Focus

n. a central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity

v. to direct one’s attention or efforts

I’ve been feeling very scatterbrained lately.  Even when I’m procrastinating on the things I should be doing, like writing, I can’t seem to pick just one method of procrastination.  I watch Netflix, but I must also simultaneously rearrange my neighborhoods on my Disney Enchanted Tales game on my phone.  I brainstorm a blog post, but I must also toggle between tabs checking that the color coding on my Google calendar is right.
I blamed some of this on my relatively new Netflix habit.  I realized part of my mental restlessness comes from not having anyone to talk to during meals, having grown up with dinner table conversations about such diverse topics as early waves of feminism and ways to annoy people in elevators.  So I started turning on a half-hour episode of something while I ate, because it was easier than holding a book open with one elbow and trying not to spill something on the page.  And then that pesky Auto Play kicked in, and I found myself watching a few hours of TV when I had only meant to occupy my brain while my body refueled.  A few months of this seems to have trained me to multitask no matter what.  Even when I journal at night, I keep flipping back and forth midsentence to reread old entries, rather than writing continuously or even pausing to collect my current thoughts.
Just about the only activity I can focus on is reading.
Books have long been a central point for me, like a magnet to my attention.  I might bring a book to the breakfast table, but I always end up focused on the book, letting my food go cold beside me or scarfing down a few bites at a time when I reach the end of a chapter.  When I pick up a book for just one chapter before bed, it usually ends with me only putting it down because the words are swimming before my eyes at 1 a.m.  Phone calls go unheard, emails go unnoticed, the sun could rise in the west and set in the east, and I would not look up from my book.
So I’m trying to figure out what allows books to act as a conduit for me to direct my attention and thoughts.  I’ve also tried some (admittedly sporadic) meditation to retrain my mind to more easily focus on Just One Thing at a time.  I downloaded a Pomodoro timer app on my phone to use when I’m writing, whether for this blog or for my own personal projects, and I made a list of little rewards for myself for when I reach a word count goal.
These steps are annoying.  My brain prefers constant entertainment (insert accusation about kids these days spending too much time on their smart phones and internet).  But then I remind myself (or I’m lucky enough to actually experience it again) how good it feels when I’m in a Writing Mood, when the words just come and there’s nothing between me and the page.  That’s the kind of focus I’m striving for, even if it means slogging through a lot of distractions.
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Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.

Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.

 

Convention

a meeting or formal assembly, as of representatives or delegates, for discussion of and action on particular matters of common concern

a rule, method, or practice established by usage

“So L. told me you do creative writing?” my coworker said/asked.  I looked up from my lunch in the workplace kitchen, slightly startled.  This coworker had always scared me a little.  But I’m always happy to nerd out a little about creative writing.

“Yeah, I want to be an author of long-form fantasy novels.  And maybe some historical fiction.”

She nodded, “That’s awesome,” and suddenly I found myself answering a lot of questions.  What was my writing schedule?  What podcasts did I listen to?  Who were my workshoppers?  What was my plan for getting an agent?  What was my timeline for finishing my novel?  What conferences had I been to?

“Actually, I’m going to a conference next weekend,” I said, and described it.  She waved a hand dismissively.

“Too many academics there.  You want to network at WorldCon or something like that instead,” she said.  “That’s where L. and I met Professor T. and A. B. – you know who that is, right?”  I could only shake my head as she barreled onward, completely overwhelming me with instructions as to how to make writing my career.  By the time she was done, I felt utterly hopeless.  How on earth was I going to educate myself on all these aspects of the publishing world?  And how had I ever thought I could be a writer when I was so ignorant?  I needed to catch up!

Then last weekend I went to that conference I told my coworker about.  My coworker probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.  I didn’t get any business cards, and I didn’t pitch a book idea to any agents or editors.  I had lunch and sat through panels with friends I had made the year before.  I chose seminars based on where I am in the writing process (very, very early stages).  I asked questions about things that interested me.  I nerded out about Anne Boleyn with a historical fiction writer.  Perhaps it didn’t do anything to greatly benefit my fledgling career, but the conference definitely benefited me.

