Monday, December 23, 2019

Solstice Goals

On midwinter, I went and watched the sunset over the water, and as the longest night began, I considered the road ahead and my own moment of rebirth and renewal.

As much as I've never really done resolutions, and I'm not a particularly big fan of this time of year, I have found a lot of comfort in creating a little solstice ritual that involves a bit of a mental and emotional inventory and the setting of new goals to start the new year. I was going to just post the goals themselves on Facebook in a cross between accountability and telling my friends what I'm up to, but it ran a little long for FB, fit a little TOO well under "navel gazing," and it seems to me that sometimes the posts I think are almost gratuitously personal and uninteresting to almost everyone turn out to be some of my most popular. So I figured....what the hell. Let's make a post of it. 

As a disclaimer, both these goals and this ritual are intensely personal. I don't think everyone "ought" to do any of them. I don't think they have moral value. I don't think they bring me any closer to humanity's true nature. At the most, I think they involve listening closely to myself and trying to move closer to what would make me happy.

Woo and the Skeptic Writer

I keep most of my metaphysical thoughts pretty close to my chest. Once in a while a peep buys me lunch (or just kisses me so often that I have a big soft spot for them) and if they're curious, I'll spill it. Suffice to say that if they don't know what unmanifest Brahman or Taoist metaphysics are, we probably end up talking about Babylon 5 and Star Wars more than anything.

The important part to understand why I'm running around on solstice with a charm necklace and trying to both bend and be bent by "the will of the universe" or some shit, is this: I don't capital-B "Believe" in very much (outside of widely agreed upon cross-cultural empirical human experience). I don't waste time making sure everyone knows I DON'T believe either. But with most extraordinary claims, I consider the verdict to be out until/unless more extraordinary evidence is presented.

Perhaps as a writer who finds language to be just so amusingly elastic, or perhaps as just a skeptic who found one too many atheists insufferable to be willing to count myself among them, one thing I've seen evidence of time and again is the focal power of symbols and metaphor, the reorienting strength of ritual, and the ability of the mind to shape reality. I know that sounds pretty woo, but all you have to do is change the language, if you want to tuck your resident atheist into bed without giving them nightmares. The Placebo Effect is a real, measured phenomenon of the mind affecting the body. Our "Rorschach Inkblot" interpretations of random patterns around us provide personal psychological insight into ways of thinking we might not even be consciously aware of. Our ability to focus on an idea can be enhanced with a physical object that jogs our sensory experience with tactile and visual reminders or by repetitively doing something that reminds us. You can talk about meditation reducing cortisol inflammation and anxiety without ever getting into balancing your energies.

So that's what's going on. If you're one type of person, I tell you that I'm going to clear my head and mindfully focus on some symbols while I enter a non-drug-induced altered state of consciousness through mindful breathing. If you're another type of person, I tell you I'm going to take my fetishes up to a place of power to do some solstice magic.

Of course, to a third type I say only, "Blasphemy. Pure unadulterated, Claude-Frollo-sentences-you-to-be-lashed-in-the-public-square-for-heresy blasphemy."

Now, When I Say Goals....

Some people are taskmasters with their goals. They are going to quit this. Learn those. Lose that. This is the day their life changes, by God. I think that's one of the reasons I'd rather leave "resolutions" to other people and find a day a little more personally meaningful for me than one where I'm mostly watching everyone nursing hangovers and being appalled that the brunch place isn't open until 2pm. Most folks want their goals to hurt because it's time to live life differently and if they have to wear leather with spikes and yell German at themselves, they're going to make it happen.

It's not that kind of movie, kid.

I mean, I could do that. I certainly have in the past. I am nothing if not overdo-it capable. But I find the Venn diagram between people who set taskmastery goals and people who are back to their old ways by Jan 8th is aaaaaaaaaalmost a perfect circle.

For me, solstice goals more like deliberately fiddling with the knobs. I may have a goal to get something done but I'm not going to stand over myself with a riding crop. (I let other people do that....erm perhaps another time.) These goals are not supposed to alter my entire lifestyle or be hard to keep up with. Often they're things I want to do––those little inner voices all year long that say, "You should do more of this," or "You should do less of that." Last year I set goals to work on my novel and hike (both things I really want to do), but also just to see more movies and stop working so many double- and triple-booked side gigs.

