Still Here, But In the Moment

Hi. Remember me?

Despite nearly six months of radio silence, I’m still here.

As it turns out, getting married, moving a week later, unpacking, frantically planning a second wedding, trying to keep up with a chaotic work schedule, and 10 consecutive weekends of summer plans are enough to completely shut down my writing muses. Hell, it’s enough to shut down everything. My morning writing habit dropped off the routine in April. We finally managed to unpack the last box a month ago, but our decorations and miscellany are shoved away in empty drawers and any spare inch of closet space we can find, because there’s no time to decorate or organize our house right now.

That musical is still waiting.

All those story ideas that I’ve scribbled in my journal are fading from my memory.

And as I sat down to compose this post, my husband looked over my shoulder and said, “Oh, you still update that blog?” Yeah. We’ve been busy.

More often than not, I’m frantically bouncing between a dozen different things. At any point in my day, I’m completing a work task, pinging V. about dinner plans or a smattering of random wedding details—what color should the suits be? when can we Skype with the officiant? how much should we spend on flowers?—while also trying to find time to keep up with normal life tasks.

I’m excited about our wedding. I am more than thrilled to see so many dear friends and family from all corners of the country. Having a wedding is wonderful and exciting and such a great privilege. But planning a wedding sucks. (Hey, no one said I had to like this stuff.) It’s death by a thousand inane decisions, and each decision only produces a thousand more. What color will everyone wear? And should the dresses be long or short? What color shoes should the ladies wear? Are the men wearing suits or tuxes? And how do we guarantee that everyone gets the same shade of red or grey? Make a decision on what time you want to start the ceremony, and you have to decide if you’ll do pictures before or afterward. But wait—the wedding package only includes a 4 hour ceremony so do we want to lengthen it by an hour? How will people get home? And speaking of that, how should people get there?

I can barely decide what color shirt to put on in the morning, much less plan a huge event with hundreds of moving parts. More than anything, I want the wedding to honor my relationship with V., and I want people to have a good time. Can someone just tell me what to do to make that happen? *

* This is a rhetorical question, for the record. Thankfully, we’ve mostly figured it out by this point. 

With so much going on, my creativity meter has been at zero lately. Five months of craziness has left me mentally exhausted. Nearly-thirty-one-year-old, out-of-my-mind-with-work-and-wedding-decisions me curses twenty-five-year-old-too-lazy-to-write-Peace-Corps-volunteer me. When I had copious amounts of time, and an exotic world at my fingertips, I did absolutely no writing. Instead, I pissed it away on reruns of the L Word and hours of internet surfing. (When you live in a country where you’re paying by the hour to use the internet or using someone’s rare in-home wifi, that’s a pretty astounding feat.)

Normally, I would shame myself relentlessly for not writing during my every spare moment. I’ve been working towards a daily writing habit since graduate school, and I have to admit that I’ve never fully mastered it. When I succumb to laziness or exhaustion, I berate myself, which, naturally, leads to more of the behavior I’m trying to avoid. A riveting TV show or a nap are a great way to shut your mind up when all it wants to do is guilt you. But, no more. Writing is important to me, but no one will die if I don’t do it, and I refuse to look back with regret and guilt on this time of exciting transformations. Years from now, when I recall setting up my first home with my new husband, do I want to remember being riddled with anxiety because I couldn’t squeeze in writing between unpacking, wedding planning, and work? Or do I want to remember the simple joy of finally merging our lives, the pure elation I felt at setting up a shared space and officially starting our married lives together? For now, I choose to live in the moment. So, I have a different plan.

I’ve always thought that part of being a successful writer is having the brain space to let ideas percolate. But with no time or energy for brain space, I’ve decided to take on other creative endeavors, as a means to inch myself ever closer to the creative world I want to live in.  One of my favorite quotes on creativity comes from Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve quoted her here before, but the words are wise, so one more time won’t hurt.

