Friday, November 30, 2018

The Last Day of the Month

Decades ago, when I lived in Maryland, I was seeing a wonderful therapist/life coach/wise woman named Judy Alexander. I still remember so many of her stunning insights.

One month, when she and I had worked together on various goals I was going to achieve by month's end, I met with her on the 28th of the month and had nothing to report but failure. This particular month was going to be chalked up as a zero.

Judy looked me in the eyes and said, "There's still two more days."

Ooh! I used those two days to accomplish what I hadn't accomplished in the other twenty-eight.

This month I had two major work tasks: 1) revising my forthcoming third-grade-level chapter book, Vera Vance: Comics Star from a second round of editorial comments; and 2) revising my forthcoming academic article, "Trying to Be Good (With Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to be Bad" from a second round of blind-reviewer comments.

I made fairly diligent progress in the second half of November, after recovering from my little granddaughters' ten-day visit in the first part of the month, followed by a delicious short jaunt to Indiana. But as of this morning, neither project was completed.

But as of an hour ago, I had pressed SEND on both of them.

Nothing motivates me like the first day and last day of the month. On the first day, I begin a whole new life! Everything is going to be different this time! I'll be more fit! I'll be more frugal! Above all, I'll be more productive! This is the month those book revisions will get done! This is the month those article revisions will get done! This is the month IT WILL ALL GET DONE!

And then. . . it doesn't... Well, it doesn't until the end of month is staring me in the face, with its now-or-never finality. Then, fortunately, there are still three more days... then two more days... then one more day.

Today was that day. I did what I had set out to do, with time left over to write a blog post to brag about it. And tomorrow a whole new life can - and will - begin.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Overcoming Inertia

Sir Isaac Newton is widely regarded as a very smart person.
One of the very smart things said by this very smart person was his first law of motion, here simplified for my less-smart self: "An object at rest tends to remain at rest, and an object in motion tends to remain in motion, unless acted upon by an external force." This is often referred to as the Law of Inertia.

I personally know the Law of Inertia all too well.

Until recently I had no idea just how long an object at rest could remain at rest. I have always been a champion sleeper, and I've had idle curiosity about how long I could sleep if I didn't deliberately rouse myself from bed at some point out of guilt. Now I know the answer is basically: forever. I can easily sleep eleven hours at night and still take an afternoon nap and then settle down for another eleven hours of sleep the next night. While this makes me the envy of insomniacs, I am here to report that This Is Not Good. Sleep studies have shown that excessive sleep (more than nine hours) is just as detrimental to health as insufficient sleep (less than seven hours). And "sleeping your life away" is hardly regarded as a rich and flourishing human existence.

The best way to get oneself into motion, as Newton pointed out, is of course an external force. This is why I perk up when my editor sends me proofs of a forthcoming book to review, or editorial suggestions for revision. Hooray! An assignment from the universe! But most of the time I have to find a way to act as my own external force. So here are some of my most successful strategies for rousing myself to action.

1.  Do anything! Anything at all! The smallest of nudges can "start the ball rolling." When I stumble out of bed in the morning, the first thing I do is make myself a to-do list, and the first items on the list are all pathetically tiny:

  • Weigh myself (okay, I'm obsessive here); take my few medications; make myself my mug of hot chocolate. (I could list those as three separate things, but that might cross over into the ridiculous.)
  • Check my online bank balance and reconcile it with my checkbook register (okay, I'm obsessive here, too, but oh, the joy of feeling that I have a grip on these two key numbers for my well-being). I used to balance my checkbook every month, but now I do it every day; I love the reassurance of knowing each day that all is in order.
  • Unload the dishwasher - how I love this task!! The only task I love more is putting a load of laundry in the washer. Bliss is the sound of the washing machine chugging away. Something in my life is getting better! Something is actually happening to improve my situation!
By this point I've already bestirred myself enough that I can now tackle Real Work using any of these approaches.

2. Pick just ONE item from my work smorgasbord and work on it for an hour, or if that is too daunting, half an hour. Lately, I've been logging mainly half hours. On my current list of acceptable half-hour tasks I see: 
  • Make notes on The Put-Em-Rights by Enid Blyton, which I just read for final revisions on a scholarly article. 
  • Go through the second round of edits on my forthcoming chapter book, Vera Vance, Comics Star, and see how many of my editor's queries I can address in thirty minutes. 
  • Type up the poems I wrote last week for a possible novel-in-verse.
  • Search for a box for the Christmas ornament I'm sending off for this year's Betsy-Tacy ornament exchange.
  • Go online and buy some stamps - did you know first-class postage is going up five cents in January?
  • Give a first reading to an article I agreed to peer-review for a children's literature journal.
  • Write a blog post (guess which item on the list got picked this morning?)
3. If I've chosen a task that can be done at my desk or on my couch, I "enter the zone" by turning over my beloved hourglass or half-hourglass, and lately, lighting a candle, too. This helps to signal that real work time has begun.

