Everything's a stupid life metaphor

"Most vines will quickly revert to a tangled mass of foliage on the ground if they are not given proper support and a reasonable amount of care and maintenance."

I stalled out on the Little Back Side Yard. It's always been very hard for me to finish projects, no matter how clearly I can see -- and want-- the carrot dangling in my mind's eye. Some folk say that taking the first step is the hardest one.  It's hard, I guess, but not nearly as hard as the second step.  And they're both impossible when I don't know which way to go.

"Often, when plants are purchased from the nursery they are already trained on a stake driven into the container." 

I'm jealous of people with unwavering ambition, and wonder what gene they have that I'm missing. My lack of direction is something I've never understood about myself.  It isn't that I shy away from hard work; I feel most alive when I'm really focused and fighting for something.  How is it that neither that feeling nor the goal itself sparks enough incentive in me to get anywhere?  These are things I want to change about myself, but it's mighty hard to change under the brutal regime of hard-to-start and never-finish-anything.

"Remove the stake and any twist ties at planting."

Habits are embarrassingly powerful. I read somewhere it takes 21 days of doing something every single day for it to become a habit. That's encouraging for starting new habits (Three weeks?  No problem!). But then, it's disheartening to realize that the damaging habits are there because I've a) done them 21+ days in a row and/or b) haven't been able to NOT do them for 21+ days.

"Historically, vines were severely pruned at planting. Remove dead or damaged branches and shape the plant as needed."

Many people live their lives without being haunted by their past mistakes and bad habits. I am not one of them. I want to learn how to be; hard or not, changes need to happen, and I know I'm responsible for holding myself back. I feel dizzy from spinning in circles for the past 10 years. Or maybe the past 34 years. Everything in my life is upside down right now, and I desperately need to find solid ground.  It's been a crappy few months-- or few years-- or maybe a crappy decade-- and I want to shed all that and move forward. So where do I start, recovering the energy lost over that much time? How do I find a new path after so many years in the same groove? 

"New vines often need guidance in reaching the intended support."

So, I started seeing a counselor a few months ago.  I need objectivity and experience  to help me transition. Shifting from single mom to stepmom-- trying to build a family where there is none, fighting to stay sound and true in the face of internal and external quicksand-- has been the hardest thing I've ever tried to do. Then, on top of that stress, add the daily balancing act of juggling job and family, plus the stress of spotty work, continuing health problems from said work, touch-and-go finances, and an emotionally ravaging custody battle. I'm a pretty tough cookie, but that's at least one high-octane situation too many for me to handle without professional guidance.

I like my counselor. She's spunky, has a great sense of style, and gives me actual advice instead of the vague, "And how does that make you feel?" I think I'm getting some good out of the visits, and felt pretty positive about the whole thing--  until last week, when she told me I had to think of ways to change my negative thought patterns for our next session.  

Lady, if I knew how to do that on my own, I wouldn't be paying you.

"Use a short piece of string, netting, or stake to provide guidance to the lower portions of the support (trellis, fence)." 

But, okay. I'll give it a shot. It's not like I didn't know counseling would involve some serious soul-searching. I got home, pondered my homework, and tried not to glower. The cat wanted to go out to the Little Back Side Yard, and I went with him. It's peaceful out there; it's just dirt and rocks right now, but it's the one place in my life where I feel excited about possibilities instead of overwhelmed by just how to realize that potential. I noticed the vines were not properly climbing, and immediately set about to remedy the situation. Why train the vines at that moment, when I'd been putting it off for over a month already?  Who can say. This is exactly typical of how I manage to accomplish things: a combination of accident and impulse. 

I'd initially wrapped the vines loosely around the fenceposts, meaning to train properly in the next day or two , but I never had gotten around to it. In the weeks since then, they'd deliberately released the support of the fence and wrapped back around themselves, down into the dirt. They were starting to choke out their own bases. Exasperated, I wondered what the hell kind of plant doesn't instinctively grow upwards. Stupid vines.

Disentangling the tiny runners from themselves and re-wrapping them along string lines was a delicate and time-consuming business.  My initial irritation at the vines gave way to identifying with them exactly.

"The main reasons to prune established vines include: limiting vigorous growth, clearing around windows and doors, enhancing flower production, thinning branches, and removing dead or damaged wood."

It's so much easier to travel an established path than set out fresh runners on a virgin course. It doesn't matter that all the preceding vines have died out along the old road; the dead branches are convenient to hold onto and follow, much moreso than climbing up a sheer fencepost. Unless I clear out all the dead crap and provide easily accessible string freeways for their travels, they'll continue doing what their predecessors have done. What else do they know, after all? It's a growth habit years in the making. They need a fresh start.

"Spring-flowering vines are usually pruned after they finish flowering, while most other vines are pruned during the dormant season."

