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So my January staycation to date: so far, it’s felt like a month of Saturdays. Not Saturday in the sense of Wheee! A day off to relax and have fun! — I’ve actually been quite busy doing stuff for the business and around the house. I’m talking about the way Saturdays feel different from Sundays. On Saturdays, with the buffer of Sunday ahead, I usually enjoy a relaxed sense of time. On Sundays, there’s a subtle tension – a fear of running out of time to do all the things I want to do before the work week begins again.

More than anything, my January staycation has been a vacation from that time stress. I know that after this day there will be another day off, and then another one, and another.

Recently, I was looking over some of my past blog posts, and was appalled to see how much I write about Too Much To Do And Not Enough Time. OMG! I thought.  I sound like such a whiner! I must vow to never write about that topic again!

But after some reflection, I changed my mind. First, because I want to talk authentically from my life, and time-stress is a big part of my day-to-day experience. (I actually prefer the term time-hunger, which is kind of like air-hunger, the panicky feeling that arises when we can’t get enough air. I like it because it shifts attention to the bodily response I have when I think, not enough time.)

Plus, this stress is experienced by many if not most people in our modern world – you could call it a societal disease. As such, it’s worth investigating more deeply.

As my month off winds down, I’m sure I’ll be feeling more of that anxious Sunday feeling. So forgive me if I continue to go on about this topic. I don’t want to just complain, but to understand.

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I’m spending a week barefoot in a sand dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I’m here alone in my little shack, though there’s another inhabited shack nearby. It’s been several days since I’ve talked to anyone except a couple of short conversations with John on my cellphone. The quiet and space are a balm to my psyche, which has worn thin from too much of everything this summer.

The dunes of the outer Cape are an amazing landscape. They have a grandeur and yet such a feeling of  intimacy. I feel like I’ve found my “happy place.” During the daytime I take long walks on the beach. In the evening, I climb to the top of a nearby dune for a 360 degree view the sun setting to the west, the sea to the north, the moon rising in the east, and the endless undulation of the dunes in every direction.

The week is shaping up to be sort of a retreat/vacation hybrid.  I’ve been practicing in the morning and evening (bowing, chanting, sitting, walking) but giving the afternoon over to reading, napping, trying to write, and exploring my new camera.

Every night I listen to a dharma talk. Last night it was Pascal Auclair. A word I liked was specificity. This breeze, this wave, this bow, with its cracking of cartilage, pinpoints of sand underfoot, and flavor of surf sound and smell.  Specificity…a useful little talisman to carry through the day.

(One thought worth recording: God is in the details. Details like sweeping sand off the floor, feeling the breeze, hearing crickets, watching sandpipers skittering along the waterline. All very specific.)

Details

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The past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like a giant to-do list walking around on two legs, full of jazzy anxiety and tension. Each day is a battle to slay as many items on the list as I can in the time available.

Nights are worse, because there are no distractions. No matter how tired I am, I am capable of lying in bed for hours, my mind cycling through undone tasks. That paperwork I should have filed! That order that’s scribbled on a napkin…where did I put it? I seem to be always on the edge of losing complete control of my life– and the to-do list is the only thing that stands between me and catastrophe.

But of course that’s not true. And in a couple of days, I’m daringly thumbing my nose at the to-do list. I’m going to a meditation retreat where I will immerse myself in non-doing, instead of doing. And hopefully reconnect with a sense of myself as a limited human being who is only capable of so much.

Sounds good!

(Of course, much of the reason I’ve had so much to do is because I’m trying to get away. There’s definitely some irony there.)

picture by Jill Ross, JustJillToday.com

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January is coming to an end.  I say this with some sadness, even though the weather outside is dreary and I’ve been sick most of the month.

But I love January because it’s traditionally been the one month during the whole year when I get a chance to reboot my life – something I look forward to all year long. Sometimes this reboot takes the form of a complete get-away, as when I went on a three week meditation retreat last year. This year I didn’t do that, choosing instead to staycation at home, and recoup, assess, and catch up.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the past year and making plans for the coming one. I’ve also been tackling some seriously overdue housekeeping. By this I mean clearing away the detritus of the past year and restoring a little order, both in my home and in my business.

