Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Corner of My Eye: cell phones, mindfulness and magic thread

I spent the past few weeks feeling overwhelmed.  My parents came to visit Thursday 5/12 and Friday 5/13 and we had a great time, but I neglected the housework while they were here and worked a few full, closing shifts on the weekend right afterwards.  Dishes and general clutter started to creep up on us and we fell behind on preparing the meals we had planned for the rest of the week.  We ate a lot of takeout and spent a lot of time on our phones.  I stayed up late after Bubbs was asleep to spend even more time on my phone, looking at blogs.  I was behind on blogging, which meant I was behind on dealing with my house issues.  A couple of times, I simply couldn’t fall asleep.

Needless to say, none of this put me in the right frame of mind and everything I’ve been doing was cast in a negative light.  Instead of being thankful I no longer have to work full time, I feel frustrated I cannot spend more time on projects at home because I have to work in the evening. 

In order to stay home with Bubbs during the day while Hubbs is at work, I stepped down back into my old job that before I had been pretty desperate to leave and which I feel I have outgrown.  The job is in retail, so it offers neither good money nor prestige nor really a feeling of helping people (unless helping them buy things they don’t need on a store credit card counts, but I am going to avoid thinking about that for the moment and just bank on eventually stopping doing so).  While I know it allows us to stay afloat and spend more time with the baby, it has been harder and harder to regard it positively.

The real problem at the heart of all these setbacks and issues, however, is my feeling of confusion and even anxiety.  I have not felt anxious in a long time, thanks to the lovely hormones of pregnancy and nursing, but for seem reason the feeling has come back.  It was strange to feel like I did back in high school and college, when I struggled more with my emotions and bouts of depression.  I wouldn’t say it has reached that point, but I have definitely felt distracted and out of sorts. 

I feel like I am not doing what I want to do and have even started second guessing my ability with the baby, especially when he does not get a walk and a story every day.  I realize that raising a child is sort of an open invitation to feel like you are not doing things correctly, but I know there are more factors at work.  Besides being chemically predisposed to a labile mood, I wanted to spend some time trying to figure out what is going on with me to make me feel “busy” all the time, despite not being very productive.  I’ve come up with three things:

1. A disorganized environment

This is a no-brainer for me.  I’ve lived in spaces crammed with way too many things long enough to know that clutter is distracting.  A few clothes on the floor and I’m done.  You would think that if I understand by now the mechanism by which I am quickly overwhelmed (see my Threefold Theory), I would also have a method to prevent those clothes from ever going on the floor, but I don’t.

Honestly, I think the only way to solve this problem is to minimalize.  I have too many things to set up a good system of organization, let alone maintain it.  I cannot effectively clean my house because I cannot organize it and because there are simply too many things to clean.  Having fewer things will allow me to keep them organized and clean.  It sounds and is very logical, but will naturally take a lot of emotional work to get there.  Time to go all in.

2. Cell phone distraction

I was originally going to call this section distraction by low priority items, but it made no sense to be so general when the “items” are actually a single item, my cell phone.  My phone’s power over me is so strong that I continued to use it excessively while beginning to put this post together and thinking about why I believe I need to stop using it so much.  Like a dog that holds its tail between its legs but still chews up the library book, there I was, checking my apps and email. 

Things really came to a head for me when I started using my phone to post blog comments late at night instead of sleeping.  After a few months of being part time and catching up on sleep, I started reading during the first few hours after Bubbs fell asleep instead of going right to bed.  Reading was great.  I felt both relaxed by it, because it felt like the first extended time I’ve had alone in a while, and excited by it, because I got to use my brain to analyze something I can appreciate as entertainment and an art form.  When I started blogging, it was fun to use this time to catch up on blogs I like to read, but a cell phone is different from a book.  Blame it on the blue light, perhaps, but it kept me up longer than I should have stayed awake.

I even recently uninstalled my Etsy app, because I had not used it in a while.  When I was pregnant, I caught myself using it every morning to look at nursery items.  The only problem was that I didn’t have to money to buy anything.  I started feeling bad about my no-purchase shopping, because it made me desire things more and envious of people that have the means to buy more things.  Luckily, I broke myself of that habit and got over it.

Before I claim some sort of moral superiority on that front, however, let me quickly state I installed another app called Neko Atsume in its place and that I have already about as much time collecting virtual kitties than I probably ever spent on Etsy.  Let me also state that I believe being on my phone while someone else is awake in the room is rude. 

Despite believing it is rude, I have done it.  Despite asking Hubbs to either put his phone away (such as when we are at my parents’ house and we are all sitting together talking) or include me in what he is looking at (by telling me about scotch or Reddit), I have used my phone in his presence, though not as egregiously as I used to.  I usually ask permission now.  I have also looked up employment law (to settle an argument) while at my in-laws and apologized to friends when I satisfied the urge to check Neko Atsume.

I even believe that using my cell phone is rude when the person present is nonverbal and playing with a singing dump truck.  Yes, I use my cell phone when I am with my son.  It feels terrible to even write that, so clearly it is the worst cell phone sin I am guilty of. 

