Saturday, May 25, 2013


I’m sitting here listening to Arcade Fire on my computer. It’s Friday early evening, bright and cold and windy, a very unusual May 24. Tomorrow is full moon, a seriously important day for buddhists, for it’s the day Buddha’s birthday is celebrated all over the Buddhist world.

I’ve been thinking about context and how it affects our perceptions and reactions. I’ve also been marvelling at how it seems possible for me (and I presume this happens to others) to make a problem, or find a problem, however well things are going. Let’s start with that.

 I am just finished with some tight and pressing deadlines and am now in the clear, able to get started on dreaming about and working at my next book project and other ambitions too, from the garden to sketching to seeing neglected friends.

You’d think it would make me feel light and free and very happy. And yes, I felt that way right as soon as the time pressures were over. But then I fell into worrying about what I should do each day. I no longer have the coercion of tight deadlines to keep me moving steadily and methodically from one task to the next. That was survival mode and it worked well.

Now I find myself trying to optimise, because I have the luxury of choice. But it means that I hesitate and get fussed about what I should do first, or whether I should go for a run or do a household errand now and work later or vice versa, and on and on. It’s not very interesting at all. And I’m sorry if this description is tedious. It just seems important to raise this. Is it human nature at work here?

I assume the answer is that I need to impose a structure on myself that resembles the coercive deadline-situation structure. My efforts at optimising are just a way of insisting on exercising moment-to-moment choice. If I could settle into the harness of a structure, it would simplify a lot. And then I wouldn’t be fussing and anxious about my moment to moment decisions.

On the other hand, the unplanned moments of the day, the unfilled spaces, are the fruitful ones, often. They mean there’s room/time to talk to a friend who has a problem, or to daydream my way into a new story idea or a fresh way of seeing a familiar problem. That’s part of my rationale for improvising my schedule through the day.

Another more disciplined way of working would be to cram or jam the work obligations etc into one pre-determined part of the day, a defined chunk of time, thus leaving the ret clear for these other more fluid and open-ended possibilities. I confess that I have never managed, for more than a couple of days at a stretch, to impose “artificial” constraints in that way. I am task driven, rather than structure- or discipline- or rule-driven.

That being the case I need to just chill a little on this pressure to optimise, to forgive myself when the day feels unproductive, and to not have the heightened amped up expectation that every day will be a knock-out.
Is this what growing up is supposed to teach us?

I guess I am stuck in an “optimistic child” mode, where each day or week or month feels full of rich possibility, with elastic time into which can be crammed all sorts of delights. And that’s fine, as long as I don’t get tied up in knots trying to optimise all the time. Rather than focussing on what I don’t get done, I need to move from task to task, without second-guessing myself.

I aked a friend in the market about how he works his way through his days. He’s got some have-to-dos at the start of the day, but then he moves into a mode where he just does whatever chore or task presents itself next, a kind of fluid flow. He doesn’t worry about the decisions, the order in which he does things. And my issue of trying to optimise was a foreign idea to him.

He’s a model to emulate, for sure, in his easy matter-of-fact “enjoy the day as it unfolds” attitude. And he sure is productive, whle making it look effortless.

The other idea I wanted to think about in this post is how context affects perception. It’s a truism, sure, but worth remembering. I started reflecting about it a couple of days ago when the weather suddenly turned extremely cold. In a coat and sweater and scarf and socks and shoes, warm pants too, I still felt assaulted by the cold and wind as I walked outside. I realised that this reaction was just like the one described by winter-hating friends who have never become used to the cold. And yet, if it had been January and the weather had been just the same, I’d have found it balmy, pleasant, a wonderful treat.

This is not about my emotional or intellectual reaction to the cold (though I have to admit that wearing layers of wool on May 24 feels all wrong!). It’s that my body was in another mode, summer mode, and as a result every chilly gust of wind inflicted a kind of pain. In winter we tighten up and brace against the cold, so as not to feel its assault. Without that kind of self-sheilding, we’re vulnerable to it.

And so context is everything. It’s not just about whether the temperature feels cold for this time of year as opposed to January. It’s also about expectations, both emotional and physical. So much of our reactions, physical, emotional, social, is determined by our expectations. Of course this leads me to wander into that whole other realm to do with expectations, which is how we manage ourselves when we have disappointed expectations, because a person or a situation fails to come up our expectations of it.

But that’s for another day…

One thing the hit of cold has done is remind us all what a blessing warmth and sunshine are. And here in Toronto, as I finish this post on Saturday afternoon, the sunshine is beckoning, enticing me outside to beathe in its generosity.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi, I am a big fan of your work. I am from Manila. I am in my 40s and to say that weather is the pits, its because I remember gentler summers when I was growing up. Now it's intense and unforgiving. I commend people who can stay outdoors in immense heat and humidity. To say that what I can do within the day is highly influenced by how hot it is outside.

We are starting to get rains now, so it offers a short respite. But for most of the day, its pretty humid.

If the worst is over for Manila heat, I don't want to think what next year is gonna be like, 38 degrees?

Hope your summer in Toronto is kinder.