It’s mostly a great privilege to keep friends and traditions over the course of one’s life. No, strike that – it’s TOTALLY a great privilege. But it has its emotional dangers. Riding my bicycle on a path I’ve ridden thousands of times, under an August sun that registers the time of my life in increments too small for notice. My feet on the pedals, my legs knowing just when to speed up so that I’ll make it up the next hill…and when to coast. The salty brine of low tide wafting up from under cattails. I could be 50. I could be 15. There is no one beside me to comment on the fact that on this ride I’m riding a helmet over the fragile smooth egg-dome of my head, whereas the teenager would have had long straight hair blowing back like a flag.
I also played tennis this morning with a friend I’ve known all my life. When we were teenagers we used to compete in the local island tennis tournament, where we would lose with regularity to adult players with far less athletic ability. Ilena’s father, a psychologist, offered once to give us pre-match subliminal messages that it was “Ok to beat our parents” to see if that would help. We didn’t take him up on it. And we kept losing.
I’m not sure if it was in fact that we had a deep-seated reluctance to best our “parents” on the tennis court. I think (speaking for myself) that I just didn’t know how to compete. I didn’t know how to keep my mental focus where I wanted it to be and so it would hover uncomfortably in a place of anxiety and self doubt. After many years of competing (as an adult, in USTA leagues) I have actually finally learned how to compete and now that’s one of my strong suits. (I have BECOME one of those intensely focused older players that used to bother me as a teen!) When I’m on the court I try to keep my attention on what will help me — where my opponent is moving, where I’d like to hit the next shot, what strategies have been working, etc. When I start thinking of unhelpful things — say, how obnoxious my opponent’s personality is, or whether I feel tired, etc. — then I just try to nudge my brain back on track.
Playing doubles with my friend Ilena (against OUR husbands) of course reminded me both of who we were and how far I’ve come. At one point I (unhelpfully as far as tennis was concerned) started to think of how cool it was that my childhood friend was now a well-established journalist/editor, and that he husband is a renowned literary agent…that we were having a little publishing tennis party right there on the court. But then I brought my focus right back to where I wanted to hit my return.
Focus has actually been a theme of my conversations with my friends this week. Walking with Ilena and another friend, Sarah, on the beach yesterday we were talking about “mindfulness” and the practice of being AWARE of where your emotions are pushing you, being kind to yourself about that process, and reminding yourself that you have the ability to make choices about how you REACT to those emotions. This mostly came up in the context of trying to balance home/family and work. How we don’t want to let work tension ruin the time we spend with our loved ones.
It’s harder than it sounds. Knowing you CAN make choices about your mental processes doesn’t instantly translate into instant results — kinder responses to stress, improved productivity. Witness writing.
I HAVE the option to put aside my doubts and inertia and just get out a draft out of my #@#$%^ novel. Thinking ABOUT it doesn’t help me at all. Thinking inside of it could. What will happen if I just open up the document and work on it for an hour or so? What if I just push aside thoughts like, “I have no idea what should happen next in this novel?” Or “This feels TOO OVERWHELMINGLY BIG for me!!! MY IMAGINATION IS NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR THIS TASK.” What if I just instead try to do something small, like figure out what’s going on with my main character and write a bit of that?