Purpose

I have been doing a lot of reading in my holidays and there’s a certain idea that keeps popping up over and over again.

It may be confirmation bias, but I’ve been seeing it in the non-fiction I am reading, in the fiction, in the blog posts and articles, in the different podcasts (yes I have been enjoying my holidays, how could you tell?). It just keeps coming back to this:

What is your purpose? What is your vision?

Why do you do what you do? What do you want out of life? What do you want from your money? What is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning?

There are very broad answers to this question (e.g. I want to do God’s will for my life) but I’ve been challenged to narrow it down and down and down. I’m still narrowing. I think my vision probably comes down to something like ‘working against imposter syndrome’, or ‘helping people feel like they belong’.

I’ve found the question particularly difficult to answer. I have had answers before, but I think that at this level, your purpose is something that changes in the different seasons of life. I personally think that it’s a rare few that are working towards one thing for the whole of their lives. I have had the season of raising my children, the season of completing my university studies, the season of researching towards a PhD and working hard on teaching well.

And for the past few years I have been going through the motions. I have made sure that I have worthwhile activities in my life and that I’ve worked hard at them and I’ve just kept going but without any clear plan. Part of the reason for that I guess is that I have struggled with illness so that just keeping going has been all that I’ve been able to do. That may be the season you are in right now.

But lately I’ve felt a real sense of discontent and a desire to have more of a structured goal.

I remember when DH was working for a communications contractor. It wasn’t fun. He was frustrated and angry much of the time. The work wasn’t fulfilling, but it was constant. He rarely had a day off. He was exhausted most of the time. There came a time where he needed to go into hospital and have a major operation and in the four days that his boss allowed him for recovery before he was called back in to work (yes, I know) he stopped bashing his head against a wall for long enough to realise that it hurt. That was the beginning of a season of change for us. DH ended up leaving his job, going to university, and retraining as a teacher.

I feel like I am in the midst of a similar season now. I want to know what I am living for so that I can arrange my life to work towards that goal. I would like clear five year and ten year goals. And a clear reason to pursue them.

The writing is good, the blog post and the novel and all, but the writing is a way that my purpose gets lived. Just writing isn’t enough. There needs to be a reason for the writing.

I want to live my life for a reason. As Hitch says, I want to begin each day as if it’s on purpose. I want to serve God in a way that suits how he made me. I’m enjoying spending the time figuring out what that is.

Do you know your purpose? In a tweet-sized statement could you tell me what you’re living for? Feel free to do it in the comments, I would be fascinated to find out.

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(Lack of) Food for thought

(Title thanks to my cousin Martin!)

Today, for the first time in my holidays, I went to a cafe to do some writing. I think I haven’t done this before today because I’ve enjoyed being at home. So maybe going to a cafe is a sign that I am starting to feel rested.

I was met by the waitress at the door, took my normal place at the table looking out the window to my favourite place – Kingston Beach. And told the lovely server that I would start with a coffee and then order some lunch later.

The cafe looks over the water, which is especially lovely if there are no cars parked in the way, and therefore it doesn’t receive any direct sunlight. Which normally isn’t a problem but it became one this morning.

My coffee was beautiful, the first full-strength coffee I’ve had in about a week (I’ve been trying to decaffeinate myself this holidays) and my addicted self relaxed at the first sip.

I sat and wrote about 1000 words plus a few more by hand in my journal and then I decided it was time for lunch. I put in my order and went back to the writing.

My brain was probably 75% occupied by what I was writing. The rest of my brain was noticing how beautiful the water looked and enjoying the flight of the birds, it was enjoying the friendly conversation of two girls sitting in front of me in the outside section, it was noticing the conversation of the two elderly ladies next to me who were trying to decipher the menu, and very gradually a few other things impinged on my consciousness.

One was how cold I was getting. I started to rub my hands together and promise myself that I would be warmer when the food came and wonder if the problem was that I was sitting too close to the door. Another was that the lights in the cafe were flickering a bit – which resolved itself when they went out completely. Much less irritating.

I completed another 1000 words and started to run out of brain and look for more distraction. The ladies next to me tried to order their lunch and that’s when I became aware of the problem.

The waiter explained to them that we’d lost power. That he couldn’t take their order because the computer system wouldn’t work, and they wouldn’t be able to cook the meal anyway. He didn’t know why the power had gone out or when it would be back on.

That’s when the beeping of some electronic device that wanted power started to make sense. And the darkness of the room. And the cold.