Since announcing my intention to stay in our Small College Town and work on my writing while the Engineer finishes his degree, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to network (a terrifyingly vague term that still makes me cringe) and “start a career” despite my remote location.  But that’s never been what writing is about for me.  Yes, I’d love to write a bestselling novel, because it would mean other people wanted to read the same kinds of stories I’m interested in writing.  Taking time to write every day is more about seeing what I can do than about building any type of career.  I want a network of fellow writers and readers more than I want to memorize a roster of Who’s Who in Writing.

I do understand and appreciate the intentions of the people who ask me about my networking plans.  In many industries, connections are vital, and the earlier you make them, the better.  I realize it must seem like I’m approaching things a bit sideways.  This isn’t how convention says progress is made.  But I’m starting to value progress in my own head over progress on a society-based timeline.  At that conference, for example, one panelist said that his own shift in perspective came when he started calling himself a writer, even though he still had another full time job.  “Writer” was who he was, not just what he did.  That makes sense to me.  That is a step that feels concrete and real to me, even if my coworker might give me a pitying smile and say that until I can put it on my resume, I’m not really a writer.

I know that I am.  And that knowledge will give me the energy to keep working so the world can know it too.

So today I bought my ticket for NerdCon: Stories in October.  I’m going to meet up with the Commodore and talk about stories – written, filmed, recorded, sung, pantomimed, or any other kind of story – for a weekend.  And I’m extremely excited.  Maybe I’ll meet a future employer.  Maybe I’ll just have a really good time.  But I’m okay with either outcome as long as I can come home and write about it.

Drive

energy, ambition, or initiative

a trip or journey in a driven vehicle

I have trouble slowing down sometimes.  I am an avid multitasker, despite numerous studies that tell me it’s a lie and I would be better off focusing on just one thing at a time.  It makes me feel busier, which is something society approves of.  I reach for words like ambitioushardworkingdriven – they look good on resumes.  I’ve never been one to enjoy drifting aimlessly for more than a week or two.  I start getting restless during summer vacations.  And I always thought this was a good thing.

The Engineer and I went north the past two weekends to visit his family.  It’s only an hour and a half journey, nothing too taxing, through rolling hills and around gentle curves.  We passed windmills, which some people say ruin the view but which remind me of three-armed swimmers practicing their strokes.  I used to be able to read in the car when I was younger, but now it makes me carsick to read more than a quick text, so we talk and sing along to the radio or just sit in comfortable silence, remarking occasionally on a pretty farmhouse or a couple of deer in a field.

I never used to see a point in leisurely drives (nor did I enjoy driving in general – my learner’s permit expired twice and I put off getting my actual license until I was 17), but the Engineer takes us on a back road that winds through picturesque, tiny towns and the fields between them.  I want to stop and explore them, tease out the stories hidden here out of sight of the main highway.

This drive is so different from the definition I usually value.  My drive requires action and decisiveness.  A journey, however, requires only that you eventually reach a destination.  It doesn’t matter whether we take the usual route or explore a new one and get hopelessly lost.  Even the past participles take on different meanings: to be driven as seen on a resume is to be catapulted forward through life by one’s own energy.  It’s grammatically passive, but since the push comes from oneself, driven-ness retains agency.

To be driven in a car, however, is truly passive.  It means trusting the driver and relinquishing a certain amount of control over the journey.

Sitting in the passenger seat, good music on the radio, the sun setting outside, and the Engineer next to me, it occurs to me that perhaps I could stand to make a little more room for that second definition of drive in my life.

Decision

the act of or need for making up one’s mind
something that is decided; resolution
the quality of being decided; firmness
I make lists.  I run a pencil down the edge of a ruler and divide my cardstock into two columns, one Pro, one Con.  I begin jotting, neatly at first, then scribbling as it becomes a stream of consciousness, leaping from one side to the other like a Highland sword dance.
I ask advice.  I gather opinions like berries, examining each one for ripeness, letting them dye my fingers and adding my stained fingerprints to the already constructed lists.
I consider myself, my own head and heart.  I still have trouble with this one – for a long time, emotions had very little to do with my major choices, unless it was to tip a balanced scale at the last minute.  Choosing a high school came down to academic reputation.  Picking my college came down to finances.  Making a decision based on feelings didn’t seem “smart,” and I was all about making the “smart” choice.
Which is probably why I was so stuck.  Why I couldn’t articulate to my friends, my family, even to myself what I wanted.  Why my heart still beats a little faster when I say it out loud, much less type it out.
I’ve decided to stay in my college town for the next year after graduation.  I can keep my apartment and my job, both of which I love.  I can be near the Engineer while he finishes up his last year of undergrad (switching majors sophomore year throws things a little out of whack).  And I can work on my own writing so the next time I pitch a manuscript to someone and they want to read it, I’ll actually have something to send them.
And I’m pretty excited about all that.

