On Tuesday afternoon when I went to vote, it was dark, windy, and chilly here in Ohio; the past week’s unseasonably warm weather had turned to more typical November conditions. Although I try to cultivate the habit of finding something to appreciate in each day, rather than using words such as “dreary” and “gloomy,” I was finding it hard to take a more cheerful perspective—especially after I got home and noticed this:

Aluminum fence bent at top by a leaping deer.

Apparently this damage to my backyard fence was caused by a deer jumping over it. There is a small patch of woods along the edge of the subdivision, and we sometimes see deer walking across the front lawn, but usually they just amble along without causing any problems besides munching on an occasional shrub. I certainly wouldn’t have expected a deer to leap a six-foot aluminum fence! It must have been reacting in a panic to something—a coyote, perhaps, or a large dog.

Finding itself in an enclosed backyard, which surely must have left it feeling trapped and even more panicky, the deer then escaped by bursting through the fence at the back corner.

Aluminum fence broken by a deer.

It probably will be a while before a contractor can get us on the schedule to replace those damaged sections, and in the meanwhile my husband zip-tied some pieces of wood across the gap to discourage any more deer from getting into the backyard.

I suppose I’ll never know what made that deer so frightened. Maybe when a subdivision was built in the middle of their natural habitat, leaving only a little strip of woods, the whole herd got more anxious than they were before. Even if they didn’t clearly understand what was changing as the houses went up one after another, they might have had a vague sense that something didn’t match the way they remembered it.

That’s probably the best explanation I can come up with for the current state of our politics, too. The world has been changing so fast that our mental maps can’t keep up with all the newly created landmarks that diverge from our expectations, and sometimes we just get spooked.

A contractor is going to come out tomorrow and estimate the work. Unfortunately, it won’t be as easy to quantify and repair the damage done to civil society by the scorched-earth politics of recent years, which has cost a lot more than money. One of the saddest things about it is that the younger generation won’t even remember that there was a time when politicians were expected to behave decently and work together to serve the community. We need to set the bar much higher—not only for the behavior of those who want to hold public office, but also for our personal responsibility to set a better, more respectful example.

September 28, 2016 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Twice recently I’ve had a dream in which I am sitting in a parked car with the engine running, and it suddenly starts rolling backwards. I try to brake and to turn off the car, but the computer is malfunctioning and won’t take any input. The car keeps on rolling away no matter what I do, and I know it’s just about to crash into something when I wake up.

A car wouldn’t really do that, of course, and there is nothing scary happening in my life right now. So I’m guessing that the dream reflects a fear that I might somehow “roll back” to stressful times in the past when I felt like I wasn’t in control. How to deal with it? Well, mainly I’d say that I just need to take a few deep breaths and stay focused on the safe, straight road ahead.

Straight road with colorful autumn trees on each side.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Also, there’s no need to keep a narrow focus and look only at the pavement. Much better to slow down and take enough time to appreciate the pretty landscape, the soft sound of leaves rustling in the wind, and the crisp autumn air. There is always something in the moment to enjoy!

Sometimes I spend too much time ruminating about what people’s motives might have been for saying or doing things that baffled me. When I have no clue what they were thinking, it leaves me feeling anxious about what kinds of unpredictable stuff they might do in the future. Of course, that is a silly worry because we can never really understand what goes on in other people’s minds, and much of the time they don’t even understand it themselves!

So when a coworker sent an email with this joke about a chicken crossing the road in a better world, it gave me a good chuckle:

Word-art that says "Dream of a better world where a chicken can cross the road without having his motive questioned."

Next time I find myself getting sidetracked by anxiety about what somebody might have been thinking, I’ll remind myself that there’s no need to squawk about other people’s motives!

May 31, 2016 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Modern life is so complicated and full of things that need to get done, it can feel overwhelming at times. Not so much because of the existence of the to-do list, which is simply an unavoidable fact. What causes to-do anxiety is the feeling that there’s just too much on the list to ever get it all done.

And, you know what? There probably is. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. Much of the stuff that ends up on the to-do list wouldn’t be a calamity if it never got done. Chances are, nobody would even pay enough attention to notice. It may feel like it’s been hanging around embarrassingly on the list forever; but the fact is, nobody else cares because it’s not a big deal and never was.

So I decided to write a “who needs to do it list” where all the annoying stuff that has been buzzing around on my to-do list for years can go take a nice long nap. Preferably on the ancient couch in my living room that is #1 on the list.
 

old couch 

When I say ancient, I mean it has been around since my two college-graduate kids were little preschoolers gleefully jumping on it when I wasn’t looking. After they inevitably broke something and left a sagging spot, my daughter (who was full of good practical ideas even as a child) helpfully suggested putting an old pillow under the cushion.

