Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Doldrums

The Doldrums (the intertropical convergence zone) are a physical place, near the equator, where winds from north and south converge. The Doldrums encompass both violent thunderstorms and what Wikipedia calls "stagnant calms." The "calm" part of which I think of more as "lack of anything happening," instead of "peacefulness." And the violent thunderstorms are most often expressed as "Omigod what happened to summer????"

In any case, several people have mentioned symptoms of being in The Doldrums lately. Maybe it's the heat, which discourages purposeful activity but doesn't erase the guilt for "wasting" perfectly beautiful sunny days. Regardless, summer is slipping away (September is THURSDAY! Autumn is nearly HERE!) and that stirs up feelings of panic or wistfulness, depending.

Natural disasters like storms or earthquakes don't help. Neither do unsettling events, like the death of Jack Layton at a young 61. We, too, are mortal. And we, too, may leave this earth before we get to do everything we wanted. And there's that summer, GONE or nearly so.

I experienced my own Doldrms a bit early, a few weeks ago, and found a few things that helped me through them, which I offer here.

1. Declare. Do you wish for more summer? Then pick a date and let it be summer until then. Autumn doesn't officially start for another 3.5 weeks -- or go wild and let September be summer all month long. Or maybe you're gearing up for a new school year or other autumnal activities. Great! Start them early, if it's not already too late. Or commit to them for real. Let summer go and welcome fall. Whether you extend summer or let it go is your decision.

2. Dream. Now comes the fun part. What do you want this time to include? If you're having another month of summer, you might need to pick bite-sized versions of those things you meant to do but didn't. It's too late to plant and tend a vegetable garden -- but you can go to a Farmer's Market and take advantage of others' green thumbs. Maybe you won't go on that two-week kayak adventure, but you can still rent a kayak for a few hours. A bonus is that you might learn that two weeks in a kayak is perhaps more than you want to do.

If you're already welcoming fall, you can look a bit farther ahead. What particular activities do you want to try this season? Visit a corn maze. Bake a pumpkin pie from the meat of a real pumpkin. Host a Grey Cup party. Get involved in the provincial election campaign. Brainstorm and doodle and mind-map. You can pare them down later -- this is the time to have fun.

Speaking of Jack Layton, one person interviewed at his funeral said something extremely thought-provoking. She said that his death is causing her to re-evaluate her priorities. While he was alive and leading the NDP, she was content to let him be the one speaking up, to let him do the work. Now that he's gone, she thought, maybe it's time for her to get more directly involved.

If you have a month of summer before you, you may not have time to complete a big project that has meaning for you. In that case, piggyback on someone else's. I'm still a fan of the Communicatrix's 50-for-50 campaign that benefits WriteGirl, a nonprofit that gets girls writing. You could also join the bone marrow donor bank in your country (see the links at right) -- it's as easy as a cheek swab.

If you're jumpstarting fall, you can also donate, and then take on a larger project that speaks to you. Again, lots of people are already working hard and need a helping hand. Maybe you get involved with the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Grannies for Africa, your local HIV/AIDS/Hepatitis C support group, a homeless shelter, a food bank. Maybe you get a gaggle of friends and go to a fancy fund-raiser together. Part of your dream should let you look back at the end of November and say, "Yeah, I did this."

Which brings us to...

3. Do. Yeah, this is the "hard" part. Here's where I make the calendar, a physical paper calendar, my friend. In August, I committed to doing a few things every day and then checked them off when I was done. It was incredibly satisfying. Check! Check!!

Two key points. First, "a few things" means you have to whittle down the list of things you dreamed of. Pick and choose. For your month of summer, one "summer bite" thing a week may be all you can handle. For your fall, maybe you add only one larger commitment (join a book club) and one smaller, one-off event (going to a gala). Or a smaller one each month. Second, accountability-commitment-reward. Jerry Seinfeld's "don't break the chain" may work for you. You may have a finely honed sense of responsibility and don't need gold stars or red checkmarks or Xs. Good for you! (Who are you kidding--you know you want a sticker. Hie thee to a back-to-school sale.)

Key point two-point-five. I also think "every day" was helpful -- as in 15 minutes of writing (new writing, not revising or editing or otherwise dinking around) every day instead of 2 hours a week, because I can find 15 minutes where I can talk myself out of 2 hours. (Plus 15 minutes was usually longer, but when it wasn't, that was OK too.) But your mileage may vary.

Lots of people have lots of advice about the "do" part. Here's the deal: you are competent in other areas of your life. You know how to do that stuff stuff. You can do this writing stuff, too. Don't make it harder than it has to be.

And that's it. I'm just home from a brief time away (aka vacation), and once I'm done happy dancing (I LOVE it here), I'm getting out my calendar and gearing up for September and beyond. I can look back at an August that included lots of productive writing, lots of being outside, and regular work. I didn't conquer The Doldrums, exactly; I just evened out the mood swings a little and kept on, and I have the checkmarks to prove it. And if I can -- well, you can, too.