“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 22: Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part 2

Sometimes I think I'm the only person in the world who a) is extremely sensitive to her environment, and thrives best in living and work spaces free of clutter and b) is naturally a slob. While I always think better and sleep better and create better around blank canvases, if I don't pay attention I will soon find myself surrounded with half-full cups of cold tea, piles of books, journals, sweaters, and socks.  In my writing space, I never know when I'll be looking for a certain quote, so I currently have nine books at my feet and I just cleaned up in here yesterday.

So when I first came home from six months of teaching in France and India, I took a hard look around and started to "see" the things I had stopped noticing before I left.  You know, the empty gift bag from who-knows-when that was temporarily left beside the jewelery box and the giant calcium/magnesium bottle, and now lives there? The Bactine that helped out with a paper cut six months ago and is still waiting for my next nick next to the alarm clock?  Anyway, I not only cleaned, but I de-clutterized.  Systematically, room by room.

I'm normally reluctant to read self-help books, mainly because they leave it all up to individuals to fix their lives and don't address social justice and stratified inequality: you know, the grand forces outside of individual control that are responsible for the lion's share of misery in this world.  However, there were two books that sort of fit that genre, quite loosely, that helped me out a lot.

One was The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.  She wrote in her preface that she feared one day that she was wasting her life.  She was on a city bus in New York, where she lives, and she realized that although she had everything she'd ever wanted--husband she loved, two lovely children, a career as a writer that was going well, close ties to her immediate family and in-laws, and so on, she still suffered from "bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness, and free-floating guilt."

She wasn't clinically depressed, but she thought she could be much happier.  And so she created "the happiness project," which began as a blog (one of the inspirations for mine) and systematically began to figure out, through lots of reading, trial and effort, how happiness isn't just something that you have or you don't based on luck, but that you can bring it into your life--that you can work it.

Her subtitle is Or, Why I spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have more Fun. 

Two things I really took to heart from her advice were a) to clean my closets and b) to have more fun.  The first meant really going through everything systematically and chucking what I didn't need.  I even rifled through my jewelery box and gave away earrings and necklaces that I hadn't worn in over a year.  I can't tell you how good it felt to clean and fold and bag up everything I wasn't using, including the cute purple suit I bought in London, circa 1997, and bring it over to Renewal House, our local safe haven for women fleeing violent partners.

The "more fun" part meant examining my 60-plus hour work week and thinking about how to use my time better and to actually have a life, or at least, part of an actual weekend.  I had to stop blaming my job for my chronic flare-ups of unhappiness and weariness.  Hey, it's not like being an English professor means punching in or sending Walmart shoppers to Aisle 8.  I am not exposed to asbestos or radioactive materials on the job, there is very little heavy lifting, unless you consider my various sacks of books, and my co-workers are smart, plus the people we work with, the young, are generally very lovable and open to what we have to offer them.  I don't have the weight of the global economy on my shoulders, nor do I have to perform delicate heart surgery--except sometimes, metaphorically.  So what was my problem?  And in this economy, I'm lucky to have a job, period.

So I decided to bring the joie de vivre I'd known in France back to the North Country, and I made Sunday lunch a tradition, even in the busiest, most fraught times of the semester.  (See Day Four: How Sunday Became my Favorite Day of the Week.)  No matter how much I had to do in the week, I would get it done by midday Saturday so that I could do my chores Saturday afternoon and spend Sunday enjoying a leisurely, home-cooked midday meal with my husband, with wine and dessert and the works.  I have stuck to this now for six months and it's kind of symbolic to me that Christmas and New Year's both fall on Sundays this year.

The other thing Gretchen Rubin advised in the book that really helped me was to "read memoirs of catastrophe."  Like her, I'd had Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking on my shelf for ages, but I was scared to read it--scared (talk about true magical thinking!) that the tragedy in this book was somehow contagious.  Grethen's reasoning is that we kind of have to rehearse how we'll handle the loss that is coming, because we are all going to have our fair share of heartbreak and grief, no matter what.  So reading about it first can help us prepare for that day when sorrow comes knocking on our door.  Not that anything ever really prepares you truly.  But maybe remembering that it is en route like some big raptor migrating between Siberia and the Florida Keys might, just might help us appreciate all the good things in our lives right now.

The other book that really helped me was Thich Nhat Hanh's You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment.  When I decided to meditate for a little longer than I was used to, and to do it every day, I would read a few pages of his book first.  He explains everything having to do with mindfulness so well, so clearly and simply, that I can open up that book to any page and find solace.  It always begins with the breath.  Breathing is, like, something we have to do, or we die.  So wherever we are, in whatever tight spot, we just have to return to the breath, to notice ourselves breathing, and maybe slow that breath down, and we are in the present, living.  Awake to our lives.

Stay tuned to tomorrow's blog, Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part 3, when I finish my thoughts here about preparing for change.  For now I have to get myself ready because Rebecca's about to pick me up and take me to her yoga class, and I need to brush my teeth.

My closet, back in the day, before the shoes started breeding

1 comment:

  1. Aaah, the purging of the stuff. I feel like I'm doing it all the time. Six months ago, it was the closet:


    I just counted the stuff on hangers and got rid of half. Down to 69 items in June, back up to 95 as of last night, when, for some reason I thought to check. I'd say it will be ripe for another 50% reduction by next June.