Depths of a Year 2020, Week Eight; In Which I Discuss Letters E, F and P

This isn’t the full list of what (if anything) happened in each Depth Year Letter since the beginning of the year, just the ones that are in the forefront of my thinking this week:

E: Exercise and Eating, sustainable:

I have been saying I need to “get back into exercise” for almost nine years haha. I first started exercising and collecting home workout dvds in early 2007, when I was pregnant with Baby #4. Very early in that pregnancy, I realized that the weight from the baby of five years ago was still hanging around – literally hanging over waistbands and things, a look which I really didn’t like. And I knew I would like it even less if I added on the pounds from another sedentary pregnancy. I bought a few dvds at that time, but didn’t get to them because I was sick in the first trimester. Then I was done being queasy and figured that pregnancy was as good a time as any to get in shape.

I started with the beginner workouts I had recently purchased, including a few Leslie Sansone Walk-at-Home and some entry-level weight workouts like Denise Austin or Kathy Smith. Then (because I am an obsessive and a collector by nature) when I saw that I liked exercise and that there were sooooo many dvd options, I began to spend most of my online time reading the forums at – and I started buying and trying workouts in just about every genre and fitness level. After the baby was born, pretty much all I did was take basic care of baby/family and think about the best fitness rotations (meaning the elusive “perfect balance” of strength/cardio/restorative). Thankfully I didn’t fall into such paralysis analysis about it that I only planned exercise rather than exercising (I did work out almost daily).

In mid-2008, I got P90x, and it is unbelievable but the blog I kept then is still online and I detail my honeymoon period with Tony Horton in some detail there. I kept up with regular exercise and mostly-healthy eating until I was again pregnancy sick (with final baby #5) in early 2011.

what was in my journals and letterzines in 2008 –
same basic personality, different obsessions haha

Fast forward through the years since then –  I did hold on to a few pounds after Baby #5, but when I started intermittent fasting in 2017, the fat went mostly bye-bye without me exercising much. I have only very sporadically exercised since 2011, and I have felt myself becoming less fit and more prone to injury as I have approached and now passed age 50. I know I need to exercise now, more than ever, and not just for vanity’s sake. But I haven’t been doing it despite that huge dvd collection, and despite high cholesterol and thighs which were never a bit jiggly even into my later 40s, but which are now showing signs of gravity and the lack of squats. And I believe that part of the “A: Attitude, mine” problem is a lack of endorphins I got for years with daily walks, even before I got into “home fitness”.

Anyway, I have been mulling this over and envisioning myself in 10 years if I don’t get active again etc. etc. And then last weekend, God broke into this problem, and for a mere 8.99, dropped into my lap P90x3, which I did not even know existed and which seems to have all the good of the original (including the lovable Tony Horton), but at 30 minutes a workout instead of the hour+ of the originals.

I had already been thinking that I need to treat myself like I am an out-of-shape beginner again, and my plan was to go all “depth year back-to-basics” with the kind of workouts I started with – Leslie Sansone and Pilates (I am happy to report that I was able to complete Leslie’s Walk and Jog no problem, so I am still in better shape than I was in 2007).

But how that ties in with P90x3 is that there is a PilatesX which is exactly the kind of classic pilates (with a Tony twist) I was looking for, (after having recently bought a few new pilates discs that were disappointing). I’m not going to do the P90x3 “program” but I can tell they have reignited my love of exercise, and I am making it different by using resistance bands instead of dumbbells for the first time. I am hoping that has a more therapeutic effect on some long-standing issues in the left side of my body

F: Finances and Frugality:

This is the Letter which has had the most significant “progress”, which is good because it was probably the one in most dire need of it. Here is a reprint of my 2016 zine article “Finally Facing the Art of Money”, which will give you the background up to that time.

read the pdf here

Since then, I have started worrying more about our “financial future”, which could indeed be bleak but need not be if we start thinking about our money differently. My husband owns an established one-man plumbing business that supports our family at this time, but it MUST soon be expanded because we have almost no savings, and my husband is almost 60 and doesn’t feel like he can keep doing the hard physical labor for many more years. It is a resource I am grateful to have, but we don’t exactly know how to “take it to the next level”…which for us is not 7 figures or national renown, but rather just hiring another plumber and getting away from paper invoices.

Where we have made some progress is in our personal finances, because we have started using the You Need a Budget System. Our “net worth” (and it can hardly be called that, I am NOT kidding) when we began it in the last week of January, can only be called pathetic for our age (and our cash value has significantly declined since I wrote the Money article). Especially since my husband does bring in quite a bit more than we “need”. We have had to face how much money we have just wasted through ignorance, lack of forethought, sheer stupidity and also trying to alleviate suffering through retail therapy – but I know that looking at how things really are is the right first step.

Thankfully we have learned to stay pretty much out of the consumer credit card debt cycle – but guess how we learned?  By being IN IT way too deep, several times. I am not going to give a whole overview of the You Need A Budget system, except to say that it is user friendly and seems to be helping us communicate about a difficult topic as well as encouraging us to be more thoughtful about our spending. I like how it works only with actual money that you have and is not forecasting what you “hope to spend” in each category, and it gets you to think about and budget for the MANY (oh so many) categories of real expenses we have that we forget about (life insurance, daughter’s camp fund, etc) just because they aren’t a regular monthly expense.

We have been doing YNAB for about 6 weeks now, and it has been somewhat sobering, but also encouraging – because we are in a better position (in “resources and potential” if not in cash) than we realized when we weren’t paying attention to our finances – so I would like to move forward in that area with (hopefully) more wisdom, and hopefully before a catastrophic economic and societal collapse.

P: Prayer cards, make:

I have not made even one prayer card yet, actually – I have been stuck because I want to make several types of cards, but could not figure out how to integrate them into a deck I can use.

I want to have, in a single deck, cards in these categories (with each card having enough emotional/intellectual/psychological “content” that they will mean something to me- either upright or reversed – when I draw them in a tarot journaling session:

Personal Pantheon of Influences – people who have had a big influence on me but I don’t know them – like Jordan Peterson or author Mary Pipher. Or I do “know them” either online or have known them in real life, but they remain more in the realm of “impersonal mentor influences” rather than friends – like David Zahl or Anne Carlson Kennedy or my high school teacher Fred Lentz. I picture those cards kind of looking like Orthodox Icons but I’m not attached to that idea. 

Cards with important fictional characters: in January I made a Ruth Fisher card, which is not exactly the Queen of Cups or the Empress in Tarot, but is something like those with a bit more Death and Martyr element thrown in. Other fictional characters: Asher Lev. Cadfael. A few other Women of Six Feet Under. Ransom from The Space Trilogy.

the Ruth Fisher card

For prayer cards: in this deck I want to have the closest situations, relationships and people that I will likely be praying for all my life. I’d like for at least some of the art on these to be kind of symbolic, somewhat like the art on my favorite deck of iching cards. (I also would like to make a prayer deck for everyone in our church, but I haven’t nailed down any specifics for that one yet).

