The Appreciative Lens

I believe I mentioned that I tend to be a glass is half full type person, more or less, so it is appealing for me to express gratitude, that is, to apply an appreciative lens, whenever possible, to the world around me.

It raises some ethical implications, though. If I am grateful for something, am I claiming to deserve it, or even worse, that others somehow don’t deserve it? (Is it enough for me to say, no, I don’t, no, I wish everyone has something joyful which they are grateful for?) In the face of news such as 85,000 children dying of hunger in Yemen, the rising risk of climate devastation, the (this list is endless), is it deeply wrong to appreciate anything?

Yes and no. There is almost always reason for grief and outrage, every day. Yet there is almost always reason for gratitude and joy, every day. Let me never look away from that which creates sorrow or that which diminishes my fellow human beings, so that I might seek action and words to bring about positive changes. But let me also appreciate that which brings joy. Ethically speaking, it seems inappropriate, wasteful even, not to recognize that which is joyful. And this is where I am perhaps naive, but I imagine that by embracing joy and cultivating gratitude, I might expand the possibility of joy.

I may be wrong. The challenges we face deserve humility, too.

Still, let me celebrate the following:

I am grateful for my family and friends. I am astonished daily by how lucky I am to have these good people in my life. And, of course, for the puppy who took over our lives this year.

I am grateful for moments when I can laugh or even smile. There have been times when that was hard, and I missed it. Yet it is easier right now, and I want to appreciate that for as long as it lasts.

I am grateful for the many people who step forward every day to share their thoughts, voices, and talents with the world. I am grateful at how various private and public systems (and the individuals within them) work well, more often than not, even if the attention is given to what goes wrong rather than what goes right.

I am grateful for this sunny morning, the air crisp, the sky blue, the chance to breathe in and be still in the moment. To let wonder fill me.

On time.

Some friends do not approach time management as I do. I try to control time by getting in front of it, structuring it, protecting it, prioritizing it. As best as I can tell, they control time by denying its existence for as long as possible. If they arrive late to an event, it is not, as it is for me, a failure in time management but a victory—they squeezed out more time for something they’d rather do at that moment. It is not necessarily that they don’t want to do whatever else they were supposed to do, but that they love not giving in until the last minute.

It is an approach that would drive me crazy, and has occasionally driven me crazy as someone on the receiving end of it, but I admit that there is a richness to the way they approach their lives that is sometimes missing from my much more structured approach.

Hmm. Note to self. Slow down. Embrace the richness of this moment now.

Okay, my self immediately answers. As long as I won’t be late.

Music to my ears

Earlier today, I was ready to give up on most of my goals for the day. Instead of writing or working out after work, I crawled in bed for a short nap and kicked myself for not starting earlier. I had a bad feeling I was going to waste the rest of the day.

But a short nap later, I realized a quick work-out was possible. And then that work out re-energized me, and I decided I could squeeze in a short visit to see a loved one in an assisted living facility. Ran back home and convinced my husband to join me at a hastily scheduled protest in downtown, which turned out to be conveniently short so we arrived in plenty of time for my daughter’s evening orchestra concert.

As the music filled the air, I felt a delight at what happens when I actually spend time on things that matter.

Though the nap helped, too.

bear with yield sign

Yield Days

So I have been working on the novel for 21 days straight, though that is only true because I wrote one word yesterday. Some might call that grade inflation, but they are people who deserve pity for their obsessive need to judge others.

Ahem. Anyway, I thought this might be a good time to talk about what I call “yield days.” I frequently benefit from the strategy of setting daily goals, in which I commit to put in time every day towards the same goal, such as “write every day on my novel,” or sometimes, “go for a walk every day,” or least successfully “cut out sugar.”

I first experienced the power of such daily goals through nanowrimo.org, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, and if you are at all curious, you should check it out. I also found this strategy within college success curriculum, in which it might be called the 32 day commitment, or the 28 day commitment, or the fill-in-the-blank-how-long-you-think-it-will-take commitment, which is based on the premise that if you do the same thing every day for X amount of days, it will become a habit and easier to achieve. Most of my students usually appreciated this strategy, too, especially (of course) if they got to choose what goal to set.

