Could You Use 20 Minutes of Stillness?

Man thinking on a train journey.

Man thinking on a train journey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I probably use this blog to harp on about my busy life a little too much. We’re all busy, right? You don’t have time to read about someone else’s busy-ness. But that’s my life, which I’ve had to accept. At least I can say that I never get bored. December seems even more crammed with obligations than November – or maybe that’s how it always feels when you’re living in the middle of it.

There are times when I am so busy that I don’t realize how much my kids are growing. Then someone points it out, and I realize that they are big. What happened? How did I miss it? I have to remind myself that I need to slow down and be with them. No, I don’t really want to line up all of our toy cars and count them, but my three-year-old does, and as long as he still wants me to sit with him, I should take advantage of it instead of throwing this opportunity away.

Still, there are many nights when I have the best intentions only to realize that it’s past their bedtimes, and we still haven’t read or done something fun together. If only I could just slow down and be present for a while, then maybe it wouldn’t feel like I’m living with they’re-growing-up-too-fast-itis.

This past week, I was forced to slow down when I had my first acupuncture session. My doctor kept up a steady dialogue while she was placing the needles, I suppose to keep me from focusing on what she was doing. She asked for advice on finding the perfect home-baked something to give to her two very different neighbors. We talked a lot about our dietary lifestyles, which have a lot to do with treating the hypothyroidism from which we both suffer. I was settling in to enjoy a nice conversation.

But with all the needles in place, she turned off the lights, gave me a bell to ring if I needed anything, and told me she would be back in 20 minutes or so.

My first reaction was to wonder what in the world I would do for 20-or-so minutes. And I had no way to track the time; I wasn’t wearing my watch because there were needles in my wrist, nor did I have my phone. All I had was me and some needles on this cushioned table in a little room. What in the world was I supposed to do?

If I had been at home instead of on that table, there’s no way I would have just lain down with no stimulation except for the darkened room around me and outside noises. I would have gotten up every couple of minutes to do something or other. My parents should have named me Martha.

Instead, when I had no choice but to be still, my body grew calm and comfortable – a gift that I very much needed in the middle of a very hectic month.

There are so many people I know who push themselves past the limit, especially this time of year. On the one hand, many of them have to because of their particular jobs, but on the other, staying so busy and so stressed eventually takes its toll. Last year, my mother’s body succumbed to a vicious virus right after Christmas because her body gave up when it finally had the chance to slow down.

Sometimes, the only way our bodies can grab our attentions is to force us to stop. The busy-ness… well, it can wait.

And I guess waiting is hard for people like me because we want to stay active. We always want to move forward, to do something. Slowing down isn’t just a luxury but almost a sin.

Except that the stillness is healing, reinvigorating. As painful as it may seem at the time (especially if you’ve never tried to do anything like meditation or even failed miserably at it), the results are positive.

That day on the table was still busy; I had no time to write. But I spent a long time thinking about my novel and what should come next. I prayed for several dear friends, finally with the time to reflect on their particular situations. And I just laid there doing nothing. Imagine that.

My challenge – which I extend to myself, as well – is to choose to be still from time to time, to choose to watch and listen. To relax at what seems an inconvenient time and recharge. To be present. I can’t slow time or my boys’ growth spurts, but I can use that time to its fullest.

Which sometimes means leaving it empty.

Writer at Work

It has been a busy weekend. Of course, it’s my mom’s birthday, and I’m copy editing the sixteenth volume of Fiction Fix, and I’m taking a Writer’s Digest bootcamp all at once. Life is full and wonderful like that sometimes.

I have a lot to say about my writing experience this weekend, but I’m too wiped out right now to even put together a coherent thought.

So while I leave you in suspense, talk amongst yourselves about the last time you could write about whatever you wanted and not care a bit what anyone else thought about it. That’s next week’s topic.

Oh, and of course, happy birthday to the best mama in the world. Better to celebrate with her than worry about deadlines, anyway.


Pacing Is Everything

Unscheduled meeting

Unscheduled meeting (Photo credit: Roger Smith)

Have you ever read a book that has such a slow pace that it puts you to sleep? You feel like you should get a medal for reading one page. Maybe you save it for nights when you have insomnia. I can certainly appreciate a slow pace if it makes a scene feel just as excruciatingly slow to the reader as the characters involved, but it’s hard to read an entire book like that.

