It’s almost July. More than half of 2020 is over, and life since March has felt like a blur, partly because I don’t feel like I have much to show for it, and partly because I’ve actually been incredibly busy despite almost always being home. How can that be possible?
This unprecedented pandemic, naturally, has occupied our lives. I spend a lot of time accounting for its presence. But really it’s just time itself, slipping away per the usual.
The issue of time feels particularly difficult with children. They eat up a lot of your time. Kids also flourish with the investment of your time, so it’s a never ending balancing act between self-preservation and self-sacrifice. When I’m playing with the kids or running them around (or rather, Zooming them around these days) to their piano or Japanese lessons, I feel guilty about the things I am not doing. When I am doing my work and not engaging with them, I feel guilty for not spending more time with them. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t as a mother. Meanwhile, people wonder why you aren’t doing more.
And yet parenthood isn’t the only quicksand we fall into. Some of us choose to step in other bottomless pits.
This balancing act– the art of keeping one’s head above water– is what challenges me on a daily basis. I strive to perfect a balance that will enable me to be a good mother yet still pursue the other things that fulfill me as a person. It can feel overwhelming.
I once read something about productivity that advised visualizing a 1” frame when trying to get work done. It’s a way of figuring out where to start when you find yourself staring blankly at a daunting endeavor. You just have to fill that tiny frame. Don’t worry about painting a larger canvas. Just a 1” frame. Somewhere else, I’ve heard it referred to as “chunking.” One chunk at a time. There are plenty of cliche quotes about journeys and taking it step-by-step, but they are cliche because they are true.
Sometimes I draw a tiny frame in my bullet journal, and inside of it I write the next important task for me to do. It forces me to prioritize. Prioritizing is the worst for me. I dither over numerous priorities that inevitably clash and paralyze myself with second-guessing. To make it worse, I am still learning how to say no and protect my boundaries without explaining myself or feeling guilty.
And we have so, so, so many distractions. We’re constantly being pulled in a thousand directions, forced to make choices about how to spend our energy. Choices inevitably result in loss, no matter how you cut it. They also lead to change and growth and progress. It can feel difficult to plow through the fatigue, separating legitimate tiredness from mental fog and apathy. And the quicksand– it’s always there, waiting to take our energy from us. Every day can feel booby trapped in an effort to snatch away our productivity.
I’m unhappy right now because I am up five pounds since April. Probably the dreaded quarantine pounds. I’ve been working out more than ever, but I’ve also never had my freezer so full of ice cream drumsticks as I have in the last few months. It’s all about the diet at the end of the day. Now to lose these five pounds and go back to my original plan of losing five pounds, making that a total of 10 pounds to lose. It’s deflating. Back to calibrating what I eat and how I move. Time to deal with the mental fog. No more reaching for a snack before I sit down to get some work done. The ultimate tug-of-war between what I know I need to do and primal desire. As I write this, I’m eyeing the clock and thinking an early bedtime is in order to stave off hunger.
During these months at home, I’ve been trying not to let the kids implode on their devices. I bought several things for them to do during their COVID-19 childhood, including a trampoline, a climbing dome, a gymnastics bar, camping supplies, and an outdoor movie projector. Anything to turn our homestead into an adventure since we are limiting our outings. I took them camping recently for one night, trying our hand at something different while still practicing safe social distancing. It went okay, but there were still too many people out on trails, within 6 feet of us, without masks. I’m erring on the side of overly cautious, and thankfully my kids never question my intent or rules.
“Mom, you are like super smart,” my five-year-old said to me. “You always do your homework.”
The homework being my master’s degree, which I am eight weeks away from finishing. Something else that has been sucking my time.
I am thankful that my children trust me and respect my wisdom and ability to do my homework, but it is also a big responsibility, especially as a single mom. When their father was around, at least we could bounce ideas off of each other. These days, I must seek out information and make my own assessments, and the weight can feel heavy. I don’t have all of the answers, and I don’t have a magic ball to predict what our futures will look like. All I can do is make decisions based on my research.
Being overly cautious is testing my mental stamina though, to be sure. And boundaries. Those boundaries I’m not always good at defending.
