Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Budgeted Life


Lately I’ve been having lots of monetary thoughts.  I’m thinking of working only part-time next school year, so that I can make more noticeable progress on writing projects in the extra time.  However, cutting down hours means cutting down pay.  I’ve had to start saving up for the coming year. 

The chief thing that is worrisome is the unpaid summers.  I could look for a part time job, but I appreciate the couple of months to recuperate, write, edit and do school preparations in peace.  So, in order to be a teacher for ten months and a writer for two, I have to put aside quite a bit of savings.  On a reduced, part-time salary, achieving that goal will be more of a challenge, so I’m currently saving for two summers, to give myself a cushion. 

So at this point you may be wondering why I’m discussing money on my blog.  It’s all part of my 1000 interests, of course!  Seriously, though, working out my new budget has made me stop to think about organization. 

Too much entropy and you end up with a ruin!
My mom is a very organized person, and she passed the trait on to me.  However, even if it’s a natural tendency, there’s always entropy to battle with.  If one isn’t careful, laundry ends up piled on a chair, books on the floor, envelopes all over the desk and random objects on the closet floor.  And that’s just one room!  Without making a conscious decision to stay organized, disorder tends to start creeping in. 

One of my chief memories of all my mom’s acquaintances from when I was a little girl was how they’d all step in our front door and exclaim, ‘Oh, your house is so clean! It’s so organized! You’re so on top of things!’ There would be this note of longing in their voice, as if they thought Mom was gifted with magical powers.  I always found this irritating (even as a child of nine or ten!).  See, I watched my mom, dutifully doing at least a little cleaning every day, never letting a dish sit dirty in the sink, keeping a calendar of events so nothing would be forgotten, pulling out the iron for three shirts a day – all in the pursuit of what she regards as an ideal. 

In other words, organization is secretly a fair amount of hard work. 

Since we all tend to be somewhat like my mom’s friends, though – wishing for a secret to perfect results – I figured I might weigh in on my own technique.   

Weaving such delicate patterns!
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more convinced about how interwoven things are.  The last paper I wrote in college was about the secret unity of all branches of knowledge.  I’ve since expanded my notion to encompass everything, not just knowledge.  This unity is very helpful when it comes to organization!

See, I used to be much more content with things getting out of control.  One area I’ve always kept an iron grip on, though, is money.  I really don’t want to be in debt, so I stay very on top of all my financial matters.  Since I put in all the effort to make sure I don’t overspend, I get quite a bit of satisfaction from the process.  Savings in the bank helped the feeling. 

Then I realized that organizing my house is much like organizing my funds.  Just as my budget gives me all the money I need, or at least a plan for saving it, so I have a clean, livable house, thanks to putting in some steady efforts to keep everything in its place.  Everything is easy to find and important to me. 

One source ripples the whole pond!
Organization spread to work.  Instead of putting off school preps to the last moment, usually I try and get them done about a week beforehand.  This saves me a lot of stress, since for the most part I don’t have to scramble around at the last moment (of course, I’m not perfect, so there’s still some scrambling that happens!).

Lately I’ve even thought that this sort of organization works with writing.  Instead of procrastinating on editing or saying to myself that I’ll write tomorrow, I try to get it done today.  Even if I only make a tiny bit of progress, I still feel happy from even that small step. 

So in short, thanks to a long standing habit of keeping organized in just one small area, I’ve been able to expand that habit to more and more realms.  Starting small has led to big results – always a good feeling. 

If you think about it, everything we have is limited: money, space, time, resources, even life.  A budget allows us to live inside our limits with comfort and happiness and freedom.  Instead of building up debts (money owed, time to be found in the future, projects to be completed later) which we’re never sure we’ll be able to repay, we can live within our human means and be at peace.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Wonderful Productivity


The spring break at the school where I teach is always arranged to fall about halfway between Christmas and Easter.  We’re on a trimester schedule, so we have a long school year with extended vacations to divide the trimesters, and shorter ones in the middle to give us a much-needed break.