Senseless

destitute or deprived of sensation; unconscious
lacking mental perception, appreciation, or comprehension
stupid or foolish, as persons or actions
nonsensical or meaningless, as words

We use this word a lot to describe horrific things.  “A senseless tragedy.”  “Senseless violence.”  And usually we take it to mean that there is no sense to this, that is it nonsense, this thing that has happened, we cannot make sense out of it because to any sensical person it is impossible to think this way.  Justifying it is meaningless.  You might as well try to argue that the world is flat.  We cannot make heads or tails of it.  Senseless.

But I think in the immediate aftermath of tragedies, we also mean that we are numb, that we are “destitute or deprived of sensation,” because sometimes the best way to handle such news is to shut down, at least for a moment.  Even worse, the hits just keep on coming.  Syria.  Beirut.  Paris.  After a while, the pain deadens the nerve endings rather than awakening them.  The sensation, the hopeless, helpless sensation, is there, but it is lessened with time and repetition.

Do we mean, perhaps, that our sense of outrage is limited?  That it is senseless to maintain a sense of anger because these things happen so often and the world is so dark?

I hope not.

I hope, instead, that we mean that we need to take a breath to ready ourselves for the feelings that accompany the confusion.

I hope we mean that we cannot make sense of these things because there is no sense behind them.  I hope we mean that it does not make sense to warp faith into violence, and that it does not make sense to blame the whole for the sins of one part.

And because we can recognize that, because we can say that we do not think that way and we will not think that way, we can do something.  We can change something.

It will be slow, and it will be hard, but we can make the world make sense again.

Want

to wish, need, crave, demand, or desire

to be without or be deficient in

“Tell me, right now, what you want.”

I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend in the tweed armchair on the other side of the end table.  I had asked her advice, or her listening, I suppose, because she is my peer, in a similar place in life, and because it was a retreat.  You do things like this on retreats, I thought, even if you’re leading them.  You have these conversations with yourself.  It’s inherent.  Walking away for a weekend, leaving behind homework, shedding those surface attachments, it all leaves room.  Quiet, quiet room in my mind for those wonderings.

What I want?

There have been too many voices contributing to that conversation; my own was drowned out long ago.  I don’t remember anymore, without any outside influences, what I want.

I want my colorful planner to be already laid out for the next five years, the way it has been all my life, but it isn’t.

What I want?

I want to work on my writing, to be near those I love, to simply go to work and come home and have time to do what I love and maybe enjoy my job as well, small things, really, when I list them like this, but I cannot want them, because they are not what I have said I wanted, what I claimed for myself, what others want for me.

I want not to be found wanting.  I desire things of my own, but worry that by fulfilling my own wishes I will become deficient in outsiders’ eyes.

What I want?

I’d like to know that too.  Or be able to admit that I know it, and that I want it at all.  That I think it’s what God wants for me, too, because I wouldn’t still feel this way otherwise.

I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend.  She wanted to know what I wanted.

And somehow, I told her.

