Mesmerized


I was given an exercise: describe your life 10 years from now how you want it to be. It’s not the first time I’ve done this exercise. However, it has a slightly different twist this time.

I was asked to write less about what I would be doing and more about how I would be feeling.

I am not going to share my attempt at this exercise in this blog because it’s a bit more personal than I’m willing to share publicly. However, an interesting theme emerged. It was the theme of being “present,” “mindful,” “aware,” or whatever word means the most to you. That state where your brain isn’t off thinking a million miles an hour about a thousand different things but is right where you are physically, mesmerized with the present moment.

Mesmerized. Such a great word–feeling like you can’t look away, hypnotized. Being mesmerized by the present moment means no thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow distract us from what’s unfolding now.

Remember the feeling of getting so caught up in doing something that all else is forgotten? And I am not referring to computer games here. Rather, the feeling of being lost in creating something and suddenly something interrupting you and realizing hours have passed. Or perhaps the feeling of no time having passed at all but realizing you just hiked 7 miles. Or even just enjoying visiting with friends so much that you lose yourself in the conversation and suddenly discover 2 hours have gone by.

Interestingly, my relationship with time seems to have suffered greatly since starting my leave of absence from my day job. I lose track of it continually. Yet, it’s not quite the kind of loss of track of time I was shooting for. There’s the “I’m so engaged in what I’m doing I can’t keep track of time” kind of loss of time and then there’s the “I’m so distracted and disconnected from what’s going on around me I can’t keep track of time” kind of loss of time. I seem to lose more time to the latter case than the former.

Photography gives me hope. It’s the good kind of loss of time for me. It’s when I set aside whatever else is going on in my head and pay attention to reality.

Let’s think about this for a moment: I like photography because it’s one of the few times when I stop imagining things and live in reality. As crazy as this sounds, I’ve decided I’m not crazy at all. In fact, every time I talk to someone about a racing brain that jumps all over the place, this is among the most common of experiences. It’s the moments of quiet that seem to be more unusual.

Do we all walk around with a head full of voices about the past and the future distracting us from the present? The peaceful joy that comes with being fully present truly is mesmerizing, yet so hard to maintain.

Mirror, Mirror

Sometimes an abrupt shift in how you see yourself occurs. Things you believed about yourself turn out to be unfounded. As my statistics professor repeated enough times that I cannot forget even 25 years later: “correlation is not causation.”

Just because we behave a certain way on a regular basis doesn’t mean this behavior is driven by our personality, character, core values, or anything that is uniquely “us”. Rather, our behavior may be driven by the particular set of variables in play at a given time that make it easy or rewarding to behave the way we behave.

This is a hopeful message for anyone who thinks people can’t change. It’s actually quite easy to change behavior. The most direct example of this I have is from working with sales people–I always knew when their compensation plan changed because they instantly behaved differently.

We are, it turns out, so easily and frequently influenced in what we do, what we believe, and even how we feel that it’s impossible to tease apart what is our “true self” and what is one of humanity’s most basic survival skills: fitting in.

Realistically, we cannot know what is part of our “core” self vs social influence until the moment we are tested–the moment we are called upon to make a choice.

These moments usually go completely unnoticed. There is no sound track with dramatic music telling us this is a pivotal moment in our lives. Often, there is not so much as an intake of breath before we go forward and do or don’t do without deciding.

Defaulting gives social influence amazing power. It’s also incredibly efficient–imagine if we consciously examined every choice we could possibly make each day and pondered all the possibilities? It would be hard to get beyond brushing our teeth in a 24 hour period.

But every once in a while, many variables in our lives shift. In this shift, a void appears. This void is either not knowing what is expected of us or suddenly having cause to reject what we feel is expected of us (such as when a loved one dies and we find ourselves wondering if what we have been doing with our lives is worth it).

These are the moments when social convention comes in handy. It gives us a framework to either fit within or to rebel against. The trick is figuring out what the rules are. And when there is no one to influence you, to find that influence.

This is, perhaps, the most surprising thing of all for me. I have seen myself as an independent thinker. A creative spirit. Someone “different.” The mirror my life is holding up right now forces me to realize that my independence, creativity, and different-ness are merely a rouse.

Without the boundaries of social expectations, there are too many choices. The greatest irony? These expectations were the product of my own imagination–this should be an easy problem to solve.