It’s a brisk six degrees in Kingston right now, at 130 in the afternoon. A beautiful sunny day but a very chilly day, especially if you’re out of the sun. The restaurant was cold. I was wearing five layers and a nice big scarf and I was freezing.

I tried to hold on, honestly I did. I didn’t want them to miss out on my custom and I really felt bad for them to have had such bad luck, but in the end I froze up and I gave up. I paid in exact change (after looking through all the purses in my bag to find it) and I’ve come home to a much healthier lunch of home-made salad.

I expected to be cold today when I dropped the car off to the mechanic and walked home, and later when I walk down to pick it up. But not when I was having lunch in a cosy cafe. I have no idea why the power went out – the corner shop had lights so it might have just been that one restaurant. I’m sure the not knowing is going to bug me – that was another reason why I wanted to stay. If anyone who lives down my way knows, I’d be grateful to find out.

I am so grateful that our house has power and sunlight. My feet have nearly lost their ice block status. I might try for cafe lunch another day this week. I have one more week of holidays left. I’m going to make the most of it.

The writing

Someone asked me the other day, ‘are you still writing?’

Yes. Yes I am still writing.

I thought I’d tell you all the story (so far) of my story.

I started writing a novel in 2014. I knew at that point that I wanted to write, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write but I knew I wanted to write something. The first attempt was incredibly schmaltzy, really hopelessly dreadful. And I didn’t finish it.

I had a chat to my super talented writer friend (STWF), what was I to do? She recommended a process called ‘The Snowflake Method’ which was a plotting method where you start with one sentence that encapsulates the plot. You take the sentence and expand it to a paragraph, then a page. Then you write the plot from the point of view of each of the characters, and then you expand again to four pages and so on.

So I worked that method and in the end I had a number of headings for scenes, a timeline, a whole heap of characters, and a story. A murder mystery. And I worked to fill in the blanks.

I was writing at night at that point. I would work, come home and do dinner, go for a walk (sometimes), and around 9-ish I would sit down to write 500 words. I found this stage fairly easy (at least when compared to what came after). It was a bit like reading a story, but it was a story coming from me. I wrote the first draft of my first novel, and nearly finished the first draft of my second.

I had trouble finishing the first draft of my second novel. I realised that the guy I had thought would be my perpetrator just wouldn’t have done it. He didn’t have the nerve to do the job. At least not the way it was planned. The character had come alive and told me that it just wasn’t going to work. That was an exciting moment. I had heard that characters come alive like that, and to have it happen to me – I felt like a real writer.

But I had to put that all on ice. November 2015 I decided to do NaNoWriMo. For the month of November I wrote 2000 words every day. I wrote a background book. The idea was firstly to see if I could put that much effort into writing, and secondly, to get to know my characters better. The most memorable moment of that month was when the mother of my main character died. I cried, no, I bawled. It was really sad. So incredibly sad. Which is hilarious because I created her to die. The whole point of this woman was that she would die and give my main character some motivation to change her life. But still, it was heartbreaking when she actually died. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. *Sniff, sniff*

I found that I could, definitely, write 50,000 words in a month. But that it was exhausting. But everything was exhausting towards the end of 2015.

After NaNoWriMo I went back to my first novel. It was time to take the first draft out, read it again, and do some serious editing. Ah, editing was harder than just writing the stuff. I had to be able to think, not just vomit words onto the page. I wasn’t able to edit at 9 in the evening. Everyone who knows me, knows that I’m pretty useless after 930pm (see the Pumpkin Time blog). The problem was, when would I be able to edit? I cut my working hours down so that I could take a whole day (Fridays) to work on my writing. I hoped to see great things. What I saw was exhaustion.

Turns out, I was sick. I had Graves disease, an overactive thyroid. There was a reason for my exhaustion. It wasn’t great, but it was treatable.

Throughout 2016 I kept slowly working at the novel but I didn’t feel like I got very far at all. It was slow going. And while I was dealing with my Graves disease and getting better, I picked up another day’s work in my day job and the novel felt like it was slipping away. But I finished my fourth draft and gave it to my STWF to read.

The whole month of July I didn’t write at all. I gave myself a month off and spent it reading craft books.

My STWF gave me feedback. She was encouraging, super encouraging, but she also said ‘this is draft 4 of a 7-draft book’. Oh how right she was.

