by Elizabeth on December 27, 2011

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance–which his growth requires–who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It’s Time To Ditch The Machine

It was mid-December when I took a look around my little house.

Three dogs snored peacefully in a semi-circle around the chair where I seem to spend more than half my waking hours.  The blue glow of the Mac’s screen offset the fact that it was four a.m., but the dogs’ snores were a dead giveaway that it was late.

I was feeling sick, and tired.  And moreover, I was feeling sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I knew a big chunk of the problem was that it was four a.m., and I was still working on a project for work that I desperately wanted to get done before the end of the year.  (I’m both a people-pleaser and a workaholic sometimes.  It’s a dangerous combination of downsides.)  There was an obscene amount of caffeine flowing around my brain, partially from a deep and abiding love of coffee, and partially from the can of Dr. Pepper that I told myself was a better choice than another pot of joe at 11 p.m..

That’s when the heart flutters started.  Sometimes, those mean a panic attack, sometimes, they just mean I really need to lay off the coffee.  Either way, I sat back in the chair and took a look around.

Even tired and vaguely ill, I could see a few things:  My house was a mess.  (Or, at least, a mess by my standards.)  Dog hair was gaining sentience under the couch.  Dishes were piled up, since I meant to get to them after this project was done, but it was taking a longer time than I’d anticipated.  A stack of unanswered correspondence sat on the desk and in my inbox.  A scattering of art supplies, still sitting next to the desk in a basket for the time when I’d finally have a few minutes to get to them seemed to mock me.  And this damned skirt felt tight; I must’ve shrank it in the dryer again.

Simply put:  life was out of control, and unhealthily out of balance.

The Problem With Wrestling For Control

Because of my weird, Type-A with a Type-A+ Overachiever Twist(tm), my first thought was a fairly typical one:  I’d just grab my life like a work project and beat it into submission.  After all, this imbalance is clearly caused by my own laziness and if I could just DO ALL THE THINGS, then there’d be no problem, right?  I could just make life my bitch the way I could wrangle a set of analytics data, and it’d all be fine.

This, of course, overlooks all the other times I’d gone after it full-guns-blazing and managed to get things under control for a little while, before I forgot about the way it was, and went right back to my typical work-18-hours/sleep-for-a-few typical schedule, fully ignoring everything else going on around me.

See, here’s the deal:  I get a lot of ideas.  I’ll probably talk about that at length someday soon, but I know, intimately, how much it sucks to really want to make things happen and not to have the time to do it all up right.  And I’ll avoid that via any means necessary, even if that means a stretch of six-week-long 18-hour days.  In my mind, that’s preferable to, oh, say, prioritizing.

But I digress.  (I do that a lot.  You’ll see.)

I started to write out a Great Big Lofty Plan.  I could get everything done by next week, if I just gave up that whole eating and sleeping thing altogether, and ignored my husband and the furchildren and anyone else who got in my way.   It’d be just like every time before this when I figured out I needed to pry myself out of the Machine’s clutches and focus on something else for a while.

In Which We Have An Insight About Life Balance That Is Not  All That Flattering

Maybe the clouds parted and the angels whacked me upside the head with a stick, or maybe it was just that something finally broke loose after being stuck on Overdrive for a couple decades, but sitting there, listening to the rain fall outside and the muffled barking of a dreaming dog, I had a bit of an epiphany:

Maybe it’s time to try something else.

I know, duh, right?  If something hasn’t worked before, or hasn’t worked as a lasting change, maybe that’s a good indicator that you’re doing it wrong.  I’d always been operating with the idea that if I just put in more effort, or more organization, or found a better to-do-list program, it’d be the magic band-aid that would suddenly give me five extra hours a day, a perfect house, work that got done, and a size-8 ass.  I clearly just hadn’t found the right program, or the right sequence in which to do things, or any of a myriad variables that I just needed to throw more of my energy at, and the Universe would wave its magic wand of balance and contentment over my head and ALL WOULD BE RIGHT WITH MY WORLD.

Uh, sure, Sparky.  I’m sure that’s what it is.  Throw more energy at it, when you’ve barely got enough left over at the end of a profoundly-long day to drag your smooshy carcass the twenty feet from the office to the bed.  I’m sure that’s exactly what’s missing.

