Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Focus, Literal to Focus, Figuratively

Someone on a CBC radio morning show recently waxed rhapsodic about Kodak -- in particular, about the power of having one's own camera as a youngster. You're no longer captive to the grown-ups posing everybody in neat rows, to their exhortations to "Stand still! Look like you're having fun!"

I've also found a camera to be a powerful tool -- again, as with zentangles, not for the product itself so much as for the process of taking pictures.

For example: now. I’ve been home for a month. I’m addressing the things I didn’t want to do, which I conveniently put off until “after I don’t have to be available to my brother,” by attacking them 25 minutes at a time. For me, it’s really working.

However, that leaves the multitude of things I *could* do, some of which I also *should* do. But which ones? How much new work do I look for when current clients continue to say they need me at *this time* but then their schedules slip or they go on vacation? Which of the many revisions I *could* be doing is the one I *should* be doing? And which of the new project ideas is the best one to start?

I can get myself quivering like a hummingbird.

Taking pictures calms me and lets me focus. It helps me figure out what’s important. All I have to do is walk out the front door and look down. Or up. Of course, that leads to shots like this.

Or as my husband calls them, “Here’s one you took” shots. Yeah, I like them.

But it's process, not product. When I look -- really look -- around me at the world, my quivering stills. When I amble (winter: slip and slide) down the path toward the water, looking up at the trees, examining the moss on the rocks, listening for ravens or eagles, I am there, doing that thing. When I go back to my work area, I often have answers. If not, I have new insights -- one of which may be that I don’t have to make that decision at this very instant.

It’s not a perfect system, of course. Sometimes I come back and nothing much, internal or external, has changed. But at least I’ve had a few minutes of peace.

Also, I have a whack-load of photos, many of which are out of focus or poorly composed or badly lit. Lots of shots of the ground. Many shots of "where the loons just were." But hey, deleting them is what Photo Friday is for, right?
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Zentangling Toward Victory

Speaking of projects that don't go the way you think they will...

When my brother started his stem cell transplant, I was still here in Canada, and I knew I'd be joining him for part of his recovery time in the U.S. To help myself prepare, I started a project.

Basically, I did a daily zentangle. A zentangle is an image made from drawing repetitive patterns. This link takes you to the site of those who originated the term and have built a cadre of followers.

BTW, it's worth going there to browse awhile -- people do amazing things in this form.

For me, zentangling is more like conscious doodling. That sound you just heard is the upswell of voices from thousands of serious practitioners shrieking, "NO! Tangling is not doodling!" (Note: Each pattern is properly called a "tangle." We are not to use "zentangle" as a verb [even when it's noun-ified]. Both of which rules I have broken in this post. Because I'm rebellious like that.)

Regardless, my practice with zentangles is about the sitting. I'm not "into" following rules (surprise!) about shading and life lines and whatnot. I don't create works of art (at this time, in this medium, caveat caveat). I sit with pens and paper, and I draw, and I try to remember to breathe, and I exercise my patience, and something appears on the page before too much time has elapsed. The end.

Basically, I had two reasons for choosing this form for this project.

First, I couldn't do something related to reading. Reading is one of my primary joys, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. I might not have time, I might not have the concentration, and I might not feel like reading what I brought (which is why I bought the e-reader and remembered my library card). As it turned out, I was able to read. Also write, revise, and work a little. But I didn't know that going in.

Second, this is something I can sorta do. I don't have a lot of "hobbies." I read; I write. I work out in various ways. I eat. I take showers (nothing like a good warm [not hot!] shower after working out). For this project, I wanted to do something different. (I did also take a shower every day but that doesn't have the same feeling of "special project.") My sister (who is much more the visual artist and creates beautiful things) and I spent our summer vacation together in the "parallel play" of drawing zentangles. I knew their ability to make me sit down, calm down, chill out, focus. I've learned a lot from this form of drawing. (You'll likely hear more about that some future week.)

So I bought a special notebook and did a drawing for my brother's transplant days, starting with Day -4 because that's the day I bought the book. Also, that day they were pretty clear on the actual transplant day (Day Zero).

I stopped on Day 94 (last week), also for two reasons: My brother has gone home to upstate New York; his next doctor's appointment isn't for a month. And I ran out of pages in the book.

So I declared it done, as Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project suggests. I even declared victory, as Seth Godin suggests.

Done! Victory? Well, yes. I struggled a little when I defined this project. I decided I had to keep the parameters simple. So I did. I drew a tangle in the shape of the number of The Day, every day. Sure, I could have blogged the process. I could have tried a different tangle every day. I could have done a lot of things. But I kept the parameters simple.

As it turned out, even doing a tangle every single day didn't always work. Some days I drew none; some days I therefore had to draw two. And I decided early on that that was OK, too. In fact, one of the ways in which I knew I was "done" with the project was that I lost track of days. Toward the end (after day 85), I had to draw four pages on one day. Yep. I was done; the project was done. And I am framing it as a victory. (And as I said last week, hooray!)

