Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, January 29, 2010

You Might be a Procrastinator if…

The list below may be a bit too wordy for a t-shirt, but is intended to provide the kind of small chuckle that could just keep us sane--more or less.

You Might be a Procrastinator if…

  1. Your mirror is littered with urgent to-do (but still undone) post-its from more than 5 years ago.
  2. You still have maternity clothes in your closet, and your youngest is a teenager.
  3. Your bills are in arrears, despite (sort of) having the money to pay them.
  4. The person you were going to send a sympathy card to “right away” is now dead her/himself.
  5. Library overdue fines are a standard part of your budget.
  6. A household improvement you began 10 years ago remains unfinished.
  7. You put off buying tickets for a planned trip and now have to fly standby.
  8. You routinely mail presents six or more months after the event.
  9. Your mending pile is full of items that no longer fit anyone in your house.
  10. You are blogging about procrastination.
  11. Six or seven stalled-out major work projects lie in wait on your desk.
  12. You just can't make yourself "act now," even though "operators are standing by."
  13. Way too many of your ships have sailed without you.

Not the definitive list but hey, it’s Friday, and I’ve worked hard all week.  I’m going off to play.  Just have to get dressed (it’s only 11:00), make my way around the piles of bills, unmailed sympathy cards, and deserted ship docks, and find the door.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Please Don’t Say the “B” Word

My (b-a-s-e-m-e-n-t) has been on my mind the past few weeks, as I’ve been trying to face my backlog and get my life in order.  My bedroom, if I loosely use that term to refer to the space where my bed lives, is in my (b-a-s-e-m-e-n-t), so it’s a place I visit regularly.  And not without dismay.

The subterranean level in question is partially finished.  The concrete block walls are painted in some areas.  There are rugs on the cement floor defining “rooms.”  Walls and doors separate spaces within one half.  We added a fairly well-appointed full bath when my sixteen-year-old was a baby, and an egress window about ten years ago, which makes it legal to sleep “down there.”  But this territory, containing almost as much square footage as our ranch’s first floor, remains a work in progress.  Or more accurately, a work in need of progress.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, roughly four-and-a-half years ago, I made matters worse.  Much worse.  My husband had been dispatched to Mississippi to meet my evacuated parents and bring them to stay with us; I spent that anxious period laboring to vacate our first-floor bedroom and create a makeshift assisted-living facility in its place.  This entailed moving in and assembling borrowed beds, making minor plumbing and other modifications in the adjacent bathroom, and making the public rooms friendly for my father’s newly acquired, and much despised walker.  It was a busy, crazy several days as our newest household members made their way north at the snail’s pace dictated by shock and malady.  I have described what I did to our dismantled sleeping quarters during that time as opening up the (basement) door and throwing our bedroom down the stairs. 

Of course, gratitude to my spouse, who would spend the first months of an overdue sabbatical surrounded by a grumpy teen, a grumpier preteen, two dislocated elders (in-laws, to boot) and an antique Bichon, did inspire me to make some efforts.  I managed to set up our bed and get the sheets on before he returned from his rescue mission.  Somewhat later, I put up pictures and bought new bedding we could barely afford to distract us from our new low rent location.  But the items that had previously been crammed into this “oasis” had been displaced to the rest of the now thoroughly disastrous space. 

Meantime, my husband was sitting in the middle of the kitchen most days, working on the book he had started on the road while waiting for my parents to get ready for each day’s travelling.  And my father was sitting at a nearby table, fretting.  He had absorbed the facts about the morass of stuff one floor down from where he sat.  And he wanted to help.  In the best of times, that would have been an impractical proposal.  In our post-Katrina state, it was flat-out impossible. 

We spent a good deal of the first several weeks after the storm looking at images of devastation, on TV and on the internet.  We were trying to gauge how my parents and my sister’s family had “made out”—a subject that would still begin most conversations in their community on Lake Poncetrain for many months after people began trickling back.  So we knew what real chaos and destruction looked like.  Our disarrangement was like a bad migraine in the face of a brain tumor.  But I did apply what I learned about the power of pictures to disabuse my father of the dangerous idea that he should brave the deep to offer assistance.  (In retrospect, I begin to understand that his desire to help was probably more global than I realized then.)

A few weeks into our adventure in extended family living, we celebrated my birthday, in the midst of emergency room trips, my mother’s growing, and frightening, illness and disorientation, my father’s accelerating physical deterioration, my teenager’s bumpy adjustment to a new school, my husband’s determined digital scribbling, my sister’s reports from their exile, and other relaxing occurrences and conditions too numerous to want to think about, ever again.  My family gave me a digital camera.  After snapping pictures of my cake and my gathered family members, I opened the instruction manual.  In three languages, it announced that I could display my pictures on our TV set. 

I decided I would use this new technological capability to show my dad why I was not going to accept his offer to help me straighten out the (you know what).  The pictures of things strewn and things piled and things sliding around down there were all he needed.  End of subject.

