March 27th, 2007
I have been conducting a little experiment this winter. In hopes that I could better my writing habits and discipline, I decided to make myself sit down and write 15 minutes a day. Surely I can do such a short stint at the keyboard, I think to myself, and in no time my fingers are chatting merrily at the computer. Sometimes it's difficult to stop after such a brief time, and I find myself coming back to some essay later in hopes of putting down what I've been thinking before it disappears forever. Some days, time is extra tight, and it is enough just to open a file, edit a bit, and go on with my day. Other days I only manage to look up some idea or quote, or jot down a few ideas for future pieces. But every day this winter I have made an effort to do something, however small.
It is yet more evidence of how baby steps work in my favor, for I have been rewarded for these small bite-size pieces of work over and over again. Ideas are flowing fast and furious, my allotted 15 minutes of time speed by, and I no longer have to bribe myself with chocolate to get myself to sit down. But even so, I am wary. I am wary not that the ideas will dry up, or that this method won't work for me long term. I think it will. What I am wary of is myself and my tendency to think: well, this is going so good that now I'll increase my expectations and time requirement in order to be even more productive. I have an altogether too familiar pattern of raising the bar every time I find even the smallest measure of success. I am especially antsy about this tendency when thinking about my week ahead. I am on spring break, and have no regular teaching schedule. Already I have produced a daunting to-do list of projects to start, complete, get ahead on; books to read; recital programs to learn; closets to clean out; and writing projects that I think I could move forward and finish. This is dangerous, this predilection to see empty free time as a chance to overload. Just a few weeks ago, I found myself doing just this very thing. Matt was in Miami for a week at a conference. Assuming that this would free up tons of spare time that I normally spend with him, I overloaded my social calendar with lunches, phone calls, and coffee dates with friends. By the end of the week my rather fragile, introverted self was comatose with exhaustion. I paid for this extravagance for weeks, having to cut out all social obligations so I could deposit enough solitude time into my introvert bank that I could become jolly and fit for human interaction again. This is forefront in my mind as I consider my week ahead. I know that the key to making my life flow smoothly is not to see empty weeks or signs of progress as reason to raise my expectations and habits, but rather to simply continue the habit: to keep on keeping on. After all, I can dig up plenty of evidence from past failures to prove that raising the stakes does only that: it does not guarantee that I have the skills or the inner resources to jump them.
And so, this week–this so-called empty week--will be a chance to practice the art of keeping on. I am eager to use my free time to find trouble of my own making, but I am determined that the habits and patterns of my life that serve me so well: the daily practice sessions, writing time, yoga, eating and sleeping, will continue as normal. So many routines are too hard-won at this point to risk disruption. If I allow myself to sleep in this week and get out of the habit of my 7AM wake-up time, I will pay for it next week with disturbed sleep patterns and a less than cheerful attitude every morning. If I either stop writing this week or binge on long writing sessions, it will be difficult if not impossible to find my groove again next week when my regular life resumes. If I stop practicing for more than a day or two, the inertia I have to fight to get back to the piano is not worth the freedom of a couple of spare afternoons. If I don't get outside and weed and water for a few minutes every day, then the mess in the yard will become so daunting I'd rather take a torch to it then clean it up. Truth is, as so many psychologists have told us, we are happier people when our work and play find a balance. There is a reason that weekends and vacations unsettle us and that we suffer from Sunday night blues. Knowing my own moods all too well, I cannot afford to either spring forward in any discernable fashion, or take a break from my regular life of carefully built rituals and behaviors. Spring break? I'd rather not.
March 16th, 2007
A single day is enough to make us a little larger or, another time, a little smaller. -Paul Klee
"I'll huff and puff and I'll blow your house down," the big bad wolf said to the three little pigs. I feel like one of the pigs today. The wind outside is doing everything possible to tear our little house down. Although we probably haven't seen the last of winter, spring is making inroads into New Mexico: crocuses are peeking out with their bright faces, daffodils are screaming their bright yellow welcome to spring, the temperatures are rising. Today I cleaned the oven–a first since sometime last fall--because it was finally warm enough to open up the house to release the toxic fumes. But it is the winds that are really the first sign of spring, and that I have lived here long enough to recognize that startles me. But there it is: spring in New Mexico has a soundtrack of fierce wind and raging wild fires, both of which are in play today.