I need a fresh start myself. I'm taking time off from work right now precisely to clear out my mental bracken, extricate myself from whatever is holding me back. I can't skip this step, can't wander vaguely off on a new journey without pruning out the old growth first. Not eradicating the dead tangles from my life is exactly what's kept me circling the same old roundabout. New results never arise out of doing the same thing that's always been done.  

"A mass of new shoots may appear after severe pruning; select the strongest shoots and remove the rest."

This isn't to say I can't or won't make mistakes going forward; I will. But I can choose to learn from them instead of dwell on them. I can honor the lessons learned instead of resent that I had to learn them at all. And the flipside of this sentiment is not feeling guilty that I'm not accomplishing things as quickly as I could, or think that I should. The Little Back Side Yard will get there, and I'll get there too.

Excerpts from Training/Pruning Vines by Erv Evans © 2000, used by kind permission of NC State University.


Kids Growing Like Trees

My dad was a college professor while I was growing up.  At one point, he took a year-long sabbatical and moved a few thousand miles away, to check in with the professional arena and report back to his students. When he came back, something wasn't right. Nothing was wrong, exactly, but for months the not-right tickled the back of his mind, especially when looking out of our windows. When he finally figured it out, he told us: "The trees are taller." We couldn't see a difference.  The yard looked the same as it always had.  But my dad could see the growth, couldn't not see it, because he was looking with fresh eyes.

I've been thinking a lot about Dad's trees. I fight vertigo every time Miss G walks in the room. I'm expecting to see yesterday's 4-year-old and instead I'm thrown by this lengthening girl-woman... closer to the latter than the former every day.  The change has been so gradual that I haven't seen it.  I don't notice, don't notice, then wham!-- something gives me new sight, and I see her as if it's the first time.  My god, wasn't she just in diapers a couple weeks ago?

Everyone says "Oh, it goes so fast!"-- only it's not the kids, but the parents who go fast.  It's the surrounding life.  We touch down on the surface from time to time like skipping stones... check in with the kiddies, make mental notes that they need new shoes and joined the swim team, then life launches us back into jobs and mortgages, groceries and bills. We're up in the air until something catches our attention enough that we focus for a heartbeat-- a poor grade, a blue ribbon, a sprained ankle or broken heart-- and then we're off again.

Kids don't go fast; they're growing like trees. We just aren't paying attention.


Disconnect Mindset-- pt 2

My job keeps me far away from computers and newspapers.  No one I work with has any idea what's going on in the world, because we're all stuck on a construction site for a jillion hours a day.  After my previous job in tech support, the contrast was a welcome relief. I used to be online constantly; it was my job to stay connected.  Now I meander among headlines, instead of pressuring myself to scoop the latest story faster than the guy in the cubicle next to me.

Keeping involved and staying connected has become insanely high-maintenance, demanding massive investments of both time and money.  Anyone who works in technology really does require the latest and greatest Time-Saving Gadget, even if it will be outdated in 3 months and obsolete in a year.  Once they take the first step onto the upgrade hamster wheel, they're stuck there as long as they want to remain competitive.  Those contenders with last year's Time-Saving Gadget model will be left behind.  What used to be a slight technological advantage has taken on a desperate deal-breaking tone in this economic climate.  

There is so much pressure to be instantaneous and keep up with the world in every way possible way, to be available to everyone, all the time. It's so easy to rationalize: "Won't it be great to have access to My Important Thingamajig right on my phone!  Now I can get so much done from home!" And once that door is opened, availability combined with convenience is insidious. The easier it is to take care of work from home, the blurrier that line becomes.  Without continual vigilance, work seeps into all the little free time cracks it can find.  Bosses and co-workers who know they can call you on the weekend-- will do so.  Without fail.  Guarding free time takes a lot of energy.  Not to mention taking up yet more free time.

Thank god that's not my life anymore.

I found my limit when it came time last year to upgrade my cell phone.  I refuse to buy a phone which requires a mandatory data plan, and when the phone I really wanted had that string attached, I walked away from it.  Every year there are fewer and fewer of the older phones available, because of the incessant clamoring for the newest innovations from those customers who either A) actually require that technology or B) want the status the technology infers.  I no longer care that my phone is old.  It makes calls, and I can send text messages.  I don't care about the rest anymore.  

I hope I'm not coming across as judgmental.  Some people genuinely do need all that technology at their fingertips.  I am not one of them. It isn't that I don't want the pretty phones.  I really, really do. But I refuse to pay extra money every month for keeping me available by more channels to the rest of the world, something I don't want anyway. Having the internet on my phone costs me time.  When I turn off my computer, I want it off, and I want to walk away from it.  Some folk may have the willpower to resist the availability of constant internet on their phones, but I would not be one of them.  I'm too thirsty for knowledge to abstain from the temptation.  I want a Kindle for the same reason; it's a little cross-referential orgasm.  

