Let’s Go Round the Sun Again, One Step at a Time

Like most milestones that humans care about, the new year is pretty arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to wipe our mental slates clean and look forward with a little extra hope.

A lot of people are probably already finding their new year’s resolutions to be a heavy burden, because we’re usually encouraged to set our sights way too high when crafting goals. If you picked something that’s making you miserable and burning you out, I hope you’ll consider stepping it down to a more reasonable level now rather than just dropping it when you run out of energy entirely. That’s not failure, it’s just good planning.

Restrictive diets don’t tend to work for the vast majority of people, but adding an extra vegetable source to one meal a day is pretty doable for many, and that can help build a long term habit that supports individual health. So can adding five or ten minutes of stretching or meditation at a convenient time of the day rather than committing to spend an hour at the gym five times a week when you haven’t gone in months or years. It doesn’t mean you can’t increase your goals as you go along, but keeping the increments ridiculously tiny means that it’s almost impossible to let yourself down. Small wins make a huge difference in confidence and self-image, while repeated failures are disheartening and typically lead to completely abandoning all effort.

This stuff is even more important to consider if you live with mental illness or are neurodivergent. There’s a huge amount of pressure to use that yearly boost of energy to DO ALL THE THINGS and be… better. And it works, but only for a few days, and then our actual limits come down even harder on us because we burn out all of our reserves. And then all that hope turns into just another thing that we feel bad about failing to live up to, and none of us needs more of that. Not a one. We need a bunch of little successes a hell of a lot more than we need a handful of new regrets.

So, please, give yourself the gift of some really small but consistent wins this year.

Some humble, slightly random suggestions for new moderated goals:

  • Go to bed just ten minutes earlier than you have been
  • Set your alarm for ten minutes earlier (but only if you went to bed earlier. Sleep is so important.)
  • Switch just your afternoon tea or coffee to decaf
  • Add a veggie you don’t hate to one meal a day
  • Stretch for a couple of minutes every morning
  • Walk around your block once a day at a convenient time
  • Write 50 words on a project every day, or even less if that’s too much
  • Spend fifteen minutes doodling if you’ve been missing your art
  • Spend ten minutes gardening and then go inside if it’s cold or raining
  • Clean or organize one part of your space for ten minutes and then let yourself stop for the day
  • Read a page or two of a book you’re interested in every day
  • Catch yourself when you start thinking negative things about yourself and practice redirecting to something more neutral whenever you can. Neutral is a much more achievable starter goal than positivity, and it’s still an improvement.

Adding something small to your day tends to be easier than eliminating something, and in the long run it can have the same effect by slowly edging out whatever it is that you think you should reduce. If you’re interested, the book Mini Habits by Stephen Guise is a pretty helpful guide for setting consistently achievable goals and he also explains why they work so well.

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Too Late

My family used to go to church when I was a little kid. I have a whole bunch of thoughts about christianity as a whole, but they’re not particularly relevant here because the main thing that colors my memory of that church has nothing to do with religion. It’s the fact that we were consistently late in arriving. We usually snuck in through the back door, having missed the first quarter or half of the service, to sit on the edge of a big fireplace at the back of the hall until the singing started so we could scoot along the rows of folding chairs without disrupting things too much.

We were late for school, too. Pretty much every day. One time I arrived without shoes, somehow. I don’t actually remember how that was resolved. I was a daydreamy unmedicated kid with ADHD attending an elementary school that had a small farm, so I was also late getting back from lunch every day. Sometimes I had a few mosquito fish from the pond cupped in my hands that I wanted to arrange in a vase in the classroom. I’m not sure why the supervision in that school was so lax that I could get away with that, but it happened more than once. When I got to middle school, I got lost in the library during breaks and missed classes. In high school, I was dropped off late and went straight to the library, instead of to a class where I would once again be informed that I had interrupted the lesson. As if I didn’t know. As if there was anything I could actually do about it.

Being on time, or (even more unfathomable) being early, were just things that happened to other people. Better people, probably.

I had become completely familiar with the embarrassing, out of place feeling of lateness, but it never felt fine. It was just inevitable. I got used to the fact that, no matter how frantically the adults in my life tried, we did not arrive anywhere on time. The same thing happened when I tried, and then there was disappointment on top of the embarrassment. Lateness permeated my life to the point that it became part of my identity pretty early on. I was just a late person. It went along nicely with the constant reminders from authority figures that I was too bright to be struggling with my schoolwork, so I must just be lazy.

I still feel uneasy about arriving early, even though I know there’s literally no downside to it. It’s too alien. It feels like a trap.

The weird thing is, now that I’m on medication, my brain just plain tracks time better. I don’t sit down to glance at my phone and lose an entire hour or more. I lose fifteen minutes instead, look up in a panic assuming that I’ve already missed whatever appointment I was supposed to be getting ready for, and realize that I’m actually right on time as long as I leave right away. There are a lot of things like that, where I used to think I just lacked discipline and skills, mostly because everyone assured me that was the case, but it turns out that altering my brain chemistry to be a little more functional suddenly allows me to access discipline and skills that I’ve had all along.

