Monday, March 31, 2014

A lot to do, a bit at a time

I've been busy spackling, purging closets and assessing ceilings to see what needs to be done before putting the apartment on the market. In a way this is stress-relieving: I've long had this cool idea for a vacation that involves sending everyone else away and hiring a dumpster. This is not because I'm a neat-freak, but because we  live in an apartment. There's no attic, no basement, no garage. Everything we own we live with, intimately. It is a relief to live with less.

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I used to hate household chores. I'm still not fond of them, but I've made significant progress from my days as a single working woman, when I loathed doing laundry so much that I would buy extra underwear rather than waste a Saturday morning at the laundromat. The buy-more-undies attitude doesn't work when you have five kids.

I've long aspired to look at housework in the way I look at brushing my teeth: something I don't necessarily like, but can do without anguish or rancor because, well, it just needs to be done. One mindshift that's helped has been to think of chores as filler, rather as a separate (and hence onerous) list of things to do.

Honestly, this did not come about as a stroke of genius, but in a surge of desperation. (This is true for most of my ideas.) As I had to cram more and more (paid) writing into my day, I had less and less time to tend to the house. I found that whenever I came up against a mental logjam while writing, if I took a 10-minute break and tossed in a load of laundry (or wiped down the toilet and sink, vacuumed the living room carpet, etc), two good things happened. The first was that the physical labor cleared my mind so I could return to writing productively. The second was that things got done that needed doing.

The advantage of having formed this habit is that now when I get overwhelmed by the thought of moving, I can deal with the feeling effectively by plastering a crack in a wall. It's gratifying to transform stress into progress.

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Still, moving is stressful. No one here wants to go, and I find myself in the position of having to drive the troops forward, relentlessly. I do not like having to do this, but I am intent on keeping things (and people) on track. Perhaps I am also finally old enough to be (mostly) past getting annoyed about having to do things I don't want to do.

My heart bleeds at odd moments. I cauterize the wounds by doing productive things. Do more, think less, I command myself. Focus on what needs to be done. There will be time to grieve later.

I used to say that one reason God made days 24 hours long was so that there would always be a 2 a.m. in which mothers could cry. For the next month or two I will be too tired to be awake then.

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I am just entering the busy period of the spring. I am editing eight masters' theses and a PhD thesis proposal in the next six weeks, writing a quarterly newsletter, and doing my usual monthly and weekly projects. There's also Eldest's college graduation to think about, then Big Guy's high school commencement. Did I mention we're moving? Homeschooling? Eating?

Make it smaller, I tell myself. Look at just a little bit at a time. You can do this. You will do this. 

And then, as my inner child starts to whine that it's hard, too hard, and I don't wanna, I get out the putty knife and spackle, and fix another crack in the 1933-era wall. It's the nice thing about cracks: you can only fix one at a time. And when you've fixed one, things actually do look a bit better.

Monday, March 10, 2014

We have news

We will be moving.

Not far, probably. But we have to sell our apartment. We'll rent, we hope, in a neighborhood just north of here.

Several times a day Little Guy blurts out, "I'm distressed!" Andrew is unhappy. Big Guy is unhappy. Snuggler is unhappy, but at least she's busy with tech week for Oklahoma! Dancer is more matter-of-fact about the move, not thrilled but not miserable. I emailed Eldest about the news, but she didn't respond; she's probably more concerned about her last term at college and job interviews.

As for me, I have a ton of plastering and painting to do, so my energy is focused on keeping things moving forward. And frankly, I'm so relieved to have a plan in place that will finally resolve some of our financial issues that I am not thinking that much about the loss.

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Big Guy has been accepted into a good local college. He is waiting now to find out if he was accepted into the honors program. This would be a big deal on many levels. For a smart kid who has never believed in himself, who has struggled with huge anxiety, who is just beginning to feel he can make it -- well, the honors program would be a huge vote of confidence from someone who's not Mom. Then, too, the honors program would mean free tuition. That would be a huge help, too. The decision will be mailed on the 15th.

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I worked backstage most of this weekend at Dancer's spring workshop performances. Yesterday I slipped into the theater to watch the second half of the show. Brian Reeder choreographed a new piece for the school, and I wanted to see it from the front.