4. Use a counting strategy. Mine involves doing things in multiples of five. (Further evidence of my OCD?) If I'm extra-daunted, extra-lethargic, extra-inert, I commit to do do just FIVE small steps toward a task: unload just five things from the dishwasher, fold just five pieces of laundry, address just five of Margaret's editorial queries, type just five poems. This is a favorite. I do it when I walk and drive, too, obsessively counting the next five driveways (when walking) or traffic lights (when driving). It's oddly meditative and comforting, as well.

5. Eliminate any competing temptations for complete time-wasting. I make the bed so I won't be tempted to get back in it. I put my phone out of reach so I won't scroll idly through Facebook for an hour or two. I deleted the Sudoku app from my I-pad and stored the I-pad in an inconvenient spot. (TV happens not to be a temptation for me, and in any case, other people control the TV remote in my house.) If there is absolutely nothing else to do except for productive activities, productive activities do tend to get done. I do, however, allow myself to read library books as a distraction from the more purposeful tasks, if my inertia is dire enough. I can never count an hour reading for pleasure as a wasted hour.

I'd like to be able to say that once I become an object in motion, I now stay in motion, but Newton was wrong about this one, at least in my case. I can only sustain motion for so long before sloth once more overcomes me. But that's okay. The whole point of this blog is to argue - to you, and to myself - that with just one hour a day you can accomplish many lovely things. And the point of this particular blog post is just to list some tried-and-true ways of rousing oneself to work - to do anything at all! - for at least one hour. 

Because, my friends, a productive hour is SO much better than a twelfth hour of sleep. Trust me on this one.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Reconnecting with Past Loves

Because of my current family woes - which are woes that may continue from now until the day I die - I can no longer take long trips away from home. Three days is about as long as I can permit myself to slip away. Fortunately, a three-day jaunt is a three-day infusion of bliss.

This month's three-day jaunt was to Indiana, on the invitation of the Prindle Institute at DePauw University (where I spent six TOTALLY blissful semesters as a visiting professor, spread out over the years from 2011-2016). I had served as one of the blind reviewers for their annual Young Philosophers Symposium and was also given the opportunity to come back to Indiana to take part in the day's discussion of fascinating papers by four young-career scholars. The topics included: 1) whether we should regret what we now recognize as past moral and prudential errors, given that they shaped us into the persons we have become; 2) whether the concept of racism necessarily involves the presence of racist ideology; 3) the moral wrong of fostering culpable ignorance in ourselves about conditions that oppress others; and 4) whether moral action can be merely instinctual and emotion-driven or requires more sophisticated rational motivation.

I had forgotten how much I love philosophy and love being in the company of fellow philosophers. A part of my brain that had lain dormant for quite some time was jolted back into wakefulness, and it felt so good to be thinking hard about conceptual and moral questions. When I first took early retirement from the University of Colorado (four years ago - can it have been that long?), I told myself not to "go gentle into that good pasture." But I sort of did - oh, there is no doubt that the pasture has its allure. But this week I saddled up my philosophy brain again and galloped away most joyfully.

I also walked the streets of the small college town of Greencastle, which I probably love more than I love any other place on earth (happy though I am in my life in beautiful Boulder). I saw one dear friend for lunch, another for coffee, another for drinks at the Swizzle Stick, still others for late-night conversations curled up on their living room couches.

My sister lives in Indiana, too, so the trip began with a cozy, blustery day sitting together by her wood-burning fireplace, as I made my notes on the philosophy papers for the symposium and she worked on law-school homework: yes, my younger sister is, at age 63, in her first year at Indiana University law school, preparing herself for a new career as a civil rights lawyer. I even had the chance to watch a video of a lecture from her Contracts course with her, over Cheesecake Factory treats.

Yay for three-day jaunts! Unlike longer holidays, which require stressful preparation and extensive recovery, a three-day trip is a small, tidily packaged gift to oneself. And yay for not letting ourselves lose contact completely with anything we once loved and continue to love: places, pursuits, people.

