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Focus. Though your mind is spinning, focus. Concentrate on what's necessary, not the stress that threatens to hijack your consciousness.
At the sound of email entering my inbox, I start to jump up. An impulsive reaction. Words fly, purposes crumble.
No, stay here, work with the process. It's time to begin a journey. I don't know the destination. A pilgrimage is as much about the Going as the Where. Still, you have to know where or you'll end up wandering aimlessly. When you walk along the beach, there is no destination, and you always end up back where you started.
Last night in the car I got to know Richard Struass's
Four Last Songs
. My mind was troubled, so I played Renée Fleming's performance to distract myself. The first time through the cycle I heard almost nothing, but remembered a lovely melodic phrase in the third song, "Beim Schlafengehen", or "Going to sleep", so I replayed it. Second time, it didn't sink in. The third time I was absorbed. I played it at least seven times. The song wanders restlessly, then a violin lullaby presents the climbing phrase, and finally the soprano repeats it, ascending into a starry night.
By the time I reached Danny's place, I must have listened to "Beim Schlafengehen" seven or eight times. It was an exercise in concentration, drawing unfamiliar music into my consciousness, letting it take over.
Some pieces of music, like Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, have the power to distract me for their entire length, whether it be 30 or 90 minutes. Few things move me as much as beautiful music. Sometimes it is the only thing that can break through the shield of my emotions and bring me to tears, allowing catharsis. I need that release now. It's part of leeting go.
Out of sight, out of mind. This is not true of stressful situations; when I'm alone I obsess about them. But when my relationships are going well, I tend to become absorbed in private endeavours and forget about what's going on with other people. This is not a good thing. Love requires maintenance.
Recent stress in my life has started me and Danny in the habit of talking on the phone every day when we are apart. I think it is good for us. We met seven years ago today, and they have been the happiest years of my life.
Yesterday morning before the full heat of the day hit, we drove to High Park and went for a long walk as far as Lake Ontario's shore. Danny bought us ice cream, then we strolled along the boardwalk, where we fell in behind an Asian rowing team, chattering happily. One of them reminded me of a fellow from Hong Kong I used to have a crush on back in my Christian days. I wonder what became of him.
What is it about walking that grounds a person? You have no particular destination, but the body moves through different energy spaces.
The heat and humidity persists. I get no relief from it at work. I sweat constantly throughout the day. Fortunately the tasks are varied this week, so the day passes quickly. The more I can concentrate on the work and less on the time, the faster it goes.
I come home to a pressure cooker. The only relief here is two small fans and the freedom of time to move very little. After doing dishes last night I took a cold shower. Two hours later I took a cold bath before going to bed. I slept naked without a sheet.
Anxiety compels the mind to concentrate on a particular problem, but it is more concerned with what could go wrong than with finding a solution. Often when you're anxious, all you can think about is protecting yourself. It takes willpower to step back from fear and contemplate what would be the best thing to do to minimize damage and suffering.
Yesterday I came home from work and got in the shower. While standing there under the cool water, enclosed in silver light, I realized it was the first time in weeks I was not absorbed in responding to external circumstances.
What feeling lay underneath all the distraction? Sadness.
My body had been tingling and sweating in the heat all day and night. The cool shower cleansed my skin. Silver-blue light flooded through the plastic curtain. I pulled it around like a gentle cloak.
Sometimes it is helpful to ask an emotion where it comes from, but feelings don't necessarily come from anywhere. Sometimes I am sad because I'm used to feeling that way.
Sometimes it is helpful to observe an emotion, as if it were external to the self, and let it fly over.
I am not my sadness.
If we are not our thoughts and emotions, what are we? Just a vessel, like a rain barrel, through which they flow?
Last night a breath of air finally began to drift through this stagnant, hot apartment. It was barely perceptible, delicious, a harbinger of change. This morning steady rain falls in the street. The east windowsills are wet. One can sit comfortably without a fan blasting against the bare chest.
What happens in this apartment is not the weather. The rain is outside. But what happens here is integrated with outside. They are not the same, but intimately related.
I am a life-long music lover, but went through a period of years when I never played music in my apartment. Recently I have been playing CBC Classical streaming audio during my morning writing routine. It boosts my mood. On the other hand, it's distracting. Just now I pulled out the ear phones and found that wods started coming more smoothly. Music, even when I'm not actively listening, seems to pull the mind away from words, take it on another journey. It's a good journey, but not especially useful for concentration. I should try writing in silence more often.
