The area around the University of Bangor, Maine is a very lovely grouping of small, semi-rural towns and friendly people. After the Moon Landing Anniversary on Saturday, I attended church the next day and ended up staying in the area for about a week.
A thought struck me during liturgy. I had stepped out to go to the bathroom and…we’re all friends here, right? Well, I sat down and before I could even start peeing, I had already torn off some toilet paper and was anticipating wiping—I do this almost all the time—and I thought, not for the first time, that that’s ridiculous.
And then some chain of meaning connected in my head in the way it sometimes happens when you’ve been introduced to a thought umpteen times, and maybe even agree with it in principal, but then something clicks and it becomes real and personal and intimate in a way that it never has before. The thought was: do one thing at a time.
As I sat there, toilet paper in hand, I was anticipating using the toilet paper and so had difficulty initiating a urine stream, and once started, it ended prematurely because I was so focused on wiping that I couldn’t just do what I was trying to do, ensuring that I would have to make another trip to the bathroom sooner than I should, to let the rest out. This happens to me a lot. And not just on the toilet.
I get so in my head with planning things and trying to anticipate the next thing and take care of three things at once and in the proper order, that I’m not paying attention to the current thing I’m doing.
What will I do for money next year? What career will I have when I am ready to move on from this Journey? Even though I’m completely certain that whatever I come up with now will change a dozen times, I keep fretting about what’s going to happen in some indeterminate future, and that is tainting my enjoyment of where I am now.
My sense of being in the moment has been increasing, though it is still at a rudimentary level. I think this mantra/philosophy/whatever you want to call it will help. Do one thing at a time. Whatever I’m doing, do only that until it is done and don’t worry about the next thing. The worrying part is just useless, expended energy, anyway.
This applies to thoughts as well. Think one thought all the way through and don’t let my mind wander to every random thought that comes up. Or abandon a thought early if it’s not a thought that I want to have. But don’t let myself be at the mercy of every random thing that flits through my head as if I am not capable of choosing what I think. Right now I’m not, but I can be.
I can learn this—as I let go of more old wounds that have been controlling me, and with a great deal of help from God, because this is not something that I’ve been able to learn in nearly four decades on this planet, and believe me, I’ve tried. What I have learned so far, much to my disappointment, is that it’s not a matter of buckling down harder and controlling my thoughts more tightly.
I think that it is a matter of choosing what to focus on, and focusing on the good things, the things that I want to be in my head. As Saint Paul wrote to the Philipians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When I do this, it simply does not allow space for the judgment and criticism and wishful thinking and fear and phantasia and all of the other things that have no place in a good and happy life.
After liturgy, the church had lunch and I stayed to chat and got three invitations to stay in people’s driveways for as long as I was in town. I did in fact take one couple up on that, which kind of surprised me, as I would normally have felt like I was imposing and would be obligated to be social and that would drain me. But somehow it didn’t seem like a big, huge, looming, crushing ordeal this time.
I stayed with them for three days, and got to chat with each of them one-on-one and have family dinners with six or seven people each night, including their two grown sons and Grandpa and another church member one night. One night we watched the recent movie Apollo 11; they were getting in the spirit of the anniversary as well.
One night for dinner we had authentic Maine lobster rolls and homemade strawberry pie, leftover from Grandpa’s birthday party, while dining outside on the lakeside behind their house.
Their property is gorgeous amidst woods and by a lake, but the mosquitoes were terrible. I’ve gotten several new bites and they come into my van every time I open the door to get in or out, no matter how quickly. I even heard the locals complaining they are worse than normal this summer.
They kept inviting me to stay longer, but I was feeling close to done with social stuff for a while. I wasn’t completely socialled-out, but didn’t want to get there and leave with a bad feeling to an otherwise good social experience. I am more and more able to recognize how I am feeling and getting attuned to where my limits are and be able to keep those boundaries without overstepping them and hurting myself. Likewise, my ability to be with new people, in a sometimes loud family environment, is increasing, and that feels really good.
A little north of Bangor is a little town called Orono with a very pleasant library, and I spent a few days mostly at the library doing some trip planning, writing several blog posts, and various other stuff.
One night after the it closed, there was a folk music concert just behind the library on what is called the Village Green, and another night there was a performance of Richard III put on by a pretty good community theater group.
