Wouldn’t it be good to be productive and successful all the time
and deal with everything calmly?
Well, yes. But …
That absorbing author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said something that struck me this week: “Life doesn’t always follow an ideology,” she said, “You might believe in certain things and life gets in and things just become messy. You know?”
I know. I often felt like that during February, which can be a flat month for many. I worked hard at this and that; I fulfilled family responsibilities a bit here and a bit there; I felt over-worked one week and slightly wearied the next, and I experienced satisfaction at one minute and dissatisfaction the next. What happened to motivation, regular meditation, disciplined writing, order and direction? How did life get messy while my back was turned? Perhaps you’ve been in this situation yourself?
Cool, calm and collected
Oh, to be cool, calm and collected all the time! I like the word “collected” – it’s such an old-fashioned term, and I like the image it conjures of all the disparate parts of a person being gathered up to make a congruent whole.
Though I don’t fully understand the meaning of “collected”, I know exactly what the opposite feels like. It’s that disjointed feeling as if bits of the self have been allowed to split off and pull in different directions; and life gets messy.
Why is it that life moves forward purposefully at one time, and then doesn’t? “Well, why not?” is one answer. Even the most brilliant artists, scientists and leaders don’t accomplish without pause. I’ve been reading the poems of Mary Oliver recently (here’s a fascinating interview about her work). She has had a few hundred poems published in her long life, but there was a decade between her first book and her second, then six more years before her third. I don’t know how long it takes to write a poem, but I reckon that gives time for a lot of living in between.
We are easily seduced by witnessing only the highlights of other people’s existence into thinking that their lives are one long flow of glorious accomplishment. Even Facebook can give the false impression that a friend’s life is a continuous celebration of joy and success.
Mary Oliver speaks of the problem of purposeful living in one of her best-known poems, The Summer Day, in which she describes in detail a grasshopper that has landed on her hand and talks of strolling idly through fields all day. She concludes,
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
So what to do about those “non-flow” times? Mary Oliver doesn’t provide the answer, though she challenges with her question – as if to say, “So, I strolled through the fields all day and paid attention… SO? What else should I have done?!”
I recognise my own chief disintegration gremlin – it’s that old friend “ought”. “Ought” is brilliant at disrupting any activity. I start on a piece of writing that interests me, and ten minutes in, “ought” taps me on the shoulder, “You ought to be getting on with that course manual, don’t you think?” I switch task and have only just started on the manual when I feel another tap, “Oughtn’t you phone your son now before he gets to work?” Having failed to get through on the phone, I get another poke, “Getting frustrated are you? You ought to be more disciplined about meditating every day and then you’d be calmer, don’t you agree?” On it goes and my day becomes ever more fragmented.
The funny thing is, I do know how to collect myself. Here’s one example: a while ago, I went on a peace of mind retreat to Mt Abu in India, where much of each day was spend in quiet meditation or other thoughtful pursuits. Towards the end of my time there, two different people invited me to join them in an activity on the same afternoon. Both invitations felt important in different ways, and I found myself worrying, unable to decide which to accept. In the atmosphere of Mt Abu, instead of telling myself negative stories or continuing to run through all the pros and cons, let alone all the oughts and shoulds, of the situation, I stopped and sat on a low wall, and cleared my thoughts for a few tranquil moments. Then I stood up and knew exactly what I was going to do – cool, calm and collected. How simple.
I think that a part of collecting yourself is knowing – trusting – that you cannot get life wrong – that it’s alright, that you will get through, whatever you choose. As Galway Kinnell tells us in his famous prayer of the three is’s:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
And you collect yourself and know that whatever happens is okay – you want “what is”. Dark February, windy March, primroses in April – it’s all completely and entirely okay.
ALSO TO SHARE
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Have a good month.