Manuscript

the original text of an author’s work, handwritten or now usually typed,that is submitted to a publisher
writing, as distinguished from print
I attended my first writers’ conference a few weeks ago.  For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who talked and thought about writing and books and reading and storytelling as much as I do – and they didn’t look at me like I’d grown a second head when I described my writing process or gushed about the diction in my favorite novels.
Being surrounded by likeminded individuals, I’m learning, is very affirming.
While there, I had the opportunity to pitch my idea for a novel to editors and agents from publishers of all shapes and sizes all over the country.  It was a rather terrifying process, but I connected with an editor and an agent who both seemed genuinely interested in reading my story and asked to see it.  Suddenly, it all felt real – this idea that I would be a writer, that I was always writing anyway, was suddenly made more corporeal by the idea that someone (outside friends and family who kind of have to like whatever I do anyway) actually wants to read my story.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So now I’m frantically working to get my story into presentable shape so I can send it off.  Except they don’t call it a story, like I’ve been calling all my bits and pieces and fragments all these years.  It’s a manuscript (or at least, it will be).
Originating from medieval Latin for “written by hand,” manuscript to me suggests a sheaf of slightly crinkled papers covered in looping cursive and a few artistically placed ink blots, gently puffing out dust motes from the garret in which their creator scribbled down her ideas in a feverish haze.  It seems the kind of thing Jo March brought to her publishers, tied up with a ribbon.  My typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman pages seem too clean, too modern to merit such a literary term.
And yet, the painstaking work that goes into uncovering the precise language a story demands, the hours spent getting to know the characters, the effort taken to give a scene just the right effect, the feeling of giving up part of myself when I let someone else act as a beta reader (usually Bird, who is supportive but not blindly so)…yes, this is writing of my own hand, transcribed from imagination by my rapidly tapping fingers on the keyboard.  It’s the original text of my own work.
Now I just have to find a garret to hole up in until I finish.

Enjoy

to experience with joy; to take pleasure in

For someone whose brain rarely shuts up, I have a tough time with mindfulness.  The concept of being present, of taking in each thing as it comes instead of constantly planning and worrying, makes plenty of sense when I look at it objectively.  Executing the practice, on the other hand…

Sometimes it seems as though there’s too much space in my mind devoted to doubts, worries, rants, complaints, and failures.  My memories love to dredge up classic reruns of my most embarrassing moments, so much so that I’ll be squirming in my seat at the thought of something that happened years ago.  I may not be the best at this “adult” thing, but I feel like blurting out something awkward in 5th grade shouldn’t still bother me so much.  (Then again, if any of you have found a way to truly get over your middle school embarrassments, for the love of all that is good in this world, TELL ME YOUR WAYS.)

Some people call this “negative self-talk.”  These same people tell me of something called “self-compassion,” which is, again, a concept that sounds grand but is tricky to implement.  My thoughts have worn ruts of worry in my synapses.  I don’t have the time, it seems, to stop and breathe.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about the word “enjoy” lately.  It caught me while I was rereading Madeleine L’Engle’s excellent memoir A Circle of Quiet, where she spends several early chapters discussing the concept of joy.  She talks about existing, about resting, in that joy she feels in a simple moment – and she talks, too, about how rare it is for her to quiet herself enough to do that.  It comforts me that I am not the only one who has difficulty simply being.

The word “enjoy” originally came from Middle English for “to make joyful,” or Old French for “to give joy to.”  Joy, it seems to me, is a much more serious business than mere contentment or happiness.  “Happy” has something of a giddiness to it.  “Joy” has weight.  It leaves an imprint.  But that mark, that gentle, comforting weight like a hand on our shoulder, only comes when we let ourselves “enjoy,” when we let ourselves exist in the moment.  In joy.

So I’ve been trying to pay attention to the joyful moments, to the little things that allow me to exist “in joy” for a second or two, and to rest, rather than squirm, in the unusual quiet of my brain.

I started off easy – it’s all too natural for me to enjoy the first sip of coffee in the morning, or a well-written sentence that makes me close the book and stare off into space for a moment to absorb the craft of the words, or a monarch butterfly flashing across my path, or a fuzzy puppy rolling over and begging to be petted.

But it’s other things too.  It’s realizing that it doesn’t bother me to eat lunch alone in a strange town because I know I’m here for an internship that provides me with work I truly love doing.  It’s one-word texts from the Engineer.  It’s establishing witty rapport almost immediately with my new coworkers.  And it’s stepping outside the trailer in the evening and letting comfort seep down from a starry dome, even though it’s cold, even though I should go to sleep, because it feels good just to be – just to exist in joy.

Now I’m curious – what do you enjoy?