Making space

I’m always trying to figure out how to be “disciplined with my time.”

There’s real value in this. I’ve been realizing over the past several months that I’m always talking about wanting to have time to do the things that keep me healthy, but saying that I can’t find the time. And then I realize: well, I just spent two hours browsing Facebook. I’m pretty sure I could have used that time to write, or exercise, or cook, or any of the things I’m always saying I don’t have time for.

So when I got back from my leadership retreat last week, I was very serious about calendaring. I was very rigorous about allocating time to the things I kept saying were important: for prayer, for writing, for spending time with family and friends, for sleep. It felt a little weird to schedule my sleep and my chill time, but it also felt comforting to know that I had actually set aside that time and that I wasn’t just leaving those things to the whims of however my day went.

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Busy B

It’s strange to suddenly not be busy in the middle of a social network where almost everyone else is VERY BUSY. The contrast hit me today when I received from a friend over of those quick can’t-talk-saying-hi-will-get-to-you-later messages that I was always sending people before. It’s not a critique of that friend, because I appreciated that they took the time to respond; I think it’s just been a long time since I’ve been on the receiving end of that message at a time when I wasn’t running around crazy myself.

When I left my job and my former city at the end of last year, I said it was because I needed to “take a break” from the way I’d been working and living. The implication is that in some way I intend to return to that world, albeit hopefully with “better” self-care habits. But at this moment, it’s hard to imagine that I’d want to get back to my former lifestyle, where I always felt pressed and rushed and tired. I’m still tired, but if anything that’s mostly from my holdover habit of staying up all night doing not-so-useful things to “decompress.” In all honesty, I’ve got plenty of time to come home, do a little writing or reading, run some errands, make dinner, talk with my mom, and/or play with my cats, and still get a decent night’s sleep. It’s just that my patterns haven’t totally caught up with my reality.

I thought I would feel more antsy about needing to get “back,” but I’m actually quite happy. I like this pace of life, and I want to keep it. I like having work to do during the day to get me up and moving around, but I don’t feel the need to visit around all the time, and on the days when I am a little more hectic, it’s very tiring and I look forward to not doing that again for a while. I feel rested and peaceful.

I do get, if not antsy, the urge or sense that I should keep an eye out for my “next thing,” what I’m supposed to go to when this is “over.” But I think that pressure comes a lot more from external expectations or perceptions of what I “ought” to be doing with myself at this age, with my level of experience and education. It’s that oft-repeated set of questions, “So what are you doing now? What are you looking for?” I’ll have to answer it again for another group of people at a leadership development retreat in a few weeks. And while I’m very happy with the answer “nannying for my niece,” I also know there’s that lingering question: what does that have to do with pursuing a path as a social justice leader? As if nannies can’t be social justice leaders, because they’re not doing the things that it takes to take on that role. And maybe that’s true, and it’s fine for me to take on a role in the world that isn’t about that kind of public leadership. I truly don’t know. I suppose I’ll learn in time whether I still belong to that world.

Not all the pressure is external, of course. I’ve had many grand visions for myself, as a public leader and speaker and writer; and my most recent lifestyle was part of pursuing those visions as I thought they were to be pursued. Plenty of that is more about glory for myself than service to others, so it’s not a bad thing to step back and reformulate my understanding of what I want to do in the world, whether or not I go back to “leading” as it’s usually understood. I do wonder whether being a leader and living a life that feels this peaceful (not complacent, that’s a whole other thing) are two things that don’t go together. I sincerely hope not, but I don’t have any examples right now to draw on of people who don’t have that running-around vibe in their work and life. Perhaps the peace isn’t a peace of time and circumstances, but some deeper inner peace that makes hectic circumstances somehow not hectic. That’s something I haven’t learned yet.

And maybe this is one of those pause/mountaintop times, and ultimately I do have to go back to the valley but I’ll be able to take things back down with me that change my while experience of the valley into something different. Time will tell. It’s a curious place to be right now, and I don’t totally understand it, but I don’t mind it, either.

Who am I, and what am I doing?

Isn’t that the $64,000 question?  (And also, how ridiculous is it that $64,000 doesn’t feel like it’s worth much any more?)

I went to a very good conference on building a transformative, just, sustainable economy over the weekend.  I had wonderful conversations, listened to amazing speakers, and I was moved and challenged and inspired.  Oddly, though, when a colleague asked me how the conference was, my response was, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.  Sometimes I think it would be easier to just give all this up and sit somewhere and eat pizza.”  He reminded me that I’m probably not going to get paid for sitting around eating pizza.

But that sense of frustration and confusion has persisted over the last few days.  It came out again in a conversation with another colleague, where I was expressing how frustrated I felt with all the energy food movement organizations expend to try and shift national policies like the Farm Bill or the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act – not because those bills don’t have an important influence on our food policy or that the people working to change them aren’t absolutely amazing, but because all their passion and work seems to result in such small gains that don’t reach the level of the kind of transformation we are all hoping for.  And I feel like it will always be that way if we keep playing this game on a playing field that is designed to make us lose, where we have to redefine victory as just not getting beaten too badly this time around.

