists were just one. Trying to please others is a jail. Trying to meet expectations is a jail. Trying to understand others when they don’t communicate clearly and give mixed messages can be a jail. Trying itself can be a jail. Ironically, having poor boundaries is a terrible prison that shrinks a little more every day. Shame is solitary confinement. Taking on too much responsibility, arguing with what is, agonizing over things I have no power to change, trying to fix things for other people, are all prisons.
You know what? I’m really, really tired of living in jails of my own construction.
Fortunately, I have keys to all of them.
Now, I know I’ll be back in jail, at least temporarily, because it takes me a minute to realize it’s happening again. It’s such an old pattern.
But I’m not going to put sheets on a cot and live in a prison cell. It just makes everything worse. Whatever the challenges or problems I face, they’re much better dealt with from a place of freedom and power.
I’m a far from perfect woman, but I don’t deserve to be locked up for the rest of my life with the key thrown away.
No more jail. I’m outta there.
Sometimes I spin my wheels.
Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash
I map out a week, a day, a list of directions with mileage and time apportioned to each part of the journey. I ascend the stairs to my expectant workspace, turn on a lamp, plug in a single string of red Christmas lights, light a candle and lift the laptop lid. Outside my windows, tiny snowflakes fill the air. The old-timers here say, “Little snow, big snow,” meaning small flakes indicate significant accumulation. I don’t know if this is always true, but I notice the size of the flakes. As I check the weather forecast, my e-mail and the headlines, my gaze is drawn repeatedly to the window. The hypnotic falling snow is the same color as the sky. Disordered ranks of brown cattail stalks stand ankle-deep in the sleeping pond. An infinity of branch, needle and twig is adorned with an even greater infinity of frozen white crystals, falling soundlessly and blurring the colors of stone and wood.
No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place — Zen saying.
It is then that my wheels start to spin. I have set aside this morning to write. I stare at the laptop screen, fingers on the keyboard. Nothing happens. Seeking inspiration, demanding creativity, I make notes, review notes already made, catch up on reading from favorite blogs and my current stack of books. I search for some solid traction so I can move through the day according to my tidy, efficient plan, but I find myself returning to the window, spellbound, empty of creativity or inspiration but full of wonder at the subtle beauty of the winter snow.
Photo by David Monje on Unsplash
It’s the contrast that catches my attention. My aerie is filled with books, beloved objects, the tools of my life. The warm sticky scent of a red candle fills my space. The red desk lamp I bought at Goodwill more than 10 years ago lights my worktop. My comfortable chair and footstool beckon me to sit and read. The room is warmed by the chimney rising up through it from the woodstove below. I hear my partner talking to our old cat in his office below me; not the words, but the loving sound of his voice that is reserved just for her. He is at his work and I am at mine, cocooned in our private spaces in our slouching farmhouse with lights and heat and the rinsed breakfast dishes stacked on the counter waiting for hot water and soap. We have things to do today, errands to run, people to talk to. We have plans and intentions.
Photo by Galina N on Unsplash
But outside, just beyond the single pane of glass in the old attic windows, is a monochrome world, delicate and cold, still and peaceful. The snow falls without effort. Each flake finds a resting place on the bodies of the trees or the water or the earth. The wood and stone have no place to go and nothing to do. They dwell in the vast power of simply being. The snow settles lightly.
I think about living minimally, weeding out my clothes, the week ahead, money, the perfect Christmas gift I can never find for a loved one, and whether or not we’ll make it into town to do the errands today. I think about drafting a query letter to send out with my first manuscript, which I just finished editing for the fifth or sixth time. I think about reviewing the water rescue information I’ll need next weekend when I travel with a couple of colleagues from work to get deep-water lifeguard certified. It will be a busy week. My careful plan blocks out this morning for coming up with this week’s blog post. I will write … I will begin now … My idea is … Ready, set, go!
My wheels spin, and I look out the window at my little black car, which is wearing a white blanket, and recognize the sinking feeling of no traction. No amount of urgency or frustration makes snow, slush and mud into solid ground. No amount of bullying makes my creativity compliant. I get up. I sit down. I glance at my journal, reread a paragraph in a book, look at some poetry. I feel restless and resentful of my own recalcitrance.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Outside, the snow falls, serene and inexorable as the fading light here in the last handful of days before winter solstice. I open the window and lean close against the hushed, frigid world outside it. My little candle, my lists, my inconsequential blog and my plan for this morning make no impression outside the window screen. It’s time for sleep and dreaming, time for rest. The forest knows, the earth and water know. They lie peacefully under the low sun and the long nights.
My wheels spin, making a noisy mess, throwing clods of half-formed ideas, provocative questions, lingering music of beautiful words, comments and conversations and observations, going nowhere. No traction. The morning is passing. I have not accomplished what I wanted to. I’ve neither rested with the winter snow nor produced a post. I’m torn between self-disgust, resignation and amusement. I think about heavy, cold chains; red, numb hands; wet jeans and sodden gloves; the steady clicking of hazard lights; the feeling of being late and time running out; the texture of wood ash, cat litter, sand and salt thrown onto snow and ice; and the futile laboring of spinning wheels.
The morning is gone. In half an hour we’ll try to go into town. My partner is out with the snow shovel. I shut the window, sit down and open the laptop. I type “Spinning My Wheels” and begin to write this post.
Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash
All content on this site ©2018
except where otherwise noted
It’s the first week of the new year, and many of us are pausing to look back over our shoulders at where we’ve been the last twelve months and then turning to survey the path before us, at least as much of the path as we can see. The Internet is awash with lists of how to make new year resolutions as well as lists of why we shouldn’t make new year resolutions. Advertising for buying our way to a new persona is frenzied.