We are four-plus years on from that period of our lives, and still recovering.  Much effort has been expended, mostly by me, in the interim, to make our underground dwelling space habitable.  But we are not there yet.  I battle it back, but anarchy continues to creep back in, as if from the walls.  I begin to think an exorcism may be in order.

My sister recently shared this bit of dark post Katrina humor, which manages to congratulate Gulf Coast residents on their "good fortune."  In the conversations about household clutter that represent both a return to a facsimile of normal and a reference to their continuing special circumstances, standard tongue-in-cheek advice among the locals begins with "Don't have a basement." 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Any Better Designations?

Wikipedia (in its infinite wisdom) tells us that
[t]he term all but dissertation (ABD) is an unofficial term identifying a stage in the process of obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree or equivalent research doctorate (Ed.D., EngD, D.Sc., etc) in the United States and in Canada. At this stage the student has not earned the Ph.D., but has completed the preparatory coursework, qualifying examinations, comprehensive examinations, and defended his or her dissertation proposal.  
 Roy Jacobs says that
[t]his little phase ... will cause countless moments of anxiety and is the academic equivalent to purgatory. ...You are that close to a significant milestone in your life, and also almost as far. ... [Y]our life must seem like it is on hold.
The internet is teeming with solutions to the dilemma of existing in this state.  Forums, consultants, blogs, checklists and therapies abound, all aimed at completion of the dissertation, and ultimately earning a Ph.D.  My fairly extensive search has not turned up any strategies for living with the ABD as a terminal condition. 

I have been A.B.D. since 1986. Yike! I just did the numbers, and confronted the fact that 1986 was 24 years ago! Almost a quarter of a century! Of course, the nail in the coffin of my academic dreams was hammered in a mere decade ago, so my life has not been “on hold” for all that time. I have accepted that this is one ship that has definitely left the harbor, and one that I don’t plan on ever swimming after. But what I haven’t completely dealt with is the taint of failure that trails those three little letters. It's a bit too much like having an official "incomplete" on the transcript of your life.

For a while now, when some social or professional occasion requires revelation of this “status,” I have jokingly explained to the uninitiated that ABD stands for “all but dead.” However, I have come to believe that the words we use contribute to shaping our reality. Since I don’t want to think of myself as “all but dead,” I have been trying to recast the meaning of this label.

Here is my brainstormed list of possible recodes for this dreaded acronym. If this were a Rorschach test, my analyst would note the predominance of negative words and combinations.

  1. Arguably Badly Defeated
  2. Anything Beats Depression
  3. Acceptably Busy and Determined
  4. Antidote Backordered & Delayed
  5. Archaic Beast Discarded
  6. Already Beyond Dissertation
  7. Awfully Bogus Disaster
  8. Ain’t Buyin’ Defeat
  9. Artistic, Beautiful & Desirable (currently my husband's favorite on the list, but he's prejudiced)
  10. Anything But Derailed
  11. Agitated, Blue & Defenseless
  12. Actively Barmy Ditz
  13. Antiquated Barrels of Detritus
  14. Association of Backward Dissidents

Clearly, we don't yet have a winner here.  I welcome suggestions.  In the meantime, I’ll try to avoid the subject.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Procrastinating 101—Devouring Hideous Amphibians

First, the title. Procrastinating 101—as in “Overcoming…,” as in “Dealing With.” Not as in “The Art of…,” or “How to Keep on…” Devouring Hideous Amphibians—as in Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy, which I began reading yesterday.

If I were a character in a TV show, one of my characterizing quirks would be my reflexive library runs in response to life challenges.  Dyslexic kid?  Hit the shelves.  Panic attacks?  Pull out my library card.  Plumbing leak?  How-tos beckon.

So naturally, I have read a thing or two about procrastinating.  And my quest for remedies continues.  Somewhere in what I might loosely term “the literature” on why so many of us avoid getting to the things we supposedly want to do, there must be some useful ideas.  In “Procrastinating 101” posts, beginning with this one, I will consider the approaches recommended by my leaning towers of books on the subject.

I was led to pick up Eat That Frog! by its intriguing title.  In the first three chapters, read while my two-year-old grandchild napped (I succeeded, at least, in putting him to bed), I learned that:

1. Brian Tracy has also read a lot of books about procrastinating, time management, productivity, etc.;

2. the title refers to something I should probably have already heard of, since

it has been said for many years that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
 3. according to Brian Tracy, the frog stands for the most important thing we should be doing, and that we are most likely to procrastinate on;

 4. it has also been said [though Tracy doesn’t say by whom], “If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first;” and

 5. "[i]f you have to eat a live frog, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at if for very long."

Upon this amphibian foundation, Tracy erects a fairly common structure of rules and principles, with, thus far anyway, an emphasis on lists and written goals and plans.  I am struck by how gendered his orientation seems to me. 

He appears to assume an expanse of designated work time, if not space, that has eluded me for years; and a clear singularity of purpose that I find completely foreign.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that career success, measured by financial reward, is his focus.

