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We all have tiny but profound moments that stay with us. Some people have a clear picture of of their wedding day or their first child’s birth. I, too, have those days locked in. But other, seemingly humdrum, everyday moments struck me like lightning and taught me a life lesson that has saved me truckloads of the kind of panic and distress most people view as unavoidable.

Here are 3 of my moments:

  • Watching an episode of a sitcom
  • Seeing a news clip about an English royal
  • Picking my kid up from a fall when she was little and a burn for me, soon after

Innocuous, common occurrences, right? Especially the last one: kids falling down. Kids are new to walking, after all! They fall constantly. That’s a pretty common occurrence. I’m being obtuse on the other two moments. They were world-level events, even if they went by unnoticed by the majority of people. The sitcom was The Ellen Show and the English royal was Princess Diana. All 3 of these scenes contained a paradigm shift for me. And in experiencing these shifts, I learned a crazy important skill called “reframing.”

The Ellen Show

Actor, writer, comedian Ellen Degeneres came out as gay on her sitcom. Officially, it was Ellen’s character who came out as gay, but we all knew her character was an allegory for her. My moment didn’t come from Ellen’s announcement. What struck me was her friends’ reactions.

I remember so clearly how much another character burst with excitement at her news. Sure, the other character was already out of the closet and his reaction would go on to be disregarded as not universally applicable, but in that moment I suddenly understood what the right reaction is to someone telling you they are gay (or any other oppressed position).

 

Later on, Ellen gets mixed reactions from the rest of her friends, who, it turns out, were betting on Ellen’s coming out. (The writers still managed this serious issue with good humor). The reactions were mostly positive, but it was the first friend’s excited screaming of “I’m so proud of you!” that hit me like a slap upside my head.

Until that moment, I had been accepting of the paradigm that someone’s coming out of the closet was an event to be mourned. Indeed, even Ellen’s friend warned her it would be hard to come clean to her friends. I was to deliver a solemn acknowledgement and empathetic ear. “It’s a hard life,” I’d heard other adults say when it came to this “choice.” When someone told you they were gay, hold their hand and say comforting words in tones reserved for funerals. Wrong! Be joyous! That show clicked the truth into place for me.

Princess Diana hugs AIDS patients in the hospital

This paradigm shift I share with the world. Many people remember Princess Diana putting her arms around dying patients who, at the time, were erroneously thought to be contagious-on-contact. AIDS had no treatment then and it was killing people in its epidemic wrath. But there was Princess Di on the news, touching patient after patient. These men were emaciated and covered with sores. She hugged them anyway.

I felt shame, then. I’d been caught up so easily in all the falsehoods and hysteria. Later in the 1990s when a friend and neighbor was dying of AIDS, I was not afraid to be near him, to kiss him on the cheek, or to give him a hug. And I wasn’t afraid of his partner either (who survived him). Princess Diana not only separated fact from fiction with one gesture, she personified grace. I wanted that grace.

Scraped knee

When kids are babies, you accommodate them. You kiss their boo-boos. You hug out their tears. Then one day, they pass a threshold at some point where, as parents, you begin to teach them to handle their bumps and bruises with stoic calm. Life is filled with adversity. You want them to know the difference between big deals and little deals.

My husband and I had been taking our Irish-American heritage’s approach to parenting through cuts and scrapes: SUCK IT UP. Our daughter was about three years old. We thought we were doing the right thing. We knew “coddling” and “sparing rods” were deserving of the most disdain one can reserve for parents.

I was in the midst of yelling the stoic canon I’d heard as a kid.  Our daughter had taken yet another bumpy fall down the stairs. Here was this little thing, a baby really, disoriented, hurt, crying and begging for comfort, and I was yelling. At a toddler. What was the logic? To brainwash her into thinking she was not hurt? To teach her not to trust her own senses?

Annoyance drained out of my body. Shame and a bit of desperation set in. I quickly scooped her up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know that hurt. I know that hurt. It’s OK. You’ll be OK.” I repeated myself as I rubbed her hair.