I love the intricate paths you see from airplanes!
I tend to go on trips during the mid-term vacations.  In the past I’ve visited college friends in Texas, my brother in California, family in Kentucky.  This year, it was time to see Vasnefy in New York, and I’d planned a visit last Fall, but Hurricane Sandy ferociously intervened.  I postponed my trip to just this past week. 

Travel has always been something I’ve enjoyed, as long as it’s not too frequent.  An occasional trip, say two a year, is refreshing and enjoyable, but more than that begins to make me go a bit crazy.  I’m not cut-out to be a jet-setter!  But since this was my first trip of the year, it was quite perfect.  I stayed for a few days in upstate New York, then drove down with Vasnefy to Washington, D.C., to attend a play.

It was a whirlwind, but still enjoyable, because it woke up my mind.  In the 10 hours driving from New York to Virginia, my friend and I talked and talked, discussing our jobs and our friends and family, the ins-and-outs of personality and relationships, and of course our story inspirations.  Then on top of that mental stimulation, we also attended a D.C. performance of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses

The play was magnificent.  Using the vehicle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it presented the soul’s search for love, moving from tales of obsession (Midas and the golden touch was the initiation of the drama) to stories of perfect love and harmony with Eros and Psyche, followed by Baucis and Philemon, whom the gods turned into intertwined trees so that they might never live or die apart. 

The most striking idea of the play came during the Eros and Psyche episode.  The narrators, watching the girl and the god play out their romance, commented that when Psyche was convinced by her sisters to disobey her husband and discover what he looked like, fearing that he was a monster in spite of the sweetness of their love, she lacked ‘radical trust.’  Slowly, slowly over the years as I’ve thought about the world and people and our roles as human beings, I’ve also become convinced of that need for radical trust – in God, in our friends and lovers, in human nature.  However, I’d never put the idea into two perfect words like that. 

What is most beautiful about art is how it encapsulates our greatest ideas and gives them back to us, transfigured and clarified. 

Even a good view can be inspiring!
So as you can imagine, the play alone made the trip completely worthwhile, but on a more pragmatic note, it also allowed me to accomplish a great deal.  It’s enjoyable to travel with a friend, of course, but when one’s life is busy (as so many of our lives are!) a solo flight is the best.  In the hours and hours of quiet and stillness, it’s possible to tackle an amazing amount of work.  I always recommend a plane trip to anyone who needs to get some writing done!

As I’ve chronicled in my blog, the process of editing my novel, The Art of Dying, has been a bit stop-and-go.  I seem finally to have hit a good schedule of a couple pages a day with it, but the trip also gave me an enormous advantage.  During three of my five flights, I edited no less than 20 pages.  It was an exhilarating feeling. 

Moreover, since editing goes fast in such a quiet environment, I was also able to read a good 2/3’s of Life of Pi (perhaps a review of that shall come later when I finish!), write a couple of letters, plus take a couple of naps.  It was lovely. 

Making small and steady progress is a wonderful feeling, as I’ve discovered since becoming more faithful to writing/editing a bit every night, instead of only on weekends.  However, occasionally we need the mood booster and the triumph that comes from getting a lot done at once. 

We have so much opportunity!
Of course I was joking earlier when I suggested that we all fly when we need to accomplish something, but I do recommend that we seek out occasions to throw ourselves into work and thus renew our resolve.  If you have children, perhaps an evening when they’re out for a sleepover is an option.  If you work at a bank or school, perhaps Presidents’ Day next week is a perfect opportunity. 

Obviously it’s impossible to achieve maximum productivity at all times – what with the 1000 other things we have to do, it would be a good recipe for insanity – but moments of maximum productivity re-energize us in a pleasantly paradoxical way.  Or at least, that’s what I find.  I’d love to know what you all do to wake up your flagging spirits and gain a new lease on creativity.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Kindle Some Reading


On Robin McKinley’s blog, the rotating selection of quotes in the top right hand corner occasionally declares: “Sometimes I think a writer should make up his mind whether he's going to be a writer or a reader. There isn't time for both.”