He offers advice to be used in identifying my biggest, ugliest frog.  But in my woman’s life, and mind, and heart, I am having difficulty in applying it.  Is my frog the novel I want to be writing?  Or is it the teenagers I haven’t finished raising?  Or the tangle of health bills and insurance E.O.B.’s from which Obama hasn’t rescued me, which, left to their own devices, could bring down the house?  Or the paid work that produces the monetary band-aids I stretch over the cracks?  Or my small contributions to an effort to address entrenched minority joblessness in my city?  Or…?

I think I could bring myself to “just eat it” if I could figure out which one of these leaping green creatures was “the one.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Done for the Week: Not Nothing

Well, it's Monday again, and time for my weekly accounting.  I can, of course, list only some of the things I got done last week, so I had to be selective.  Rest assured, however, that "found cure for cancer" would have made the list, had I done so.  What follows, then, are largely things that I have either been putting off for some time, or that I would have put off in a not-so-distant past.
  1. Completed Week 3 of Couch Potato to 5K training
  2. Finished Clea Simon's Fatherless Daughters; J. A. Jance's Lying in Wait;
  3. Walked my grateful dog daily (except for Friday, which got away from us)
  4. Took my blood pressure daily
  5. Got it together to send Haiti relief contribution
  6. Mailed last Christmas gift
  7. (Mostly) stuck to meal plan for week
  8. Got 5 floors cleaned, with family's help (though my "grateful dog" just barfed on two of them while I was writing this!)
  9. Finally signed up for poetry marathon late enough to be 9th on waiting list
  10. Straightened out checking account (no small feat, with mountains of debit-generated receipts clogging my purse, not to mention way too many intra-family transfers)
  11. Laundered and changed sheets
  12. Avoided library fines, while juggling dozens of checked out items and several holds
  13. Attended two meetings, set up several more, went to one on the wrong day
  14. Heard sermon on "Should Unitarian Universalists Pray?"
  15. Succeeded in getting two-year-old to nap
  16. Returned flawed and unneeded items to stores for refunds
  17. Off-loaded carful of stuff to Goodwill
  18. Talked boss into not doing something the hard way
  19. Helped teenager with algebra
  20. Published 5 blog posts
Not so much, perhaps, but as the post title asserts, "not nothing."  Enough to merit, I believe, the small charge of accomplishment that is cutting through the teenager-kept-me-awake-til-all-hours-again haze this morning.  Enough to keep me going.

Friday, January 22, 2010

And Now, For Something Completely Different...

After two days of death and (not) mourning (all that well), a change of pace seems in order. Therefore, I present the following for the amusement of my husband, my sister, my one blog-visiting son and my daughter, my twelve selectively clued-in Facebook friends, and whoever has wandered here from New Jersey, Michigan, Alabama, and parts unknown. It is purloined from Basic Jokes:  Clean Jokes for a Dirty World.

The Procrastinators' Creed

  1. I believe that if anything is worth doing, it would have been done already.
  2. I shall never move quickly, except to avoid more work or find excuses.
  3. I will never rush into a job without a lifetime of consideration.
  4. I shall meet all of my deadlines directly in proportion to the amount of bodily injury I could expect to receive from missing them.
  5. I firmly believe that tomorrow holds the possibility for new technologies, astounding discoveries, and a reprieve from my obligations.
  6. I truly believe that all deadlines are unreasonable regardless of the amount of time given.
  7. I shall never forget that the probability of a miracle, though infinitesmally small, is not exactly zero.
  8. If at first I don't succeed, there is always next year.
  9. I shall always decide not to decide, unless of course I decide to change my mind.
  10. I shall always begin, start, initiate, take the first step, and/or write the first word, when I get around to it.
  11. I obey the law of inverse excuses which demands that the greater the task to be done, the more insignificant the work that must be done prior to beginning the greater task.
  12. I know that the work cycle is not plan-start-finish, but is wait-plan-plan.
  13. I will never put off until tomorrow, what I can forget about forever.
  14. I will become a member of the ancient Order of Two-Headed Turtles (the Procrastinator's Society) if they ever get it organized.

I have not personally upheld all of these principles, though I have seen most of them in action. Number 11--raising to the level of law the frittering that expands in proportion to the significance of the task we are putting off--is particularly useful. It apparently inspired my ex-husband, who finished his dissertation, to do so only after spending the better part of a month training a squirrel prodigy to approach our front steps and lie spread-eagle on the sidewalk in response to his command. 

Number 8, the "always next year" dodge, has been my personal mantra for as long as I can remember. Number 6, which proclaims the unreasonableness of all deadlines, claims the allegiance of generations of my family, thus being something of a legacy. (We don't even acknowledge the incontrovertibility of Christmas, often mailing gifts months later.) Number 14, however, with the two-headed turtle, I'm not sure I really get. I could try to figure it out, but Number 13 seems to advise otherwise. And besides, adhering to Number 4, I'm not greatly concerned about injuring myself should I fail to decode it. 