I spent a half-hour outside this afternoon, weeding and watering. In spite of the abundance of other projects big and small, I am eager to get back to gardening, eager for the slower patience it demands of me. I have big plans, which will quickly be curtailed by lack of funds, but nevertheless with the season still ahead of me, I will dream large.
I've needed an antidote from what is otherwise a too fast and furious pace. It is not that my life is speeding along at a faster tempo than anyone else's; it is that all of our lives are moving too quickly. Lately, it seems that this pace itself is the real problem: the high-speed internet giving us immediate answers to all our questions, the cell phones and e-mails that keep us in constant contact with one another, the wireless connections that only increase the rapid pace and lack of breathing room. I opt to bow out a great deal, rarely answering my phone, writing hand-written letters instead of e-mails to friends, keeping my cell phone off at all times, but still I get sucked into the demands for speed.
This pace seems to only increase our miscommunications, it seems to me, and as a result we suffer a million little hurts everyday. It is the small things that kill us a little at a time. I can handle the big things, but it is the small underminings, the little oversights, the off-handed criticisms that take a piece of my self-esteem daily. Some of these are examples of my all-too fragile ego, I'm afraid, but others are concrete evidence of how fast we expect others to respond to us. When they don't, we are first annoyed and then hurt. I'd be better off if I didn't expect to get immediate responses, less hurt by the lack of communications that some of my efforts get, less rejected by other's silences if I wasn't so certain that they had heard me so clearly through every possible technological advantage now at my fingertips.
My ego is taking too many cheap shots lately, making me overly sensitive to every imagined slight. As good as I may be at what I do, I still desperately need others to tell me that I'm OK, that I'm doing good work, that the things I do, the way I play and teach makes a difference to them, and to the world at large. I hardly think I have a more fragile self-esteem than most. I think we all suffer from the same malady: the desperate need to have others approve of and love us.
Ironically, it is this very desperation that makes us hard pressed to offer signs of approval and admiration to one another, even as we are quick to offer the negative judgment or criticism. Why does it cost us so much to tell another how much we might admire their work? And equally, why does it cost us so much when we don't get these words of encouragement?
We all suffer a million small disappointments every day. And while this is hardly limited to musicians and artists, it does seem to me that the very act of putting oneself out there in performance, in our art form, is a vulnerable one. These brave acts may lead to an increased need of approval from our peers--sadly, the very people who may be least likely to give us these words. Recently, I accompanied a faculty recital at UNM. In addition to being a well-liked and respected oboe professor, Kevin is the principal oboist of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Afterwards, I was taken aback by the dearth of his colleagues that were in attendance in the audience. It reminded me that every time I take personal offense at other's lack of support, I should remember that it isn't about me. But I wonder, if we aren't partly making music for one another, for whom are we making music? Another musician I worked with recently made recital flyers that read, "This isn't your sister's flute recital. Disrupt your day." Disrupt your day
. It may me laugh out loud, but his point was well taken. It may take some disruption of our schedules and our lives to get us to support one another. We may have to learn to disrupt our comfortable habits of self-protection and criticism in order to learn how to actively encourage one another. We may have to disrupt a few of our bad patterns of undermining each other and practice behaviors better suited for being learning, growing artists here for the long haul.
As I write this, I realize I need to look hard at my own actions, thinking specifically of about four colleagues performances that I probably won't attend because I think I don't have time. I need to be more willing to offer the first word of praise to a fellow musician. I need to be more willing to disrupt my schedule and my comfort zone and reach out to the other musicians around me. "I'll huff and puff and blow your house down," the big bad wind is taunting me outside. There are big bad wolves wearing all kinds of disguises in our lives these days, but the worst ones may be the fierce costumes we wear for one another, scaring ourselves most of all.
March 5th, 2007
I'm actively avoiding about a dozen things I need to do. In my practicing, I have two recital programs staring me in the face and a third one halfway under my hands. I desperately need to sit down and do some long-range planning for my students. I've got several essays that need some serious revisions. I haven't been to the music store to browse through new music since last summer. I am not proud of this fact, but I have been doing everything possible to avoid this task for months now. My yard needs attention: there are still piles of leaves we didn't bag last fall and if I have any hope of staying on top of the weeding this spring I need to get out there. Soon.