I sorted a clogged closet, for example, and hauled the excess to Good Will. I cleared clutter off of my actual and virtual desktops, and updated some computer programs. I’m hoping to empty out my inbox before the week is over. My husband is good at keeping up with maintenance tasks through good daily habits. I don’t seem to have that temperament, so an annual binge will have to do.

The truth is, I’ll never really be caught up, and I’ve learned to accept that. I regard my token efforts as more symbolic than practical –  sort of a ritual cleansing before the next season begins. By next week, the call to get back to business will be getting insistent.

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There’s a nor’easter blowing outside so I’m hunkered down in the house. No matter…this is the first real weekend I’ve had for maybe five months. By “real weekend” I mean two consecutive days when I can do as I choose – in this case, hang at home, clean out the refrigerator, restock food supplies, make a pot of soup, and read a book. Heaven.

All summer and most of the fall, I’ve spent the weekends either working at farmers markets and craft shows, going out of town, or having house guests.  It’s been a good summer all in all – some of those out days away were purely recreational, and it was wonderful to have old friends and family visit. But by now, I’m exhausted by the relentlessness of it all.

We all need a little down time when nothing demands, nothing is scheduled, and we can be as unproductive as we choose.

The other day, I was chatting with a customer in the shop about her life since her recent move to the Cape. One the things she said was, “I must like being busy, because I’m very busy all the time.”

A bell rang in my head, and I thought, yeah, me too.

I write a lot about being busy, about the anxious, stressful side of having too much to do and not enough time. What I rarely look at are the ways I like being busy.

But I can honestly say that I often enjoy having a big list of things to prioritize, juggle, and check off.  It makes me feel competent and effective, and gives some focus and structure to life.

And the to-do list this past month was vast. Not only was it our first real holiday season at Summer House Soaps (with all its decor, product ordering, and staffing tasks), but there were lots of other things to organize as well.

# 1… in a little over a week I’m flying to Bangkok, and then on to Mandalay in Burma for a three week meditation retreat. Besides preparations for the trip, there are many things that need to be in place so the business can run in my absence.

#2….At the same time, we’ve been packing our gear for the NY NOW Gift Show, which starts on February 2nd. I’m flying 29 hours back from Asia and going directly to the show. (Talk about whiplash!) Fortunately Sarah and Chelsea will set up and work it for the most part…I’m just making a brief appearance.

With all this stuff to think about over the last couple of months, I kept waiting for the anxiety to kick in, for the sleepless nights.  But it hasn’t happened. I’ve been sleeping like a baby.

Which maybe is the real reasons I like being busy – it gives me no time to be scared, or depressed, or whatever else is lurking around. Is this a healthy strategy? Probably not. But it’s been working for me, so far.

Eight days to go.

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It seems ill-advised, even crazy
To think you can walk away from the busyness
When so much is happening
So many catastrophes to avert
So many balls in the air.

The only thing crazier
Is to not ever do it.
To believe
That without your constant vigilance
The world will fall apart.
To believe
It all depends on you.

Thanks John, Julie, Betsy, Sarah, Priscilla, Debbie, Jill, Maggie, for all you do!

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The sweet week between Christmas and New Years is drawing to an end. I didn’t expect to recuperate from nine months of stress in seven days, but it was a start.

When we finally get some down time after a very busy stretch, there’s always a pull between the need to do nothing and the need to catch up.  Yes, we know we need badly to rest, but there are other things besides our bodies that have been neglected during our busy spell. It’s good to have time to clean off our desks, remove the rotting vegetables from the fridge, and touch base with a few friends. It helps us resume our lives after the break with a clearer spirit.

This goes to an issue I’ve been pondering and writing about for a long time – the seeming conflict between doing and stillness.  No question my predisposition is towards doing, and sometimes I wreck myself in the process, getting tangled up in anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia.  One of the reasons I engage in Zen practice is to find a better balance.

I’ve been reading a book this week called Awake at Work by Michael Carroll, which offers ways of creating “clarity and balance in the midst of work’s chaos” through the study of classical Tibetan Buddhist teaching phrases. One of these phrases is Balance the two efforts:

Our effort to get somewhere, whether in our career or our life, depends on first being somewhere, letting go of our fears, desires, habits, and routines and trusting ourselves fully in the present moment. …In turn, we discover balance in simply being present, and an alertness that is resourceful, flexible, and relaxed.