Now, I’m not just fighting my ADHD anymore, I’m fighting my own identity. I’m a late person, who’s always late. Except I’m often not particularly late anymore. I’m on time for appointments, or a few minutes early. When I am late, it’s usually for things that are emotionally important to me. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think it does come down to this identity thing. The closer the thing is to my heart, the more it means to me, the more my expectation is that I’ll muck it up. That I won’t get there, and that I’ll let someone down, even if that person is just me. Especially if that person is just me.

I was late finishing this blog post even though I had already planned it out and written a draft for it because showing up to an appointment I make with myself is pretty much the hardest kind of accountability for me. But, it’s only a few hours late, and it’s pretty much finished now. I have confidence at this point that I’ll continue getting better at timekeeping and planning and getting to places when I say I will, even when that place is my desk and the person I’m meeting is me. I’ve got the tools, and I’m motivated, and in spite of what I was told so frequently, I’m not actually lazy. Pretty much no one is.

(Fairness note: My parents had four kids with various shades of ADHD to wrangle, and that shit is genetically inherited. It is not surprising that we were late for everything. It’s actually fairly surprising that we ever got anywhere at all.)

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Red vine leaves carpet a cement wall behind a long grass-seed stem on a sunny autumn day

Bananas for Breakfast

I signed myself up for NaNoWriMo (National novel writing month) this year. It’s probably the first time I’ve actually been in a position, mental and physical health-wise, to give it a more than half-hearted try. I’m not trying to write an entirely new novel this time, but I figured it would be a good time to pull together my new outline for Somnolence and do that full reworking of it that I’ve been planning. It gives me a start and end date, plus a little bit of outside support and encouragement. I’m on track so far, which is cool.

I’ve also been experimenting with different ways to make my days more consistent. So far the weirdest but most effective thing has just been eating the exact same breakfast every day. For the past few weeks it’s been cottage cheese with a whole cut up banana and a drizzle of raspberry syrup. It’s surprisingly delicious, filling, and it gives me a decent amount of energy. The other most effective thing has been making sure that the the kitchen is always useable and cleared up for the morning, even if that means I wind up doing dishes right before bed.

This means that I don’t have to think at all when I get up. I just roll out of bed, turn on the kettle for tea, make the bed, make the tea, give the rabbit his morning salad and let him out of his pen, thaw the dog food, cut up my banana, give the rabbit the end piece of the banana so he won’t try to hop onto the table to steal it, then actually put together and eat my breakfast and drink the tea. Oh, and somewhere in there I usually shower and get dressed, too. It’s possible that part of the reason I need consistency so badly is because I have very spoiled animals, but it definitely helps to cut down on general friction in my mornings. It also cuts down completely on those super un-fun days I used to have occasionally where I would totally fail to eat any breakfast because the kitchen was a mess and/or nothing sounded edible to me, which meant I didn’t take my meds, which meant I couldn’t sort out how to fix the breakfast problem, which usually led to an eventual meltdown of sadness and starvation, and nobody wants that.

I think the next step might be to add a short after-breakfast walk for me and the dogs. Frodo seems interested in the concept, too, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t stand for a bunny leash. I’ve been trying and failing recently to keep up with my longer walks, but a quick daily walk  before work would probably have more of an effect on my everyday energy levels anyway, and even a short bout of exercise is supposed to help with concentration. We’ll see how that goes.

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Pretty succulents growing out of a cement wall, because plants are hardcore.

When Fixing Becomes Fussing

Here’s an important creative lesson that I learned a long time ago but still often forget: Drop your pen the second that applying the finishing touches turns into fussing.

Contrary to what this portrait of him implies, my bun buddy Frodo is a fairly light sandy brown. This must be his goth persona. I got mad about the proportions of his head and couldn’t let it go, and the more I worked to try and fix it, the more definition got lost in all the shading. I don’t hate it, but I do think it was better before I tried to fix it.

This probably applies to just about every creative endeavor, although not all art forms are so mercilessly devoid of delete keys. Part of what I love about pen and ink drawing is that, no matter what happens, there’s no going back. You can only move forward or stop. It’s the knowing when to stop part that can sometimes be a challenge. Or, actually stopping when you know you should, which is more often the case for me. I can usually feel the moment when I start fussing, but sometimes I lie to myself about how if I just darken a few shadows and add a few extra details it’ll be even more finished than it is now.

I am almost always wrong. Once a thing is finished, fussing usually doesn’t make it better. It’s as good as it will be. Maybe it’s as good as it should be.

I don’t know how to define the line between editing and fussing, but I’m certain that a lot more cool art and stories would reach the outside world if there was some sort of magic invisible hand that slapped the pens out of our hands whenever we crossed it.

A pen and ink sketch of a rabbit. There’s a lot of crosshatching. It looks kinda fierce, for a rabbit. That’s probably appropriate, since this particular rabbit just punched my dog for looking at him funny and then tried to eat my sketchbook.

Sorry for Ghosting on Y’all

Some things that happened over the last couple of months:

We had an unexpected houseguest who stayed with us for a month and some change.

