Idle minds

relaxationDecember 21. With twelve days of vacation stretched in front of me, visions of organizational grandeur peppered my thoughts. I had closets to clean, documents to organize, and rooms to conquer. I finally had time to attack the accumulating detritus of domesticity, and I would prevail!

January 1, 5pm. Still in my pajamas, I looked around my house, blinking as if just waking up from a long sleep. Except for a few newly added deposits of Christmas gifts littering the landscape, my house looked the same as it had eleven days prior. I hadn’t accomplished a single thing on my list–nor had I tried.

In the remaining hours of the evening, I managed to dismantle a Christmas tree; wash, dry, and fold three loads of laundry; make dinner; and resolve a couple of nagging work issues. I accomplished more between 5 and midnight that evening that I had during the cumulative rest of my vacation. I’m ashamed of myself.

I realized in hindsight that I had been exhibiting this behavior for quite some time. Although I would be appropriately productive during the work week, weekends would come and go with only a last-minute flurry of activity on Sunday night. It was as if, when faced with the looming prospect of a very real “something to do,” my brain would suddenly switch into let’s-get-something-done mode. When faced with a blank canvas of time however, it would retreat into limbo.

This isn’t a new concept for me (for proof, read Do something from September 2011). Even so, I continue to relearn the lesson which I conveniently push to the recesses of my mind until I trip over it on idle days and fall on my face. As much as I crave a life (or a few days) of leisure, I find that I need a little bit of pressure to keep me moving forward. I need not just a goal, but also a deadline. Margaret Thatcher knew it, too:

Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it. –Margaret Thatcher

Do something, Tammy. Do something.

Note: Thanks to Kayla Cruz for her post, Being Overwhelmed, which got me thinking about all of this again.

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Wings to fly

I hate to fail. Really, I hate to fail. In fact, I abhor it so much that sometimes it keeps me from taking advantage of the resources I have at hand. Sometimes, for example, I refrain from delegating because I want to be sure something is done right. (Assuming “right” equals my way.) I don’t like to fail, so I don’t give others room to fail.

The problem is that a person has to have room to fail in order to have room to grow. Room to fail brings with it the opportunity to explore new and different ideas, to approach problems from a different perspective, to find creative solutions to complex challenges. Having room to fail keeps us moving forward because it lets us try new things.

I wrote about the importance of having room to fail months ago. Apparently, however, it is a lesson I haven’t fully learned, because every time I see this principle in action, I stand in awe.

Case in point: my recent trip to France.

On the morning after our first night in Paris, we woke up to find that we had slept through the hotel’s breakfast hours. Not wanting to squander any more sightseeing time with our Parisian family, I considered my options. I didn’t have a lot of choice if I wanted to meet my cousin at the appointed time, so I handed my son a 20 Euro note and told him to find a bakery and bring back three croissants.

Yes, my son is thirteen years old. He doesn’t speak French, this was his first time in Paris, and he didn’t know his way around the busy Place de la Republique. As soon as he walked out the door, I wondered what the heck I had been thinking. There were so many possibilities for failure in this equation, not the least of which was that he could get lost and I’d never see him again. Oh, help me!

When my son returned twenty minutes later with three croissants, the change from my twenty, and an air of self-reliance I hadn’t before seen in him, all of my doubts vanished. He had done it! Not only did I have my breakfast, but my son also gained the confidence of knowing he could handle the basics in a foreign country, all by himself. And even more than the successful outcome, the faith in him that I demonstrated by sending him out alone boosted his countenance to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. I make a lot of parenting mistakes, but I think I hit a home run this time.

Here’s the thing. When you give someone–including yourself–room to fail, you also invite the possibility of wild success. You have to give someone wings before he can fly.

A metaphor

My kids and I spent a lovely few days in the southwest part of France last week, but it certainly didn’t have much to do with the weather. We arrived at six o’clock Tuesday morning in Foix to cold, gray, foggy skies. The weather didn’t improve much over the next few days, but as I told the relatives we were visiting, We came for the people, not the weather.

We had a great time anyway, and the crummy weather even helped me learn a few related vocab words (e.g. brouillard = fog). And even though the climate might have been a tad disappointing, somehow the misty gray skies added to the fairytale enchantment of the ancient villages.

On the last evening of our visit, the skies began to clear enough for the cloud ceiling to lift–just a bit. From my cousin’s house, we could see the ruins of Montségur, its perch on a 3000-foot summit of rock previously shrouded in the ever-present brouillard. Somewhat satisfied, I assumed the show was over.

Imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine, bright blue skies, and…snow-capped mountains. I felt as if the heavens had opened and unwrapped a gift for me. Montségur, which had seemed to be the highest point in the distance, was dwarfed by the Pyrenees peaks behind it.

Those peaks had been there all along, but circumstances had blinded me to them. What else have I missed?

Bonheur

My head is spinning after a fabulous, action-packed week in France. Jet lag, language barriers, cancelled flights, night train, sightseeing, monuments, mountains, subways, snails, bad coffee, good wine, stinky cheese, long-lost family, laughter, lack of sleep–I’m still sorting it all out.

We thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I didn’t even think about writing (too much); I just soaked it all in. As I sit at my keyboard now and sift through the memories, I keep coming back to one particular lesson I learned, albeit for the zillionth time: sometimes, you don’t need words to communicate.

Before my trip, I found the thought of spending a few days with family who didn’t share a common language somewhat daunting. They really don’t speak English, and other than counting and a few vocab words, I don’t speak French. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how we were going to navigate through the awkward silences I imagined stretching between us.

As so often happens, I was wrong about that. Thinking back on the three days my kids and I spent in the L’Ariege region of southwestern France, I don’t remember awkward silence. What I remember most is the laughter. We ate and drank and smiled and somehow got to know each other. With hands and feet, smartphone translators and pidgin Frenglish, hugs and gestures, we got to know each other. We saw local sights, went shopping, shot baskets, and just hung out at the dining room table. We teased each other a lot. Above all, we had fun, and I left really feeling as if I knew my uncle and cousins better.

We didn’t have words to get in the way, so without thinking, we learned each other’s hearts. The part of the trip that I had found most apprehensive ended up being the most pleasant surprise. Where I expected awkwardness, I discovered bonheur.