Every "done" declaration, much less a declaration of "victory" or "failure," is an artificial construct. Life continues. My brother is figuring out what his "new normal" is. I'm back to drawing in front of the TV or when I need to switch gears or when I'm spinning and need to settle down.

And I'm back home. Writing, editing. And yes, planning -- even though I know that projects sometimes don't go the way you expect them to. Because sometimes, they do, or close enough. And you can declare a victory.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hooray! Hurrah! Hip Hip!!

Being married to another writer is...interesting. I learn a lot from him. People imagine we discuss things like Shakespeare and the Oxford comma, and sometimes we do.

However, I sometimes think I learn the most about writing, and life, from our conversations about other things.

Like toilets.

For the past few weeks, we've been addressing various issues around the house. Like toilets. We have a well that's slow to fill, so we always watch our water use. With the holidays, we had guests showering and flushing (thank goodness), so our cistern got low. The cold weather sometimes freezes water in various places in the system, which causes the cistern to fill more slowly (as in, not at all).

We were therefore hyper-aware of every potential leak. The kind of leaks that people on city water systems never notice. Including those in toilets, like the toilet on the main floor. Which my husband recently fixed. "Recently," as in about two weeks ago.

The picture above shows the congratulatory note, written to himself. It's there for anyone who goes into that washroom to see. I suspect it will stay there until I get grossed out and throw it away, but I'm leaving it for now -- because it's a good reminder to me.

I rarely say to myself, "Good for me! Hooray! Yippee!" or anything like that. When I hear good writing news, I might share a little excitement with someone else (my husband or sister or writer-friends), but then I'm apt to think, "Don't want to break my arm patting myself on the back!" or "Yeah, but I haven't done _____" or "Of course, that's not as good as _____."

In contrast, my husband regularly says, "I'm so glad ______." Fill in the blank with "we got the new car," "that project turned out well," "they accepted your story." Or even, "I stopped that leak in the toilet."

He's expressing more than simple gratitude or congratulations, though it is that, too. He's acknowledging that whatever we, he, or I did required some work and now it's done, and life is better. Hooray! Let's celebrate!

Apparently there is no statute of limitations, either. He recently said, "I'm so glad we got this chair for you." The chair in question is 7 years old.

What is not to love about that attitude? How can I do more of that for myself?

P.S. I swear this is what keeps me playing Angry Birds. I'm addicted to the birds' cheering when I finally eliminate those nasty pigs.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Twenty-five minutes isn't a very long time, except when it's forever. Time is funny that way.

An aside: I'm home. My brother is not yet at his home, but that will come soon. All has gone well. In the past 25 years, Be the Match has facilitated 50,000 transplants between unrelated donors. Yet only about half of people who need transplants receive them. If your 2012 resolutions include finding a way to make a difference, joining the donor registry in the U.S. or Canada is a great first step.

The luxury of a Major Life Event is that you know your priorities and can put lesser things aside. The downside of that luxury is that when your role in the Major Life Event is over, those shoved-aside things are still there. Now that I'm home, I am making an effort to tackle those shoved-aside things.

I have had success with a strategy I'm calling "suffer for 25 minutes." The original, part of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project, was "suffer for 15 minutes," and I guess I confused that with the Pomodoro Technique, which I have never tried (especially not the official version with approved papers and t-shirts) but have read about on other writers' blogs.

Fifteen minutes. Twenty-five minutes. Not a lot of time, right? Except that it is! Kids know this. Waiting 25 minutes for ice cream is an eternity. Reading for 25 minutes before you start homework -- that's a mere blink of an eye.

The basic idea is that you take one of those big projects that seems so daunting, and you work at it for X amount of time -- in my case, 25 minutes -- regularly. Yesterday, I worked on money-related things, having brainstormed a list of possible tasks ahead of time. (Money is my biggest "oh I gotta" area, and I feel particularly burdened by dealing with money issues in two countries, but that's likely my martyr complex at work.) I figured the filing alone would require several sessions. Imagine my surprise when I was bored with filing, sure my time was nearly finished and I'd need to start re-stacking my piles of papers, and I still had 15 minutes left! And the surprise was not exactly pleased surprise!

In those last 15 minutes, which I finished even though our power went out, I finished the filing and started the next task on my brainstormed list. When the timer buzzed -- and setting a timer is so satisfying (25 minutes is so short!) until it doesn't and doesn't and DOES NOT buzz -- I was surprised at how much I'd accomplished. And that was definitely pleased surprise.

I have a different "big project" for each day of the week: Money Monday, Photo Friday, etc. Cute, eh. (Yes, I know yesterday was Tuesday but the holiday altered the schedule.) The best part of this method, an abbreviated version of which I've been doing for more than a year, is that the suffering lets me not think about that project at other times. Like, when I'm writing.

Which is, after all, the point. Welcome to 2012 -- 25 minutes of regular suffering at a time.