Coffee and Accountability

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Learning to Play

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Years ago, I was a devotee of Julia Cameron’s self-help book, The Artist’s Way. It's a self-help book focused on the creative process.

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I tried to get through it twice, each time coming to a dead halt in Week 8. Despite my failure to finish, Cameron’s basic tools seemed good to me. There were two of them: the morning pages and the Artist’s Date. The morning pages are fairly straightforward. As soon as you wake up you get your notebook and a pen (she recommended writing by hand) and write three pages of whatever comes to mind. What usually came to mind, especially in the first few weeks, was all the stuff that stood between me and the stories, poems, and essays I actually wanted to write. The morning pages blew all that intervening junk out like an exhaust pipe.

I did just fine at the morning pages. It was work, and, like most Americans, I expect to be expected to work. Like most Americans, I have a lurking belief that work is virtue.

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The Artist’s Dates were another thing altogether.

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artists, a.k.a. your creative child.
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

While I rarely missed my morning pages, I often skipped my Artist’s Date. On the weeks I did do it, I always struggled to come up with something to do. Two hours alone doing whatever makes the most creative part of you the most happy: sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, Cameron found with her students (and I found in my personal experience) that making room for play, or joy, or even just fun, was far harder than getting morning pages written. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. My culture spent a lot of time training me to accomplish tasks; it spent very little time training me to follow my bliss. Eighteen years after I began The Artist’s Way, our Coffee and Accountability process has brought me up against the same issue.

In practice, the point of "accountability" for me is mostly that I am trying to make myself do something that I am not currently doing. When you are NOT currently doing something that you either want to do or think you should do, it’s usually because of resistance. Some part of you doesn’t want to do it. For instance, I never get up in the morning thinking, “Man, I’d really love to get on the treadmill.” I need to get on the treadmill because my extremities are swelling and that means I need to 1)exercise, 2)drink lots of water, and 3)cut down on salt. Cutting down on calories (4) would also not go amiss. But part of me would much rather doze in front of a Sherlock Holmes or Cadfael episode from the 80s than exercise. That part of me might not like the way it feels when I have swollen feet, but it still would rather curl up in a blanket than do the work.

It’s less obvious when what’s at stake is a cherished goal. For instance, I have several writing projects right now. I genuinely want to do them. Unfortunately, I also genuinely want to avoid them, because the writing process is difficult and painful as often as it is satisfying and joyous, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to go through some of the former in order to get to the latter. When it’s a new thing I want to do (like learning to play jug band music, or learning to draw), it’s the painful prospect of many many long hours of doing it badly that discourage me.

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My college mentor, David Leverenz, once said,“Americans are like the Seven Dwarfs; We work work work work work that’s what we like to do.” When you try to change your habits or bring a dream into reality, you often end up in a struggle between the Seven Dwarfs part of you that believes that work is moral

and the childlike part of you that resents work, resents being made to work, and, above all, resents the moral judgment that if you’re not working, there’s something wrong with you. You get the I don’t wannas.

The way I’ve been trained to deal with this is by bludgeoning the resistant part of me into submission. If I can’t ignore that part of me, I’m supposed to use will power to shut it down—or shut it up. That sounds a lot more negative than it sometimes looks. At the beginning of a process or project, taking a fireplace poker to my own resistance looks positively idealistic and cheerful. It looks like a variant on “Never say die.” It sparkles with all the cheerfulness of large ambitions. (That’s where I was last October when we started C&A).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Trying to bludgeon that part of me into submission and ignore its wants and needs usually ends up depleting the energy I need to accomplish the task. Sooner or later, I run out of energy and give up. Obviously, what’s needed is a way of increasing my energy. Theoretically, if I could hold out for long enough, the positive habits themselves (such as getting on the treadmill) would create enough energy that the habit would become self-sustaining. In practice, I run out of energy long before the habits are established enough to provide those benefits.

What’s required is to bring more energy into the system. Kate’s and my first reaction, when hitting a rough spot in the middle of last November was to institute something called “chill days.” Chill days are a way of actively providing time for rest. They are like the Sabbath, only without religious exhortations and prohibitions. For a while, I allowed for one chill day a week. Then two. I found it was difficult to protect those chill days; that I often sacrificed them to other people’s needs. Then, last month, Kate said, “You don’t need one or two chill days per week. You need one or two work days per week.” That was hard to hear (remember, work is morality, and the worst thing you can be in America is lazy). But things weren’t going well, and I wasn’t making the progress I wanted, so I took Kate’s advice and chose Monday and Friday as my work days.

