Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Another Special Challenge of the Day Off

Last Sunday I had another chance to take a crack at the special challenge of the day off.   (See The Special Challenge of the Day Off for the last time I grappled with this.)
As I’ve said before, I crave chunks of time when I don’t have to do anything, and last Sunday I had an entire day like that.  I didn’t have to teach or coach; I didn’t even have any social engagements.  All week long I looked forward to all that open time on Sunday.   And all week long, whenever I thought of something I needed to do that I didn’t have time for, I said to myself, I can do that on Sunday.  
            On Sunday morning I wrote down all the things I’d been looking forward to having enough time to do on that day, and then some, in the notebook I use for planning my days.  My list was long and varied, with everything from “work with Twitter” (I have an account but haven’t done enough with it to get any mileage from it), to “shop for purse” (I really, really need a new one, not really because I want one but because I’m worried people will think less of me when they see my current old battered black-leather one), to “do some soul searching about X,” to “work in the yard.”  I’d felt like I desperately wanted to do all those things when I didn’t have enough time for them during the week (well, maybe not desperately, but at least fairly strongly), but now that I did have time for them they didn’t appeal to me at all.  Still, I couldn’t let go of the idea that I should do at least a fair number of those things.
            Once I’d made my list, I started to feel busy instead of relaxed and spacious.  I suddenly felt like I had too much to do and not enough time to do it, instead of like I had all the time in the world and I could do whatever I wanted to with it.  I knew I had a choice here -- that I could choose the latter rather than the former and that if I did my whole day would end up better – but somehow I couldn’t seem to make the right choice and get to that spacious place.   I couldn’t figure out when I wanted to do what, either.  I was tired too, but I didn’t want to waste the day lying around resting, partly because it was a beautiful day in May – sort of.   The weather kept changing its mind:  First it would be warm and sunny, with a glorious blue sky; then the sun would go behind a cloud and the atmosphere would start to feel gloomy and oppressive; then it would get nice again.  I kept changing my mind about what I wanted to do according to what the weather was doing and how energetic I felt at any given moment (somehow when the sun went in I seemed to have less energy than when it was out.)  I got more and more confused about what to do and my mood rapidly deteriorated, despite the fact that I kept thinking I should be able to have a great day.  In fact, that thought – that I should be able to use my harnessing time tools to rescue the day and feel better – just made me feel even worse.  And the fact that I’ve been going around telling everyone that I’ve developed tools to harness time – to stop feeling like I don’t have enough time and start feeling like I do have enough, and since one of those tools is planning my day by figuring out what I’m going to do when and then spending the day happily, peacefully, et cetera – didn’t help any either.
            I never did manage to settle down and enjoy my day on Sunday.  The best I could do was stumble through the day and tell myself I’d have a better day tomorrow.  I did manage to buy a new purse, and although I felt like I wasn’t very productive, when I looked at the list I had made on Sunday morning I was able to cross off a number of other things on there too.  But I never managed to enjoy the moments of the day, never got – or had, or created -- the open spacious relaxed feeling I wanted and had anticipated.  In fact, if anything I enjoyed the day less than I do those days when I have lots of things I have to do.  I did finally manage to get peaceful on Sunday evening when the day with its opportunities to be productive was over and I could settle down and peacefully watch an old episode of Parenthood that I got from Netflix.  When I had no more expectations of doing anything that was in any way… better.
            So there it is, I guess:  It’s all about expectations.  I’ve always struggled with expectations:  Holidays, birthdays (my own, of course), Friday and Saturday nights (i.e., date night), even beautiful days have all been minefields of disappointment and misery at various times, because of what I think I should be doing, should be feeling, should have that I don’t have, should … you name it.  And when I look forward to those whole days off, when I imagine everything I’m going to do and how gloriously free, open, spacious I’m going to feel, that creates the conditions for expectations, and once there are expectations there’s bound to be, if not disappointment, at the very least pressure.   Pressure as in shoulds.   This should be better than it is, I should be doing more than I’m doing, I should be feeling better than I am.  Which creates the conditions for rushing and hurrying – for straining, trying, efforting, to use a newly coined word I heard recently, which seems incredibly apt in this case.  And efforting, as we all know, makes it practically impossible to relax, expand into the moment, and enjoy whatever there is.
            I’ve never been able to figure out what to do about expectations.  I can’t make myself let go of expectations because I can’t make myself let go of anything:  The very idea is a contradiction in terms.
            But I can keep creating those days off – those whole day-long open spaces -- and experimenting with them.  Noticing what works and what doesn’t work.   And maybe some day I’ll get it right – I’ll be able to settle into my time off with an expansive, restful, peaceful feeling -- if not for a whole day, then maybe for an hour or two or even just twenty minutes.   I’m sure it will be well worth it.
                                                            -- Mary Allen

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On the Loveliness of Open Spaces

