Friday, April 25, 2008

Everything In Its Place

For the past week or so, I've been on a massive spring cleaning tear. I'm not the tidiest person, and while I know how to keep the places that matter clean--food out of the kitchen, grime out of the bathroom--I am notoriously bad when it comes to paper, books, magazines and really, most everything else.

I have several really big unmet goals for my life. Some are silly, and some may be noble, but among goals such as getting a book published, having kids, learning to speak Spanish, making a difference in the fight for our liberties, one kind of mundane one stands out: To be organized.

I've always envied people who are capable of carrying their slim little day planners or always remember to update their calendars, those people whose homes look like the Pottery Barn catalog (which I have a love/hate relationship with, if you must know), those people who seem to know what they're supposed to be doing next.

I don't know what finally lit the fire--maybe that fact that I'm running my own business now and I need to be on top of things or fail miserably, disappoint clients and generally make a mess of things--but I'm finally making a move on that organization goal.

But before I started in earnest, I seemed to be waiting for the advice that would make the difference for me. After all, it wasn't like I hadn't tried before. I'd bought day planners, only to have two weeks of the calendar filled with appointments and reminders (Buy birthday card, Dentist appt., Moving day!!!), or clear storage bins that I ended up using like portable junk drawers. No matter what scheme I investigated or tried, it all seemed overwhelming, complicated, too left-brained for my associative right-brained world.

And then I read this somewhere, though I'm not so organized yet that I can remember where, but this was what made the difference: Everything has its place.

Does this seem completely elementary to you? Because it made all the difference for me. It was not a file folder system or a cabinet of labeled bins. What it was, and what I needed, was a philosophy. Everything has its place. Eureka!

It was about recognizing the intrinsic function and use of an item, and deciding how to put that item in a place that maximized its functionality and use. And if that place didn't exist, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate: Do I need to create a place, or do I need this item at all?

I had a philosophical system that allowed me to make sense of the constellation of objects that seemed to continually and haphazardly orbit my household, floating through time and space with no grounding, no apparent home.

Now I know: books go on a bookshelf, magazines I keep in a magazine case or throw away. Office supplies are sorted and stored separately, on an office shelf or desk. Every single thing in my house has a place, and if not, its place is in the recycling bin, the donation pile or the trash.

Without investing in any kind of arbitrary system of organization and storage, I am actually kind of organized now. Kind of. And when I see something that belongs in the bathroom--sunscreen, or lip balm--on the kitchen counter, I think: That's not in its place. And instead of leaving it there, I return it to its proper home. So I'm neater now, and more consistently neat, than I used to be thanks to that simple little phrase.

I think "Everything in its place" is kind of a good philosophy for a lot of things, but will this increased organization help me be happier, experience more bliss, make me a better person? Has the moral superiority of the organized been justified all the while?

Honestly, maybe. Maybe that whole cleanliness is next to godliness group was on to something. I certainly feel less stress when I walk into an uncluttered room than a cluttered one. It's true what they say about the potential for our stuff to control us.

Objects don't just have physical weight, they also have psychic weight. The floor presses up on your foot when you press down, and when your gaze alights on a mess, that mess presses back. Cumulatively, it can begin to wear you down, keep you from all the other things you want to do in your life. Write a book. Have kids. Make a difference in your community.

When my office is finally done, I'll let you know if I have any transcendent insights about the connection between bliss and clutter. For now, I'm off to my version of the XXX News: I'm off to The Container Store.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's Not You, It's Me

Do you believe in the intrinsic differences of human beings? Or do you think we're all pretty much alike, though maybe I like spinach and indie rock and you hate spinach and indie rock but love peas and classic country?

You can probably guess where I fall in this debate. I think that even though we're the same species, we have real, intrinsic differences of psychology and personality. We are not all suited to the same environments, the same expectations, the same cultures, the same societies. And when we don't quite fit, we suffer greatly in trying to do so.

