Monday, December 8, 2014

Operation Stress Relief - Another Post In My "Giving Up On Productivity" Series

I had a revelation the other day. Or maybe it was an epiphany, I don't know. But it was something that seemed so obvious when It finally came to me, It being that my main focus should be lessening stress. I've known I need to do that for a while, but I still always saw relieving stress as a means to an end - basically, that if I were less stressed I would be more productive, able to get more done, etc.

At the Mockingbird Conference, David Zahl talked about the Cult of Productivity, and referenced modern American advertisements and mantras that make pretty clear I am not the only one who has this problem. For example, you want to get a certain type of mattress because it will make you more ready to go, go, go the next day, not because sleeping well is an end in itself.

A good example in my life is solitude. I can survive without it, and I have for many years. But I definitely don't thrive and in fact, I now have problems functioning because of its lack. But when I get time alone my main goal is not simply solitude because it is restorative in itself. No, my main goal is to get alone so I start feverishly working on some productive thing. I think I should be able to immediately switch from the swirling mind of chaotic misery to calm and prolific creativity. Guess what? It doesn't work and then I have guilt that I didn't use my alone time "well", meaning I "should have accomplished more". I am not willing to let solitude have me and do whatever it will.

Another good example for me is food and cooking. I'm sure all seventeen of you know that food and its preparation is my arch nemesis. On the surface, I tell myself this is because I am not on top of things like meal planning and other food imperatives at which mothers are supposed to excel. So, the guilt of that adds to my stress. Then the other day, there I was, with the horrifying spectre of cooking before me, and I remembered that I needed to reduce my stress and wondered how I could do that. Sometimes ordering pizza or making some boxed stuff is the way to go, but if that happens too often it increases my stress too, because of the guilt that comes with serving crap food.

I need to back up here and say that in order to reduce my stress from the ground level, I have to accept that things like cooking and cleaning (which are mostly my responsibility, and that's fine) take a lot of time. I tell myself that art or starting a creative business or journaling is more important than food or exercise or a table that is not covered with crumbs, papers, a chess set and other accoutrements of a family who is in no way minimalist. But it obviously isn't because my stress level goes way up if I neglect these bedrock things. In some way I think I am trying to climb Maslow's pyramid too soon (not that I literally believe in self-actualization to a great extent). Yes, I have food, shelter and all those basic needs in one sense. But my belief that I (with my amazing creative depths that need to be plumbed RIGHT NOW, Dahlink) shouldn't have to spend any significant time on them hasn't led me closer to self-actualization, but rather closer to despair.

Then there is the issue of minimalism, which appeals to me in theory. But I probably have more art supplies than a real minimalist has in all his or her possessions. Plus, I always think of the minimalist style as being too, well, white and looking like Ikea, which is definitely not my style. But I do agree with the idea that we would do better to "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful". For me, beautiful ALWAYS means color, so the whole white, beige and black thing is out. And I doubt that my house will ever be super clean, as in doorframes without grimy handprints and cupboard doors without coffee splashes and baseboards without dust. But there is definitely unnecessary stuff, especially in closets. I have no problem with messes being made in the service of life, but another mess on top of the last mess on top of general clutter will be the end of me.

I remember being very, very annoyed when I read the Mitford book series and I saw that the only reason the main characters could be so available to others and so creatively prolific is that they had a full-time housekeeper and cook.

Now, back to food. My problem is not meal planning. Even though I really don't have a specific plan, there are quite a few things I know how to make and which most people say taste pretty good. But my problem is executing even a planned meal without the stress of it compelling me to stab myself rather than slice the chicken. So, I asked myself what was so stressful about it. And I answered, "It takes such a long time to prepare everything, which makes a mess in itself. Then you have those prep dishes, plus the time actually cooking, then the tension of eating a meal with a bunch of kids while already a blathering idiot from the cooking process, and then the mess left after it's all over." So, main problems are 1) Time 2) Mess 3) The actual meal and 4) Mess.

