Monthly Archives: August 2011

Untroubled waters

There’s a scene in the BBC’s snarky, engaging Sherlock in which Holmes lays out his aversion to knowing any facts that aren’t immediately applicable to his daily life or the work at hand. His theory is that any unnecessary information is simply brain-clutter, occupying neurons that could otherwise be put to more useful employ–and anyone familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon knows that he does indeed put his grey matter to impressive use. One might do well to heed advice from such a fellow.

It’s a idea that’s not wholly without merit, particularly on those days when I can remember pop songs I’d just as soon forget, but can’t for the life of me recall where I put my keys. But, in all seriousness, I think he’s got it wrong.

While our brains are not at all good at multitasking (seriously, people: fiddle with your phone after you get out of the car), they are capable of retaining prodigious amounts of information. Contrary to what Sherlock says, remembering stuff isn’t our problem. Accessing what we’ve remembered, however, is another thing entirely.

Think of your brain as a stream. Its bed–its foundation, what gives it structure and direction–is composed of data points large and small. Some memories are boulders: enduring, immoveable, solid. Others are pebbles, tumbled in the current, or smooth rocks scooped up by the handful for skipping. The rest are fine particles of silt, still there, but small enough that their very order and placement can be changed by a wader’s footprints or the sweep of a trout’s tail. There’s a lot down there. And over it all runs a continuous flow of activity–the chattering stream of grocery lists, commercial jingles, obligations, worries, regrets, private celebrations, trivia, funny jokes, half-digested stories, and unresolved conflicts that swim, constantly, just this side of our conscious awareness.

The Sherlocks of the world would excavate the stream bed and filter the water, seeking to discard anything unessential, creating more elbow room for the important stuff. Let’s forget, for a moment, that we probably aren’t always the best judges of what’s important and what’s not. One never knows (as Mr. Holmes himself learns) when a seemingly inconsequential piece of information may come in handy. But, more importantly, there’s a simpler way.

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If the rocks and sand of our memories–the very substance of what we know–are what we reliably need to be able to reach and make sense of, and if, as we know, our stream bed has near-infinite capacity to hold knowledge-stones, then it doesn’t matter how many of them are down there. What matters is whether or not we can see what’s there to reach in and touch the right one.

Crowding the creek shouldn’t concern us; turbulence should.

The more churned up that water gets, the harder it is to see through it, and the more it monkeys around, pushing pebbles downstream, stirring up silt, disturbing even the boulders. Suddenly, it’s noisy, you can’t see, things aren’t where you thought they were, and it even gets a little dangerous to wade out into your own mind.

Sound familiar?

Stillness is becoming, for me, a kind of synonym for clarity–or, more specifically, for that state which most likely contains the potential for clarity. It’s what draws me to the yoga mat and the meditation cushion; it’s also what I get from writing, or a long hike, or fully immersing myself in a task. Because stillness isn’t necessarily about achieving a blank state, an empty mind–it’s about that calm that comes with focusing one’s energy and will in one direction, rather than the usual scattershot, thousand-thoughts-a-second energy most of us carry around most of the time. Bliss, I’m thinking, isn’t a wordless, thought-less, state of vague good vibes: rather, it’s the High Def version of reality, a sharp-focus, crystal-clear stream you can dive right into.

The hump

I love early mornings–the first bird songs, the empty streets, the stillness settled over everything. The slow way a sunrise reveals itself, and how you won’t know until it’s over if it’s more spectacular that yesterday’s. Savoring a cup of coffee on the couch or the porch or sitting in the dirt by a tent. Letting the day come to you, and not the other way around. There’s gentleness, and a sense of space, to this time.

Over the years, I’ve had ample experience with the peri-dawn hours. In high school, I used to get up before six and start the coffee–and sometimes fall back asleep on the couch while the water heated. I’ve worked the open shift at a coffeeshop, flipping the sign and unlocking the doors while streetlights still burned over grey sidewalks. Last year, I woke regularly at 3:15 and set out on my bike around 4, to clock in before 5, eyes still blurry with short rest.