I am, of course, supposed to be in the process of putting all this procrastinating, and the religion it celebrates, behind me. It remains to be seen whether I will be able to free myself from this cult, or if kidnapping followed by intensive reprogramming will be necessary.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grief Postponed: Part II

In yesterday’s post, I wrote of not having “properly” cried since my Dad’s death in the summer of 2007.  Why did that post belong in this blog?  Why does this one?

The way I see it, coming to terms with my grieving process is one of the main things I wish, and perhaps need, to put to bed.  Not the grieving itself--which I accept will take the time it takes, and which I expect, to paraphrase a Patti Smith interview I heard this week, to survive as a wound that I will have with me always--but the way I have been doing, or not doing it.  I want to understand why my experience of this loss has, thus far, been so very different from what I imagined.   And what, if anything, I should do about it.

I loved my father.  There was never a moment in the more than half a century we had together when I doubted that.  Through anger, through irritation, across distances geographical and emotional, I never questioned the importance to me of this quiet, funny, smart, loving and too often tortured man.  So where are my tears now that he is gone from my life?

I have been reading about grief lately, bibliotherapy being my first recourse, as always.  My dabbling in the literature, mostly online, has yielded two general categories of assessment of grief without tears.  By far the most common view is exemplified by the National Cancer Institute’s treatment of the subject—and they should know from grief, right?   According to this paradigm, such reactions, or nonreactions, are a form of “complicated,” and in the terms of some, “pathological” grief.  It can be seen as
Inhibited or absent grief:  A pattern in which persons show little evidence of the expected separation distress, seeking, yearning, or other characteristics of normal [sic] grief
or, depending on where I go from here, as
Delayed grief:  A pattern in which symptoms of distress, seeking, yearning, etc., occur at a much later time than is typical.

But why delay grief?  The Rowan Tree Foundation site, dedicated to helping families heal after the loss of a child, describes a scenario where this response, perhaps a defense mechanism of sorts, might occur:
[I]f a busy mother with young children loses her husband unexpectedly, she may become so entrenched in keeping up with the normal day-to-day activities of running her household that she never gives any time to her own mourning. Alternatively, the loss might be so overwhelming that her ability to cope is diminished at the time. Both of these scenarios can lead to delayed grief.
The same site, relying on Dr. Therese Rando's How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, tells us that 
there could be an inability to let go of the relationship by avoiding what the reality of the loss entails, or a refusal to express the feelings that the loss brings to the surface.

In my own case, my father’s death was followed, within a week, by a trip with my mother to a still-Katrina-challenged ER to rule out a heart attack; within two weeks, by yet another ER trip with my asthmatic teenager; within three weeks by a return to Louisiana to move my mother to a different, more appropriate assisted living facility; within a month, by my daughter’s emergency induction of labor, eventual c-section and the arrival of my two-months premature first grandchild; within two months, by my mother’s heart attack and procedure-induced stroke; and within five months, by the serious life-threatening illness of my other teenager.  At the time, I believed I could not “afford” to grieve.
But at what cost, if any, did I hold off falling apart?

Some hold that inhibited grief puts the mourner at risk.  For example, this assertion from that
Because of this [inhibition] the bereaved person’s grief tends to manifest itself in the physical body instead.  They become sick in some form or another. It can begin to exhibit itself in the form of migraines, stomach problems and other physical symptoms.
Or this dark warning, from the Rowan Tree Foundation, under another common umbrella term, "unresolved grief:"
Delayed grief can lead to serious physical and mental health concerns.
(Can't you just hear the bum-ba-bum-bump beneath those words?) 

I should admit that I haven’t been feeling so hot, emotionally or physically, the last few months.  Ever since my last trip to New Orleans, almost exactly two years after burying my father there.  I search for other explanations, but am open to the thought that my atypical grieving may be related.
But if it is, then what?

[W]hat does [inhibited grief] mean for the bereaved person? Did they just get lucky in that their grief is not disrupting their daily life? Have they found a way [to] control grief so they can just continue on with their normal activities without the hassle of doing their grief work? Of course, the answer to these questions is a firm, "No." [Rowan Tree Foundation]

We must do the grief work; we must walk the path in order to fully heal.  []
So I have, perhaps, miles to go.  But I said earlier that I had found two orientations in my reading.  The alternative view is provided on the National Cancer Institute site, where they quote from an article by G. A. Bonanno, entitled “Loss, trauma, and human resilience:  have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?” published in American Psychologist 59 (1): 20-8, 2004:

Empirical reviews have not found evidence of inhibited, absent, or delayed grief and instead emphasize the possibility that these patterns are better explained as forms of human resilience and strength.  Evidence supports the existence of a minimal grief reaction—a pattern in which persons experience no, or only a few, signs of overt distress or disruption in functioning. This minimal reaction is thought to occur in 15% to 50% of persons during the first year or two after a loss.
So maybe I could still be off the hook?  And just the amazingly strong person I apparently wanted to be?  
Hmmmm…..  Maybe not.  I am, after all, writing these posts.  And I did have a great deal of difficulty getting to it, especially this morning, after feeling kind of sad and edgy most of yesterday.  I considered, actually, changing the subject.  And I do feel a kind of pressure behind my eyes, as if something there is backed up.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grief Postponed: Part I

I remember the morning, two and a half years ago, when it became clear that my father’s death was imminent. 