Whatever else happens, stay busy. Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…. In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

Most of me wants to do nothing but lay on the couch these days, but I’m making an effort at making a glorious commotion, even at work. This week, I went to a two-day, work-sponsored Illustrator training to learn how to make computer graphics. By hand, I can barely draw stick people, but few things give me more pleasure than creating a visually appealing infographic or instructional video. I even managed to impress myself with a few of my creations! I created a very spiffy replica of the Salesforce logo, and I even managed to freehand a donut graphic!

 

Kim Donut
Admittedly, it looks like it was done in MS Paint, but not bad for a first attempt!

I’ve also taken up cross stitching; I already have over 50 patterns saved on Etsy and a list of potential gifts for family and friends.

 

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My first cross stitching project
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It doesn’t look like much now, but just you wait….

And fancy hand lettering and doodles have made their way into my journal. Calligraphy classes are also on the horizon.

These are small things, but the effect is big. I feel like I’m slowly growing closer to my creative self. At this point, any creativity is a much needed break from the pull and grind of daily life.
Soon, very soon, I’ll be back to my writing routine. As always, I’ve got big plans. Until then, I’m living life from one moment to the next, no regrets.

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The Hard Work of Becoming a Morning Person

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This year, I resolved to start a daily writing practice. It’s something I’ve resolved to do and failed at many times before, but here I am, attempting it again.

In the past, I told myself that I would simply write when I got home from work. No matter what happened, I would make myself do it; it was just a matter of making time for it. As it turns out, I was right, but only partially. Despite my best intentions, I never did establish a writing practice, because while it was just a matter of making time for it, I never had the energy to produce anything by the time the hour before my bedtime rolled around.

Years later, I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that, whether I like it or not, I can only establish a daily writing practice if I  write as soon as I roll out of bed in the morning. The only time I’ve come even close to maintaining a daily writing schedule was for a month last year when I woke at 5:30am every morning to sip coffee and blindly type until the very last minute before I had to go to work, until I literally had to run for the train to make it on time.

The purported habit-guru Gretchen Rubin—who apparently only had to do some pseudo research and write a book full of anecdotes to become an expert on habits (who knew?)—asserts that in order to master your tendencies and establish productive habits, you must know yourself first. You have to fully understand your predispositions beforehand so you can, essentially, account for your shortcomings when you establish your goals and plan them in a way that makes you the most likely to succeed. For example, if you are a night owl, she says, you will never be able to simply turn yourself into the type of person who wakes up early every morning to exercise or write. Instead, you’ll fight against your night owl tendencies, try to wake up early for some time, then eventually give up once you fail a time or two. Yes, she admits that if you’re night owl and you also happen to work a regular 9-5 job, your options for establishing good habits—i.e. habits that work with your night owl tendencies—are limited, but oh well. Onward and upward! Try your best.

For a whole month, I lived the life of a true morning person: getting out of bed upon the first sound of my alarm, eating breakfast at my table like an adult, and sipping on my coffee while I wrote for about 45 minutes. No matter how tired I was, I plopped myself in front of that computer. Eventually, however, my good habits slipped. I’d still wake between 5:45 and 6:00, as per usual, but then I’d spend an hour between my cozy sheets, scrolling through my Facebook feed, then my Instagram feed, then perusing the headlines on NPR before finally dragging myself to the shower. I spent weeks waking at that time only to scroll through anything and everything I could find on my phone, anything to avoid the hard work of getting out of bed and getting my day started. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t, I told myself, wake up that early every day to look at my social media. Gretchen Rubin was right, I reasoned; my long-time night owl nature was simply working against me. I was never going to win in this situation.

For nearly a year, I used Rubin’s “research,” or a handful of stories about how her acquaintances had tried and failed at their own habits, as an excuse to justify not waking up early to write. Eventually, however, I realized that there was simply no other way around it. I needed to write every day. Not doing so would mean wasting a talent that had been granted to me by pure grace. And I clearly needed to write before work, because experience proves that I never find the time or energy later in my jam-packed day. And in order to write before I go to work, I have to become a morning person. Oh well; I never really did believe much in Rubin’s theories anyways.

