Tag Archives: parenting

A Mothers’ Day Prayer

When I was a girl, my mother had a crafting business. She made pillows and wall hangings, stenciled with flower designs that she drew and cut herself. On painting days, when she brushed pigments though the layered barriers, I would be shooed out of her work space because of the fumes from the permanent inks. I suspect, now, she also liked having an excuse to work quietly and rhythmically, uninterrupted.

Painted fabric was sewn into pillows; pillows were packed into boxes; boxes were carried off by the big brown truck, or packed into our cream-colored Toyota pickup and hauled to craft fairs, where I helped my mother, and ran my own side business as a booth-sitter for other vendors. Those big brown trucks came back down our dirt driveway, delivering new materials, and the cycle began again.

My mother was a maker, before being a maker was a thing. Before Etsy, before Pinterest. My mother was a maker of crafts, a maker of money, a maker of her own time, and a maker of lessons for me. My mother was a maker in the primordial way that all mothers are makers, that we cannot help but be.

Making decisions, making coffee, making due, making sense, making phone calls, making breakfast, making play dates, making friends, making beds, making lists, making lunch, making rules, making it on time, making it work, making a mess, making up, making love, making memories, making dinner, making conversation, making, making, making all the time.

I have a busy mind…and it constantly diverts me from authentic creation. From my inevitable, generative way of being that will occur with or without any intervention on the part of my plans. It’s a hard tension to strum – the resonant echo between who I imagine I am and the life I live – and yet I can’t keep my fingers off the strings. There is a tendency among new mothers – of which am most certainly one – to touch, and tune, and check, and listen, and try it all again – not for the song itself, but for the hope of applause.

This is a tiring performance. A tiring negotiation between the world and my being. But eventually and always, I am drawn back into the certain knowledge that I belong to a larger creative energy that I can rest in, and be guided by. That even in this cold spring, our Mother’s bounty provides. I cannot help but be confronted by the gentle, relentless reminder of an engorged Earth leaking blossoms, and the ceaseless power of a force that will make the world new and fresh, not out of duty, but out of an unimpossibilty of doing otherwise. I can’t avoid noticing, anymore, that the grackles are eating the blossoms on the trees outside my bathroom and kitchen windows, at the same time they do every spring.

When a woman creates life, and becomes a mother, her form changes. She is encircled into the timeless rhythm of holding a larger world as the play-space of creation and destruction. She becomes tasked with the joyful and solemn work of abiding the growth of her beloved. It is not a choice. It is a way of being. A force we are deeply imbibed with before we understand what’s even happened.

And so having woken up to find myself inside motherhood, I am learning to look to our Great Mother for guidance on how to be a mother myself. How to find the truths in Her patient, rhythmic ways and allow that energy to live through me.

There is no denying the tenacity of the spring frogs in the icy water, or the bounding growth of the hostas and the peonies and the beautiful, strange red-budded grass that has erupted since I mowed the lawn. I am reminded every day at 4 am that territorial disputes can be mitigated – simply by singing in the dark; it is a most peaceful way to let a stranger know you are there. The ceaseless mint and the poison ivy race each other into the space above the ground – they are enacting the same lives, driven by the same forces, it is just my preferences that separate them, in the end.

This predictable renewal, this equanimity towards, and of the cherishing of, all life – it is the deepest comfort I know, and to receive it as a child of our Mother is a blessing and an honor. May I never forget the privilege of being welcomed into this sacred circle, and always seek to offer those teachings back into my own humble sphere. Blessing for The Mother. Blessings for all Mothers. May it be so.

March, Listening

Line drawing of a face in profile, listening.

I don’t know how to listen to myself, and so I don’t know how to listen to others, so desperate am I to be heard. – A letter to Sophia

The biggest question that came out of my February practice was: if it is our natural inclination to instinctively reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different, because it represents different values. And furthermore, what do we do about the experiences we can’t share? I can’t experience the world as man, or as a person of color, or even as my children do. I can’t experience the world as a frog does, or as the earth does, even when I guess. Perhaps, it requires, horror of horrors, trust, that a perspective we will never share is equally valid to the needs we intimately know.

An emerging pattern in my practice is the value of very simple responses in the face of overwhelmingly complex questions or problems. The power of a present witness, is immense. And so March is dedicated to the very simple, and immensely difficult, value of listening, in hopes that I might learn enough to know just a little bit.

Intention:
Listening, like love, seems like an essential component perspective. And perspective seems essential to appreciating experiences and values different than our own. I may never get to a point where I am able to cross the chasm between myself and another, and in that case, it would be awfully helpful to at least be able to hear each other across the void.

I want to learn to listen in a way that I haven’t been taught. I spend a lot of time in a second, internal, conversation with myself while someone is talking to me, in an effort to figure out what I think about it before they’re even finished. Needless to say, it’s a distraction. So this month’s practice is, in part, an investigation into the relationship between judgement and comprehension. Is it possible to understand what someone has told me, without judging what they mean?

I experience listening as having three general components: Comprehension – this is the most automatic response and includes understanding the literal meaning of words, or recognition of sounds, like a car door shutting. External Interpretation – this is the presumed meaning I layer onto the external event, for example, interpreting someone’s speech as sarcastic and understanding their words to mean the opposite of their literal definition. Or hearing my son start crying when he is playing with his brother and assuming that there was an altercation between them. Sometimes I get this right, and sometimes I don’t. Internal Response – this is the internal series of events that unfold based on what I’m hearing – mental imagery, emotional reaction, and especially mental talk: do I like what I’m hearing, dislike it, agree, disagree, is it causing me to remember, plan, distract myself, want to respond, etc. This is the area in which I most commonly disconnect from the external event, stop listening, and co-opt my attention into my own affairs. It is in this space I primarily want to engage, and practice listening without rejection.

As kids, we’re taught that “listening” means doing what we’re told. You’re not listening to me, and put on your listening ears – are common refrains from parents and teachers that signal: you’re not doing what I want. Listening becomes a euphemism for compliance, and given this, it’s no wonder we’re not very good at it as adults; we have come to equate listening with an infringement of our sovereignty, and a rejection of our sacredness as unique beings. This continuous message also conflates listening with the sense that we’re supposed to do something. It’s hard to just listen and not be compelled into some sort of action – a verbal response, the getting of an object, or entering into an agreement. Often these are perfectly appropriate responses, but often – maybe more often – they are not. With my children especially, there is a tacit, shared expectation between all of us that I have the role of the “fixer”. When children are very young, this is true and appropriate, but the weening required to transition my children off their physical and emotional dependence on me, is surprisingly hard to do – and I see these patterns show up in all relationships. We start from a shared engagement point and begin a dance of repetition, often forgetting that we need not stay bound to our paths of least resistance.

