5 Practices

Every week, I share a list of 5 Things. These things are shared one at a time each day as part of my subscriber’s daily update. Want to get this kind of goodness in your inbox every weekday? Along with all sorts of other good stuff? Then become a subscriber. I am biased, but I think it’s worth it. This post is shared with everyone on my email list and is public at combatsnuggles.com. Feel free to forward this email, share on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise pass along to whomever you think would enjoy it. Thanks for reading.

If there is one universal human understanding - one thing that would have been as plainly obvious to the hunter/gatherers on the savanna as it is to wealthiest denizens of the glittering technocities some see in our future - it is that life is hard. Life is not easy. Bad things can, and most often do, happen.

One of my favorite stats is that the average amount of time spent on household chores (what social scientists refer to as “household production” because we live in a capitalist system and EVERYTHING is tied to production somehow) in 1920 was around 30 hours a week. Households took an average of 30 hours a week to cook, clean, do laundry, mow the grass, and otherwise do the work of keeping a house running. Women did the overwhelming majority of that labor.

Then things began to change, and rapidly. The vacuum cleaner was invented, then the washing machine and dryer, the dishwasher, the motorized lawnmower. These items were iterated and improved. Now technology has advanced to the point that there are robotic vacuums that work on their own, robotic lawnmowers, automated sprinklers, and dishwashers that can be controlled via app. When we moved a couple of years ago we got a brand new Samsung washer and dryer that we probably use 10% of the potential settings on. The washer is self cleaning, just like our oven.

Preparing food can be as labor intensive as we choose for it to be. We could cook from scratch. We could also buy meal kits with the cutting and portioning done, where we serve as the mere assembly point for a meal already prepped. Or we could take it a step further. A few taps on the smart phone and a meal from virtually any restaurant in town can appear at our door.

Women went back to work and men took on more of the housekeeping burden. Yes, women still do the majority of the work (even when men and women both work), but the male share has been increasing. More women work outside the home, a trend that will only grow. After all, women receive the majority of advanced degrees these days.

All these technological and social changes. All of the things that are vastly different now than then. All of the labor saved and redirected. You know how much time we spend on “household production” now?

Around 30 hours a week. Almost exactly the same as we did 100 years ago.

Despite technological advances making household management far more efficient, the time spent ON household management remains unchanged. We find ways to fill the time.

There is even a name for the phenomenon. The Cowan-Vanek Paradox.

The nature of household work has changed. Instead of pounding laundry on river rocks and hanging it to dry we fiddle with our smartphone app to make sure the settings on our machines are optimized. We can spend the time it would have taken to prepare a simple meal just scrolling the choices on Doordash or UberEats. We have more of everything - enormous houses, more clothes, bigger lawns, more and more and more stuff - and all of it needs to be cleaned and maintained. I have been in houses that had more square footage dedicated to bathrooms than the square footage in my grandmother’s entire house. The house where she raised 6 kids.

We humans make things complicated. And when we solve problems - when we make things less complicated - we simply go out and create more complications. Sometimes the very solutions we create make things more complicated. It is in our nature.

Because it is in our nature to create complications, it is our lot to suffer. We struggle physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Life is hard. Some of that is self-inflicted. Some of it isn’t. The universe can be a cruel and hard place to live. There are infinitely more spaces that are inhospitable to life than there are places where it thrives.

So how do we make it? How do we survive when even our own programming works against us? How do we find peace when everything works against it?

This week I will be sharing the 5 practices I use to find equilibrium. These are the things that got me sober, and that keep me sober. These are the things that help me make sense of chaos, and help me see the beauty that is all around us.

Because the truth is that two things can be true at the same time. Life is chaotic. And we humans tend to like it that way. That’s true. Peace is also possible. Beauty exists. And we can experience both. This is also true.

These practices are the things that help me. I encourage you to think this week about the things that help you on YOUR journey. Where and how do you find peace? What helps you? On Friday, I will ask you to share yours with the group. So let’s get to the list!

#1 - Naps

As some of you know, I have a damaged brain. And I mean that literally. I suffered a series of concussions - several major - during my years in the military, culminating with a blast injury from an IED while in Iraq. I have what the military euphemistically refers to as Traumatic Brain Injury - TBI. My brain injury puts me at much greater risk for things like stroke and dementia.

On a practical day to day basis I have a whole host of effects caused by my brain injury. My short term memory is terrible. If you don’t see me write it down in the notebook I always carry (or type it into my iPhone) then you should assume I won’t remember. I struggle with concentration. I have vicious headaches. My neurologist (who was also the head of neurology at Duke) once told me that I had learned to live with a constant level of headache pain that most people would find debilitating. And that as much as he wished he could do something about it, there wasn’t. My brain is just broken a little.

I have learned all sorts of tricks to minimize the effects of this injury. I write stuff down. I try to do heavy mental work early in the day (it gets worse as the day goes on) and I also nap. Every day.

It was originally a suggestion of my neurologist. Not even a suggestion really. A prescription. He told me that I needed to sleep for at least 20 minutes every afternoon. Ideally, he said, I should get in an entire sleep cycle (90 minutes). And so every day for nearly 7 years now I have tried to take a nap.