On the other hand, have you ever read a book where you feel like you’re panting with exertion after a few pages? Just like the slow pace, there are places where this is appropriate, but it’s hard to sustain for the duration of a novel. And I have to admit, I often keep myself so busy that I feel like I’m living a fast-paced novel kind of life. There’s a reason my workout program and even the Bible prescribe a day of  rest. You can certainly go too far with this concept, but the original idea is a good one. It helps us recharge and keep from burning out – or running head-long into a brick wall.

Can you tell what I’m working up to? This week, I started getting a cold, something that happens to me when I’m entering burn out-mode. It was my cue that if I didn’t slow down from my break-neck pace, I would crash soon.

I go through cycles of taking on so much that I drive myself and others around me crazy. Then I regroup and work at a slower pace for a while before ramping up again. One time years ago, I had so many things on my plate that I worked my body into stress-induced acid reflux disease. I took a pill for a while, but I didn’t want to live like that. Something had to go.

Usually, I find a rhythm, a happy place. But adding first one and then a second child complicated things. I don’t work full-time outside the home any more, but that doesn’t make me any less busy. In fact, I think that many stay-at-home parents would agree that we tend to get dumped on because full-time workers assume that we have all this unused time on our hands. I wish that were true.

I have gotten better, though. Several times recently, I’ve said “no” when I might have given a “yes” without a second thought – like turning down several volunteer opportunities. It’s a hard thing to do when people who know I’m dependable ask me to do something. The last one I turned down – and it was a biggie – was met with: “I had to give you the chance to say no. But I think you’re making the right decision.” This person knows how busy I am and gave me a gift – the honor of offering a position with lots of responsibility, yet understanding from a fellow parent who also had two young kids once upon a time.

It’s really hard to say no to work, though. My husband and I both have this problem. We’re penny-pinchers, and if we turn down paying work, we feel guilty. That could be an extra car payment, money for a future vacation, or savings for our emergency fund.

I recently received a query regarding proofreading. I can proofread in my sleep; it’s my favorite kind of work. It was a good-size project, too. The only problem was that I was getting ready to launch a client’s website (see last week’s post) and knew that I needed to devote all my work time to that project. I didn’t turn down the potential client, but I was honest about how long it would take me to complete the job – a week longer than usual. My turnaround wasn’t quick enough, and the client took the work elsewhere.

I missed out on a nice paycheck, but if I’d taken on that project, I would have missed out on more time with my family. My elder son is already used to me taking a couple good chunks of time out for work every day, and I didn’t want to sacrifice any more of my time with him just to get ahead on the budget. If our electricity were at stake, sure, I would have. But it wasn’t. I stuck to my work-at-home covenant as best I could.

But it also sometimes means a sacrifice on my kids’ part. This is where I feel most guilty. Vacation Bible school was coming up, and this is one volunteer job for which I will always rearrange my schedule. It was a full week right on top of two big projects, a weekend full of birthday parties, a grand opening for a bookstore where my children’s book Hero is being sold, and all the usual mom stuff. Then Peter got an invitation for a play date.

“Just email me,” the mom said. I’m glad she gave me that option instead of asking for an answer on the spot. I knew Peter would have fun, but the timing was all wrong. It was a swimming play date, and I would have my toddler with me (always a challenge). It turned out that it was also my ten-year wedding anniversary. Whoops. I sent a quick email turning down the offer, and I’m glad I did. It was a busy day, and even though I know we could have squeezed the play date in, I saved myself a lot of stress. And when Mama’s not stressed, everyone’s a lot happier.

So how do you know when enough is enough? How can you achieve that perfect pace?

Well, if you’re writing, start by avoiding passive voice and past perfect tense.

Unfortunately, real life is not quite as easy. But I will say this: if you say yes because you’re worried that someone will think you’re lazy or a bad parent or will judge you in any way, you’re likely saying yes for the wrong reason.

And if it’s going to cause unwanted stress (like signing your kid up for yet another sport because all his friends are doing it – or taking a job that will make you hell to live with for a week or two), you need to give it some serious thought first.

Now does this mean that my summer is going to be full of relaxation and stress-free days? Not hardly. I’m still plenty busy. And quite honestly, I like it that way. But I’m going to make sure I enjoy my kids and live at a pace that the whole family can manage. I’m picking up two new projects to replace the ones I’ve just wrapped up, but the people I’m working with know that we’re making long-term plans with no firm deadlines. There’s even the chance we’ll still like each other when all is said and done. winky emoticon