Yesterday the farmers' market offered quart baskets of bright red currants. I have wanted to make jelly, but every summer goes by without. So I bought three baskets (and ended up having to go back later for a fourth to make up the recipe). Just like me to take on a fiddly, time-consuming project on the eve of vacation. I had hardly any sugar left and had to walk to the corner store. Then the berries had to be stemmed.
"You could just freeze them," Danny suggested.
But once they're in the freezer, I'll never get around to it.
Removing the stems turned out to be a test of endurance. Danny helped. A little knot forms in the very centre of my back when I work with my hands. I darted to the computer once in a while when something would come to mind. I gave Danny the kitchen table and he stayed there until one quart basket was finished, then, fatigued, he went to the living room to do something else. He is more careful about such things, so it took him as long to finish a quart as it did me with all my darting and distraction.
I've come to Haliburton School of the Arts to learn how to weave. We spent Monday threading our looms. I think most weavers don't favour this part. It takes a long time to set up before you can actually make anything. You must carefully keep each thread of the warp in order, separated, feeding one by one through the heddles.
I find it meditative, requiring concentration and precision. I enjoy this part. Danny isn't surprised. He says I like the technicalities of knitting, too. I figure something out and get it right. He notices I've learned patience from organ building.
Yesterday was spent weaving several potholders. I don't remember last time I enjoyed concentrating so long on anything. It's much different from knitting in which you can establish a rhythm, and maintain a conversation or watch TV while your fingers carry on as if they have memories of their own. I doubt weaving will ever become as easy. You have to watch how the weft passes through the warp, using your free hand to tidy the edge, and make sure the thread lies at the right slope, then pull the beater, just so. I could spend many days this way.
At mid-afternoon energy began to change in the classroom. People reached the ends of the their warps and began to cut the ends of the yarn.
Suddenly I became impatient with weaving pot holders and wanted to move onto my next project, too. Ralph came by and suggested I still had room on my warp, so I could have continued a little further, but by then it was too late.
It is a potent moment when the mind anticipates the next step. You can easily follow your impulse and move into the future, rather than resting in the present.
The days pass too quickly when I'm fully absorbed in my work. I'm not interested in the time, unless it's to see how much is left. I start to get hungry and look at the clock; noon is already past. Today will be intense and challenging, because we need to finish everything. I wish the week weren't almost over.
But my body is tired. My left shoulder gave me trouble last night. This morning my whole body ached.
It's almost time to pack up and go home. I need time in familiar places with familiar things. Tonight I'll see Danny.
I could concentrate for hours when I'm excited about something, but the quality of my attention is not necessarily good. I kept plodding away at my scarf to finish it by the end of the day, but as I grew tired and harried, I was prone to making mistakes, errors of quality. I did not maintain constant tension on the yarn, so the edge of the finished scarf is irregular.
Driving back to Toronto last night, my mind moved toward zones of anxiety again. I put Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the CD player and began to listen with full attention.
Yesterday was financially devastating. I took the car for maintenance. It needed a new fuel line, filters, gaskets and so on. The final bill was $425.
Danny and I shopped at yarn stores during the afternoon. I had in mind a skein or two to start a new project. Instead I dropped $50 on five balls.
It was self-destructive. This morning I woke up full of worry.
Here is a lie I tell myself: I can't make good decisions on my own. I've learned to rely on others.
I must uncover self-trust and stay focused at all times.
"At all times." That is a ridiculous standard. I can't maintain the same level of concentration on anything forever. Not possible! Perhaps if I disposed of all my belongings and responsibilities, cut of worldly ties, and went into a monastic order, my life would become simple enough that I could stay focused on something for hours or days at a time. To do that I would have to compromise on many of my cherished beliefs and dreams. I would have to give up self-determination.
Such sacrifices should be unnecessary. Last week during the weaving course I attained divine concentration.
I always have works in progress. My friends in writers' circle have been pushing me to prepare and send something for publication. So that is my goal for this month.
I had a short story in mind, but nothing is ready, so poetry it will be. Last night I went to the Red Brick Cafe and revised a number of poems. I picked three that seem close to where I want them.
I love revising. There is a particular pleasure in taking words that feel powerful and altering them to best advantage, like putting a crystal in a new setting.
An online friend commented yesterday that happiness is fleeting, but the moments when we feel it are strong, and these propel our lives forward. She draws comfort from knowing that she is not alone in this experience, and it is most likely universal.
Happiness is a dragonfly, spending most of its life as something else, emerging for an ephemeral adulthood in sunlight.