And get this – she recovered immediately. What would have been a fifteen minute upset was gone in a few seconds. My husband and I, perhaps even generations of parents before us, had been doing it all wrong. Maybe kids are never all that physically damaged. Maybe they simply want some sympathy, and to ground themselves again in safety.

I knew that if the children’s grandparents saw this new approach they would admonish us publicly. And they did. Multiple times. This draconian ethos hammers down on us all, especially on young parents and children. We fight it off every day. We fail sometimes. Sometimes we still deal out the “suck it up” card ourselves. But we try to keep those aces in the hole for when they will truly help, when our kid maybe needs 20 seconds of bravery.

Bad burn

One day, a few years after this, I burned myself badly. In an awkward effort to avoid my husband who was on the kitchen floor unloading groceries into an already-crowded refrigerator, I spilled boiling water from the microwave down my left leg. Despite wearing thick jeans, the spill resulted in 2nd degree burns (and a slight 3rd degree one) on my left thigh. My husband didn’t get up. Instead he breathed out through his nose a terse, annoyed dismissal and kept piling fruit in the crisper drawer. He got a stiff jaw like he did when the kids were upset about something they “shouldn’t” be. I didn’t go to Emergency Care because I feared inconveniencing him further.

My husband never did ask me about or help me with that burn. It was perhaps the worst burn I’d ever had in my life. I spent about 48 hours with ice packs on my leg. I had to get up in the night to change them as they defrosted. My skin came off in wide, ashen grafts as it healed. A scar where the skin scabbed up is still visible.

Crazy, right? To not get up and help someone who is scalded? But that’s what we were taught: “Suck it up! Don’t be careless. If you were paying attention, you wouldn’t be hurt.”

Parents act this way to assuage their own fears. When kids are hurt, we ache for them, and that’s uncomfortable. We think, if our kids are “tough,” we won’t feel so vulnerable. What I saw in my husband’s face that day was anger, yes, but I saw a twinge of fear. He’s not a monster, as most people aren’t monsters. We focus on trivial things. Our empathy and energy go wasted on distractions.

After these lessons, I work hard to counter my suck-it-up instincts. Delivering disdain to a child’s pain and fear, heck to anyone’s pain and fear, is to be avoided. How I was raised was wrong. These 3 moments had shed light on how wrong my learned tendencies were.

Reframing

The paradigm shifts in beliefs I experienced are the basis of something called “reframing.” Reframing is a technique that changes the context and restructures the placement of something in one’s world view. Instead of looking at “I’m gay!” as something to be mourned, I can see the news in a larger context of a person living an authentic life. Of course I would celebrate that! Finally, my friend’s time spent pretending and feeling alone is over. When I am told someone is transitioning from their born gender to their true one, I think, “YAY! you get to be who you are now!”

Seeing AIDS in a bigger context helped me get free of the prejudices and falsehoods surrounding the crisis. Seeing anger and hurt on my child’s and my husband’s faces taught me to lean in with love instead of turning my back with fear. A little empathy and acceptance goes 1000s and 1000s of kilometers farther than scolding does (yes, let’s switch to metric, too).

Once I learned the reframing technique, I started applying it everywhere. When I’m stuck behind a slowpoke driver, I think, “Well, he is saving me from speeding down this road, which I most certainly would do without this lovely reminder.” When someone is promoted over me (and this is a hard one because in tech it happened a lot. Because: sexism), I try to believe that other, better things are ahead for me. The world is a huge place and it is not this little office.

A younger version of myself would call this Polyanna-ing. I’d have said coating all ills with a sugary-sweet sauce is as bad as attacking it with anger and annoyance. Perhaps that’s true. But while reframing is a practice in applying a positive spin, it is not avoidance or denial. A reframe is to take the small picture and find its place in an even bigger world. Some people call this “getting perspective.”

To find a change in mindset, change the borders of the problem. Expand them or tighten them. If you find yourself reacting poorly to a situation, open up the timeline. Will it hurt you for the next ten minutes? Ten hours? Ten days? Ten months? Ten years? If you expect the hurt to go past ten hours or ten days, then stop panicking and start thinking up some solutions. If the discomfort will dissipate soon? Take a few deep breaths and wait it out. Tell yourself: “These things come and go.”