My intention in cultivating listening is to develop the skill of engaged observation. To neither say, with a glance, oh, it is raining, or to chase raindrops all the way down to the lake bed, pointlessly muddying the water. But to watch instead with attention and clarity the distinctions in the pattern, so that I might hear each echo across the surface and know what’s shifting.

March Activities:

  • Meditate every day on Talk Space (internal sound) or Sound Space (external sound). This is formal skill building for the tasks of listening to my internal and external experiences.
  • In conversation, put my attention into listening fully, rather than on inner commentary, preparing a response, or simply wandering off into some other mental process. This will require slowing down, not doing so many things at once, and much more focused attention.
  • Three times a week, listen for 20 minutes or more to non-English language sound. This is similar to the formal meditation task, but designed specifically to practice deep listening in a context that will create less reaction.
  • Pray daily, ask and listen to know my work for the day. Prayer and meditation are increasingly blended experiences for me, and what I experience over and over again through my practice is humility for my smallness, and gratitude for my life. There is great joy in this, and a deep desire to live my life in honorable service to the greater context in which I exist.

Expectations:
I expect this to be really hard, and strangely lonely. I just don’t have a lot of experience listening this way, and I most people I know don’t either. It will also be hard because I so often have multiple people talking to me at the same time – I get overwhelmed and want to control the situation. I expect that I will get better at staying out of stuff I don’t need to get into. I expect my life will be enriched by valuable perspective that I wouldn’t have previously noticed. I expect I will have more insight into my own behavior. I can’t decide if I expect to have more or less insight into other people’s behavior.

What do I value?
I value honoring the expression of other people. I value the chance to show someone I respect their humanity by how I receive their words, regardless of what they say.

What do I want?
I want to be taken seriously. I want to be thought of as someone who is trustworthy.

Where is the Resistance?
I will want to be right. When I perceive that someone doesn’t agree with me, I will be tempted to think that it’s only because they don’t understand what I’m saying, and I will try to explain myself again.

I will have a hard time not agreeing or disagreeing. I consider these somehow to be an indication that I have “heard” what someone said and that my response is a validation of this. Sometimes this can be true, but more likely it only serves to reinforce my own sense of self relative to them.

What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be misunderstood.
I am willing to say less.
I am willing to acknowledge what I don’t know.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained:

  • Freedom – by keeping my attention on listening, I hope to be freed (a little bit) from a compulsion to act immediately as a result of what I hear.
  • Acceptance – other people are not me, and don’t need to be.
  • Patience – like freedom, I hope through practice to learn how to wait, and gain better discernment about what requires action and what doesn’t.
  • Confidence – words can become a way to ease and divert discomfort. By sitting more with my reactions, I will learn what I value by experiencing my discomfort, or the discomfort of others.

Lost:

  • The sensation of intimacy. By building a sense of “sameness” through my internal experience I create a sense of being like others. In an effort to suspend some of this, I think I will end up discovering the gulfs I paper over with assumption.
  • The sensation of separateness. The abstraction I use to create a sense of intimacy should, theoretically, also be what creates my sense of separateness, but somehow this feels less true. Perhaps because my sense of individuality is so deeply conditioned, it’s harder to shake loose.

Sidebar, Fear and Sadness
Since this exercise is about discovery, it’s worth noting the rather despairing fear that writing this has roiled up. I am suddenly very, very worried that listening to people is going to identify all sorts of differences between us and leave me feeling separate, isolated, unseen and alone. Oddly, the reverse of this – that I should also see the many ways in which I am like other people – does not feel like it will happen. It’s hard for me to imagine how this will work if I don’t create it. There is some really low-level emotional response in me that connects listening to vulnerability. I guess this is good to know, but it feels awful, and discouraging. I sincerely want to appreciate the differences between myself and others. I want to share in the value others bring and that I cannot create myself, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine how I might move from acknowledgement to appreciation. So many people hide their beauty, masterfully, and guessing can end in a mess. It feels like I’m missing some critical, connective piece that allows the transition between these two parts of experience.

Love and Culture Shock

Love

A funny thing happened on the way to love – I got distracted by desire.

The dominant event in February was presenting at TFT14, about the relationship between technology and culture. This was a lot of fun, a great experience, and the first piece of meaty, external, professional work I’ve engaged in in over a year. I found myself almost manic in how I approached it (thinking about it constantly, up until one or two almost every night of the ten days I had to prepare), and really exhausted afterwards.

The most interesting part was watching myself not only completely loose interest in the domestic life I’ve immersed myself in (the laundry can wait, let’s get takeout tonight), but also becoming irritable and angry when it interfered with the exciting and pleasurable work going on in between my ears. I think part of what makes deliberate thinking so enjoyable is its similarity to the subtle abstraction layer that constantly runs in the background of our experience – the one we use to interpret the world, and in which we actually live most of our lives. Deliberate thinking is an amplified version of interpretation, one in which we have a feeling of control and purpose that replaces our normal vagueness, and makes abstraction feel magical, powerful and awesome.

I had a very hard time loosing myself in play with my kids; I found it exceptionally boring. I had a much lower tolerance for their bickering, for their childishness. I found it very difficult to switch with any ease back and forth between the quiet, intense, turning and touching focus I use to develop a concept and push my thinking in a new direction, and the loud, rollicking, roll-with-it easiness that makes being with little kids pleasant. For the first time, I began to question, are the roles of professional, intellectual work, and a domestic, parenting life, incompatible? I don’t want to believe this is true, but it was certainly true for me this month.

One of the key points I made in my talk, was that information is compressed experience, and this is certainly evident in the gulf between what kids know and what their parents know. We tout education as a means to transcend our more brutal instincts, and there is some truth to this. But a less commonly acknowledged truth is that with our knowledge we often adopt an intolerance for those who don’t know the same things we do. Often this is unconscious, but the consequences are still the same as overt judgement: misunderstanding, separateness, distrust. What I discovered about myself is that much of what irritates me about my kids boils down to them not understanding the world as I do, or more specifically, not complying with my worldview. We’re fighting over perspective, which, framed that way, seems insane, especially when one of the things I most wish to impart on my children is curiosity and acceptance of other perspectives.

Living with my children is like living with people from a different culture. They don’t understand the language very well, they’re illiterate, and seem to have very few customs related to emotional regulation. They don’t like a lot of the food here and frequently refuse to even try it; this behavior is accompanied by bizarre eating habits – like eating with their hands, running around with their food instead of sitting down to eat it, or preferring to eat while sitting on top of another human, usually me. They commonly talk over each other and other people, it seems that their tribe does not speak in a tennis-volley style like we do, but all at once and very loud in an effort to be heard over the other voices. Oddly, this is also a common point of frustration for them, because it is very hard to understand anything, which is exacerbated by their inexperience with the language. They are frequently loving and affectionate, but are prone to aggressive language and violent outbursts, often yelling and hitting each other or us, sometimes resulting in cuts and bruises. They are much more interested in our culture than we are in theirs, and imitate our behaviors regularly, sometimes even calling it to our attention so that they might be praised for it. And yet, with seemingly equal frequency they actively resist the things we ask them to do so that they might become fully acculturated. They are especially resistant to matters of personal hygiene, or having to do anything quickly. Also, they love sugar. They are obsessed with sugar. It must hold a place of sacred importance in their native land, for nothing else could explain the energy they put into thinking about, and acquiring, treats.