Is it Sunday?

I am suffering from an interesting phenomenon. I don’t know if it has a name. It’s the inability to keep track of the days of the week. This has led to a second phenomenon: posting my Sunday blog posts late.

Seeking to get myself back on a slightly more planned schedule, I spent some time contemplating why keeping track of the days seems so difficult. Let’s review . . .

Until 3 months ago, I was working long weeks for a large corporation. Monday-Friday, my alarm went off, I picked up my iPhone and checked my email and calendar. I answered any urgent emails from parts of the world that would be leaving work soon and then checked my calendar again to see 1) what time I needed to be ready for my first conference call, and 2) if I had any open time during the day to get anything done or if there were any conference calls I could skip to make time. Then I got ready to start my day.

Saturday and Sunday were days I didn’t set my alarm, didn’t have any conference calls (usually), and could catch up a bit on work I didn’t have time to do during the week as well as fit in some fun time.

That has a pretty definitive rhythm. It forces you to know what day of the week it is because you’re always working against deadlines and constantly looking at your calendar trying to find time to work and/or meet with people.

In comparison, I have not been setting my alarm most days unless I really think I’m going to oversleep. Generally, I wake up an hour earlier than I would set my alarm for anyway, so it hasn’t been an issue.

I have started trying to use my calendar because I do have appointments from time to time–or at least social engagements. But rather than actually looking at my calendar and figuring out what my day looks like, I am ignoring my calendar until a notification pops up reminding me that I have to do something. This does not require knowing what day it is.

There is little motivation to actually know what day it is. First, the only time it’s inconvenient is if you, for example, go to a store on a Sunday that isn’t open on Sundays. This hasn’t happened to me yet. Second, it’s depressing to realize x more days have gone by and you still haven’t gotten the things done you meant to get done, so why remind yourself by constantly knowing what day of the week it is? Finally, knowing what day of the week it is would mean having no excuse for the appointments I have missed when I didn’t get them added to my calendar.

Not knowing what day it is has not deterred my photography any, either. In fact, it may contribute to me shooting more because I am more apt to lose track of time altogether.

Taking Stock

It’s officially been 2 months since my leave of absence began. I thought it would be a good time to enumerate both the new lessons I’ve learned and the old lessons that have  resurfaced as particularly relevant to this major shift in my life.

  1. Your time will fill. No matter how much you have to do or how long you think you have to do it, time will pass more quickly than you expected and you will get less done than you planned.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much of an out-of-the-box thinker you are; if there is no box, you can’t think outside of it.
  3. When you have a mile-long list of things to do and believe you have only a fraction of the time you need to get them done, you manage your time far more judiciously than when you have a short list of things to do and believe you have all day. (See #1.)
  4. There is always more opportunity than capacity.
  5. When one thing has been your biggest time investment for a long time, when you pull it out of your schedule, everything that surrounded it collapses on top of each other and you have to scratch and claw your way through the crap to shove in something new and get all the little stuff safely held at bay.
  6. Staying busy is not the hard part. It’s staying busy doing the important things instead of the distracting things that’s hard. (See #1.)
  7. Just because something must be done urgently doesn’t mean it should be done at all.
  8. I really mind a dirty house less than I mind cleaning it.
  9. We treat people we have an intimate personal relationship with like someone we have an intimate personal relationship with even when the topics are professional–it takes effort not to hear “I don’t love you” when you disagree.
  10. Working with your spouse is an opportunity to better your overall relationship. Creating artificial lines between your personal and professional relationship is only lying to yourself. The two roles are inseparable and must feed one another, driving both a closer, more intimate relationship and more creative energy from the feeling of being on the same team working towards the same goals.
  11. Sleep helps. This is theoretical. I used reverse logic: lack of sleep makes everything harder. Therefore, I believe that if I someday get enough sleep, it will make everything easier.
  12. Every day we have the opportunity to be more focused, more productive, more playful, more creative, more effective, more attuned to our health, and to get more sleep. We probably won’t do all of these things in the same day, however.
  13. At the end of the day, it’s you. There is only you and what you did and didn’t get done, whether what you did made a difference, and whether that difference is the difference you intended. Ultimately, there is not, and really never has been, anyone else to blame.

Nostalgia

One of the hazards of having a 2TB hard drive is the immediate accessibility of old photos.  There is something about fall that causes me to review.  With 9 years of photos on my hard drive, this can be quite a journey.