I had been making regular trips over the nearly twenty months since flying with my parents back to their home in the New Orleans area after their Katrina-sponsored sojourn with me.  My husband joked that I was commuting to New Orleans.  My father’s failing health, strained local resources in the aftermath of the storm, and the difficulty of ensuring adequate care for the less-than-independently-wealthy moved me to spend nearly a week of every month helping to care for Dad.  This was to have been another such visit.  But the night I arrived, a Wednesday, I saw immediately the deterioration in his condition in the weeks I had been away.  

I think he had been waiting for me, his eldest. It had become difficult for him to talk, but he stroked my arm for a long time and repeated how good it was to see me, and that he loved me.  He seemed to be saying hello and goodbye at the same time. 

Two days later he had stopped eating.  And then I knew. 

On Saturday morning, I sat on the sunwashed patio at the center of the assisted living facility where my parents had been for less than three months, and called my husband.  I cried as I told him what was going on.  We made tentative plans for travel for him and our kids.  When we hung up, I dried my eyes and went back inside, and upstairs to my parents’ “apartment,” through the halls of elders clinging slenderly to life.  And back to work, for the duration, spelled by my sister, my frail mother, the facility staff’s brief ministrations, and the daily visits of the hospice nurses.  I called the church my parents had been attending and asked for a priest.  I promised my father he would not be alone. 

By Monday, my father had been mostly unconscious for the better (worst) part of two days, surfacing intermittently as more family members arrived from distant states and from cancelled vacations.  The hospice sent grief counselors to prepare us.  Ancient family dynamics erupted, and were covered over.  Late Monday night, after more subdued family wrangling, and in the interests of peace, I went to my sister’s to sleep, leaving other family members with Dad.  My phone rang at around 6 a.m. to bring me the news of my father’s death.  To this day, I don’t know, probably can’t know, if my promise was kept.

The days following Dad’s death were filled with the commonly surreal events—sitting with his body as we waited for the ambulance the law required to transport him to the hospital where he could be “pronounced;” watching as he was zipped into a body bag; “shopping” with my youngest brother in a casket showroom; greeting relatives; hosting a wake; ordering the necessary death certificates that would allow my mother to continue to receive income. 

I cried, really, only one other time.  My daughter, who couldn’t travel because of a difficult pregnancy, had put together a slide show of pictures on my husband’s laptop.  He had set it up at the back of the church where Dad’s funeral was held.  When I walked over to look at it, just before the service began, I heard the strains of “Danny Boy” which my husband had added to the images.  I was transported to the morning that Dad had sung it for a small family breakfast gathering following his younger brother’s death.  And I began to cry.  A cousin I see only at funerals came up behind me and said “Let it out.  It’s time.”  But it wasn’t.  I stopped crying.  And haven’t cried since.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

To Sleep, Perchance?

A couple of weeks into this blog, I begin to question the choice of metaphor at the heart of its name.  It seems at times insanely hopeful, given that I have never been particularly successful at putting anything or anyone to bed.  Literally.  My karma concerning such endeavors, and all things having to do with places of repose, is not good.

My difficulty extends to the most basic and essential human act of putting myself to bed.  I don’t go down easily, or stay down once having capitulated.  I have come grudgingly to accept that a narrow window of opportunity governs my susceptibility to somnolence, and that I ignore it at my peril.  Since I became literate, I have slept with a light on, not because I’m afraid of the dark, but because I have to let sleep sneak up on me as I read, appearing indifferent to its advance.  Once asleep, infinitesimal noises, like a night-flying moth winging through the sky over my house, disturb my slumber.  And when it recedes, as it often does, I take up my book and resume my cat and mouse game with oblivion.

I was no better at getting my children to sleep.  Some experts would have us believe that more intelligent children need less sleep.  Clearly, my children are all geniuses.  None of them slept through the night before age two.  They abandoned napping long before they were out of diapers.  They required increasingly elaborate routines to ease them into unconsciousness, straining their mother’s arms and back and fraying patience.  My unfinished novel reproduces a scene I lived through countless nights, walking and rocking and soothing, watching eyelids flutter and fight and finally close, waiting till breathing deepened, waiting some more for good measure, then lowering the heavy body over the side of the crib, slowly, slowly…only to lose the round to a squeaking floor, a ringing phone, or a night-flying moth winging through the sky over our house.