Sometimes big problems can only be dealt with on small scales. Even if I hadn’t been transformed by Princess Di’s actions, I still would have been very kind to my neighbor, because he wasn’t the world’s AIDS crisis. He was my neighbor. I would have looked at the very small part of a big picture. Perhaps without Diana’s lesson, I would have been more careful in touching my neighbor, but I still would have sat with him. My frame was two people, one suffering, one devastated to see it. If I’d blown the situation up in my head I would’ve acted like a cruel jerk.

Try it

Don’t dismiss pain. Don’t say, “This is no big deal.” That’s not how to reframe. A reframe would be, “Wow, this is upsetting. How will it affect things going forward? Do we have to change something right now or do we wait it out?” Do the Ten thing I described above (not my idea, btw. I stole that from some unknown internet place).

You can also say, “Yes! I see how that can be annoying! Let’s go do something else for now.” You can reframe for others as well as for yourself. Widen the lens or focus it in, whichever brings back feelings of confidence and safety in the moment. Once calm, strategies and plans can be created to address any longer-term problems.

Keep learning

I’m always learning. I’ll let you know what my next moment of clarity brings. I hope you have one today.

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Farewell, Winter, my new friend

Something’s different about this winter. Perhaps it is our discontent. We are a nation broken and unwise. Or maybe it’s the weather, obviously straining to process our disquiet.

But it’s probably just me.

A winter scene of a non-frozen creek and snow-covered wood

A regular hike I take with the dog

For over 100 days in a row, awash with the day’s stresses and a lifetime’s angst, I’ve been sitting on the floor of my laundry room atop a purple pillow. For ten minutes each day I sit and breathe. “Monkey mind” is what the Buddhists call racing thoughts during meditation. I find this analogy quaint. One monkey! Imagine! Try barrels full of monkeys.

I’ve been eating less and walking more despite the cold weather. I can safely say my yoga mat and I are no longer strangers. We even have outings to the Y for formal dates. “Look,” I say to Mr. Mat, as I point to the full class. “Other people do this too.” He doesn’t seem as fascinated.black dog in a snowy wood

Back to the odd season. Winter and I –unlike Mr. Mat and myself– were never friends. I am Winter’s child, being born within its months, but being from a non-celebratory family, a forgotten birthday would hardly save the season. Winter was always that jealous witch who froze me while waiting for the school bus. Winter, with the lightest of dustings, gave my mother an excuse to cancel rare plans to do something fun. Winter would laugh when she would see me tossed outside of our warm apartment and told to “go play.”

Once, with a cough so serious I could barely breathe, I heard that witch cackle as a hacking fit took hold of my body. My lungs seized when they took in what they could of her freezing air. Bronchitis and I were quite familiar with each other, having introduced itself to my insides as a newborn. Note to young people: primary and secondary cigarette smoke swirled around the 1970s like baby boa constrictors in a Guatemalan tree. Many of us were born with lung problems.

When the coughing started, I ran around a corner to hide. I didn’t want to be scolded for “being dramatic.” I’d only run a few steps but my lungs would have none of it. I began hacking up globs of mucus so large they blew my mouth up like a balloon. I had no choice but to spit them out. The mean yellow clumps collected on the snow in front of me. Swirling through them were  small lines of blood, looking just like those tree snakes, thin and camouflaged but definitely, eerily present.

a candy cane pile and a christmas candleJust as I was gaining control of the fit and spitting out the last of its wares, a resident in one of the apartments above me opened her window to peer down at me, surely a pathetic, almost Dickensian sight: a little white waif literally spewing blood in the white snow. I was mortified. But I didn’t go home. I sat down right there, in the snow, and tried not to move. I sat and breathed. I breathed as slowly as I could into my wet mittens, concentrating only on my breath and warming the air before it hit my lungs.

I hated Winter, and she could not have cared less about me.