As usual, I’m out of step. I’ve read a couple of great pieces this week, one about the limits of willpower and a list of 13 things to give up for success. I’ve read and re-read them, thought about them, and discussed the first article extensively with my partner. Normally when material like this catches my interest it develops into a blog post, but this week nothing is happening.
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
All I can think about is simplicity.
Lists are great. I used to be a champion list maker. They guided my whole life during a lot of complicated years.
Now? Not so much.
I have really simplified.
But the thing about simplifying is how complicated it is.
For example, more than a year ago I stopped shaving. But that’s not where it started. It started with me deciding I was no longer going to please people. But that’s not exactly where it started, either. Part of it started when I decided to allow myself to be everything I am and nothing I’m not.
If I hadn’t given up on pleasing others and limiting myself, I never would have stopped shaving. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so. Interrupting this lifelong habit never made it onto a list, though it would have been easy to cross off. One decision and it was over.
Making a list of behaviors to discard is wildly misleading, because it doesn’t address what underlies our inappropriate and ineffective behaviors, and that’s where all the ongoing and time-consuming work is.
Pleasing others and making myself small are two lifelong, deeply entrenched habits, and I work every day to make different choices. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect. (Another deeply entrenched habit – perfectionism!) Any distress or inattention results in automatic reversion to my old habits. I don’t expect to ever be able to cross ‘stop pleasing others’ and ‘stop making yourself small’ off a list.
On the other hand, working to change and challenge these two big things allows a whole cascade of smaller habits to loosen and fall away, the kinds of habits that are reasonable to put in a list. Pleasing others and making myself small create an immensely complicated set of actions.
Anyway, one day it occurred to me to ask myself why I shaved.
Answer: Because everyone does. It’s a social rule that women shave their body hair. Hairy legs are unattractive.
The everything-I-am and nothing-I’m-not me: Oh, yeah?
The not-pleasing-other-people me: I don’t think hairy legs are unattractive. All my lovers have had hairy legs. I didn’t mind. In fact, I like body hair. It adds texture and sensation, especially in erogenous zones. I refuse to accept that male hairy legs and armpits are acceptable and female hairy legs and armpits are ugly. That’s ridiculous.
So I stopped shaving.
No more razors or shaving cream to buy and throw away. No more rashes, nicks or razor burn. Less hot water, less time in the shower. Bonus: In wringing humidity and hot weather, the hair on my legs and under my arms helps me cool more effectively. Another bonus: No more microcuts in my armpits. I worry less about health concerns regarding deodorant. A third bonus: Hairs provide sensory information. If a tick is crawling on me, it stirs the hairs on my body and alerts me to its presence.
I still wear shorts and skirts. I swim every week. My partner appears to be able to deal with a woman in a natural woman’s body without fainting with horror. In fact, I don’t think he even really noticed.
Shaving is just one of many examples of things that can be crossed off lists, but before we can get to those, we have to deal with the big stuff, and that’s hard, ongoing work. The big stuff drives the little stuff. Want to get more exercise? Work on keeping your word to yourself. Want to lose weight? Excavate your relationship with food and redefine it (which means change your life and purge your kitchen).
Simplicity is frequently the end result of complex effort.
On the other hand, some of us have a genius for making simple steps unbelievably complex.
Take exercise, for example. Do you want to exercise more? Really? Then set down the device you’re reading this on, put on clothes appropriate for whatever is outside and (here’s the hard part) walk. You don’t need a dog, a buddy, your mate, special clothes, neon shoes, a Fitbit, a step counter, a timer, a gym membership or a piece of expensive equipment. You don’t need earbuds or entertainment.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
Now you’re getting exercise. Do it every day and you’re getting more exercise.
It’s simple. Nike got it right. Just do it.
If it feels more complex than this, it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s some belief or pattern (often deeply buried and unconscious) that’s sabotaging our efforts. And that’s complex!
It’s been very cold here in Maine, as it has in many other parts of the nation. We had heavy snow on Christmas Day. After my daily stint of three or four hours of writing, I wanted a walk, so I layered up and went out into the storm.
Unbroken fresh snow underfoot. One set of tire tracks going up the hill. The chill kiss of wet flakes against the little bit of exposed skin on my face. Wind, and the sound of the trees groaning and creaking and the snow hitting my hood. The sound of my own breath, which condensed on the scarf wrapped around my face, crusting it with ice. My steady footsteps squeaking up the hill. Everything grey and white and shadow.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Christmas Day, and nothing but swirling snow and breathing, walking, the warmth and vitality of my own life. So simple. So peaceful. So starkly beautiful, and nothing to do but inhabit my body and the day.
In these days, fully in the grasp of winter, life is reduced to the wood stove, hot meals, my daily exercise and my writing practice. At 4:30 p.m. it’s dark. Storm and gale, wind chill and subzero temperatures limit our ability to drive. We delve into our piles of books. The cat snuggles with us on the couch. If the power goes out, we light candles and I’m not displeased. At night, the house pops and cracks, groaning in the cold and the wind. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my feet up and a blanket around my shoulders, I doze off as I’m reading The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. This kind of extreme cold is very simplifying. Eat. Stay warm.
Simplifying my life has made me happier, healthier and more productive. It’s also been frustrating, slow, unpredictable, unexpected, terrifying and painful. It has not looked like an orderly list on a fresh sheet of paper written with my favorite pen. It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn’t it? Lose weight. Check. Get more exercise. Check. Spend more time with family and friends. Check. Get more sleep. Check.
Those are all worthy goals, and perfectly attainable, but not by writing a list or making new year resolutions. Changing behavior is a great deal more complicated than that, and creating a life of simplicity is an enormous undertaking.
Boy, is it worth it, though!
Happy New Year to each of you.
Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash
All content on this site ©2018
except where otherwise noted