I have found it helpful when I am pursuing a daily commitment to make myself recognize when I am in the middle of a “yield day.” That is, I realize that due to life events, I must yield on my goal. If I get sick, for example, I might not be able to keep up with a daily exercise goal for a few days. If a loved one experiences a crisis, I might not have the time or the focus to write that day. There are many days when small distractions tempt me to back off on my daily commitment, and on those days, I have to push hard or figure out how to make my goal happen, such as a pathetic version of a workout or, um, writing one word on my novel. Because I am pushing myself so much to stay focused on this goal, I sometimes catch myself becoming a (sulky) bear during a crisis or life event until I remind myself, yield. This is not a day when I can stick with this commitment. It is understandable and forgivable to be off track for today. Yielding today does not mean I won’t try again tomorrow.

Sometimes I even draw a yield sign on my calendar for the day, just to remind myself that I did not let myself down that day. I just had other commitments that took priority.

Run towards the work

Though I am making steady progress on my novel, each step forward reveals the need for many, many, many more steps ahead. Thus writing this novel is what I define as both a major project and as time-consuming work, which are not necessarily the same. In this case, though, both terms fit. Getting this novel across the finish line will not happen overnight, so it’s a major project. Yet it will not be completed by several quick bursts of creative writing, but rather hours of seat-of-the-pants to seat-of-the-chair kind of work.

To which my advice, in my e-book on time management, and now to myself, is to run towards the work, not away from it. When a project seems daunting, or when the work seems all-consuming, the temptation will be to run away, to wiggle away out of it, to do anything else, for any reason, worthwhile or not.

When I feel that temptation to escape, I need to remind myself to run towards the work. Run towards what I fear, not away.

In this case, it is the smartest choice I can make.

In defense of Mondays

My goal today is to reclaim Mondays from all the haters out there. It is not a random goal. In recent years, my adolescent children have come to dread Mondays and the return to school in ways they never did in the past. Monday casts a long shadow over Sunday and even sometimes Saturday, as they bemoan the return of the week, the structure and repetition of the school day, the work, the risk of failure.

As a parent, it is hard for me to gauge the intensity of their unhappiness. It seems to me that there can be the typical Monday blues or the intense something’s-got-to-change Monday blues, which I had during my first year teaching middle school. I was so unhappy in that role that I had to force myself to drive to work each morning. I remember literally clenching my hands on the wheel. Everything in my spirit called me to turn around, to do anything else. After four years, I made some progress in the role but found the public school climate so negative that I sought a career change, and from then on, Mondays marked the end of the weekend but nothing quite so traumatic.

So here are two extremes: Mondays where one notices the contrast between the freedom of the weekend and the pressure of the work week versus the Monday that casts a long shadow over the weekend and the horizon.

In my experience, if Mondays feel the way they did for me teaching middle school, it’s time to find another job. Any other job. A larger change is needed.

But the other type of feeling–that is the Monday blues I want to challenge. To rename. To reconstruct.

Here’s why: Your life, my life, my children’s life will be filled with Mondays. And as those who have had brushes with death and loss will tell you, every day is a gift.

Let’s start with the basics.

I am alive today.

The people I work with are alive and they all or almost all came back to work today. If any of us were missing, there would be a void in this office, there would be a loss.

So I can celebrate that we are here.

As I write, it is a Monday, and the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It is a cold but beautiful November day. I could worry about the winter ahead and the ongoing threat of bad weather, or I could notice that blue sky and generous bath of sunlight.

Here’s what also can make Monday a special day. I don’t yet know what this week will be like. I may think I do. I may expect more of the same, or I may think that looking at my calendar tells me exactly what will happen, which is perhaps the most foolish thing I ever find myself thinking, really. There are surprises ahead, at least the potential of surprises.