The final category I can only call The Archetypes: As an example, in this section there will definitely be a card called The Jew. Sorry if that sounds politically incorrect but I could write many many pages about being a Jew, what I think about “the Jews” and Judaism itself, and in relation to Christianity etc, etc. Other archetype cards: The Garret or Small Hidden Room. The Mistress of the Manor (see the pdf of my money story for a glimpse into that). The Deathbed. And of course, The Fangirl.

The backs of the cards were stumping me, because I can’t be sure I am always going to have the same paper pattern for the back of each category card. I decided that each category would be the same color on the back, not necessarily the same pattern (I love mixing patterns). So since the back of my Ruth Fisher card (as the first of the Fictional Characters cards) is green – the rest of those cards will have backs in the green family. I already have 18 3×4 watercolor paper cards already cut, so I don’t really have any excuse not to start this project. I would really enjoy adding this more personal element to my card readings.

In Which I Discuss Being a Christian and Also Using Tarot and Oracle Cards

There once was a gal who read tarot
Who was also on path, straight and narrow
Some folks they a-hurried, and wrote her, so worried
That God would smite her with His arrow

(a morning spread with two tarot decks and 3 oracle decks)

Note: comments are turned off for my depth year posts. Please email me if you’d like to talk 🙂

As I write through the depth year, there will be references to and drawings of tarot and oracle cards. If you are a Christian this will probably disturb you and you might write to me (as people have in the past) concerned because you think I am messing with the occult and opening up doors for Satan to take control of my life. I’m not sure whether this post will convince you otherwise, but it will clarify my own thoughts about it and also keep me from having to answer this question numerous times. 

So, this is kind of a long story.

Even though I have been a Christian for almost 23 of my 51 years and am a Jew by birth, I do have a history with what can only be called “paganism lite”, which began when I was about 9. My mother owned that 70s classic, The Modern Witch’s Spellbook, and used 

a literal death spell
involving a spider 
and a pin
to try
to get rid of
my first stepfather 

(That and other stories I allude to here, can be read in more detail in this long spiritual memoir – which is kind of outdated but still relevant.

I grew up in the 80s in wacky Southern California, where “alternative spiritualities” were a thing long before they went mainstream, and in my very early 20s I stuck my big toe into their murky waters just a bit. I read The Mists of Avalon, watched Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell discuss “the power of myth” and became immersed in woman-focused woo during my first pregnancy – when of course, I was manifesting the Mother Goddess. My first experience with tarot was in that Natural Mother phase; I had the round Motherpeace feminist deck, but neither the deck nor tarot itself gripped me at the time. Oddly, I still have two handmade tarot cards that I don’t remember making. I also had a friend who practiced a kind of nouveau Norse paganism. She read runes and I was present at her ritual where a sacred circle was drawn and the four elements were invoked.

I think the reason that none of this really “took” for me was because I had read a lot about Orthodox Judaism in my late teen years, and even while I was into paganism lite, I had a fantasy of becoming an observant Jew. A lot of my Jewish influence ran towards the liberal reform variety (meaning that the people might even be atheists, but involved with Jewishness for the sake of community and identity) but I knew instinctively that this God of the Jews in all His power was the only God – if indeed there was a God at all.

Fast forward a few years, and I was dramatically converted to Christianity one night – after having sworn my entire life that I would never be a Christian. For maybe a decade I stayed away from a lot of things (including my lifelong interest in psychology and personality) that might possibly be outside the pale of reformed theology. I was even one of those people who wouldn’t let my kids read Harry Potter (but I think that was more peer pressure from all my online friends who wouldn’t, rather than a deep conviction against it – and eventually I gave in and they have all read it numerous times) We also had this really cool paper mache mask that I think was a giraffe, but my husband made me get rid of it because he thought it looked like a devil goat. 

At some point in my 40s (which were a pretty miserable time for me) I realized that the world God had created was a lot more mysterious than most Christians are willing to admit. That doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t true or that there are other ways to be saved than through the work of Christ (I am a full-on Five Point Calvinist). But it does mean that the Bible doesn’t tell us a lot of things about the world or about ourselves apart from the story of sin and salvation. Now yes, I know that is the most important thing there is to know, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t A WHOLE LOT that technically doesn’t fit into that category, and I was sick and tired of the various forms of legalism that tried to shove it all under a tacky Christian-themed rug. 

In about 2013 (thanks mostly to Mockingbird Ministries) I finally internalized that I wasn’t saved by my works and was, in fact, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. This was a huge relief because I had always struggled to keep my weirdness in check around other Christians. There had long been small cracks in my Christian facade and they were getting bigger – in fact a few pieces had already come out. Thankfully God knows about that Japanese thing where they put broken stuff together using gold. After He did that with me, I felt free again, and able to be myself and also be a Christian. 

(a drawing from my manually typewritten journal)

Note: I hate anything that is a Christian hybrid with anything else, or which redefines Christian words to mean something other than their proper orthodox meaning. So I don’t like authors like Richard Rohr who, I think, are reinterpreting Christianity to fit into non-Christian philosophies. I take my Christianity straight and my non-Christianity straight. I also hate things which are technically theologically correct but which boil down to self-improvement techniques. I also take my self-improvement straight and don’t want it mixed with my Christianity, because that dilutes the law/gospel distinction. 

That said:

After being glued together by God, the first disapproved-by-most-Christians thing I got into was Buddhist ideas, usually interpreted by Western practitioners (not Buddhism lite, since these were serious practitioners). I had already been reading writer and zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg for years, but in 2015 I branched out and started reading Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tara Brach, Sylvia Boorstein, Toni Bernhard and others. Thankfully I did have one other Christian friend (a PCA minister) who was way more deeply into Asian Buddhism than I will probably ever be – so I wasn’t totally alone. Then in early 2017, I discovered Jordan Peterson, and he reignited my lost love for psychology and personality, and all the deep things which are real but difficult to articulate. 

This is where tarot and oracle cards enter the picture.

(temperance card from the illuminated tarot)

I heard Jordan talking about archetypes (as Joseph Campbell had so many years before on PBS) and somehow came across a deck by Caroline Myss called Archetype cards. In trying to understand myself, I had been identifying what I called my alter-egos for years, and I always thought they were something like archetypes, so this was interesting and something I related to – how I could have different aspects of my personality that may be somewhat “universal”. And even though I am a creative person and somewhat “artistic”, I don’t consider myself to be imaginative and I have always had difficulty with visual “symbolism”, so I liked these cards because they didn’t have a lot of that. But they were kind of limiting and not very nuanced to use them alone.

Also, the collector in me is rarely happy with one of anything, so I started looking for some other cards that didn’t have stupid looking art or an overly “you are magical” feel – which honestly, most tarot cards do. I found The Byzantine Tarot first, which I liked because it had Christian symbolism and art inspired by early mosaics. 

This is a good time to break in and say how and why I USE these cards. The main complaint I’ve heard from Christians is that using the cards equals practicing divination, or calling up spirits or something like that. I’m not well versed in the history of tarot cards, but using them for some kind of ouija board fortune telling is a very recent development (before that they were just, well, card games) and I use them in my journaling practice as a kind of prompt. It helps me to think outside the box about my life.