I am deeply in love with humans who are foreign to me. And when the gulf is most extreme, I yell at them, so that I might frighten all of our hearts back into their respective dominions. It is just too painful, too overwhelming, to confront what a long journey it is to meet in the middle; the miles on my side alone, appear eternal.

Another thread throughout my presentation was the idea that it’s very difficult to innovate within the context of our native culture because it’s transparent to us – we can’t see the ways in which it influences us because it’s simply become our worldview. What gets claimed, and acclaimed, as innovation is usually closer to tepid iteration. I offer that one way to disrupt this is by intentionally broadening the values and perspectives that we include in the design process of what we create. I have a very different perspective on American business and technology cultures having stepped away from them for a year and spent my time learning how to succeed survive in different culture with different values and different rhythms. I think this is valuable and I’m grateful for it, even though it’s also been painful and scary to give up an identity I’d invested so much in. And yet the reverse seems not to be true. I can see the value I bring as an outsider, surely, but it’s much harder for me to be comfortable with and open to the value of someone who is an outsider to my own experience – even though I want to. There is a weird asymmetry here. I can appreciate a business and technology perspective because I have shared it. And although I once was a child, I remember almost nothing from my young childhood. I don’t have any recollection of the experience I once shared with my own young children, and as a result, I am very quick to discount them. I don’t even mean to, in fact I mean not to, and I still do it, a lot. And if that model holds – if it is our natural inclination to automatically reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different.

Part of what is weird, I mean truly weird, about the human experience is that we can’t imagine with any fidelity anything we haven’t experienced. The best we can do is make up a version of what might happen (or has happened) based on the reconstructed, abstract memory of something that happened to us. This means that we are wrong (in some degree or another) about everything except what is happening right now (which we also get wrong a lot), and yet we go through our lives thinking that we are mostly right, most of the time. We assume the exact opposite of what actually occurs. I can’t understand how it is even possible to do that, yet we do. All. Of. The. Time. It is amazing that anything works at all. And I think part of the reason that it does work, is that shared experience gives us a good enough imitation of someone else’s subjectivity to have it pass as our own. For it to be believable that we are in communion, and in so being, see our precious selves in another.

February’s practice had a lot of spontaneously conditional activities, which made it hard to remember how I planned to handle them, and also made clear what a large gap there is between my intention and my actual behavior. It’s hard to predict when I will get angry, talk to someone, or become tense, and nearly as hard to stay aware and responsive to those situations in accordance with my specified practice activities. The Heart Card helped with this, just having it in my pocket raised my awareness, but a lot got away from me. But despite failing a lot more than I succeeded, or in truth, probably because of that, I managed to learn a couple of things.

It’s not just me! My kids, being young and from another culture, have not yet mastered THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I knew this about them, but I didn’t realize how much it reinforced my own carelessness, until I made an effort to counter it (and I wonder why all my coaching isn’t having the impact I hope for). What also surprised me was how much other adults do not follow THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I went into this month’s practice assuming this happened because I blew the transaction with my own inattention, and of course this is partly true. But once I started deliberately offering my eye contact and full attention to the people I engaged with, I was amazed at how few people met me with an equal level of attention.

Many people in casual transactions, like handing me a coffee, or saying have a nice day, would not even look at me at all. Sometimes they would, but with very little emotional presence, as if they had good training in the rules of engagement, but were attentionally absent. It struck me that we all do a lot of hiding in plain sight. I can’t tell which way we’ve chameleoned, in or out, but we certainly seem afraid to be seen. The most pleasurable interactions were the ones in which my attention hooked the other person – they would start of non-committal, but then deepen their engagement based on my continued attention. By the end of the interaction they would be beaming, seeming equal parts delighted and mystified that a stranger wanted to see them. I loved it when this happened. It felt good, really good, to mutually recognize each other’s humanity in this way. We spend a lot of time imagining that love is big – panoramic sunsets, and epic orchestras with soaring string sections – but some of the most satisfying moments of love I experienced were when I did nothing more than witness the presence and simple actions of someone else.

The other important lesson I got was the first time I ran out of good advice. I was really mad at Colin (for what I can’t remember), and followed the directions on The Heart Card, to calm down and think of what I would tell someone else to do. Much to my amazement, I found that I had absolutely no good ideas at all. Really none, and I had not prepared for this particular predicament. I decided the best thing I could do, under the circumstances, was to just speak gently and honestly about why I was upset, which I did. What I said is also lost to memory but Colin’s reaction isn’t. He was gracious and loving. He said okay mom, and gave me a hug. And for him, a sensitive and cerebral kid, this was an off-pattern response. It is amazing how many of those eternal miles you can travel in the company of someone else.

So what did I learn about love? Nothing that I didn’t already know and have to relearn at every turn. Love is so simple as to not be believable. Love is coiled and slumbering all around us, and we are mostly too shy, too self-conscious, too hurt, too fearful to reach in and out at the same time, and gently wake it up.

February, Love

Wonder Woman and Stuart Smalley mashup.

Ahhh, Love. That ubiquitous force that captures our hearts and imaginations equally. It rivals the body in its graceful bondage of these aspects of our nature. Love is of course notoriously difficult to define, but like so many before me, I will try anyway.

Intention:
Like most of my emotional experiences, love is both felt and thought. These are actually distinct pieces, and can be mutually exclusive, but co-occur so commonly and rapidly it’s hard to tell them apart. More and more, emotions seem to me like matter as we now understand it – something that exists only as the artifact of two other forces interacting with each other.

For me, conceptual love is much more common than felt love, but I hold the physical experience of felt love as the standard which supports and perpetuates my notion of conceptual love. This naturally leads to all kinds of disconnects in how my experience of “love” does (not) match my idea of “love”. Felt love, that chemical bath of peace in which I feel a deeply permeated sense of safety, warmth, joy and equanimity, is one of the truly divine human experiences. In this love is the endless, harmonious tension of patient energy. It is the force that opens hearts and eyes and minds, opens wings, opens clouds and buds and legs. The force that steps forward to receive the beauty that reigns upon us in its most glorious and terrible forms.

Now that love is not the love I feel when get off the phone with my mother, kiss my husband goodbye, or comfort a fussing child at 2 o’clock in the morning. These are loves of utility. Loves of commitment. Loves of the pragmatic functioning inside the monasteries of relationship. And these loves are largely sustained by the idea that I love, regardless of what I happen to be feeling at the moment, which runs the gamut from affection to resentment.

