Thursday, August 31, 2023

Self-Imposed Deadlines

Stress is a strange thing. Being frustrated, anxious, worried. . . They are all states of mind that sometimes we can control and sometimes we can't. The ways in which thoughts or simple awareness can manifest into physical reactions is fascinating to me.

I remember the first time I needed stitches. I was in my mid-20s, and while carving something with a dull tool managed to stab it into the side of my left thumb. The doctor at the clinic we went to tied four neat little stitches into my skin, and I couldn't believe how much the whole thing turned my stomach. I told the doctor how weird it was that if I didn't know what was happening and couldn't see it, it would all be fine because the pain wasn't that terrible. It wasn't good, but it wasn't the worst thing I could imagine by a long shot. However, if I looked at my skin being stitched through like fabric, that was nauseating and made me a little dizzy. Wasn't that strange? How could that be? As the doctor finished up his last little knot, he said, "Only in the Western world are people surprised by the connection between the mind and the body." I don't know how true that is, but I've thought about it a lot since then.

We can try to forge a more practical attitude about that connection, but it doesn't always work. There was a stretch a few years ago where I had terrible migraines. It's easy to see now how much they were tied to upsetting events in my life. Certain thoughts and worries were literally hurting my head. The pain was so bad that at one point while writhing around on a couch at 3 a.m. it occurred to me that death, if it came right then, wouldn't be unwelcome because at least the pain would stop. When I couldn't stop the pain, I would try to accept it, and that helped somewhat. Fighting the pain made it worse. Simply letting it be what it was made it more bearable.

My life at the moment is [knock on expensive violin wood] really going quite well. This is the place where I could have barely dared hope for the pendulum to swing during those literally and figuratively painful times a few years back. I'm not taking it for granted, and I'm not foolish enough to believe such fortune will last, but I've enjoyed this year very much. I have the love and support of my husband, my kids are all headed in good directions right now, health and work are fine, I've gotten to travel and spend time with family and friends, and even have a trusty little dog at my side who reminds me to be in the moment. Life is good.

In fact, when I'm honest with myself, the biggest sources of stress currently going on for me are all self-imposed and a matter of choice. Which seems ridiculous, but hear me out, because I like to believe there is an upside, or at the very least an understandable explanation.

For the past couple of months I have had the joy of all three kids at home. My oldest has been home from college for the summer, and we've tried to cram as much into that limited time as possible. Which has meant putting my normal projects on hold. I have barely been in my home shop, so the instruments that were rolling along so nicely back in the spring have not progressed at all. And the novel I want to be getting out into the world sooner rather than later just sits and gathers virtual dust. I only recently started going back to rehearsals, because they were technically optional this summer, and I wanted as much time as possible with my kids.

So I have been operating like a person with no creative pursuits, and frankly, it's a much more relaxed kind of life. There is time to hang out and play games and binge watch things as a family when nothing I want to get done "needs" to get done. It's been fun. But it's also not really me. If I went on this way indefinitely, I'm not sure who I would be anymore. Because I'd no longer be a person who builds instruments or plays music or writes books.

All those creative endeavors, though, require deadlines that I invent for myself. Because none of them are things I "have" to do. Not really. There are people waiting for the instruments they commissioned, but completing them is still a matter of choice. If I woke up one day and realized building instruments is making my life worse rather than better, I can stop, even if it disappoints others. There is no one out there requiring me to write more books. There are plenty of other musicians to replace me if I up and quit playing viola and mandola.

Once my daughter leaves for college again in a few days, and the rest of us settle into a fall routine that has us interacting less often, I will get back into my shop, back to regular practicing, and back to editing my latest novel.

All of those things require self-imposed deadlines in order to make progress. Deadlines are stressful, even arbitrary ones.

One of the few self-imposed deadlines I've managed to keep up with over my summer of fun, is this blog. Barely. When I worked for (the now defunct parenting website) Babble, there was no explicit number of posts per month that I was contractually expected to write, but I aimed for about two a week. That seemed to match the rate most of the other personal bloggers on the site were doing, and it felt natural. Plus I was getting paid, so I certainly had to produce something regularly. 

Since moving to this blog, the only reason to write is if I feel like it. But one of the important reasons for me to maintain this blog, is that writing regularly is good for me as a writer. There are enough other things happening in my life that giving up the blog entirely would be very easy, and few would notice if it ceased to be. But I like the discipline that some manner of deadline requires. I like making myself create something in this space on some kind of schedule.

The self-imposed deadline I've given myself on this blog is at least one post a month. And I've managed to maintain that all these years. I've never skipped a month, which is a lot harder than it sounds.

I've been trying to put together a post about my trip to Austria since May. But that post is huge, and every time I work on it, I see the end of the month creeping up on the calendar, and have to switch gears merely to get something posted before the deadline. The number of partially started drafts in my Blogger folder is getting rather silly. But hey, at least I'm writing. That's the point. 

Since nobody makes demands about my being a writer other than me, I have to be some kind of task master to myself. Same with instrument making. Same with any creative project that is important to my identity and my soul. But I have to choose stress to do any of it. I have to convince myself it's necessary, and then put pressure on myself to actually make progress on any meaningful kind of schedule, or nothing happens. Nothing aside from watching more Star Trek and baking cookies, which is all a lot of fun, but not what I want to define me.

This month I also meant to finally write about my trip to Austria. But did you catch the date? And the time? I wonder how many of my readers actually notice the time stamp on the things I post, and realize how many of them bump up close to midnight on the last day of the month. The people in my house certainly notice. I had to pull myself away from my kids tonight, pausing the show we were watching saying, "I have to go write something!" And one of them said, "Wait, is it the last day of the month already?"

But hey, my streak remains unbroken. I have minutes to spare before I hit "publish." And I will take my manufactured stress in order to remain creative over the kind of stress inducing scenarios life sometimes likes to hand out. I just need to remind myself when I start to panic over either of them, that it helps to cut myself some slack, take a deep breath, and maybe walk the dog again.

And I need to remember that there are physical ramifications to being under stress, and that dwelling on certain thoughts can cause physical pain. There are too many things in life we can't control, to not appreciate the ones we can. When I have moments of, "Oh no! My blog!" I need to balance the tools I use to make things happen with my overall well being. 

After a "summer off" I'm taking stock of how much stress I need or don't need to choose even when times are good. I have a sense that by the time I figure it out, my life will be about done.