Fast forward to adulthood. Through the wonders of the internet I was recently introduced to a concept called Hygge (pronounced hue-gah). Many Dutch people cite winter as their favorite season because of hygge. The Netherlands gets plunged into more literal darkness than any of us. It’s dark and it’s cold. And yet they love winter. Imagine!

Hygge is a tradition that celebrates the cold and dark season. Wikipedia defines hygge as “a form of everyday togetherness; a pleasant and highly valued everyday experience of safety, equality, personal wholeness and a spontaneous social flow.”  To celebrate hygge, the Dutch spend time cozying up with friends and family. Hygge is filled with spontaneous group dinners, candles, piles of warm blankets, roaring fireplaces, and tons of yummy, steaming drinks. It’s like they turn their homes into private bed and breakfasts for the season.

a set table with one candle and paper hearts spread across it

Bread and soup for Valentine’s Day

Here in Philadelphia, each snow storm brings with it a singular state of panic. We call this panic a French Toast Emergency (FTE). Milk, bread and eggs fly off the shelves in the 24 hours before the storm. Checkout lines snake around the aisles and reach all the way back to the dairy case. An FTE is truly an odd phenomenon, because, as a friend mentioned on Facebook recently, we are never really snowed in for more than 2 days, ever, and most of us live within walking distance of a Wawa, our beloved convenience store chain. Perhaps Philadelphians are required to eat nothing but french toast when it snows? my view

I grew up in the mountains where we were quite accustomed to being snowed in, yet my bad winter experiences had me nodding my head at the FTE. It seemed like an appropriate response. After all, the FTE fits with images of winter in literature. The Dutch are all cozy, but in the stories I read as a kid, a little matchstick girl dies in the snow, as does, I think, the entire cast of La Boheme. Dying in the snow is quite a common form of death, apparently. If characters weren’t dying, they were losing fingers and toes to frostbite (a malady I’ve barely escaped at least a dozen times). So I totally got the FTE.

But I’m warming up to hygge. The concept was revolutionary: one can like and even cherish, that witch Winter. After all: no mosquitos; fewer allergy symptoms; the school year (I’m a work-at-home mom); crackling fires and roasting marshmallows; fresh air. And really, any excuse to buy more candles is OK by me.

I’ll never like the snow or the sub-freezing temps, but I can embrace hygge. I can look forward to a season full of comforts instead of dreading one full of coughs. Perhaps this is what growing older, or just growing up, means. I can not only change my mind, I can calm it. Imagine that.wintery wood

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a hand drawn graphic of the world of bullet journaling

A few weeks ago I started a bullet journal. Does it lead me toward my goals or away from them?

Bullet list to bucket list

A lot of life’s big questions are hidden in daily life. They can be in street signs (Danger Ahead), heard in innocent observations by toddlers (“But why?”) or even in a breakfast cereal tagline (They’re always after me Lucky Charms). Even software wants you to grapple with your existence. The Format menu in Apple’s Pages is actually a list of existential choices:

  • Spacing: Are you Single or are Double(d)?
  • Bullets: Yes or no?
  • Alignment: Are you Centered? All-Right, All-Left? Justified?
  • Font: From whence do you draw your ________ (knowledge, strength, love, stress)?

The new year resolution promises a New You. This is the time of year we attempt to change out fates. We make plans. We write lists. 

Answering the call, many are ready to try yet another technique. Enter the bullet journal, folks! 

Coloring In

A bullet journal in essence is a hand-drawn, highly-customizable life planner.I started my bullet journal unceremoniously at the end of November.  A symbolic system exists to use in a bullet journal, but I chose to wing it rather than take 2 minutes to watch a video tutorial. 

I grabbed blank books from my stash. I wandered over to the Land of Misfit School Supplies (the china cabinet drawer) and took pencils, a 6-inch Scooby Doo ruler and a handful of worn out markers. I dusted off my unused stamps and scrapbooking stuff and dove in to the practice of jounaling bullets.