My dogs consequently developed the delightful habit of baying almost constantly at any hint of someone walking by the house, instead of just barking their heads off at the odd squirrel or package delivery. It was not great for my nerves.

I adopted a little rabbit in need. His name is Frodo. He has some special needs that he’ll hopefully grow out of, so I occasionally get to stay up until 4am nursing him. It’s okay, though. He gives me cute bunny kisses to make up for it.

Some of the African violets my friend gave me finally bloomed for the first time, and they were lovely. For a couple of days.

Frodo ate all the flowers off of the African violets, dug up a fern, and then decimated my windowbox basil, making himself temporarily ill and living up to his hobbit name.

The beautiful fish pond that came with our house quit working for real and several solid weekends of work haven’t managed to get it up and running yet. Our fish are not happy about this, but the mosquitos are.

An unexplained fly invasion of almost biblical proportions. The lizard and our small, bouncy dog enjoyed this more than I did.

Several meltdowns on my part, or possibly one slow and prolonged meltdown that lasted for about a month and some change.

I eventually stopped banging my head against a brick wall in my Somnolence manuscript and decided to work on something lighter for a while, so I’m currently writing the second draft of a young adult book that’s been waiting in my project list for years. It is cute and it has dragons. Jumping between projects usually isn’t recommended, but if it’s between less than ideal practice and another month of being too stressed and up in my own head to actually get words on the page, I’ll take it. Some words written, even on what’s technically the wrong project, are infinitely better than no words written at all.

I learned how to make pizza without garlic or dairy, so my husband and I can both eat it, and it is really awesome.

I completely reworked my scheduling practices and managed to wrench my sleeping patterns back to mostly normal and almost enough rest each night.

I got a couple of very cute pink plants today, partially as a reward to myself for pulling my shit back together after letting myself get pretty thoroughly derailed, and partially as a bribe to myself to get back into writing blog posts even though it’s embarrassing to have just vanished for two months. So, I’m back now.

ADHD Willpower Drain

There’s a theory that every choice we make in a day uses up a portion of our supply of willpower. It gets replenished while we sleep, and drained over the course of the day the more decisions we have to make. That’s part of why habits and routines are so helpful, if you can form them, because ideally they each take one or more choices out of the day by making those actions automatic.

I think that that kind of incremental willpower drain is extra hard on people with ADHD, because every time my brain goes “I wonder how hard it would be to build a miniature beach in an aquarium complete with real tiny fish and crustaceans” I have to use a little bit of energy to stop myself from immediately googling the best sources for Thai micro crabs and corkscrew vallisneria. I have to use some willpower every time I think of a cool thing to draw, which happens multiple times a day. I have to use it to decide that I’ll go out in the garden later because I’m currently writing my blog post. And then I have to decide that again fifteen minutes later when the dogs get excited and bark at a squirrel outside the window. And again when I hear the birds outside on our bird feeder. And again when I remember that I meant to move our tomato seedlings back inside so they won’t get sunburned.

Eventually, I usually get derailed. Maybe it’s because I just run out of willpower juice after ignoring every random suggestion my brain makes while I’m trying to just do one damn thing at a time.

I have no proposed solution at the moment. I’ve just been observing how many times a day I have to decide not to do a random thing and how tired that eventually makes me feel. It also, unfortunately, makes me sort of averse to doing creative stuff on a whim even when I do have the free time for it. I get into the habit of telling myself I’ll do that stuff later, even when I totally could just do it now.

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One of the trees in my yard that unexpectedly makes flowers. They are white and pretty and I have no idea what kind they are.
Little white tree flowers on the deck. They’ve been falling like snow, in part because the local birds seem to find them delicious. It’s pretty, but they stick to your shoes if you walk around on them.

Balancing Creative Attachment

I’ve been struggling with some mounting anxiety about writing choices lately. I tend to get into worry spirals about my plot decisions and characters and how different people I know, and lots of people I don’t know, might react to them. Sometimes I can cope with creative anxiety by emotionally pulling back from my work, especially when processing professional feedback, but I think I’ve actually done that too much. I’ve kind of lost track of my affection for Orane and my emotional involvement in her journey. Some distance is definitely good, because a writer who is afraid to make bad things happen to their good people is generally not going to tell a very compelling story.

On the other hand, though, staying that emotionally detached from the story has left me much more subject to the pressure of other people’s opinions. I can’t really feel comfortable with any of my choices because I’m not trusting my own judgement and creative intuition anymore. There’s no point writing a book entirely driven by what I think other people might think. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a particular market, but that’s not my goal at the moment and it’s definitely not what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been scared of judgement. My instinct is to escape the judgement by not writing anything anyone could possibly judge, but that really means not writing anything at all.

That anxiety reached an unpleasant peak this week, where I couldn’t even think about my work without my head just filling up with a whirlpool of worries. I literally can’t function under that much external influence, since every single thing will ultimately be judged negatively by some people and positively by others. There’s no way to please everyone, so for now I’m trying to focus inward and reconnect with my own judgement and creative preferences.

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Image: A pussy willow in late afternoon sunlight.

Writing days this past week: 1