Thursday, September 6, 2018

Coming to terms with stillness

Photo courtesy of siamesepuppy/Flickr

Baby Girl loves to be held.

All the time. 

Mostly by me.

The best is when she nuzzles her head on my neck. Her warm, goose down hair against the soft spot just under my jaw bone. That's serenity.

Jovie, also, loves rubbing her cheek against her sister's head. She and her friend have both told me they wish they could use Annie as a blanket. To which I tell them, "Sure, a blanket made of infant hair isn't creepy at all." (Note: it's totally creepy).

I love holding her. I really do. 

But/and sometimes I also like to not hold her.

I feel a little guilty even typing that. Because I've wanted Baby Girl for so long. And I know all too well how quickly babyhood passes. 

I also feel ineffective a lot of days. Because there's only so much you can do in the minutes or hours between nursing, burping, diaper changing, soothing and holding. 



With my arms almost perpetually occupied, all the doing I want to do is sitting idle my brain. Which is unfortunate, because my brain is subsisting on two-or-three-hour stretches of sleep each night punctuated by hours of the aforementioned nursing, burping, changing, etc. 

There's nothing revelatory here. Life with a newborn is paradoxical cycle of torturous sleep deprivation and utter bliss. 

It's just that I've found my brain overstuffed with thoughts and plans. And I find myself staring longingly at the dining room chairs I want to refinish and at my laptop or my journal or any random piece of paper I could dump my thoughts on to.

Apparently, this is what happens when life becomes a little mundane (or in my case, repetitive). 

According to digital podcaster Manoush Zomorodi, who became interested in the idea of boredom after giving birth to her son 11 years ago, your brain goes into what's known as "default mode" while completing low-level tasks like the ones I've been tackling over the past six weeks. 

"I learned that in the default mode is when we connect disparate ideas,we solve some of our most nagging problems, and we do something called 'autobiographical planning.' This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them," Zomorodi shares in her TED Talk.

These days I'm kind of in "autobiographical planning" mode. Sort of. The sleep deprivation has made it tricker to take stock of my life in a meaningful, productive way. It's kind of like I start the process of connecting disparate ideas and I feel some of that creative magic taking place and then my brain sort of sputters like a lawnmower that's run out of gas. 

While I can't seem to complete a meaningful thought, I've tried to hold onto some of the passing ideas my brain has snagged on. 

Like the dangers of doubt.  

While I was listening to "This American Life" a few weeks ago, I learned that there was a scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace who in the mid 1800s spent almost a decade in Malaysia capturing animal specimens and shipping them to England. In the midst of a Malarian fever, he worked out evolution through natural selection- completely independent from Charles Darwin. He wrote a paper about it and mailed it to Darwin- who'd also concurrently -though more famously- landed on the notion of natural selection and evolution. 

"Darwin had figured it out, too, at that point, but he had been too scared to put it out there," host Sean Cole says.

This line yelled at me. Because of the power of doubt. How it shapes history. How some guy named Alfred Russel Wallace could've been a household name instead of just some obscure British scientist who was overshadowed by a guy and his finches. 

I got to thinking of all the times I've doubted myself. All of the things I could've done that have been hampered by the fear of being wrong or seeming crazy. I mean, let's be honest, it's not as if I've figured out the unified theory of everything and am questioning whether to publish some 80-page long complex equation about it. But, whatever. There's been plenty of thoughts or actions related to life at large and my life specifically that I haven't shared or taken action on because doubt. Fear. 

How much of my life have I hampered or anchored because of doubt? 

I think I've always been committed to my doubt. It's really laid the groundwork for me to sell myself short and prevented me on following through on some life goals. Hell, it's stopped me from making clear life goals to begin with. 

Sometimes I think I call doubt another name. Sometimes it's indecisiveness. When I'm being extra lenient with myself, it's open-mindedness. Flexibility. Being laid back. Going with the flow. 

Mostly, I go with other people's flows so I don't have to figure out my own. 

After I spent some time thinking about doubt, I moved on to the blurry line between reality and illusion. In print, that last part looks kind of like the pretentious pot thoughts of a college student after a semester of Intro. to Philosophy.

Don't worry, I'm not going all that deep here.

What happened was, I was making a birthday cake for Lily and listening to this TED Radio Hour episode on the Five Senses.

One segment featured this guy Isaac Lidsky (he played some obscure character on "Saved by the Bell." As a teenager, Lidsky was diagnosed with a genetic disorder that caused a progressive die off of his retinal cells. By the time he was 25, he was blind.

He says when he was first diagnosed at 13, he knew blindness was going to ruin his life. He was convinced of it. 

But that's not what happened. Lidsky graduated from Harvard, got a law degree, worked for a couple of Supreme Court justices and launched a successful business. 

As it turns out, the story he told himself at 13 wasn't actually the story of his life. I love a story about the stories we tell ourselves. 

Lidsky shares about the transition from sight to blindness. How his vision "became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions."