I find myself (again) at the crossroads of the abstract and the embodied, and it is (again) an intersection full of space. The actions in my love relationships (or any relationship for that matter) are meant to be gestures of communion, and offered in homage to felt love. But too often, my words and actions are rote, distracted, and unsuccessful in opening what is already present. Love, gracious as it is, is also discerning and insists on authentic provenance.

It is to that end, to drawing the idea of relationship closer to the experience of relationship, that this month is dedicated. To going into the space between my actions and my feelings and with an intending heart, turning the idea into the ideal, more of the time.

I am increasingly aware, and bothered, by how little eye contact I offer the people I interact with, and I actually consider eye contact to be one of my strengths. I want the mechanics of my daily life – my automatic manners and habits – to be more conscious and more pleasurable. The difference between a well-mannered relationship, and a loving relationship (I suspect) is the addition of respect and presence. Love requires witnessing the other person, and so many of my actions run as a secondary process to my attention. When I say hi to the grocery clerk, I’m already reaching for my wallet. When I thank the bagger, I am looking at my son who is talking over me. When my husband walks in the door, I say hello without bothering to look up from whatever I’m cooking, because I am also trying to detach my three year old from my leg, before I slice open my finger. Or worse, because whatever I’m doing seems more important than a person I love very deeply. What is that about? The people I care about deserve better, and so do I.

I blow so many opportunities every day to fully recognize another person, for just a moment, and I am reaping the the sour fruits of my effort. My smiles in these exchanges are frequently reflexive performances, because I’m usually thinking about the next thing I’m about to do. They’re not insincere, but they’re at about 30% opacity. I want to feel more grateful for the life I have, but I am failing to be grateful inside the one I’m actually living, while I’m living it.

Love, I think, is one of those values that needs to be cultivated indirectly. And I suspect that the cultivation is actually one of simple surrender. Love is me, but it’s not about me.

February Activities:

  • Be nice, instead of just polite. Offer eye contact and conscious presence every time I speak with someone. Smile (a real one, generated by thinking about the person).
  • Do yoga five times a week. Yoga is great for finding and feeling effort without strain. This particular energy – engaged and relaxed at the same time – seems closely related to felt love. Yoga will offer the chance to experiment, to wiggle into and hold the cultivation, in a way that the more ephemeral tasks don’t allow. Learn from my body, love my body.
  • Release physical tension and resistance, every time I notice it. I meet resistance with resistance all the time – cutting a lemon with a dull knife, scrubbing pots, changing diapers, writing, even when I sleep I clenching my jaw. All this subtle tension in my body is giving me a form factor that cues more resistance.
  • Meet conflict with loving intention. When I can’t, or don’t, do that in the moment, deliberately make space for love later, and follow through.
  • Ask my family to help me with this practice. I’ve made up a heart card, and enlisted my children and husband to prompt me to pull it out, whenever they think a situation could use more love. My five year old will be great at this.
  • Acknowledge as many failures as I can, and forgive myself. Awareness is half the battle, maybe more.
  • Do a nightly inventory of what I’ve done well, so I don’t discount my accomplishments.

Expectations:
I expect I will miss a lot more moments of presence than I engage, but I expect I will get better as I practice. I expect that I will physically feel happier and more optimistic by the end of the month – that there will be a bio-chemical basis to this. This is based a little bit on reading I’ve done, and a lot on my desire for it to be true. I expect I will be physically stronger and more relaxed, and that I will be disappointed that the changes aren’t greater. I expect I will be less irritated by the conditions around me. I expect I will have more energy. I expect I will care less about “getting my way”. I expect I will discover all sorts of supporting skills to love (forgiveness and surrender come to mind) that I am not very good at, and when confronted with that, I will probably get confused, sad, or angry. I expect I will get frustrated and discouraged, and that this month’s practice will be much harder than I imagine. I expect my family will be more affectionate, cooperative and happier (danger, Will Robinson).

What do I value?
I value action. I value kindness, compassion and peace. I value strength and grit and willingness. I value the notion that I can craft the skills of surrender. I am deeply committed (attached?) to the idea that I can transform myself into a more accepting person. That I can build up the skill of letting go. I value the light of grace that lives within me, and the chance to honor the great gift of my life.

What do I want?
I want to become the role model I am seeking. I want to be healthy enough, and strong enough, and honest enough, and forgiving enough, to lead an authentic, expressive life that inspires other people to do the same. I want to make the world a more caring, accepting place to live, and to stop feeling so self-conscious about that desire. I want to live, not without, but in freedom from fear. I want to trust in my own value, and I want to teach my kids how to trust in theirs.

Where is the Resistance?
The biggest obstacle will be simple habit and lack of awareness. I also get attached to being angry – I get all caught up in righteousness, which is unhelpful, but feels strangely good. I will really resist doing this on days when my mood is low; it will be hard to find the energy and sincerity. I think I am probably resistant to receiving love. I think that phrasing is a complete indication that I am resistant to receiving love, and in danger of subtly using love as a mechanism for controlling others. (See expectations above.)

What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be gentle with myself.
I am willing to ask for help.
I am willing to remind myself this practice is about me, not about other people.
I am willing to look honestly at my discomfort, and do my best to not sew up that experience with a narrative.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Alignment – I hope that by acting with love and from love, I will become more aligned with the Universe. That the good life and good work I desire will become available to me with greater ease. A little more undulation, and a little less thrashing, please.
  • Perspective – I think by engaging sincerely and compassionately with other people, I will see the world from their point of view, a little bit better.
  • Sympathetic Joy – By treating others better, I think I will feel better.

Lost

  • Control – There is a surprising amount of overt and subtle manipulation that happens inside our family structure, mostly between kids and parents, as we bump through the motions of our days. Trying to meet these conflicts with love and honesty will require that I stop putting so much effort into getting the outcome I want by controlling others. In a lot of cases this will probably be better, since so many household skirmishes don’t even merit a serious attention, but it’s still going to be hard. It somehow feels like being ignored, which I really dislike.
  • Explicit Power – This is closely related to control, but is, well, more explicit and direct. There is a huge power imbalance between me and my kids, and I often exploit that to get my way, right away. Sometimes this is totally appropriate to keep them safe, or enforce reasonable rules and boundaries. But other times it’s just because I don’t want to put in the effort required to consider their perspectives and model good conflict resolution which requires, patience, kindness, listening, explaining, soothing, more time, and (sometimes) enforcing consequences.

Gifts, Mother-Fucking Gifts

As I clean out objects from my house, the number of gifts I come in contact with is astounding. Paying attention to my reaction to gifts, as I decide to keep them, or give them away, I’ve begun to realize how complex they are. Lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I am not. I am fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends; I truly appreciate the affection, generosity and thoughtfulness with which the gifts we have were given. But gifts are complicated in a way that I think is worth exploring, and is not mutually exclusive to gratitude.