It makes a HUGE difference for me. By napping, I am able to face the afternoon with energy. I have the ability to focus and even do some mental heavy lifting in the evenings. When I don’t nap, my mood, my ability to focus, and my energy, all go down with the sun. There is a definitive and discernible difference.

Napping isn’t a choice for me. It is a necessity. While the benefits are critical for me, naps have been shown to be effective at improving attention, energy, and productivity for everyone. Simply resting for 20 minutes in the middle of the day can make a huge difference in mental health.

We live in a capitalized culture that has equated rest with “wasting” time. And there is no greater sin in capitalism than lost productivity. When you hear nap what do you think of? If you are like most people you immediately think “LAZY” or you think of naps as some impossible luxury that you don’t have the ability to even contemplate, much less make a reality.

I would suggest to you that you may not have the luxury of NOT napping. Now that so many of us work from home, what is stopping you from taking a nap? 20 minutes can make a world of difference.

In a culture that tells you that activity is the only virtue, it is important to remember the value of rest. If you want to know more about the power of naps, I can’t recommend enough watching episode 4 of the Netflix show Trigger Warning with Killer Mike. Mike is a rapper and activist and decides to create his own religion around sleep. In the episode, he talks a lot about how rest has become demonized, especially in communities of color. Another great resource is the Nap Ministry which explores the resistance and theological value of rest.

There is a lot about my daily experience that is negotiable. I am pretty flexible about most things. But not my nap.

#2 - Meditation

One of the first times I ever meditated, I was sitting on a beach in Malibu, CA. It was a beautiful, sunny late spring day in one of the most impossibly beautiful places in the country. I guess I peaked early.

Up until that beach in Malibu, I had resisted even the mere suggestion of meditation. I thought that the whole idea was dumb. I am just supposed to sit? And breathe? And not think of anything? Dumbest. Idea. Ever. I knew two things. I was WAY too ADHD to ever sit still for even two minutes, much less 20 or 30. And I knew that there was no way I would ever turn off - or even slow down - the constantly spinning hamster wheel in my brain.

In May of 2017 I went to Save a Warrior in Malibu. SAW is a week long recovery program for veterans and first responders with PTSD. Most of those that attend self medicate. Many of us had survived attempts at serious self-harm. SAW was based around an eclectic mix of ideas and influences, and one of the threads was teaching meditation, a practice informed by the Buddhism of SAW’s founder.

Our cohort was given the very basic outlines of how to meditate. We really didn’t get much into the why. I think that the idea was that if we just practiced, we would see the benefit, especially if we kept practicing. We did a few guided sessions, learning the nuts and bolts of meditation, and then we hit the beach.

I don’t know if it was the sun or the sand or the waves. I don’t know if it was sharing the experience with 12 guys that I had opened myself to completely in just a few days. I don’t know if it was finally time for me to get it. Maybe it was all those things. Maybe none of them.

What I do know is that every day since I have meditated. Sometimes for just a few minutes. Sometimes for as long as a couple of hours. Many of the guys from SAW stuck with it. Some of the guys from my cohort have even done 10 day silent meditation retreats.

Meditation has made me calmer. It has allowed me to slow down. I am able to respond rather than react. Not all the time. No one is perfect. Especially not me. But a lot of the time. And definitely a hell of a lot more than even a few years ago.

Meditation has, in many ways, been the thing that has kept me together the last few years. I am able to find space to remind myself that all this - ALL of it - is temporary. Nothing is forever. And I take great comfort in that. It helps me value the good moments and not sweat the bad.

If you want to know more about the how (or even the why) of meditation, let me know. I am always ready to share the meditation gospel.

It has been life changing for me. And for that I am grateful. And I definitely want to go back to Malibu too. :-)

#3 - Prayer

For a really long time, I thought that I sucked at praying. I would get frustrated that I didn’t hear the voice of God every time I sat down. I would get frustrated that nothing I asked for ever happened. I used books, and prayer guides, and asked pastor after pastor. Nothing seemed to help.

Looking back now, I realize that I was making a pretty fundamental error. We often conceive of prayer as outwardly focused. It is god-as-vending-machine. We drop in our quarter (prayers) and we get a prize!

Only, that ain’t it.

Prayer is actually inwardly focused. It is about bringing ourselves into the right alignment with the rest of creation. Prayer is a much closer cousin to meditation than I thought. At least until I started meditating.

Meditation is about being quiet. It is about listening. It is about listening to our thoughts without judgment or control. Simply allowing things to be. Meditation is stillness.

Prayer is active. It is about placing our selves, our energy, and our spirit into the world. We do that by praying for connection and guidance. Prayer is about finding ways to “plug in” to where good can happen in the world. It is inwardly focused in that we are focusing on how we fit into the flow of the universe (or, for those readers of faith - God’s will), rather than having an outward focus wherein we ask for some mystery to be revealed or some wish granted. God isn’t a genie.

