Progress and Productivity in Stillness

Personal

A day at home, I wake up and I’m already in pain. It’s 7am, but I know that I have two hours to kill. I can’t help but refresh the mail app on my phone. I only get notifications for my personal email accounts, but my curiosity always gets the best of me and I look at how many emails await in my work inbox. My eyes just getting accustomed to the sunlight also squint to accommodate the small text on my screen. I feel my shoulders rise, though I choose to put my phone down or scroll through twitter instead. The shoulder tension moves up to my neck. The minutes pass, it’s 7:45 and I tell myself I have until 8 before I can get up, but I get up anyway. I putter about my house, make breakfast and just wait until it’s an appropriate time to open my work laptop and stare at a screen all day. But I can’t wait until 9am to work. I open my laptop (my non-work one that I also do work on) and start reading my emails and writing my social plan for the week. I convince myself it’s not work since it’s not for my salaried job. That somehow makes it better.

All the while, I see the babbling miniatures of a devil and an angel perched on my shoulders. Both of them look like me, and are dressed in pretty rad outfits because duh. One is telling me that I should do my work, continue to hold myself to my standards and ride it out while the other is telling me to sit back, relax and take care of myself. Take a wild guess at which is which. Of course, the devil on my shoulder eggs me to sit on my couch and watch movies. Why though? Why does my desire to pause coincide with devilish temptation? What harm is my inactivity really causing?

I think modern corporate labor has put too much of a value on professional productivity. Since high school it’s been ingrained that I need to be busy all the time – taking college classes, engaging in extra curricular activities, volunteering, studying – in order to beef up my resume and make myself look appealing on paper. Essentially, busy equals important, and if I can’t fill a page listing my accomplishments, achievements by age 18 then I am not somehow unworthy of a promising future making other people’s money. And I know this because I filled those pages and took those classes, and all that it’s given me was an inability to take care of myself because if I’m not advancing my professional career, I’m lazy. Right now, I resent my inability to separate my personal worth from an arbitrary value deciding my professional worth – a vanity metric in professionalism, a quantified value on my productivity and therefore goodness.

If it’s not clear, I’m a workaholic and compulsive people pleaser. It feels good to get that off my chest. While I do my best to be unapologetically myself, I have inherent guilt when I disappoint people. Even people I’ve never met before, people I hardly interact with. (“That’s crazy, Marcella.” Right?) I derive my individual value based on how many lines bisect tasks on a list, or how many Facebook users share posts and images I create. While I feel this way about myself, I preach and preach the importance of self care, of rest, because truly I can’t find myself worthy of that sanctity and peace, but others should do it for themselves. I’ve got to work. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

These tendencies have brought me some success but have mostly set me up for emotional failures, especially right now. Now’s not the time for sealing deals and expanding your audience. I’m hearing the phrase “business as usual” to describe operations right now and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Business as usual” is simply a guise for “we aren’t interested in hearing about your hardship.” The very “get back to work” mindset that will cause a mental health deficit once we crawl out of the collective darkness and resume a more lively, interactive “normal.”

It’s already hitting me: constant anxiety and tension from work-related stress coupled with the ambiguity of the future as we know it. I’ve taken my fair share of easy days, but it brings me more stress to try and justify the outcomes of my “laziness.” Who will have to assume my responsibilities? Will my boss notice? Will clients say something? It’s almost not worth that extra stress.

Oh, but it is. It’s worth it once you understand the incredible power and poise in stillness. Like I’ve always said (and “I’ve always said” because it’s been said to me so often), you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to refill before you can pour again. But also you have to drink from the cup too. You can’t keep filling up your own cup to continue dumping it. You can’t let your own well go dry without taking a drink. Because simply you need water to survive. And we’re all just trying to survive this one day at a time.

And while rest looks like physical inactivity, it’s just a different form of progress. There’s growth in rest. Humans, organisms do their most profound growth while resting. And it took a jar of sauerkraut and a walk in the woods for me to understand how my own stillness could transform me.

I’m no stranger to shoving vegetables in jars and turning my countertops into small-scale science experiments. I took an inexcusable amount of AP science classes in high school, and I would be remiss to not apply some of my “useless” knowledge to my kitchen antics. And when I made a big jar of sauerkraut I saw the possibilities in seeming inactivity. In a jar on my kitchen table, microscopic bacteria were engaging in fermentation. Though the jar didn’t move for days, invisible processes were at work. Upon each day’s burp (not me burping, but me cracking the jar’s lid to prevent too much gas buildup) I could see bubbles rise from the shredded cabbage and smell what could only be described as early stage sauerkraut. Beneath a seemingly unchanging exterior, a transformation occurred.

