On dropping the rhythms

“Consider the birds

Do they have jobs?”

A friend reminded me of the Life of Brian line today.

Getting used to not getting up and going to an office and sitting at a desk at the same time every day is hard. No, not cobalt mine hard. Not child soldier hard. Not minimum wage three jobs hungry kids hard. But hard nonetheless.

I learnt to be very good at ignoring how I was feeling so that I could be helpful and effective at whatever job I was doing. Serving the mission. Doing what was expected. Showing up, and staying put until the work was done or I was too tired to do any more.

It’s been about seven months since I left employment, and nearly a year since I stopped working full time. When I’ve worked since then I’ve had more control over when and how and where the work is done, and there’s been very little of it really.

And outside of explicit commitments to other people, I’ve found it unexpectedly hard to motivate myself. I can waste a lot of time. It can easily be lunchtime before I leave the house or do anything that remotely feels productive. It’s easy to feel lost and despondent at the lack of purpose, after 15 years of being somewhat too busy. Not just busy in packed days at work, with 30 hours of meetings each week, lunch breaks being just long enough to go buy and sandwich and eat it browsing a newspaper, and squeezing in all the other work around those, topping up the caffeine as I went. Going to the loo while my cup of tea brewed, for maximum efficiency. But also busy outside of work – there would be occasional evenings at home when I would mainly just loll in front of the TV – but otherwise I would either be seeing friends, or more often going to interesting events or meeting up with new connections or there’d be meetings to go to, about things I cared about, but that were very rarely instigated by me.

And now that I am in total control of my diary, I feel slightly ashamed that I don’t fill it better.

Oh how I’d love to be able to say that my freedom is filled up with meditation and walking and writing and reading and creating art and learning things and helping people and listening to music and making music and being politically active and getting fit.

It’s not. I haven’t finished reading Twitter yet.

And there are days when I feel so empty of motivation that I can’t imagine taking action ever again. And it’s easy to feel like I am squandering a blisteringly rare opportunity of having space and time on my hands, and feel everything from frustrated to embarrassed to self-flagellating.

It’s hard to drop the feeling that I’m supposed to be a productive citizen between the hours of 9 and 5. It’s hard to tune into what it is that I feel like doing. Whether now is the time to rest or to run or to read or to write. I’ve really only got as far as ‘I feel ok’ or ‘I feel shit’. Or sometimes things just happen and they feel easy and good and like I didn’t really notice how they got started.

It is a joyful relief to be busy, to help people with their projects, to tick some things off a to-do list. And I suspect it’s a bit of an addictive dopamine hit, or safe reinforcement of a story that I have worth if I am doing something useful for somebody else.

So, those birds.

They know what they need to do and when to do it. When to fly, when to feed. When to sing. Obviously it might all feel a bit easier if our psychological range was that of a meadow pipit. Even so, with the blessing and curse of the sprawling orchard of human emotions, it feels like finding the flow and balanced timing that suits my natural rhythms should be possible.

Maybe it’s totally right to spend whole mornings near inert, except for a lazy scrolling thumb. (I suspect not, but I haven’t found an appealing alternative yet.)

I also find myself wondering whether finding these rhythms is harder in a city. Perhaps the sheer volume of activity running on the artificial time of things-that-happen-in-concrete is harder to feel my way through than if the balance was tipped with more hills and trees and free-flowing water. I’ve spent my not-working time in cities varying from half a million to 20 million people. And some abroad, in climates that are alien to my temperate maritime soul. It feels like I might find that acting according to my rhythms is easier if I’ve got more trees and hills and green and brown around me.

I’m writing this in LA, in January, where I have no idea what the weather is going to be like, despite it being the same every day. The trees, when I can find them, are ones I haven’t seen before. Even the grass is an alien, disappearing to dry scrub if it’s not watered by someone paid to water it.

No wonder it’s hard to tune in to my inner meadow pipit here.

I feel closer to the ebbs and flows of what my body wants to do at any given time, and the barrier I’m getting stuck on is how to act on them. Maybe step one is to accept them as being right, even when they are at odds with the visible collective rhythms of the city. And go from there.