Last weekend a friend of mine was visiting from out of town.  On Friday we drove to a nearby town to visit our local astrologer, have lunch, and shop in some antique stores.  Around here, any trip beyond the outskirts of Iowa City involves traveling on a two-lane highway surrounded by vast open rolling cornfields.   I still can’t get over it, and I moved here from New England, where all you ever see is trees growing right up to the edge of the road, almost twenty-five years ago. When I lived in Massachusetts I breathed a sigh of relief every time I got to the edge of the ocean.  And now the same thing happens – my entire being breathes some metaphysical sigh of relief -- whenever I drive along those country roads, open fields spreading out as far as the eye can see in every direction, the fields meeting the edge of the wide blue sky out on the horizon, cumulous clouds towering overhead.  When you look in the rearview mirror you see the two-lane highway slipping away behind you, it too surrounded by fields and sky, reflected in the mirror.
I love all the open space out here.  It turns out I crave open spaces.  
I crave open spaces in my life too – chunks of time when I don’t have to do anything.  Time to think, time to be, time to stop focusing on the busy insistent outside world and what it wants and needs from me.  Time to connect with some larger smarter wider more expansive part of myself.  Open spaces are crucial to writers – we write during open spaces and writing itself is a kind of opening that requires space to open into.  But I’m absolutely convinced that everyone needs open spaces in their days, in their lives, that some deep crucial part of us craves them and needs them.   Needs them the way the body needs essential nutrients, craves them the way I crave the sight of open fields and sky and water.  And it’s a lot harder to get those open spaces than it seems like it would or should be.
I’m busy like everyone else these days, of course, and it’s not that easy to find time to do nothing.  I have to make the time, believe I should and deserve to make the time, and then I have to hold onto the time once I’ve made it.  And even if I do all that, I’m not necessarily guaranteed an open space.  I’ve come to believe that the problem – and therefore the solution – to not having open spaces in our lives isn’t just a matter of how much time we have and don’t have.   I think it’s also – maybe even mostly -- a matter of how we think.   That we can ruin whatever open spaces we have by filling them up with thoughts:  thoughts about how busy we are, what we have to do later, what we should be doing now instead of what we’re doing, even thoughts about how well we’re using this open time, worries that we’re wasting it -- not to mention thoughts about our partners, children, jobs, finances, you name it.    
Years ago, when I had all my time to write, I could sometimes get so uptight about what I had to do later it would actually interfere with my ability to sit there and concentrate now. I was only able to write for a few hours on any given day (any more than four hours at a stretch and you start to ruin it instead of making it better), but I had to feel like I had all my time that day to write in order to be able to do it.  I also felt tense, to the point where I could barely write, if I thought someone was going to call me or I was going to have some other interruption during my writing time.  Now I don’t have all my time to write and I don’t have the luxury of letting my thoughts ruin whatever open spaces I’ve got for it.  I’ve had to learn how and where to fit those open spaces into my life and how to stick to them after I’ve created them.  And I’ve had to learn how to make use of my open spaces when I get them, to stop thinking about what wants to interrupt me, forget about whatever I think is trying to crowd out my time.  If possible, during my open spaces, I stop thinking all together.
My open-space-making isn’t easy and it’s not perfect.  But on most days I do make some open space to write:  When I plan my day I schedule in some writing time and I try to stick to that time.  I wish I had longer writing times -- in fact I’m working on consolidating the other things I do to make longer writing times; I can feel the greediness in me for those longer open spaces even as I write this.  (It occurs to me that one of the reasons I chose to be a writer is that it gives me an excuse, even an obligation, to keep those open spaces in my life.)  For now my writing times are what they are and I do my best to make good use of them, and I make a concerted effort not to give them away when something else comes along, even something that feels kind of urgent.   I also make open spaces when I’m not writing – I write them right down on my daily planning calendar:  times when I don’t have to do anything but think, stare out the window, nap, read a book.  The longer I’ve been harnessing time the more I value those rest times, and new research even shows that rest and renewal times are necessary for optimal productivity. (See Relaxing, Renewing, and Refreshing the Mind.) 
And every day, for ten minutes, I make an open space in which I meditate.   I sit in a comfortable chair, close my eyes, and try to listen to the sounds around me, and when thoughts arise I picture them falling like ashes to the bottom of my inner picture.  When I can stop thinking, even for a few seconds, something sweet, happy, expansive opens up inside my mind, and afterwards I feel just a little bit better all day long than I do if I didn’t take that ten minutes to meditate.  (See The Power of Ten Minutes.) 
I sort of believe that any time you open up some space inside yourself, you make it easier to do it again (the way any time you work out at the gym it’s easier to do it the next time you go to the gym), and that whatever little bit of openness you’ve managed to create lingers like a whiff of fresh air – like a good scent from a strange mountain, to quote Robert Olen Butler – that wends its way into the rest of your being-alive space, making it just a little bit less crowded and busy in there. So even if you can only give yourself ten minutes of open space a day, and even if you can only stop thinking and listen to the sounds around you for a few seconds during that time, it really does matter.  It can be one of the best uses you’ll ever find for ten minutes, one of the best ways you can harness time to do something for yourself.
                                                -- Mary Allen