I feel like most resolutions––certainly of the New Year variety––are people slamming themselves into a wall in hopes that they hit it hard enough to break through like they're fucking Bugs Bunny or something. They hope to leave a little them-shaped hole in all those obstacles. And usually they end up smashing themselves more than anything. For me, solstice goals are more like redirecting the force of what's already there to something a bit more aligned with my objectives and values.

And Up I Went

It's a two-mile walk to the reservoir and then a ten-minute hike up the hill to get to the water. Then it's about another quarter of a mile to get away from the cement dam, and find a dock with an empty bench or picnic table. I sat down with a touch over an hour before sunset; faced out across the water; watched the sunset, the clouds scudding across the sky, the shifting pinks and purples; the ripples from the wind on the surface of the water that (from a distance) looked like a chaotic teeming mass of worms, listened to the birds talk about how bad they want to get laid, and began to breathe very, very slowly.

This is the actual place.
It's not a Dawson's Creek
But if you want to sing some Paula Cole, it would   
probably be appropriate.
Perhaps most importantly, I listened to me. It's funny how seldom I do that. I spend all day with me and my internal monologue and my various voices, and this brain that tries to synthesize every experience immediately into language, but being so still and quiet that I can actually hear ME is sometimes a conscious effort.

I sat and thought about the past year and the one coming up. I thought about the therapy I concluded eight months ago and if I was keeping up with the strategies I'd learned, and where my defenses were weakening. I thought about what I want my life to look like––not pipe dreams but actual hopes. This time next year. In five years.

I talked to some things that arguably weren't there (but it was the talking that mattered). Only the birds answered me, but I understood.

I thought about where my time and energy have gone and places where those things do not align with my values and objectives. I thought about what would make me happy.

I thought about some things I have not the heart to tell you.

And when the long night grew too deep and cold, I made my way up the trail by cell phone light and began the two-mile walk home.


Last year I set four goals (write book, more movies, hiking, and fewer hours working), which I did reasonably well at hitting given the circumstances. My least successful was the book because even though I worked fewer hours, I still had a bit too many. This year I had a lot of little tweaks I wanted to make, but I didn't just want some arm-length laundry list of rando goals, so I spent a lot of time going through them and deciding if they were important or just me wanting to do everything (which is not, like, outside the realm of how I sometimes handle things). It LOOKS like a lot more than it is, but it's really a new four goals with a few specifically-articulated components each.

  • Work hours 
  • Prioritize Book
  • Reading More Fiction
  • Side Projects

The linchpin of my writing goals is getting more time to write. This last six months I had 20 hours a week on paper, but 30-35 hours most actual weeks. While it was great for my wallet, I had a hard time keeping up with any writing goals. I have pulled the trigger on lowering my availability to my clients starting in January. I handed them my ideal schedule (12 hours) and my maximum availability (18 hours). My savings account is going to take a hit, but I would rather have the writing time.

My novel has to take a high priority this year. Acknowledging that I have severe ADD, I must make a tweak. I will always expand to fill up as much time as I give myself for this blog. After seven years I must admit this and redirect force instead of trying to meet it head on with willpower. While on occasion, there isn't enough time, there is never too much. There is only just enough. Because my brain doesn't work very well until the screws start turning. So if I have six hours to write a post, it gets done at 5:55. If I have EIGHT hours to write the exact same post, it gets done at 7:55.

This is the way.

So starting now, I do my novel first. I have to, or I will never get to it. The end of the day will always be getting something in right under deadline and I have not managed to rewire my brain to finish blogging with an hour or so to spare. The fiction must come first. I'll probably start with a page a day and see how that feels. The important thing is that writing happens first.

Like many people, I found my ability to read fiction was severely impaired after the 2016 election. I just could not get into it. And I have probably read something like ten books a year since then. (That is like....almost a tenth of my usual rate.) I still read voraciously, but mostly non-fiction articles, think pieces, news, and such. I still ENJOY reading fiction when I tie myself to the mast and ignore Facebook's siren call. So I'm going to start slow––one book a week––and if I'm not quite up to that, I'll readjust, but just thinking about it as a low-key obligation might help crowbar me off of screen time. 

I began several side projects over the summer, all of which had to be put on the back burner when the true impact of watching the baby became apparent. I want to begin pursuing them in earnest. Writing About Writing merchandise (complete with a snazzy new logo) will probably start showing up in a couple of months. There is also a compilation ebook of a couple dozen earlier articles in the works that will go on sale for just a dollar or two. (They'll always be free here. It's just if you want them all in one easy place.) It's time to renew giving all these things a little bit of time each week.

