Monday, August 23, 2021

Dreams, Daylight, and Rooms (Poem)

I used to have a golden dream

I retreated to for relief,

For belief

Once -- maybe twice --

I saw stars in a darkened sky

I used to believe in things like dreams, and stars,

And skies

Perhaps I've traded 

Promises of the night

For the fragile realities of daytime?

The green of leaves

The explosion of flowers

The sturdiness of living wood,

The harbingers of the living world

There is glory in these,

No doubt

And having been in greying rooms

That were just here, just now

Which required dreams to live through

I am grateful for fragility,

No doubt

But shouldn't a life

-- Real and full --

Have day and night,

Dreams, stars, and sunlight?

Perhaps -- perhaps

I need a different dream

Before I can open my eyes

In this other darkened room

Friday, August 20, 2021

A two-dimensional river (Poem)

On the dock by the river

A pattern of criss cross

As good as two dimensions

Are going to get

The current pushed aside

By another force

Is this not

What real life looks like?

Bordered by rocks and lily pads

Stagnant batches in the middle

Lost in the details

Of the side show --

Wishing for "smooth" 

-- Whatever that means --

Then wondering why it seems

To push by 

Too fast

On occasion, a wonder --

A funnel, a swirl, a vortex --

Captivating to contemplate,

A window into the third dimension

-- But ultimately,

Only one direction,

And that is down

A reminder to master the flow of the two

Before we try to plumb

The mysteries of the third

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Wishing at sea (Poem)

Sitting by the breezy sea

Unlike most wishes,

This one comes true

Is that, perhaps,

Why we love the sea?

We know what it can give us

And what it can do

And we know that,

In its own way,

It makes everything else

A little better

Is it the taste and smell of salt?

On the most humid of days

Does it feel a little less heavy

Because instead of moisture

We feel salt giving us a hug?

Is it the sounds?

Waves against rocks or stones

Birds protesting

The escape of food?

We know we are not alone

Or at least

We can believe it

Is it the sight of everything mundane

Suddenly become majestic?

The grey of water

Is now sunlit silver

The blue of sky

Reflecting back a little bit

Of its own glory

The whiteness of clouds

A little fuller

Now that they

Are closer to their home

Skyline meets sea-line on the horizon

Perhaps everything is coming home to itself

This wish,

Unlike most,

Comes true at sea

Monday, August 16, 2021

Awakening (Poem)

Awakening with time

In time

Trying on for size

The responsibilities of the day,

The days that make up

Lives

Holding onto sleep, the comfort

Of simply existing

Without the need to prove

Value or meaning

Enjoying contentment

There is nothing to wake up for

Enthusiasm for the day,

The future

Is replaced by satisfaction

With the present

But sunlight can be treachery

Just as are the memories and torments

Of the dark

And contentment

Is always fleeting

We do not rise for enthusiasm

We rise for hope

That we can construct our lives

Day by day

Not with what we must do

But what we have chosen to do

Contentment is fleeting

As is sunlight

As are memories, good and bad

Good and sad

And as is the day

But the things we do

The things we choose

The days -- 

The life -- 

We construct

Are the things that endure

Thursday, August 12, 2021

...but I'm not a minimalist

I've discussed my love of Marie Kondo's philosophy of tidying before, and I will do so again. Perhaps it is because I loved her books so much and read them so closely that I'm always dismayed when she's characterized as a minimalist. No, no, no. She specifically says that when you tidy, your focus should be on what you keep, not what you cast off. Kondo writes about people experiencing a "click", wherein they will feel that they now have the right amount of possessions, and that's when they should stop tidying. (She also does not say that everyone should limit themselves to the thirty books that she feels comfortable with, but the internet loves repeating its bs, so don't let facts stop you.)

Before Kondo arrived at her method, she was obsessed with throwing things away, and wasn't sure why she was still miserable even after discarding bags and bags of things. It was only when she had the insight to focus on what she was keeping that her method was truly born. I bring this up to explain not only why her work resonates with me, but also why I am not a minimalist.

If Kondo wanted to know why she was unhappy no matter how much she got rid of, others want to know why they were miserable no matter how much they had. For them, minimalism, or getting down to the brass tacks of what they needed to survive, was what they needed to break free of consumerism.

Believe me, I sympathize, and maybe other Gen-Xers do as well. Many of us were born when things were tight in the 1970s, and were alternately dazzled and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in the 1980s. (And for those of us who could not afford all of the trappings, many of us felt and sometimes were bullied.) I appreciate the luxury of being able to say "No" to stuff you don't want and don't need. If I'm going to take on a label, then the one I want is Anti-Consumerist.

Perhaps it is because I am reflexively atheist, but there is just too much of a vow of poverty and the promise of salvation to the current cult of minimalism to appeal to me. It is the opposite side of the coin of consumerism: if one fetishizes things, the other venerates not having them. Neither appears at all to be helpful or healthy.

