We’ve had a week or so of sunny and hot summer weather in my area, after an unusually cool and rainy spring. I have been getting outdoors more often with my husband—rowing, biking, and walking. That sometimes leaves me with a passing thought that my blog is being neglected; but even when I am in the house, not much comes to mind to write.

On Tuesday, I sat down at the computer for a while. Instead of composing blog posts, though, I spent some time looking for photos of summer wildflowers and other natural scenes to upload to the online library for my art display. This was the one I chose for yesterday:

Wildflowers on a plateau in summer.

I’ll take that as a message from my subconscious mind—the natural world is full of beautiful places to explore, and it’s okay to get out and enjoy them while the sun is shining. There will always be plenty of time for blogging and other creative pursuits later, without need to cram them into an arbitrary schedule. Modern life has too much time pressure anyway, so there’s no reason to add more.

Friday morning was unusually warm for midwinter, so my husband and I went rowing in our double scull. We had the boathouse and the river all to ourselves. When the sun came out, it felt like a pleasant early spring day. Although we weren’t rowing fast, my hands got a little blistered because my calluses go away quickly when the rowing season ends. My husband, who has tougher hands, was fine.

The blisters didn’t really bother me because we had such a good time getting outdoors in the lovely weather. Of course, it did not last long. Soon after we returned home, the temperature started to drop, and by evening we were back to ordinary winter weather.

I spent the afternoon playing a computer game with my husband and then re-reading The Princess Bride on my Kindle. Nothing came to mind that had to be done. That left me with an odd feeling, as if the mainspring on some kind of mental machinery had gotten close to winding down, like a mechanical toy or music box with a winding key. This wasn’t the same as my lack of energy before Christmas vacation—I had gotten plenty of sleep all week, and rowing had not left me physically tired.

Wind-up toy with a large key at the top.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Rather than spend any time pondering this oddity, I decided that whatever tasks might need to be done could wait a day or two. Surely I would think of them in the morning. In the meanwhile, this seemed like a good night to stay in and watch one of the movies that my husband had just bought. I went to bed afterward and slept well.

When I woke up, there was no doubt something had changed. In the mental space where the imaginary wind-up machinery had been, there was only silence. After a minute or two, I realized what had happened—my internal to-do generator had shut down. You know, the one that switches itself on sometime in the teenage years, or perhaps even sooner, and chugs along continuously forever.

How could this be? I’d had vacations for a week or two before—plenty of them, in fact—but the to-do list never had spontaneously evaporated like this. Was it even possible for a modern-day adult to function without having a long list of tasks automatically load itself into the brain at boot-up?

Most likely, it would come back sometime later in the morning, I decided. Kind of like a brief power outage. No reason to worry. So I got my breakfast and opened my Kindle to the page where I’d left off yesterday. There was certainly nothing wrong with a nice relaxing morning while on vacation.

Afternoon came and I still didn’t have anything in mind to do. That was when I began seriously wondering what the heck was going on. Maybe I was coming down with some strange new disease. I hadn’t noticed any changes in my health this week, though, so I didn’t rate that as likely. As far as I could tell, I was generally healthy—about the same as always, but for the mysterious disappearance of the to-do list.

Meanwhile, my husband was sitting at the computer writing programs, which he likes to do when he’s on vacation to keep his skills sharp. Ordinarily when he does this, I’ll spend some time writing stories and blog posts, or maybe work on some other creative project. When that thought came to mind, it left me worrying—what if the disappearing to-do list might be a variation on the dreaded Writer’s Block? What if all my creative energy had drained away, too?

That, at least, could be tested. I got a notepad and pen, sat down on the couch, and started writing the first draft of this blog entry. I didn’t have any problems getting my thoughts organized on the page, which was a relief. Once I took a break when I wasn’t sure how to end a sentence, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. Apparently, my brain is still functioning much the same as before, except that the day is almost over and I still haven’t seen hide nor hair of the vanishing to-dos. Maybe they decided to take a vacation too.

When my husband and I have been sculling in our double this summer, we’ve been rowing briskly and then picking up the pace as we practice sprinting to the finish. That may seem like a very basic thing to do, but in past years I never could quite manage it. We learned to row only five years ago, taught by volunteer instructors at the club, and we had no proper coaching until we attended a rowing camp last summer.

So when we started going to regattas in our second year of rowing, my idea of sprinting was pretty simple—row as fast as I could and try to keep that up for the whole course (Masters sprints are 1 km). By the time we got near the finish, I didn’t have anywhere near enough energy to go faster.

Then we went to rowing camp last year, where we learned how to set up our boat properly and sit farther toward the stern to get more powerful strokes. And this year, when we attended the camp again, I learned how to pause for just a fraction of a second after dropping the oars into the water, so as to make sure they are fully in the water and not waste my energy. That also helps us to stay better synchronized.

Although it seemed counterintuitive at first, now the boat goes faster even though I’m taking fewer strokes and using less energy. There’s a general life lesson in there, I’d say. When we take a moment to slow down and make sure we are properly situated, that can result in getting things done more quickly and effectively.