Then I asked, "How can I make this unavoidable task less stressful?" And I decided that:

1) I need to do any possible prep work - chopping veggies, peeling potatoes, grating cheese, measuring liquids, greasing pans etc. way earlier in the day, ideally before noon. Then I need to wash those dishes.

2) I need to pick a time to have dinner ready. I know a lot of you smart people already do that but since my husband has a totally unpredictable schedule it never became a habit with me. I chose 4pm and in the morning I decide when I need to start cooking with my already happily prepped ingredients to have it done by that time.

3) And this may be the controversial one. I decided that when the meal is done, I am leaving and going for a walk and letting everyone else eat. They all know to do their own dishes so when I come back I can eat and have nothing left to do but put the food away. I'm sorry, but I am not a lover of family meals because someone is always asking for something, spilling something, talking incessantly or (insert annoying behavior you can't possibly handle after a terrible experience like cooking). For you people who have loving family devotions and rousing but respectful discussions about politics and philosophy over dinner, don't judge me too harshly.

4) Any dishes that accumulate after dinner just get put into a dishpan and are easily dealt with in the morning.

This has actually worked quite well in the week or so I have been implementing it.

I am tired of always being in fight or flight mode. I didn't realize that's what it was until I watched a documentary on stress, and they said that in our culture, most of us are constantly pumping out that adrenaline which is really only made for times of danger. We do this by always being on call or in work mode, or by worrying about possible situations in which we might need to fight or take flight, but which almost never happen in real life. At my rapidly advancing age, I am becoming more concerned about how this will affect my health. Since I obviously don't have much time or mental/emotional energy to put into art and other interesting pursuits, I'd like to be alive in five years when I will have the time, instead of trying to do what I can't and dying of a heart attack or some other stress-related disease (of course, God may have my heart attack on schedule for tomorrow, but since I can't know that I'm going to assume that reducing stress will be helpful in the long term.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More Thoughts On Self-Improvement and/or Productivity, Also Television and Exercise

I was chatting with my friend Marla a few weeks ago. She is a fellow Self-Improvementista (although less neurotic about it than me) and she put it well when she said that, ideally, we learn to Give Up (the unhealthy, idolatrous identity-enhancing self-improvement) without Giving Up In General (becoming resigned in a hopeless way.) I have been playing that game of tug o' war my whole life, with Determined-Yet-Unmerciful-Woman yanking on one end of the rope and Gentle-Yet-Discouraged-Woman on the other end. It's a messy sport. Both women are always muddy, bruised and exhausted (this is not at all sexy) and neither have enough talent to get themselves out of the minor leagues. What they both need is for Ms. Balance to step in, take away the rope and find them a new career, but that's unlikely since she doesn't seem to exist.

The past few weeks I haven't been doing much art, writing or creative work, which (for a person who likes to be busy and on her feet) translates into doing a lot of straightening up the house. I'm not a great housekeeper even when I am working hard at it - probably because 1) it's not a natural talent for me and 2) a lot of other people contribute to the mess more than they contribute to it's eradication. But I also don't function well when things are unworkably messy. One reason I get discouraged is that although doing it is on some level important to me, I don't count it as "productive" because, well, there is unfortunately no lasting product to show for it.

Since I find dreaming and planning to be a fun activity in itself, I delude myself into believing that more can get done in a day or a week than is possible. I think my friend Marisa has it right when talks about having a rhythm to her days, and I was just reminded of a journal page I made about 6 years ago:

So I guess the idea of rhythm is pretty natural to me too, and reading this, it is interesting how similar the rhythm of today is to the rhythm of six years and one child ago:

1) get up, make morning cafe latte
2) make breakfasts
3) spend more or less time doing house maintenance
4) cook lunch and/or dinner
5) fitting in more or less exercise and other personal stuff (reading, art, TV etc.) in there as possible    (with less being the norm)
6) evening house maintenance
7) bedtime varying between 10pm and 1am (although that late is more rare these days) with hopefully a bit more personal stuff to help keep my sanity

Of course, all this is accomplished while constantly interacting with at least 5 other people at once.

The last line of this entry is, "It's amazing to see how little I actually "get done". I know I waste some time, but I don't know if that's the big reason or if life is just like that."