I stamped a graphic of a Christmassy mailbox on the first page and colored it in. I made a calendar for the week on the next two pages. I wrote down all the upcoming driving (of children to lessons and jobs and things), all appointments, and all fun plans. Each morning when I sat down to actually journal (write thoughts in a diary), I saw my week laid out in my (admittedly grade-school level) designs. Level me up one in organization skill. 

Come to Bujos

It was nice to see the week ahead, but I didn’t yet feel the force of the #bujo. True believers log their entire lives. They track episodes in a free-HBOGO-trial-til-February Westworld binge. They record chapters they read and showers they took and chia seeds they ate.

Those things are not #data. They log them anyway. 

PokémonGO logs my miles (nay, kilometers) as I walked. The Calm app green-circles meditation sessions and noted my “streak” (38 days in a row, currently). Is this not enough logging? I’m no Captain of the Starship Enterprise; my day needn’t be quantified so dearly. I am but a small speck in the universe who leaves a slight smell of shampoo in her wake. I do not leave a trail of data. Anyway, data doesn’t exist until you capture it.

I needn’t capture that much.

The few tasks I wanted to do daily (meditation, yoga, journal writing, a walk for exercise, a craft, and some fiction writing) are in a graphing-paper chart I made with squares to fill in. I added an extra column for “Saw friends” – to be checked off at the very least once a week (One must make efforts to see friends when one is adulting).

Every single day of December, with the simple goal to only observe myself, I filled in (or didn’t) the squares under each task. I nailed meditation (not wanting to interrupt the green circle streak) and missing only 1 day of picking up my knitting needles. The rest of the tasks had varying degrees of participation. The most empty column: fiction writing. And as for friends? I didn’t average even one face-to-face a week. In December, I saw exactly 2 friends. Sadly, this is typical. And simply unacceptable.

I came, I saw, I’m conquered

At the end of December, I had a chart filled with blank after blank. The sight helped me commit to real change in 2017.

I sped over to Pinterest for other #bujo ideas. The eye candy was endless. What else could I track? Pages read? Time spent brushing my teeth? How many shoes I tied? I could track everything! I could color in squares forever!

I could be coloring in squares forever.

Wait.

Ready, Aim, Track

One can get caught up in tallying marks. Soon it become all about the tallies and not about doing the tasks.

Whats the point of tracking my knitting? Projects get done or they don’t. My reading? I’m not struggling to meet grad school requirements. My fiction writing? I finish projects or I don’t. The proof is in the hard-to-stomach publish or perish pudding, Kids, not the checkmarks.

I understand the pull of task tracking. Look up Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” trick. It’s an old but good method of motivation, especially when fear, anxiety, or other obligations derail even the best of intentions.

But other data like TV shows watched, movies seen in theaters, eyebrow tweezing frequency? We must be careful not to get caught in the intoxicating lure of the easy fix. If we’re tracking trees, we’re losing sight of the forest. 

Daily bullet journals should track *real* life-changing goals, like how many times I: 

  • “Shut down the negative voice in my head.”
  • “Complemented instead of criticized my kid/spouse/employee/boss.”
  • “Took a deep breath before I spoke.”
  • “Revealed my true feelings by saying ‘I feel’ ____________.”
  • “Used ‘I’ statements instead of ‘You’ statements in an argument.”
  • “Said directly what I wanted instead of expecting others to know by now.”
  • “Talked through my anxiety and intrusive thoughts.”

These are the big life skills that matter. Yet I don’t see the bullet journalers diving deep into the mess that lays at the core of a disorganized life. Logging the little bits allows us to ignore the important in favor of the frivolous.

I’ll use a bullet journal to work on drawing skills and organize my week, but if I pick up a pen to write a story each time I’m tempted to chart vapor, I’ll be GOLDEN.

 __________________

To see the original idea and be sold products: Bulletjournal.com/about

Dontbreakthechain.com – inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s method

First banner photo by Sacha Chua on Flickr. All the other photos are mine, of my current bullet journal. I told you I draw like a gradeschooler. I’ll get better. Maybe. 