And teenagers?  Again, prodigies of sleeplessness.  My last two have roamed and crashed their way through adolescent nights, adding to the disquiet that disrupts my fitful sleep.  Of course, better rested parents would have managed all of this much more skillfully.  I did start out in search of solutions, many times, checking out piles of library books on the subject.  But the miracle cures of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems[1]; of Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep:  The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens[2]; of the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child’s Sleep:  Birth Through Adolescence[3]; and of Snooze… or Lose!:  10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits[4] somehow eluded us.  Maybe it was because I kept nodding off….

From one phase of life to the next, I am plagued by bed refusers.  One of my current collection of day jobs is providing child care for my daughter’s two-year-old while she works part-time.  Once again, I am spending long afternoons struggling to nap a tired child who resists sleep as if it were the most onerous of punishments.  I lie down with him.  We read.  We toss.  We turn.  We snuggle.  He talks, and jokes.  I answer with stony silence, trying to ignore him to sleep.  Most days he outlasts me.

Three generations, then, of failure to put to bed.  And then there is vegetation.  I have yet to pull off putting a garden to bed.  Somehow, autumn is a perennial surprise, cutting short my harvests.  Even when I admit that my climate’s short halcyon season is coming to a close, I play chicken with the inevitable frost.  Kind of like market timing, and about as fruitful.  Inevitably, I wait too long.  Interruptions intervene.  The dying stalks lie down on their own.   In the spring, I am met with volunteers, a charming designation for the tomato plants that have gone rogue, slipping the bounds of their intended bed.

Add to these living, if not all breathing, entities the projects, intellectual and otherwise, that refuse to be put to bed--the stuff of this blog, more than the people and plants similarly afflicted.  Chaos, then, and the clutter of the unconcluded, has been my home planet for as long as I can remember.  Is it sensible to quit its comfort at this late date? 

[1] Richard Ferber, 2006
[2] Judith A. Owens and Jodi A. Mindell, 2005
[3] American Academy of Pediatrics, 1999
[4] Helene A. Emsellem, M.D. with Carol Whiteley, 2006

Monday, January 18, 2010

Done for the Week: Fourteen Intentionally Unmeasured Steps For...

Keeping to my plan of mapping my progress, and eschewing for the moment the negative focus of To Do lists teeming with unchecked items, I submit the following list of achievements for the past week.  Each Monday, I will post a Done for the Week list, and resist the urge to judge or apologize for their relative merits.  And yes, the "Done for the Week" title is intentionally ironic.  As in, "I wish."  As in "done for."
  1. Finished Sara Paretsky's Windy City Blues; Michael Malone's The Last Noel; Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio
  2. Completed Week 2 of Couch Potato to 5K training--still breathing!
  3. Watched V. I. Warshawski movie--date night with my husband
  4. Rearranged and cleaned family room, with family help
  5. Removed unnecessary furniture, including one particularly large, emotionally laden piece
  6. Began taking blood pressure
  7. Published 5 blog posts
  8. Put Christmas decorations away
  9. Started "purge" of books and magazines
  10. Got photo prints developed for framing, & sending to Mom
  11. Attended one meditation meeting, and three social justice organization meetings
  12. Skipped one church service and one committee meeting (yes, this was an achievement)
  13. Survived 14 hours caring for two-year-old, and enjoyed it
  14. Planned meals for week and shopped
So, I'm making my way.  I am reveling in the sense of movement, though I have no concrete idea of where it may lead.  For some reason, the image comes to mind of my parents' intact condo made inaccessible by Katrina's fury.  And of my sister and her family, months after the storm, chopping a corridor through the mounds of debris--literally, a beaten path to their door.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Stuff I've Been Putting Off

I hesitate to begin this post.  Kind of a “don’t go there” thing.  In our household, there is a legend of the time my husband and I made the to do list to end all lists.  I was eight months pregnant and on bed rest with pregnancy-induced hypertension.  I was already living with a teenager and a two-year-old, not to mention a young, battle-scarred Labrador I’d snatched from the clutches of the humane society.  My dissertation was on hold.  My husband had just finished his.  Unhappy stepchildren circled the scene.  Stress was the air I breathed.

For some crazy reason, we thought it would be a good idea to put down in writing all the things we needed to take care of.  The list began innocuously enough, with some item of the magnitude of “Clean the kitchen.”  And then it grew.  And grew.  Like a tumor.  Like the enchanted tree-character in my children’s old favorite My Neighbor Totoro, but not in a good wayIt grew into a menacing thing.  It became satanic in proportion and tone. 

Within three days of making The List, I had flunked my weekly medical monitoring and been hospitalized.  Induction of labor followed an attempt to stabilize my soaring blood pressure.  My last baby arrived, two-and-a-half weeks early and small enough for doll clothes.  Chaos took root.  My new family was off and running, sans training or proper shoes.