It soon became clear that it was not enough to turn off the phone and sink into a computer game for five hours. Chilling out was not enough. I needed play; I needed joy. (This can be difficult if you spend any amount of time looking at politics). Work requires energy, and joy creates it. Today, Kate came up with the idea of a Joy Garden. My version of this is to try to come up with one thing per day that gives me genuine delight. These things can be very small: a song, a flavor, the way the light falls on a particular tree. I hope that, when I discover them, they will serve as a counterbalance to the Seven Dwarfs of the Puritan work ethic who march through my consciousness most of the time.

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to play we go.

I will report next week on what I discover.

What are your sources of joy?

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QMS's picture

Work and play. One goal is to blur the distinction between the two. Finding work you enjoy helps.
Although getting paid to have fun is an unusual gig and pure creativity rarely pays well, some sort of a balance can be sought.

Just made a snow critter. The first thought was "where do I find the inner child" who built so many of these things as a youth. Wasn't hard to do and had lots of fun in the process.

Thanks for the OT can't stop!

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@QMS

small things I mean.

For me, this song is another good example:

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Great question to start the day! For me after being without electricity for 48 hours and water for close to 72 hours having both does bring joy into my daily routine. Of course on the flip side there are so many people still dealing with broken pipes, water damage and all that this entails. Have not been to my old cabin outside of Austin but the water was cut off when I left last time, so hopefully will have some leaks that can be easily repaired. This is one of those things I am wrestling with, do I want to keep both of my places or get rid of them and find something different. Really easy to get stuck trying to decide. Both places has been sources of joy throughout my journey with them.

Instant joy happened this morning. Was getting ready to head out to the grocery store to see what was on the shelves when brother in law walked into the house with a bag of breakfast tacos from the taco truck that is in their neighborhood. My sister in law and I had just been talking about really wishing for a breakfast taco from them and wondering if they had water yet and then here they are! Instant joy. Will make what I find/don’t find at store an adventure instead of oh noes and everything I find can be considered a little bit of joy!

I did a personal growth seminar once and we came up with our personal statement through much reflection and mine was “teaching people to stay young.” Still try to make this my mission and look for the joy in many things and keep that inner child active!

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Life is what you make it, so make it something worthwhile.

This ain't no dress rehearsal!

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@jakkalbessie @jakkalbessie

As for electricity and water, well...more necessary than what I had in mind, but indeed a source of joy.

I was thinking of something more like this. What a great moment of acting this is for the great Jeremy Brett...

But the book makes it more explicit:

He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.

“But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Granma's picture

@jakkalbessie appearing, is a perfect way to start your day. They set you up to get through a difficult grocery store trip. I hope you find the things you most want or need today.

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earthling1's picture

@jakkalbessie
for pure joy. I frequent one a couple of miles away, making excuses to go over in that direction, just to put myself in the neighborhood, and to get out of the house for a while.
I guess this would qualify as the heigh ho version of chill day.
When I retired (whoa, 16 years ago) I made a personal vow to myself to not become a mall walker, a night owl, or a couch potato. I've had success with the first two, but the last one has become a problem, in the form of a growing girth. I'm fairly certain in has a lot to do with lock downs and bad weather. With a sizable 14 x 22 garden at my suburban back yard and an even larger !00' x 120' garden in rural Lewis County I can keep really busy spring through fall.
It's winter that I have trouble with.
Your joy days are what I've been doing for years now and thanks to you I no longer have to feel guilty for it and thank for giving a name to it.
I do have to keep reminding myself that being retired means never having to say you're sorry for not wanting to work anymore.
Thanks for the coffee, CSTM.

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After six years, still getting robo-calls from Marriot Hotels.
They're like herpes.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@earthling1

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

I'm headed over to my mother's this morning to talk about some financial things, but I will check in again when I get back.

Hope y'all are doing as well as possible this a.m.