From today's vantage point, I would have to say that life is just like that, and what needs to change is my acceptance of that fact.

When I wrote that entry it was right when I had started watching television, after 15 years of not watching at all.  I was watching Six Feet Under for the first time, and also Dexter. I feel like I have watched an awful lot of stuff since that time, but I don't think it has really been all that many shows. I've watched Buffy through three times, Angel and Dollhouse twice. SFU twice. Battlestar Galactica. Being Human UK. Firefly. Orange is the New Black. House of Cards. The Americans. American Horror Story. Torchwood. House. Lie To Me. Some of Downton Abbey. Mad Men. Hannibal. Orphan Black. Some of Doctor Who. Deadwood. How to Get Away With Murder. Now I am in the middle of Brothers and Sisters.

What I have learned is that in general I'm not a fan of procedurals like House, which also includes the most monster-of-the weeky episodes in Buffy. If there is not an overarching plot that ideally unfolds throughout the whole series with a lot of character growth and development, I eventually get bored. Nothing in my life ever gets neatly wrapped up in 60 minutes, that's for sure. House especially suffered from procedural-itis AND lack of significant character growth. In Seasons 6 and 7 of House they had a real opportunity to get him past his one dimensional self-involvement and also give us some good backstory on both him and Cuddy, but it didn't happen.

Of all those shows, the ones that are still important to me on a heart level are Six Feet Under, the Whedons (except Firefly) and Torchwood: Children of Earth. Despite its sentimentality I think Brothers and Sisters will stick with me. Although I was always gripped while I was watching it, Dexter ultimately didn't get to me all that deeply. Battlestar Galactica gets an honorable mention, as does Being Human UK. I think by the time it's wrapped up I might really love The Americans too. The only one I would absolutely refuse to watch again is Doctor Who.

The tale of all this sitting leads me into exercise. I went to the chiropractor the other day and found that after a pregnancy I am still 15lbs over my happy weight and 25 lbs over my skinniest, which I reached because of gallbladder problems. I got pregnant before I saw whether that weight would have been sustainable. Before this last pregnancy I exercised 5 days a week, not including walks 6-7 days a week. My eating is not much different, but I have never gotten back into regular exercise because this current baby has been much more into making sure I Am Right There All The Time. So, I assume that 15lbs is there because of becoming more sedentary, and maybe some of it is the dreaded perimenopot. What's interesting though is that the 15lbs don't look as bad as they did when I had some extra fluff BEFORE I got into lifting weights - granted, that was about 15lbs more too, but I can tell that having more developed muscles underneath the fat makes it easier to carry without looking quite as frumpy.

I do think exercise is more important to "fit in" to my daily schedule and/or rhythm than creative work, because ultimately everything I do comes through my physical body and I handle life somewhat better when I get the endorphins going.

So I don't end on that abrupt note, I'll share the only creative thing I've done in probably two months. It's a memory game for a friend whose son died in a car accident two years ago. My husband cut 2 inch squares out of a game board, then I put decorative paper on one side of the squares and photos on the other. There are 44 squares and 22 pairs, with gold paint on all the edges. My Roku stick came in a cool box so I covered that in the same decorative paper and put all the squares inside:

I know it can be used for creepy purposes, but I liked that I could grab all the photos from my friend's FB page so it could be a surprise.

Now I'll end on that abrupt note.

Monday, November 3, 2014

In Which I (Once Again) Relinquish Control and Being Driven

I think this will pretty much be the exact opposite of what I wrote a few weeks ago.

I've written a lot over the years about My Desire To Be Rather Than Do. I understand that we are always doing something, even if it's just thinking. But when I am thinking I am usually still in doing mode - I am thinking about what I can or should do. Even going back through this blog - not to mention most of my journals over the years - it's obvious that I am always sitting in judgment on my own life. That's what being a self-improvement junkie is. It doesn't always feel negative. Every once in a while I am in a good mental place and I feel strong and I think it can only be up from there. So I make some kind of plan or goal for what I want my awesome self to accomplish. Then there are the more frequent times when I am not in a good mental place. I note all the areas of life where I am falling short, and I make a plan or goal to kick my sorry ass into shape. This, my friends, is pathetic and has also become so boring to me. And, pragmatically, it doesn't work. My self remains unimproved.