I do not assume that God is “giving me a word” in these cards in any type of prophetic sense. But I also do not assume that He would never speak to me through them, like he regularly does through books we read, music we hear, people we talk to, or experiences we deem “providential”.

This is also a good time to give a brief overview of what a tarot deck IS. It is a deck of 78 cards, with 22 “major arcana” and 56 “minor arcana”. The major arcana are more overtly “archetypal”, with cards like The Empress (mother archetype, nature and the good and bad side of that), the Tower (having foundations crumble and so descent into the underworld – in Jordan Peterson terms) and The Moon (the shadow, dreams, intuition). The minor arcana come in four suits just like modern playing cards – cups, swords, coins (or pentacles) and wands (or staffs) – which correspond to the hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs we all know. There are 10 numbered cards and four court cards in each suit, and each suit also corresponds to an element – cups/water, swords/air, coins/earth and wands/fire.

(king of cups from the crow tarot)


Cups correspond to emotion, relationships, intuition 

Swords to thoughts, power, conflict and truth

Coins to the physical world and money

Wands to creativity, ideas, passions

I’m not going to go into that in any more detail; this isn’t a post about tarot cards themselves. But in my almost 3 years of working with them, I have seen that with all their diversity, they correspond well to the human condition. I especially like that I have to dig a little bit sometimes to see how I might find myself in a particular card – It’s easy to see myself in The Empress, I mean being the archetypal mother has been my life for almost 30 years. But the Knight of Swords????

At first I absolutely did not get the symbolism in the pictures. I would look at the cards and they wouldn’t mean anything to me until I read the book description – as I said, I am not very visual or imaginative or versed in the symbolic language of art and literature. Plus the numbers themselves have certain connotations – for example the aces are about beginnings or opportunities, fives have an instability element and tens are the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. It’s easy for us modern Christians to dismiss things like “numerology” as occultish, but the Bible itself is full of numbers that have some symbolic meaning. Three, seven and 666 come to mind. So while the tarot numbers aren’t prophetic in a God sense, they make sense when thinking of how life is. We all face opportunities, instability and the ending and beginning of things.

Over the past three years I have acquired a LOT of different decks, and I don’t think I would have come to understand the cards if I had stopped at one deck or one guidebook. I have also gotten a few decks that aren’t technically tarot cards, which are called oracle decks. I have a few decks that are based on the iching, one that is based on the phases of the moon, an archetype deck (which I ADORE) that is different from my original one, plus a deck based on Jewish mysticism (which despite my Jewishness, I really do not like).

I have a morning routine/ritual which consists of my cafe latte, my two favorite devotionals (Nailed It and The Mockingbird Devotional) and a three-card reading which usually consists of an iching card, a tarot card, and an archetype card. If I have time and if the reading really stands out to me, I will write a bit about it in my journal or on the typewriter. Sometimes I draw the cards with ink and watercolor, which is good because I want the practice but can have a hard time thinking of what to draw. It’s also fun to see how even copying something, “my style” comes through.

(the fool from tarot de maria celia)

I don’t know if I would have thought to do a depth year if I hadn’t seen how much understanding I developed with regular (but not excessive) time with the cards. One day, maybe 6 months ago, I drew the cards and had my own interpretation of them BEFORE I opened the books. I did not realize that was happening.

Anyway, circling back to being a Christian and using tarot cards, I think this is a Romans 14 issue. I know that these are just decks of cards that, for me as an introspective person, somehow captures the complicated nature of being human. They are more open ended than the mostly boring and limited kind of journal prompts you see in books or online. They don’t scare me, I don’t believe they are evil or linked to Satan, and my conscience is clear about using them. I’m not saying that no one uses them in a way that is occultish, of course they do. But like any other inanimate thing they have no “power”. Just as a statue of an idol is really NOTHING, so a Christian may eat meat that has been sacrificed to it. The meat has not been contaminated, it’s still just meat. 

The flip side of that is, of course, that I AM NOT suggesting that you should just throw aside what your conscience says about tarot cards, or about reading books by Buddhists, or even about watching a television show like Buffy which I love, but which might disturb you because it’s full of vampires and demons. I don’t think your concerns are silly or something you should “get over”. Romans 14:23 says, “If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning”. But the same chapter says in verse 22, “You (here meaning me) may have the faith to believe that there is nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God”. I never would have thought to even write this post if I hadn’t had at least five people express concern to me about it. What I hope is that we can “accept each other as Christ has accepted (us); then God will be glorified”.

The Depths of a Year 2020

(I have found that communicating in the public forums of social media and blog comments do not foster depth of communication for me, so comments are turned off. I would be happy to talk to you via email though.)

This year is dedicated to the memory of Ehren Starks, whose music broke me open in a new way in 2014. Providentially, one of his albums is titled The Depths of a Year

Thanks also to The Anadromist, whose videos have helped to reconnect me to the more human, less cynical part of myself that I thought I had lost, but thankfully it was just misplaced. The depth year is a way for me to return to living in time in a less mediated and less propagandized way.

There once was a gal, middle aged
Who from life had become disengaged
But she’ll see what life brings, doing everyday things
‘Stead of being online and outraged (see Depth Year Alphabetica below, letter L for Limericks)

Believe it or not, beginning a new personal-development scheme wasn’t even on my mind when I stumbled across the idea of a Depth Year. I had kind of unofficially sworn off personal development altogether – though I admit, I was kind of bored just living my life without playing lab rat for my controlling Inner Behaviourist (she and I have a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship). But I was also discouraged and exhausted from what she told me were my many failures in running previous self-improvement mazes. All I wanted to do was guzzle cocaine water from my feeder bottle and lay in the corner of my cage. 

Then I came out of my narcotic haze and remembered I wasn’t a rat, and that honestly, even though I have indeed failed sometimes in my lifelong quest for a “somewhat better life now” (my definition of which will become more defined as I write through the year) there have been some surprising (to me haha) successes as I have jumped onto a few “intentional living” bandwagons over the past half-decade. I have imperfectly but noticeably integrated into my life: 

  • What I thought was minimalism but which I now consider to be more Swedish death cleaning
  • mindful awareness
  • intermittent fasting and 
  • being “disconnected” from the media propaganda machine and social media circus.  

That doesn’t mean that there is no longer any need for serious tinkering with my life and/or personality and/or psyche. I have certainly NOT “arrived” as an enlightened being and I never expect to do so. But now that I am 51, I am ready to stop identifying so strongly with my failures and my many negative qualities. I really have learned some things over the years which have stuck, and my FAILED personal engineering experiments taught me a lot. Habits and skills that eluded me for decades have finally developed a bit, often in ways I didn’t expect or envision. 

Stephen Covey writes about the Personal Integrity Account, which is where you either deposit or withdraw from your trust in yourself. My PIA is overdrawn and has been for years, and you know depressing and scary it is when any of your accounts (tangible or intangible) get low – and it feels more so as I get older. But with my newfound Early Crone wisdom I can see that many withdrawals of the past came from my own unhealthy tendency to make plans and/or goals that work against my real temperament, which was just stupid. I unconsciously set myself up to fail. 