Human perception is also not the only measure of development. The existential “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it” scenario is extremely human-centric and highlights validation, not only as a marker of activity, but as a necessity for improvement or change. On a walk in the woods only a few weeks ago, I encountered fallen trees, cracked in the middle with the trunk and roots secured in the ground; the fallen limbs interrupting a trail. I couldn’t tell when it happened and I didn’t know if anyone could watch the top swing down and land on the ground. The fact is, yes, the tree still falls and still makes a noise. Because nature does not continue happening for the sake of human applause and validation. On my walk I saw dandelions both with shaggy yellow flowers and seeded white orbs, maturing at different rates but maturing regardless of my ability to notice. While we all watch the seasons change from inside our homes, the tides don’t stop because a boat is not gliding towards the shore. Instead the tides continue the ebb and flow, boat or no boat, surfer or no surfer, because that’s how the ocean moves forward.

But do you know how much the human body does daily outside of sending emails, holding conference calls and eating snacks? With each inhale your lungs fill with air, delivering oxygen throughout your body. Your hair and nails are growing. White blood cells are fighting like hell to protect your immune system from bad shit. The average human experiences cell turnover of 50-70 billion cells per day. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, but that’s a lot of work for someone who might be eating Cheetos and watching Seinfeld on the couch. If I were the devil upon my shoulder, I’d use these facts to bolster my position, convincing all other parties that this inactivity is paramount for growth.

I know that this entire essay is entirely part of my problem, but I’m done I swear. You don’t have to be ripping your hair out and crying daily from stress to find self-worth and growth. I’m using “you” as a hypothetical as if I’m talking to myself. I haven’t gotten so far as to start talking to myself, but we’re starting new things here so why not. There’s an opportunity to disconnect and progress through rest, through stillness. It’s a difficult lesson I’m learning while adjusting to the ‘new normal.’ Resting to repair an immune system counts as progress. Reading because it quells your anxiety counts as growth. Don’t let anyone else define your growth in arbitrary metrics. To humans a cocoon hangs stagnant, if not for the wind, but inside a creature becomes a winged beauty.

Inspiration

Personal

I was feeling particularly uninspired this week. I felt like I was approaching a stand still in my life: nothing was happening. I was trying to create my own work and contribute something, but it just didn’t feel genuine or important. I’ve been thinking of the things that keep my motivated and creative in order to get out of this rut.

Staying in touch with your body is so important. Are you eating right? Are you washing your face? Are you exercising? I’ve been going to the gym bright and early in the morning. It gets me out of bed and I can get creative with my breakfast once I get home (see here). I indulged in a bottle of Trader Joe’s kombucha to make my tummy feel good with all of those probiotics. Drinking kombucha makes me feel like a health queen, and that inspired me to sketch and paint for a little while. I felt that since my body was at peace with itself, my mind was also at peace and could contribute something.

The gym also gives me something to look forward to. The Thursday night yoga class at my local gym is a treat. Yoga makes me feel the most in touch with my body as it involves so much of me. Breath, movement, and mindfulness join together and bring some much inner peace.

I learned that doing something, anything, inspires me. I drove to Trader Joe’s and that energized me. I went thrifting today and that got my creative wheels turning. Whether you spend all your money, or just browse, going to thrift stores could ignite creativity. When my tiny self goes thrifting, sizes do not matter. I could see the beauty and potential in a boy’s large or a women’s medium. I think of outfits I want to wear involving those “new” pieces. I think of what I want to look like and how I can make that happen with something at the store. Thinking of all the ways to achieve an aesthetic gives me creative solace. Even if I leave with nothing, I never leave with nothing.

Finally, a trip to Michaels was the icing on this inspiration train (too much?). I love watercolors and journaling. As you read here my travel journal is my favorite souvenir from my semester abroad. I decided to continue to keep in-depth details of my trips, so for my trip to Austria coming up I bought a small journal, portable watercolor brush, and rolls of washi tape to create a journal just for those 10 days. Nothing is more inspiring than fresh art supplies. I had a great time today testing watercolors and setting up this new journal.

I finally feel like I’m out of this rut. Finally.

Treasures

Personal

 

I’ve kept journals for as long as I can remember. I definitely destroyed the ones from middle school/early high school, but these are the five I have in tact from the most recent years. Some span a few years, some span one summer, some span a few months, but all are great recounts of my emotions throughout these really formative years of my life.

 

This journal contains my thoughts from my senior year of high school all the way until right before I left for Florence. It spans two relationships and includes my transition from high school to college. In the back I have letters from friends and important mementos from those years. It ends abruptly, approximately 4 days before I boarded my flight to Europe.

 

 

This journal was given to me by my then boss right before I left for my first year of college. This was fun because it was guided and has pages containing everything I ate in a day and what I spent my money on as well. It also has lists of songs I liked, countdowns until fun events during that summer, and descriptions of new vegetables and fruits that I learned about on the farm.