(insert epic facepalm here.)

This, my friends, was my moment of clarity, so to speak.  The flash of a second when everything up and paradigm-shifted for me.  The Buddha threw the Bodhi Tree at me or something, because if an angelic choir had started singing the Hallelujah Chorus and I was suddenly bathed in streams of golden light, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

Life.  You’re Doing It Wrong.

After realizing that I was going to have to approach this whole life thing with a bit of a procedural change (understatement of 2011, right there), I did what any sane person would do:  I went to bed.  Actually, a sane person would have done that about seven hours before.  But sanER than usual, for me.

Instead of waking up the next morning and starting the intraveneus caffeine drip and diving into that day’s to-do list like a giant machinehead, I started the intraveneus caffeine drip (some things change slowly), and sat down with my journals instead.  I wrote down everything that was broken.  Everything that I wasn’t doing, but wanted to.  Everything that I was doing that I didn’t want to.  Everything that bothered me, about myself, my life, my way of doing things.

The whole time, by the way, inbetween bouts of tears and big blank spots where I couldn’t imagine life any other way than the broken way I was living it currently, I had the almost undeniable urge to check my email.  Maybe just finish a few chapters of the thing I was working on.  Do just one little work-blog post or something.  It’s just one little thing, I thought.  The intensity of the desire to feed my Busy Addiction both surprised and scared me a little, in fact.  It became Enemy #1 to Vanquish in the survey pages I was writing.

The Shape of the Thing Became Clearer.

It’s hard to fight an unknown enemy.  You can’t identify where the attack is coming from unless you know what the sniper looks like, or where he’s coming from.  (note:  I have no sniper training.  I could be wrong about that.  Just go with my analogy, here.)

In my sit-down with the journal pages and an open notebook, I drew out my sniper with words.

The way I saw it:

  • My health had to become a priority, for a lot of different reasons.
  • My family needed to stop being people that lived with/around me, and start being taken care of.
  • My house needed to be a place where I no longer just “stored my crap”.
  • My backlog of projects and work stuff needed to disappear, one way or the other.
  • My tendency to multi-task needed to go the way of the dodo.
  • I had to stop neglecting any part of my brain that didn’t have to do with work.
  • I needed to connect with my community, and not just the digital one.

Most importantly: I needed, above all, to reconnect with the adventurous part of me that found actual joy in life.

Change Happens.  But It Happens Inexorably Slow.

I’d love to be able to say that the next day, I flipped the Magic Switch and suddenly, life was awesome.

Sadly, Life doesn’t work that way.  I did not wake up on December 7th and find my webworker ass melted away or all of my emails mystically answered or deleted.  I still had deadlines.  I still had a stack of dishes and piles of dog hair.  (Fewer, however, since I’d distracted myself throughout the previous day by sweeping a few of the piles up in an attempt to get started toward the road to being better.)

What happened was far more subtle than that.

I found myself looking at the journal pages from the day before, and finding ways I could slowly incorporate those changes.  Not big, huge, sweeping, unsustainable hackjobs like I’d tried before.  But small ways I could just babystep myself toward where I wanted to be, instead of sitting here in this chair doing one more paragraph of meaningless crap or one more Twittah update.

I Still Don’t Have An Actual “Plan”, By The Way.

The idea for Finer Fruits came about a few days later.  Since I don’t want this process to become one that’s all that complicated or too jarring to my psyche (which would virtually ensure that I’d revert right back to my eighteen-hour days and dirty sweatshirt habit), but I really do need some kind of accountability — not to mention that I know a lot of folks out there are in the same exact spot I’m in — I decided to share the process and what I’m learning for all of 2012.

I’ll do another post tomorrow with how this will all be set up, and offer to let you “play along”, so to speak.  For now, though, I just wanted to share why this is here.  How I’m trying to disconnect from the machine and reclaim a few of those finer fruits for my own life.

I’m looking for balance.  I’m looking for connection.  I’m looking, even moreso, for joy, and passion again.

Glad to have you along for the ride.

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