I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of blogging, but I've been experiencing a lot of anxiety about what to write about. So I thought maybe that’s where I should start, with the anxiety. I don’t often speak publicly about my mental health, but lately I’ve been finding it helpful to hear other people’s experiences and I truly do think that the way to end stigma is to shine a light on things. So this post is about my mental health as it relates to my business and my craft.
I have an anxious mind, I always have. I worry, I pace, I am easily distracted. I find it difficult to focus and my attention span is short. Anxiety is not uncommon, but it’s uniquely challenging for each person who deals with it; my anxiety is an annoying and pessimistic passenger. It is a constant hum in the background that gets louder the longer I stay still, so I tend to switch tasks often. The novelty buys me a few minutes of focus before it comes nagging back. I only recently made the connection between my anxiety and my attention span and that realization has given me some clarity about a few of my bad habits and eased a lot of guilt about my perpetual disorganization. It also helps explain why I tend to take on too many things and start more projects than I finish. Seeing my anxiety more clearly means I can recognize when I can exert control over it and when I need to just hold on and ride it out.
I sometimes imagine what I must look like from above, as if in a security camera, black and white and sped up slightly for comedic affect. I move around my house, starting and stopping tasks, sitting down, standing up, pacing. Up the stairs, out to the shed, hovering over my computer, occasionally attempting meditation or exercise. I think if you had that video you could almost see my anxiety, following behind me, poking me, tripping me, warning me about the future or degrading me about the past.
I saw the quote above recently and I was startled to recognize my own experience. This is what got me thinking about the relationship between my anxiety and my work. Being self-employed brings plenty of legitimate concerns along with it, financial insecurity and public visibility are my biggest hurdles. These problems have a solution: work hard and be realistic. Anxiety exists independently of these practical concerns, it is not soothed by a pay cheque or a promotion. So what is the relationship between my anxiety and my work? Turns out it’s a positive one.
So much of my recent work allows me to access calmness and focus, rare states in my anxious mind. Things that were tedious at first, like sorting through thousands (millions?) of dried spruce needles to remove stems and other debris, filling jars, planting seeds, or applying labels have become meditations. I cannot leave halfway through, and I cannot be careless. I must stick it out, and I must remain attentive to the process. Of course my mind still wanders, but this is the meditation, I must return my attention to the task, to my hands. It’s a feeling of intense presentness. My brain doesn't sit still for long, but if a task requires my attention then I have to face whatever thoughts come across my mind, and either work them out or recognize them for what they are and take back my focus. I can’t sustain these meditations indefinitely, so I have learned to work in reasonable batches and see them through. This attentiveness followed by the satisfaction of completing a task is restorative even in small doses, it energizes me to take on the next task. My work is a brain massage, meticulous attention works through the knots in my consciousness and smooths them out, if only temporarily.
I have found this same release in cooking, both professionally (depending on the circumstances) and at home. Cooking is most pleasurable when it consumes me. When I am forced to move systematically through the details. Having a short attention span means I often do things out of order, chaotically. This creates a sort of chaos feedback loop and feeds my anxiety. I don’t clean my house from top to bottom, I clean in frantic bursts and often end up so brain tired I can’t bring myself to do the last simple detail of a job, like empty the mop bucket. These are things that used to baffle my husband, why did you take the garbage halfway out? Why did you only bring in some of the groceries from the car? Cooking is different, you can’t make a stew out of order, and you can’t walk away. You must do every step, carefully, with intention. My mantra is a quote from Michael Pollan’s excellent book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”, “when chopping onions, just chop onions”. When I'm chopping onions I'm also worrying, day dreaming, sometimes vibrating with an urge to switch tasks, but over the years I have learned some discipline. I have learned to face the anxiety down and take control, or the stew wont get made. Take a deep breath, and just chop onions.
In the natural course of my life there are moments where my body and brain connect, briefly moving in unison and then drifting out of sync. I exist outside the hum, of course, but it is amazing how little attention can be paid to one's physical surroundings while still functioning reasonably well in society. Intense concentration takes me out of my head and into my body. It is a salve that I can only get from working with my hands (and hockey), I cannot seem to apply it in the middle of the night, in the shower, when I’m driving, etc etc etc. I am learning to see my work as a tool to access and extend that brain-body connection and I now look forward to these tedious tasks. I am grateful for this unexpected gift the work gives me, this temporary peace.