Replacing the couch was something I wanted to do for a very long time. But, even though we are not paying tuition anymore, it still hasn’t gotten done. My husband doesn’t seem to have much interest in looking at furniture—like many guys, he’d rather buy gadgets and do fun stuff.

And I started thinking, well, what difference does it really make? Who needs to do it? After all, my husband is the one who sits on the cushion with the old pillow underneath; my side of the couch is not as broken down. If it doesn’t bother him enough to want a new couch, then why should I care?

I was going to finish this post by listing a few more “who needs to do it” things; but after writing about the couch, while sitting on it with a notepad and pen, I felt like I’d really rather take a nap instead! And of course, the list itself is another “who needs to do it” because it wouldn’t matter one iota if I never wrote it. Ditto on finishing the blog post at a particular time or writing a certain number of words; it’s just for fun and to reflect on whatever’s on my mind. No biggie!

October 17, 2015 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Instead of going on holiday, a phrase that brings to mind adventurous excursions in long-ago fanciful tales, here in the United States we simply take vacation—that is, we remove our rear ends from our desk chairs and vacate our workspaces. Vacancy is a rather dull way of describing time away from work; and what’s worse, often those vacation days don’t even include play or relaxation. Instead, they are used to catch up on postponed chores and projects.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t work on creative projects or fix things around the house while on vacation, if that is what we genuinely feel like doing. Personal projects, when they’re moving along easily and without stress, leave us feeling refreshed and joyful. But often that’s not what happens when we have an overflowing to-do list at the start of a vacation week. All that mental clutter interferes with relaxing and builds pressure to get things done while we have the time. Even things that ought to be fun end up feeling like chores. Lurking like spiders in gray dusty corners of our minds, those to-dos keep on spinning their icky little webs of time pressure and anxiety.
 

Spider in its web with a gray background.

(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)
 

When I started writing this post, I noticed a few of them peering out from their usual haunts. “Better hurry up and get finished, otherwise there might not be time to do it for days,” chuckled one big fat imaginary spider, well fed from sucking the life out of things that should have been fun. Another whispered from its dim dark hidey-hole, “Writing that post is taking so long—wouldn’t it make more sense to check a few chores off the to-do list instead?”

I told them to shut their collective yap. Then I set the half-finished post aside, picked up my Kindle, and spent some time reading NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman, a thoroughly researched historical work setting forth the various perspectives on autism in the modern era. This bestseller is a fascinating book, filled with engaging anecdotes and richly detailed descriptions that bring the cultural context to life. I serve as a board member of a nonprofit organization, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which is briefly discussed toward the end of the book; thus I’ve had the privilege of becoming acquainted with several people the author mentions.

After I wrote this post’s first few paragraphs, I actually did take days to get around to composing the rest of it. That wasn’t caused by an overload of chores, but was simply a result of other things (some fun, and all good, yay) that ended up getting my attention instead. When I sat down to finish the post, I wondered why I had ever imagined there was any reason to hurry. My reasons for blogging are, first, to reflect on my experiences and clarify them in my mind; and second, to share with others and make a small contribution toward creating a better world. Neither of those purposes is well served by rushing through my posts.

Usually I take vacation days in November and December, and this year will be no exception. But unlike in the past, as I go into this year’s holiday season I intend to make sure that those pointless old time-pressure scripts don’t spoil the fun. I’m going to sweep the dusty cobwebs out of my brain, send the imaginary spiders on their way, and hang out a “No Vacancy” sign!

After wearing my worry beads as a bracelet last week in hopes of gaining more insight as to what was going on with a sore wrist, I did a body-awareness meditation in which I asked my body whether it wanted to tell me anything. As I focused on listening to my body, I began to notice little achy feelings not only in my wrists and arms, but also in my ankles, knees, and hips—as if I had been holding up something much too heavy for much too long.

“I don’t want to bear the weight.”

This sentence flashed into my head. It wasn’t a reference to anything literal; I rarely carry heavy things, and I am not overweight. Whatever my subconscious mind was trying to tell me about weight had to be meant in the metaphorical sense. There are plenty of metaphors relating to weight—overburdened, weighed down, carrying the weight of the world.

Where might that have come from? At present, things are going pretty well for me; I have no problems that I would describe as heavy burdens. But like everyone else, I “bear the weight” of all those cultural expectations and past criticisms that sit in the back of people’s heads passing judgment on whatever thoughts go by. Trying to push them aside can feel like standing under a huge tree in a forest, with branches looming overhead everywhere, and trying to push it out of the way.
 

View of large tree from directly underneath it.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Of course, in a forest there are always paths around the trees, and the same is true of the barriers created by limiting thoughts and attitudes. We don’t have to let them block our paths or weigh us down, and there’s no need to be constantly in fight mode chopping at them with battle-axes either; we can simply choose to walk around them.