There is also the comfort of routine. At home, my children and spouse are sweet and easy to be around. And sometimes they are not. At work, the routine provides a space where I may step back from that volatility, a space to be someone else by day, someone I am still trying to get to know. I think I know who I am when I am at work, but I am still learning, still changing. The routine is an illusion; change is happening every minute, sometimes the best changes.

Mondays are full of potential, perhaps the richest day of the week in terms of what could happen this week. It is a launching point. If I am going to accomplish anything amazing, either internally or externally, it will start thanks to a Monday. To hate Monday, to avoid Monday, is to hate effort and to hate the steps forward that bring us to new places.

And of course, Monday happens regardless. So to make a stand against Monday is to make a stand against ocean tides. It is futile. We all have moments when we must endure hard times or even hardships. But to create a hardship out of something that could be a resource? That is a shame.

If I wish away my Mondays, I am sleep-walking through my own life. I am missing out on some of the best moments because I am deciding in advance that they are not worth my time or attention.

I often reflect on the idea of scarcity versus abundance. Monday by sheer perception can be a day of scarcity or a day of abundance. It is in your hands to decide which it will be.

 

In praise of naps

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A loved one has Alzheimer’s. While her memory resembles Swiss cheese, her mood is upbeat, which is not what you read on the list of scary symptoms of Alzheimer’s. I attribute this to her commitment to naps, lots of naps. Now that I think about it, it makes sense. I, too, may get annoyed when I forget something or make a mistake of any sort, really, yet if you just let me take a nap, I’ll be fine later on.

I think I am on to something here. I wonder if the world would be a more peaceful place if naps were more accessible, especially to anyone with a finger on any kind of trigger. You really shouldn’t be sleep-deprived in the vicinity of weapons.

Okay, you may be right. Making sure everyone has enough to eat probably should come first. And health care. And, yes, respecting human rights would be a plus.

But let’s add naps somewhere on the list.

What have I forgotten to say?

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Good news. So far, I am 4 for 4 in keeping my daily commitment to work a few hours on my novel each day.

A recent writing/revision strategy emerged for me in working on this novel and on my e-book, which is to ask myself this question: What have I forgotten to say? Now, in keeping with my future epitaph of “done is better than perfect,” I don’t claim to have successfully filled every gap in my writing. I do claim, though, that asking this question tends to lead me to discover areas to improve or expand in my work.

While I believe “Less is more” when it comes to writing, I also know that sometimes I write less than I should. I usually know what everything means, what every character is thinking, why events are unfolding the way they are, but I forget to share enough of this with the reader.

At any rate, I am finding my way back to work on my novel. Of course, the most effective strategy that nonetheless always comes as a surprise to me is this one: Just start.  Don’t wait for inspiration: Just spend some time with the project.

Diving back into my novel

My e-book on time management is now complete, or at least, moved into the category of “done is better than perfect,” which I might ask people to write on my tombstone or whatever you get when you wish to be cremated. So I am diving back into my historical novel after taking several months off.

At a writer’s retreat recently, our fearless leader asked us to state where we were in the process. If I were a cartoon character, my eyebrows would have hopped off my forehead. There is no right answer for that question for my novel right now. So much has been written and rewritten already over the past five years. Scrivener tells me it’s over 100,000 words, which is the longest novel I’ve ever written, though still short by other writers’ standards. Yet done, even “done is better than perfect,” still lingers somewhere in the horizon.

So how to dive back in? Other than committing to work on the novel first thing every day from now on and aiming to clock in 1-2 hours of effort, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I started surfing through the novel’s file on Scrivener to see what might tempt me. Before I knew it, I was sorting and reordering ideas and notes into existing scenes, and then dove into a major reworking of my task list for the novel. Does this count as writing? For today, yes. Tomorrow I will begin working scene by scene to begin making the changes assigned to each of them. Usually if I narrow my focus to just one scene, I can begin writing or revising. I hope.

Cross your fingers that I move smoothly from goal-setting to goal-implementing.