I also have been too tied to results rather than process, and too motivated by the desire to create a persona that was intelligent/interesting/talented/creative enough so that I felt like I was a worthy human by my general impressiveness-to-others factor. That persona has crashed and burned, and providentially I have kind of Phoenixed out of there. But Phoenix Me limps, is blind in one eye, and my left wing is immobile and featherless. So I have had to pare down to the bare essentials of who I really am and what I want to do with my time.

From one of my 2016 zines

Enter the Depth Year.

I was looking at something totally unrelated when I came across the Depth Year idea. I guess it originated with this article, which points out how we can be like crows collecting baubles, even though that appears to be a myth. Anyway, we flit from one interest to another, never delving deeply into any of them, and often spending a lot of money in the process and accumulating “stuff” that doesn’t really enhance our lives.  

(That isn’t fully true of me, there are several things I do in depth and have for many years. But I do get obsessions and interests that fade away and/or I overspend on and overconsume new (and not necessarily improved) information about my established pastimes).

So, at first I thought a Depth Year would just be mostly about my creative-type pursuits. But as I was using the alphabet as a scaffold to brainstorm my possible depth year, I saw that “depth” conjured up not only hobbies and interests I had neglected or abandoned, but also some important time-bound tasks (meaning that my death draws ever nearer) and life changes that I have been unable or unwilling to make but for which I now feel “ready”, and also things that would be called “inner work”.

Depth Year Alphabetica (also my blog topics for the year)

A: Attitude, mine & Acrylic paintings in small Bible

B: Bookbinding for Etsy, bedtime reading & Bible copywork

C: Christian Focus Sundays

D: Death planning, delayed gratification & differentiating myself from those I admire

E: Exercise and eating, sustainable

F: Finances & Frugality

G: Guitar & gifts, handmade

H: Handlettering & Household management

I: Integration & congruence, personal

J: Journal signatures, bind completed from late 2017-2019

K: Kids, steward a learning/creative practice

L: Lunar Tracking, Limericks & Library curation

M: Minimum maintenance

N: Noble Eightfold Path Lite and Path of the Superior Person

O: Outside

P: Prayer beads and cards, make & piano 

Q: Questions, live the

R: Raw meals, repair what is broken & replace beloved children’s books

S: Snail Mail

T: Temperance

U: Uncomfortable feelings/situations, face & Undone projects, complete

V: Vitamins/supplements, video skills & vanity

W: Win/win, waiting on the Lord, wu wei/work clean & watercolor projects from Ana Calderon books

X: eXcavate through books/courses etc. that I already own

Y: “Yesterday’s” photos of the past, print

Z: Zine, at least one in 2020

I am flooded with relief as I look forward to a year where a lot of my decisions are kind of pre-made, within delineated boundaries that I have intentionally chosen. Decision-making on a day-to-day level is exhausting and I don’t necessarily trust myself to make “good choices” in the moment. I am still very much ruled by impulse. I also like that about half the things in my Alphabetica are more “practices” which don’t have “products” attached to them, and therefore don’t need to have hands-on time “penciled in” to a to-do list or schedule.

one of my blog posts about “productivity”

And yes, yes (my inner productivity junkie is poking me) a year is enough time to make “progress” without having to fit too much of anything into any one day or week – which for me is a trigger to rebel and say screw the whole damned plan. It was pleasantly surprising to see how far I had gotten into my two devotionals (The Mockingbird Devotional and Nailed It) just by reading one devotional each (most days) with my cafe latte. At the same time, getting through one-third of two devotionals in about four months is not very impressive in our get-more-done-in-less-time culture. But it really is a “deeper” experience for me, not rushing through the books in order to move on to the next one. I notice more in the text and think about it longer. That feels nourishing after 20+ “internet years” of shoveling “information” down my gullet so fast that it can’t be digested.

I keep thinking of the cliche, Hindsight is 2020, because this is 2020 and hindsight is part of depth. In hindsight, I see that the neurotic side of my intelligence has led to me thinking and overthinking everything to DEATH. That keeps me from enjoying things and is so bad for my nervous system. Mary Pipher wrote in her book Another Country that people are least alike in their thinking and most alike in their feelings. I do believe my thinking-focus and the attendant emotional repression developed as a necessary coping mechanism – but it has outlived its usefulness and has led me into ever more isolation from other people and from life.

I put up barriers between myself and others (in my younger years mostly) by starting unnecessary and potentially divisive debates with people about my pet subjects (of which there are many haha). Social media made that way too easy, of course. I used “intellectualism” (ironically I now admit to never really having an impressively developed intellect anyway, despite a fairly high IQ) as a way to protect myself from my wounds, my shadow, my vulnerability and from love. I have missed out on a lot in human terms because of being so head-focused. So hopefully my depth year will be an organically evolving time of living life rather than overthinking about it. If I drew a caricature of myself to show my “imbalances”, I would have this huge head which could no longer be supported by my small and neglected body (body of course representing the totality of my humanness and not my level of fitness or the beauty of my physique).

What I am discovering as I get older is that life itself is way more interesting than the IDEAS I have always had about life. Ideas for their own sake are starting to bore me and can never encompass what life really is. For me, living is somehow more enjoyable and more profound AND paradoxically, I am also more “effective” (in the ways most important to me) when I am just Hanging Out In Life (making and drinking my coffee, cleaning the kitchen, interacting with the actual humans in my life, learning things – basically tending to only what is within my circle of influence) instead of focusing overmuch on the philosophical “meaning of life” as put into words and/or on What Life and People Should Be Like In Order To Best Please ME.

Here are some quotes that have stood out to me recently, which hint at what I am trying to get at with my depth year:

“Notice the way God does things; then fall into line. Don’t fight the ways of God, for who can straighten what He has made crooked?” 

  • Ecclesiastes 7:13 NLT

This means that I am tired of bumping into reality. Reality always kicks my butt. I am ready to work with and not against: the human condition, my personality and all that entails, and the people in my life as they are and the circumstances of my life as they are.

“You have strayed from the path of the superior person. Reflect on your inner state and your external situation to determine how and why this digression has occurred. When you identify it, gather all your inner reserves to turn back to the path of light and abundant life. You will never be sorry for having strayed from the path or for returning to it. However, if you fail to turn back, you will sincerely regret it.”  

  • Hexagram 24:5 The i ching workbook by Wu Wei. Interestingly, Wu Wei is not a person but an idea which means “natural action, or action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort”. 

Of course, as a Christian, I know I have strayed from the path of the superior person – that’s why I need a savior. I have made an idol of personal development and like every idol, it really hasn’t delivered despite all my sacrifices – and I don’t have any more hearts to rip out and throw down into the pit. And I know from His word that the true God has prepared in advance good works that I should do (Ephesians 2:10) – so I am going to assume that I will indeed do them, despite all my faults, without struggle or excessive effort (this doesn’t mean that nothing will be hard…I’m sure I will elaborate on this as I write throughout the year). It’s an odd thing to say – don’t regret straying from the path – but straying from the path is what reminds you that you prefer to be on the path.