Instead of trying to push or drag obstacles out of the way, often it’s best simply to take a step back and look around for other paths. Just like trees in the forest, they’re not blocking the only way through, and they won’t be there forever. As time passes, nothing will be left but old forgotten trees with vines thickly covering the branches, until the rotten wood falls and there is no one around to hear it.

Although my inner child may be impatient and clueless at times, it’s my inner 30-year-old who has the most need for caring and encouragement from her future self.

Just getting her to sit down at the table with a cup of tea required some coaxing, as with a skittish animal. Truth be told, she didn’t even have any tea in the house, as she had been staying home with small children for the past few years and had nearly forgotten how to take time for herself. So I brought along some calming honey-chamomile tea during my imaginary visit, along with a big copper teakettle for the soothing old-fashioned ambience.

When the teakettle started whistling, she turned a rather alarmed glance toward the kitchen from where she was nervously pacing in the hall, perhaps worrying that the noise might wake the baby. But all was quiet when I took the kettle off the stove; and eventually, when I had brewed the tea and set two cups on the table, she felt safe enough to sit down across from me and take a small sip.

Just outside the dining room window there was a lovely mature blue spruce. I couldn’t find any pictures of it, though. My 30-year-old self was too frazzled to give much thought to taking photos, and the primitive technology made it harder—no digital cameras or smartphones. Anyway, it was a beautiful tree, and I opened the window to let in the scents and sounds of nature.
 

Mature blue spruce in daylight.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

The younger face across the table still looked anxious, even after we sat down to tea. She was always finding something to worry about—if it wasn’t the children, it was fear of being judged for not having a job, and how hard getting into the job market would be after several years at home. An afternoon tea break wasn’t nearly enough time to address all of her issues, but I could leave her a few thoughts to ponder.

“It’s a them problem,” I declared, firmly setting down my teacup for emphasis.

She gave me a puzzled look; evidently she hadn’t yet heard that expression, and wouldn’t have known what to make of it anyway. Ignoring criticism never had been her strong suit. She tended to take it much too seriously, brooding over random remarks long after everyone else had totally forgotten what was said.

“When other people give you negative stuff,” I explained, “you don’t have to keep it. Just send it back to them with love and light.”

A bright flash of wings rose from the spruce branches as a small bird took flight. My younger self breathed deeply, holding the teacup between her hands to absorb its warmth. I thought I saw the tension in her face relax a little; but I also knew that this lesson would take many years to understand.

My latest approach to banishing those to-do list pressures from my personal creative projects is to put together a “Fun Things To Do List” every three or four months. It’s just one page of whatever activities I happen to be enjoying at the time, mixed in with a few creative projects that I would like to get done—or, at least, to get moving forward.

Picking a few items for the list helps me to stay focused on making progress with them. Even if I write only a few sentences at a time, that still gets something done on the project, which is better than sitting there looking at a big heap of unfinished stuff and wondering what to do. By putting my creative projects in with random unimportant things like “watch the latest superhero movie” or “play video games,” I remind myself they are mainly for fun. No life or death consequences are attached to finishing a blog post or a story.

That’s not to say I consider the projects unimportant. On the contrary, I would describe myself as an ambitious writer, seeking to touch my readers’ emotions and have a positive impact on the culture. But just as with anything else, stressing about creativity and trying to force it can be counterproductive. The muse needs plenty of space to fly around sprinkling fairy dust on whatever takes her fancy!

Production schedules can be helpful in reasonable doses, of course. Since I began writing weekly Clutter Comedy posts, I’ve made a lot more progress in getting old junk out of my house, in addition to creating more content for my blog. I also enjoy taking part in Nurturing Thursday, which reminds me to set aside time for restful, nurturing activities.

Having regular features on my blog does not overwhelm me with production pressure because those entries are relatively short and structured, so they flow easily. What’s more problematical is writing unstructured blog posts on different topics regularly (such as this one) while also having plenty of other creative projects in various stages of completion, which totally lack a schedule.

When I work on a book or other large project, I sometimes feel pressured to write a blog entry instead, as otherwise it might not get done. And if there’s a week when I don’t write anything but blog entries, then I feel like I’m slacking off with the large projects. Because I have too many large projects to put them all on a production schedule, just deciding what to do can feel like a major drain on my mental energy.

Choosing two or three projects for the near future gives me permission to set aside the others till later, without feeling guilty for neglecting them. The projects I’ve picked for my current list are turning a short-story collection into a free Kindle book, creating content for a new website, and writing more installments of Breaking the Ice. Setting a fuzzy “due date” a few months from now gives me some impetus to stick to the schedule, but it’s not looming over me as an anxiety-provoking hard deadline.