I have done it because it helps me survive when I am tired and it is a carryover from his earliest days when I was nursing him for an hour every two hours.  I felt bad using the phone then and it’s even worse now.  I hate that my phone was there hovering in the corner of my eye at all times.  When I was napping with my son, my phone was there within reach in the corner of my bed, hovering near our heads.  It hovers in many of my memories now as well.  When Bubbs was sitting in my lap earlier in the week, I was feeding my virtual cats instead of giving him my full attention.

Worse still, there have been times when my son and not my phone have been in the corner of my eye.  I was sitting on the couch looking at Amazon for baby bath items when he was playing on the floor.  I can already say with confidence that nothing on my cell phone is ever going to be worthy of attention over my son and I would like to say that my behavior will reflect this truth.

I brought this up to a friend of mine and she cut me some slack I don’t feel I deserve, at least when my usage is related to blogging.  Blogging is healthy; it is something I can do to exercise my mind.  She could understand that it gives me back some sense of myself, that it is an adult activity that sustains me.  And while true, I never, ever want my son to say to me, “mommy, stop looking at your phone,” because I am not paying attention to him.  It doesn’t matter that I was shopping for him.  When I finally bought those washcloths from my wish list, I felt an intense dysphoria: buying things just doesn’t feel good anymore. 

I’m sure the chemicals in my brain that cell phone use triggers are the same as that of addiction, so instead of making this a moral issue, I’d rather make it a behavioral one.  I need cell phone rehab, because cold turkey just isn’t going to work for me this time.  I like to pretend I’m a Luddite and tell people I’d like to get rid of my smartphone, but it really just makes me a hypocrite.  A Luddite blogger does not compute, first of all.  Second, I am simply too afraid to take the leap back to a non-smartphone.  So I will have to throttle and moderate my use instead.

As I am finishing this post, I have already decided to keep my phone away from my bed and in a different room during the day.  I have started checking it only two or three times between when I wake up (around 930am) and when I leave for work (at 5pm) and I time my usage so that it does not compete with my son.  Namely, I use it when he is asleep or I am already spending time getting ready for work, etc.

I have started to go back to using the little pads of paper I adore to make lists or record important thoughts, because they don’t do anything distracting.  I moved my desk to the bedroom so that I could use my laptop instead of my phone for writing at night, so that I can turn the habit into a more productive one.  I don’t have a problem doing unrelated things on my computer because it is too ancient and slow to be much fun.

So far, these measures seem to be working.  Soon, perhaps I will even just open the front door to check the weather.

3. A focus on the future

While this final item doesn’t sound quite as bad as a disorganized space or a cell phone addiction, it can be just as distracting and harmful.

The Yachtless had a great post recently about spending two weeks waiting for payday and included the story of The Magic Thread.  In it, a boy is given a thread he can pull to skip the parts of his life that bore him or that seem to be in the way of better times.  The only catch is that he cannot make time move back the other way.  Well, as you’d imagine, he ends up pulling the thread a little too often and when he is old, he realizes that he has bypassed most of his life.

That desire to fast forward is something I think we are all guilty of at different points in our lives, but the first time I really had to think about it was when I had two jobs almost four years ago to pay off debt.  It seemed that the next payday could never happen fast enough.  At the same time, I had very little time to relax and even less time to sleep.  I had to learn to appreciate the small pleasures in my life.  I started to really love driving to job number two: I loved drinking the tea or coffee I had made, I loved listening to the country music on the radio and I even loved the feel of the car speeding down the highway.  I knew the fun would end when I got to work, but it didn’t matter.

Eventually I realized that I would have to make peace with the time I spent at work as well.  When you are working up to 73 hours a week, it ends up being most of your time.  By wishing it was the end of the night, I was in fact wishing my life away and only really wishing for the next day of work to begin.  After that, I had some truly wonderful moments pushing carts in the dark parking lot after closing, set free in Tolstoyan fashion by brisk manual labor.  Sometimes I even asked for more hours, because it was easier to work than to not work and have an existential crisis about where my life was going.  When I was at work, I felt a sort of peace, because I was making progress and keeping busy.

Somehow, I fell into the trap again.  When I looked down recently, I saw the old thread in my hands and caught myself thinking, “if I could just get to my days off, then I will have time to fix everything.”  Well, that line of thinking is great for missing out on experiencing my own life to its fullest and overloading the expectations for those days, ensuring I will not even enjoy them.  In fact, my days off are probably not even more productive, because I have so much on my plate I find it paralyzing.

Ideally, the knowledge that I have to work at 6pm wouldn’t affect me at all.  I could enjoy what I am doing, even if I have other responsibilities later.  More of a routine would help, so that I am not so confused about what I can accomplish in a day.  I would walk, cook a meal, do some dishes, play with the Bubbs and feel like I have done a number of important things.  Being mindful of the moment I am in is the best way to feel grateful for the time I have with my son while he is little and enjoy my own life.  I have started to enjoy driving to work again, even in rush hour traffic.  It feels great drinking my coffee and listening to NPR.

Another thing that would help me be in the present is to just do things now that I want to plan for a better time.  There is usually not a better time than now, and the things I am putting off are usually much easier and much less time consuming than I thought. 

In short, there is no need to burden myself with such plans and constant thoughts of the future.  The future will happen soon enough and it will be better if I live through the present first.

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