Although my relative blog silence may not indicate it to most of my readers, the past two months have been very busy for me. Much of this business has involved very prosaic activities (laundry, errands, carnevale & Easter goody bags for the kids’ classes). Of course, the unique context of my current sojourn in Italy colors even these day-to-day activities with unusual challenges and rewards, and it also offers amazing opportunities to otherwise fill my time (ski weekends in the Alps, school field trip to the Triennale Design Museum, shopping day-trip to Venice — I’ll stop before you all stop reading out of pique!)
The particular business of the last two months, however, has involved a few longer-term commitments that have combined into a lesson I didn’t realize I needed to learn. The first part of that lesson is just a reminder of something I already knew about myself: I am the kind of person who likes clear, concrete, defined goals, especially when said goals offer specific deadlines against which I can track my progress. Aficionados of psychological testing will nod their heads sagely when I reveal that my dominant personality trait all three times I have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test has been “judging.” This doesn’t mean that I am judgmental (I hasten to explain, since we “Js” highly dislike both ineffective communication and mis-categorization). What it does mean is this: while at different points of my life my score for my source of energy has slid across the line between introversion and extraversion, and my preference for making decisions has tended to balance nearly equally between thinking and feeling, there is no doubt that my lifestyle is governed by a preference for structure and organization.
This controlling preference has expressed itself directly, as I said, in a few longer-term commitments that have been dominating much of my time in recent months. The first such commitment is my writing. No, not my blog, I know. This particular medium of expression has been consistent only for its infrequency and its failure to meet even my modest self-imposed deadline of one entry per month. I’m referring instead to my commitment that before I leave Italy I will complete a long-term dream: to write a novel. I first dreamed this dream when I was 8 or 9 years old and tried my hand at penning a fantasy adventure story (that particular effort petered out after three or four chapters and is now lying in repose in my mom’s garage, if it hasn’t ended its sad little life in the recycle bin). My more mature effort, however, has been germinating for over a year and a half, and is the proud owner of an entire notebook filled with plot outline and character sketches, snatches of dialogue and random draft scenes. Until January of this year, however, the translation of all this planning into sequential written prose was going very slowly. While I love to write, there always seemed to be dishes to wash, or groceries to buy, or friends to meet for coffee, or blog entries to write, and I found it very difficult to carve out the time demanded by this serious ambition.
Then, one of those cappuccino-loving friends challenged me to start setting deadlines for myself. Not the vague, future goal of “finish before I leave Italy,” but a week-by-week schedule of chapter completion that would get me to my goal with a little room to spare. What a difference a deadline makes! The novel has transformed from an idea to an actual story, with nearly eighty pages and 8 1/2 chapters of substance stored on my hard drive. Granted, the schedule of completion charted in the margins of my calendar had me completing chapter 10 by April 5, but considering that I was only part way through chapter 2 in late-January (after 6 months of work) I will celebrate this page-count as a practical victory.
I am all the more inclined to revel in this progress because of the other goal that absorbed a lot of my time in the last two months – training for my first 10K race. Unlike the novel, this achievement had never been a long-cherished desire. Before February of this year I had never even run 5 kilometers at a go in my life and I have never considered myself an athlete. At another January coffee date, however, another friend suggested that I try to run the Stramilano of the 50,000 with her in March. That evening, just to see if it was even plausible, I went surfing the internet for a 10K training schedule for first-time racers. Of course, once I had that clear, beautiful schedule beaming off my computer screen, with the first two training runs fatefully set at the exact distance I was already running twice a week, I was hooked. This wasn’t just the gratifying structure of regular deadlines. This was a professionally constructed schedule of deadlines specifically prepared for runners in my exact situation. I organized my daily routine around that schedule — never scheduling coffee for Tuesdays or Thursday so that I could do my runs; trading my vacation morning of watching the kids (so that Tyler could ski) for an hour to run on the hotel treadmill; scheduling a babysitter on the weekend that Tyler was away so that I wouldn’t miss my first 3 mile training run. As the race day approached and my fitness improved I added a bonus incentive: the measurable goal of a run time. This system of deadlines, goals, and measurable results was magic. On the 24th of March even a sudden bout of vomiting minutes before the race did not dissuade me (note to other novice runners – don’t add an orange to your breakfast on race day, too much acid). When the loudspeaker boomed our “Via” and the hundreds of red balloons released into the sky above the Duomo, I was off: dodging race walkers (it’s a very non-competitive race), puddles (it rained the entire morning), and real runners coming up from the rear (a few of whom I gratifyingly re-passed later on once they ran out of steam). I certainly didn’t set any records, but at 68 minutes I beat my goal time by 2 minutes and felt the rush of a goal achieved.