These words of the writer Jessamyn West make me scratch my head. 

This is my general attitude towards books!
See, I started out as a reader.  Books were my drug of choice as a child.  I’d curl up in the over-stuffed chair in the den with a stack of seven library books on the floor by me.  Five motionless hours later, I’d have read most of the stack.  Mom would call me to dinner and once her voice actually penetrated my otherwise absorbed brain, I’d emerge sort of red-eyed and staggery, but blissfully happy.  Sounds like an addiction, doesn’t it? 

It was the best kind, though, since it could be cheaply fed and actually made me a brighter child over all. 

That’s why it has made me sad that my reading rate has plummeted during the past four years.  I teach and write and keep in touch with people via chat.  Somehow that specific combination of activities leaves me with no reading time.  I console myself by thinking about the quote above.  ‘At least I’m writing,’ I tell myself. 

The written word needs to be nourished by the read word, though.  Writers require an atmosphere of stories and knowledge and style and fluent vocabulary and ideas and good punctuation in order to keep their skills from growing rusty.  Where else can they find such an atmosphere, except in books (combined with blogs and periodicals, of course)? 

What can replace a work of art like a book?
On the other hand, as someone who has tried it, I can attest that reading a book while trying to chat online is well-nigh impossible.  However, sometimes it’s necessary, especially when your allotment of free time during the day is the only chance you have to communicate with friends, but also the only chance to read.  As you can imagine, though, picking up a book, reading a page, putting it down, typing a response in the IM window, losing your place in the book, finding it again, reading an IM response, reading another book page, etc., etc.—the process doesn’t work too well. 

Recently I had a breakthrough, though.  For years, you see, I’ve been regarding electronic readers with suspicion.  ‘What about the beautiful texture of paper and the dusty book smell and the weight on your knees and the sound of pages turning?’ I thought to myself.  After all, the sensual engagement in reading certainly contributes to the pleasure of it. 

Then over Christmas I decided to read the Hunger Games trilogy.  My brother let me borrow his Amazon Kindle, since he had the books loaded onto it.  Suddenly I realized that I no longer had to worry about losing my place.  Granted it wasn’t perfectly convenient because I still had to switch between devices to read and to chat, but at least the unwieldy element of the book was removed.  I managed to get through the entire trilogy in two days, in spite of reading it at night when I do most of my chatting with friends. 

Reading makes my mind prance with energy!
After ruminating over this experience for a while, I remembered that my friend, Vasnefy, has been reading Kindle books on her computer for several years.  Perhaps I could do the same, without having to invest in the actual reader.  So I downloaded the program to my computer.  Voila: reading material and chat engine combined in one convenient laptop! 

While I do think that the many conveniences of our world can enable us to pack too many activities into each day, in moderation that ability can be a blessing.  In the three weeks I’ve been experimenting with my PC Kindle reader, I’ve managed to read a novel and two memoir/self-help books.  My brain is being reenergized by the new ideas and stories.  In the same period, I’ve edited a chapter and a half of my novel and started thinking about how to rework old story ideas. 

This blog post may sound like an advertisement for Kindles and Nooks, but actually my point is more general.  In a busy life, reading is one of the first things to get sacrificed.  It’s hardly essential, we reason, and so we chuck it out the window in favor of work and projects and friends.  Perhaps we hardly even notice that a certain sterility starts creeping into our minds and ideas at the same time. 

The wonderful thing, though, is that the sterility is almost instantly obliterated when we find something stimulating to read again.  The influx of new words and new points of view rush in and wake us up to the wonderful world of writing.  So even if it has to be squeezed into odd moments, through unorthodox means, don’t be afraid to make reading part of your multi-tasking.  I think it will pay off by revitalizing your writing and relaxing your mind.