Thursday, March 20, 2014


Here it is at last, the day we reach the spring equinox. Unlike time zones, this is one marker that the whole world transits at the same moment in some kind of “let’s all hold hands and…” way. Here in Toronto that moment will be just before one o’clock this afternoon.

We notice it’s spring, in Europe and North America, and we rejoice at the return of the light and the promise of fine weather. But we don’t have a big festival. I’m sure the Celts had druidic festivals, and other northern peoples must have too. After all, the timing of Christian Easter is reminder of our need for new life and the greening that spring brings.

In other parts of the world this is the start of the new year, a time for celebration. The festival Nou-Roz, also known in the west as Persian New Year, is a reminder of the deep inheritance that Zoroastrianism left in the Persian World, the region centred on present-day Iran but that includes neighbouring countries and peoples too. The religion arose around the same time as Buddhism, over 2500 years ago (an interesting sychronicity). It was the first monotheistic religion that we know of, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The sun and the natural world’s rhythms are embedded in the religion’s view of the battle between light and dark, good and evil. Thus the return of the sun, marking the end of cold winter, and the return of the light, is cause for celebration.

The peoples who are still marked by Zoroastrian practices and beliefs, even if most of them are now Christian or Muslim, are those from the region that extends from Iran and Azerbaijan into Iraqi Kurdistan, east to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and to Shia communities in Pakistan and India. (There are still Zoroastrians in Iran and area, and of course the Parsi community, that left Persia and settled in India long ago, follows the teachings of Zoroaster.) No-Roz festivities last abut two weeks. There is feasting, there are green herbs and vegetables and sprouted lentils and wheat as a symbol of new growth (and green is a privileged colour in Zoroastrian rites), picnics on the grass, and more.

This new year talk as I work on my Persian World book gets me examining some basics, a kind of mental spring cleaning you might say: What am I doing each day? How am I doing it? Could I do better? The answer to the last question is always “yes”. But that leads to the next question: “how?”.

I’ve come to think that one of the best things about this life of freelance work – the fact that I have a flexible schedule – is also one of the most onerous. It means that I have to take responsibility for deciding which jobs get done first, which tasks in the day, the week, the year, are most urgent or important. If there’s a mess-up, it’s my fault. And sometimes I spend too much effort hesitating about what to do next.

I am inclined to just move forward into the array of to-do’s, moving from one to the next (post another blogpiece here, return that call or reply to those emails, do more background reading for my book project, sort through photos to send some out, write that magazine article, test those recipes, tidy the office, do taxes…you get the idea).

But now we read that decision-making takes up more energy than most of us realise. Even decision-making about small things. Long ago I had a friend who decided to avoid decision-making about what to wear: all his socks were one colour, his shirts were white, and his pants were jeans. It took the pressure off and simplified his day. It turns out to have been a smart move, taking away one layer of decision-making, however superficial.

I’ve always enjoyed the feeling that I’m improvising things: the shape of my day, what I will wear, the shape of a trip… I don’t like to feel heavily planned. But that also means that I’ve been in flight from the predictable, the known-ahead, the set list of fixed tasks or obligations. It’ s a rather reactive way to live: rather than taking charge and deciding ahead what I will do in a day, I react to events, to feelings and impulses in myself, and bumble my way along. It can work very well sometimes, and is just fine most days. But with new research about the mental drain that decision-making causes, even the most superficial decision-making, I think it’s time I smartened up.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a list and just work through it? I do think so. And slowly I am learning to make a list the night before, as guidance for the next day or several days. (The evening is a good time, because it gives some distance; there’s no pressure to get started right away, just a relatively calm contemplation of the coming day or week). I find if I do that I waste less time (and mental energy, even more importantly) thinking about what to do next or worrying about what else I should get done on a given morning.

This may all be completely obvious to everyone else, but it’s taken me a long time to realise it. Some of us are slow!

CEO’s or high-level politicians usually have a long tightly scheduled list of activities and obligations each day. They don’t waste time figuring out what comes next; someone else, perhaps in consultation with them, and well ahead, has already done the work.

If I treat myself as a CEO, and each evening give myself the benefit of setting out the shape of the next day’s tasks and projects, then surely I too can have more energy for real and important decision-making, and for creative work too. It doesn’t have to be scheduled, let alone tightly scheduled, but an ordered list, with some idea of where the start-point is, is in the end very restful.

The other thing to schedule, of course, is enforced breaks from noodling around online. I’ve written about this before. And I am doing increasingly well at retreating from temptation, giving myself chunks of work time without online distraction. Margaret Atwood posted on Twitter the other day that she was retreating to her “burrow” I think was the word, to get work done. Clever woman! It is so important to have an image, if not an actual space, that conveys that sense of retreat from the distracting wonderful world. And that’s the word I like for the sense of withdrawal: “retreat”.

Once I’ve posted this, I’ll retreat to my work oasis…

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