“In Zen we speak of living in vow. This means we attend wholeheartedly to the activities of daily life. When it is time to get up, we just get up. When it is time to wash the dishes, we wash the dishes…living in vow…is to carry out your routine with no sense of attempting to satisfy your individual desires. Under all circumstances, beyond your likes and dislikes, you have to carry on…the changes that occur through spiritual practice are not really your business. If you make them your business, you will try to change your life directly. If you try to change your life directly, no matter how long you work at it, you will not satisfy yourself. So, if you truly want to change your life, you should just form the routine of doing small things, day by day”. 

  • You Have to Say Something by Katagiri Roshi

And finally: “Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not created in the image of God for nothing.”

  • Robert Farrar Capon

I don’t yet understand how these ideas will play into a depth year or maybe a deeper experience of life as a whole. I do know that I am overthinking this post haha forgetting that I have a whole year (at least) to flesh them out in writing. Stay tuned if you want to “live the questions” (Depth Year Alphabetica, Letter Q) with me during 2020.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

Coming Soon: Mockingbird Tyler Fundraiser Fanzine 2018

For the past few years, I have been taking my journal, and drawing the speakers at the Mockingbird Conference in Tyler. Afterwards I take those drawings and my rambly commentary and make a real paper zine, which I sell and then donate half the profits to Mockingbird Ministries. There is a youtube video about this project here.

This is the first year I am preselling these zines, and I hope you will preorder one so I have more money to give to Mockingbird, so they can keep on preaching grace to us in their unique and wonderful way. The actual presale will go up next week, in my etsy shop, and if you are interested, please sign up for my mailing list at the bottom of this post, or go here and sign up. Next week I will send out a link to preorder the new zine for 16.00 including shipping, or a pack of all three years for 27.00 including shipping.

This is the brochure I will be bringing to the conference, with drawings and snippets of commentary from the last two zines:

If you would like to buy this zine and support Mockingbird Ministries AND real paper in your actual mailbox, please sign up here, or you can sign up right here:


Q & A: All-Day Journaling Experience, October 7 2017

First question:

What the Heck Is An All-Day Journaling Experience?

I came upon it kind of accidentally. A few years ago I was feeling out-of-sorts, bored, and confused about my life. When I feel like that, I know I need to back off “excessive information consumption” and “get in touch with my inner self”. I decided to take a day off screens and use my journal as the only entertainment and diversion for that day (in the snatches of time that come between the tasks of daily living). I don’t remember if I had any kind of epiphany, but I felt refreshed at the end of the day and had added some interesting things to my journals, which would not have come to be if I’d spent yet another day consuming the internetz.

I have done this a few times since then, and will be doing it again on Saturday, October 7. I thought I would use this as an opportunity to show you, (if you are new to the everyday memoir type of journaling) the variety of fun and useful entries you can make in your journal. Think of it as a kind of immersion session into a world where your journal is a true companion.

The things that I’ll show you from my journal (in videos over the next few weeks) won’t necessarily be what I did on a previous All-Day Journaling Experience, but I’ll choose my favorite examples of journal work and hope you find some things you’d like to try or modify for use in your own journaling.

Q: Do I really need to be journaling ALL DAY? Is this a “retreat”?

A: Not at all. First and foremost, this is a time without all the electronic bombardment we are so used to. We just use our journal to fill up the spare moments in that day, rather than social media, or news or some other online “content”. During a journaling experience, we “disconnect” and allow ourselves to meander on the page. We jot down old memories, draw the paper towel holder in the kitchen, or write the most mundane of grocery lists. If we have maybe a full hour to set aside, we can do some deeper writing or planning, or we can spend the whole hour drawing curlicue flowers or writing our name in bubble letters.

Q: Is this an “interactive” experience at all?

A: Not on the day of The Experience, since it’s an offline day. I will have a Facebook Live the day before and the day after, where you can ask any questions or comment about your day of journaling.

If you want interactive, in the somewhat DISTANT future, I am thinking about starting a Natalie Goldberg-style writing group to take place on Skype group chat or something. Maybe an hour where 6 or so people do timed writings together, and then read their writing to the group.

I will be talking a bit about timed writings in the videos for The Experience, and I hope you will put a few in your journal on that day. You can learn a lot about yourself (and also practice your wordsmithing) by doing a timed writing on a deceptively simple subject.

Q: What supplies do I need?

A: I like a medium-sized journal with a fairly thick, toothy paper. You will probably want something that’s called a “sketchbook” and not a “journal”, maybe with paper that is billed as “good for mixed media”. It’s nice if your paper can handle some water eventually, but not necessarily on the day of The Experience. I do most of my everyday journaling with just my notebook and a Pigma Micron pen in size 05. It is satisfying and freeing to work within that limitation, especially for a person like me who suffers from paralysis by analysis.

Q: I’m interested! How do I make sure I get the videos and any other stuff leading up to the All-Day Journaling Experience on October 7, 2017?

A: All the videos will be public on Facebook, and there will be a link to at least one PDF. To make sure you hear about those things the day they go up, please subscribe to my Rough Edges Life Mailing List!

Mockingbird Fanzine Fundraiser for St Thomas Episcopal, Houston


This is an art journal spread I made in response to the first Mockingbird conference I attended, in 2014, at St Thomas Episcopal Church in Houston:

That church is now quite underwater. To raise money for their relief fund, I am going to reopen sales of my Mockingbird Fundraiser Fanzines. 100% of the profit from the sale of the 2016 and 2017 zines I made at the Tyler conferences will go to Houston.

(From here on, all the images in this post come from the Tyler FUNDRAISER fanzines you can purchase HERE.)

That Houston conference will stand out in my mind because it was the first one I attended, so I was “starstruck” (it has taken me until this year – and three other conferences – to talk to David Zahl without stammering.) He came up and talked to me at the registration that year, and I think I remember being unintelligible because of my stammering. But that didn’t stop him from doing some very nice things for me over the years since then, and being a huge encouragement in my life.

Unfortunately I arrived Friday evening, so I didn’t get to hear Sarah Condon, Aaron Zimmerman, or Ethan Richardson that year. The first talk I saw was Tullian Tchividjian, on Friday evening. This was about 6 months before his transgressions were “revealed” (a situation I wrote about here.) As always, I found his preaching both riveting and comforting.

During the dinner (MBird always provides quite a spread) I sat alone, observing, as is my unhealthy habit. I hung around the book table and learned that there was also a Paul Zahl…I cornered DZ and asked him if PZ was still living. Thankfully he was and I had the great honor to hear him speak at the Tyler conference earlier this year.

The next morning I heard the Magills play for the first time, and Megan was gloriously beautiful as always (my drawing does not do her beauty justice).

A bit later I was in line in the restroom, and I chatted briefly with a pretty blonde. I later learned that she was none other than DZs wife, Cate West Zahl, who is a painter extraordinaire. Really, I had no idea at that time just how cool and also how loving and good these MBird folks are. It was, of course, on the Mbird website that I saw the photos of the courtyard we ate in that night, totally flooded.