No!  Must. Resist.

I'm easily distracted by the shiny onslaught of the latest gadgetry. But I've recognized them as one of the sacrifices I need to make, in order to make my life slower and simpler.  To multi-task less, and focus more.

I want to be less connected, not more.  I'd rather read an actual book I can buy for a quarter at the thrift store and smell the pages on my fingers. I'd rather be writing, painting, maybe have another kid and be able to stay home this time around.  There are so many things I'd rather be doing with my time than check Twitter compulsively on a $400 phone.  Not to mention all the things I'd rather be doing with my money. 

I am blessed with visiting a cabin every summer where there is no dishwasher.  There is no microwave, and no TV.  And there is more time when I am there, not less.  More time, even though we hang clothes on the line instead of using the dryer, more time even though we fill the water cups from the well outside instead of using the faucet.  I want to translate this into my everyday life.  Slow down.  Drink water from the well.  It tastes so much better.


Disconnect Mindset-- pt 1

I refuse to let go of some of the habits I acquired while raising a kid on my own for 10 years, so we live pretty frugally.  I manage our household expenses in such a way that when one of us is unemployed-- a regular occurrence in the construction industry-- it barely impacts our lifestyle.  We just cut out the big splurges, like eating out, or going to the movies, and continue being otherwise sensible.  

Over the past few months, we've moved on to more hardcore, slash-n-burn budgeting.  We've both been out of work for the better part of a year, plus our savings were eviscerated by Dan's lengthy and unexpected custody battle.  In spite of this, we're doing okay.  Maintaining.  I'm no stranger to living broke;  we just eat lots of hamburger and frozen chicken breasts.  I make more casseroles and soups.  Every purchase is debated:  Need or Want?  "Want" gets put back on the shelf.   But in spite of everything we're doing, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was missing a key element somewhere.

Then the other day (while viewing the cell phone bill), something in me flipped upside down.  I've been looking at our expenses backwards.  I realized-- I've been struggling with how we can maintain our lifestyle.  But that isn't what I want.  I want to change our lifestyle.  I don't want to make enough money so that our cell phone bill isn't an absurd expenditure.  I want to not have an absurd cell phone bill.  

Like most families, our phone bill is carefully tailored for our specific usage to avoid astronomical overages.  The only way to lower it would be to drastically cut how much we use our phones.  Had we become too addicted to convenience to be able to do that?  Unemployment is leading us to a new life, forcing us to streamline our priorities and re-evaluate our goals, but in a good way, no matter how unplanned-for it is.  We're excited for the changes on our doorstep.  Slashing our phone bill-- admitting it as "want" not "need"--is a crucial first step for a new mindset.  Dan and I talked it over and decided-- it's time.  Let's disconnect. 

I called my friendly cell company and switched to the family plan with the lowest minutes.  They were very concerned for us. "Are you sure?  We show you on the absolute lowest plan you should go, given your monthly usage.  I strongly recommend staying where you are."
I said, "We won't need all those minutes if we don't use our phones as much."
"Uh-- well... I guess, if you get a land line you're planning to use..."
"We already have one.  It's under-utilized."
"Well-- if you use that more, maybe make calls from home...it'll be a real change in usage for you...." He sounded hesitant, like he should agree with me since the customer's always right, but inwardly thought I was nuts. (Not use your cell phones?  Is that even possible?!)
I said cheerfully, "That's the plan:  Massive lifestyle overhaul.  But that's okay.  We're committed."

He kind of laughed, and switched the plan, but I don't think he got it. 

Once we changed over, we had to be mindful.  If someone called when I was out running errands, I'd ask if I could call them back when I got back home, maybe an hour or two away.  It felt rude at first.  The callers' reactions indicated that they also felt it was rude.  At first.  But they adapted.  If someone called while I was home, I'd ask them if I could call them right back from the other line.  They adapted to that too.  

As of today, we have a week left in our billing cycle, and have used up just over half the minutes allotted... that's 1/5 of the minutes we normally use.  We cut our bill by 2/3, and less of our days are spent on the phone.  Win all around.  An unexpected benefit is that people, in general, just call us less now.  And that's just fine with us.

I'm enjoying being less available.  It's empowering to swim outside the current of immediacy.



I visited my folks over the weekend.  They live in a retirement community (they call it "Oldsville") that offers consistent hilarity to all of us.  An email from my dad:

There is a report, in the local paper, of a golf cartbicycle collision the other day.  Police are trying to piece together the accident but neither driver remembers much about it.  There were no witnesses.

Thank god my parents are maintaining a sense of humor as they age.  I'll start to worry once this kind of thing doesn't seem funny to them anymore.