He continues:

"I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain. Let me explain with a bit of amateur neuroscience. Your visual cortex takes up about 30 percent of your brain, that's compared to approximately 8 percent for touch, and 2 to 3 percent for hearing. Sight is one-third of your brain by volume, and can claim about two-thirds of your brain's processing resources. It's no surprise then that the illusion of sight is so compelling. Well, make no mistake about it, sight is an illusion. A hill appears steeper if you've just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you're wearing a heavy backpack. You create your own reality, and you believe it. I believed mine until it broke apart." 

There are other factors shaping our reality, too, he says. Like fear for one (you could probably throw in doubt, too). He says that he was convinced his life was ruined right up until he started talking about practical solutions for his blindness with an occupational therapist. He realized that his blindness wasn't an "amorphous bogeyman" His blindness was just a series of practical problems that needed solutions.

"You know, I knew blindness was going to ruin my life, but that was a reality that I was choosing, that my mind had created for me, and I was choosing to believe. And I decided to make another choice."

Just like that. Just make another choice. Choose to tell yourself a different story. 

I loved this part, too: 

"There's a lot more going on in the world around us than light striking the photoreceptor cells of our retinas, but we are built to certainly devote, you know, an inordinate share of our attention to that light... At the end of the day, our photoreceptor cells respond to about one-ten-trillionth of the spectrum of light in the world around us. And from that one-ten-trillionth of light flying around, our brains concoct this scenario that implicates our memories, our opinions, our emotions, our experiences, sort of conceptually how we understand that world."

Did you get that? We're writing the stories we tell ourselves based (in part) on just one-ten-trillionth of the spectrum of light in the world. 

So maybe we shouldn't be so convinced that the stories we're writing about who we are and what we're about are true. Furthermore (she writes waving a pointed finger in the air), we probably shouldn't be so convinced that the stories we write about other people are true. 

As someone who is perpetually paranoid that I'm angering, disappointing, confusing and/or annoying the people in her life, the fact that I'm basing so much of my perceived reality on so little information is useful. It means that not only should I be dubious about the reality I've concocted for myself, but also dubious of the realities I've concocted on behalf of others. I just don't have enough information. So why assume the worst? Why assume anything? 

The last stop on my little mental walkabout: Stillness.

A praying mantis landed on our back door recently. It reminded me of something my sister Sarah told me not long ago- that praying mantises are reminders of the value of stillness and patience. I stared at this praying mantis sitting on the glass door with the serenity of a monk. She regarded me and I regarded her. Be still, be still, she told me. (At least in my version of reality which as we just learned, is probably just an illusion. I'm just going to go with it anyway.)

These days I am still much more than I'm comfortable with. When a small being wants to be held and every couple hours cries for the food stored only in my body, well, there's a lot of sitting. 

I have to make peace with all this sitting. I've always placed so much of my worth on how hard I work. The tasks I accomplish. The floors that have been washed. The loads of laundry that have been cleaned and folded. The number of articles I've completed for a client. The hours I've spent not sitting doing nothing. 

As I'm scrolling through Facebook in the wee hours of the morning and the non-wee hours of the morning, afternoon and night, it's hard not to be overwhelmed. It's all those videos from Better Homes and Garden and HGTV and the Food Network. All of them offering ideas for dishes and projects I could make. Things I should be making from scratch. Each seemingly more elaborate and more time consuming than the last. I mean, is it necessary for me to craft a wreath out of recycled denim? Do I really need to add removable wallpaper to the sides of the drawers in my kitchen? Should I take the time to repurpose an old file cabinet into storage for garden tools?

There's a suggestion however subtle or unintended, that I do more. That I'm supposed to be this renaissance woman capable of fashioning adorable and practical home decor ala MacGyver; baking homemade strawberry poke cakes; pickling heirloom, organic produce; and staying on top of the latest news to be outraged about; all while raising kids who experience the just-right blend of helicoptering and free ranging. 

We've built an entire society worker bees. Convinced that our value can only be measured in all that we do. I know (I know!) believing this is a fallacy. What I value in other people isn't their ability to get to inbox zero or how high they've climbed a corporate ladder or whether their closets are Martha Stewart approved or their children's birthday parties are Pinterest worthy. 

My favorite people are inevitably the ones who bring me to stillness- who know the value of a cup of coffee and good conversation. People who pursue creativity in whatever form that takes for them- whether its writing, painting, woodworking or cake decorating- and inspire me to do the same. People who can find as much beauty in the dew covering their front lawn as they do in adventures to exotic locales.

We're being taught to cast a wide net to haul in our best lives, picking through the catch for the choicest bits. But lately I feel overwhelmed by that. All the piles of things. All the stuff we amass that takes up space either physically or mentally. 

I don't know that I have the energy to pull that overloaded net back in.

So I go back to stillness. Because Baby Girl forces me to be still and because maybe it's in stillness that I'll find more peace in this reality I'm in. 

Maybe the answer to the calm I'm seeking isn't an ever growing net, but a single fishing line cast out into the water and me standing on shore waiting patiently. Writing a better story for myself all the while. 

It's not as if I have a choice in the matter these days.

Because Baby Girl Loves to be held. 

And maybe holding her is all the doing I need to do right now.