Any time I’ve slept outside–in deep green forests, on bone-white sand dunes, atop creaking lake ice, beside a softly lapping bay–my eyes open far earlier than they would in a bed, with a job dictating the alarm’s ring. This is when early mornings are at their finest, when I remember how much I love this time. Because here’s the rub: I love to be awake at dawn, welcoming the day. But I hate getting out of bed to do it.

Partly it’s my ever-complicated relationship with sleep: so easily disturbed by stress, so manipulated and manhandled over the years by night shifts and swing shifts and twenty-four-hour shifts. Partly it’s health and environmental concerns that we all (should) share: disrupted endocrine function, food sensitivities, artificial lighting. Partly it’s I could almost always use more meditation and more exercise than I give myself. In any case, being up is (usually) fabulous. Getting up is (frequently) hellacious.

The time between deciding I must get up (must, because we’re talking those less ideal, not camping, gotta go to work mornings) and being on my feet beside the bed is the hump. It’s the obstacle to be overcome, the unpleasant middle business stuck between two otherwise wholly enjoyable states: sleep and awake. Some days, it’s small. I just lift a foot and step right over it. Some days, I have to rig up something of a figurative haul system, and get some mechanical advantage on that sucker if I have any hope of seeing the other side.

Sometimes you hump the hump, and sometimes it humps you.

The hump makes appearances elsewhere in life, as well–and it’s just as despised. (Or welcome, I mean–or am probably supposed to mean. As a teaching tool, see? Something profound the universe has noticed I must learn in my quest toward enlightenment being less of an a-hole. Or some such. Mostly it’s a pain, and I’ll willfully engage in a little targeted aversion where the hump is concerned.)

The hump makes a regular appearance here. You’ll notice it as those gaps between posts, some longer, some shorter. It happens. All writers are acquainted with it in some fashion. Some will see the hump in the form of good, old-fashioned writer’s block. Others of us get a different version. It’s ironic, but the thing we love doing, the thing we’re good at doing, the thing we do as much to share something with other people as we do for the deep satisfaction it brings us, can be the last thing in the world we might want to do on any given day.

But there’s this: the hump is a hump. One side goes up (sometimes way, way up), but the other side goes down. You can pick up some serious speed on that descent. Just as, some mornings, I may need a pry bar to get out of bed, but then find that I’m bright of eye and bushy of tail even before the coffee’s hot, so it is with writing. Some days, words are the last thing I want to stick my hands into. I avoid the desk, the computer, pen and paper. But, with an effort of will (and not a little internal guilt-tripping), I tackle the hump. And then (oh then), we’re rocketing downhill and away into something wonderful. Or not, but at least we’re not climbing anymore.

It’s not exactly scientific, and I can’t vouch for our quality controls around here, but I did take a core sample of the hump not too long ago. Turns out, it’s a garbage heap in disguise. Everything you don’t want, or thought you’d gotten rid of (but were really just pretending not to see), is in there. It’s mostly fear, wearing all its clever masks: self-flagellation, disappointment, insecurity, unanswered grief, anxiety, frustration, anger, all those shoulds. So I have a theory: reduce my garbage output; trim the hump. Process the crap that’s already on the heap (reuse, recycle?), and level that thing out. Making it easier on oneself isn’t always coddling–sometimes, it’s just plain common sense.

I have some other theories, too, about how perspective might be the only thing that really matters. We’ll talk more about that soon. But for now, it’s enough to know that the right perspective–seeing clearly what we’re dealing with between page and words, sleep and wake–is likely the key to a humpless existence. And I suspect that might be every bit as nice as it sounds.

What I do

You’re at a dinner party, say. Or you’ve stopped at the park while walking your dogs, or you’re warming a stool down at the pub. Whatever the situation, you’ve just met someone new, and you’re doing the polite chat, get-to-know-you thing. In the top three openers, you’ll be asked, “So, what do you do?” (The other two, if you’re a woman in a Southern town known for its transient and transplanted populace, are some version of, “Where are you from?” and “Are you married?”)