For many years, this was my pattern: I'd get a job, enjoy it for a while, then something would happen and I'd slowly become miserable, and have to make a change. So I'd get another job, and then it would happen again. I'd grow bored or antsy, and my bosses would always turn on me because I was no longer content to keep doing what I was doing. For years, I thought it was my bosses' fault, and while I truly had some terrible ones, what I finally realized was this: Rabbits can breed in captivity, but dolphins can't (or rarely can).

That doesn't mean what you think it means, so get your mind out of the gutter. What I'm saying is that some animals' life force is so severely stressed and hampered by captivity that they stop functioning, even to their own detriment. I mean, if they get so bad off that their instinct for survival is shunted, that must mean that they--dolphins, pandas, certain birds, etc.--are wired very differently from rabbits and pigs and cows and other easily domesticated animals.

Languishing in the series of cubicles (cages) I inhabited, I felt suffocated, frustrated, hopeless.

I was a dolphin trying to breed (symbolically speaking, trying to create and propagate ideas) in captivity, and failing miserably. Free Tiffany! But no movie crew would be interested, since there are millions of us like this. Who cares, they might ask--why can't you just suck it up and be like the rest of society?

And I tried. I really did. I didn't want to be different, and I wanted things to be easy, which is probably why I was in denial so long about it being the job or the boss, and not me.

But it was me. It was my fault, my problem, my responsibility. And no one could fix it but me. No one was going to break me out of my confines, no activists were lobbying for my release. I had to free myself, and to do so meant that I had to honor who I really was.

I know I am Homo sapiens, but I may--like so many of you--be a subspecies: Homo sapiens independensis. We chafe under captivity, we wither under watchful eyes, we choke ourselves on chains trying to break free.

So here we are: admitting we need something different. So if that doesn't work--if the cubicle existence slowly kills us--what conditions allow us to thrive?

Here's my list, but feel free to add to it:

  • Freedom to create
  • Autonomy over our work
  • Freedom from surveillance
  • An environment of trust and honor
  • An ethical environment
  • Flexibility to design our schedules and our projects
  • Respect for our fundamental humanity
  • Respect for our differences
  • An environment of fairness and justice
  • Time to explore, investigate and satisfy our curiosity
  • Ability to express emotion and feeling without fear of repercussion
  • An environment that values and appreciates our contributions

As you may notice, this doesn't just apply to work. It applies to relationships, to governments, to friendships. How so many people manage to survive under conditions so unlike these is beyond me.

So honor who you are. If you don't fit in the environment you're in, don't blame your boss, even if she really is an A-Number One Bitch. Sure, she may be a tyrant, but she could be all sweetness and light, and unless the conditions above are satisfied, you won't do well. If you are the dolphin and not the rabbit, find your way out of the cage and out into the open ocean. Sure, there are predators out there, but what kind of a life is the caged one?

I'll leave you with this excerpt--a passage that changed my life--from a conversation Joseph Campbell had with Michael Toms in the book "An Open Life":

"There are two ways of living a mythologically grounded life. One way is just to live what I call 'the way of the village compound,' where you remain within the sphere of your people...There are, however, people who feel this isn't the whole story...It's inevitable that a person with any sense of openness to new experience will say to himself, 'Now, this won't do, the way we're living.'

On the other hand, there's plenty of reason for those who don't have this feeling to remain within the field because our societies today are so rich in the gifts they can render. But if a person has had the sense of the Call--the feeling that there's an adventure for him--and if he doesn't follow that, but remains in the society because it's safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he's gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it's against the wrong wall.

If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I'm not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one's "bliss"--the thing that really gets you deep in the gut and that you feel is your life--doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of."

So it's not them, it's you. But contrary to what they'll try to convince you of, that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very, very good thing.

Your fellow dolphin,

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Thought Provocateur

You know the term "thought-provoking"? As in, "That was a thought-provoking movie about the East German Secret Police"? (That's a real movie, incidentally, one you should see. It's called "The Lives of Others" and it is thought-provoking, yes, and utterly excellent.)

Anyway, a good friend told me today that she thought my blog was thought-provoking, and that she needed that in her life, that thought provocation was something she was missing.