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Granma's picture

For me, are first cup of coffee in the morning, fresh sheets on my bed, a hug from grandkids, a chat with a friend, driving in the country in spring seeing baby lambs, trees leafing out, flowers blooming. Great joy when I get my hands on a hard to find book by a favorite author. Some mornings, it is realizing I have no must-dos for that day. That is especially true if the weather is nice and I can look forward to sitting on the porch for a while. I don't know if it's joy, but certainly happiness when I finish a task I have dreaded and put off.

I guess these are all small pleasures. I'm sure there are bigger joys I'm not thinking of, but I have a feeling it is the small things that keep us going, so the more of those we have, the better.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Granma

About the small joys.

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

enhydra lutris's picture

it is dritically important that it be true play. All of the "make sure to allow/schedule time for play" advice floating around in today's world (or nearly all) is a trojan horse. It is time to crack that mental set and release all your pent up creative powers. That is inherently "not-Play" and doesn't really count.

There are ages and phases with kids where if you give them a pencil or crayon or set of crayons and some paper, they get all free-form. Moving the implement just to observe the magic of the visible trace of its path, with no goal, plan, form or design in mind - aimless doodling in a "pre-doodle" sort of way. That place is still there in all of us, but it can't be done on a typewriter. It is so old and distant that it needs to be approached with something new. I recall different times in my past doing it, admittedly often while high, with things like a Rapidograph, a calligraphy nib or steel brush or one of those cartridge loaded or disposble self-inking calligraphy brushes. The non-standard implement frees you up to just see what it does and where it goes; what IT does much moreso than what you can do or accomplish with it.

I've never read that book (or any others of its ilk) but have been told about it/them often enough, that I still tend to do "morning pages", but not necessarily in the morning and never immediately upon arising. My approach, however isn't goal directed, it's just to write stuff, possibly content, possibly not, possibly lists, to-do or otherwise and sometimes stuff like "I am writing this because I've not yet sat down and written anything so here we go, lemmesee ... ." I think it is perhaps the hand-eye-paper connection that matters most, whether the mind is engaged or not. But, I wouldn't count that as play, it is a self-assigned task. Play has to happen, it can't be willed and should not create a permanent product except by accident. It also really can't be learned, but I suspect that it helps greatly if one has or finds (or even makes) something to play with. This may be the link between fidget spinners, Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty amd Yo-Yos. Palying with a yo-yo for 5 or 10 minutes every now and then, fwiw, is surprisingly good for you, because you can't really do anything else while you are doing it. I have several and even those who have gifted me some of them don't really get it. What's the point, they ask? Well, ya see, sez I, they go up and down.

be well and have a good ne

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Granma's picture

@enhydra lutris just because you want to. It needs no purposely result other than satisfaction/pleasure. For a knitter, it might be sitting and knitting. I think one of the nice things about grandkids, the younger ones, is getting to play with blocks, play dough, little cars, etc.

And that reminds me that I have a play session in my near future. One of my grandkids asked me to sort the cars that will go down the racetrack I have from the ones that won't go down it. The two groups are all mixed up and the kids find that frustrating. It is sort of a chore, but one I'll enjoy.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

they were a task I was assigned to do, essentially--which is why it was easier to do them than the Artist's Dates, which *were* play.

but I suspect that it helps greatly if one has or finds (or even makes) something to play with.

I think this is really insightful. At least, I hadn't thought of it that way.

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

mimi's picture

in the right corner and making me feel comfortable and giving me some privacy. I rest my bones and my head. I couldn't ask for more. Having shelter, privacy and warmth. Bingo!

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"heh, as they say, if you don't dig the blues, you got a hole in your soul" - JS

enhydra lutris's picture

@mimi

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

magiamma's picture

does not feel like working to me. There’s really no part of it I do not love. I love the clarity it brings to body, mind, and soul. Snd Spring, well, Spring is just the best.

Be well y’all.

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wendy davis's picture

but last week we had a foot of blessed, and much needed snow that brought a glow to our faces.

i also ♥♥♥ flashmobs, including idle no more round dances in canackistan malls, but this one makes me weep with happiness every.single.time; especially watching the chirren. Beethoven's ode to joy:

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@wendy davis

Really wonderful:

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

wendy davis's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

i saw no joy, nor felt no joy in that rather hackneyed version of the hallelujah chorus.

k.d. lang covering leonard cohen's song is by way of a lament.

my best to you and to all of us,
wd

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wendy davis's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

i realized later how snobbish that sounds. and yeppers, i am a musical snob.

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