Nir Eyal has a happiness hack to keep friends close

 

a hand drawn graphic of the world of bullet journaling 0 comments

Resolution

Resolution

by Christine Cavalier

a picture looking up a big flight of metal stairs at night, empty but for one woman walking up them

I don’t know what to do with myself in this climate. Hate seems to be all around me.

Facebook is an infrequent visit, Twitter I’ve all but abandoned. Instagram and Pinterest I try daily to interact with, faithfully adding a picture to Insta and a tech culture development to my Cyberpunk board. Look toward the future while staying firmly in the present, I tell myself. It isn’t possible, of course. I do know this: The past needs to stay there. (It never does.)

My own present cave of mind is relatively peaceful. This week has been kind enough to provide me with comparisons between me now and me then. I wish I could tell you the exact steps I took in this journey of growth but I cannot. It’s terribly hard to give someone directions when one is still wandering. Some things stick out though: One must read a lot, I suspect, to get any insight into being human; Stories, not web articles or social media essays (like this one), are the keys to brighter minds; You must awaken your brighter mind, that forgotten thing hiding in the corners of your existence, and you must do that by (almost) any means necessary.

Behavioral economics books pique my analytical side. Self-help-with-a-twist books give my spirit the idea to soar. Fiction settles and puts me firmly in the place of the gods of my imaginings.

One’s body must move to be able to read. For the intellect to absorb, the body must move. For the hands to produce, the intellect must be fed. I once saw a doctor speak* and he said the hip, glutes and legs must move daily, preferably vigorously, for anxiety to stay at bay. We must internally know (like an ancient instinct all animals have) that we can “outrun the lion.” A smart therapist I saw once told me anxiety is the result when we (think we) have fewer skills than the current challenge requires. We will have less anxiety if our primate brains think we can get out of a bad situation quickly. We will have better lives if we have more faith in our abilities. I walk and walk and walk. I do yoga. I stretch, and not only metaphorically.

a silhouette of a woman meditating against a sunset over an oceanStillness and presence I’ve learned to adopt as my own, and not as oppression from a religious order that could barely be bothered with my young (i.e. yet non-childbearing) female existence. I have no evidence to share other than my suspicions: Stillness is an ability that is part of outrunning the lion. Meditation changed my neuromap, methinks. How can daily sitting and breathing and not judging the vicious traffic of thoughts rushing by change one’s brain structure? It seems silly. But I can feel a difference I won’t be bothered with explaining. Try it yourself.

Might and wonder must be managed. I can manage none but one: myself. Myself is a wild, bold thing, though, and has always been such. Resolute on undignified habits and unsightly ideas. “Manage” being a euphemism here for “mudwrestling my soul into submission,” a more apt description. You’re probably right when you say such a pursuit is futile. I know many people who would say all pursuits are futile, from laundry to orbiting the earth. My child will still call for his favorite Star Wars shirt come Tuesday.

Yesterday I was navigating an errant garbage bin lid and it occurred to me that all that lama-la-la bullshit about “the journey is the destination” is probably, devastatingly, true. The lid, laying there in the walk, sprouted a soul and wailed, “What if this is it? This is all there is, this is the best it gets?” And I thought of airports and trains and stations afar, the places for which “destination” was coined, and the sidewalk in front of me bent and swayed as the traffic chugged by, steam coming from my face and clouding my polarized lenses. I’m here. Mary Bailey wished to simply exist, in that Wonderful Life house, with that existential bum of a husband George, and she got her wish. She finished a leg of her journey and started another. The movie really doesn’t hold up, all these years away from the imposed stillness of my childhood (for the love of cranberries, go on a trip already, George. Work/life balance, FFS), but Mary knew the skinny. The steps are the goal, not the landing at the top.

So yay! We’re on the steps. We’ve gotten to the steps. We’re here. Let the fun begin.