My family is given so much stuff – it’s a big contributor to how much stuff we have. I’ve got perfectly good T-shirts (for example), and I’ve got newer T-shirts, and I’ve got brand new T-shirts, and so does everyone else in my house. And when I get new versions of the same thing, it’s rare for me to immediately swap out an earlier version in order to maintain object-stasis. I just accumulate more and more. What we call consumerism, is actually much closer to collectionism, or the cycle of collectionism and disposalism, which in our house runs at a cycle of about 3:1. Aside from food and cleaning products, very few physical objects in my home actually get consumed. It’s part of what makes it so hard for me to get rid of things – they still seem perfectly good to me.

Gifts are sticky. A gift is more than the object itself, it is imbued with the expectation of our pleasure. And for my part at least, I really want to live up to this expectation. I was taught that a gift should be freely given, without expectation, but in practice I struggle to trust in this aspiration, either as a giver or a receiver. Gifts give form to our hope and fear, and in their embodied separateness keep us safe. We bear objects instead of our hearts, and so can tolerate the occasional shooting of the messenger.

Gifts reflect the intimacy between the giver and the receiver. When a gift captures a genuine knowledge of what the receiver enjoys, it is a truly magical experience. My most pleasurable gift experience was giving a race car driving experience to my husband, who is a NASCAR fan. I knew he was going to love the gift. I enjoyed weeks of anticipation before Christmas. I knew it would be a total surprise. And it was all of those things. He loved it. He never would have guessed. And then six months later, when summer came and he went and did it, he loved the experience. We got to enjoy it all over again. It remains a fond memory for both of us, but for me it’s also tinged with disappointment that I might never have that peak experience again.

And sometimes the intimacy reflected back at us in the exchange of gifts is one we’d rather not spend too much time looking at. We might have to confront that we don’t know the receiver of our gift well enough to be confident that they will like it. We might have to wrestle with the internal what? seriously? in the reception of an unwanted gift, as we do our best to be externally gracious. We might have to admit that we are not trusting enough of ourselves, or the relationship, to share our anxiety about these things. We might have to do this with people we are not “supposed” to have to do this with, like our family members. A failed gift suddenly becomes a failure of knowing, and even when this is small, sometimes because it is small, we turn away from it. We smile, we say thank you, we honor the intention, but we do not honor the reality, and into this gulf intimacy recedes a little further.

Tradition and etiquette combine to turn a beautiful practice into a super-storm of emotional complexity. Our traditions change much more slowly than the reality of our needs. Bridal and baby showers come from an era when the objects bestowed were designed to last a lifetime (or at least a long time), and when the household earning power was a fraction of what it typically is today. We live in an age where availability of things, both in terms of cost and proximity, far outpace our actual need for them. It’s hard to resist the cultural weight of our customs, not to mention the excitement that often accompanies them, and so we focus on the pleasure, setting aside the rest for a later reckoning. I have encountered a surprising number of things in my home that I don’t particularly like, yet I have passively allowed them to become the things that represent me, which is weird.

All objects come with the responsibility of ownership, and in my experience, there is very little acknowledgement about this by either the giver or the receiver. How would gift-giving change if every time we gave someone a gift, they gave us something they already owned? Thank you for this new scarf, I love it! Here is another scarf I already have, please take it. If I keep it, I’ll have to enjoy it half as much, or wash it twice as often.

What might a new etiquette for a culture of abundance look like? Many people refrain from gift-giving already, reducing or eliminating the exchange of gifts. But what if we also stared to encourage gift-giving as an act of redistributing value? Imagine a birthday party invitation that said, If you wish to honor the celebration of Jonah’s life with a gift, please consider donating a toy to Toys for Tots. And then, at the party the birthday kid could be celebrated for the generosity they helped foster. Would it work, or would you just end up with a teary child that didn’t understand why their party was so weird and different, and they didn’t get any presents?

Or what if amazon.com had a “this is a donation” option right next to the “gift” check box, that would allow you to send a gift directly to a charity, and a write donation card to the person on whose behalf you gave? In the card you would explain how much you valued this person, and why you thought they would value helping someone else. It would be a way to acknowledge something beautiful you recognize and appreciate in that person, and honor it through helping someone else.

Or what if at the Christmas tree, along side the bag full of discarded wrapping paper, there was a donation box. When each family member opened a present, the giver could explain why they had chosen the gift. The receiver would listen, thank them, and decide if they wanted to keep or donate the gift, or donate something else they already owned. When choosing an item for donation, the person would talk about why they did not need that item, how it had mattered to them, and why they thought it would be useful to someone else.

These ideas make me squeam a little. They seem plausible, and at the same time, corny, almost cloying in their earnestness. It’s hard to imagine being this thoughtful, this honest, in every exchange. It takes time and attention, bravery and trust. It takes knowledge of oneself, love of others, and the willingness to tolerate the rejection of what’s in your heart.

January, Clarity

The super-self me project is underway, and January is dedicated to the value of Clarity. I am suddenly feeling very self-conscious about publishing this – but I’m at my deadline, and rather than evaporating while trickling my way to perfection, I’m going to see what happens when I follow my own rules. Nothing wagered, nothing gained, right?

I had a hard time selecting a single word to represent this theme. I’ve been talking about it as “cleansing and purification month,” but what those actions are about is creating physical space and mental clarity. In the end, it all more or less reduces to cultivating clarity in the causes and conditions out of which my reality arises.

Intention:
This was a natural fit for January, when the excess of the holiday season makes it easy to embrace cleaning out and cleaning up. I also liked the idea of having a clean space and a clear mind as my baseline for the undertaking of this project.

The physical environment of my home seems like the most controllable condition that contributes to my experience. I enjoy having uncluttered space. I love needing something and knowing exactly where to find it. I am a little bit compulsive about wanting things cleaned up and put away. Sharing a house with a husband who works from home a lot and three kids under six, results in a space that’s much busier and messier than I would choose to live and work in, all things being equal. I get overwhelmed by how much stuff there is, I accidentally buy things we already have, and I spend more time than I want to maintaining, and thinking about maintaining, the objects in our lives. There isn’t enough pregnant emptiness into which new thoughts and actions can be born, so enslaved am I to bounty we already have.

I want the objects in my environment have a specific purpose in my life. I want to enjoy less, more. To the extent I can, I want to create a crafted, purposeful environment. My house feels like a choking ecosystem. It’s a nice little house, it’s just all clogged up with the detritus of busy, inattentive living.

