Recently I’ve been trying many new things, but mostly to slow down, take my time, think about what I’m going to do before I do it, and notice (without judging) how I feel. And while these things are valuable to try to do, it’s not on every day that I’m able to do them. My days seem to swing back and forth between “take your time and find your path, my child” and #notenoughhoursintheDAY. When you have three and a half minutes to be somewhere in ten minutes and you can’t find the car keys which are ALWAYS in the same place but today they’re NOT, and someone just realized you really meant to get in the car NOW (and he is, frankly, pretty pissed off about it), and someone ELSE for some reason can’t find their SHOES even though they were WEARING them when they got HOME half an hour ago and HOW could you lose your SHOES in thirty minutes when WE HAVE SOMEWHERE WE NEED TO GO, there isn’t the luxury of sufficient time for mature reflection and dispassionate self-analysis.

Shall we play a game?

Shall we play a game?

Some days you have to have a different method for figuring out how you’re doing. A good day — no, a great day — is like being at DEFCON 5, or Threat Level Green. That’s the day when I drift around the house, ruminating on my good fortune at being able to breathe freely, make my own decisions, and generally appreciate my relative autonomy. That’s the day when I react to good things by muttering “sweetheart” as I go about my business.

Now, I realize that muttering “sweetheart” to an almost empty house makes no sense. I’m not addressing myself or the dog. I don’t have a sweetheart unless you count the memory of having had one, many years ago. And that really just doesn’t count.

I think I say it — almost autonomically — because I feel happy. Comfortable. Settled. Cuddly. Peaceful. Forgiving. All the things you feel when you’re with your sweetheart and all’s right with the world.

A strange game....

A strange game….

Now, that being said, a more difficult day — a DEFCON 3, Threat Level Yellow Day — doesn’t get the same utterance. That’s the day when I feel I’m moving against the flow, swimming upstream, and generally working at cross purposes with the universe.  That’s the day when the word “asshole” spills from my lips. It’s not a “Fish Called Wanda”-level “ASSSSSHOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLE!” bellowing, just a kind of muted growl at seemingly constant low-level frustrations.

For a long time, I thought that these were the only levels I had. And then came a DEFCON 1 kind of day. Threat Level RED. An “I can’t go back to bed, so you’d better get out of my way” kind of day.


…the only way to win is not to play.

I don’t remember who or what set me off, or how it ever got resolved. All I remember now is that I was channelling the language of an extremely dissatisfied sailor. Whatever I was wandering around muttering, it probably sounded like “!@#$%ing @#$%s!!!!!!”

I like the “sweetheart” days much better. Pretending I’m not alone. Pretending someone understands completely. Pretending that everything, the way it is right now, is just fine and will never change. Oh, sweetheart, that’s just the way I like it.

Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 11:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Week Sixteen: Decisions and Revisions

The calculus train is barrelling along past Reimann Sum station now, and I’m staying in my seat and taking all the notes I can. I’m keeping up with my homework on antiderivatives, summation notation, indefinite integrals, and definite integrals. There will be an exam in two weeks covering this material, and I’m not scared of it. The biggest problems this week have been (a) slipping on the frosty ramp outside the house and bruising my hip, shoulder, hand, and ego; (b) getting almost to school and realizing I was driving the car that didn’t have the commuter window-sticker; and (c) getting so wrapped up in my homework that I lost track of time and was a minute or two late to class. They didn’t all happen on the same day (but two of them did).

The smaller the interval you measure, the closer you get to an accurate estimate of the area under the curve.

Of course, I know me by now, and when things are going well I tend to extrapolate the success to the nth degree. If I solve one computer hardware issue I think I should work as a Genius at the Apple Store. If I write a haiku I wonder how I’ll ever have time to finish my epic metered saga. One good pot of soup, and I’m thinking up graphic treatments for a cookbook series. If I think of an improved mousetrap design, I fret over my inability to purchase enough warehouse space to store all the inventory. That sort of thing. It’s more amusing now that I can catch myself in the act of making ridiculous or disproportionate future plans, and ground myself gently back in reality.


Thoughts like these have started me wondering about my academic future. Enough people have asked me if I were going back to school this fall that I started wondering, too. I went from “no” to “probably not” to “maybe” to “I think I’ll change my major to Pure Mathematics and get a full time job too and edit at night and invent cold fusion” in the space of an afternoon. Well, except for the cold fusion. I’m sure someone else has that all worked out by now.

I caught the thought, then I held it and took a more critical look at it. The physics professors seem distressed at the thought of my being a math major. What are you going to do with a math degree? Well, the same thing I was going to do with a physics degree at age forty-coughcoughcough — learn everything I can about what I’m interested in, while I still can. I’m interested in education but not in teaching, but who knows? With four technically oriented kids, being able to teach math might come in extremely handy. I’m interested in the history of math, the history of science, and the history of language. I don’t have five lifetimes in which to read everything, so I need to choose my reading matter carefully. For that, a structured course seems like a good idea. What’s it all good for? Well, it’s going to help me become more like me. That should be the purpose of education — to help you develop your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. It’s your choice as to whether you apply that towards finding a job or not. Personally, I think that this experience and education will eventually land me in a place where I’m making a living, but I just can’t see all the details from here. Not yet.