The main reason I respond so strongly to the new breed of grace preachers (which for me includes, but is not limited to Tullian Tchividjian and Michael Horton) is because, finally, I am hearing something that resonates with one of my biggest struggles in life. I've been a Christian for almost 18 years and in Reformed circles for about 14, and I never understood the law until I heard these so-called antinomians. I didn't understand the unyielding force of the actual written law of God, and I didn't understand how the principle of law and our conscience translates into the pressure we all feel to prove ourselves and live up to expectations - whether those are our own, our spouse's, our culture's etc. (I think it might be related to the distinction between Francis Schaeffer's "real moral guilt" and "psychological guilt", but I think Schaeffer was talking more about how people understand/deal with their guilt feelings and/or internal pressures in a therapy-oriented universe without God.) What I first heard from Tullian that blew me away (and it is not unique to him) was that all our efforts to be and/or appear (choose one or more that apply to you):

1) strong and competent
2) productive
3) beautiful or sexy
4) successful
5) intelligent
6) creative
7) moral or holy
8) other

are really ways that we try to justify ourselves - justify in the theological sense - even when we are unaware of that dynamic. We feel the weight of law and condemnation even if we are unbelievers. It is our natural tendency as fallen creatures to work to get it right, have it all together, etc. because it is in our DNA to feel shameful and inadequate. We don't like that and so try to cover it up with some kind of personal impressiveness. That conscience - even if it is totally secular or wrapped up in some non-Christian trappings - is what will allow God to debunk people's assertions on The Last Day that they just didn't know He existed, if He had just given more evidence, well, then they would have believed.

Thankfully, I won't have to defend myself because of Christ's work for me, but one of the points of this post is that despite being actually justified by that work, I still am almost constantly on the treadmill of self-justification a.k.a. trying to get affection, respect, praise etc. from other humans in order to make my feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, abandonment etc. go away. And while externally, my Control Freakiness in regards to others has gotten way less noticeable (it still goes on pretty much unabated in my head) I am still always trying to control my own life with the aforementioned plans for greater productivity, especially in the creative area. But truthfully, right now am doing pretty well if everyone eats and the neatness of the house maintains at DEFCON 2. More art productivity is simply not happening these days, no matter how well I plan for it.

Every time I try to overly control things or micromanage my own life, eventually (and it might take a little while) it gets more chaotic. I lose control, or rather, I never had it and that becomes evident. That was another Christian "thing" that I finally understood after I saw it in my own experience (spiritual and non spiritual) - the fact that the law doesn't "work". It doesn't produce obedience. In fact, it often produces the opposite, because we naturally rebel against the law (even if only in our hearts) because we hate being told what to do. Of course, we know that Biblically, God's law is good and holy and righteous and all that, and some human law is too (and in human law I am including not only judicial stuff, but all the dos and don'ts of life) But law itself doesn't give us the desire or the power to obey it. And it's a vicious circle. We see the law, we want to obey it or do what is right, yet we experience resistance or rebellion or just failure based in weakness. Then we feel guilty and try harder, fail again and feel more guilty, and eventually we are exhausted all the time and/or we fall into utter despair and give up.

I see that dynamic at work in all my plans and self-improvement schemes, which definitely have the character of law in my mind. I also see that any time I do something that seems good or beneficial, I immediately want to make it into a new law for myself. Like, it was nice to sit outside with my book and journal and coffee in the morning, instead of using the computer. Therefore, I SHOULD ALWAYS sit outside with my book and journal instead of using the computer. Guess what that does? It makes me a big fat loser failure the first day I use the computer in the morning, and we all know that big fat loser failures are bad and no one loves them. The whole grace mindset frees us from this, both with God and with ourselves. Even if I made a bad choice today (and the computer vs. book choice is actually neutral, but we'll stick with it for continuity) that doesn't mean I am either
1) destined to always make bad choices or 2) condemned or unloved from the point of this choice into eternity.