The most immediate desire I have is to reduce the labor and attention I give to object maintenance. When I was getting paid for my work, and I worked outside of my home, what I had and who took care of it was not something I paid a lot of attention to. George took care of the lawn, a rotating set of Brazilian women cleaned my house. Smiling, Portuguese-speaking apparitions who, I’m ashamed to admit, were as interchangeable to me as they apparently were to their boss. Now that I have chosen to BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MY OWN THINGS, I am feeling the crush of my leveraged lifestyle collapsing back on top of me. When other people cleaned my house and clipped my lawn, I consumed at a rate greater than one person because I outsourced the effort of ownership.

I want to have a serene space in which to live and work, but I still don’t want to spend a lot of my time maintaining it. So this month is about the over-due reckoning of living within my means, but beyond my capacity. I gotta own my shit, and this means removing obstructions that prevent me from placing my awareness at the deepest level available to me. A big part of this month’s activities is about doing this literally, by reducing the things in my home, but I also want a clearer internal baseline. The more I meditate, the less I enjoy drinking. The pleasure is briefer, and the side effects are more obvious. I also think it has a bigger impact on my mood stability, physical comfort, and energy level than I wish were true. So, I as I clean up the distractors around me, it seemed like a good corollary to stop putting chemical distrators in me.

I want to have more meaningful relationships with fewer objects. As I’ve slowly (often begrudgingly) settled into the intimacy of my own life, I’ve realized how much pleasure and wonder there can be in simple tasks. One of my fondest memories from this past summer was sweeping a batch of tiny brown, papery husks that fell all over our deck from blossoming tree. At the time, there was a big orb weaver in residence, and I noticed the same husks caught in its web. The next morning, a small batch of them were scattered below the web; overnight, the spider had meticulously picked out each one and repaired the silk threads. The symmetry of our actions was so beautiful and so moving I started crying (surprise). I felt such camaraderie with that eight-eyed, eight-legged little cleaner. I felt intense gratitude for this quiet offering of validation that, yes, I too was part of the nature of things, and I thought Holy shit, this is what it feels like to really live inside my own life. This is amazing. I want to keep doing this.

January Activities:

  • Abstinence from alcohol.
  • Exercise 3 times a week, 30 minutes or longer.
  • Remove all unused objects from the house.
  • Find a place for all remaining objects.
  • Establish a system for maintaining space and clarity.

Expectations:
Some of my expectations seem really tangible, like spending less time cleaning and less time thinking about cleaning, but some of them are extremely vague, even foofy, like feel happier and lighter. Part of what’s good about trying to identify my expectations is the simple act of seeing how unspecific they are. They’re almost more aspirations, but for the (almost) non-judgemental record, they also include:

  • Be less bothered by the (mostly kid) mess around me, because there will be less of it, fewer conditions for it to arise, and because I will be more ok with it by the end of this month of practice. I expect my perception will shift in a way I can’t quite articulate, but I think it will end up more accepting and relaxed, for having exposed some of my own ridiculousness.
  • If I sincerely, consistently live the behavior, my kids will start to copy it
  • Enjoy the visual and functional aesthetic of less clutter.
  • Become more aware of my consumption patterns: buy less, enjoy it more, and actually consume it. I.e. eat it, wear it, wash it away…
  • I expect it won’t work the way I think it’s going to, and expect I’ll be a little disappointed about this.

I had to really resist the desire to over-work the four questions. I wanted to make sense of them up front, refine them into a more palatable, more likely list. Some of them don’t make a ton of sense relative to this theme, some of them are in conflict, but it feels right to try to grab it as a rough snapshot of where I’m at.

What do I Value?

  • Opportunity – which to me seems inextricably linked to open space. A chance for something new to emerge.
  • Truth – seeing as complete and unobscured of a reality as is possible for me.
  • Trust – being calm and secure that I have done as much as is reasonable to enable seeing clearly.

What do I Want?

  • I don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet, and I’m sort of herky-jerking along. I want there to be something more, something different. This might be something new in its own right, or just a new dimension to what already exists. There is a sort of icky-seeming sense of wanting to be “saved” buried in that desire. Ugh.
  • I want more time for my independent adult life, writing, reading, meditating, seeing friends, etc.
  • I want better focus.

Where is the Resistance?

  • I’m not sure I want to be ok with messiness. I have a sense of pride about myself associated with high standards, hard work, and excellent performance. I’m sort of a controlling person, I stink at letting go.
  • Staying perpetually engaged with the mundane is a great way to ensure nothing I care deeply about will go wrong, for it never goes at all.
  • I have a sense of frugality and conservatism that I’m attached to. I don’t like to throw things away because I don’t want to be wasteful. It’s so ironic that that an undertaking to have less would challenge my sense of frugality. It’s because my idealism about being frugal is about to get called onto the carpet, packed up, and donated to a worthy cause.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Time for my personal projects. If I have less to maintain, I will spend less time on maintenance. It is so, so much more expeditious to do housework when the kids aren’t here, and I spend precious solitude on cleaning instead of writing, meditating, connecting, etc.
  • Satisfaction… (red flag!) I struggled to articulate this any further, best guesses included: at having changed my patterns and habits / having accomplished “it” (no idea what it is) / walking into a clean room.
  • Appreciation for what I have – Making intentional choices about the purpose of the objects I keep will allow me to understand the value and use they provide.
  • Humility – Having to confront the amount of stuff I have that I don’t need will help me acknowledge the degree to which I take more than is necessary.
  • Acceptance – doing the work has a way of exposing what’s at the top of the “let it go” stack.

Lost

  • A sense of cultural convention – I live in a middle-class suburb – drinking while socializing, and consumerism are just part of the vernacular.
  • The soothing and time consuming activity of shopping – I use it to kill time and get my kids out of the house on long days together. It feels satisfying to have “done” something like get groceries and gives me a break from the non-stop requests for attention, snacks, help, etc. when we are in the house.
  • Security – I tend to keep stuff out of a “just in case” sense that I will need it later.
  • Ease – I have a family that – loving as it is – is not quite so interested in this exploration of pseudo-asceticism as I am. Giving away their stuff on my behalf might not always go over well.
  • Old values and relationships – I’ll have to say goodbye to the emotional payload in objects I don’t value, or need, anymore. This one is going to be really hard.

Sidebar…

Possible Gotchas

  • I’ll just find different things to distract me. Distractions are internal, I’m just a lot better at noticing the outward manifestations.
  • I’ll spend more time with fewer objects, and get no net gain on free time. (The whole concept of “free time” is silly enough for me to cringe when I write that, but it has a valid colloquial meaning of: activities I’m unwilling to stop doing.)
  • I won’t reduce nearly enough stuff to make a tangible difference.

A Question to Watch For:
How much of the mess is generated by people, rather than the proliferation of objects? As I wrote this piece, the whole thing started to have a wag the dog feeling. It’s possible I’ve got it all backwards – that the people will generate the same amount of physical disorder no matter what, and no matter how much I get rid of it won’t matter.

The Immaculate Deaths of Trees

The grass bends easily in the wind. The great oak stands unmoved. A strong wind can uproot the oak, but no wind, however strong, can uproot the grass that bends flat before it.