 

 

 

Ah, my favorite. I wrote in this every day for 4 months during my semester abroad. It is FAT with business cards, tickets, and other mementos from the various countries and cities I visited. My roommate and I made sure that we both wrote on every night of our journey, and it resulted in the best souvenir that I have from those 4 months.

 

 

 

I bought this journal from Tiger, a store on my street in Florence. This wasn’t so much of a journal as it is an artistic account of my time in Florence and my interests now. I have watercolor paintings, calligraphy trials, and short stories in these pages. I continue to fill it whenever I can. I absolutely love keeping this one around.

 

 

Finally, this is my most current journal. I started this last summer after I returned from Florence. It has the thoughts about my adjustment back to America, as well as my senior year of college. Senior year was a doozy and unfortunately I couldn’t write in this every day, but I made sure to recap as best as I could even if it was weeks later. Yes, the beer stickers are upside down.

 

 

Keeping these has been the best decision of my young life (probably). Not only because I can see how I felt during different milestones in my life, but also because I can accurately accrue information about places and topics. I can refer people to certain places in Florence or Europe based on my abroad journal, or I can figure out what I was baking three summers ago based on my farm journal. I encourage anyone, especially young writers, to keep journals. Your future self will thank your past self for doing it.

 

 

The Reading List

Personal

Is book debt a thing? Reading debt? I am a sucker for buying books, and each time I decide to buy or start a new book life slams me with all sorts of schedule-packing trials. Now that I finished college, and no longer have to read to fulfill a quota (i.e. “read this play for discussion,” “read this long-form article for class,” “read chapters 9 and 10,” etc.) I can get back into reading leisurely. After about a year of not reading it, I picked up Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate, and finished it today. The book takes a look at the food industry, specifically the organic, farm-to-table industry, and applies it to his personal experiences at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It was absolutely fascinating for someone like me who has always been interested in food, sustainability, and farming. I would definitely recommend it to someone looking to expand their knowledge on sustainable farming, while also reading something interesting and full of Chef Barber’s personal anecdotes.

Next up, I’m cracking open Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. Aziz has been somewhat controversial lately, but his work for Netflix’s Master of None and his stand up routines prove that he can craft intelligent content. I was apprehensive of going forward and reading his book, but I had been interested in the subject and heard great reviews about it since before any public allegations against him. I can’t yet form an opinion about it, but after reading the introduction I can tell that it is full of his voice (I hear him saying the opening line in his Parks and Rec Tom Haverford voice). I hope to finish the book this summer and move on to other great reads that I’ve hoarded over the past few years.

After Modern Romance I’d like to tackle Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. I know, I know, most would categorize this as a cook book, but after receiving it for Valentine’s Day I read the short intro about how to use the book. According to Nosrat the book should be treated like any other book and should be read cover to cover. After flipping through the pages I noticed watercolor-esque illustrations, fold-out charts, and practical recipes using her techniques and methods. After her appearance on the short Netflix series Cooked, I’ve been interested in cracking open her book and understanding some new (“new,” I guess) cooking techniques.

Now that I’m out of school, I miss the required reading I had to do for certain classes. My Magazine Writing class emphasized that good writers read often, so we all had to read articles assigned in addition to finding our own online or in print. I still have the book we used (The Best American Magazine Writing 2016) and I intend on finishing it in hopes that my writing improves.

New Photography

Personal, Photography

In my photography portfolio (seen here) I chose to include only photos from my semester in Italy. Now, since my job requires me to use my camera more and more, I found a new hobby in photography. Why deny yourself the joy of what you personally find visually pleasing? The following photos are from the last few months.

When I returned from Florence, I thought that I would never be able to assimilate back into my old life. I thrived in Italy, and discovered passions for cooking, photography, and language. So it was a real bummer to return home, having to complete one of the most challenging semesters of my college career, and encountering some unexpected roadblocks on the way. When I began my Fall semester I was at a less-than-satisfactory internship, and I did something that I never thought I would ever do. I walked away. I acknowledged that even interns (let alone “one of the best interns”-not my words) should be treated better. I fell into sadness when I heard about my great-grandma passing away, a woman who meant so much to me. I fell into anger, and pain when I heard about some other less than satisfactory occurrences. All I thought was “maybe I should’ve stayed in Italy.” Sometimes I still think that, but more so because I miss drinking an Aperol spritz in a piazza at sunset.

Why am I telling you this? Growth is important. Longing, and sadness and, anger are important to facilitate that growth. I look back on photos of myself from Freshman year and I thank whatever power above that I look and feel different. It shows that I experienced life that changed me, inside and out, and it was clearly for the better.

So here are some photos of experiences in the past few months, post-Italy, that have reminded me that getting out of bed is important.