I think about what it takes to build discipline in anything that we do. Like piano and Japanese lessons and practicing sports. How do parents get their kids to want to practice every day? We take evening walks almost daily, and we pass by a house that has a batting cage in the backyard. The father and son are out there nightly. How??? It’s like pulling teeth to get my kids to want to throw balls or practice the piano or get on Duolingo for extra practice. It’s miraculous if they do any of these things on their own, without me nagging. I don’t want to let them off the hook too easy, so I make them do a bare minimum each week. Yet I dream of my kids putting in the hours on their own, without my prompting. I also don’t want to stress myself out nagging them to do something they really don’t like– what’s the point? It’s a fine line between helping them build discipline and knowing where your kids’ hearts are.
What are the secrets to building habits and iron-clad discipline?
I find myself questioning my own intentions when I’m staring at a computer screen, finding reasons not to write. Or putting off exercise. Or avoiding a particular task. Do I really want to do this thing I purport to want to do and be, or do I need to admit that it’s not my cup of tea?
I came across this Zen Koan quote: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
You’ve got to do the work. Take the tiny steps. One thing at a time. One pound at a time. One word at a time. One chore at a time. One goal at a time.
Incredibly difficult. Yet, this seems to be what life is really about. Sure, end goals and destinations are important, but we spend most of our time doing the things that take us there. There is no destination without the work, and the work doesn’t end when we reach the destination. The only logical conclusion is to enjoy the work, somehow, in our own way.
We’re in the midst of rising COVID-19 infection rates in my city and county and state– a 69% spike in cases reported a few days ago. It’s difficult to see pictures of people having their social gatherings, not wearing masks, making decisions that are going to jeopardize lives– theirs and mine. I went to buy donuts for the kids for the first time in forever, just as a special treat. It looked like everything was fine, until I walked in and the lady behind the counter had no mask on. I was mad that I even allowed myself to think it was okay to venture out to buy the kids donuts. These are the kinds of calculated choices we have to make in 2020.
This is the world we live in now.
Epidemiologist Becca Miller wrote, “If it hasn’t happened yet, very soon somebody you know will be very sick. If it hasn’t happened yet, somebody you know is going to die.”
It’s scary to let your mind wander to those what ifs. What if it is someone in my family? A friend? What if it is me?
I go back to the Zen quote: chop wood, carry water.
You have to do what you know you need to do, and accept the outcome whatever it may be. What is the next right thing to do? Boil it down to the basics. Keep doing those things.
Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Social distancing.
Stay the course.
If you don’t stay the course, understand that you will have to accept the consequences.
I think with anything, we get mentally blocked. There are things we know we should do, but don’t want to do for whatever reason. It’s hard. The mental fog is there. I have it. I’m battling it as we speak: counting calories, finishing assignments, writing a chapter, doing chores. I want to do these things, but I kind of don’t want to do them. I’ve got writer’s block. I’m deflated by the number on the scale. I have a thousand excuses and my mind is already thinking about searching online for some camping cookware that I really don’t need right at this precise moment. I spend a lot of time untangling stuff in my head.
Somebody once asked in one of my Facebook groups, “How can I get laundry done more efficiently? Clean clothes just stay unfolded for a week and I need your best tips.”
The poster wanted the secret to magically tackling laundry and folding, but the only thing I could share with them was the “swallow the frog” method. You just have to do it, and preferably quickly.
I remember we used to have laundry on our couch for a week. Kenneth and I would look at each other and wait for the other person to make the first move. It took nagging and finger pointing and meltdowns and lots of excuses before it was finished, and sometimes weeks passed and new loads of clean clothes added to the heap. It was the same story with the dishes (although, to be fair, that was actually his job per our agreed upon division of labor). There was a leaning tower of dirty dishes at the end of each night, and he’d begrudgingly do it after I threw a fit. These tasks were almost always a huge ordeal.
When Kenneth passed away, I found myself with all of the jobs I didn’t want to do. Taking out the trash. Laundry. Folding. Dishes.
My oldest son, 6-years-old at the time, literally asked me, “Who will wash the dishes now that Daddy is gone?”
“I will,” I reassured him. “Don’t worry, I’ll do all of it.” But I was worried. Very worried.
There was no easy fix other than to just suck it up and do the work and keep up with it.
