Finding What Matters

In the two months since the election, I have been working to ween myself from my overt attention to the political news. I have not ignored it entirely, but I’ve had significant success in reclaiming wide swathes of my time from following the happenings in D.C. and elsewhere through news sites and social media. In the lead up to the election, I devoted far too many hours to following these happenings. Not so much, mind you, that I did not continue to live my life and accomplish plenty else, but far more hours than I should have. There are better things to do with one’s life, after all, and I’m trying to do a number of those better things.

Thankfully, the passing of the election released me. I hesitate on that phrasing, because it sounds passive, as though I did not have power over this release, or the former imprisonment, when in reality I had full power over both. Yet it feels that way: that in the election’s resolution (slow as it may have been), a power that had gripped me passed and resolved itself, and I was free to reorient the energy and attention I had put into politics toward other things.

Mostly what I have redirected that energy toward are things I was doing already, such as my writing, reading, and other practices. If you look back through this blog, for instance, you’ll notice something of a flurry of activity since November, at least in terms of the blog’s normal level of activity. And you’ll notice as well my publication of the essay “Small Acts” in the middle of December. That timing is no coincidence. While I leveraged the quarantines of 2020 to dramatically increase my writing output and to finally make writing a regular, near-daily affair, the vast majority of that energy was directed toward fiction. I simply could not find much to write about from a nonfiction perspective. And while that did not particularly concern me—I have been enjoying my focus on fiction, and that is still where my greatest passion lies—I did want to develop and write some essays for this site. Yet few thoughts worthwhile for such an endeavor came to me.

Partly that was just where my focus and personal attention was at, including on personal practices that I am at this point not that interested in writing publicly about. The other problem, though, was that my brain was too filled with politics, and I did not want to write about politics. I have done that in the past, and I suppose it’s fine, but I’m hardly the most original thinker in politics and I do not care for what the subject does to me, as I wrote about in “Small Acts.” It’s not what I want the focus of this blog or author site to be.

As I cleared politics from my brain after the election, though—and it did take awhile—I began to see a little more clearly the rest of the world, and slowly some essays and blog posts have come to mind, some of which have seen the light of day on this site. Nothing too dramatic or radical; and nothing too brilliant that I have yet to put out into the world; but a reorientation back to the big broad world beyond the machinations of D.C. and all their knock-on effects. It’s been a pleasant change, as well as a remembrance that the non-political world is far more vast—not to mention far more interesting—than the political one, despite what one might think if you follow the news or social media.

That’s not to say that the politics of the day do not continue to worry me, or that I don’t hold some serious concern for the future of this country. I had some dire expectations for 2021 even before Wednesday’s occurrences, and I am wondering now if this country’s collapse may proceed even faster than I expected. But at this point it has all become very tiresome, the day in and day out. While I am not going to completely tune out what is happening—because in the broader sense, it is fascinating, just not so much in the minutia and rhetoric; and also because I want to try to keep as much a handle as possible on how it may impact my life, and what I may want to do in hopes of navigating the chaos—I am more determined than ever to stop letting it dictate my life and emotional state.

In turbulent times like these, though, that can be hard. The past few days have seen some back sliding from me, and that was not helped by how I came into this week in a black mood and full of foreboding. Yet it has gone much better than I expected, and the reason for that is as simple as any: I have not fully turned my back on that broader world in favor of returning to a more limited one. That’s been the difference.

To better understand, I should note that this week saw my return to work after a short vacation for the holidays. That is not a terrible thing, but given how busy my work has been, it’s not hard for a work day to become a compressed timeline of work and stress and a quick evening decompress with distraction that, by the time the night is winding to a close, leaves me feeling a little down, a little depressed, and as though I did not really live the life I quite wanted to live that day. It’s of course not the end of the world—we often don’t get to live the life we want to live, and that’s just part of being human—but I dreaded the thought of plunging back into that, backed up by a general foreboding by the year ahead. It did not feel like a life on track.

Somehow, though, I pulled myself away from that brink. I am not entirely sure how it came about, and the fact that it did is something of a small revelation to me, a tiny exhilaration I am still mulling over and trying to understand. I credit it at least in part to some current efforts at will training, and its the activities associated with that that started me on this positive path on Monday. Come the end of that work day, feeling somewhat stressed and wanting to shut off my brain and escape with a distraction of news or screen time or Mahjongg or some combination of them all, I instead sat down at the desk in our bedroom and opened my drawing notebook and spent a few minutes drawing.

It was really as simple as that. This is the little secret, so far as I can tell: it reset my brain. From there, I did a few other useful things, including a good bout of writing. That was a particular excitement, because it saw me returning to a story I started recently with good momentum but then began to move away from in favor of a new story. While I was also excited by the new new story, I felt a certain depression over losing some of the energy from the old new story, given how dialed in to it I had been not long before. So that return was a particularly positive development for me—something of a confirmation that I could get back on track.

The week has continued on in a similar manner, with other successes to count. Mind you, I also have had my stretches of distraction, including even earlier this evening; but I keep coming back to the things I more want to do, even on to small tasks like stripping the sprouts from our stored potatoes (oh, how I wish I had better storage space for root crops). It’s not that I’m perfect, by any means, but that I keep correcting and finding my way back to where I more want to be. That has not always been so much the case.

At a time like now, during a week like this week, and in a year that I suspect may well be as challenging or more so than the one we just had, that seems like a success. As the world continues to spiral around us, finding my way back to what matters and focusing on the habits and tasks and practices that I most want my life to be made up of—even when it’s a bit harder and even when it means turning away from the easy distractions—strikes me as some of the more important, and more useful, personal work I can engage in. It also, at the end of the day, is what will best make for me the life I want. And at a time when the world around me feels very out of my control, and increasingly dangerous, the idea that I can still to some degree make my own life within the constraints and implications of that is an important one for me. I plan to keep pursuing it, throughout the stumbles and set backs, knowing that at the end of the day I can come back to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and a life I’ve managed to make at least a little more into what I want than what I don’t.

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