  • Hiking/Walking (25 miles/week)
  • Tai Chi (Once a week)
  • More Water
Last year I had a wonderful time incorporating hiking into my life. It's a thing I enjoy, so it wasn't a burdensome obligation to go find a trail. I even hiked up a mountain in the summer. I'd like to do some more ambitious hikes this year if I can get in shape for them, and to that end I want to try to hit 25 miles a week if it's not raining. That is pretty close to what I'm doing now, but it will encourage me to get out and take a shorter walk most days, so I'm not trekking down to San Jose on Sunday to try to do it all last minute.

In college I took Tai Chi to fulfil a physical education requirement, and that chuffed my Maguffs. My ADD brain is not good with the sit-still brand of meditation ("Oh good luck with THAT!" my brain says), but the kinds that involve repetitive moving are really quite wonderful. (I think that's half the appeal of hiking.) The YMCA that I was given a membership to––so I could take the kids I nanny swimming––has a Tai Chi class late in the morning. I'll have to be a little more deliberate about my writing time, but that's usually not a bad thing.

When I got out of my last relationship, I didn't pay much attention to what I was eating or drinking. I was in survival mode. So I just drank however many Diet Pepsis and didn't think too much about it. Last year I started to phase out regular sweetened soda (except as a rare treat), and this year I want to extend that to the diet stuff and start carrying around a water bottle and just being better about drinking more water. I'm not thinking cutting it out completely or anything. Just bringing it down to one or two a day at most. I don't know how to parse through the studies about phenylalanine (beyond to people with PKU, which I don't have) or gut flora being trashed by "fake sugar." My doctor says it's probably mostly okay but that water would definitely be better. 

  • Less "dribble"
  • More fun––Netflix and video games
  • Cooking
  • Photography
  • Keeping up with calendar
  • Pare down
My online life is an amazing balancing act. I'm not amazing AT it, understand, but if I didn't spend most of my time flat on my face, the act itself would be impressive. I can't walk away from "online" because that's where I promote my work and most of the reason I get paid. (I also wouldn't want to because that's where 95% of my social interactions are.) Any effort to reduce online time usually lasts only a couple of days. And yet I am often "stuck," refreshing Facebook or reading ONE MORE article. And while I am comfortable with my political and ethical convictions, I know that my biases are being stoked to make me angry all the time by algorithms that monetize my anger. 

What I want is for my life to be more deliberate. So much springs forth from that. From more writing time to reading to potentially taking up an instrument (below). But when I'm stuck online, I feel like I'm dribbling. I'm not really working. I'm not really playing. I'm not really enjoying myself. I'm just there scratching that itch, sometimes on bad brain days for HOURS. I don't know how much it will work to just think about this and commit to "not getting stuck as often," but if that doesn't work, I can install some Facebook monitor apps or something. Sometimes just being aware of something helps. But also....

To that end I want to "play hard." Or at least harder. Instead of four hours doing nothing on Facebook, I want to close the window and do the things I want to do––that I LIKE doing. Watching Netflix. Playing video games. Reading (above). I have so many games I'm itching to play and so many shows I'd like to see. I'm going to start putting PLAY time in my daily schedule to help encourage me to spend more time away from FB. Maybe I can't do it by just willpower and have never had much luck from simply saying, "Must.....not.....Facebook!" However, it's very likely that working WITH my brain, I can find success in saying, "Oh that's my 4pm alarm. It's Fallout o'clock!"

I bought a meal kit from Amazon on a whim this year––just to try to get more vegetables into my diet, really. I really enjoyed making it. So I bought another. Then another. Suddenly I'm going through two or three a week and loving the shit out of cooking. I never knew how much pleasure and comfort it would bring me (especially feeding peeps). So what I really want to do is try to find some recipes for those kits I've really liked, start buying those ingredients, and learn to make those recipes from scratch. I'll start with one and then keep going. I'd like to try to cook one meal from scratch at least once a week, but it'll probably start with once every two.

Similarly I recently got a camera. (Like a real one, not just the cell phone type. An older model as a "starter," but no slouch.) I have gotten to play with it a bit, and it makes me really happy to try to find the shot (even if I'm no good), but I really want to sit and read the instructions, learn what it does, find a cable so I can upload them to my computer, take LOTS more pictures and kind of go all in on this. If it turns out to be one of those things that kind of fades in time, I'll let it go without trying to hardass myself about it, but if I continue to dig it, I'd like to be knowledgeable enough by the time I buy a "Yes, I'm really serious about this" camera to know what I want.

