The Question in the Notebook (Center, Part 5)

The Question in the Notebook (Center, Part 5)

In eleven days, an election. You know, just a little run-of-the-mill, things-have-been-pretty chill-up-in-here election. (In seriousness: If you wanted a quick primer on the specific things at stake in the midterms, I liked this handy 5-point summary from Vox.)

“Constitution Day” worksheet from my third-grader.

By the way, this is #5 in a series called Center. I’m writing this for you if «•» the news makes you feel like your sleeves are on fire «•» your life circumstances yank you in 72 directions «•» you are dispersed, distracted and distressed. «•» I’m there, too. (Catch up: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

So here’s my Eleven-Days-from-Election Confession:

I’ve had a nagging worry that with all these Center posts—clearing space in heads and dwellings, getting centered, being quiet—it might appear that I’m urging escape from the news and the world. So let me clarify:

When I let the news joggle me like a blizzarding snow-globe, I am far from my center.

But if I pretend the news isn’t there, I’m also far from my center.

Getting centered is not the same as shutting down.  When I am living from the center of who I am, I do stuff about the things that distress me.

So this seemed like a good moment to talk about about being centered while participating in the world, because it’s tricky. But possible.

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Big ocean, little boy

All my adult life, I’ve worked at nonprofits: politics and education and religion. Idealistic arenas with big missions and big dreams. And at these jobs, the same thing happens every time.

  1. I have exhilarating moments when I feel like utterly myself, the best version of myself. Holy cow, my little handful of knacks and tasks are actually doing something good beyond just earning me a paycheck, and I feel so alive.

And then something else happens. Every single time.

2. I slowly abandon all the other things that make me feel like myself.

Writing is often the first thing to go. Then time outside in sunlight; walking, running. Making music.

Because when you’re working a job with a mission (parenting falls in that category, by the way, and so do teaching, counseling, health care…), there’s always a new and urgent need, and it’s always blinking a little more brightly than the dimming light in your center that says I need to take a walk outside.

When that goes on long enough, it starts to feel like something inside me is dying off, and I don’t even know where my center is anymore.

Tack on all the disillusionment that comes with working in an idealistic field—the slowness of change, the humanness of humans—and the same thing always happens. Once I flee that job, I don’t even want to look at the news.

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I am fumbling toward a way that feels more alive, and here’s my meager offering to you.

I think two skills make it possible to face the news and the needs of the world without hiding/falling apart.

1. The skill of returning to center. (surprise)

2. The skill of the right-sized action.

My little one ponders a turtle.

Returning to center. 

Being centered doesn’t mean a continuous state of equanimity—like, resting under an invisible tree with the permanent half-smile of the Buddha. I think it’s more like resilience. Which means you can listen to a painful story and even allow it to knock you off balance because you know you can get back.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, many of us were sick with emotion—grief, rage, distress. (Ditto for climate change; nuclear weapons; racism in all its forms; the suffering of immigrant and refugee families; transgender people recently informed they don’t exist.) But if I can return again and again to my center, I can afford to listen. I can even use that emotion. I can take action with focus and without burnout. As a midwife told me during labor once: “When you’re ready to do some real pushing, focus your energy downward and stop growling.”

Which leads to…

Tiny beautiful things

The right-sized action. 

Inaction leaves me with a vague powerless dread.
Ongoing strenuous action tends to leave me discouraged, because usually the world doesn’t visibly change, and now I’m a mess, too.
But a series of small actions, punctuated by breaths, admits the humble truth:
I am one human being, and I have the responsibility of one human being, not more, not less. It’s my human job to choose an action, but a right-size action. And once I’ve done it, I feel miles more alive than if I’d done nothing. 

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Can we learn the art of those things in tandem?

Sí, se puede.

Again, my meager offering to you. These three questions help me.

The things that appear on the beach.

Question #1: What are the things most upsetting you in the news right now?

Are there specific news stories and you can’t stop reading obsessively—not just keeping responsibly informed, but tracking every minute-by-minute development? (Or you’re doing the opposite and avoiding it?) Make a quick list of those things. A QUICK list. Now underline one item. Just one. For now.

Question #2: What are the things that make you feel like yourself?