The math-and-numbers side of me is now being balanced by my words-and-letters side. I’m not just playing Words With Friends and Scramble any more; I’ve gotten a client who would like me to edit his book manuscript and help him get published. While I’m waiting for him to sign and return his contract, I’ll go ahead and hard-copy edit his first two chapters and keep track of my time so I can figure out my rates for future jobs. I’m also editing a friend’s dissertation for chapter-by-chapter publication in an academic journal. I’m reading fiction and nonfiction. I’m writing every day and blogging every week. And I’m still playing Words With Friends and Scramble. Finding point-scoring combinations among the letter tiles isn’t interfering with my “mathing” any more, so I’m just trying to stay balanced.

Then there’s knitting, that combination of wool, coding, artistic expression, and applied topology. I’m doing finishing (weaving in loose ends) on a huge project, turning a heel on a sock, designing a mathematically and artistically geeky scarf, and knitting a lace-edged narrow shawl that’s a therapeutic exercise.  My friend Bonnie has taught me how to do a Long-Tail cast-on — in fact, this patient woman has taught it to me twice so far — so I have a new tool in that particular toolbox.

As usual, all I need is time. T.S. Eliot assures me that won’t be an issue:

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
— “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Week Twelve: Chop Wood, Carry Water

This week, I’ve been struggling with dual and somewhat opposing impulses.


On the one hand, I’ve experienced a terrific burst of energy and creativity. I’ve been storing up yarn and patterns, and quilting fabric and my own designs, for years; suddenly it’s time to CAST ON. Now. Start. Finish. Work. Sew. Knit like the wind! I’m getting vivid dreams. I’m getting the urge to sketch things, make plans, open new files, and (in a purely theoretical sense, since it’s SNOWING as I write this) open the windows and let in fresh air. Spread my wings. Redefine and reinvent myself. Run run run run run.


On the other hand, I’m disciplining myself with quiet time, practicing meditation, and reading about mindfulness. I am trying to listen to the quiet, follow my breath, and be still.

Don’t do something — just sit there.

I need both things in my life. Sitting still doesn’t take away from my busy-ness as much as it prepares me for it, conditions me for it. The writing I do after I wake up and before I go to sleep is not creative writing but a way to both organize and de-clutter my mind. It also makes a safe space for anything that wants to be written about, contemplated, memorialized, or speculated upon.

So how do these different impulses interact with each other? Do they crash into each other? Do they pull away from each other? Do they chase each other like snakes trying to make meals of each other’s tails? Do they twist in opposite directions to form a knot? Internally, they probably are taking turns doing all of those things. It’s difficult to keep that internal conflict-resolution process from showing on the outside, but that’s another benefit of the sitting practice, of the breathing practice, of the mindfulness practice, of the writing practice.

And this practice is difficult. I have often described my father, who just turned 79, as the oldest living undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD patient. When I was growing up he always worked at least three jobs. He finally retired from his primary job only to work a series of post-retirement jobs and travel with my mother on trips ranging from Alaska to the Panama Canal, and from San Francisco to Maine. (They’re banned from New Hampshire, though, or maybe it was Vermont. Don’t ask.) He still gets up early and does a few hundred situps before he goes to the basement to lift weights, row, and walk the treadmill. He simply does not stop. (Unless golf is on TV, then it’s naptime!) And the older I get, the more I discover that I am truly my father’s daughter. When I was younger, I swung my legs, tapped my fingers, hummed (I thought) to myself. I ran, I rode, I hiked, I biked, I paddled. When I was in class I doodled beside my notes, made lists, passed messages to my friends. The knitting I took up almost a decade ago has given my hands something to keep busy with while my brain focuses. If you have never tried if, let me tell you that sitting quietly and emptying your mind is HARD. They don’t call it “monkey mind” for nothing. It is full of chatter that must be dealt with. And I’m not very good at it.

At the risk of driving my readers crazy, in Wherever You Go There You Are Jon Kabat-Zinn quotes one of his students as saying “When I was a Buddhist, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am a buddha, nobody is upset at all.” So I’m trying not to go all “Buddhist” on anyone. I’m not in an evangelistic “three recruits and I get a zafu” program, and in many ways, this place is familiar territory to me. Some of my Zen and Buddhism books have been on my shelves for quite some time now. The wheel turns, and they are needed again for me to regain my balance. I’m writing about my own experience. If my words speak to you, it’s up to you to decide what that means for you.

But, as Bill Cosby might say, I told you that quote so I could tell you this one. In The Miracle of Mindfulness Thich Nhat Hanh quotes a line from a Vietnamese folk song:

Hardest of all is to practice the Way at home,
second in the crowd,
and third in the pagoda.

Right now I’m practicing at home, swinging five bats before approaching the plate to assess what life intends to throw at me next. (From the way it’s gone so far, I’m guessing knuckleball.) I need to do what I need to do. It’s not time to try to walk and chew gum at the same time; it’s time to walk for walking’s sake and chew gum in order to chew gum. When I try to do more, I tend to bump into things.

Published in: on March 22, 2013 at 9:39 am  Comments (1)