It got me thinking about what it means to have that person or thing in your life that gets you out of your usual thought-habits and generates something new and something worth spending time contemplating.

Every once in a while I'll feel like that provocation is missing, and when it is missing, I usually try to rectify it as soon as I notice. I read articles on Arts & Letters Daily, or talk to someone who gets me to think in new ways. I wonder how common this is--how many of you have someone or some source you turn to to get your brain jump-started?

And, perhaps more importantly, what benefit do you receive from being jolted in these sometimes pleasant, sometimes not-quite-so-pleasant ways?

As for me, I make metaphors and I weave connections. This is one of my ways of understanding the world. Recently, I was thinking about all the ways people try to change other people's minds and get them to fall into line. (Any HOA in America can provide an example of just this sort of East German police-state mentality.)

So I went from HOAs to the war in Vietnam and Iraq (forcing democracy on another country), to the Communism of the gulags and the Nazis' attempt to take over the world, to the media's attempt to control what you see and hear, to the politicians' legislative efforts to ban this or outlaw that. And all I see is failure, which brought me to this conclusion: The lesson of the 20th century is this: The attempt to force your will on others is always doomed.

Sure, you may get away with it for a while, but the human need for self-direction and liberty is like the quiet, slow scour of a river carving away at a dam. Though it may outlast me, at some point, the Hoover Dam will fail.

The lesson of modern history is this: Lead by example, show your logic, compel with reason and persuasion, but never force, and you will ultimately succeed.

Ah, but who has the patience for this when what the powerful want is to control you, and to control you now? So until we learn the 20th century's lesson, we (as a society) will continue to browbeat and subdue, imprison and record, spin and distort.

So, what's the point? I guess I'm trying to provoke in a post about provocation, but also to show you how important it is to find whatever source helps you break past the surface and do your own thinking and gets you in tune with what your humanity knows to be true.

I certainly do hope I can be a part of the thought provocateur network, and I hope you'll share some of your favorite sources for clarity in a muddled world.

Be free,

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mantra of the Day: "Not Helpful."

OK, so I hope you followed my recommendation and watched the Randy Pausch special on ABC two nights ago.

I am continuously amazed by the perspective Randy offers the world, which is a perspective that seems not borne from only this bad situation; instead, he seems to think differently than the rest of us, and trust me, it's a good kind of different. I feel blessed to have had the benefit of his thoughts and perspectives as they've been shared with the world via his lecture and now his book.

But what I learned from the special, and what I didn't know, was what a different, special kind of woman he has for his wife. I was also inspired by Jai Pausch, and by her ability to find peace and perspective in the midst of the unlucky reality of Randy's cancer.

She said something that I think we can all learn from, no matter how good or how bad our situations are. She said that when she first learned of the diagnosis that she would see her husband playing with the kids in the snow, and would think, "That's maybe the last time he'll play with his kids in the snow," and that would lead her to a whole new round of crying.

Eventually, after a lot of crying, she went to a therapist, who she says told her to not let tomorrow ruin today.

Brilliant insight number one! When I was living far away from my boyfriend (now my husband), he'd often come and visit me for long weekends. And the first day was always magical, a feeling like my missing half had been restored. But as time went on, thoughts crept in: only 2.5 days left, only one more day left, only half a day left. And I would begin to mourn for his departure, even though he was sitting right next to me.

I had let the future ruin the present. I don't know if this is a sin or anything, but it seems like it should be. Something like "Thou Shalt Not Squander Thine God-given Present" or what have you. Really. Wasting the moment you have is really an affront to the universe.

Brilliant insight number two from Jai Pausch's therapist was this: Whenever you hear your thoughts going down that path--the present-squandering path of worry or anxiety--repeat to yourself: Not helpful.

Not helpful! What power in those two little words! Whenever you're angry because your boss has wronged you, ditch the anger, and focus on improving your situation. Why? Because your anger is not helpful. Whenever you're mourning for a departure not yet come, recognize and embrace the time you do have. Why? Because your mourning is not helpful.