Along with review comes a sense of nostalgia.  As much as I appreciate my new life in Chattanooga, there are things I miss about my old life in Columbus, Ohio.

I try not to think about how much I miss my friends.  Although I have made a dozen or so friends in Chattanooga now and I would miss them, too, I don’t find that friends are replaceable or interchangeable.  Each is a unique relationship and each relationship is something I value.

I don’t need old photos to remind me how much I miss my friends.  What the photos do remind me of is there are other aspects of my old life that I miss as well.  Being within an easy 1/2 day’s drive of family is a big one.  Going from a 3 hour drive to a 7 and 10 hour drive is a big difference in how frequently we see family.

But there are small things I miss as well.  For example, I miss my gallery wall from our former living room.  Given that we somehow lost the prints on that wall in one of the two moves after selling the house, I miss the art as much as the wall to display it on.  It was one of those little pleasures I enjoyed everyday.

I also miss playing in the snow.  Although, I guess I would have missed that had we still been in Columbus this past winter given it was unusually warm.

Perhaps a bigger gap for me is the feeling of being part of the community.  Although I’ve found volunteer gigs I enjoy here in Chattanooga, it’s a little less immediate than being part of a neighborhood group that invests time and energy in improving the street we live on.

Along with changes that came from changing states, I also miss some of the things we left behind when we sold our house.  Like the raccoons on our deck that would eat peanuts left out for the birds.  Or being able to look out the windows and be eye-to-eye with birds ranging from Red-shouldered Hawks to Scarlet Tanagers to even occasional warblers.

I guess I am really missing living in a wooded ravine that not only brought the birds up close to our windows, but also allowed for a woodland garden, intense fall colors along our street, and a hummingbird nest above the deck in the summer time.

But even as I miss these things, I am also relieved.  After all, as much as I enjoyed life in the ravine and life in the house and community there, giving up those things has created an uncertain future that brings with it a sense of endless possibility.

Clutter vs. Hoar Frost

In the process of going through old photos and clearing out the masses of virtual junk that I have collected, I am reminded both of how much I prefer a life uncluttered and how much I enjoy reliving the past.

On the topic of de-cluttering, there was a time when this referred to clearing clothes out of closets, emptying the junk drawer that collects unrecognizable objects that we’re sure we’ll need someday, selling the collection of hobbits or beanie babies, and donating excess household goods.

For us, we started the process of reducing things several years ago.  But having focused for so long on getting rid of physical items, I completely ignored the virtual ones.  My main problem, as you might guess, is photos.  As long as all my images fit on the hardware I already owned, I don’t think of it as clutter.

But having grown my capacity to over 7 TB between old devices, new devices, backup devices, and spare devices, I’m thinking it’s time to start eliminating the multiple copies of the same photo, the really bad images, the slightly different angles of the same thing, the series of 300 shots of the same person making different facial expressions–in short, the crap.

Having cleared out this virtual junk, I find the important memories and the images I’m almost proud of suddenly jumping out at me.  Just as clearing out the 4 potato mashers, the endless collection of useless appliances (useless to me since I don’t cook), and the endless odds and ends that filled our kitchen cabinets made the kitchen a place I didn’t mind hanging out in (because I could suddenly, for example, find the corkscrew when I brought home a bottle of wine), I find myself suddenly having a hard time pulling away from perusing the past.

When I stumble upon photos from one of my favorite places, Jasper, Alberta, I decide to share a few from our hike near Pyramid Lake in December of 2009.

Jasper National Park is located in what I used to think was Northern Canada–until I looked at map.  It is North of Banff, but, it turns out that’s not even far enough North to be Northern Alberta, let alone Northern Canada.

Given that the town of Jasper is located within Jasper National Park, which encompasses a pretty big chunk of the Canadian Rockies, it was far enough North (or perhaps just far enough in altitude) that the high temperature those two weeks of December was -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

When we hiked around Pyramid Lake, we discovered something I’d only read about–hoar frost.  I never actually knew what hoar frost was until after I showed some of these shots to a friend.  If Pat wouldn’t have been with me, I probably would have frozen to death because I was so fascinated with the hoar frost, I would undoubtedly have forgotten to return until it was too dark to see.

I don’t consider these images clutter.