Category Archives: work and life

The Discomfort and the Freedom of Not Knowing

The hot Sonoma sun beat down on our shiny black trailer, our sunhats, and our neatly placed two-by-fours.  Those 2X4s had not come easy.  2X4s (as I learned only recently) are used to make studs, which are like the bones of the house.  The first part of framing the walls is cutting the 2X4s to the right size and nailing them together.  We’d spent most of the previous day working with the building plans to accommodate our salvaged windows and our trailer, which seemed to be slightly narrower than the one in the plans.  I can’t imagine how it took us so long to adjust the plans for that first wall, but I’ll just say I haven’t seen so many fractions since the third grade, and there are many hidden dimensions, overlaps, and extra spaces that need to be accounted for.

Nicola, our architect friend, stopped by to say hi.  I asked him about one of our assumptions–that our trailer was two inches narrower than the trailer in the plans.

“No….” he said, “The wall extends for an inch beyond the trailer on both sides.”  And he went on to show us how the wall in the plans was designed to be wider than the trailer.

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound cheerful and resilient and ready to start all over again.  When Nicola left we set the 2X4s aside and took a long lunch break. We barely spoke except to say, “disheartened… demoralized… disappointed.”

Joseph muttered, “Of course, I should have known.”

I sat with my complete unknowing, wondering, “What makes me think I can do this thing that professionals do?”

It is so uncomfortable to know so little, to work so hard to try to understand and then to fail and have nothing to show for all that work.  It’s hard enough in general to not fall victim to imposter syndrome (when people, especially women, underestimate their own expertise), and now I’ve taken on a project where I really don’t know anything.  I don’t even know what some of these tools are called!  The challenge is to withstand the uncomfortable feeling of incompetence.  There are lots of things I am good at, and wouldn’t be more comfortable to just do those?

Seth Godin says, “Learn something new for no apparent reason,” as part of his artist’s path.  As we get older we are less and less comfortable with starting at the beginning. We feel we are too old to be true beginners.  We feel silly.  Like when you are learning a language and meet young native-speaking children,

“That four-year-old speaks better Spanish than I do!  With a perfect accent!”  In fact, she speaks better Spanish than I ever will.

The challenge is to immerse myself completely in this learning, even not seeing how it connects to what I’ll do once this project is over.  I need to learn as much as I can so I can do this project right now, whether or not I ever do it again.  This can be frustrating and demoralizing… but maybe it can also be a kind of freedom, a kind of bemused awe at the myriad things I’m not an expert in, but can now appreciate the depth of skill of someone who is.

It’s even a bit of a relief to know nothing.  I am just a person who never learned to build and is now, for some reason, trying to do so, stumbling along putting together a durable, square, impermeable house.  If I mess it up it doesn’t say anything about my value as a person.  My ego has nowhere to stand.  Occasionally she gets a bit of a toehold,

“Aha, I’m actually not bad at measuring and cutting 2X4s on the chop saw.”  But then they don’t fit!  What happened?

All this humility is uncomfortable, exhausting, and… good practice.   After our lunch break we started again–back to modifying the plans, measuring, cutting.  We finished our first framed wall the following afternoon.  We can do it, but slowly, slowly.

When you’ve started something as an adult and a true beginner, how was that for you?  Did you enjoy the freedom to fail?  Or were you frustrated by not being able to do what others did so easily?  Or some combination?

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2X4s, properly measured, cut, and arranged, at last

Noble Silence: Being Ourselves and Being Together

by Sarah

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Joseph and I are keeping our shared projects organized.  This time I wanted to write about something that’s often harder for us: staying engaged with the projects we are working on separately.

It is easy to prioritize the things that we are working on together–someone else is counting on it and it’s fun to discuss and update.  Even right at this moment I have prioritized writing for our shared website.  It just feels more urgent.  We know we need to carve out time for our own personal practices and work, but those are often the realms that fall off the bottom of the list.  I’ve noticed this before when trying to juggle shared work and individual work.  The shared work has a denser gravitational pull.

The gravity seems to be even stronger when the person I’m sharing the project with is Joseph, my love and partner.  Joseph and I have been together for more than a year-and-a-half now.  It feels like we’ve been together for a long time, but really we are still early in our journey of negotiating which life spaces we share, and which paths we each need to walk on our own.  We are each learning how to be ourselves and be together, even while those selves are growing, and are changing in response to the life we are building together.

