Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Art of Taking Time off

I’ve been blogging lately about the art of mindfulness and the importance it has to the revision process. This is likely to be my last blog about this subject, and I really have nothing more to talk about except for the art of having time off.

The break is one of the most difficult for me to do. Like my father before me and probably his father too, I am a workaholic. However, I also recognize that the way to get my best work is to take some unstructured time for myself.

For those of you who are not workaholics that might sound easy enough, but it’s not all that simple for me. The problem is that I, and I believe really most people, need to find a way into relaxation. If I simply sit and watch television or go out to dinner that’s not really properly time off. After all, when my mind isn’t engaged on a new activity, it is thinking about the work I am doing. That’s not time off, it’s just inactivity during work.

It’s important then to engage in a new activity, one that engages the mind and attention completely, and for me it can be done with just about any activity as long as it is truly a project. The key is that it is a project. Even television watching can be done in this way. That’s why so many people find fantasy football so very engaging. They are completely focused on the tactic and strategy of every game. I don’t do fantasy football, but I’m guessing it has kind of the thrill I found when I was a kid and played Dungeons and Dragons, which is a game, but it is all consuming.

Now, I paint. I’m not good at it, but that doesn’t matter because it’s relaxation time. I can’t paint twenty-four hours a day, so I often will watch Netflix shows in a focused way, binge watching and discussing the shows with my wife, so we approach Cheers or the movies of Richard Linklater in the same way I approached literature as an English major. It’s the way we travel.

This is a tip that Winston Churchill gave to us in Painting as a Pastime. He was a world-class workaholic, and the countries savior and a racist and imperialist and a lot of other things, but he knew how to use his time off effectively. It’s how he got so much done, good, bad, and otherwise. Fretting and obsessing after all are two of the worst ways to deal with anything that truly matters.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Writing in a World of Chaos

For the last few weeks, I’ve been finding ways into mindfulness to help me focus on the revision of my poetry collection. It isn’t easy. I’ve been talking about offense up until now, what I should do to make sure that I reach that place of emotional quiet. However, I’ve found for years that I have to play defense as well.

I have a fairly demanding career outside of my writing life as I think most people do. Like most people, my hours are not limited to eight hours or even those hours when I am physically at work. I’ve written about why I don’t carry a cell phone, but I’ll repeat it here. I am a community college professor of English, and I simply don’t come across many grammar emergencies. However, I know myself well enough that I know I’d give my number away and be constantly dealing with the trivialities of other people’s lives. Those things matter of course, but the thing is that the trivialities of my life matter as well, and it’s important that I allow myself to deal with them and not other people’s.

I think it’s a good idea for all writers to have professional goals, and to think of themselves as professionals. If we don’t do that, we become hobbyists. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s too easy to prioritize things ahead of our hobbies. If writing is a career, then it and we get the time that we deserve. After all, I love my teaching career, love my students. It is too easy to stack up everything in my life after them. It’s all right for me to love teaching, but I can also love writing as well and just as much and make sure that I make time for that. There are a lot of movies and television shows out there that suggest the teaching profession is a kind of priesthood, and unless teachers sacrifice themselves to it at the expense of everything else in their lives, then they are bad people. Not only is it not possible to do that over a fifty-year career, that kind of thinking is insane.

The biggest time suck outside of the classroom is the time I spend online. I can waste a day wandering here and there answering emails and chatting with students and generally having a good time until I am unfulfilled in my writing life. Of the various things that I do outside of the classroom, this is the one thing that I lose the most time to. This goes beyond simply playing online, which is another problem.

I’ve taken to setting a timer for the time that I’m online, both professionally and personally. In general, I can get through all of my students’ emails in a half hour, so that’s what I set my timer to. If it’s going to take a significantly long time to discuss online, I set up an appointment with them during my office hours. Anyone with that complex a question needs personal time anyway.

There is something about your writing time that people always want to chip away it. I do it to myself and others do it to me. But its important, and mindfulness is not only making sure that you do certain things, but making sure you don’t do other things.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Mindful Traveler

If you scour the Internet, you will find thousands of ways to be mindful, and they are mostly correct. Mindfulness is the just the practice of focusing on the now, so that intrusive thoughts that poison us do not ruin what we are doing. As I am focusing on revising my collection of poetry, my wife and I have decided to focus on mindfulness as much as possible. We always take a trip on my birthday, which also happens to be our anniversary, so we decided to be as mindful as possible.

The mindful vacation turns out to be a strange kind of thing. We want to experience the place we are without distracting thoughts about the future, so we got on the 101 freeway in Los Angeles and started driving north. We’ve been in the Central Coast of California a lot. However, we tend like most people to fall into patterns, and our Central California trip started as a pattern 19 years ago when we went there on our honeymoon.

Since our honeymoon because we have been living in the past and dedicated to arriving at some destination in the future, we’ve missed what was going on around us. My wife, an artist, had me stop at places so she could sketch her watercolors. We got off the highway and turned up streets that had strange sounding names.

Maybe my favorite part was to explain to a server in our restaurant or a hotel clerk what we were doing and ask that person where we should go. If you ever do this, you should know that you have to tell the person you’re talking to that you don’t want to do the typical touristy things. Otherwise, you end up someplace you already knew was there. You have to find out what they really like to do. If you ask them what to do in the morning, you will find yourself doing something fascinating all day long. Usually it’s free too. People don’t tend to spend their casual free time doing something they can’t afford.

The important part in terms of writing is that Ann and I have put ourselves into the kind of headspace we need to be in to write and make art. Revision is where the true art of writing lies after all, and I have spent weeks now getting into that place I need to be in to have the focus I need.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Breakfast Picnic

As I work through the revisions of my poetry collection, I’ve tried to move closer and closer into my interior become as calm and thoughtful as I can be. This is a necessary part of good revision. It is for me anyway, and I’ve been going through as many different ways to find mindfulness, a way to focus on each moment without the delusional stress of multitasking, as I can.

As I worked through and reflected on my life there were a number of moments when I find that I was completely at peace, and I’ve tried to analyze those moments. There were many of course, and one of the ways that I got to that space was early morning walking.

Walking as an adult has often descended to the level of merely exercise. I go out in order to get my heart pumping, and I have been guilty of moving as fast as I can for as long as I can. This misses most of the point of early morning walking.

Much better were those walks I took when I was young. Each year, my parents would rent a cabin in Sequoia National Park, and anyone who loves hiking knows that the best hikes start just at dawn. I’d grab granola bars and hike out through the giant trees in the restful quiet of early morning stirring. I’d hike until I knew that no one would be near me and eat as I looked out across a meadow or over the tree tops from a cliff.

People will tell you to eat without distraction, and that’s good advice. I suppose this was a kind of distraction, but I have never known food to taste better or for me to be more in the moment and focused on what I was eating. Each sense was flooded at those moments with stimuli.

Later when I was older, I lived in the mountains above Los Angeles, and my overly excited dog would wake me just as dawn was rising and pull me out of the door. I found that if I wanted to eat I had to do it on the trail someplace where I could pause, and he could sniff out life. The food gained flavor and importance in my mind. If there’s nothing worse than eating in front of a television, then there’s nothing better than eating a hard boiled egg while you watch the wind working its way through the trees.

I’ve started the breakfast picnic tradition again even though my dog’s too old to pull me out of the house and I don’t have a forest to tromp through. The city has just as much magic to give as the mountains. Both are places of great beauty and peace if your eyes are open, and you bring peace with you. The act of eating as you watch the world waking up is a sacred act. The world renews itself around you as you renew yourself with it.