So much for the affirmation of a character trait that 36 years has firmly established in the understanding of anyone who knows me at all well. The real point of this entry in the caveat that I must now add to my assertion that my soul yearns for structure, and organization, and deadlines: deadlines don’t work for lifelines. You see, the last two months have also contained the season of the Christian church year termed lent, and this year I tried to impose a deadline schedule on my spiritual practice for observing this season. Although the practice of “giving up” something for lent is relatively unusual in the generally evangelical branch of Christianity to which I belong, I have come to deeply appreciate this discipline in the past 7 or 8 years. It provides a chance to temporarily eliminate some small thing from my daily life that it not intrinsically bad, but that can be more fruitfully replaced with prayer or meditation. So, for example, when I gave up chocolate for the span between Ash Wednesday and Easter, my predictable daily yearnings for that sweet, rich confection provided a dependable reminder to re-center my awareness on gratitude to the God who gave up so very much more to reestablish a bridge for direct relationship with human beings, myself included.
So, this year my spiritual “fast” was from Facebook. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Facebook. To the contrary, since my move to Italy it has become a valued point of contact with “home” that allows me to know what is happening in the lives of my friends and to keep them informed about my European adventures without spending hours on the phone or e-mail, or composing generic mass letters. All the same, this useful tool can be a wasteful time drain and a distraction from precious moments with my children and husband. So, I committed to abstain from the little blue app on my phone for 46 days. The negative side of fasting, however, the “giving up” is not the full purpose of lent. Rather, the Lenten practice is aimed at replacing the denied pleasure with one that is spiritual in nature. And so, before signing off from Facebook on February 13 I made a list of all my Facebook “friends” and committed to pray for each of them at least twice during lent. Thus was born my Lenten schedule of deadlines. What a wonderful plan for my organizer’s soul. I could stay indirectly connected to all those distant friends and family in a spiritually vital way, and redeem some of that lost time I had been wasting clicking on electronic posters proclaiming familiar truisms as though they were the newest idea since the iphone5. This might be my best Lenten practice ever!
Well, yes and no. It was certainly good to pray for my friends and extended family, although this practice brought with it the uncomfortable realization of just how infrequently I do this except when I am aware of moments of crisis in their lives. It was also both good and uncomfortable to shine a spotlight on my inconsistency with prayer in general. While I aim for a daily time of prayer, early wake-up from kids and unplanned phone calls or class e-mails often disrupt these plans, and I was not aware of quite how often I miss my goal until I had a daily schedule. Planning to pray for 6 friends a day suddenly makes missing “a day or two” much more concrete when that list grows to 24 the next time I actually sit down with it.
Unfortunately, this spotlight was not very motivating. It turns out that prayer is really not much like running. When illness or travel temporarily derailed my training schedule I would sit down with my calendar and schedule out a shift to avoid getting behind in my progress toward my goal. When the Gigglemonster started his morning yell for “Mommy!” 45 minutes early, however, I would write myself a bleary mental note about doing my prayer time later that day, and then forget about it until the next day, when my reaction to “reading” that mental note was a mumbled “Oh crud, I only have 20 minutes, how am I going to get through 12 people plus reading scripture?” That’s not how I want to feel about prayer. I expect to have to drag myself to lace up my running shoes — that’s why I need a training schedule — but my prayer schedule seemed to work in reverse: it made into a burden what should have been a source of joy and renewal.
Now I want to be clear, even in my organizationally-obsessed mind prayer is not subject to formula; it is not a magical incantation that needs to be said just perfectly in order to “work.” Just the opposite, I experience prayer as a conversation that only “works” in the sense of the relationship it builds. The effectiveness of prayer thus depends upon the conversation partners, and in this relationship I have no illusions about where the problems come from. The God I pray to is no baal – he does need to be woken up, or called back from a journey, or interrupted in the midst of relieving bodily functions. God is always present and is always worth talking to, if I can get my head into the space where I can actually engage. And this is where my prayer schedule ran me into trouble. This Lenten journey has brought me to the realization that despite my type A, organization-loving, schedule-dependent nature, deadlines are limited in their utility. Deadlines are for things that you need to do despite the fact that they aren’t always fun — important, good for you, even necessary, but things that you are tempted to put off when there are competing options for how to spend your time. Problems come when I apply this model of motivating myself to activities that offer their own intrinsic motivation, because the deadline mentality replaces this motivation.
This pattern applies not just to prayer. The same danger arises when I start evaluating and calculating the minutes I spend in “quality time” interacting with my children (“Oh no! we haven’t done any art projects this week – quick, pull out the paints even if Princess Imagination would rather play let’s pretend and the Gigglemonster is screaming for the Wii”), or connecting with my husband (the compulsion to try to force a substantive conversation rather than another night of cuddling in front of the TV — regardless of how physically and mentally exhausted we both feel). When I start thinking in terms of quantifiable goals or benchmarks of adequate achievement the joy of the interaction gets lost in the task-nature of creating it. When I apply the patterns and structures of work to my sources of meaning and joy, then they become work. But while work is important for life, and I do sometimes need to put work into these sources of life’s meaning, I also need to remember the difference between life and work. The most important relationships in my life, with my God and with my family, are my lifelines to an existence that means more than a series of schedules and goals.
And so, as I embark on my 37th year of life, I have a new goal: to distinguish my lifelines from my deadlines, and to put them in their proper order. I can get satisfaction from meeting deadlines and achieving goals, but that is not what makes my life alive, and no deadline is more important that making sure that I really live each day.
(A few of the things that have been filling my time, and bringing me joy:)