I listed a few of mine above. Make your own quick list. From your gut. Not simply things you like doing (e.g. binge-watching) but things that make you say “I feel like me right now.” You, very alive. (They don’t all have to be wholesome, salubrious things like nature walks, by the way. A night out in a hot little dress is definitely on my list.) Now underline one item. The one that sounds most refreshing and feasible. 

Question #3: What is ONE RIGHT-SIZE ACTION you can take regarding the news item that’s upsetting you?

When I feel lost and overwhelmed (not just about politics; also personal things, even writing problems), here’s a simple trick I stumbled on. I write down the question in my notebook: “What’s the next step?” or “What should I do now?” Call this a prayer or call it a consultation with your wiser self, but it’s crazy how often an answer pops into my head immediately.  If nothing springs to mind… well, Google it. People who work at nonprofits routinely publish lists of simple action steps for busy people. (I used to write those lists. ;-))

I endorse this third-grader and the oil-tank cow he rode in on.

Here are my answers today:

  1. News stressing me: The midterm elections. I very much want to see change in our district; I’ve been disappointed with the way our incumbent has handled a host of issues that are vital to me; but he is the incumbent and I’m worried.
  2. Thing that makes me feel like myself: While husband is putting the wee beasties to bed, I dim the lights and do Yoga with Adriene. I don’t know if purists would approve of YouTube yoga, but I’m a tired mama, Adriene makes me laugh, it’s simple and free and re-charges me quickly.
  3. One small action: I gave a little money, what I could afford, to the local challenger. (Pssst—Perry Gershon, thanks for being a progressive voice in Suffolk County, and my family is rooting for you).

Just so you know: As soon as I did Step #3, I felt like it wasn’t enough and I should do more. I should canvass, I should phone bank. Perhaps I should join a nonprofit and… ahhh, help me!

Should I do XYZ? Maybe yes, maybe no. I have two small children. Maybe it’s enough to take them on a field trip to the local campaign office, get a lawn sign, and talk to the volunteers about a right-size action for us. Or maybe this one small action (plus voting!) is, in itself, enough.

Therefore, the necessary Step 4: To breathe before the cycle repeats. To say, Tomorrow, maybe something else. For this moment, this is enough.

All this from broken tile found in the sand!

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Last thang.

A practice that makes me feel like myself: Sometimes my husband and I stay up late and make music after the kids go to bed. I get out my viola, he gets out his guitar, and we fool around with cover songs. (If you want to eavesdrop on this foolishness, you can go to “Song Series” on the menu above and smirk at our messy little recordings.)

The other day, out of nowhere, he busted out “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Cracked me up. So nineties! It goes

Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be

Can you imagine saying such a thing about these dreadful days we’re in? Who would choose this ugliness?

But since we are here—

I saw the decade in, when it seemed
the world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything
then there’s your sign of the times

Since we are here,

what if we chose to be really alive here?

I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this

Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history

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(P.S. I’d love your thoughts on this. Tell me how you strike this balance or how you’ve seen it done. It is a question I am always pondering, but especially in times like these.)

Onward to Part 6: The Spectacle & the Light

4 Replies to “The Question in the Notebook (Center, Part 5)”

  1. Jen I love it! I especially like the numbered format so I have action steps. Because I so know the feeling of pouring out at non profit and losing much of me.
    1. Honduras caravan and the way human beings are being criminalized.
    2. Cooking makes me feel like me.
    3. I don’t think small. I just want to go down to Texas and welcome who I can. I want to hear their stories and show their humanness to the world. But….. I did buy my notebook today and I am excited to start writing down those feelings that turn into a quiet voice!

    1. So many good things are starting for you, lady… I can feel it. Thank you for reading and sharing your list with me! I LOVE it!

  2. I like your plan… (What a surprise!) 🙂 Unfortunately, must of the times I find myself hiding from the news. Following presidential election in Georgia right now…. Everything I hear and read is so discouraging…. (Sorry, I feel glass-half-empty-is right now 🙄)

    1. Yeah, I hear you. I write these essays not because I feel like a fount of encouragement, but to organize my-own-self back to action when things look dismal. It must be hard to figure out what to do about your own presidential election when it’s thousands of miles away!

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