Resolve to do the steps. Walk. Move, literally, your ass and legs. Start small. Slow. Short. Increments are just steps by another name. Each step, whether up or down, is going in the right direction. Did you know as the number of quitting attempts go up, the likelihood of the smoking stoppage goes up? It’s as if smokers must log about 8-10 attempts before one sticks**. This is life. This is why you should resolve to do many things in the new year. Again and again. Resolve on revolve. One will stick.

Since some of you asked, here are 3 books I enjoyed in the last few years of me on my particular flight of stairs. See my goodreads lists for some others. No epiphanies guaranteed, but at least one is probable, if you’ve been walking enough. https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/1726198-christine-cavalier

 

Resolve not to be better this year. Resolve to be.

___________________________________________________

references:

*Kenneth Ginsburg 

**Stats on quitting, Public Health Law Center 

 

Photos: 

Roma Street Steps by Andrew Sutherland on Flickr

“Stillness” by Varia on Flickr

a picture looking up a big flight of metal stairs at night, empty but for one woman walking up them 0 comments

A little more than a week or so ago I broke. The vitriol surrounding the election became too much, and Donald Trump’s careless and insensitive comments were simply too triggering for me. It came time to shut down the majority of my use of Facebook and Twitter. 

I reduced my Facebook use to the bare minimum and restricted my Twitter use to a minimum, and only in the wee hours of the morning after I woke. The Brits are much more pleasant lately (and the Brexit talk doesn’t affect me as harshly). On my post of a black square picture on Instagram announcing my sabbatical, a friend suggested, in the interim, I should read Cal Newport‘s book Deep Work

Here’s the cover: 

deepworkcover

I’m reading it. I’m on page 190. This is hard to believe, coming from me, but I’m buying into the reduced-to-no-FB/Twitter -use argument. All evidence is pointing me in that direction. I started this journey years ago after reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book Distraction Addiction, and followed with many other neuroscience-based books. In the interim I’ve also picked up a yoga and meditation practice. Deep Work is the last in a long line of alternate-universe information, and along with this election, I’ve finally been broken.

A Brief and Unwonderous History of Mixed Messages

I’ve always been a writer. I was never interested in it as a career, though. It was simply a pastime. Occasionally I’d write for the public. For the past several years, I’ve been blogging personally and professionally. Now I’m attempting to make a 100% dive into fiction writing. As Mr. Newport mentions in Deep Work, I’m attempting to grok writing. “Grok” is not simply to know a field but to live, breathe and eat the subject. 

Here’s the problem: while public exposure may follow basically universal rules, how writers exist is a highly individualized thing. Many different messages are hurled at the novice: you must have a social media “platform;” you must be a lightning-fast, high-output creator; you have to do all your own marketing and you must market – hard – daily.

Rumors

There is no way of knowing if any of these “rules” will apply to me, so it is paralyzing to make bold moves like allowing my Twitter account to languish so I may dive deeper into my work. Modern (or is it post-modern?) lore tells me of course I’ll let my Twitter account languish. After all, it is great writing that sells books, not marketing tricks. After being around marketing types for a long while and reading countless excellent books that hardly saw the light of day, a competing lore arises: even great writing needs marketing.

Other lore in the writing community is that of the necessity of the MFA. My lack of enrollment in an MFA program apparently is a bad thing in the fiction world. MFAs are the only ways to get “real” NYC editorial contacts, the only way to find any “real” success as a writer, the only way to sell books. More lore: starting to write in your 40s is useless, writing is a talent and can’t be learned, your novel will never be published by any Big 5 publishers, and you’ll never find an agent. These are common adages or myths in the writing world, and as a n00b, it’s impossible to know the difference.

Crushed

The lack of Facebook and Twitter has brought back a familiar feeling I haven’t had since before DSL availability: the crushing hours. “The crushing hours” were parts of days I would spend alone and bored. Crushing hours are vortexes of existence in an emotionally and mentally drained state. Compounding the utter boredom was being trapped. I had little to no control over my own life. The crushing hours were born when I was a child. We had very little stimulation as kids, and the summers smushed me flat. I watched a lot of TV, but we only had 4 channels and a little black-and-white box. The library was the only source for books and since it was miles and miles away, we visited there only occasionally. I had no magazine subscriptions. I was in a rural town with not many kids my age or any friends. Then there was the unmentionable parts that I’d rather not speak of (and why Donald Trump is such a triggering a-hole). Those summer days absolutely tortured me. I hated my school by the time I was halfway through my schooling, but I preferred it to the devastatingly blank summer and any length of time spent with my family.

