Category Archives: reading

Sideways: Embracing interruptions

One of the joyous frustrations of being a freelance writer is the unpredictable variety.

I never know if I’ll be writing about money, or toilet installation, or chickens, or veterans, or crows, or . . . the list goes on. I never know when I’ll receive the last-minute phone calls. I get up in the morning with plans in place to do something and then BAM, the phone rings. My whole day gets knocked sideways.

That joyous frustration happened yesterday when all the things I’d planned to do and write about got swept off the table.

Joy comes from learning about new things all the time. I am so lucky to never feel like I’m in a rut. I get paid to write! How great is that? Still, sometimes I grit my teeth. It makes it difficult to plan. And if you ever drop by my house and see dust on the furniture, now you know why.

Another joyous benefit of my freelance writing career is the reading I do on many topics. Years ago, one of those reading stints led to me this best piece of advice:

Embrace interruptions.

When I’m writing, I focus. I dive deep down into a well of creative thought and if someone speaks to me I need to swim my mind up through sludge to the surface again. I can practically hear the murky bubbles around me.

Interruptions used to drive me bonkers.

Now I tell myself: There is a purpose behind this interruption. How does it benefit me?

It gives me a chance to get a drink or go to the bathroom. It makes me notice the typo I overlooked before, once I settle back into place and look with refreshed eyes at the work I’ve done. It gives me an extra 24 hours to write a blog post.

Interruptions come in big and small sizes too.

There’s the simple, “Mom, are we out of milk?” kind of interruption, and then there’s the, “You need to take this. I’m afraid there’s bad news,” kind of phone call that knocks a life sideways for weeks, or months, or years. The big ones are harder to embrace, but perhaps it’s even more important to look for the gifts in those doozies.

There is a purpose behind your interruptions. How do they benefit you?

Bam! Lessons from a child

Monday evening is the regular “library time” for a father and a small boy, and those two are the highlight of my week.

At the time of their visit to the library where I work, I am in the room that houses the book drop. I hear through the door the murmur of their voices and the scraping of a step-stool being pulled into position. The child’s feet climb up one step on the stool and then another as he prepares for his book return ritual.

“Thank you, book. Good-bye,” he says to the first book. He pushes it through the slot. “Bam!” he shouts.

He performs this small ceremony for every book. He returns 10 to 15 books, on average, so his process takes some time. If there are people waiting behind him, he doesn’t adjust his pace; he savours his moment.

I stop whatever I’m doing and savour his moment too. I smile widely.

This child shows me:

  1. He respects and cherishes books.
  2. He expresses gratitude.
  3. He knows how to “be here now.”
  4. He celebrates each moment with a Bam!

Some lessons for all of us, from a child.

Bam!

The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth

One of my favourite books.

New beginnings and the power of habit

September—the word, to me, is a calling-to-attention for my brain. After allowing said brain to go fallow for most of the summer, September re-snaps my focus. Forward momentum rolls on new beginnings.

This year in particular the “new beginnings” theme resonates with many of my friends and acquaintances. With the whir of the passing of time come new retirements, new jobs, new universities, new courses, new living arrangements, new projects  or new health challenges. Around me friends and acquaintances thrive or survive in changing circumstances, finding ways to fill empty spaces or empty full spaces. Like unicycle riders, afraid, excited, overwhelmed or uncertain, they hold arms out for balance and find a way to peddle forward.

9780385669757In such times, the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg comes to mind. At times of upheaval we need to mindfully form or change our habits to shape our days in the most positive way.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down the three-step loop: Cue, Routine, Reward. A habit is triggered by an external cue (a particular location, a time of day, a certain mood, other people, or an activity), the external cue sets a routine in motion, and at the end, we receive a reward. For example, an alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., a person puts on jogging clothes and goes for a run, and then enjoys the runner’s high and a strawberry smoothie. Or, at 3:00 p.m. every workday, a person, bored and restless, leaves the desk and visits the vending machine for an afternoon chocolate bar boost.

Many of our habits serve to sustain us as we navigate daily life. Putting on our clothes, making our toast, or driving our cars requires a series of habits. The first time we do any of these, we think through each step. Cued by a feeling of cold, a hunger, or a need to get from one place to another, we work through every step of managing buttons, setting the right toast preferences and backing out of the garage. Eventually these routines become automatic “habits,” so our brain doesn’t need to think about them anymore. In other words, we need habits or our brains would be overwhelmed. “Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.”

Because habits are so necessary, and because our brains are constantly seeking to create new ones, habits have a powerful influence over our lives. And once a habit takes root, it doesn’t disappear. Duhigg writes: “. . . unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

What it means for us? We can examine our daily lives, identify our habits, figure out which ones serve us well and which ones could bear re-routing, especially during this autumn time of new beginnings.

 

With an archer’s aim

I am reading a most interesting book: The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth. The title tells you all you need to know about the book. Forsyth takes his readers on a lovely jaunt on the intertwining trails and pathways—and dead-ends—of our continuously evolving language.