Posting this entry also gives me a bit of accountability, in that I may have readers looking for the free Kindle book or expecting to find more story installments over the next few months! Coming soon…

July 14, 2015 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: , ,

Several years ago, I spent a lot of time doing charitable organizing work. I accomplished what I set out to do, but it got stressful at times because it was an ambitious project with only a small number of people, and we had to deal with detractors and negativity. In a recent conversation, this question came up: Did I “win” because I reached my goals? Or did I “lose” because I felt more stressed afterward?

Goals aren’t everything—they have to be considered with a view to the big picture. Getting stressed past one’s tolerance and soldiering on anyway is neither virtuous nor sensible. On rare occasion it may be necessary; but more often, it can and should be avoided through better decision-making.

That said, it also doesn’t make sense to run away from anything that might cause stress and bad memories. We can’t reasonably expect to have all good times and no worries. Friendships and relationships go through bad patches, work sometimes gets harder than usual, and becoming a parent means not only great joy but also great responsibility.

So I wouldn’t measure either winning or losing by a simple comparison of past vs. present feelings of stress or accomplishment. Such feelings do not necessarily mean that it would (or wouldn’t) have been better to do something else. There are many other factors to consider, and the question should go something like this: How would my present-day life, and the lives of my family and others, have been different if I had made another choice?

At that point we get into the realm of alternate history, with infinite permutations. For instance, would leaving a marriage to avoid the stress and bad memories of arguments have resulted in finding someone more compatible and living happily ever after, or would it have meant many depressing years of loneliness? Who can say? No matter what might have happened, there’s no way to go back and do it over, and future events are likely to change what’s on the scorecard anyway.

What’s important to keep in mind going forward is that experience teaches valuable lessons. If one of those lessons is that a high stress level was more damaging than it seemed at the time, that’s useful to know—it means that we now understand the value of setting healthier boundaries and creating calmer and more nurturing environments for ourselves. It certainly doesn’t mean we ought to kick ourselves around for being losers! Better to look at past experiences as a win* even if they were stressful.

*That is, with a life-lessons asterisk.

I didn’t get around to writing a Clutter Comedy blog entry last weekend, though I had good intentions. There was some disruption to my schedule, and also my husband upgraded our home computers from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7, which he said took a long time because it should have been done sooner. When tasks are left to wait longer than they should, there’s usually more work as a consequence. With software, there are more upgrades to install.

This is not even the final task; it’s all just preparatory to installing Windows 10 later this year, which will require buying more memory because operating systems have gotten enormous. That’s the way of things in the modern world—technology has given us much more capability, but keeping up with all its changes can feel like running frantically on a hamster wheel.

During my mostly unplugged weekend, I started thinking about how there’s not much difference between upgrading our gadgets and refurbishing our minds. If we let too many bad habits, outdated assumptions, and other mental junk pile up, then it’s harder to clear that stuff away than if we had done timely maintenance all along. Same thing with clutter in the house and weeds in the garden—there’s always something in need of attention that wasn’t a problem when we last looked.
 

Big leafy green weed between orange and yellow snapdragons. 

I have no idea how a weed resembling a small tree got into my snapdragons, when I’m sure it can’t have been more than a couple of weeks since I last did something in that garden…

Of course, our ancestors also had to do plenty of weeding and other chores, without benefit of today’s labor-saving devices. Their work couldn’t be neglected because if too many weeds got into the fields and choked out the crops, they might starve over the winter. Still, their lives were much simpler and more structured than ours, so they didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to keep up with thousands of different things all at once.

We don’t really have to juggle huge heaps of tasks either—it just feels like we do, sometimes, because we haven’t yet settled into comfortable routines for such a fast-paced world. There are plenty of computer programs and smartphone apps to keep track of the little things. For example, my husband has a reminder in his Outlook calendar to run the self-cleaning cycle on the oven every four months, which was easy to do last weekend when it was cool enough that opening the windows was comfortable. Way easier than our ancestors had it, cooking over a hearth where they had to bring wood and sweep out the ashes every day. Their tasks rarely changed, though, so they didn’t have the stress of keeping up with to-do lists.

Our world has left behind the familiar customs and simple chores that once allowed people to go through their days without much need for conscious decision-making. We have many more choices now, and that means we need to manage and upgrade our choices proactively, so they don’t overwhelm us. It’s not just about getting used to new gadgets, either; the culture is changing rapidly around us, which means our assumptions are constantly being challenged. Sometimes everything feels like a leap into the unknown.

I am optimistic that as time passes, our society will develop more effective ways to help people navigate its complexity. The concept of supported decision-making refers to informal arrangements that assist people with disabilities in making choices. As I see it, people in general could benefit from having more structure and support in their lives. It’s not that modern humans are any less competent than our ancestors; we just live in a much busier world.