After my big break from writing I picked up my book again and looked at it with fresh eyes. I confess, it was a pretty low moment. My book was boring. At least the beginning was. I think if you picked it up to read it, you’d put it down fairly quickly. By the middle the pace picked up. By the end it was good (with a few plot holes) but you don’t get readers by writing a book that’s great by the time you get to the middle. The beginning has to hook people, draw them in. My beginning put you to sleep.

More editing. Actually, editing is a really misleading term. I needed to rewrite. Throw out thousands of words and start again.

For the whole of August and September 2016 I worked on the first scene. I know the dates because I keep a special journal all about my writing.  When I write, I start by writing in the journal, writing about my life, what’s going on, and what I’m going to write about. Then I write the novel, then I write about what I wrote in the novel (though I don’t always do that last step). It’s great to keep the record, I can write down plot points or ideas, and I also clear my head before writing. The journal idea wasn’t my own, I found it is a book called The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo – a book I’d recommend to any beginning writer.

The beginning of December I read another book called ‘Get It Done’ by Sam Bennett. The main message I took from that book is to work fifteen minutes a day, first thing, on my project. She calls it your fifteen minutes of fame. And since December that has been my aim – to work fifteen minutes a day before anything else, on my novel. I have made sure I’m in at work early, I put a timer on my phone and I write, or rewrite, or edit for fifteen minutes. The timer goes off, I close Scrivener, and I get on with my day. Occasionally I manage another fifteen minute block or a bit more, but mostly it’s just fifteen minutes a day.

The book is being transformed, slowly, in fifteen minute increments.

So yes, I am still writing. And I hope that soon (you know, in the next year or so) I’ll be putting a finished novel out there for my beta readers to read. And getting it edited by a professional editor, and finding a book cover designer, and once all that’s come together, then it will be time for the really scary step – putting it out there for the world to read. I truly believe it’s becoming a great s

tory, an encouraging and fun cozy read that many people will enjoy. So I’ll keep working on it.

Stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath, turns out writing a novel (even a short one) takes a long, long time.

Table and plan
A special writing weekend – working on draft 4

Holidays

Tomorrow is the official start of my three weeks of annual leave but even now I’m already feeling relaxed and ready to tackle the home-type projects that, for me, holidays are all about. People at work would ask me, ‘where are you going on your holiday?’ and I would say ‘nowhere!’ Staying home is what it’s all about. Home and able to relax and potter, and most importantly, write.

But today everyone is on holiday (Happy Birthday Dear Queen!) and that means that I am eating my lunch to the background music of one-sided conversation as DS plays computer games with his friends over the interwebs. ‘Neither did you!’ he shouts, ‘So did I!’ ‘Double it!’ ‘Nooooo!’ His exams are over, he is relaxed.

DH, on the other hand, is stuck down in the den, in my office, marking exams. He is slightly less relaxed, but grateful for an extra 24 hours to get some catching up done.

And me? I have done all the weekend jobs. I’ve ironed the shirts. I’ve hand-washed the jumpers. I’ve paid some bills and I’ve even cleaned out some of my email! This afternoon I’m giving an extra tutorial to one of my students but apart from that, I’m free! It’s the nicest feeling. Hmmm what shall I do now? How about some reading? Writing? A walk? A visit with a friend?

My biggest goal for these three weeks is to do some writing every day, to walk every day, and to stretch every day. Hopefully, by the end of the three weeks I’ll be able to touch my toes!

I have a big list of other projects that I hope to at least get some way through over the next weeks. My car needs a new muffler, for one. I want to sort my clothes and get rid of some to charity. That sort of thing. I’m looking forward to it! But I also hope to relax. Really chill out and rejuvenate so I’m ready to face semester two.

There’s really no point to this post except to rejoice rapturously in the three weeks of leave I have. You can expect another post in about three weeks time where I wonder where the time went!

The pursuit of happiness

When I was growing up the biggest dream I had was to get married and have children. I truly thought that I would have either four or six children and I would home-school them. That I would be the most amazing natural earth-mother that ever there was.

Well I was super fortunate (can I say #blessed?) to meet my man in high school and to get married shortly thereafter. We had one child and while I loved being a mum, the whole motherhood thing wasn’t quite as effortless for me as I thought it would be. After the second baby I was done with pregnancy and babyhood. No more kids for me. And anyone who knows me now laughs with me at the thought that I would be home-schooling. I am very grateful for my kids, don’t get me wrong! I love them deeply and I like them as people too. They taught me so much, and one of the big lessons was that I was not emotionally able to stay at home and look after children all my life.