NOTE: I am absolutely not saying that it is inherently wrong to have plans or goals or quests for earthly self-improvement. I am saying that in my life, with my personal baggage, they have not been particularly helpful and have, in fact, been detrimental because I have not seen them as helpful tools for creating a life. Instead they have played into my unquenchable performance and perfectionist mindset, which (being unquenchable) will never let me turn off the water fountain. Even when it goes dry I keep turning the handle. Nothing comes out. I get carpal tunnel syndrome. I am left tired and thirsty.

Another problem for me these days is the social media tendency to think that every bit of every process needs to be "shared". I don't think that is conducive to my actually becoming a better artist or really, to help me in any way. I have never been an "accountability" type, in that it doesn't make me more likely to get something done if I have to report to someone that I did it (I'm not talking about "accountability" in being unwilling to admit my sins and failings) Supposedly that helps a lot of people, but for me it undermines my desire to do something for the sake of doing it, which is my ideal. I am also tired of the fact that so much of sharing art stuff just becomes a bunch of people saying how great one's stuff is, how talented one is etc. Believe it or not, that gets boring and it's actually embarrassing when I know that my artistic skills are actually only high beginner or low intermediate. Recently I started an art journaling group on Facebook and I asked that if anyone shared work they did, that there would be no comments about the work. That bothered people. Ever since I read about Natalie Goldberg having that rule in her writing groups, it really resonated with me. It allows you to get beyond the need for praise, which frees you to tell the truth and/or accept that some of your work is crap.

I noticed my mind was much quieter during the month I was mostly offline. I don't think that's a coincidence. I wasn't bombarded with other people's opinions or attempts at self-justification and I had one less outlet for my own.

All this boils down to the feeling that I need to relinquish all my identity-enhancers. This feeling has actually been boiling for so long that it is totally burned onto the pan. I may need to throw the pan away, although I might have time to scrub it if I spend less time enhancing my identity. To show you how many YEARS it has been boiling, I give you this article from my zine from 2007. No doubt the 17 readers of this blog will find it all too familiar:

Lately I have reminded myself of Abraham, scrambling in his own bumbling way to bring about God's promise. And what does he get? Basically a pissed off wife and the realization that it's stupid to try and force God's hand.

One thing that has stuck with me from the reading I did in my early Christian life is how in the first stages of the L'Abri ministry, the Schaeffers never made their financial needs known. They determined whether God wanted something to be done by whether He provided the resources for it without their seeking donations. Sure enough, time after time they would receive unsolicited checks from their many friends and supporters. This is not a hint for you to send me a check. It is a reminder to myself that if I'm supposed to do something like sell handmade books, make art journaling workshops, and all those things I say I want to do and yet struggle to actually accomplish - at some point I will have the energy and the opportunity to do it. I won't have to move heaven and earth to make the time or feel insanity coming on because I am trying to multi-multi-task. I won't find myself getting angry because my need for creative expression is being hindered by others. When I feel driven to produce, or am working/doing/acting in a way to justify myself, the fruit of the spirit are in short supply. I know there is a correlation there.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In Which I Consider My Money-Making Options

Zines Over The Years

I know it's time for me to start making some money with my knowledge and/or talent in the creative arena. I have spent so much on art supplies over the years, including instructional books of every kind, and I have definitely learned a lot and produced quite a bit of stuff...but I still wouldn't consider myself an accomplished artist in any medium, except, probably, the zine. I do consider myself somewhat an expert in zine publishing. That doesn't mean that I think I make some of the best zines ever content-wise or layout-wise, just that I have done it for a long time and therefore have insight into the whole process. But I don't know if people are interested enough in producing zines themselves to make it worthwhile to create an online zinemaking workshop. I am drawn to producing online classes because they are work up front, but the work ends and you at least have a finished product that does not need to be replenished, like an etsy store or something. But whether I offered zinemaking or art journaling or simple bookbinding workshops, there is still a learning curve for me in that area -  meaning I hardly know how to press the record button on the camera and know less than nothing about putting videos together. 