We know that of course – that doing and being, action and stillness are not really opposites but attributes that can and do exist in each moment simultaneously. And we can cultivate the ability to act from that place so there is less effort, tension, and anxiety in everything we do.

But of course, as my friend Deborah so succinctly put it, this isn’t about insight, it’s about practice. So we practice. Moment by moment.

For the past couple of months I’ve been wrestling with my old nemesis, TMDT/NET (Too much to do, not enough time). It’s an ongoing theme which I’ve been examining from different angles, and writing about from time to time.

Why am I overwhelmed now, when Summer House Soaps hasn’t even entered its busy season yet? The beginning of the year is supposed to be down-time, good for catching up.

Yes, but…

So-called “down time” inevitably invites new projects, plans, and so on. When we see all that lovely white space on our calendar, we tend to fill it up. And during the past three months that’s been the case for me. There was a trip to Ohio to visit family and a week-long retreat at the Providence Zen Center. Summer House soaps launched some new products that required package design. And of course the usual stuff continued, like doing the taxes, and working the Boston Gift Show.

So now I have a massive To Do List. I’m painfully aware that I’m more than a month overdue with the Summer House Soap newsletter, and I haven’t blogged in several weeks. The spring garden is crying out for some attention and the house is very grubby. And there’s a gift for my mother (big project) that I swore would finish in time for her 90th birthday (which is tomorrow!) The rest of my siblings will be in Ohio celebrating with her, but I won’t be there because I’m too busy making a gift for her and other things. (Guilt + Irony!) Can I be aware of all this without being “painfully aware”?

A while back a Zen teacher gave me a bit of advice: Pick the one thing that’s most important on your list, and DO IT with 100% attention. Well, Duh, you may be thinking. That’s obvious.

But that’s not what we usually do. Or at least it’s not what I usually do. The 100% part, I mean.

Even as I do one thing, I have trouble putting down the mental To Do list. It’s always nagging in the background, causing me anxiety and a feeling of oppression. Not fun! And not an efficient use of energy.

But I’m working on it. Today I sat down and chose not one, but four items from list. I chose:

    The payroll – an item that’s routine but essential.
    One restore-order project in the soap workshop (putting away stuff that got discombobulated when workmen installed insulation Friday).
    A half-hour walk
    And the project for my mother.

Hmmm….it looks like writing this blog post snuck in there, too. Okay, five items then.

Things that did not make the cut: the newsletter, cleaning the house, garden work, Sunday afternoon meditation group, making soup from those nice beets we bought, calling friends to see if they want to come over tonight and have soup. And more.

There’s a sadness in letting go of these worthy things. And therein lies the rub. Letting go often entails some loss. But if we try to do everything, we can never do anything at 100%.

I have a habit – you might even call it a practice – of saying yes a lot. When an invitation comes along, I tend to push past my preference for spending the evening in my pajamas, and accept. Usually I’m richly rewarded for the effort.

What I haven’t fully appreciated, though, is the reward of saying no.

This week I said no to a couple of things I would normally have accepted, and I was surprised by how good it felt. This is a source of pleasure I’ve been underestimating!

A nice woman invited Summer House Soaps to be a last-minute participant in a holiday craft fair. It sounded like a sweet little show, but we’d just finished our last craft show and were feeling DONE. I wasn’t saying no to the show as much as yes to the shift to non-show activities (like starting my Christmas shopping!)

Right now, I could be at the Cape Cinema with my husband watching a Met Live broadcast of the opera Don Carlos. It’s supposed to be an incredible, wrenching performance, and I’m sure I would walk out feel enriched. But I’m saying yes to my need for a little quiet time at home.

Once, during a discussion at a meditation retreat about maintaining life balance, a young man said, “It’s hard to keep saying no to awesomeness.”  Translation: in order to make time for ourselves, we frequently have to say no – not just to demands that we’d like to get out of  – but to things that are awesome and wonderful.

The trick, I guess, is to identify the more subtle things we want, like quiet, rest and restoration. Those things don’t come wrapped in glossy packages, and they don’t have enticing invitations or advertising, so it’s easy to overlook them. But when we say yes to them and stick with it, it can be awesome too.

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