Winding Up While Keeping Sane

This week I killed my printer. So, I reframed my chains … This week I killed my printer. Seriously. It was maybe about five years old anyway, and of course, there is a built-in obsolescence to all of our devices and such. But I think I hastened its demise by trying to print off about three hundred-plus pages of my book’s final manuscript (seven chapters plus epilogue, still double-spaced as per publisher’s requirements). I got about two-thirds of the way through the printing exercise when my printer started just spitting out blank sheets of paper. The lead photo to the left shows the stack of pages, most with print, but the ones near the top without a sign of ink on them. My computer guy came over, took the thing apart, and pronounced the machine dead. The second photo below displays the corpse before we took it out and buried it. (Or otherwise disposed decently of its remains.)

For the last three weeks or so, ever since I’ve completed the book’s writing and sent it off to my local copy editor to do the final preparation for submission to the publisher, I have been on a continuous treadmill of final activities related to the book’s wind-up. Sending out letters to music publishers requesting permission to quote from song lyrics (don’t even get me started on that!), completing marketing and manuscript questionnaires for my publisher, touching base with potential endorsers to get their permission to include their names to the publisher, carrying out a last read-through of the final files from my copy editor and discovering THREE TYPOS that neither of us had caught before now, including the misspelling of one of the names of a potential endorser (!), and so on. Saying to myself after each task that now I could relax, now I could relish being so close to finishing, now I could just bask in a job well done. I told a couple of friends that this writing had taken more than four years of labor, and I was so ready to give birth to the thing. And now I was close.

However, my euphoria would last about an hour, and then – stressed still – I would move on to the next task ahead, hoping against hope that I wasn’t damaging my health in the process. For example, one night last week I woke up around 2:15 a.m. fitfully worried about some file, finally getting up around 5:30. As I sipped my early morning coffee, all of a sudden the problem didn’t seem to loom so large and I solved it by the second cup.

Thinking about all this brought to mind one of the books I had drawn from in a chapter of my work concerned with the emotion of joy. In his This is Your Brain on Joy (photo below), Earl Henslin discusses some brain studies that he and his collaborator have carried out mapping brain centers that “light up” when associated mood disorders are present – disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive worry, and disordered anger expression. He then provides practical advice to overcoming these negative emotional tendencies. The third photo below displays the cover of his book.

One advice he gives he refers to as “reframing your chains.” He points out that if you can say “If only ___ would happen, then I would be happy.” He says that whatever you fill the blank with is your chain – like my own “when the book’s done.” Instead, he suggests practicing gratitude, sipping a nice glass of Merlot while sitting in your favorite chair, savoring smells that make you happy, living your life generously with “deep-spirited friends” – giving away love and receiving it back in abundance.

Well of course I know all that. We all know all that. Rationally. It’s just harder to put into practice – especially if you’re wired a certain way to be vigilant to all threats, real or imagined, if you’re wired to expect perfection from yourself at all times, if you’re wired to be a bit obsessive about flaws of any kind.

But we have to try, don’t we? As Annie Dillard once wrote, there is no one but us to move forward in our lives. She asks “who shall ascend onto the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time. … But there is no one but us. There never has been.” (Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, pp. 66-67.)

So I try these saving practices: Singing my favorite hymns, taking long bubble baths, spending time with close friends, taking little trips away – like the one I’m planning back to Wintergreen in the next two weeks, this time just taking myself away on a hiking R&R.

Let me end with a quote again from Pico Iyer’s book, The Art of Stillness – that lovely little tome that I believe I cited in a previous blog post. But his little work is so perfect that his words themselves are a comfort. He ends his little volume thus:

In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.
You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time, I’m sure.
But if you want to come back feeling new – alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world – I think the place to visit may be Nowhere. (Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness, p. 66)

I’m not a fan of the “mindfulness” craze that has erupted in recent years and I’ll address that in some future post. But for now, I think there is something to be said about finding that still spot and resting in it – trying to be open to the day and the moment, open to God’s Spirit within and around you and beyond you – maybe that Nowhere Iyer refers to.

In that sense, there’s no one but us to try.