My Most Likely First Product - Handmade Books

So, while I do want to include workshops (both online and in-person) in my eventual repertoire of money-making activities, those irons are still heating up in the fire and not ready to flatten anything out yet. Which means that I need to return to handmade products, which stresses me out. Of course this whole idea of me in the marketplace stresses me out, but making products is something I have done in the past and I don't know whether I would be any better facing the challenges of doing that than I used to be - meaning, it was not a success when I have done it before. I did have people order things from me sometimes, but I never kept anything "in stock" and so I always had to run around like a chicken without a head to get the things made and mailed. Sometimes I got it done fast, but other times I didn't and so the people had to wait way too long for their stuff, which is not good business.

Brochures From My Previous Cottage Industries

I used to really like the whole "branding" process of coming up with a new cottage industry and making business cards, brochures etc. But that was the only part I was good at. Following through on my goods and/or services was always more difficult. Now I am resistant to doing any kind of business planning and branding because I equate it with my past failures in the actual running of the business. I have become overly cautious where in the past I was not cautious enough. I was setting up a website the other night because if all goes as planned, something I wrote will be published at a highly traveled Christian site, and I guess people need somewhere to "click" into from whatever little biographical blurb there is. And I really do think it would be missing an opportunity to not have some stuff available if there will be people who are somewhat likely to see it. But I am almost frozen in my proverbial tracks with resistance. Yes, I know the only way to beat resistance is to work through it, but I also know that this particular resistance was birthed in the soil of a depleted Personal Integrity Account. 

The PIA is a concept of Stephen Covey's that I have found to be true in my own life - just like relationships with others, we have a relationship with ourselves that we often (rightly or wrongly) see like a bank account. When we, for example, tell ourselves we are going to do something important to us and we actually DO IT, we make a deposit into the PIA, which makes us feel good and safe and willing to try other, maybe more risky things. If we make too many withdrawals from our own account, we don't trust ourselves and so are not as willing to take on new projects.  I know that over the years I have learned things from my past market failures that will help me to avoid future market failures...but my youthful indiscretions with a frequently overdrawn PIA make me question whether I should even try again.

But I know I will try again because  I always do. Unless, of course, I die of ebola before I get to it, which is probably still unlikely but more possible since the little pathogen is only about 20 miles from me (though if I were
                I would still regret
not doing this stuff)

Maybe Little Faudiglianis...

...Behind A Window Like This

One of my problems, though, is indecision about exactly what products to offer. Eventually I want to have a bookbinding kit, but that's honestly still in the early planning stages. The most logical thing for me to quickly stock a storefront with is handmade journals, but I know I have to avoid a severe assembly-line approach, as that was one of my downfalls in the past. I also want to somehow include my own art in some of them. I really want to do a lot of little paintings and bill them humorously as My Early Work, and I think some version of this small journal
  with an art card inside might fit the bill for that (made of pasta boxes with little plastic windows and so has the added green benefit of being recycled.)

Me and the Baby Who Will Eventually Leave Me Alone

I look at handmade books on etsy and stuff, and I think that some of my book designs are pretty unusual and/or aesthetically pleasing. I think that if people who buy homemade journals knew about my homemade journals, at least some would be purchased. But the whole marketing aspect of the thing is intimidating. But I can also see myself getting lost in "learning marketing" and once again not paying enough attention to producing the product. It's like a little tug-of-war between my inner middle manager and my inner factory worker. It's also just so much easier and fun to plan, and then instead of actually doing the work the plan requires, live in an alternate dimension in my head where I have this successful business (but I never really develop one in the real world due at least partly to fear and/or laziness). That's kinda what I have been doing for the past 20 years or so, but even apart from the ebola problem, I really don't have another 20 years to fritter away, and very soon I won't be able to get away with the "I have a baby who won't leave me alone" excuse.