One of my favorite ways to pray is to focus on 3 key elements of wellness - safety, peace and happiness. I pray by imagining a spiral that starts at me and slowly extends out. I ask for ways to find safety, peace and happiness first for myself, then for my family, then for my friends, then my church, community, state, nation and world. I think about specific people and ask that they be granted a path to safety, peace, and happiness.

And when I meditate I listen for how the universe might answer the prayer. Or not. I pray without expectation, only the hope that something inside ME changes. Because that is all that I can do.

#4 - Reading

We moved a couple of years ago. Our old house in Colony Woods used to flood every time it did more than drizzle in Chapel Hill. We applied for a FEMA buyout, got approved, and after a loooooooonnnnggg time waiting for federal and state red tape, we were able to close the sale of our old house and buy our new, much drier, house. It was a wonderful thing. Mostly.

Moving is never fun, and the timing was really crazy. Barb had to do the closing on the new house while I was in California for Save A Warrior and we only had a very brief window (just a few days) to clear the old house and move to the new one. That meant we had to make a lot of decisions quickly. Most of our furniture was donated (we decided to buy new for the first time ever at our new house). We went through clothes, kitchen utensils, and tools. We sold some things and donated lots and lots of other things.

One of the things we donated was books. All of them.

Growing up in an abusive environment is hard. Growing up with a narcissist parent is hard. You have to constantly guess what will make them happy. You have to constantly worry that you will choose wrong. Sometimes the things that make them smile one day will make them ignore you the next. Or worse. Reading was the one thing that I could do that was never wrong. At the worst I might get an exasperated sigh (“reading again?”), but most of the time I got approval (“reading again!”).

So I read all the time. It was a coping mechanism. It was a way of transporting myself to other times and places, well beyond what was often a pretty shitty reality. Reading allowed me a space where I could be free. And it became something of an obsession. It still is.

When it came time to move I had to choose which of my hundreds of books would make the trip. We just didn’t have space in the new place for all the books. I just had to narrow it down to a few dozen and get boxes on the truck. Only. I couldn’t choose. I was locked up. I wanted them all. And I decided that if I couldn’t have all, I would take none. I decided to give them all away and get digital copies on my kindle.

The religious books I gave to the church library (where I could visit them in the beforetimes). The rest I donated to a local thrift store. They were quite excited. I was quite unexcited.

We moved, and I had my kindle, and that was okay for a while. But I missed my books. And it wasn’t just about reading. It was about sanctuary. Books provide comfort and security and physical protection. They are a literal and tangible refuge. The thing that kept me safe. Reading is not something I do to get smarter or be better. It is something I do to keep myself safe.

Over the last few months I have started to rebuild my library. There is still not really room for books yet. We’re making some. I actually keep my “to be read” pile on the floor next to my bed. It looks like this:

It feels good to know that they are right there beside me. It helps keep me balanced. It helps make me feel safe.

And for that I have always been grateful.

#5 - Writing

When I was in 4th grade, I had the most wonderful teacher. Her name was Mrs. Richardson, and she was a neighbor in addition to my teacher. I did live on a ranch, so neighbor was relative. But by rural Texas standards, she was my neighbor. She lived on some land with her husband, who worked at the nearby nuclear power plant. She was, by her own description, "sweet and petite." She wasn't a whole lot taller than some of the girls in our class, all of whom towered over the boys.

On the first day of school in 4th grade, she asked us all to get our paper and pencils. She wanted us to write about what we had done that summer. The "what I did this summer" essay is, for those of us of a certain vintage, a well remembered rite of passage. It was something that I can remember doing every year, without fail. It must've been a whole class in schools of education in the 1970s.

So she asks us to write about our summer. I raised my hand. "Yes Jeff?" she asked. "Can mine be in poetic form?" Years later she would still tell my mom this story every time we saw her. Mrs. Richardson, it turned out, had majored in English before switching to education, and was a poet herself. "Yes. Yes you can," she said.

That poem is long since gone. So too are the ones I wrote that won a statewide writing competition my senior year in high school. So is the journal I kept in Iraq. I put that one on a fire in the backyard in a drunken attempt to burn all the memories of the war, and of my time in the Army.

The paper containing the words is gone. The memory of the words themselves is gone. I don't remember most of what I have written. Much of it is gone.

But the words. The words are eternal. They last forever.

Because for me writing isn't about what I write. Not primarily. I mean it is awesome to have this newsletter and to get to share it, especially when people find meaning from it. But that is a wonderful by-product of writing. It's not the reason.

The reason I write is the reason I breathe. I have to. It is a part of living for me. It is the one thing I have always done. It is the one thing that I *know* I am good at. It is as essential to my survival as water.

Writing is my essential practice. My sine qua non - without which nothing.

We all have something that we do - something we love - something so essential to who we are that we couldn't do or be anything else. Sometimes it takes us a while to find what that is. And that's okay. Journeys are never a straight line.

I feel lucky that I have known for a while. At least since 4th grade.

These are the 5 practices that sustain me. These are the things that ground me. These are the things that help define me.

What are yours?

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I encourage you to become a subscriber.

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.