Obviously, fate was not largely altered by these events.  I was clearly going to give birth to this child sooner or later.  I already had medical issues.  And the somewhat atypical  number and character of stressors swirling around us were surely having their own effects.  But I have always harbored the belief that it was The List that brought the drama.  It took me awhile after that difficult summer to screw up the courage to make even the more pedestrian daily to do lists with which I had littered most of my adult life before. 

As I write this, I’m not pregnant, and can’t be, and finally don’t have even the ghost of a wish to be.  So I can’t precipitate an obstetrical emergency.  But some little voice within me hisses a warning as I contemplate an itemizing of some things I need to get to. 

In the face of this fear, and in the spirit of this blog and the changes it stems from, I have identified  a number of postponed tasks and issues which I (dare I say it?) l-l-l-list here.  I am thinking of this more in the way of an assessment than as a charge.  The list is in no particular order, and makes no promises.  I just need to look at it, to see where I am.   A benchmark of sorts.  In propitiation of the list-gods, I have limited myself to fifteen items—the first that come to mind.

Some Stuff I’ve Been Putting Off

  1. Painting the treehouse
  2. Grieving my dad's death 
  3. Finishing the refinishing of my kitchen cabinets
  4. Staining the fence we built before Katrina
  5. Casting off the scarf I knitted my son for Christmas
  6. Digitizing my poetry
  7. Working on the novel I started three years ago
  8. Cleaning the basement
  9. Making room for our cars in the garage
  10. Dealing with my blood pressure phobia
  11. Recovering the lawn
  12. Laying my dissertation to rest somehow
  13. Calling my brother
  14. Getting a life
  15. Painting the bathroom I primed nine years ago (after removing the mildew that has set in since)
Now all that remains is to sit and wait for the drama.  And maybe start therapy for an apparent paint brush phobia.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What am I Doing in the 19th Century?

In an earlier post, I wrote about my years of grappling with Tillie Olsen’s Silences.  Since finally finishing the book, I have been thinking about Olsen’s accounts of mothers who were writers, herself included.   I think back to images I have held since reading Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, mentioned in passing by Olsen.  And to the story of A.S. Byatt’s character Stephanie Potter, whose freakish accidental death in Still Life cuts short her halting attempts to resurrect her intellectual work, in the midst of young motherhood.

Adrienne Rich wrote memorably of herself as a mother of young children in the 1950s, and the strong emotions that tore at her as she fought to maintain something of herself and her work.  The fictional Stephanie Potter existed in this same time period, an ocean away.  Olsen was raising her children, as she said, “without household help,” in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Among the essays that make up Silences is Olsen’s treatment of Rebecca Harding Davis, who published Life in the Iron Mills in 1861.  Her early promise was, in Olsen’s view, buried under the domestic demands of her relatively late marriage and ultimate motherhood.  Olsen tells us, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s trials, quoting from a letter to her husband, who was apparently sympathetic.
Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts. They are delicate in health, and nervous and excitable and need a mother’s whole attention. Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?  (Silences, p. 204)

Stowe’s history-changing Uncle Tom’s Cabin would wait another ten years, until she was thirty-nine.  She

wrote it in magazine serial installments—in between—when weary with teaching the children and tending the baby and buying provisions and mending and darning; much of it on the kitchen table as the younger Harriet Beecher Stowe had, when trying to get writing done fourteen years before.  The firm, flawless style of her girlhood letters was gone.  (Silences, p. 206)

My three children were born between 1977 and 1993.  Two are still at home.  I have known Rich’s torment, followed Stephanie’s regimen, mirrored Olsen’s episodic pattern.  I have written, nearly to the word, Stowe’s lament.  Why am I seemingly mired in a time before my time?  What am I doing in the nineteen century, with my Subaru, my laptop, a dishwasher and central heating?  Why has technology not freed me to write?

I was born on the cusp of the changes many thought would bring relief, would allow women to “have it all.”  And yet, prior to the recent economic declines, many who could afford it were putting work on hold for motherhood, working part-time, changing careers to accommodate the kind of mothering we wanted to engage in.  We talked about “sequencing,” bumped our heads on glass ceilings, and some of us seemed determined to limit ourselves.   Add to this a new and powerful ideology of “natural” mothering, and in my case the “going native” phenomenon that lured me into the meaningful realities of my midwife dissertation subjects.  A perfect storm.

Olsen, again:

More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible. Children need one now (and remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health the outside world is not). The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one's own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil.... Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished, makes blockage--at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be.” (Silences 18-19)

And yet, in the nineteenth century, before washers and dryers and daycare, atrophy notwithstanding, a beleaguered mother of six surviving children changed the course of debate concerning slavery.  Who am I to sit in mourning for my weakened muse? 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Burning Off: Communing in Flame

Fire has been presenting itself to me as metaphor, solution and ritual of late.  This past Sunday, I attended a “Fire Communion” at my Unitarian church.  Having been born into Catholicism, I’m a sucker for communions of all sorts, and this denomination of religious refugees provides several—flower communion, water communion, bread communion.  This was my first fire communion.