But the fact also remains that while I do want to have a successful cottage industry (and I believe my definition of success is pretty modest), I am also bound and determined not to fall into I'm A Failure mode or define My Very Worth As A Human Being by success or lack thereof. I really don't have much of a desire to make a name for myself these days, which also plays into my reluctance to brand. I used to love to label myself and at one point would have enjoyed passing out a business card with my name and some long label like Christian Voluntaryist Zinemaking Memoirist Painter. I would have taken that very seriously. Those labels are still accurate as far as that goes, but I don't have the kind of interest I once did in Being Known As This Type Of Very Cool Individual. At this point in my life I really would just like to earn some money and get people to keep and/or start appreciating art,  memoir and things made and/or written by hand - not necessarily by my hand and especially by their own hand, perhaps with my help and/or encouragement.

With that disclaimer, let's see if I can stock an etsy shop by the end of the year.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Spillwrite In Preparation For Taking A Month Offline

I don't know how much (or rather how little) time I have spent disconnected from the internet since I first got connected back in 1997. There have been a few times when we had a computer in the shop or something, but I doubt I've been offline for six months total in those seventeen years. I want to see if I am a lot more focused in the actual world if I spend less time in the virtual world (and I don't even think I spend an excessive amount of time online). I am wondering if my very brain is more fragmented because I know I always have the option to just "pop onto the internetz". In September I am going to work on growing some new neural pathways or restoring old ones by being mostly offline for the month. I'll chat with you on my phone if you miss me, but apart from adding content to my Art Journaling FB page, I won't be hanging out anywhere online; I won't be getting involved in discussions about whether Christians can (or rather may) smoke marijuana or be soldiers or whether there would be a creative renaissance if there were separation of School and State. I don't think that the internet is the ultimate cause of my focus problems, though - it just exacerbates and/or highlights the already colander-like state of my brain that has developed over the years of childrearing, which itself is exacerbated by my overly active and neurotic psychological makeup.

There are a few important things I have left undone in the past year which have been weighing on me, and so getting them out of the way will make my stylish yet affordable I'm A Failure backpack that much lighter. I am going to attempt to do a 30 Days Art Journal AND a Thirty Days Zine - the zine will necessitate using my desktop publishing program with a few short jaunts online for images. Those are both more tactile and truly recreational and, dare I say, "centering" activities for me, and I need to get myself re-centered and integrated or defragmented or whatever. I have been struggling with a lot of depression and discouragement lately, and I just can't find the hope springs eternal thing that used to reside under just a thin layer of cynicism. I would say that I am having an actual crisis of faith, which has only happened once before in all my years of being a Christian - and the first one was much milder. I don't expect I will ever be an apostate, but sometimes I'm concerned I might have a little bit of heretic in me. I am still working through a bunch of stuff related to my time in the Biblical Womanhood camp, because externally I still live the exact same life. In some ways I miss and want to restore a lot of what I was during that time, but simultaneously,  I often feel like I am experiencing the kind of malaise that was described in The Feminine Mystique. 

I know that mentally, I am trying to "have it all" in the 70s feminist sort of way - although I don't actually leave the homestead for a job, my desire is pulled between wanting to be a super focused and dedicated mother and wanting to spend hours writing or painting in my art studio every day, untethered to motherly responsibilities. That pretty much means that both art and mothering are shortchanged, which ramps up the volume on one of the long- running monologues in my head, the one that nags at me about my seeming lack of "productivity" in those areas (when in fact I have been quite productive in those areas over the years). So, the voice is a liar, and I think that, ironically, getting it to shut up will entail letting go of the need to be productive while also practicing focus in order to accomplish things.

I have a few different ways I want to try to focus during September...setting a timer for 20 or 30 minutes so I know a task will not last forever...thinking of myself as "at-work" in mother/homemaker mode from maybe 12-5...even (gasp) STOPPING and doing NOTHING when I am feeling overwhelmed...and most importantly keeping at the forefront of my mind the idea of Make Positive Effort For The Good. That allows for spontaneity in my life (which I need because I am easily bored and get rebellious if I feel constricted by a schedule) while still giving me some kind of guideline to follow when I am at a loss as to where my focus should be at any given time, and which encompasses even teeny tiny steps.