One little piece we’ve been experimenting with lately is getting up earlier and keeping a “noble silence” for the first two hours that we are awake.  The term “noble silence” comes from the Zen Center where we both studied.  It’s is a way of protecting an inward-facing experience, even when you are with a group of people.  During the monastic practice period much of the day is spent in noble silence–no checking-in with your roommate or chatting with a friend over tea. I actually found it the opposite of restrictive–it was freeing not to have to make conversation or to process events out loud.  I could just settle into my own unmediated experience.

During our morning silent period now, we try not to interact, and we each do whatever we need to–whether stretching, meditating, writing, studying, planning, researching.  Actually, I’m not sure exactly what Joseph is working on (and maybe he’ll post about that soon!), because we are using privacy to protect the creative space of our mornings.  I’ve been working on getting clear on my new offer (see more about Sarah).

This noble silence is useful now, while we are sharing a space and projects, and I think it will only become more useful when we are sharing an even smaller (tiny house!) space.  Being able to be in the same space together without always interacting seems like a useful tool in our… how-we-are-together tool belt.

Even though we both know it is important, it’s so easy to skip the morning silent time.  Other more tangible tasks are written on our window to-do list.  And sleeping in is pretty nice too.  We usually only manage it about half the days of the week, and haven’t fit in a full two-hour period for a while now–even though we know it’s one of the supports that makes the rest of the projects possible!  After writing about publicly I hope we’ll be ever more compelled to actually do the practice more often…like maybe every day.

How do you make sure to prioritize the things that may not feel urgent but are actually important?  When you’re working closely with another person (especially a partner), how do you also keep your individual journey going?  I’d love to hear any of your reflections in the Comments.

We Work Really Hard for People Who “Don’t Work”

by Sarah

Neither Joseph nor I have a standard paid job right now.  We are each the central organizer of a loosely arranged mosaic of paid and unpaid projects (ahem, house-building!), each with different responsibilities, timelines, and collaborators.  This is a pretty awesome way to live, and I am grateful that we get to do it.  And also it’s sometimes surprisingly hard.  Hard to keep track of everything that we are doing, hard to know if I’ve worked “enough,” if I’ve really “earned” a day off…

Which is really what I’m working with.  Externally, our main project is: How to build a tiny house from green-ish materials.  But internally the question that I am working on, and have been for a few years, is: How to work and take care of myself at the same time.

When I start getting anxious about if I’m doing enough, if I deserve the life that I have, I find it useful to get really concrete:  What needs to get done?  Okay, but what really needs to get done?  And then when I finish the “really needs to get done,” it’s probably a good time for a break.  It’s been easier to do that kind of prioritizing for Joseph and my shared projects, and we’ve been using an (almost) fun system to keep track.

We bought brightly-colored dry-erase markers and are using one of the large sets of sliding glass doors in our house as a big to-do list.  We have sections for each of the projects we are working on together:
Seeds with Wings (our tiny house build and this website)
Tumbleweed (coordination and reporting for the group build)
Caretaking, (the sheep, and more, on the property where we live and care-take)
Home, (settling in, upkeep, gardening)
We also have a section for ongoing Wellbeing activities (though that section has gotten woefully faded lately).  It’s a huge relief to me just to have the items up on the big colorful to-do list.  I feel calmer knowing that nothing is falling through the cracks.

On the same double doors we marked out a monthly and weekly calendar with masking tape.  On Monday morning we sit down together, sometimes for up to an hour, and fill in:
First, appointments and events
Then, the most important tasks that must happen this week
Next, the people we need to call, email, or see
Finally, errands, yoga classes, and other details

I don’t enjoy the Monday planning sessions.  They tend to bring up that feeling of overwhelm – that I want to do everything, that there isn’t enough time for all of it, that I will fall short in some way by not getting to some project or some person I want to connect with.  But, I also feel better all week for having done the planning.  To wake up in the morning and know what I planned to do today, what was the most important thing to make sure to get to today, is a relief and gives the day shape and a feeling of completion at the end.

Do you have any fun, or even just slightly enjoyable, ways to keep your projects organized? If you work for yourself, or even if you don’t, how do you relax even when there is always more work to do?  Please do share in the comments.