-Chin-Ning Chu, Thick Face, Black Heart

Fallen oak tree
I am walking on the estate again. I reach the boundary gate at the river, and turn to look at the water. To my amazement, the stone mansion I have been glimpsing, straining to see from the road a quarter mile down river, is directly in front of me across the bank. It is only now that the leaves have died and fallen away, that I can see what’s been nearer than near, all along. Only now, that they have honored their totality of purpose, and completely released, is the sought object revealed to be already present. It is as if God has sighed tenderly and said, Clear enough, baby? I begin to cry, and I pray that I may die all my deaths with the grace and dignity of a leaf.

I am walking on the estate again. It’s been very windy and very few leaves remain above, but there are many below. It’s cold and bright, and I look at the mansion for a long time. I turn, and walk the other direction. In front of me is a fallen giant. I massive tree has shattered at its base and stretches across the lawn, all the way to the edge of the brook. Its size and its majesty are awe inspiring – and in its death, accessible for the first time. Dying changes the perspective of those who have only ever experienced us as living. Huge swaths of earth are torn up from the impact of the fall. Broken branches rest a foot into the ground.

There is an odd smell in the air. I weave under and around the limbs, touching the bark, marveling at the life of this creature. I decide to bring the boys back here later, so they might see something this rare for themselves – a body that’s been in the sky for hundreds of years, laid now at our feet. I look up at a branch still clutching leaves. It is an oak. They are always among the last to let go, holding their curling, russet leaves well past the first snow. I think about the cheerful, sugary maples, naked for weeks now. They helicopter down their soft seeds in the height of summer. A party. A ticker tape parade. Not like acorns at all, who hold their dense energy easily, stoically, all winter long. I feel a chilly sadness for the oak, for the vulnerability of staunchness.

I am walking on the estate again. The oak has been cleared away, the splintered stump, neatly sawed across the top. Around the edges, the tree rings are clearly marked – a bending topography of time, etched in creams and browns. Towards the middle, the cut surface is ragged and white. I touch the outside rings; the wood is very firm. I touch the inner wood; it is soft and pulpy. I pick up a piece of wood left behind, with the grain clearly showing. It is very hard and heavy. I pick up a pale, ungrained piece. It is light, it crumbles easily between my fingers. This tree died from the inside out. It is how most of us die, but strangely, we rarely think of it that way. We think of it as something that happens to us, rather than something that emerges from within us. There are tiny pine seedlings at the base of the once-here tree. I wonder, do they know the fortune that’s befallen them? Do they feel the light that has always been there, but is newly born to them?

I am walking on the estate again. The oak stump comes into view, a tidy headstone in memorial to itself. Everything about the way trees die and live, is immaculate.

The Quantified Five Year Old

Pre-filled behavior chart, predicting the future.
Colin, in an attempt to earn a toy gun, has started drawing out behavior charts. Days with check marks are good days, and days with X’s are bad days. The most charming (disturbing) part about these, is that he fills them all out in advance.

He drew this one this morning. Today started out as a good day, but then got X-ed over to a bad day, after he had a meltdown that Jack was being taken out for a special birthday breakfast. Halloween, is prominently featured as a good day, and his upcoming flu shot, a bad day. I asked him about the row of bad days at the end of the chart and he said, That’s August, when some bad stuff will happen.

So, apparently, at five we have in place the mental process that can anticipate good and bad things happening, and start planning our reactions accordingly. What’s amazing (disturbing) to me, is how much I still do this throughout the course of my own day. I like this, I don’t like that. I agree with this, I don’t agree with that. I’m looking forward to this, but not to that. This is good, this is bad. We do so much of this checking and X-ing that we pre-program our experience before it even occurs. Thank goodness for logic, so we can retroactively clean up and refactor the mess that we created. Time travel ain’t got nothing on our imaginations.

During the rolling tantrum that ran all morning, Brendan and I alternated between offering compassion for Colin’s hurt feelings (hugs and validation), and trying to sooth him with rational explanations (you had a special birthday day last week, now it is Jack’s turn). By drop-off time for school, we were simply relieved to not have to endure his unhappiness anymore, or our failure to alleviate it. He understood all the reasoning, but it seemed to offer no relief at all, and that is distinctly different than my adult experience. It’s pleasant and easy to share in someone else’s happiness (or at least be neutral), especially if I’ve recently had a similar experience myself. I don’t worry about getting my flu shot, because the discomfort is a small price to pay for the security of vaccination. In fact, I worry about not getting it. Sometimes, logic is the only salve I know how to apply. Not so, for Colin.

Watching my kids grow up is like witnessing the super-slow-motion implosion of the human psyche, or as it’s commonly referred to in western psychology, normal cognitive development. With each additional skill of abstraction, they create another surface onto which they can layer experience. But then they need a set of filters for making sense of the abstracted reality, and integrating it back into their model of the world. The more elaborate the model becomes, the deeper their perception of separate self. Fast forward another 30 years, and perhaps they’ll be hitting the break point, where the accumulated model reaches its limits.

Is there a better way? Is it possible to re-infuse these stages of development with some of the beautiful simplicity of the direct experience they’re shedding? Can that be done, without also limiting them? Maybe the truths of growth are always hard won, and painfully released, and it is simply our job as parents to offer safe and loving shelter.

Spoon Fed

Spoon of baby food being cooked with a lighter.
Hey Baybeee. Heeeeeyyy. Do you want some? Do you want to try it? Mmmmmmm. It’s good. You’ll like it. Just a little bit? Yeahhhh. Just a little bit. Open uuup. Opeennn uuuuup. Mmmmmm. Good boy. That’s a good boy. Do you want a little more? Good baby.

I am cooing and coaxing my infant to eat. I am watching his every gesture and adjusting my serenade as we go, in the mother’s chant that runs low to high and back again, the velveteen stream that jackets each word as it tumbles out. My heart is full of love and I am smiling into the song when it strikes me: I sound exactly like a drug dealer. Or, I sound exactly like the Hollywood version of what I imagine a dealer to be. My addictions are all in the sanctioned spaces of consumption, achievement and relationships; it’s harder to suss them out from the tinkle and jangle of the every day.

Are our patterns just unskillful reenactments of this scene? Are the bad habits we step into again and again, the childish groping at the most immediate and imaginable version of fulfillment? How do we start out so beautiful and end up so fucking crazy? Are we committing no offence greater than seeking again, the innocent moments when every sense was sated? When food was placed in our mouths, when our ears hummed with the sliding vibration from our mother’s throat, when all we saw were big eyes reflecting back our own love and wonder? Perhaps our lives are just a messy, gross motor gesture to go back to the source, to hold for ourselves the spoon that feeds us.