Elements needed for the crushing hours:

  • Long stretches of time of no contact with another human being (or very bad contact with family members)

  • Lots of quiet

  • Sunny days (not sure why)

  • Various forms of exhaustion and malaise

Everything Old Is New Again

This FB and Twitter 90%-blackout reminds me those crushing hours. Yes, I have much, much more stimulation in and control over my life now. I have plenty to keep me occupied. But when I look over the sun-streaked expanse of my living room where I’ll be spending my day writing, it’s as if the wonderful oodles of quiet work time morph into the crushing hours. Something about the lack of social internet interaction feels exactly the same.

I’m not surprised, though. For many years I’ve struggled with my brain and its almost-frenetic need of interesting information. It will fill my time with anything, anything to avoid the crushing hours. You cannot imagine the amount I’ve read, seen, participated in online. It is only recently I’ve withdrawn from most social interactions offline, too. Anything to keep learning, keep thinking, keep moving. Anything, anything but the crush.

I knew the day was coming where I must overcome this fear, this trauma born of a tortured and torturous youth, of feeling alone, trapped and worst of all, bored. The (horrific) association I have with long stretches of quiet time at home is something I must fix. I haven’t felt the full impact of the crushing hours until now, though. I had to ban myself from the social apps to feel it truly. The mere feeling is exhausting and prevents me from writing fiction (non-fiction is like schoolwork and not a problem – quite enjoyable, actually). 

But Sense Prevails

After September 11, 2001, I swore off all mainstream (and other) news. No more local or national news shows, newspapers, radio, etc. The media had lost my trust and 9/11 broke all decorum on sensationalism standards. Instead, I received important news via friends and online networks. That was sufficient, until now. All integrity and with it all usefulness of Facebook and Twitter in delivering me respectful news via my network of friends and cool people, has dropped out of the internet. “Perhaps,” I thought, “this election is the cause, and efficacy will recover afterward.” I went on a 90% sabbatical. But now I realize, if I want to live and breathe writing, if I want to grok fiction, I can never go back to 100% participation online. I’m not sure what the percentage of my previous level will be, but I’m going to have to face the looming crushing hours. It’s the only way. And it’s time.

I Kinda Hate All of This

I’m writing all of this, still only half-believing I’m about to transform who I am. I’m connected! I am a techie! I’m on top of (mostly) all memes and trends! 

But that is who I was. And now I’m just a cliché: ultra connected social media junkie goes dark. (sigh)

It wasn’t all about avoiding the crushing. I love the everflow. It is candy for my brain. Learning new stuff, I thought, was an honorable pastime. As I’m discovering, I learned only surface things. Nothing too deep, nothing worthy of my prolonged concentration. The only thing I’ve truly dedicated (sporadic, unfortunately) time to is the art of fiction writing. For the past decade, there is no other subject I’ve spent more time and money on. I *want* this.

This book, DEEP WORK, is reminding me of life in graduate school, of being in the flow of systems administration, of doing anything at the expert level. It’s time to buckle down and study. It’s time to not only face the crushing hours but accept them. I want to see long hours of quiet time alone at home as a potential jump in writing experience (and hopefully, an uptick in expertise). It’s time to grok this thing.

Get in touch with me

I wish I could stay the old me, online and gregarious, funny and followed, and forever seeking to help, WHILE writing novels and short stories. But I have to try this thing. Do stay in touch, please. Sign up for blog updates. You can still use FB and Twitter to find me but I may not respond so quickly. Even email is relegated to once or twice a day (trying to work that down to once or .5/day on average). Instagram seems to be where I spend the most time out of all of these sites. Follow me there as @purplecar_cc. I hope you stay with me. 

 

 

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