Which leads to the reason for this post. If you didn’t purchase these zines back in April when they were first released, please consider buying them now. 100% of the profits will go to the St Thomas relief fund (where you can also donate directly if zines are not your thing.)

If you do purchase but haven’t heard the talks from Tyler 2016 and Tyler 2017, you can do that here and here.


In Which I Tell The Truth – A Blog Series

It’s shocking how much I can write about ME ME ME ME ME, without coming into contact with the actual ME – you know, the one who May Or May Not be identical to the ossified caricature I feel like I have become and/or helped create.

My daily life and my character (or lack thereof) are stale. I feel this vague meaninglessness which is not alleviated by habit charts, self-justification projects, or even cafe latte. Also my writing or whatever creative stuff I do, it just feels derivative. And not even derivative of some great artist, but of my own boring-and-not-very impressive Self. You only have the right to be derivative of yourself when you have produced so many tons of amazing work, but you’re so darned humble that you don’t realize you have said/done it all so well already.

Obviously, I am nowhere near that point, and I do hope I am successfully pulling wool (or maybe some nice linen for those in hot climates ) over the eyes of my “fans” and/or critics so they don’t notice this problem to it’s full extent.

It’s not like my whole life is a lie or anything. But I have felt alienated for quite some time (let’s be honest, for years) from other people, from my own thoughts and feelings, and even from my very personality. I think this is an unintended consequence of my 5-or-so-years’ practice in the ancient spiritual discipline of Shutting Up (especially online, but in all aspects of life to some extent). That doesn’t mean, of course, that I never say anything – I’m writing this, and I did have a zine subscription in 2016, wherein I waxed more or less eloquently for probably too many pages…but it only took 4 issues to realize I needed to shut up with that too.

I do hereby acknowledge that the world continues, and yes – even thrives – without hearing my input and/or opinion. That was a good and necessary lesson to learn. But I am afraid my “authentic voice”, the One I Am Supposed To Use For Good In The World, has also been silenced.

It sounds so cliche, and I never thought I’d ever under any circumstances say this, and it’s annoyingly paradoxical because of course I am “known” for my “opennness and transparency”. But I need to start from now and “figure out who I am”. How 70s positive psychology is that??? But I need to do it so I can live with more integrity in the present and have some solidity to offer the people in my life. And I need to do it before I can either abandon, adapt, or move forward with some of the “life plans” I have for my early pre-crone years.

“No one believes a thing you say, not even you”, Keith Green crooned to me in my early Christian years – in as romantic a way as possible when singing about eternal damnation. I recall this phrase now, since I find myself in a suburb of the place Jordan Peterson calls the underworld, mired in a chest-deep quicksand of past selves and tired personae and all the little half-truths I’ve told myself and other people over the years.

I don’t exactly recommend the underworld, but we all end up there at some point so it’s good to be ready. It’s confusing and sometimes terrifying, but also interesting because if you prevail and make it back to the surface, you will hopefully be changed in some kind of positive way, and you can then be a beacon of light to others, or at least post inspirational memes about how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or whatever.

Jordan Peterson is really into the importance of telling the truth. At times that may mean that we simply don’t lie (it’s often easier to recognize a lie than it is to discern the truth.) One reason he believes this is because he thinks it is a bulwark against serious malevolence on our part as humans. It’s kind of hard to fall into line in the totalitarian state if you have made a habit of not lying to yourself or to others.

He also has some weird mythological/psychological idea about the Logos of God being true articulated speech, and how practicing that will lead you to fulfill the hero archetype, and save Western Civilization and slay the dragon of chaos. I’ll give you my opinion on that another time.

Suffice it to say, that I got the idea for this series during the last 4 months I have spent addictively freebasing Dr. Peterson. I do think we are having our first spat, but he has given me a lot to think about in our honeymoon period. Including the Five-Factor model of personality.  In the next installment in this series,  I will, as complete novice to that system, likely fall on my uneducated face as I use it to interact with my current, real personality (instead of some fantasy one, of which I have had many).

Then we will know what kind of person will be telling the truth about things like:

  • her fears and regrets
  • her “Christian walk” and theology
  • various “hot button issues” she has avoided commenting on for years
  • her thoughts/experiences of marriage and motherhood on “this side” of the Godly Family debacle
  • and whatever else comes to light

This will not be a tabloid-style airing of dirty laundry. There will be few if any scandals disclosed. Please leave a comment if there is anything you have ever wanted to ask me, as now would be the perfect time to do so 🙂

Also, I’d love to hear about your truthfulness factor (however you define that). I understand that some of us are more naturally reserved than others, but taking into consideration your temperament, do you think you are generally honest with yourself and others? Please comment below or email me.

If you’d like to be notified when new installments are added to this series, please sign up for my mailing list:


From the Page to Reality: Thoughts on Finishing One of My Everyday Journals

 First, let me define “everyday journal”.

My everyday journals contain Anything and Everything, from stream of consciousness journaling to sketches and paintings, from project ideas and lists, to habit charts, church notes and handlettered quotes, all stitched together with the cord of my neuroticism. They are handbound, with pages made of thick, toothy bristol paper, and are usually (but not always) small enough to fit in my purse (favorite size 7×8.5) All the smaller ones have covers that are made using kitchen chipboard, like cereal boxes, and the covers of the larger ones are actual book covers taken off old books and covered in decorative paper.

I have other books which I consider to be “art journals”. They  are made with 140lb watercolor paper and contain more acrylic paint and no pages that are exclusively writing (although I do write on my painted pages). They usually feel more forced to me than my everyday journals, more like I am trying to “make art” and perhaps am failing at it and so should stop right away.

In my everyday journals, there are no “rules” and Little Miss Perfectionist isn’t welcome. Paint sometimes bleeds through the paper, some (or maybe most) of the drawings totally suck and there is a lot of boring sameness in my constant desire to Manage My Time and Improve My Self and Get A Lot Done, and I succeed in that for a while and then I fail, and then try again, etc. etc. ad infinitum, and that’s pretty much what I chronicle in my everyday journals.

Here are a few pages from the past three years:

1) a habit chart (which usually cover about 2 weeks)
2) a self-portrait I did over some journaling
3) some dried rosemary from our 2014 garden (stashed in an envelope page)
4) a diagram of my circle of influence vs circle of concern.
5) some sketches for printable ideas for “freebies” to get people to sign up for my Rough Edges Life mailing list
6) covers that are decorated with “engraved” aluminum tape (a very easy technique that makes it hard to believe your cover used to be a cheezit box)

From the Page to Reality

My current journal has taken me almost four months to fill. When I got to the last-ish page, I noticed that there were a lot of ideas that kinda “went somewhere” quickly. That doesn’t necessarily happen with every journal. I am telling you this not so that you will think I am so impressive Dahlink, in my accomplishments.  But rather, so that you can see what a good tool a journal-based creative practice is for a person like me (and maybe like you too), someone who has limited time to create/achieve/produce and is not known for high levels of focus. I am a self-improvement junkie, as you may already know.  This disorder, if left unmanaged, can lead to excessive reading about self help, rather than actually helping oneself and perhaps might even lead to wallowing in one’s most unhelpful habits. But keeping journals like this, which have no rhyme or reason or expectation, has helped me more than any other “technique” to be steadily productive on a sustainable level. Maybe because all these ideas would have vanished into the ether if I didn’t have my journal around. Not to mention the little snatches of memory or personal insight jotted down randomly or contained in a few sentences of writing. (I still have a lot of bad habits though, this isn’t a miracle process by any means).