Every morning I awake sluggish and heart-sore. The new day seems too much abuse to face again. Joy and pleasure come later. They are indeed temporal, but I need to concentrate on these things that sustain me.
Last evening I walked to a friend's apartment a few blocks away. It was a gorgeous summer evening: breezy, not too hot, the kind of dusk when it felt good to move through the air, feel it wrap around you.
Another friend had brought lemonade and it was served with frozen blueberries and blackberries. We sat on the balcony. I talked a lot more than usual. It felt like I was asking for too much attention. After a while I stopped and tried to listen to other people.
Someone offered me a ride home, but the evening was too beautiful.
When you set a goal for yourself, especially one requiring a fundamental change in behaviour, avoid diverting all your energy to achieving it. Do not go in like a warrior with all your weapons blazing. Do not obsess. If you spare no attention for other things, the campaign will burn itself out quickly.
Go in a like a diplomat. Plan. Say, "In so many days I will take this step." Look forward to it. Contemplate. Take the small step, then go do something else. Break the main project into subgoals. Return to it later.
Approach new relationships the same way.
My goal for the months of July and August was to learn how to weave. Implicit is the intention to weave a new creative thread into daily life. But it would be unwise to immediately begin using the loom every day.
I introduce it slowly. Sunday evening I planned the next project. Thursday after work I began making the warp. Yesterday I made a pair of lease sticks from scrap lumber at the shop.
In days between I am sorely tempted to do more. It could easily become an obsession. Instead I go to the yarn, touch it, turn away.
I finished making the warp this afternoon. Infatuated with the yarn, I wanted to dress the loom immediately, but that is not the best way to proceed.
The course instructor gave us an excellent lesson on loom maintenance. The machine sitting in this living room is who knows how old, hasn't received a tune-up in years. That ought to be my next step. It will.
Creativity has always involved diving in, following my impulses. I've rarely paid careful attention to tools or methods. It's new and different for me to approach a project deliberately, strategically. It feels like strength.
How can I apply this lesson to the craft of writing? A writer has no tool equivalent to the loom. We have laptops or pens and paper, but these are not specific to the task.
The writer's loom is his mind. I need to continually maintain it and practice correct use.
But people use their minds for a multitude of mundane tasks, and only rarely weave good poetry or prose. This is the problem: I'm accustomed to using my mind in a particular way, and it takes a supreme act of concentration to turn it to a different, specialized practice.
Occasionally it has been enough just to sit down and make time. Then the words pour out. Typically this has happened when I was in some kind of distress, but I don't want to make myself unhappy just for the sake of writing.
Yesterday I developed a migraine in the afternoon and had to leave the shop early. A migraine is the opposite of what I want. I had a stab of pain down through the left side of my skull, and my perceptions went misty. In that state, the best thing I can do is not concentrate on anything.
Writers' circle met at the Red Brick Café. We sat at sidewalk tables drinking alcohol and lattés as dusk fell. At other times, other years, the calls of chimney swifts and nighthawks have rung between the old walls, but last night the sky was silent.
Two of the five people had attended Hillside Festival over the weekend. The conversation turned to songwriters we like, and it was surprising how much our tastes converge, though we're generations apart: Loreena McKennitt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang. I suppose many writers are drawn to good lyrics and beautiful voices.
Last night I visited another friend. She is a lesbian who came out of a straight relationship. When she heard I had a similar background, she wanted to get together, but it took us months to get around to it.
We drank tea and ate gluten-free goodies (her girlfriend is gluten-free). My demonstrative hand upset my mug, spilling tea all over the table.
It takes energy to invest in friendships, but I need them. I worry about what will happen if I hit the wall, run out of energy for this undertaking. I have burnt too many bridges.
The writers' circle has been urging me to complete some writing for publication, so last week I took three poems for the circle to critique. I was excited about those pieces, but I don't think the group was keen on them, and now I'm discouraged. I've been in a mood to give up writing altogether.
That's no way to go. Excellence is not achieved by mere talent or inspiration. You have to work hard.
Last night I met my writing partner at the café. I continued revising one of the poems, based on comments received. I must keep plugging.
The 6 Changes method has been a potent tool for personal growth because it leads me to set aside distractions and concentrate for two months on one particular goal. Typically, there are so many things I want to change about my life, I waver from one to another and make no measurable progress on any of them. When I set a priority, it makes a difference.
In the process, I learn things about myself:
1. Planning ahead instead of taking urgent action gives me something to look forward to.
2. Talking to others about my undertakings strengthens and motivates me.
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