So I began reading articles about how to become a morning person, noting strategies that others had tried, inventions that help you to wake up naturally, the science behind sleep, how people wake, and the best way to wake for productivity. Then I resolved to do it, with some rules and strategies to help me along.

  1. Throughout the week, I will wake between 5:45 and 6:00 am. During the weekend, I’m allowed to sleep in and write at my leisure, as long as I actually do it.
  2. Immediately upon waking, I will sit up, then drink the tall glass of water sitting on my night stand, all in one breath if possible.
  3. At the very reasonable recommendation of another writer and night-owl-turned-morning-person, I will not use my phone as a way to wake up. Instead, I will leave my phone face down on the night stand while I stumble to the kitchen and do something routine, something that requires no thought, gets my hands working, and allows my mind to slowly wake up in the process. In my case, this is throwing out the coffee grounds from the day before, putting new ones in, and getting the coffee brewing. Added bonus: After I slowly join the living, I get coffee!
  4. I will sit down in front of my computer and write something, anything, for thirty uninterrupted minutes.The faster and fiercer, the better. No internet surfing. No answering emails. No flipping through my Spotify list. No checking my work calendar. Only writing.
  5. I will stop writing after 30 minutes, even if I have more to say, even if my mind is running wild with inspiration. This has nothing to do with becoming a morning person, but I read that doing this reminds you that that sitting down to write is about showing up daily and working, not about the muses being on your side. Conceptually, I know this, but it’s something I still struggle with.   While I would like to build up to writing for an hour every day and also allow myself the freedom to continue when I feel like I’m tugging at the strand of something wonderful, I think I can benefit from showing myself that writing can happen even when inspiration has packed its bags and left, even when I’m typing with one eye open and there’s not enough coffee in the world to get my brain running. So the typing stops after 30 minutes, no matter what.

Thanks to Murphy’s law, I woke up with an awful head cold on the first day of my new morning routine. Determined to succeed this time, I walked myself through the steps, escaped the allure of my bed, and completed my 30 minutes of writing. And I’ve written every day for the past month. Through sickness and fatigue, dark winter mornings and mornings so cold that I have to wrap myself in a blanket and sit between two space heaters, I write, write, write. At first, I could barely focus my attention on writing for more than 10 minutes at a time; the seconds seemed to crawl. After a month, though, I can already feel the difference. My fingers fly over the keys, and before I know it, it’s time to wrap up and run out the door. It’s a tiny step in the right direction, but it’s something.

On top of building up my writing muscles, establishing a morning writing practice has brought more calm to my life. It affords me at least an hour of quiet and order before I step into the madness of the world. It’s time just for me and my creativity, an hour to leisurely eat my breakfast like an adult, sing along to my jams, sort through my albeit muddled thoughts, and put the words bouncing around in my head in some semblance of order. It’s hard to believe, but 6:00am has become my favorite hour of the day.

The general pseudoscience behind habit formation is that it takes at least 30 days to form a new habit. After a full month of writing daily, it looks like this night owl has discovered the hack to becoming a morning person. So take that, Gretchen Rubin! I’m officially a morning person now, and soon I’ll be a morning person that can say she’s truly a writer, too.

Finding Focus

Despite good intentions, my year of focus is off to a rocky start. After a visit home for the holidays, a few glorious days of fun with friends and family, and an unexpected trip home again for my grandmother’s funeral, I’m struggling to get my schedule back on track and myself back in motion. I’ve spent most of this month catching up on the work stacked on my desk, the dirt layered my floors, and all the random-yet-pressing obligations scribbled on random pages of my Passion Planner (which I finally got this week!). In the meantime, my downstairs neighbors have taken to screaming at each other in a manner that quickens my heartbeat—partly out of frustration, but mostly out of fear—and my upstairs neighbors continue to walk incessant laps around their apartment, taking extra care to hit the squeakiest spots.