What Came to Fruition In This Journal

  • Here are the first and second stages of the idea that became the banner image on this blog (although ideally it is for my new business website, which is unfortunately NOT one of the projects I have completed):

We won’t talk about the fact that I actually prefer the middle image. When something gets too polished I don’t like it as much. Plus in the final image it looks like my cup hand is amputated. But since my “brand” is all about persevering creatively through imperfection, I allowed that to remain.

  • A few days after the Mockingbird Conference last February, I was still trying to figure out what the Mockingbird fundraiser zine would evolve into. On the right is a list of my motivations and fears about the project. It was not a big success financially, but it’s not true that No One Bought It (which was one of my fears). It did just break even. Also I may presell them at next year’s MBird Tyler conference. So a new opportunity did present itself even if I didn’t sell as many as I’d hoped.

And here is the completed MBird zine. Hopefully I can master watercolor skin tones by next year. I am not crazy about the stark whiteness of the Magills, who are stunningly attractive and always have the glow of health, but who would have undoubtedly looked piggishly pink under my “artistic ministrations”. THIS ZINE CAN STILL BE PURCHASED HERE:

  • Another wonderful providence is that I bought Anne Kennedy’s book Nailed It and I fell, immediately, deeply in love with it. I don’t remember how it happened now, but Anne and I started corresponding, and now we are friends. I even had a guest post on her blog, which was not even on my fantasy radar of what might possibly happen, ever, even in an alternate universe, between me and such a cool person as Anne. Here is a page whereupon I made a sketch inspired by the cover of Nailed It, probably a few days after I received it. I was thinking about writing a review Praising It to High Heaven (which I have not yet done because I haven’t made a zine since that time, and I would not relegate such an important piece of writing to the ephemeral blogosphere) :

  • And here are my first ever notes about Jordan Peterson, who I heard for the first time in mid-March. I had no idea at that time how he was going to become one of the Grand Obsessions of my life.  These notes I took while listening to him are intermingled with notes from Sarah Condon’s Tyler talk, and in both sets of notes is the word Suffering (with Sarah Condon thankfully having the word of Grace as an oh-so-necessary foil to JBPs almost neverending Law)

Dr Peterson pervades the rest of the journal, although there are some mind maps, a few pages with brainstorming for the upcoming habit chart/everyday journal making class that will be out by the end of August, and a painting or two:

I have many notes to help me as I create the Jordan Peterson Fanzine during the long, hot Texas summer. I’ve done sketches of him lecturing, and he never stops moving, so that’s a real challenge for me with my rudimentary sketch skills And in his honor, my habit charts are now titled with the admonition “Sort Yourself Out”

  • Another thing that began in this journal, and that seems to have become (for the time being at least) a semi-regular activity – church sketchnotes done using a template for an orderly layout (which pleases my inner zinemaker):

Three Days On, One Day Off

In addition to “being productive”, I learned something useful about myself near the end of this journal. I figured out that one reason I have always had a problem with time management is that planning or scheduling within a 7 day week doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s just rebellion, feeling like I am expected to just fit into this RANDOM social construct that I didn’t even ask to be born into, man! But whatever the reason is, I decided I was going to buck convention and try a four-day structure.

In case you have ever wondered, there are 91.25 four-day-periods in a year.

On each of three days I have been having a loose focus, and then on the fourth day I do whatever the heck I want. I need one day for grocery shopping and other errands and for housework. Another day for creative but “business focused” work and a third day for whatever seems pressing in the family or household – maybe, if I can ever break through my annoyance and resistance, I could do some reading aloud or take better care of the household finances.  Those are two squares on my habit chart which rarely get filled in with pretty colors.

In the little snatches of time apart from the day’s focus, I have been “fitting in” the things that too easily slip through the cracks, like reading real books, (most notably, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge) and also exercise, salads and brief but blessed moments of silence and inactivity.. Then on the fourth day/evening I can drink alcohol, or binge watch TV (which for me might mean three episodes) or just sit around all day reading Nordic crime fiction. But I am just as likely to spend an “off” day rearranging some room in my house, which is one of my favorite activities and technically would be considered both housework and exercise on the habit chart.

I hope your interest in making and keeping your own everyday journal has been piqued, and that you will let me help you in that endeavor 🙂

Be in the Rough Edges Life Creative Loop

If you have any questions related to journaling, personal excavation and/or creative practice (or if you just want to ask me some random question or tell me something) please email me at [email protected]

On my next “creative work” day I am going to make a video to go with this blog post. If you’d like to see that video, or be kept abreast of the progress on the habit chart class or the Jordan Peterson Fanzine, please sign up for my mailing list.

Mockingbird Tyler 2017 Fundraiser Fanzine is HERE!!

I know it’s been six weeks since the conference, but Mockingbird never gets dated!

I love making zines to document my life. I also enjoy drawing humans in their natural habitats. And I love Mockingbird and want to give them a token of my esteem. This zine is my homage to the Tyler Mockingbird conference, with my original drawings and commentary, plus three essays by other Friends of Mockingbird. 50% of the profits from the sale of this zine will go to Mockingbird ministries.

The zine is 7.5×8.5, 40 pages, and handbound with a heavy color cover. Price is 15.00 including shipping.

You can also buy last year’s conference zine for 8.00, 50% of profits for that will go to Mockingbird as well. The theme of last year’s conference was Story, and in addition to original drawings and commentary, that zine also includes a small article about my experience with personal storytelling and everyday memoir (including book recommendations to get you started on that in your life, if that interests you).

If you’d like to purchase these zines and support indie publishing and Mockingbird Ministries, please go here

This blog will soon be incorporated into Rough Edges Life, which will provide encouragement, creative resources and gentle self-improvement for the tired and somewhat jaded optimist. If that sounds like something you need, or if you’d like to be updated when future zines are born, please sign up for the Rough Edges Life email list!

How I Determined My Productivity Personality

In all the “online business” stuff I’ve been reading over the past few months, I hear that I need to “present myself as an expert in my field”. I’m also supposed to have some kind of system or thing to teach that will Get Results As Quickly As Possible For My Students. But honestly, the only thing I am an expert at is persevering over decades in self-improvement and creative work even when I don’t see tangible results and when no one else seems to be all that impressed. It seems like the perseverance itself is what keeps the tiniest ember of hope burning when my inner fire pit of hope is just about extinguished.