When I was looking online for a sculling photo to illustrate this post, I came across one that was taken with the Royal Dutch Mint in the background:

Sculler in front of the Royal Dutch Mint.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

So far my husband and I haven’t done a lot of traveling to regattas—we go down to Tennessee a few times a year, but that’s usually as far from home as we get. It would be fun to have a rowing adventure in Europe someday, though!

October 25, 2017 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Now that the weather has turned chilly, I’ve decided that until the winter is over, I won’t be doing any more of what has seemed like an endless chore of pruning my backyard willow hedge. It’s mostly under control and not as much in my husband’s way when he mows, but it still has a few dead and dying branches here and there. Winter isn’t far away, though, and the leaves are falling.

Willows after pruning in October.

As well as getting back the weekend time that won’t be sucked up by those trees, I’m also going to take some half-days off from work just because I feel like it, even if there is nothing in particular that I need to do. My vacation days do not roll over from one year to the next, so there’s nothing to save. I already scheduled taking off Thanksgiving week and Christmas week, and I still have a little time left over.

When my husband and I were younger, we had a judgmental attitude toward people who took “mental health days.” We thought that they were wasting valuable vacation time and might regret it later, if something unexpected came up, and that they needed to do a better job of managing their time.

After many years of rushing from one activity to another, though, we can better appreciate the value of having a more relaxed attitude toward time. As with anything else, when time is treated as a scarce resource that has to be hoarded and carefully managed, it never feels like there is enough. Best to be more easygoing, within reason of course, and not worry about it.

August 9, 2017 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

For those who enjoy dream analysis, I expect you’ll have lots of fun trying to make sense of this one! I saw time as made up of peaceful little moments that looked like tendrils or tentacles on marine animals, moving gently in the currents. The colors matched the ocean theme, in vibrant shades of blue, green, and purple. The time-creatures resembled this jellyfish image:

Jellyfish in shades of blue, green, and purple.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

They left me feeling that there was no need to worry about anything from the past because time was not fixed in place, but was always moving into new patterns. While I can’t say exactly where that idea might have come from, I would guess that all the blog posts I’ve written about time and imaginary conversations with my younger selves had something to do with it.

Maybe I’ve started to feel that time really is not as linear as it seems. The subconscious is always adding new context to past events and changing their meaning, even if it’s not by much, whenever they come to mind. So, in that sense, we really do wander around in time by moving past events into different arrangements, just like the sea creatures I imagined.

June 18, 2016 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Just before waking up this morning, I was dreaming about time travel. In the dream it felt like I could step out of bed and then I’d be in another time and place. Maybe I’d find myself in a place where I lived as a teenager. I could end up anywhere!

When I finally woke up, I wondered for a moment if I had somehow chosen this time and place from many possibilities. It didn’t seem farfetched that I might be able to wander freely from one timeline to another, like a child discovering the magical entrance to fairyland in a storybook garden.

Trumpet vine on my backyard fence.

And then I realized that it’s a fact—we really do choose the time and place where each day begins. We can start the morning with happy memories of good times. Or, we can “wake up on the wrong side of the bed,” full of grouchy thoughts and old stale grudges!

We revisit the past whenever we look at memories in light of new experiences, sorting them into more useful patterns and updating our mental maps. Sometimes that can be hard to do, but it’s better than getting stuck in outdated thought loops like a computer with obsolete software!

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!

Whether or not we’re consciously listening to ourselves, generally there is an internal dialogue going on as we sort and make sense of our experiences. This dialogue can take many forms—visual images, snippets of popular songs or movie soundtracks, a little voice quietly cataloguing things as they go by, multiple voices debating the best course of action, favorite characters’ lines from TV shows, and just about anything that can be a medium of expression. Which is to say, just about anything.

My inner dialogue mostly sounds like my own voice in a conversational tone, as if explaining a topic or maybe raising a question for others to discuss. It has a text-mode component as well, like a mental display screen where the words scroll along. This is the voice in which I write my blog entries—calm, reflective, and always subject to editing in the interest of greater precision.

When I get into a more fanciful mood, I sometimes imagine that time is not as linear as it seems and that my internal narrative might be the voice of a future self offering helpful advice, or maybe a past self creating an intention for something she’d like to see in her life going forward.

Suspending disbelief (which, of course, one must always do with a story if it’s to be fully enjoyed) in the present moment, I consider how I might have gone back in time and changed the life of a younger self with my words. When had a memorable insight shown up in my thoughts suddenly, for no apparent reason?

That’s when a memory comes to mind. My 35-year-old self didn’t see much to celebrate when she had her birthday. She’d had no luck finding a job when the children started school. Hubby (a software developer) was spending nearly every waking moment at the office doing Y2K remediation, to save the world from poorly written software that couldn’t read dates after 1999—yes, it seems funny now, but there really was a nuclear power plant in Japan that malfunctioned on January 1, 2000, because of the Y2K bug and required an emergency shutdown.

Garden with flowers, shrubs, and winding stone paths.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

She had been trying to cheer herself up by looking at flower catalogs and imagining the house surrounded by bright, colorful, well-cultivated gardens; but she just couldn’t shake off depressing self-talk about failure. In a dark, dismal corner of her mind, she felt that she was doomed to end up getting divorced and never having a career, just like what happened to her mother. Of course, social attitudes toward women were very different a generation earlier; and if she had taken the time to critically examine her fears, she’d have realized they made very little sense.