Another way I was thinking about it: our unhealthy food system right now is a bit like a vicious, poisonous plant with long, strong branches and tendrils that keep reaching out and attacking us.  We keep hacking away at the branches and tendrils and flowers (e.g., the Farm Bill), but because they are still connected to the root of the plant, they are always drawing strength to regrow and come back at us.  Those branches are so dense and distracting that it feels impossible to even identify the roots, but we need to figure out how to do it and then how to get in there and dig that sucker out.  Maybe we need to develop some really good armor so we can dive right past those branches and get to that root.  Maybe we need a bunch of people hacking away at the branches to provide cover for a stealth team sneaking in under the radar to get the root.  Maybe we need both; we probably do for this kind of hydra-headed beast.

Here’s the thing though: those are fascinating analogies, but they aren’t a concrete organizational framework or policy platform.  Those are nice ideas, but they’re not an action plan.  I’m a poet and a philosopher and I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not sure that those are particularly practical, valuable, useful skills for this time and place.  I would contend that the various movements for justice with which I associate are suffering from a tremendous lack of ideas and vision and imagination and story in our focus on creating projects and policies; but who’s to say that’s not simply my desire to validate my own sense of being a special snowflake who is above the hard work of getting things done?

I don’t think that is really true of myself.  (Of course, who would ever say so if it was?)  At any rate, I am feeling a deep longing for a sense of vision and power that I have not yet found, and I have these skills that I feel are desperate to be used but have little outlet.  I feel bound, and straining to burst my bounds, but I don’t have any idea what that means.

In short, it’s kind of a weird week.

The Vision

I was having a great conversation tonight with a friend of mine, and one of the topics we touched on was how you reset your expectations for what you “should” be doing with your life when you realize that your not going after the conventional “American dream.”  I was trying to explain the kind of life I envisioned for myself instead, and describing it made me really happy, so I thought I’d share the description.

The picture in my head is of a bunch of houses clustered all around, and there’s food growing around the houses; it’s sort of agrarian, but not really, because it’s denser than that.  And my work and my life are all one thing together there.  And they’re all about having fun, because one of the things I love about my work is talking with people and having these great conversations, conversations like this, about what matters.  And it’s also weeding, and the satisfaction you get after a hard day’s work; or working on a spreadsheet and making the numbers line up.  All the work is full of these things that bring you joy.

Then after work, it’s about getting together with folks in the kitchen and making dinner, and having them laugh at my brownie crackers [a running joke with me and a former roommate about what happens when you bake 8″ x 8″ brownies in a 13″ x 9″ pan].  And we all sit down and have dinner together, and after dinner we go out in the yard and someone lights a joint and we sit under the stars and shoot the breeze.

That’s it for tonight.  Happy Palm Sunday!

Community Builders

DSNI Community Summit - Development Without Displacement breakout session
Development Without Displacement discussion session at the DSNI 30th Anniversary Community Summit

I spent an absolutely lovely portion of my day at the DSNI 30th Anniversary Community Summit.  Those of you who weren’t there missed something amazing; lucky for you, I have a gift for live tweeting conferences.

One of the sessions at the end of the day asked us to indicate on a timeline when we had first become involved with DSNI.  While my formal involvement has only been for a couple of years, I’ve known about DSNI for almost a decade; and knowing about them has so powerfully shaped my feelings about what communities can achieve together that I feel like they’ve been present in my life for much longer than they’ve known me.  It feels like it would be foolish of me to try and summarize their history, as so many people have done it much better than I ever could.  Instead, I want to talk a little bit about what I learned – and keep learning – from them.

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I went karaoke last night because I didn’t have to get up quite so early this morning, and then I ended up staying up on Facebook after I got home, and now I think it has shifted me onto this weird sleep schedule where my body suddenly thinks up until 2AM is standard.  Tomorrow’s big goal will be going to bed before midnight.  I’m so ambitious!

For most of the last several months, I wouldn’t have considered it an issue to be up this late; I was working from home, I set my own hours, and unless I had a morning meeting, it wasn’t all that big of a deal when I started my day.  But now that my organization has an official office, I’m trying to get back into the habit of going out of the house for work every day.  It’s not as easy as it sounds when you’ve become quite well adjusted to a more laid back, pajama-based work culture.

I also have to re-remember how to pack lunch and snacks for work.  I’ve gotten used to having my full kitchen at my disposal during the workday.  We have a full kitchen at work – but it’s not my kitchen, stocked with all my food and supplies.  I have to change up my grocery shopping list again, so that it contains more of those easy-pack snacking items that I had gotten into a pretty good rhythm with when I was working at my old office last summer.

All in all, I think I wasn’t fully prepared for the culture shock of transitioning from working at home.  I like my office and my office mates, and I want to develop the habit of inhabiting our space; this first week, though, is a little rough.  On the bright side: I can finally describe my commute to work and back as “uphill both ways,” since both my home and my office are on hills!  Sometimes, it’s the little things that count.

In the Middle

I feel like today is going to be typical of my days for the next few months: this mix of insane stress and frustration combined with really positive and encouraging interactions that remind me of how many things I have to be thankful for.  It makes it hard for me to answer the question, “How was your day?” – my day is always complicated, never one thing or the other.  It’s not that it is so unusual to experience both good and bad things over the course if the day; it’s more that the good things are really wonderful and the bad things are really difficult, so I feel like I’m living in this tension between extremes.  You might think that the extremes would balance each other out into a nice middle ground, but that’s not really what happens.  Instead, I feel like I’m suspended in mid-air held by two wires pulling me in opposite directions; I end up being held in place, but my position is tenuous.  What happens if I slack, or if I snap?