I have been pulled in a million different directions in the last few weeks. The life of a freelancer who has to pick up jobs whenever they appear. And of a step-mother, frantically looking for an apartment for her daughter. And a planner, trying to put a vacation together, while running a household, managing an unsteady income, all the while worrying about the health of a close relative. Life, really, just a bit sped up.
My mind has been so busy and anxious that I noticed it skipping a beat now and then – it got to the point I couldn’t even follow my train of thoughts anymore, let alone think of something to write about. The list of topics I jot down whenever a thought comes to mind seemed particularly uninspired, or involved too much research I didn’t have time for.
The upside of getting older, I am beginning to see and appreciate, is knowledge of self. I don’t always like who I am but, after 50 odd years, I bloody know who I am and, by now, I can recognize the signs of a system overload. Time for a re-boot.
Often, I am the one causing the overload, taking on more than I can manage. For all my carefully planned schedules, I don’t allow enough time for the unexpected, which always manages to throw my color coordinated schedules down the drain. If anything, I am guilty of over organization.
When I had a more structured job, within a corporate entity, I would schedule vacation time – even my exhaustion was carefully coordinated: I knew I could push myself to keep on going because there was a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of a long trip somewhere, which would (mostly) leave me refreshed and ready to tackle marketing plans and pesky coworkers all over again. Now, exhaustion comes in fits and bursts, usually timed around weeks when I am swamped with relentless work, which are then “balanced” by weeks of little work that culminate in a spiral of my old friend “anxiety”.
Oder and wiser, I have three tricks in my Mary Poppins bag to stimulate the creative juices, and they all involve giving myself permission to “not do”, something easier said than done for a creature in perpetual motion. Once I recognize that scrubbing the floor or chaining myself to my desk will not yield the desired the results, I take a page off my dogs’ book and plop myself down for a break, a 30 minute mini-vacation to empty my mind. Depending on what I need most, I will choose among the following:
1.Absolute inertia. All I need is to lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling, or out the window for a little while. Lately, the birds that nest at the opening of the vent of my kitchen hood have been back – they are return lodgers every spring. I watch mother bird flying missions out of the nest, looking for food, which she then ferries back and forth, dropping it into hungry beaks.Sometimes I will doze off, or stare at the branches of the palm trees swinging in the breeze. By letting my body go slack, the thoughts slow down, finally crawl to a halt, and the foliage, or the birds have a hypnotic effect that empty my busy mind. Not surprisingly, I will be jolted back to reality by an idea I must get out, that was probably there all along, buried under the detritus of my non-stop whirl.
2. Conversely, when I am anxious, I force my body to move even faster, by working out. If I am down or jittery or worried about something in particular (until a few years ago, a constant state of affairs) I will force myself, willingly or otherwise, to don some workout gear, and I will persuade myself that the loathing I feel towards having to sweat will be eventually replaced by gratitude. Tiring the muscles also rids the mind of chaff, creating a space to welcome ideas.
3. Read. When the mind goes blank, I will reach for a book – no “hopscotching” on-line but protracted reading of something gripping, preferably not junk, to reset the priorities. All it takes is a sentence, an unusual grouping of words, to spark the imagination. And ideas will follow. While a walk with the dogs will help me organize ideas that are already there, reading somebody else’s labor of love will help me come up with my own.
None of these suggestions are new or groundbreaking. They are my personal version of stirring up what gets buried in the midst of crazy life. Sofagirl sent me a gem of a book a little while ago, Steal like an artist by Austen Kleon. In his (more eloquent) words:
Take time to get bored. One time I heard a coworker say, “When I get busy, I get stupid.” Ain’t that the truth. Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts – it’s boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you are out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can. As the artist Maria Kalman says, “Avoiding work is the way to focus the mind.”
Or, more succinctly, from the ever reliable John Cleese:
We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.
All images found in the public domain