On my last morning in the area, I woke up feeling super nesty and did lots of van cleaning chores and tasks I had been putting off. I even found a farmers market and got some really good fresh organic veggies. I found the farmers market because it was in the parking lot of the community pool where I wanted to shower, but it turns out they only had spray nozzles on the outside of the building, not semi-private or private showers. Sigh.
This week, I have returned again and again to my revelation in the church bathroom…
In the course of my Journey, I have tried to engage more mindfully with everything I am doing, and have, to a large extent, cut out multitasking from my life—sometimes that has been easier and sometimes more of a struggle—and I now realize that one reason I have struggled with it is that I still very much have a multitasking mindset.
I expect that I am able to do two things at once without adverse effects: to eat and listen to an audiobook, to wash dishes while talking on the phone to a friend, to write and listen to music. Even when I think I’m only doing one thing, I am in actuality often thinking about something else entirely so that I’m not really engaged with what I am doing.
What this is really doing, even with such simple combinations, is training my brain to not be able to be still. Ever. Training my heart to not be able to be at peace.
When I had a full time job and household responsibilities, I would more egregiously try to do two things at once that both required thought: getting work done while listening to a podcast or with a TV episode on in the background, having a text conversation with one person while talking to someone else, etc. Neither of which would turn out well, or both would take longer, yet I continued trying this over and over.
Thus far, I have largely approached mindfulness as an exercise or practice that will get me towards some vague but worthwhile goal of more inner peace or better brain functioning or even, ironically, more efficiency and a better ability to multitask at other times. I haven’t always been able to identify exactly what I want to get out of it, but I know that it will help me and I have actually seen a lot of fruits of that labor. Yet I still have a multitasking mentality. When I sit down to eat, I still think involuntarily about what else I could be doing at the same time, whether that is listening to an audiobook or simply watching the birds—now my favorite mealtime entertainment. It is hard for me to only experience my food.
Now that I’m starting to pay attention to this, I’m noticing more and more that when I want to do two things at once, underlying that is a feeling that at least one of them, the one that I want to supplement but have to do, would be a waste of time on its own. But if eating is a waste of my time, why eat? And if it is truly a waste of time, I should stop doing it and do something more worthwhile with the limited time remaining to me after I stop taking in nutrients.
But if eating is not inherently a waste of time, if it is not just something that I need to do to stay alive, then it should be worth taking the time to enjoy it for its own sake. Can I enjoy my meals without added entertainment or purpose? We’ll see.
And if something in my life is truly a waste of time, I really ought to cut that out of my life.
Does this mean that I will never do two things at once again? Of course not, that’s not realistic. But I don’t want to set up multitasking as some sort of glorious ideal to get more done in life. It is, like many things, merely a tool and should be employed strategically and with caution.
If that means that I don’t do as much in life, great! I don’t want to have a watered down life chock full of so-so moments. I want to pick and choose fewer things that I really treasure and take joy in, and experience them to their fullest.
Even mundane chores can be raised up—or keep me grounded—when treated this way. I keep thinking about the Zen quote, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Chores don’t have to be drudgery or something to merely “get through,” “get done,” or check off a to-do list, they can themselves be the way of peace and a joy to do.
Does this mean that my life will be an endless series of joyful experiences? Of course not. There will be hardships and difficulties and suffering, some momentary and some life-changing. But perhaps cultivating this mentality will train my brain and heart to have the resiliency to deal with those things when they come up. To have hope even while suffering. To love even in the midst of loss. To connect profoundly with others even during a crisis.
Is that being idealistic? Absolutely. Is it also unrealistic? I don’t think so. It’s just choosing a different set of goals than what American society values. That doesn’t make it wrong or lesser or bad. And I am more and more coming to the conclusion that what American society sets up as definitions for success and meaning are not the things that I really value, and therefore I don’t want to spend my life pursuing them.
Right now, what I want to pursue is what I am starting to think of as “radical singletasking.” Doing one thing at a time, following one thought through to the end, experiencing the quality of each individual moment, giving myself time to work through things without the pressure to have my next stage in life already figured out before this one is fully formed.
My next stage in this trip is heading toward Canada. I will be driving through the southeastern corner of the country on my way to visiting a friend in Indiana. On the way to the border, I encountered this anti-tautology:
- Street name: No Name Road
As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Maine is unpeopled. Most of the population lives within an hour or two of the coast, and most of the state north of that is wilderness. There are a few towns, especially along the Massachusetts and Canadian borders, but there’s not much in the way of a road system, towns, or much else. It does my heart good to know that there is still a place in this country that is largely unpeopled.
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