Now I need to scheme where my next three-day jaunt will be. I do especially love jaunts that mix work with play, as I adore both so much, and trips paid for by someone else are preferable, for obvious reasons, to trips where I have to pay. Universe: if you offer me another jaunt like this any time soon, know that I am exceedingly likely to say what I said to the Prindle Institute about this one: YES, FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART, THANK YOU!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Button Tea

Today has had, thus far, two perfect episodes of happiness in it.

The strange thing is that they are complete opposites of each other.

The first was the happiness of spending time with little girls. The second is the happiness of not spending time with little girls.

My four-year-old granddaughter, Kat, got up early this morning (5:45, far earlier than I would have liked), but there is something magical about sharing early morning time with her while the rest of the family, and the rest of the world, is asleep. We read library books (my favorite from the stack this time is Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match by the team of author Megan Maynor and illustrator Rosalinde Bonnet, a book I wish I had written). And then we had a tea party with button tea.

I love buttons, so I pounced on a huge stash of them for a pittance at the church yard sale last summer. There is no better way to spend a pre-dawn hour than sipping button tea with Kataleya.

The second episode of happiness began when the terrific nanny I hired for three hours, Brooke from Superior Nannies, transferred the car seats into her car and whisked Kat and Madi off for fun adventures elsewhere. I'm not even sure where exactly they are going. Perhaps the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which has a most inviting child-friendly museum in a stunning setting. Perhaps the main branch of the Boulder Public Library. Perhaps meeting up with Kat's best friend, Danielle; Brooke has worked for their family, too.

So here I sit at my desk, sipping not button tea but Twining's strawberry tea, brought back to me from England by my friend Rowan. I'm burning the hot-apple-pie candle made by my high school friend Patricia. I've caught up on email. I'm writing this blog post. Shortly I'll curl up on my couch to read the papers for the Young Philosophers Symposium I'm attending at DePauw University in Indiana next week. There is no better way to spend a few afternoon hours than doing work that I love, completely undisturbed.

It's been a hard-won victory for me to learn how to love being with little girls when I'm with little girls, and to love being by myself when I'm by myself. But today the balance is perfect. Today (well, except for one stressful hour of little-girl meltdowns right before Brooke arrived to rescue us), I'm (mostly) managing to love what is, while it is.

Hooray for that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Creative Joy in Hard Times

My main goal for the year, as I've announced here, was to have ten hours of creative joy each month, where I'd record these hours in a lovely little Moleskine logbook, with the rule that a log-worthy creative-joy hour had to have something extra: not just ordinary joyous creative work, but work made even more joyful by conscious enhancement of the joy - writing somewhere special, writing with a friend, even lighting a candle at my desk in the dark of the early morning.

Until September I met and exceeded this goal every single month, except for one, when I fell short only by half an hour. Not bad!

But then in September my life fell apart. And it turns out that you lose interest in strategizing how best to increase creative joy when your life lies in flaming ruins around you.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

The first half of September was a joy-devoid nightmare. But then came the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference for which I had to: 1) provide five insightful critiques of manuscripts submitted by attendees; 2) deliver an hour-long break-out session on writing the transitional chapter book; and 3) give a closing keynote address on how to live a joyous creative life. I had no choice but do these things, which meant I had no choice but to work for at least ten hours preparing to do them, and then actually doing them. And guess what? It was SO joyous to be working again at all, at work that I love with my all my heart, that I decided I could write those hours down in the logbook, even if I didn't light a candle while doing them.

The first half of October wasn't nightmarish, but it was definitely slothful, as I gave myself credit for merely getting through each day with a modicum of grace and cheer. But then my wonderful editor, Margaret Ferguson, sent me not only the proofs of NIXIE NESS, COOKING STAR (the first book in my forthcoming After-School Superstars chapter book series), but the edited manuscript for VERA VANCE, COMICS STAR (book two in the series). Hooray! More work that I actually had to do! And work I would love doing!

So for the past ten days, I've lit my candle each morning and worked through the proofreader's queries on NIXIE and Margaret's editorial suggestions for VERA. Even better, the candles I've been lighting are made by a high school friend of mine who now makes the world's most aromatic and beautiful candles and sells them in an Etsy shop: SoyCandlesbyPatricia. I lit her Full Moon candle on the days leading up to October's full moon and followed Patricia's instructions to set my "positive intentions for the coming month" and "make a wish during the light of the full moon."

I'm burning her Hot Apple Pie candle right now - ahhh!

My creative joy total for October now stands at 11 1/2 hours.
I think my October full moon wish is going to come true because all I wished for was to keep creative joy in my life, even in hard times.

In fact, it's come true already.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Challenge of Not Resenting Happy People

Many of you know that my current life project, in a season of intense dread and despair, is to be a role model . . . to myself. I am trying to show myself how to survive terror and tragedy with courage, grace, and even a measure of good humor.