I am reminded of the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode, "The Saint"/"A Person of Interest". You may know this as the one that starred Stephen Colbert as the villain, James Bennett (I am not making this up), but what I think about is his character's mother, Betty. The detectives figure out that she was suffering from a form of depression which made her vulnerable to wanting salvation, and the church she was a part of took advantage of that by encouraging her to donate beyond her means even when she had a child to raise. This is what so many minimalists look like to me when they focus on how little they have.

Focusing on having almost nothing as a way to salvation seems, to me, to be indulging in as much magical thinking as those who buy into marketing and advertising. The underlying premise of just about all of it is that you will be happier merely because you possess said thing, whether that's a piece of software, an item of clothing, or a hard-to-find ingredient. The promise of minimalism is that you will be happier merely by not having it. As I said, two sides of the same coin.

I find both minimalism and consumerism to be automatic and unexamined. Both are, in their own ways, belief systems. One says have as little as you can (and you're helping the environment), the other says have as much as you can (and you're helping the economy). I like belief systems -- they're very simplifying -- but neither reflect the messiness of reality. In every day life, we need to make choices that reflect the nuance of our options.

I need to eat, therefore I need food (the ultimate disposable consumption category). That's a primal need, so much so that most people don't argue that is a need...but you will get people who will tell you that you should eat so much, or only so much, of this ingredient or that ingredient. You should eat at home, of course, because cooking for yourself is cheaper and more customizable, but that's not always helpful advice for someone with a busy work schedule. (Well, why are you working so much in the first place?) You should be willing to make an investment purchase and get only the most pristine, organic, locally produced option available, but that's not always possible for someone who has a limited budget.

Then there's shelter, clothing, healthcare, and transportation. Those are essentials, and the decisions about them always come with trade offs; sometimes it makes sense to consume, and sometimes it makes sense to think about consuming as little as possible. But for the majority of people, no one philosophy makes sense all the time.

I am right now reading The Day The World Stops Shopping by J.B. Mackinnon and re-reading The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Daczyzn. The exploration of these topics and the proposed solutions feel like the middle of the road between minimalism and consumerism, because they require thought and reflection. Those things are exhausting, and sometimes we don't have that luxury. All I can say is that with practice, it become more of a habit of mind than a conscious exercise. Maybe?

But there's no easy answer.

Deb in the City



Friday, July 30, 2021

Busy ≠ Productive ≠ Satisfied

As far as I can tell, Fear Of Missing Out (FOMU) is unfounded. As I've written before, while many people worry that giving up their smartphone will mean they're going to be consumed by thoughts of the social media posts they're missing out on, I've found the opposite to be the case; after just a few days without a smartphone, I didn't even want to check my email on my laptop. Hell, after a week, I didn't really want to look at a computer screen, period. There's this ideal existence out there for me in which my conventional flip-phone is my sole means of electronic communication and my notebooks are my primary vehicle for writing.

You know what else is implied in that ideal existence? Not being so god damned busy, and letting go of that was much more terrifying that letting go of my smartphone and my stupid social media accounts. My sense of self was tied up in those notion of myself as Someone Who Got Things Done, and even more frightening, what if I was bored?

Three months after I walked away from being a Busy Person™, I can assure you, once again, that FOMU is overrated. I'm not only calmer with less on my plate, I'm more satisfied.

What you'd like to use when you have a lot to do

I didn't add anything new to my life. Everything I'm doing now is something that I had to do already, in one way or another. Those projects include:

  • Managing my finances. Now, instead of keeping one eye on my balances and another on my expenses, I'm able to dig in thoroughly and attack some "structural" projects, like refinancing my condo (which I began and completed between May 1 and now). I am loving the kakeibo system, not just because of the structure, but because, as with all things of this nature, it's forcing me to make sure my short-term actions are reconciled with my long-term goals. (And no, I am getting absolutely nothing from you clicking on that link, other than the satisfaction that you're not clicking on an Amazon link.)
  • Educating my sons. I'm calling it "educating" because we're transitioning out of homeschooling, but I'm still playing an administrative role (I don't think this is very different from many other parents of teenagers). Since May 1, this has included getting them ready for a placement exam, helping them register for courses, and navigating the financial aid system (add that to the above category too). 
  • Writing. I've touched on some of the challenges I've encountered over the last few years, not the least of which was negotiating COVID-19 and the effects it had on my family (again, I don't think this makes me very different from many other people, particularly of teenagers). I have felt, in many ways, behind with this project -- here's another reason to avoid busy-ness, because that's a constant state of being, and it's nerve wracking. I've been able to get back into the habit of regular writing -- even if it's just a paragraph on some days -- and I recently felt brave enough to commit to a goal of getting this installment done by the beginning of November (what's the opposite of a stretch goal? A safety goal? Because that's REALLY doable for me) and the whole thing drafted by the end of February (that may be a stretch goal). A few days ago, I went back and figured out what I've already written and what I have left to write. While I've been telling people that I'm half-way through this saga, it turns out that I'm more like 60 percent along (make that 62.5% if you want to be really nerdy about it); 10 down, 6 more to go. (What?!) I may not be able to make the end of February, but now that I have fewer other things to do, I'm going to get much closer that I would have before. (And you'd better believe I'm going to want to throw myself a party when I'm done.)