In this the first month of 2015, I’ve barely managed to squeeze in a half hour of writing once or twice a week, if I’m lucky, and I run so little now that I can’t even call myself a runner anymore (or justify my monthly gym fees). Sometimes, most times, I feel like I am descending into madnesss, that I will forever be swirling in this tornado of chores and overflow work and frantic running here and there. But I keep reminding myself that small, consistent actions lead to big rewards, so I continue to seek focus in all aspects of my life.

At work, I’ve relegated personal emails and texts to my lunch hour, so I can focus all my attention on work tasks. I’ve imposed a strict 8-5 work schedule and I’ve quit checking work email when I’m not in the office. Instead of giving 110% to all of my tasks, I give 100% to the things that matter and let everything else wait for the next day or the next available person.

At home, I wake up an hour earlier than before to sneak in some writing time before work. Unfortunately, like the true night owl I am, I often wander about in a half conscious state until a half hour before I need to leave the house. Sometimes I end up using those early morning minutes to pack a gym bag or consolidate leftovers for lunch. Sometimes, I sit at my computer and write a mish mash of run on sentences, half complete thoughts, and notes for later. It’s slow-going at best, but at least it’s going. I’ve moved my computer from my comfy couch to the more business-like table. I’ve created an editorial calendar for the year, outlining both my blogging deadlines and estimated completion dates for a collection of approximately 7 essays. I’ve written the first sentence of my first essay on Ecuador, and I’m picking out a handful of writing residencies that I’ll apply to later this Spring.

In the meantime, I continue my attempts to gain control over a life spun out of control. I map out my work engagements and writing times, coffee dates and bed times. A queasy, regretful feeling spreads in my stomach every time I think about my neglected running practice and my quickly deteriorating Spanish skills. I hate prioritization, for the impossibility of its nature and the anguish it causes me. But I continue to do it, because life is short and my goals are big. So stay tuned; I’ve got some exciting things in the works.

One day at a time.

I can and I will.

Public Service Announcement

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Today, I broke down and bought a passion planner. In spite of its suggestive name, a passion planner is a yearly agenda that combines an appointment calendar with pages for journaling, to-do lists, goal setting, reflecting, drawing, mind mapping, and logging gratitude. This is the kind of organization my wayward schedule requires these days.

Upon returning from Ecuador, I looked at my life and saw nothing but large swaths of time. After two years of living off the “American grid,” it was as if I didn’t exist in the adult world. With no job, no commitments, and no pressing social engagements, I wallowed in days filled with endless hours of reality television, luxurious runs, and extended visits with friends. It was a wonderful existence, a continuation of Ecua-time that I simultaneously cherished and longed to replace with a real schedule.  Now, I can’t begin to account for the minutes of my day. Every Sunday night, I look at the week before me and mentally plot out when I’ll do my writing, my reading, my workouts, my meetups with friends and boyfriend. Then a dinner with colleagues pops up, an early meeting appears on my calendar for Tuesday, then again on Wednesday and Friday, an empty fridge leads to an impromptu shopping trip, and before I know it, the minutes have somehow slipped away until what appeared to be an ordinary week has once again become an overwhelming one.

It’s no secret that I’m not good at balance.

More than anything, my life lacks focus. I spend my work days jumping from one task to another while texting with friends about after-work plans. Tasks small and large escape my view. At any moment, there are fifteen open tabs on my internet browser and three partially-drafted emails on my smartphone. I make lists on lists on lists—of people to call or write, errands to complete, forgotten tasks to follow up on. I can’t finish a blog post. (This post alone took me over a month.) I can’t finish a book. And yet, I can’t tell you where my time goes. I’m running as fast as my little lungs will allow, but the horizon never seems to get any closer. (Of course, the ultimate irony of this statement is that I struggle to fit running into my schedule at all these days.) And, as always, when the week gets busy, the first thing to be compromised is my writing. Or as Jay McInerny writes in Bright Lights, Big City, “But between the job and the life there wasn’t much time left over for emotion recollected in tranquility.”