That man is so creative. He has choreographed a piece for the school for each of the past three years, and each one has been incredibly different. Decades ago I saw a cartoon in which two people were walking down the street: a regular shmo and Beethoven. The regular guy had a thought bubble above his head with a few simple notes in it. Beethoven had an ear worm, too, but his consisted of two clefs and multiple, complex chord progressions. Some people (not me!) think in complex harmonies. Others, like Brian Reeder, think in visual harmonies. Impressive.

The other wow about seeing the piece was realizing my daughter has made huge progress this year. I knew that already, in the way that mothers do, in a view-from-the-wings kind of way. I'm not the type to be lavish with praise. But y'know: she was good.

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Snuggler's Oklahoma! performances are the next two weekends. We've heard rave reviews from the director, which is unusual. It's the older kids' production, so they're doing three-part harmonies. If you want details on performance times, email me. Snuggler's in the chorus, so she's in every cast. And it's the director's last big show before he leaves... to become a monk.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Control, self-control, and what to do when it's lacking

One of the more useful skills I've acquired in the past decade (or perhaps mostly acquired; I'm still inconsistent) is the ability to live with uncertainty. This is something that was not on my bucket list. Then again, most of what I've learned and most of the ways I've grown in the past decade weren't on my bucket list. Eventually, perhaps, one learns that "What I want to do with my life" is a pretty useless concept. "What kind of person I want to be" is a goal that's more adaptable to the variety of circumstances that life sends your way.

Uncertainty is difficult to deal with. We are human and terrestrial: we don't like being up in the air. Of course, we're almost always up there -- we just don't perceive it that way. One can argue that we need the illusion of being in control, but that's an oversimplification. There are things within our grasp, things we need to control: tempers and spending and the rate at which water flows into the bathtub and other such stuff.

There are also things we'd like to control, like careers and children's behavior and whether or not people we love return our affection, or are capable of returning it. We'd like to control the outcome of health problems and mental deterioration, of birth defects and learning disabilities.We'd like to control pain, discomfort, and the suffering of others.

I suppose we'd like someone, somewhere, to take control of the people who take guns to malls or drink before driving. Probably we don't want to have to do that ourselves, because it might put us at risk. The idea that someone else's problems might wreak havoc with our semi-orderly lives is terrifying. I supposed because we have no way to control that.

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The other day I read a passage from Made to Stick to Little Guy about military planning, and it included the Army adage, "No plan survives ten minutes of contact with the enemy." He liked that. We talked about why it's important to make plans, but foolish to expect things to go as planned. We make plans so that we've thought through the issues and options, and are familiar with the problem to the extent that we can see it.

Little Guy also liked the idea of Commander's Intent, which is a succinct directive designed to allow anyone at any level to understand the goal, yet modify action as circumstances require. A large part of success when you're under fire (whether in battle or parenting) is determined by being able to keep the goal in sight, as you use your judgment in figuring out how to reach it.

Commander's Intent acknowledges that we can't control all circumstances; what we can do is respond to changing conditions in a manner that's in keeping with our objectives.

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I sometimes ponder how people adapt to situations over which they have minimal or no control. How does one deal with living in a war zone? What does a woman sold into white slavery do to find the courage to go on? How does the mindset of a street orphan in Cairo differ from mine?

I recently read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal. (I am, in fact, reading a half-chapter aloud to Little Guy and Snuggler a couple of times a week as part of our homeschooling. It's truly excellent.)

One subchapter tells of the Nobel prize winning physiologist Archibald Hill, who explored the issue of exercise fatigue. He proposed the idea that we don't get tired because of muscle exhaustion, but because our brain sends a message that screams "STOP!" to prevent exhaustion. The thing is, just because the brain tells you you're too tired to go on doesn't mean you've reached your limit. It's a trick.

Interestingly, the same concept applies to self-control. Our brains tell us we can't stand to be patient a moment more -- and we believe them. But if your child's life depended on your patience, you'd find a way to curb your temper. We can stand far more than we want to. We can handle far more than we expect. The trouble arises when we start to believe we're trapped or stuck or have reached our limit before it's true.

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Sometimes the answer to a difficult situation lies in flexibility rather than in control.

Sometimes the answer lies in patience.

Sometimes it is found in endurance.

And sometimes it simply isn't found. Sometimes what's asked of us is  to keep taking whatever steps we can take for as long as we can take them, even if we don't know where we will end up and don't think we can do it. If you can do that and still be true to your Commander's Intent, you are probably a hero even if you never become famous or your problems never go away.