This plan was particularly helpful lately, when I decided that Role Model Claudia had to help Desperately Suffering Claudia face one of her biggest challenges: how not to resent people whose lives are vastly easier than mine right now. Of course, just because someone's life LOOKS easier doesn't mean that it IS. But, actually, I have extremely good evidence that many of these people do have spouses in excellent health, grown children who have brilliant successes and their own flourishing families, all of them close, loving, and by all accounts as happy as happy can be.

It's hard not to hate these people sometimes.

Or at least: it's tempting to try to avoid spending any time in their company. I find myself wanting to spend time only with other broken people, other hurting people, other people who are stumbling right now in their own dark wood - not people who are gaily scampering through sunlit, flower-strewn meadows.

But then Role Model Claudia decided that she had to show Desperately Suffering Claudia how to resist this temptation. I have MANY happy friends. I can't give up ALL of them. And you know what? I love these friends, I really do. And even more important right now, they love me. I can't shut them out of my life. I have to let myself love them, and let them love me.

I don't want to turn myself into an embittered person who begrudges joy to others, consumed with envy at their good fortune. That really would be a guaranteed way to create a life that is pinched and shrunken, feeding only upon its own misery.

So I've been accepting invitations from happy friends, rather than making up excuses for why now isn't a good time to meet. We've had wonderful, heartfelt conversations about the joys in their lives and the sorrows, too - and the sorrows and joys in mine, as well. I don't NEED to resent other people's joy because - guess what? - I HAVE A JOYFUL LIFE, TOO.

I have good health, apple crisp, books to write, books to read, candy corn, walks on crisp October mornings, friends I love, and friends who love me: sad friends, happy friends, sad-and-happy friends.

 Just like me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Overwhelmed with Work Projects? Try a Work Smorgasbord!

Lately my to-do list has been long, and my energy for tackling it has been low. All of the tasks on the list need to be done, but few of them have a clearly defined deadline, especially one that shrieks out, "DO ME TODAY!" So it's easy to procrastinate, postpone, and otherwise put off any work on these projects, instead filling my days with the soul-sucking alternative of endless Sudoku (my besetting vice), Facebook scrolling, and (worst of all) self-Googling to see if maybe I won some prize somewhere in the last ten minutes I wouldn't otherwise be aware of.

Although this may be a by-product of depression, it's also a guaranteed cause of depression, and battling it is, for me, a guaranteed cure (or at least alleviator) of depression.

My favorite strategy for defeating this kind of wretched stuckedness is to create a work smorgasbord for myself. It goes like this.

I make a long, full list of all the things I need to get done. Here's what I have on the list for today:

1. Read the proofs for Nixie Ness, Cooking Star.
2. Decide which books I'm going to order for my online course for Hollins University in the spring (this means figuring out the basic structure of the entire course - scary!).
3. Order the books.
4. Write my Learning Committee report for the church council.
5. Read a friend's book manuscript to give her the critique I promised a month ago.
6. Read the ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of a book for which I've promised to give a cover blurb.
7. Start a new book! I have to start one sooner or later, or I won't have a next one!
8. Send in the application for the Denver Festival of Stories to be held next March.
9. Read five chapters of Homer's Odyssey for a study group I'm in.
10. Write a blog post.

I'm sure there are more things I should be doing, but if I did any of these ten tasks, I'd be better off than I was with NONE of them even faced, let alone finished.

Once the list is made, I pick any one of these - any one will do! - and spend one hour doing it. Or part of one hour doing that task, and the other part of the hour doing another one. Any work whatsoever on any goal whatsoever is good enough - is indeed splendid and amazing and totally to be celebrated.

That's it:  the whole entire work smorgasbord plan. It's as simple as simple can be. But for me, it's magical. I don't worry about picking the most urgent or important task, or the one I'm dreading most. I just pick one, period. Usually I pick the smallest one, or the easiest one - or just the one with the most appeal right this minute. That's not cheating. It's totally allowed. Or so says me, to me.

Then I turn over my hourglass and get to work.
When the hour is done, I feel so pleased with myself, sometimes I even do - gasp - a second hour!

In fact, this afternoon, I accomplished a first reading of the Nixie proofs AND wrote the church council report (only one paragraph, but hey, that's all it needed to be, and now it's done, done, DONE), and in a few minutes this blog post will be done, too. Tomorrow I'll return to the task list and see what I choose for another dedicated hour. Before I know it, I'll have nibbled my way through the whole list.