But she didn’t; and so, early in the afternoon of a cloudy winter day, she was sitting alone at home (as usual) feeling tired and hopeless. She closed her eyes, thinking to rest them for a moment. Maybe she dozed off without realizing it; at least, that was the practical explanation she came up with afterward.

Just a little time went by—minutes, or perhaps only seconds. Then she became aware that there was someone else in her quiet mindspace. But, she was alone in the house—could it be a ghost? Surely the house wasn’t haunted; by now the family had been living there for more than five years, and she had never seen strange things happen. Had anyone passed on recently whose spirit might want to send her a message? Well, there was that nice lady who died of lung cancer last year…

“Nancy.” As she thought the name, it sounded like a voice speaking in her mind—an echo, like a question and response.

From my comfortable vantage point in the present day, sipping cinnamon coffee and enjoying a lovely animated landscape on my new digital art display, I also hear the echo in my memories. It doesn’t sound to me like another person’s voice, though—it has the familiar tone of my own internal dialogue. Inventive sci-fi explanations come to mind. Am I creating a resonance across space-time, sending my memories into the thoughts of my younger self?

She certainly didn’t interpret it as such; that idea never crossed her mind. Rather, the mysterious voice sounded to her like it was Nancy’s ghost answering the question in the affirmative. Having no history of talking with spirits, my younger self naturally felt nervous. But the voice in her mind seemed friendly enough that, after a moment, she mustered up enough courage to ask, “Is there something you want to tell me?”

Between my hands, the coffee cup feels warm and comforting as it anchors me solidly in the present. The imagined resonance with my younger self’s time begins to fade. Just before it goes, I speak the words that I remember hearing in my thoughts on that dark winter afternoon, so many years ago. “Cultivate peace.”

And then I leave it at that, making no attempt to say more. After all, it’s where the scene actually ended in real life. My 35-year-old self blinked once, looked around at the empty room, and then shook her head and tried to convince herself she’d just been dreaming. It was a good thing she hadn’t slept too long, she thought. Soon it would be time to go and pick up the kids from school.

I would have liked to tell her that everything would work out for the best, and not to worry. Looking back across the years, though, I know there was no need to say it. Taking the advice to heart, my younger self began writing a page of affirmations every day, working to cultivate a more peaceful mindset. She didn’t yet know the far-reaching effects, but soon she would discover them.

Rather than feeling neglected and resentful in her marriage, she would think more about how stressful all those long overtime hours had been for her husband. She’d appreciate how responsible and hard-working he was, making sure to be especially cheerful in speaking with him. As one might expect, he became more cheerful as well, enjoying her company and wanting to spend more time with her. It wasn’t long before those neglected-wife feelings were a distant memory.

She wouldn’t feel desperate to find work to convince herself she was not a failure, either. Instead she would take the time to visualize a career well suited to her background and skills, along with a hiring manager who would be delighted to find such an ideal candidate. Somehow it didn’t come as a surprise when she found the job posting a few weeks later, soon followed by an interview with the happy hiring manager who really did think she was just what the company needed.

The only loose end that didn’t get tied up was the never-answered question: Where did the mysterious voice saying “Cultivate peace” really come from on that quiet winter afternoon? Was it a dream, a ghost, maybe an angel, or the voice of her future self looking back through time? She would never know—and, though she couldn’t have foreseen it at the time, eventually she would start writing a blog, and on a snowy weekend in January 2016 her readers would be left to wonder about it too.

I spent some time on Tuesday reading old stories and blog posts that I wrote years ago, along with other people’s writings on a website I once enjoyed that is no longer active. Maybe it was the damp, chilly feel of a dark November afternoon that put me into this reflective mood, gathering fragments of past selves like autumn leaves fallen from bare branches.

Bush with bare branches in front of a brick wall. 

I’ve had similar feelings in the past as winter drew near; but this year they seemed different, more peaceful and natural somehow. Rather than worrying that I had lost my creative spark, moping about the loss of online friends who had found other interests, or trying to force myself to work on current projects, I quietly acknowledged the feelings while knowing that they soon would pass. I didn’t judge the merits of my current writing by comparison with my past efforts, nor did I turn a critical eye on my previous work. All that happened, simply put, was that I spent a little time visiting with myself.

When I started composing this post, I wrote the word “melancholy” in the first paragraph instead of “reflective” to describe these feelings because that was how I thought of them in past years. I suspected they might be unhealthy—perhaps a symptom of seasonal depression? I didn’t know where they came from, what purpose they served, or why they might be showing up at this particular time of year.

Then I edited the post because I don’t believe that anymore. On the contrary, it seems likely that some of the stress I felt in past years was a consequence of not taking enough time to pause and reflect. Because our culture pushes us so hard to be active and productive at all times, it can feel unsettling to step aside from all those to-dos and spend more than a few minutes looking back on past experiences. But now, on these short, dark days when my inner voice speaks of quiet reflection, I trust that it has its reasons.

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!