The above is three bullet items, which doesn't look like a lot, but all of them have multiple layers and nuances. In my experience, that's true for most things -- but also in my experience, those nuances feel like roadblocks when we're juggling multiple projects, but exciting opportunities for growth when we're not. (I'm not exaggerating, but it's something you have to experience for yourself to believe it.) 

Even more importantly, for me at least, is that being able to work on three projects on multiple levels is much more satisfying than having to work on six on a shallow level. When you have, frankly, too many things to get done, emergency mode requires you to keep the high-level goals for everything foremost in your mind, and some of the most important details easily accessible. You have to know The How, but it's very easy to lose sight of The Why. When you have fewer projects, it's harder to lose touch with The Why, and that can "power you through" when the work gets tough (sadly, nothing ever guarantees that sometimes work won't get tough). 

What you can create for yourself when you're not overscheduled
 

All of that means that different parts of your brain are working; instead of a two-dimensional map, you're able to create a three-dimensional globe that helps you navigate in more detail. And instead of feeling like you're going to fall of the page and into the end of the world once your project is over, you'll have a better idea of where your next destination should be and how you should get there.

Which is awesome, because come to think of it, that idyllic existence I talked about above is definitely going to benefit from the presence of a globe.

Deb in the City

Monday, June 28, 2021

Progress is a spiral, but it does happen

I'm a math nerd, in case that wasn't clear before. So when someone said that progress was like a spiral that felt like a circle and showed me a picture, I squinted and said, oh hey, that actually looks like a "screw", which is one of the Simple Machines that makes work easier (you move up not in a straight line but at a more gradual incline; it's slower but it makes it more doable). A fantastic poetic insight, if I do say so myself, but it still doesn't always make it possible to recognize when you're moving up and not just around.

Fortunately, even spirals sometimes have milestone markers.

 

Spiral
It only looks like you're going around in a circle

I homeschool my sons. That feels like a confession every time I say it, because I grew up believing in institutional education (even if I always felt like an alien in those environments). I was so earnest, it took me years to realize something was off. Actually, it took the suffering of one of my children, and then the incredible boredom of another. Schools failed my children in one way, but they fail other children in other ways. Not all children, perhaps, but enough that my conscience doesn't ping me as much as it used to about my decision to pull my children out.

I tried very hard to replicate "school" for my younger children, but it took me less than two years to realize that wasn't what they needed. We prioritized play, and I tried to focus on what they did well rather than what they didn't, with the theory that when they were older everything would basically even out. I wanted them to enjoy their childhoods as much as possible, even when I could feel other adults glaring at me because I was doing it wrong, and even when I could hear in their voices the concern that I was somehow ruining my children. Sometimes that made me dig in deeper, sometimes that filled me with anxiety that maybe I was using my kids as a social experiment and not being their mother. But every time I thought of changing course, the cues I got from my kids indicated that they wouldn't do better with more of a regimen.

Mind you: this did not mean that they loved homeschooling with me every step of the way. They rolled their eyes at me so many times they must have pulled some ligaments, and every mistake I made I was called out on. There's a rightful concern that parents can be the harshest teachers of all and make their kids feel stupid; not too many people talk about the ways in which our kids make us feel stupid (but, you know, maybe they should).

It had always been the plan to send them to community college at about this time. "About this time" because I would have ideally done it last year, but that wasn't much of an option given the pandemic. So we plugged along, with the normal attendant dramas along the way. Finally, we got to the point where they were ready to register for classes at one of the community colleges in Boston, but first they needed to take a math assessment test.

Long story short: they both did really well, in spite of the fact that they had never taken a standardized test before and one of them has significant anxiety around math. That one tested into Pre-Calculus, and the one who likes math better tested into Calculus.

I was overjoyed -- one of them will never have to take math again, and the other *might* be able to get out of a Statistics requirement, but if not, that's the only math class he'll ever need. More importantly, they both know that 1) they can handle standardized tests, and 2) that they can handle math. And we did it without "drilling", year after year, something they didn't like into their minds in a way that would make them dislike it even more.

There was no guarantee this approach would "work" if working means performing intelligence for anyone. But that was never what I wanted for them. I wanted -- and still want -- for them to explore the topics that they are interested in and find the things subjects that thrill their minds. Letting them "play" in different ways with what they liked helped foster that, I'm convinced.

It only looked like we were faltering in place...right?

Deb in the City