Anger and mourning and sadness may have their place of course, but very rarely do worry and anxiety. Usually they just make us feel bad and helpless.

So the next time you notice your mind consumed with worries, fears, anxieties and emotions that are burdening you and preventing you from working to enjoy what you have or change your situation through action, repeat it with me: Not helpful.

So what is helpful? Acceptance. Your boss is a jerk? Accept it. Your husband is dying? I don't know how it's possible (and I hope and pray I never have to find out), but somehow you must accept it.

It seems to me that accepting something is like being handed a special kind of eyeglasses. Before you had them, what you couldn't see simply wasn't there for you, but once on, you see a path, new to you, but one that had been there all along. A path that is only revealed through the transformation of acceptance, and a path that once seen, must be taken.

Incidentally, that path is there for you alone, meaning each of our journeys will be so separate as to make comparison worthless. So don't try. So what if someone else did this or that after they lost their job, and so what if when so and so had a baby they were depressed/joyous/neurotic. There may be some use in comparing yourself to someone else, but if there is, I haven't found it yet.

So, the take home message is, if you're worrying about a lot of stuff that hasn't happened, or you're trapped in a rut of unhelpful thinking, quit it, because you're pissing off the universe. And a pissed off universe is a universe unlikely to give you any bliss.

I hope you found this post helpful. If so, subscribe here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Your Bliss-Finding Assignment: Watch TV Tonight

I'm not normally a giant TV fan, but it has its uses!

Do you remember my post from a long time ago about Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture"?

Well, there's an ABC special on tonight at 9 p.m. Central that I think you should watch.

Diane Sawyer talks with Randy Pausch about the impact of his lecture, and while I don't know exactly what they'll discuss, my guess is that if Randy Pausch is involved, you'll come away feeling inspired, grateful and motivated.

So watch it, and let's discuss it back here tomorrow. Now, if only all assignments were so easy... :-)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Why Fiction Is My Bliss

This question came in to me from a writer named Sharon on one of the listservs I belong to:
Here's a question from one word nerd to another, Tiffany: when writing fiction, are you as convinced as often and as intensely as I now am that what I'm producing is utter crap?

And here is my answer:

interesting question, since I have a slightly different problem. When I am writing and everything is on and the neurons are really firing, I feel convinced that what I am writing is brilliant and lyrical and sure to bring me fame and fortune. The moment I am finished with a draft is the moment I lose all those good feelings and feel that I have just produced, as you put it, utter crap.

Chris Offutt, who is a great writer and who I saw lecture at a writers' workshop, reassured me in this sequence of feeling, since he said it was essential to be in love with something as you're writing it--or else how would you ever finish it?--and that it was similarly essential to fall out of love with it the moment you've stopped--because how else would you ever be able to cut and slash and revise to make it not suck so much?

It's kind of the same thing Anne Lamott says about letting the little kid write and dig for gold and making sure the thin-lipped editor lady is far, far away while that's happening. When I teach, I talk about this as the separation of the creator and the editor, which I think is essential. You can't write great fiction if you're critiquing yourself as you go along, and you can't create great fiction if you allow that dreamy, inspired poetic part of yourself handle the surgery that's required afterward to repair a good, but defective, heart.

The trouble is that I think anyone who tries to write fiction has the poet, but it requires education and patience and fearlessness to cultivate the surgeon. I actually think science writers and journalists have the opposite problem, and I see this in my classes: too much surgeon, not enough poet. (Not to say that it isn't there! Just that you can't have that nagging surgeon in the room saying, "Well, I wouldn't do it that way, not if you want the patient to live.")

So yes, I'm basically advocating schizophrenia as a means to writing fiction. Hey, schizophrenia worked for me! :-)

So, Sharon, to answer your question, what you're writing is wonderful, and what you're writing is crap. It's just a matter of getting the right person to work on it at the right time, so that when they're finished, what you're left with is just the right amount of both wonderful and crap: in other words, art.

Now, if only writing fiction was as easy for me as talking about it. Still, I love it, and I believe in it. What do you feel this way about?