Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Compelling Reason to Stop

I don't know what you're like, but I've noticed that with any 'menial' task, there's a point of no return.  A point at which I am so close to having done a perfect job that I don't want to stop.  However mucky, fiddly or annoying the job is.

There's a recognised form of meditation where you completely immerse yourself in doing something, and do it absolutely as well as you can.  I think some of the pleasure I get, if that's what it is, in absolutely completing a job is the process itself.

I noticed it a few years ago when I was raking grass on our lawn.  I say lawn, but in fact it was about three quarters of an acre of rural grass.  More-or-less flat, but 'lawn' is flattering it.  The grass would start to get out of control, someone would come by on a ride-on and mow it.  Most of the grass would be gathered up by the ride-on and dumped in piles on the compost (which was quite big, as you can imagine), but there 
would always be quite a lot scattered around and in need of raking.

I developed a process.  I'd stand on a spot, rake at the ready and pull the grass toward me while turning in a circle.  Once I'd completed that section, reaching as far as I could stretch in all directions, I'd move to another prime position and start again.

This wasn't necessary across the entirety of our land. There were always large patches where there was very little scattered grass to rake, and I'd go over those bits easily, adding any grass gathered to an existing pile. 

When I had a few smallish piles in one area, I'd pull them together into a slightly larger pile, so that I had piles of more-or-less the same size all across the garden.  This worked well for when I brought the wheel barrow around to take the piles away.  I'd perfected the pile size so that I knew I could fit three piles in the barrow and, though it was piled pretty high, I had a technique for squishing it down so that it didn't fall out en route to the compost heap.  Most satisfying. I could even balance a small child on top for an occassional ride.

The trouble was, moving onto the next area.  It's a really effective process, my raking process, and I had this great rake (dirt cheap plastic one - light and easy to manage and so so good) which got nearly all the grass in the first pass.  I'd rake up absolutely as much as I could and then look around me and see more little clumps, so I'd rake those.  Then I'd see little bits here and there that had escpaed and tidy those up.  I'd think "I can stop now, this patch is raked.  But..." because there'd always be just a little bit more here and there.  I really had to force myself to say "It's good enough" and move on.  Good enough? None of our neighbours mowed their grass, let alone raked it!  (Well, they did have horses, sheep and the like so technically it was being mowed all the time).

I think there's a point of no return with this sort of job. If you give the bathroom a quick once-over, fine. But once you start scrubbing around the taps with a brush - you'll be there for hours.  I am the same with floor washing,  cleaning the sieve and things like that.  If I choose to do a quick job, that's fine - it's done and dusted in no time. But if I think, "I can do better," and go a bit further, then I'm likely to think "I'll just...." and that's it, I'm lost to the job.  Once it's nearly right, why stop before it's perfect?

But there's always some way to make it better.  So I've washed my hairbrush (the task that prompted this post) and picked all the hair out, then found a pair of small scissors to cut away the annoying fluff that gathers at the base of the bristles (where DOES that come from?) and washed it again, snipped some more, found tweezers to pull the last endy bits of fluff off.  At some point I have to stop.  I have to think "This hairbrush is pretty damn clean, and I have other things to do with my time - like write a blog post".

An artist friend of mine was talking to me once about knowing when to stop in the creative process. Understanding when the painting is finished.  There can be a temptation to add just a daub of paint here, a dash there, but an artist has to decide, or know, when a piece is done, and leave it.

Writers have to decide when editing is over and their writing can stand as it is.  We are probably never one hundred percent sure that we've done everything we should, but it's time to trust in ourselves and move on.

All jobs are like that. You have to close them, and move on.

I guess what I'm thinking is that once you get stuck in far enough to something you feel compelled to see it through. Looking at my own track record of successes, or near successes, or even failures, I think the key is to have in your mind the finishing point.  When you decide to see something through, you need to know where, exactly, the end is.  Is the end point of your evening classes the point at which you can speak fluent Spanish, or is it the point at which you have a degree in Spanish? Are you writing a book to write it, and when it's written you're done, or do you want it published? Is three rejections the end point, or an acceptance? Are you really going to rake every last bit of grass from the lawn, or do you, in fact, just enjoy being out in the garden on your own? It's the perfect excuse to be out here, after all, listening to the horses munching over the fence, sheep making the occasional 'baa', the repetitive action of rake out, rake in and the sun going slowly down.

Isn't it just nice, sometimes, to keep doing the same thing over and over until there's a compelling reason to stop and move on?

(c) Naomi Madelin

Just as an aside, I actually looked up how to get fluff out of a plastic hairbrush and came across this post. I am rather impressed by the author and contributors' dedication to their theme!

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