Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spring Break Stress

You’d think a week home with the kids wouldn’t be that stressful. Isn’t the purpose of spring break to give everyone a chance to sleep and hang out? It’s not working out that way, however, so I’m going to spend my one and a half hours of free time ranting, I mean reflecting, on why I feel so stressed out.

Well, first of all there is the perennial problem that my teaching spring break does not line up with my children’s spring break, which means I have to scramble for child care for my teaching hours and spend less time preparing than I usually would. I’ve got that pretty well organized, though, so it’s not just that. There are two main problems: I miss having time to write; and the rest of the world is not on spring break, so several things I’ve been looking forward to working on have all arrived just when I don’t have time to give them my full attention. The most exciting is the revised contract from Tarcher for my Wisdom to Know the Difference book. This was preceded by some suggested revisions from an editor who asked to read some of my work as a project for an editing class she is taking, along with some questions she was hoping I could answer, and a gentle query from the Pendle Hill editor about when I would be done looking at her edits of the Pendle Hill pamphlet I recently wrote. All of it is good. In fact, all of it is great, which reminds me that most of the stress I feel I put on myself. None of those things needed to be responded to as quickly as I tried to handle them, except perhaps the e-mailed questions from the person doing our taxes, which sent me to the basement this morning, digging through my mother’s old papers while Luke climbed into a box of toys in the basement and tried to hide under a sled.

My desire to get things done quickly has been showing up especially in response to e-mail. We finally upgraded to DSL, and now my in-box goes to a second page as soon as it reaches a certain number, instead of just getting longer and longer , as it did on my old system. As soon as something gets bumped to the second or third page of my in-box, there is a good chance that I will never remember to do it, so my strategy is to deal with things right away: delete, save, or respond. Only those things that can’t be responded to immediately get to sit in the in-box (including the e-mails that come for my husband, who no longer has work e-mail). It sounds like a simple system—deal with it right away or not at all—but in the real Quaker sense of simplicity, it is not simple at all. It keeps my mine jumping from one thing to the next, and I get pulled off course way too easily. (Just since I’ve been writing this I’ve gotten seven new e-mails, none of which I’m that interested in.) I’m thinking I should unsubscribe to every list I’m on, except that I’ve heard that sometimes unsubscribing gets you on more lists. It’s not that I don’t care about what is happening in Darfur or Antarctica. It’s just that when my time is so short it becomes clear that all these e-mails are pulling me away from my real leading to write. During a regular school week I have time to do both, so the conflict is not so apparent, though it makes me wonder how much more I could write if I stripped all the distractions out of my life.

I discovered a few years ago that I seem to gain weight whenever I don’t get time to write. That is also true this spring break, though I could blame it on the Easter basket I wolfed down or the homemade banana cream pie my neighbor brought over for Easter dinner. It could be that the periods when I don’t get time to write also happen to be stressful times, so the relationship is correlative, but not causal. It could be that I eat more junk when I’m under stress. Despite all these arguments, I still think my body is giving me some message about what I’m supposed to be doing work wise. I’ve been at my computer for less than an hour now, but I feel much calmer than when I sat down. Just getting some of my mental buzz into paragraphs is always therapeutic.

A writer friend recently asked me how I had time to blog. I confess this week I thought about just linking to Barak Obama’s brilliant speech on race, though I’m so late, everyone who is interested has probably read the speech and fifty blog posts about it by now. Also, I didn’t feel like getting a bunch of e-mails from people who don’t like Barak Obama. Maybe in a few months, when my teaching semester is over, I’ll have the mental energy to debate politics, but right now political arguments feel like another thing pulling me “out of my lane,” as my friend Hilary says. For me, blogging is not a distraction when it helps me refocus and fuels my other writing, like a good stretch before a jog. The problem is, now that I’m all warmed up, I have to go pick up the kids! Until I get more writing time next week, this little exercise has made me realize that I need to draw the boundaries of my lane a little tighter—to respond to the editor e-mails, and leave the rest. That way I can spend more of this week enjoying the children, instead of keeping them out of my hair.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mysterious Ways

This past weekend I got to go on a retreat with fifty-two other Quakers who identify themselves as having some sort of “ministry” or service they feel called to. It was wonderful to be away from daily responsibilities—no laundry, cooking, dishes, or email!—and wonderful to be with so many good people, talking about our spiritual lives. It was also fun to have the space to notice and appreciate serendipity, starting with Friday night.

It was during the opening session that the power went off in the Catholic retreat center we were renting. The irony was that one of the presenters had written a piece ahead of time about how she tends to get overly anxious about leading retreats and compensates by preparing many handouts. In the dark, she was robbed of this crutch, which prompted some reflections on trusting God even, or especially when we can’t see where we are going. The power came back on, but Friends decided to turn off the lights to keep the quiet atmosphere.