After a bit of a struggle with depression I chose to go to university and study. I loved it! Uni was my thing! I enjoyed the learning, enjoyed the study (and the built in breaks) and I did well. Academic life suited me and I started to dream of an academic career. I looked back at my heroes – people like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien whose lives revolved around the research and teaching, and I loved robing up for the graduation ceremonies and being able to pretend I was somewhat of the same ilk.

So once again I had found what I wanted to do with my life! I wanted to stay at uni all my life and teach and research. Chemistry was my thing. I knew what I wanted and I went for it. I would tell people that I was a ‘stay-at-home-mum with a career woman hidden inside’. Finishing off the PhD was difficult – there was a huge emotional toll in presenting 3 years worth of work for examination.  But I managed, and after that, well, I knew I wanted to work in research and in teaching at university level.

I started to push for a long-term position in a university, preferably the university in Hobart where I live. I traveled to Sydney four times a year for four years in order to get experience in a different university from the one I where I studied and graduated. I applied for funding to start my own research group and waited nine nail-biting months to find out that I didn’t get it. I looked at positions available at the university here in Hobart and found there were none.

I started to understand that realising my goal of becoming a tenured university lecturer would require from me sacrifices that I was unwilling to make. I realised that I would have to uproot my family and travel, probably overseas. I would have to say goodbye to the home I loved and my husband would have to say goodbye to his secure employment and we would have to gamble on getting funding in the university system to support my research. It took a while but in the end I felt like the sacrifices were too much and I let the dream of professorship go.

But I had built my identity on that dream and I wasn’t sure then what my identity was. My identity had changed from stay-at-home-mum to academic and now it was changing again. To what?

That was when I turned to writing. I started to dream of earning a living by writing novels. I started to research what was involved in writing and to read wonderful writing books like ‘The Art of Slow Writing’ by Louise DeSalvo. I read about how it is important to write a daily journal if you want to be a writer (check! I’ve done that since grade 10) and how important it is to read, and read widely (another big check – reading is my love). I read about how good it is to take notes on what you’re reading (something I had wanted to do but hadn’t given myself permission). Once I called myself a writer and started to collect notebooks and pens and sticky notes and to set up my office downstairs so that I had ‘a room of my own’, I felt like a writer. I decided I was a writer. I had a new identity.

It is very tempting to say that finally, FINALLY, I have found the thing for which I was put on this earth. But, you know, I don’t think I have. I have found something that I really enjoy doing, something that makes life feel a lot more fun. Writing is a puzzle piece that was missing from my life and writing has made my life more full and joyous. I hope that my writing gives others encouragement and joy, and when my novel finally gets published I hope it speaks to people’s lives. But ‘the thing’? My new identity? No, I don’t think so.

All my identities have been what I have been put on the earth to do. Including the identities I haven’t mentioned so far like being a sister, a daughter, and a friend. It would be easy to look at C.S. Lewis and say that he was put on this earth to write his wonderfully clear books but that would be disrespecting his life as an academic, his input into his students, the lectures he gave, the support he gave to his brother and his other friends, and the husband and step-father that he was. The same with Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings has lived on after him, but writing that great work was only one piece of his life. He had work and family and church. There were many things he was put on this earth to do – not just write.

The psychologist Dr Bruno Cayoun says that our identities change throughout our lives and if we accept that, and stop expecting things to stay the same, then our lives are much easier. All my life I have been looking for the job, the position, the identity that was “me”. I would go for something and enjoy it for a while and then something would change and I’d say, ‘oh, actually, it looks like that’s not “me” after all.’ And I’d go looking again.

Now as I look back I see that all of it – the mothering, the studying, the researching, the teaching – all of it was and is part of “me”. Who I am is changing all the time as circumstances change and as I grow and mature. My identity has changed as I’ve grown and that is a good and right thing to happen.

And I think that what we do is not as important as how we do it. That our character is more important even than our identity. So, my take home message today for me is that I will keep doing what I’m doing – keep mothering, wifing, lecturing, tutoring, dancing, churching and writing. I will work on my character as I do all that. And I will keep trying to be what I’m put on this earth to be. And hopefully I’ll find joy in the changes, the growth, and in every part of my identity.

One thing at a time

I want to write about how well this year’s plan to do less is going but I hesitate for two reasons. One is that at the moment I feel really rubbish, with a sore throat and blocked ears and sinuses, so I’m not feeling as overwhelmingly awesome as I have been feeling. The other is that if I tell you just how great it is, you will all get insanely jealous and make time in your busy schedules to come over to my place and bash me up!

