Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Photo by Tiago B on Unsplash

Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Ibiza Noir on Kindle

My novel Ibiza Noir is now available on Kindle.

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Amazon.com: http://amzn.to/2CRdv1q or on Amazon.co.ukhttp://amzn.to/2FbRQP4

Sex, drugs, greed and loneliness draw three strangers into a perilous alliance beneath the pulsing strobe lights of an Ibiza nightclub. Lou, Sally and Calum are thrown together as their private sorrows and deep longings pull them into the chaotic hedonism of the world’s most famous party island. Their lives entwine in the white heat of summer as they chase increasingly elusive dreams. Lou craves a home and falls in love with Sally’s boss, Vivienne, the duplicitous coke-addicted owner of Moulin Noir nightclub. Sally will do anything for money and freedom, and watches in horror as Vivienne runs Noir to ruin. Disenchanted journalist Calum wades into the maelstrom in search of a career-making story, but finds himself falling for Sally’s brittle beauty. When a terrible event occurs they each have to decide what to rescue, what to leave, and who they want to be.

To be continued…

 

This is what the Odyssey means

As we bid farewell to 2017 I’d like to share a favourite poem: ‘Trouble’ by Jack Gilbert,  and some snapshots.

Trouble | Jack Gilbert

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

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Unexpected

Saturday, 19 December 2015, I plotted a route around Portland’s used book stores. In the back of my sister’s red Wrangler, a box of Oregon Wine Pioneers. In the seat beside me, a show-copy, its gloss paper cover softened with wear. I hoped to sell a few copies, or inspire a few orders.IMG_20161225_115917

On my phone, a string of Tinder messages from some guy who spent Friday evening trying to cajole me out of the house to the some downtown bar. “The feet are up,” I had replied, by way of refusal. He seemed nice, though, so I agreed to meet him in Old Town at 6PM on Saturday.

The day started out sunny. I navigated between bookshops using Google maps print-outs since my phone didn’t have roaming. Clouds gathered in the afternoon. By the time I got lost on my way to my last destination, a wine distributor’s office in north east, it was raining and prematurely dark.

Driving back to the west side, I thought about heading straight home. I could message my excuses from there. Throwing in the towel by 6PM was lame, even for me. Anyway, this guy, Chris, said he had to be at work by eight. No danger of date creep.

We were meeting at the Roseland Theater, a few blocks from my mum’s apartment. I parked near her place, to have a clear line of retreat. The rain had stopped; the air was cold. On my way to the Roseland I passed a small, colourful Mexican dive.

At the theater, I stopped in bafflement. The building, the whole block, was six deep in teenage girls, a barricade of hormones and cheap perfume. How the hell was I supposed to find this guy? No point in checking my phone — no roaming.

After one full lap, I stopped and stared at the red-and-green lights twinkling high on an adjacent skyscraper. If he didn’t magically appear in the next few minutes, I’d call it a night. Almost as soon as the thought formed, someone walked toward me from the corner I just passed. Please don’t talk to me, I thought.

“Hi.”

One drink, to be polite, that’s all.

“Hi,” I replied.

*** IMG_20170228_102453

This morning Chris woke up at 4AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I dozed, intermittently aware of his restlessness.

I am tempted to say something florid like, I can’t sleep/live/breathe without him, but that would be untrue.

What I thought, as we yielded to wakefulness was, if you don’t have any expectations you won’t be disappointed. 

Anything is possible, even the absence of us. That is what makes this so precious.

I fell for him like rock tossed into a canyon (still falling). One drink, to be polite turned into three margaritas and a long kiss in the middle of that noisy Mexican dive. It turned into a relationship built on air miles: Ibiza, London, Rome, Brussels, New York, DC, Detroit, Denver, Salt Lake City, Milan, Vienna, Manchester, Glasgow.

We got married in Memphis. Adopted a cat, sold a car, moved to Spain.

All of it unexpected, none of it inevitable. Loving was a fact from the outset. What we did about it was a choice. Of all the things I learned, and am still learning, this is the most important. Life is full of surprises. What comes of them is down to us.

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Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White

Storytelling: Education

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 14: Education

Great stories do more than just entertain, they teach (in an entertaining way).

Case study: Raw Beet 

raw-beet-coverWhat it is:

Raw Beet is a cookbook covering four popular ways of eating: gluten free, raw, vegan and low glycemic-index (GI). Based around simple ingredients and straight-forward techniques, it educates people who want to learn more or adopt these nutrition options.

Why it matters:

Publishing a raw, vegan, gluten free or low-GI cookbook is like spooning water into the ocean. The market is glutted with books, most of which are celebrity-led, meaning the potential audience has to like the author. Raw Beet’s genius is pragmatism. Its angle is clean and sharp as a paring knife: Cut through the hype and moralising with clear, easy-to-prepare recipes.

Instead of preaching, it offers practical advice, including dietary descriptions, ingredient tips, and lists of food suppliers, for anyone who wants or needs to eat raw, gluten free, vegan or low-GI. Whether the goal is beating allergies, managing chronic illnesses, losing weight, or experimenting with new dishes, Raw Beet’s emphasis on education makes the process accessible and inclusive.

In their own words:

“With the help of our cooks and other contributors, we have tried to put together a collection of fairly simple recipes that can be served formally or informally, using ingredients that can be bought easily.”

Read more

Practice: “Flowery language can be effective in the right forum; however, overly embellished sentences do not belong in your informative [writing]. Keep your verbiage simple and straightforward, or your reader will pay too much attention to your overuse of adjectives and adverbs.” Angelique Caffrey via Explore Writing

Remember: “Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings.”
~Natalie Goldberg