During the Friday night session we had two opportunities to pair up and share. It turned out that my two partners, whom I had never met before, were both people who had also worked on issues around race and who became real allies during the weekend. (I met another ally near the end of the retreat.) I felt blessed to meet these Friends and resonated when someone commented that “God works in mysterious ways.”

There were other little mysteries. As I was packing for the trip, I had an intuition to pack my digital tape recorder, just in case I met anyone whom I should interview for my book. On Saturday morning the sense came to me that I should announce my project and ask if there was someone who felt led to be interviewed. I was clear that I didn’t want to just ask for stories about community (the chapter I’m now working on) because I’m sure that group would have had many stories, and I really just wanted people who felt led to respond. As it turned out, no one came forward to be interviewed, and by Saturday night I was wondering why I had had the impulse to make the announcement. Then a woman stopped me and said that I needed to talk to Friends in Durham, North Carolina because they had had an amazing experience of building community through the process of building a new building. She said they had managed to include every person in the meeting and keep their unity through years of planning and were eager to share their experience with other Friends. Now as some of you know, my own meeting has recently approved building a new meeting, so this connection seemed fortuitous. It may or not have anything to do with my book. Maybe that was just the tool God used to make this connection.

Just now when I went online to look up the Durham web site, I found an email from an Irish-American member of our meeting with this link to the story of how a slave became the patron saint of Ireland. It seems fitting to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, not with green pizza (which was on the news this morning), but with an acknowledgment that Patrick’s story is certainly an example of God working in mysterious ways.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Amazing Pictures

To find out what these people are staring at, click on this amazing site by artist Chris Jordan. Someone just sent me the link, and after pouring over the pictures, I couldn't wait to post it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Someone close to me has been very anxious lately, and it’s got me thinking about anxiety in general. My friend, psychologist and book author Tamar Chansky says that 1 out of 4 people in our culture suffers from anxiety, which might explain why ads like this one for Ativan have gotten so common. It makes one wonder why we seem more anxious than people in previous eras, who arguably had even fewer certainties in their lives. I remember wandering through the upstate Pennsylvania cemetery where my father is buried, reading the tombstones of families from the 1800s who lost children more frequently than I can imagine. Were mothers of that time constantly on edge for the next potential loss, or were they, as I imagine, more fatalistic, less prone to worry about what they could not control? That was certainly true of people in the African village where I served in the Peace Corps in the eighties. One of the things I enjoyed most about that experience was the worry-free atmosphere of Botswana where the Ativan ad would have seemed out of place, not least because there were no billboards, magazine stands, or televisions where I lived.

The role of advertising is one of the things that I think sets our culture apart, and not in a good way. In fact, I can’t help wondering to what extent the Ativan ad, with its darkened North America, promotes the very anxiety its product claims to cure. This, after all, is the strategy of much advertising: make customers anxious about their hair or weight or breath and then offer them a product that will solve the problem they didn’t know they had before the advertising. Political ads often follow the same strategy. Hillary Clinton’s red phone ad comes to mind, with its pictures of vulnerable children sleeping through a dangerous world crisis. The question of which presidential candidate is best prepared to respond to a world crisis is certainly legitimate, but the deliberate fueling of fear seems pretty cynical to me. Of course, the media is no better. Just the ads for the local news—“A new food hazard that could threaten your family: tune in at 11!”—are enough to make me want to reach for a bottle of something soothing.

I am sure anti-anxiety medications have their place and are really helpful to people with chronic anxiety. It’s not the Avitan-takers I have a problem with, but the culture that seems to deliberately promote anxiety. I know I’m not immune from its influence. I’ve started seeing an acupuncturist (first for a recurring cough, and now for my hypothyroid), and every time I see her she tells me, “Relax more” after taking my pulse and looking at my tongue. I’m not sure what she sees in my tongue, but her advise has made me realize that I do cough more when feeling under stress. I know there is a clear relationship between my stress and my heartburn as well, so I have a real physical interest in finding ways to relax, which I know is better for my children (and probably my husband), too.

Much of my own stress is about time and what I feel I need to get done. Last Saturday at an extended meeting for worship held for Quakers who want to worship for hours at a time I heard the message that it was not my outward life I needed to change, but my inward life. The next day I heard John O'Donohue on Speaking of Faith say that stress came from a distorted relationship with time. I need to sit with that idea more, but it does seem to ring true. My task seems to be about trusting God’s time and not being ruled by my to-do list, or even worse, my anxieties about getting through my to-do list.

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