He clarifies misconceptions about some words and phrases. For example, according to Forsyth, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not invent the guillotine, as is widely rumoured. When the family name got attached to the device, the Guillotins were so mortified, they changed their name.

He also gives the background of how words evolved into their present form. I’m a baseball fan, so I was interested to learn that an umpire began as the Latin non-par, for not on a par with the sport participants. It changed to a noumpere in Old French, and then at some point the N got moved over from the second word to the first and became an umpire. 

Huh. Interesting.

Forsyth’s description of the origins of the expression aim high caught my attention. I had always understood the expression to mean a person should set lofty goals and not settle for second best, but that’s not the case. He writes:

“The funny thing about archery is that you don’t usually aim at the target. Gravity decrees that if you aim straight at the blank, your arrow will hit somewhere below. So you point the arrow somewhere above the blank, and hope that this cancels out the effects of Newton’s troublesome invention. That’s why aim high is another archer’s term; it doesn’t mean you’ll end up high, or it’s not meant to. You aim high and hit on the level.”

His explanation is somewhat reassuring, isn’t it? Thinking metaphorically, the plain old “Aim high!” used as a self-help affirmation for the achievement of lofty goals doesn’t allow for the effect that forces beyond our control might have on our efforts. If we aim high, and if we keep our eye on the high goal, when we hit below that mark, we feel like failures.

But if we aim high with the understanding that outside forces will affect us, when we hit short of that mark, it’s not a failure at all. We hit exactly where we should be.

Aim high, with an archer’s aim. 

The universe conspires with you

 

universe-coelho

I love the book The Alchemist, and I find its author, Paulo Coelho, inspirational as a writer and a human being. 

Many people don’t agree. I made a visit to the “1 star” section of the Goodreads reviews of The Alchemist and discovered myriad variations on the “What a load of tripe” theme.

Those readers didn’t fall in with the fabled story of a hero journey. They didn’t buy the life wisdoms like the one quoted above. After all, since when does everyone in the universe get what they want? And what about good people who end up suffering?

Coelho recently responded to those concerns with this:

“I realized that despite the fear and the bruises of life, one has to keep on fighting for one’s dream. As Borges said in his writings ‘there no other virtue than being brave’. And one has to understand that braveness is not the absence of fear but rather the strength to keep on going forward despite the fear.”

I think he means this: If you have the ability to complain about NOT getting what you want, then that means that you’re still breathing, and your story is not over yet. There’s still time. 

Get busy. Work hard. Stop whining, because if you don’t, all you’ll get is more of the same. Fight past all those things you fear. Don’t let them paralyze you into inaction.

If you do, you might be amazed at the machinations of the universe. 

___________________

Consider Paulo Coelho’s 25 Important Points. Read them here: http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2014/09/03/25-important-points/

De-cluttering as spiritual practice: Pruning the “perfectly good” for the health of the organism

Photo courtesy of Lucy Nieto Flickr

Photo courtesy of Lucy Nieto
Flickr

Are you a clutterbug? Do you hate to part with things that are “perfectly good” in case you need them later? 

In Mapping The Soulscape Of Spiritual Practice: How Contemplating Apples, Living In A Cave, And Befriending A Dying Woman Revived My Life, Michael Yankoski writes about how spiritual practices re-balanced his out-of-kilter life.

He consulted a spiritual adviser who recommended the spiritual practice of de-cluttering. Yankoski began to tackle the extraneous items in his house, sifting through them and deciding which to keep and which to recycle or donate elsewhere. Between bouts of de-cluttering, he worked in his plot at a community garden where he nurtured tomato plants and other vegetables. Near his plot, another more experienced gardener watched his efforts and worried that Yankoski’s tomato plants were getting a little unwieldy. The wise gardener recommended pruning to produce a higher yield of higher quality vegetables. Yankoski hesitated. He hated to heartlessly lop off “perfectly good” stems from his plants. How could removing potential fruit-producing branches help his plant?

He conducted an experiment. He pruned some tomato plants according to the wise gardener’s instructions, and he left the rest to grow at will. At harvest time, the pruned plants bloomed with a hearty crop of luscious tomatoes.The other plants produced much fewer fruit of lower quality.

When he applied the same principle to the de-cluttering of his house, he felt the same surge of energy the luscious tomatoes on the pruned vines felt. Without clutter to clog up his thoughts and his movements, he took better care of what was there and appreciated it more. Like his tomato plant, without extraneous branches to deplete energy and resources, he had more nutrients to nourish the rest.

Sometimes it feels wrong to get rid of the “perfectly good.” What if it could be useful someday? But pruning off branches and composting them to feed other plants is like pruning our “perfectly good” clothing, furniture or other household items and delivering them to others who really need them. The pruning serves both us and the recipient.

Do your belongings nourish you or deplete you? Maybe a little pruning is in order. It might hurt a little, it might feel counter-intuitive, but expect to feel a surge of energy at the end of the day.

_________

The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski http://www.thomasnelson.com/the-sacred-year

Photo courtesy of Vilseskogen Flickr

Suffering tomatoes! Photo courtesy of Vilseskogen
Flickr

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