This, I’m learning, is adulthood: a constant battle with tedium and minutiae. I have the distinct feeling that if I’m not careful, this constant struggle to eat three meals a day, keep up with laundry and cooking, follow a budget, sleep enough to function, and stay on top of work will carry me right to the end of my days before I’ve even set down a single word worth reading. On a daily basis, I am paralyzed by the fact that I cannot write fast enough, learn fast enough, or even think fast enough to accomplish all of my life goals. And I don’t even have kids or work two jobs or take care of elderly parents or commute an exorbitant amount by today’s standards.

I’ve tried to write as much as possible given my hectic schedule, but it’s been less than successful. Every day, I wake up at 5:30am to write unintelligible sentences with my eyes still half closed. Even at that unbearable hour, I feel the pressure to get it right the first time, because who has the time to rewrite anything with all the early morning meetings, phone dates with friends (on this continent and beyond), and boring adult things to tend to? And even as I’m attempting to write the perfect first draft—ha!—I’m scrutinizing whether I should be spending my valuable time on this particular writing task at all. Would my time be better spent on a different essay or short story? I think as my fingers move blindly over the keys. If I were to die tomorrow, is this the last piece I’d want to be working on? With thoughts like these bouncing around my brain, there’s not much energy left over for creative fission.

I realize that being an adult means making choices. I just never imagined that I’d have to choose between advancing my career, maintaining friendships, and building a writing practice. I certainly never thought that these grandiose life moves would boil down to such common place decisions. Do I spend my few hours of free time after work writing tonight? Or do I wash my stinking dishes and iron my work clothes for tomorrow? Do I sleep till 6 so I can focus on my long day of meetings and stave off that imminent cold for another week? (Thanks, public transit!) Or do I get up at 5 to eke out a few garbled lines before hopping on the train?

No matter what I choose, it always feel like the wrong decision.

Part of my problem is—and always has been—that I want to excel at too many things. This, of course, is not just my problem, but a larger societal issue. Our newspapers and social media are full of articles on the “disease of busy” and the somehow newly discovered importance of sleep. We’ve all seen these articles, and yet we continue filling our schedules to the breaking point. A  couple weeks ago, though, I came across a Thomas Merton quote in the On Being blog that made me see the busyness of my life in an entirely different way:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Violence? Destroying the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful? That’s some heavy stuff, and yet, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Now that I’ve had time and space, I yearn to write a collection of essays on my time in Ecuador. Despite my best intentions, I’ve yet to begin. I’m terrified that by the time I cobble together enough time to write the first draft, the details will be tarnished and dull, lost in that black hole where memories go when they are too often unthought of.

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell says that to make time for writing you must first neglect everything else. I instantly prickle at the thought; my heart pounds a little faster and my obsessive need to be good at this “being an adult” thing sends me into a spiral of rationalizations as to why this approach won’t work. What about that pile of laundry, the multiplying dishes, the vacant refrigerator? I already struggle to keep up with friends; what will they think when I’m even more unavailable than before? How can I excel at work if I’m not willing to stay extra time, always go that extra mile? It’s when I’m exhausted and panting from a crazy week that I feel the need to see where my time is going, to reclaim those fleeting minutes for myself.

As I look towards the new year, I know that something has to change.

So this is a public service announcement: The be-good-at-everything, surrender-to-too-many-demands me is out of commission. If you don’t hear much from me in the coming weeks and months, know that it’s not you; it’s me.  The focus of this past year was reading a book a week; the focus of next year will be focus itself—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. So if you haven’t heard from me in a while and you begin to wonder where in the world I am, know that I am squarely in front of my computer, desperately putting digital words to digital paper. Because I can’t keep living in a reality of tomorrows, and I can’t keep putting my writing on the back burner. I officially proclaim 2015 the year of wrinkled shirts, mile-high dishes, bags under the eyes, and pages and pages of writing.