One of the things I am learning this year in a positive way (and that I have been learning in previous years in the negative) is that it is so good to focus on one thing at once. I remember when I was working in Sydney one time I had a special set of experiments to perform in the chemical engineering building. My office, computer and internet access were in the chemistry building. The buildings were about 7 minutes walk apart (depending on how caffeinated I was). The experiments worked like this: I would set up the catalyst in the furnace and wait ten minutes for the temperature to equilibrate, then I would set the instrument running that would take a reading every five minutes for an hour. After waiting for an hour I would remove the catalyst and put in another one, wait ten minutes, and set the instrument running again.

There was a lot of time waiting for the whole experiment to run and I didn’t want to waste it, I wanted to get other work done during that time. So my day would consist of heading to chemical engineering and setting the experiment going, then waiting five minutes to make sure that the first reading worked well and there were no leaks in the line. After that I would head back over to chemistry and try to get some work done. I only had about 40 minutes to spend in the chemistry building because of the walk there and back and the five minute wait at the beginning, so I would try hard to do 40 minutes good work and then my alarm would go off and I’d head back over to chemical engineering.

Now any time management person will tell you that I was not real wise doing things that way. I remember after a whole day of working in this fractured pattern I went back to the little room where I was staying and I felt completely discombobulated. My brain felt like it was split into hundreds of pieces. I was exhausted and I couldn’t think straight. I realised that night that switching places so many times during the day had thrown out my brain. I think it takes 20 minutes to get back into proper work mode after an interruption, and I was only allowing myself twice that at a go to get any work done.

Once I realised what was going on, I set up a hotspot on my phone so that I could have internet access at chemical engineering. I found a reasonably quiet student lounge that I could gate crash, and I worked on site. I felt much more reasonable at the end of the day and I got more work done too.

Last year, in the same way, my time was split between research, university teaching, tutoring, and writing. I would try to cover each thing every day. To be able to do that I had to constantly watch the clock and drag myself away from one thing because it was time for the next. I felt like every day I was running late for an appointment, several times a day. I felt fractured, pulled in many different directions, discombobulated.

This year things are set up differently. My tutoring is limited to one day a week, and I have set aside three days for university research and teaching. I have a whole day blocked out to work on my writing projects. The other three days a week I do jobs around the house and any church related stuff and visiting (coffee with friends – one of the MAJOR priorities in my life). It has been so fantastic to live life this way.

I have been able to focus fully on my research in the three days I am at uni. I am finding that my state of flow often kicks in at about 430pm and it’s so brilliant to not have to pull myself away even to make tea on those nights (DH and DS do the cooking those nights, they are awesome!) I can finish my train of thought and then come home a bit late. I’m usually completely stuffed at the end of the day but I also feel satisfied with the day’s work.

On Thursdays I have a slightly fractured day – it’s the day I do all the visiting, the paperwork, the house stuff and the tutoring. But again, it’s good to have a day set aside to do these things, and as I get the house under control again Thursdays will settle down. And on Fridays, oh the Glory! I get to focus all day on my writing goals, and I spend the day alone. Total refreshment, right there. Then I hit the weekend ready to spend time with the family, to have meals with friends, to go out and have adventures.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to arrange my life like that. I am trying to live more in the moment – to be fully present in what I am doing when I am doing it, and not to be worrying about tomorrow or yesterday. I hope to become more practised at that through the year. I am not perfect, at the moment I’m hoping to get quite a bit of uni work done tomorrow because there just wasn’t enough time in the three days to do it all this week (or last week either) but again, I will keep trying.

It’s amazing how it is culturally acceptable to always be saying ‘I’m so busy!’ and ‘there’s so much to do’ but I feel very strange to be telling you all, ‘I’m so refreshed, and I feel like I have almost got life under control!’ but there you go. I’m loving life this year. I hope I keep my days clear for the important things and somehow let the urgent get itself done as it can. And I hope that you also can arrange your life so that you can be focused, present, and unhurried. And maybe one day we will change the culture so that we aren’t all too busy. You never know!

If you want to read more on this subject I have read a couple of really good books lately. One is Margin by Richard A Swenson, and the other is Single Tasking by Devora Zack. It’s actually very pleasant to read them when you’ve already put some of their ideas into practice! And they have very good ideas!