This winter I read a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The author maintains that any excuse we use not to do the things we are supposed to do should be labeled what it really is: resistance. We should not give any attention or weight to the creative excuses we come up with to avoid our work, but rather call it what it is and treat it as such. I am dubious about this idea, even while recognizing that there may possibly be a grain of truth behind it. I like hiding behind the plausible excuses I create instead of facing down the things that need to be done.
But I do know one thing: unfinished projects, unanswered phone calls, and half-read books become psychological clutter and weigh me down over time. Even hidden from view, they can make me feel like I am juggling too many things at once. It is true that they take up psychological and emotional space–even the most harmless ones. Another author has a different method of approaching this baggage. In Getting Things Done, business coach and organizational expert David Allen writes about how the path to a focused and creative mind is in better organizing the details of one's life. Things that we don't have a place for or a strategy to conquer drag us down, he says, and take up mental space that could be used for more creative endeavors. While a business approach to anything would normally make me run screaming, I find myself nodding my head in agreement. It is the dozens of half-baked ideas, partly done plans, half-finished projects that make me crazy. It's not knowing and not bothering to figure out the next step of a long-term project that makes me squirm. It's the piles of information that I have no strategy for keeping, organizing, or accessing later. It's the dozens of random tasks that I try to keep current in my short-term memory until I have managed to accomplish them. They are the problem. Allen has a complex system to solving all these problems and more, only part of which I can manage to employ. But if there is one strategy that I am willing to adopt, it is the idea that all the little things fill up space -- literal and figurative. Writing thing down and keeping better track of all our work and play, big and small, we can keep these things from taking over our lives.
In spite of my avoidance of too many things, I am more aware of what I am avoiding, thanks to these books. I make lists and more lists, scribbling ideas, jobs, and thoughts down in a notebook and on random pieces of paper as they come to me. Buy door hooks, Pick up dry cleaning, Get disinfectant might be on the same list as Look up Clementi Sonatina for Kristen, Listen to the Schubert, Finish reviewing articles. Also, mixed into such tasks are personal things: Call Missy, Send Sarah's birthday card, Coffee with Anne? Surely such lists are a window into the organizational habits of a person, as well as evidence of our priorities and values. In addition to list making, I am experimenting this year with keeping a calendar–something I am generally very resistant to. In December I visited the bookstore at least four times searching for the perfect calendar for my peculiar method of keeping track of my life. Each time I came home empty handed. "What's wrong with them?" Matt would ask. "You don't like the fact the dates are in order?"
My alternative medicine-migraine therapist once teased me about my tendency to write down random engagements in any haphazard sequence. When I relayed this exchange to Matt he said, "Now doesn't that scare you that your spooky chick woman thinks your method is strange?" Mostly it scares me that despite otherwise solid upbringing and breeding, I could manage to be so resistant against rather convention methods of organization.
Getting things done or not, I am working steadily on a list of tasks to avoid today: yet another day without going to the music store, I probably won't get very far on recital programs #2 or #3, and there is no way I am going to look up any Clementi Sonatina. David Allen would not consider this a productive day, Pressfield would label my actions resistance, but there are only so many places I can straighten up and fly right. I have no doubt that the world would function more efficiently if we would all adopt the strategies outlined in these books. Surely, wars would end, the stock market would never crash, production in every area would skyrocket. However, there has to be a balance, and truthfully what my soul most needs today is not another strategy for handcuffing myself to my schedule and productivity, but rather a playful dose of spontaneity. I need not more restrictions in my life, but a more expansive and abundant sense of the possibilities. For all the days I need help getting things done, I equally need help letting go of the pride and ego satisfaction I get from being overly efficient. I need to let go of the notion that my self-worth is tied up in how many items I cross off my to-do lists or that I will somehow be a better human being if I can find ways to get more things done. For all the ways these books provide new ideas and solutions for old habits of living, they also provide fuel to the raging fire of my identity as a person that is too busy already.
As I ponder this paradox, I browse through David Allen's book and find staring at me this quote by James Michener: "The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both." Maybe there is no need for a balancing act after all. Maybe I have been drawing a line in the sand that need not exist. Maybe, just maybe, there is room for everything: the highly productive person deeply engaged in the work and play of her life.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com