The artfully organized service contained several elements that provoked, quieted and inspired me.  But the centerpiece was the opportunity to write words on a small piece of flash paper representing a story I wished to let go of, and to add this story to those of others being released into the fire.

I have been moving into a time of sorting, assessing, reclaiming, and discarding over the last few months.  I’m not sure where this is coming from, but I suspect that my impending empty nest, the significant birthday this year will bring, and the continuing process of trying to come to terms with the death of someone I loved all my life are acting together to fuel this consuming process.  So I was more than ready to consign any one of several outgrown stories to the flames.  But I had been told to use one piece of paper.  Being generally compliant—see Catholic background reference above—I didn’t think of violating this instruction.  And even if I had, it was hard enough to scribble a few words on one square of what turned out to be quite fragile paper in the time allowed.  I was forced, therefore, to settle on one story to relinquish.

I was taking this exercise seriously, and felt the compunction to identify the most important story to leave behind.  Or the story that subsumed the others.  The ultimate old story.  My ultimate old story, at this moment. 

As I moved to the front of our sanctuary to claim my piece of paper, I considered my choice, and struggled with language.  When I gripped my pencil, the words came to me.  I wrote “the wind beneath everyone else’s wings,” with no little difficulty, primarily because of the tendency of the sharp lead to puncture the paper fragment, but also because I wanted the words to be perfect—perfectionism another story I might have chosen to incinerate.

What did these words mean?  What story did they stand in for?  And what will it mean to move on from it?  What story will take its place?

Despite the cheesy Bette Midler throwback, I meant to convey my readiness to claim more of my energy for my own.  I have been immersed in nurturing others for more than three decades, and it feels like time to shift the balance.  My children, who have been the chief “beneficiaries” of my absorption, my husband, my aging mother, and my sister who has the major responsibility for Mom’s on-site support, hold the largest liens on my life.  And I am not planning to abandon any of them.  I intend to continue as the main caregiver for my two-year-old grandchild, nurse practitioner for my much-loved dog, underpaid nonprofit employee, and social justice activist in my church and other contexts. 

But I have depleted myself too much in all this caretaking, caregiving, and just plain caring.  I have allowed my nurturing self to devour equally important parts of my identity.  And I need to let go of the idea that any or all of these beings and causes will plummet to earth without my constant attention.  I can, and have to, begin to live more in my own life.

When my turn came, I dropped my words into the makeshift cauldron, savored the satisfying pfffft as the fire caught, and returned to my seat, leaving behind the carbon residue of my tired narrative.  I am eager to see, as the smoke clears, what emerges.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Silences Revisited

Yesterday's Done list began with the item "Finished Tillie Olsen's Silences, after a mere twenty years of aborted attempts." Twenty years was no exaggeration, though the margin of error is a year or two in either direction. Why did I continue to try to read this book, and to fail? Two questions. Two sets of answers, with some overlap.

I was initially led to this book in the course of reading for my dissertation. My research dealt broadly with how work fits—or doesn’t—into women’s lives, and specifically with trying to untangle the stories of two different groups of midwives, with two separate “career” paths. But I was especially intrigued because Olsen’s work is concerned with writers whose work has been punctuated, or truncated, or prevented altogether by long periods when they couldn’t write.

As my own silences grew in number and duration, I would periodically hunt down this book (which grew increasingly difficult to find as years passed), check it out of one library or another, and begin to read. My attempts were met with varying levels of “success,” measured by number of pages read. Progress was not linear. Sometimes, I didn’t make it past the first section. At least once, I reached the halfway mark.

Over the two decades in question, I have finished hundreds, perhaps thousands of books. Some were read for distraction, some were serious literature. Not a few were nearly impenetrable academic tomes, through which I slogged my way and came out the other side, if not wiser, at least momentarily victorious. I am not a book weenie.

So why did Silences so stubbornly resist my efforts to add its notch to my book belt? Looking back, I see that I generally sought this book in desperation, when circumstances seemed to conspire to enforce my muteness. Those same circumstances made it difficult to read seriously at such times, and to confront intellectually this painful reality.

I came to Tillie Olsen for absolution, if not excuse, but I was too angry with myself to accept such a grace. I was looking, too, for a way out of the wilderness. But Olsen provides no map. In painstaking detail, she documents the suffering of writers whose voices were stilled. She includes devastating quotes from writers, well-known and not, whose work was bounded by barriers of gender, class, and/or race. And she reminds us of the majority of humans for whom written expression was and is impossible.

I should say, too, that another, lesser barrier to my finishing her book was its style, strangely structured, almost haphazardly organized. Added to its oppressive subject, this presentation hardly welcomed curling up with this particular book. I am of the opinion that Olsen’s own enforced silences, over most of what might have been her writing life, have something to do with this.

And what of my silences, on the other side of this book at last? I guess I am finally ready for the mercy of my own forgiveness, buttressed by Olsen’s arguments and data. And to make my own map. It remains to be seen how far this will take me.