Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Learning to Live with Intention

A few weeks ago I turned 35. If we've talked, emailed, tweeted, or chatted recently, you already know that this birthday, more than any other, has sparked a lot of thoughts and ideas. I've been jokingly referring to it as an "existential crisis," but that's not entirely true. I don't feel like I'm in crisis - more like I've reached a moment of reckoning. Despite my lackluster professional career I'm an ambitious person with big dreams, and there's something about 35 that has a distinct "now or never" feeling. 

On the one hand, I know this is dumb. Age is arbitrary, everyone is different, and milestones are, at best, a moving target. Still. This birthday seems to have lit a fire within me, and I'd rather embrace it than question it. Which is why I'm deeming my 35th year as the one in which I learn to live intentionally. 

One of my favorite quotes comes from Annie Dillard, a brilliant writer and fascinating person. Back in grad school, I read The Writing Life and this passage was and remains one of my favorites:
"I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order - willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."
This quote is shared all the time, by a hundred people a day. Search Google images, and you'll find that central idea - "How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives" - photoshopped onto a countless images of the ocean. As an example, I made one in less than two minutes. Feel free to pin it.

While I like this snippet, it's context of the quote that I find even more powerful. The idea that routine, that scourge of free spirits, is precisely the thing that gives our lives meaning and shape. "A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days." As someone who feels unmoored without her paper to-do list and color coded Google calendar, this is good news.

And here is where I make a confession: despite my penchant for schedules, routines, and plans, I've allowed myself to become lazy. I used to get up early every morning and work on my novel. These last few months I've been sleeping late, hitting snooze until I'm rushing to get to work on time. I used to make mason jar salads every Sunday and eat them for lunch while reading a good library book. Lately, I zap a veggie burger in the office microwave and mindlessly eat it at my desk while scrolling through Twitter. Once upon a time I trained for marathons. These days, it takes all my energy to make it to the YMCA more than twice a week.

So what happened? Nothing specific - just the slow loosening of discipline. An object in motion stays in motion, and I slowed down. Part of it was circumstance. Money had been tight and I've been distracted by finding more freelance work and worry about the future. Part of it was the election, and the feeling that nothing I do actually matters, so why bother. Part of it was a series of rejections and disappointments that took the wind out of my sails. But these are all excuses, and I can see, suddenly and clearly, that they are not good enough.

I want to reclaim those hard won habits, get back on a schedule, and work toward a routine that is productive and affirming and results in good work and good health. Here is what that looks like for me:

  • Wake up early and write. I want to be at my desk by 5:30AM every weekday, armed with a cup of coffee and ready to write. The mornings are my most creative time, and too often I squander them by staying up late to watch one more episode of a show, drinking one more glass of wine, or laying in bed and scrolling through Twitter for an extra half hour when I should be falling asleep. To avoid these road blocks, I'm going to limit alcohol during the week, go to bed by 9:30PM, and sleep with my phone in another room. As my dear friend Nicola said, "I can end my 30s well rested, or with a published book." I choose book. 

  • Read more books. I am firm believer in the idea that reading good books is a key part of writing good books. So far, 2017 has been a slow reading year for me - I'm only at 17 books. There are currently 19 weeks left in the year, so my goal from now until December is to read 15 more. This is not an impossible goal - especially if it encourages me to watch less television, stop squandering lunch breaks, and unplug from social media. Three birds, one stone.

  • Get into fighting shape. A few years ago, a favorite blogger talked about the idea of "fighting shape" as a baseline level of fitness at which we feel good and capable and strong. I love this idea. These days I see fitness less as an exercise in vanity, and more as a way to ensure I'm capable of achieving my goals. When I'm fit and strong, and think more clearly, feel more optimistic, and have more energy for my goals. Lately, "fighting shape" has taken on a new layer - I want to be strong, mentally and physically, for the good of my inner life, but also for my outer life. In the last year or so, that includes the ongoing resistance against racism, bigotry, and white nationalism. This year I will get back to that place and make myself stronger so I can do more and help more. 

That's pretty much it. While this list of intentions may seem short, I'll have to work hard to maintain focus and momentum. And that's okay. I'm building "a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time." I am ready and willing and excited to change.