Anyway, you will see me online if you are in my Art Journaling/Bookbinding FB group, and you can send me FB messages if you want to get in touch with me this month, and you can get the Thirty Day Zine in October if you are interested to hear my inner ramblings about this experiment.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Living More Zen-ishly

I want to be Zen. Probably not real Zen, since I don't know all that much about it, but my conception of Zen. Which is pretty much the polar opposite of the real me. I'm not scared of Zen as a Christian, like it is something that will pull me away from faith in Christ. I know that the aspects of Zen I am drawn to are consistent with what we hear in the Bible. There are all kinds of "shoulds" in the New Testament, telling us how people who believe the gospel ought to act, or rather will act more and more as they grow in faith. Those things are summarized in a way I can easily digest in the statement Make Positive Effort For The Good.

In Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down The Bones, she talks a lot about Katagiri Roshi, her teacher in Zen. She would moan and complain to him more than you would expect a zen student to do (and as a fellow Jew, I can relate), and once when she was depressed and miserable he simply told her to make positive effort for the good. I like that statement because it encompasses all the Biblical commands while also 1) helping to decide exactly what the heck you should do right now when there are probably many choices and 2) acknowledging that sometimes positive effort might be a very small thing, which helps when you tend towards depression, some kind of physical limitation or live with a lot of children. When you consider in each moment what action would be a positive effort for the good, you might choose to read to the child who has been pestering you to read, you might fold laundry, or you might make coffee and sit for 10 minutes in silence while you drink it - that counts because it is a positive effort for the good to avoid being put in the padded room.

I think this idea also assumes the practice of mindfulness, which is paying attention to the present moment and not judging it. That includes the stuff going on inside. In both the self-help culture and the Christian culture, there is this inability to have compassion for ourselves and others because we are always judging everything and everyone in comparison to some lofty ideal. Some people think acceptance means giving in to mediocrity or compromising your ideals. Ideals are good, but in practice they are always unattainable because we live in a fallen world and as you approach them, they always recede into the distance. Even if you are the type who has huge Radical-like goals for your life and a lot of physical energy, you are still only a finite person in the present moment - and in addition to eradicating the slave trade in your lifetime you also likely have to eat, do some kind of necessary work and/or interact with family and occasionally stay in bed with the stomach flu. Mindfulness is being where you are right now, feeling what you are feeling right now, accepting what you can do right now and not seeing the present moment as an enemy to be defeated so you can get on with whatever it is you would rather be doing or should be doing or would rather be feeling.

Here is an example from my own life. I always have a lot to do. I have all the household chores, all the childrearing with everything that entails, creative projects I want to work on. In addition to that, I am a naturally internal person, a thinker and someone with a lot of emotional baggage. When I look at any given moment, do I usually just make a positive effort for the good, no matter how small? No, I get swept away by my thoughts and emotions, which sometimes prevents me from doing anything, but most often just makes whatever I choose to do harder. Believe me, washing the dishes is a lot more pleasant if you just wash the dishes instead of washing them while beating yourself up about past failures, imagining future tragedies or personal glories or resenting people who should be doing the dishes instead of you. Of course, we all have thoughts and emotions constantly, but when you are mindful you are simply observing them along with whatever else is going on. So you simply become a person who is washing dishes and also having frustrated or resentful or sorrowful feelings. You accept that and don't turn it into an occasion to bash anyone (yourself included) OR an occasion to abandon the dishes.

I think the idea of accepting even the rocky and/or murky and/or downright horrifying parts of our inner landscape makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable. We don't want to admit what a mess we actually are. Or we think that accepting something means we are satisfied with it. But it really fits right in with taking God's word at face value, His word that tells us we absolutely cannot make the trek out of that dangerous and ugly place unless someone takes us by the hand and leads us out. Mindfulness, rather than being a kind of apathy, allows you to have clarity about things so you can determine how, practically, you can make positive effort towards the good in all of life.

I recently heard Pastor Tullian say that we need to look at the imperatives in the Bible (basically, God's we should act, think, etc.) through the lens of the Great Indicative - the fact that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It's only when we do this that we can freely work to make positive effort for the good, because it allows us to stop obsessing over How We Are Doing - a favorite pastime for most of us, and one so time-consuming and discouraging that we don't usually have time or eneergy for anything else.