I have gone back and forth with myself on the importance of having “specific, measurable goals” – the necessity of which is of highest importance to most productivity voices. I like to achieve goals as much as the next person, but when I take the meandering out of my life and my projects (in favor of reaching a specific outcome by a specific time) that’s when my Ego Gets Involved, and an ego is a fragile and fickle thing. If I “succeed” at whatever my goal is, I feel good (usually better than is justified in proportion to the actual success). But then anxiety starts creeping in because I now have to keep performing up to the standard of my previous awesomeness. If I fail at achieving my goal or if my project isn’t well-received, then I’m just a loser who doesn’t even have any laurels to rest upon.

One of the big themes that has run through my life is the relationship between freedom and form. Too much structure or too much focus on one project, and I rebel. I dig my heels in and refuse to do anything because no one (not even ME) is going to give me orders! No rulers, no masters, anarchy FOREVER!!! But when I have too much freedom (too many art supplies, too many “possible” projects or plans or too much outer chaos because I am just too “free” to have to do basic household chores) then I freeze up and do nothing. Either way, I don’t get a lot done, which for a self-improvement junkie means that withdrawal symptoms kick in pretty quickly. Understandably, this is something most addicts try to avoid.

But sometimes, I’m being super-effective and my inner Stephen Covey is patting me on the back, and then suddenly I find myself burned out and unable to do anything except what I call monk’s work – those repetitive tasks of daily living that sometimes seem to be what hold me back from the mythical self-actualization, but which save me when I can’t eke out even one more “productive” thing, when I just want to  be left alone to die in peaceful obscurity, thank you very much.

It’s the proverbial vicious cycle or the blessed paradox. I can’t decide which.

Before you decide whether I have the right to say anything about productivity, let me tell you about myself and what my life has been like for the past quarter century. I am a 48-year-old homemaker with five children from 23-5 who have never gone to school. I haven’t been the CEO of any companies or started a successful nonprofit. What I have done is spent spent untold hours answering questions, wiping butts and making rotini pasta with butter and romano cheese. I’ve also spent a lot of sleepless nights (pre-Netflix). Despite these challenges, I have made 13 long zines, written scores of illustrated letters to friends, made acrylic paintings, hand-bound and then filled numerous art journals and sketchbooks and written a 22,000 word spiritual memoir that was published by Christianity Today (and they even paid me!) I have done thousands of shoulder press reps with 20lb dumbbells and read a lot of theology and psychology books, as well as as many pleasantly gruesome crime novels. I did not do all these things within the same week or even the same year.

I used to strive for “balance” in my life planning, but I have found through long and sometimes humiliating experience that I can’t “manufacture” balance. But in hindsight and often in spite of manic planning, some kind of balance and a measure of freedom within form appears when I follow some “general principles” maybe 75% of the time. The other 25% of the time I am having some kind of existential crisis and doing nothing but drinking too much coffee:

1) Focus On One Thing, But Not For Too Long:

This might mean that I binge a project over a relatively short time, like a thirty-day zine (which necessitates ignoring other semi-important things but which quickly gives me a finished project and a significant deposit into the oft-overdrawn Personal Integrity Account) OR I work on a bunch of different projects for maybe 25-minutes at a time. I have accomplished extensive projects and goals using both these methods. I have also accomplished things with absolutely no plan at all and now I am baffled as to how I managed to do (insert whatever I did here).

And let’s be honest, I have also gone years where I accomplished nothing except basic household maintenance, no matter what my self-improvement technique was at that time. I have learned to honor the fallow periods. If you don’t honor them, they are like the Godfather when he doesn’t get any respect. But at the very least they do allow you to develop simple memories of your life with your people, undistracted by too much doing. And sometimes, like their agricultural cousins, they are working unseen in the soil of your life, and some weird but beautiful plant may grow.

2) Try New Projects and Self-Improvement/Productivity Techniques On For Size, But Feel Free to Abandon Them If They’re Not a Good Fit:

I have tried so many creative things and quickly realized I hated them. Despite the cultural belief that quitting equals failure, I have finally accepted that time is limited and just because I admire something as a concept doesn’t mean I have any talent for or true vocation towards it as a pastime.

And just because I am impressed by certain techniques, planning systems and philosophies other people may use to accomplish things, that doesn’t mean their method will work for me. You will ultimately get more done in the areas that are important to you if you accept who you are and work with your strengths. Time spent learning discernment about yourself, your energy levels, your motivations and true aspirations – that time is never wasted. So even if you “fail” at whatever it is, you have learned what doesn’t work. That’s important information.

3) Go Outside Your Comfort Zone Sometimes, And Retreat As Far As Possible Into Your Comfort Zone at Other Times:

This is the difficult challenge of determining when you are experiencing fear and resistance, and when you are experiencing burnout. They can look the same on the surface but require different tactics to overcome. What fear and resistance want to do is keep you from working, that’s why they are always distracting you with other things and/or tell you how much you suck so you may as well stop now. It really pisses them off when you ignore them and work anyway. They retreat and lick their wounds for a while. You will, unfortunately, deal with them again and again in your life.

When I find myself burned out, I either have too many projects going at once and/or I am not getting enough time alone and/or my work is being done with wrong motive – meaning I’m using it as a self-justification project, trying to impress people etc. Sometimes I misread the symptoms as resistance, and I make it worse by pushing through for longer than I should. Once I recognize it for what it is I go into monk’s work mode, and I usually choose a new television show and I take a lot of baths with the oil lamp burning. I try not to judge how long it takes me to come out of this and “start working again”, and so far, I always have.

4) Keep a habit tracker, and be generous to yourself when filling it out:

I’m not a big pinterest person, but when I first saw a habit tracker there I knew it was something that would work for me. But what it took me a while to figure out was that I respond better if I just have to do a little tiny bit of something for it to “count”. With my first habit tracker, I think I had to do a whole workout DVD to be able to color in “exercise” on a certain day. Well, I rarely had time or energy to do a whole DVD, which left me discouraged when I looked at my tracker, because it looked like I wasn’t exercising at all. But most days I really do at least a few minutes of exercise…I might jump on my rebounder for two 5-minute periods or do 15 knee pushups and 20 single leg bodyweight deadlifts or eke out a few downward dogs or sun salutations.

Now, I give myself the pleasure of taking out those Inktense pencils and waterbrushes and I color in that darned “cardio” square if I stepped on the freaking rebounder. I color in the “writing” square if I wrote three sentences in my journal. And I color in the “mindfulness” section if I sit outside with my kids for 15 minutes without doing anything else. Our get-as-much-done-as-possible-every-day-society would think I was cheating here, but what I want to do is develop a habit, and I know I am not going to stick with anything if I feel beaten down and judged by my very own self for yes, keeping the habit but doing it in an unimpressive way. It’s better to give myself the small wins and they will either add up cumulatively over time OR I will eventually feel confident enough to expand the length or scope of the habit.

Today I hula hooped for 250 turns each way, but I’m not sure if that should be labeled cardio, strength, or restorative? Either way, I’m marking it down!

Please tell me in the comments what you know about your own productivity personality!

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