What do you do?

This question, of course, isn’t asking what you did earlier today, or what you did on your summer vacation, or what you like to do. It’s asking what part of yourself–your time, your skills, your knowledge, your sanity–you exchange for money. What of you is for sale–and, in turn, what sort of lifestyle you can buy for yourself.

Your answer to this question can get complicated, fast–particularly if your answer isn’t what’s expected of you, or if what you do for a living doesn’t put you in the same income or prestige categories as those doing the asking. Too high or too low (an investment banker in a room full of taxi drivers, or vice versa), and there’s instant tension. The conversation, from that point on, is going to take some rescuing.

Likewise, if you’re smarter than your current profession, if you haven’t lived up to your potential, it gets weird–doubly so if you’re among peers who have made something of themselves. I think this is why high school and college reunions can be so intimidating for so many people–the pressure to conform is ceaseless and irresistible, and it can be a shock to see how you do or don’t measure up to your erstwhile friends.

What do you do? crystallizes a very specific American anxiety–about wealth, standing, worth–and it’s never a neutral question.

For six years now, I’ve had an answer that seems to impress most people, even if they don’t precisely know what an EMT or a Paramedic really does. It’s a job title that communicates a certain amount of education and membership in a specialized group with specialized skills. They make TV shows about what I do (with varying degrees of accuracy, natch). People usually assume I make far more money than I do, and that my work is more glamorous than it actually is. In short, I sound great on paper.

And so it’s a bit of an ego trip for me to be (slowly, gradually) leaving the profession–especially since (in the short term, anyway) that process involves taking a decidedly less prestigious job.

Funny thing, though: it’s not that strange at all. It helps that the particulars of job market and professional culture in my new home are in alignment with my decision–there simply aren’t any agencies in the area that I want to sell my time and skills and knowledge and sanity to. If I were still at my old service–with all its flaws, still a good place to work–I don’t think it would be so easy to walk away. But here, now, it makes sense. And it’s been far easier than I would have expected to begin surrendering this title, and all the ego and attachment and identity that comes with it.

It’s all in the timing.

It’s also all in what you value.

Conventional wisdom would have me erect a wall between work and life. Don’t bring your work home is considered sound advice for anyone. An entire market has developed for products and services designed to help people achieve and maintain a work/life balance.

Work/life balance? Screw that. Can I just get a life/life balance? Better still, how ’bout just a life?

You sell yourself to someone else for forty or more hours each week–and that’s not counting the time that you spend getting ready to go to work and the time you spend winding down or recovering after work, and maybe even the time you spend thinking about (or dreading) work. That’s an awful lot of time to segregate from your supposed “real” life.

I’m kind of over it.

So, what do I do? The answer is still this: I’m a Paramedic. But it’s also this: I also work in a little neighborhood bakery. And for a much-loved tailgate market. Yes, these both represent pay cuts; but they also represent time on the clock that puts me in touch with people and places and a general vibe that means more to me–which makes them of even higher overall value, dollar amounts be damned. I come home smiling, and with enough time and energy to putter around the house, which is damn near priceless.

What do I do? If the business plan (once it’s done–my goodness that’s a massive undertaking) objectively makes sense, one day soon-ish, the answer will be, “I own a little restaurant.” And that’s when the last wall will have fallen between work and life. I’ll be working side by side with my partner/pseudohusband/Man Friend, supporting local growers with our purchases, sustaining our neighbors with our products, growing our community with our space, answering to no one’s standards but our own, and never clocking in or out. Life/work. Life/life. Just life. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

What do I do? I try to do what is right, what serves me, what serves my community, what makes me smile and helps me sleep at night. It doesn’t have just one job description or title. It may or may not come with business cards or letters after your name. I hope you’re doing it now, or getting yourself to that point. I am. That’s a long answer to a short question, but it’s a good one.