An Agile Life

Agile board of post-its
I struggle with feeling satisfied at the end of my domestic days. Slowing down, being mindful, and making a deliberate effort to do fewer things well, I was surprised to discover, left me feeling like I was not doing enough, and bad at everything. Coincidentally, this was also how I felt when I was taking on more than I could ever hope to accomplish. My solution to investigate this? Pay even more attention to what I’m doing, or rather, pay a different kind of attention.

I have stepped off the corporate path, and am still running my tongue around my gums to get the taste out. Yet, when it came to trying to figure out what is actually going on in my BIG TIME OUT, the most sensible thing I could think to do was to run an agile board. I spend a lot of time wondering why our corporate and economic models omit so much of real life, but as it turns out, this has been a really helpful lens to understand my own behavior. Funny that.

I’ve got five epics: my personal endeavors, kids & family, and the logistics of the household, a “today” task list, and, of course, a backlog. I put down all most some of the stuff I anticipate needing or wanting to do, estimate how long each task will take, and then prioritize the “today” column each morning. This has been a very educational experience.

Lessons learned:

I suck at estimating how long stuff will take. I rarely know how long something will take until I’ve done it. Often, I forget to measure in a discrete way, so I retroactively guess. Sometimes I skip estimating because I don’t know, but don’t bother break out a task into something more estimable, or even hazard my best guess. I’ve seen (and by and large believed) all of these things in development teams, but trying it with something so personal let me understand the limitations of estimates in a much deeper, felt sense.

I suck at prioritizing, and a rarely execute my day in the order of priority I’ve set. As a Product Manager, I wasted a lot of energy lamenting that business units have no idea how to prioritize. Turns out I don’t either. I don’t have a clear idea of what is most important. There are a lot of competing, non-binary factors that might make something more important, or not – it depends. As it happens, I can not predict the future, nor I am I all that comfortable with not being able to. I know how is ridiculous this is, still it remains true in my experience – which is frustrating.

Hierarchical models, like prioritization, are inherently binary – you’ve got more or fewer bits of “yes” turned on. But prioritization only remains accurate when layered on top of a perspective that it already matches. When they don’t match, then there’s a conflict to resolve. What I didn’t realize is that these conflicts are constant. Sometimes they’re small and obvious, like wanting to eat something before getting started, and sometimes they’re large and subtle, like reorganizing a business unit, or development team. Prioritization can be a useful framework, certainly, but expecting it to be a unifying, static definition of reality, well, that is not only impossible, but seems like a sure way to end up confused and disappointed. But we all agreed on the priorities… Equally as helpful as identifying what ever priorities are set, would be identifying all the conflicts that might impede them – and not just the obvious ones of time, budget, tools, and human talent. Comparing the length of those lists – priorities and conflicts – might be as accurate a predictor of project success, or percentage of overrun, than any other.

My “stuff” permeates the simplest tasks in way that is fairly alarming. It takes me five minutes to put in a load of laundry if I just grab enough clothes of a similar color, add soap, and start the wash. But if I do it the way I’m patterned to do it – get all the laundry from all over the house, and sort multi-tiered loads of laundry (bleachable whites, light whites, colors, and then by fabric weight within those groups, and/or other logical grouping like linens, kids, and adults) – then it takes me, well, longer, and how much longer varies based on the laundry that day. Subtle, personal preferences and patterns influence my actions in a way I just didn’t (don’t) realize.

My life is much more dynamic and emergent than a model like this allows for, which throws off my estimates and prioritization even more than they were to start. Almost nothing is linear, and I am constantly being interrupted. My tasks take way longer than I think they “should” because I am dealing with semi-rational, semi-functional, and unpredictable team mates. My kids are little and require a lot of help. Stuff takes longer because I need to do it for them, because they undo it, because they are doing something else at the same time, because they are practicing something they’re not yet good at, and almost everything at their age requires practice. I extrapolate my own (already bad) estimates onto the kids, and then end up unhappy that the reality did match a plan that was delusional to begin with. WTF? I can clean up, get dressed eat and be ready to leave in 30 minutes an hour, but doing this with my kids is a two, sometimes three hour job. I’ve spent years being frustrated by this, and feeling like this was somehow a personal failure of mine. And it was, but not in the way I thought – it was not a failure of execution, it was a failure to let reality define my expectations and actions, rather than the other way around.

My environment and the moods of myself and others are the largest influences of what I do. If the weather is nice, or my kids are foul, the day can take a radical departure from what I had planned. I am astounded at how much this alters the flow and choice of my activities; I suspect these likely hold a much larger sway in our business environments than we recognize.

Almost everything I do is cyclical, “done” is a dangerous fallacy. Seeing this (in the very concrete form of moving post-it notes back a forth, and back again) has helped me shift my attitude to valuing the quality of the process over the completion of the task. It’s also helped me see how the natural order of everything is fundamentally rhythmic. Any model that does not account for expansion and contraction is bound to fail at some point, because it’s leaving out half of something. This is what makes temporal models so tricky – time is linear, predictable, and only moves in one direction. When we bind other processes to time, it’s easy to expect them to share the same qualities, and consider the natural reset of the cycle a failure when viewed through the primary lens of time.

These are not particularly profound realizations, but rewiring my automatic response system to value action over outcome, and welcome resets, is a profound change (challenge) for me; it requires a lot of intentional awareness, emotional energy, and patience. A task is only done for a moment, before dust starts to accumulate again, or another dish gets placed in the sink. When understood in this way, valuing an instant of satisfaction, rather than the entire process in between those blips on the graph, seems insane. Why set up pleasure to be so brief, and so antagonistic to the natural course of events? I’m surprised by how strongly I associate the “completion” model with value, and how commonly I use that as my viewpoint.

The value of this process is in analyzing behavior, not outcomes. So frequently data, tracking, and analysis are used to pressure conformity to predefined outcomes – finish a project on schedule, loose three pounds this week, meet a testing standard – rather than understand the underlying reasons for any deviation that occurs. It’s good to have goals, it’s totally legitimate to have a schedule and a plan, but it’s also important to be able willing to question if the goal and the plan were reasonable to begin with, or if they account for all the common variables. Most discussions about “failure” are focused on what prevented the objective from being met (frequently cast as unpredictable, one-time events), or perhaps they skip right to fixing the problem. Typically it’s asked: How do we make up for the deviation that occurred, and prevent it from happening again? instead of Why did we see the deviation we did?

The most valuable part of this exercise has been to help me see that the root causes of my dissatisfaction are different than I thought. I’ve become more aware of my behavior, and make more conscious choices about what I’m doing. I’m more compassionate with myself, and more satisfied with the choices I make, in large part because they’re done intentionally, with fuller knowledge of what’s gained and lost. The data is not telling me what to do, it’s exposing what I already do – indirectly, by making visible the gaps between the model and what actually happened. I’m still not satisfied, but I’m less unsatisfied. I’ve got less doer’s remorse, and this is a good thing.