Chop wood, carry water.
I’ve done a pretty good job in the past four years keeping up with household chores on my own, but I can’t do everything. There is always some area I’m slacking in. My retired dad likes to remind me to water the patio plants and he never fails to give me more effective strategies to organize my garage.
I imagine someday, probably when my kids are grown, I’ll finally know where the screwdrivers go in the toolbox. I might even figure out what a wrench is used for, or the difference between a nut and a bolt (I had to Google both just to make sure there really was a difference. Yikes.) Or I can swallow the frog and figure these things out now, but for whatever reason, I have chosen not to prioritize them.
Years ago I read Buddhism for Mothers, back when I was curious about Buddhism but not really committed to the practice of it. The book mentioned how mothers could turn dishwashing or vacuuming into meditative practices. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama reference this idea too. Anything can become meditative.
When I took the kids camping, I realized the entire activity–widely regarded as peaceful and meditative– is exactly that: lots of tiny tasks done in the absence of the usual hustle and bustle in our lives. It’s not really that relaxing. We don’t get to loaf around and have a waiter bring us a cocktail. When you camp, you go to bed exhausted for a reason. All day you stay busy making, sweeping, chopping, cooking, cleaning, prepping, scrubbing, tending, lugging, fiddling– nonstop. You even spend time calculating middle-of-the-night bathroom runs. But you are in the wilderness, so these tasks are your only concern. The most basic acts of human survival, and no emails or household chores or projects from work looming over your head. As unappealing as all of that sounds, the simple act of taking care of your immediate needs can in fact be soothing to the soul.
Camping can illustrate why transforming daily chores into meditative acts and cultivating the ability to tune out the rest of the noise in life is calming and worthwhile. It is good practice in controlling the flow of thoughts and quieting the mind. Being able to focus on the next step and minimize distractions.
Maybe I should have told the person who posted asking for laundry help this: I pick a day to do my laundry. Friday is my laundry day. First I do the towels, because they are easy and quick to fold and it tricks our minds into thinking we are folding champions. Then, I do another load. Usually two more. Clean clothes get piled on the couch all at once, and then the kids and I sort everything into a basket for each person, lined up in birth order. After, each person takes their basket into their rooms and hangs their personal clothes and puts away their socks and underwear in their proper drawers. Step-by-step. We repeat this process each week. The clothes are absolutely not allowed to stay on the couch– swallow the frog.
Chop wood, carry water.
I am noticing many people experiencing COVID-19 with serious cases of cognitive dissonance. We don’t like it. It makes us uncomfortable and scared. It’s inconveniencing us and ruining how we want to live. All of this is a major shock to our brain.
I am observing people searching for ways to minimize the pandemic. Maybe trying to convince themselves that this isn’t very serious, and that a mask won’t do anything. Some people are blaming politics. Others feel it is overblown hype and unnecessary paranoia, so they continue to keep going out, because of course *their* family and *their* friends don’t have it. It’s other peoples’ problems. It’s never going to be *our* problem.
Some people bury their head in the sand and pretend it isn’t there.
Other people experience cognitive dissonance and want to backwards rationalize their actions that are in conflict with a belief.
We all do that.
Somebody rejects us, and we convince ourselves that we didn’t like that person anyway. We don’t want to sit with the discomfort that we are probably not everyone’s cup of tea, or maybe our actions led to an unfavorable impression. It makes us sad and embarrassed when people don’t like us. To cope, we spin another version of the story. The version that fits our lifestyle and worldview.
But perhaps sitting with our discomfort is the secret to conquering dishes, pushing through writer’s block, or surviving a pandemic?
Wear your mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing.
It’s the micro-choices we make that add up. Choosing not to eat the ice cream bar. Sitting your butt down in front of the computer until you’ve written something. Tackling one assignment at a time. Putting the mask on. Seeking life balance. Calibrating. Starting over. Trying again. Reflecting. Listening. Learning. Believing that all of the discomfort is worthwhile.
Chop wood, carry water.
The progress may feel slow, but we all know what a leaky faucet can do.
Buddha said, “Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.”
You start by figuring out what goes in your 1″ frame. One day at a time. One inch at a time, and know that it all adds up sooner than we think.