My 2019 day calendar was perhaps my most important tool in keeping myself from feeling too much like I was spinning out of control. Therapy was great, and one of the enduring lessons I took from it was to do what kept me feeling in control before I felt OUT of control. When I kept up with all the little aspects of my day calendar (scheduled posts, planned writing, budget, adulting), I knew how much money I could spend and be okay. I knew what blog posts were going up and when. And I knew when I was going to take care of that thing. When I let it slide, some of those things made me anxious. ("Someone canceled a $5 Patron. How will I afford food this month?") Having a thing I can look at that basically says "That fear is unfounded. Chillax!" helps profoundly.

I went through a breakup a few years back. It was an adult relationship, and I had a lifetime worth of stuff that I then had to move into a single room. It's a BIG room, but it's still just a room. And there are days I feel a little bit like I'm in a clown car with my stuff. It gets messy so quickly, and there are spots that just kind of become staging areas for junk. The fires this year made me think about how much I wouldn't take if I had to up and leave, and what I really want and need. I'd like to start getting rid of something every day––something that I don't want or need. Even if it's just one T-shirt that doesn't fit anymore or textbook that I'm kidding myself I'm ever going to read again. Just ONE thing each day.

I will have to keep ruminating on the possibility of getting rid of my bed. I love this bed, but it is a king, and it takes up SO much room. 

  • Sleep
  • Learning Shit
  • Keyboard(?)
Sleep could really go under physical, emotional or mental, so I just picked the one with the least other entries. I've been doing so much better this year about getting good and proper sleep. No more sleepwalking. No more diagnoses of exhaustion and orders to bed. No more dire warnings that I'm slowly killing myself. However, that balance is still very up and down. I make sure that I get naps or sleep in when I have a sleep debt, but I want to start being better about just getting the right amount of sleep every night. The easier schedule means I get to sleep in, so the most important thing I can do at night is to stop doing things that DON'T END after about 11pm. (Online stuff and video games.)  If I'm watching a show, the show will end and I can look at the clock. If I'm reading in bed, I'll probably fall asleep right away. But video games or Facebook are too stimulating and don't have an END, so I can look up and realize it's three or four. I'll set a few alarms for 11pm. 

There are a few of things I really want to learn. I don't necessarily know that they will bring me joy and count as self-care (why this is mental and not emotional), but I have wanted to learn them for a while. When I was fresh out of college Spanish, I could keep up with most simple TV shows, but these days I miss a lot of what is said. I know I need to keep studying and practicing if I don't want to forget, and particularly if I want to get better.

The other two things are a little more rarified skills. I keep a chain around my neck with a LOT of charms, and I bought a jewelry kit, but there sure are a lot of little rings and wires that I have no idea what the fuck they even are, never mind how to use them. I don't need to be a master jeweler or anything, but being able to make a jump ring or keep one charm from clacking too much against another with some spacers would be a useful skill.  

The other thing? I want to learn to tie knots. And not for Boy Scouts, you feel me. I have a book. I have some nylon rope. But I need to sit down with some YouTube videos and my book and practice. 

The trick is going to be not doing too much at once and also not perpetually procrastinating these as things I'll do eventually. None of these is like a "One hour a day of rigorous study and three hours a week practicum...." When I have a good feeling for how my schedule is shaping up, I'll fold some modest time in.

I have this keyboard that I bought like ten years ago and all these good intentions to practice piano. I've even had time once or twice, but there is really NO place to put this thing right now. There IS a space that it would fit. I would have to set it up and break it down after each use, but that wouldn't be super tough. (The bookshelf I could lean it on is right there and I don't often need access to the books.) I'm not going to commit to this yet because there's a lot of other stuff going on and I don't want to overdo it, but as the year matures (perhaps at the equinox), I would like to come back to this. Musical practice has always helped me think more clearly and be more emotionally centered when I've done it regularly. Plus I just fucking love music and creating it is the bees knees.

I will take inventory of my progress at the summer solstice and on the equinoxes and probably find I'm doing well with some things and need to be more deliberate about others. And the world will keep hurtling around the sun. The days will shorten again, and this year will come to a close and I will again think of where my life is, where I want it to be, and how I can get there. But for now, the longest night is over, and our hearts and our ambitions begin to unfurl again. 

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