Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Four Seasons of Tough Times

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun… Ecclesiastes 3:1

The belief that every challenge has four distinct stages has occupied a ridiculous amount of my attention over the past dozen years. This is because I am convinced it is one of the most helpful truths for navigating difficult circumstances. Yet, when I seek to explain (stage 1) how tough times begin, (stage 2) what the middle of the journey looks like, (stage 3) how to adapt and (step 4) how to get to the end…I feel like I get too many blank stares. I want to exclaim, “Trust me! This is important, it will save you,” but instead I wonder if I’m making as much impact as the ill-kempt man wearing the sandwich board on the street corner pronouncing the end of the world. Both passionate and neither of us getting our message across.

So, to not lose you, my fair readers, as I try to pass along this jewel, I’d like to propose the following analogy to describe the four-phased journey concept and its importance:

Just in the northern climes of North America, tough times can be seen as moving through four distinct seasons. During difficult circumstances, we start in the autumn. Things begin to “fall” apart — leaves break away from the trees, plants freeze and die and what we had counted on to feed us all summer ends. In tough times terms, the trees we had been going to for fruit could be a marriage, a friendship or good health — we watch them crumble and hope that we can find a way to make it last — but if it’s time is up, no amount of vigilance will stave off the end.

So, then comes winter, or the messy middle of tough times. It seems impossible that something will grow again during this season. It’s dark, inhospitable and can be really depressing.

If can wait out winter, spring comes again with a promise of new beginnings. There is more light and optimism. Time to till the soil, decide what to plant and ready for the growing season. And, if we are courageous enough, we will plant seeds and do the work to create a new garden (i.e. work to create a new relationship, job, or home). We must care for the new seedlings, get rid of the weeds to get back to a stable place once more.

Earlier this month, after presenting a keynote lecture on thriving through tough times, a soft-spoken grandmother approached me. “When you talked about approaching tough times like an old Montana rancher, I got it,” she said. After raising children and crops in New Mexico and northern Canada, she told me that recognizing the stages of each difficulty had saved her. “When the kids were young I copied and pasted a passage from Ecclesiastes on my cupboard to keep me sane through the years,” she added and began to recite, To everything there is a season, time for every purpose under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”

During bad circumstances, it really helps to remember that there is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. For each set of tough times there is a minimum suffering period. With a death of a grandparent, it might be a year for example. But, not acting appropriately during each tough times “season,” you can maximize your imprisonment in difficult circumstances.

In the winter, or the messy, chaotic middle phase, trying to plant new seeds wastes your resources. Ask any rancher. Winter is when you rest. You sharpen your tools and nurture your stock. You want to slow down, take care of yourself and your home. You can’t plow the fields and trying would be silly. Rushing around is a foolish, and in the depths of January, can be a dangerous activity.

The advice for the winter of difficult conditions is the same. When something has ended, be it a job or a relationship, trying to quickly create something new is counterproductive. We need to recover. We need to take stock in where we stand. Rushing around and using up our resources is foolish and can be dangerous as we exhaust what collateral or energy we have in a harsh, dark climate.

There is a time to rest and there will be a time to risk. During a challenge’s spring and summer, we will need to be rested and ready to act. Where after a loss, we must be brave enough to wait through the winter, we must also be bold enough when the time comes to choose to try again.

Each season presents unique tests. Not acting seasonally appropriate circumvents the process. Rushing around and trying to plant in winter means that we won’t have any reserves to take advantage of spring. Not getting to work in the spring will also have us missing or not taking advantage of prime growing season.

Meanwhile, we live in a culture focused only on action. It believes that when things are not going our way we need to think positive, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Yet, this is not global wisdom. For example, like Ecclesiastes, Taoism is based on discerning in which season we reside and acting accordingly. It is said that by going with the natural flow of each challenge, Taoist masters exert minimal energy and are able to live well past a hundred years old. There is a time to wait and a time to move. Knowing the difference allows us to flow effortlessly through each major change back to stability.

So, when tough times hit, notice:

1) Are structures or relationships ending (1st stage of disruption or “autumn”)

2) Are you in dark times, dealing with loss and no new solutions in sight (chaos or winter)

3) Can you see new possibilities, is it “time” to get moving again (adaptation or spring)

4) Are you called to try new things, be bold, act (stability or summer)

Then ask, what would a wise Minnesotan or Montanan farmer do? For every thing there is a season…

A Way to “Play Well” in London

I have to pass along a fun new project capturing attention around London. Artist Luke Jerram who lives in Bristol has coordinated the installation of 30 pianos throughout the city emblazoned with the sign, “Play Me I’m Yours.” Jerram previously brought incarnations of this project to Birmingham, England; São Paolo, Brazil; and Sydney, Australia. In a recent New York Times article, Jerram explains, “It’s a blank canvas for everyone’s creativity.”

The pianos are secured to the ground with metal cables and have plastic covers in case of rain. Anyone passing by is welcome to sit down and tickle the ivories.  All thirty instruments have faired well, although need constant tuning, provided by a professional tuner on bicycle, due to tons of play.  According to the New York Times, people have tended to relinquish their places courteously after a while to allow others to perform. Here’s a short video clip on the program to get a sense of its appeal:

Creating community through random acts of music…what a fun way to approach our challenges. To learn more, visit Luke Jerram’s website, http://lukejerram.com/projects/play_me_im_yours

The Creative Process

My creative spirit can be quite moody. Sometimes she wants to play for weeks, dropping by at all hours with seductive ideas and pretty accoutrements for what I’m developing. I can’t keep up, she jostles me awake at 3 am or rallies me on to write for 10 hours straight. Like that friend in college who would knock at your door at 11 pm during finals to go for a run in the first snowfall of the year, I love but get a bit nervous about Creativity’s visits. Her presence is surprising, fun, but demanding.

Apollo and the Muses by Raphael

Apollo and the Muses by Raphael

After a creative binge, she can “sleep it off” for months…this spring I wanted to finish my latest book, Thriving Through Tough Times. I’d sit down and try to wake her. If I nudged her hard enough I would she would mutter a phrase or two and I could create a blog post. But, then my fickle companion would roll over and start snoring again. A post a week I was allowed to produce, but the book I couldn’t get complete.

In the 2002 movie Adaptation Nicholas Cage portrayed a protagonist tasked with completing a screenplay for The Orchid Thief. He struggles to sit long enough to actually write a coherent page. We watch him bouncing up and down and becoming obsessed with wanting a banana nut muffin. My friend novelist Marcus Stevens and I often respond when asking one another about book progress, “Banana nut muffins.”

Sometimes it’s the cookies calling from the pantry or the dishes screaming from the sink. Then there’s the laundry, the emails I’ve neglected or a lunch date I’ve scheduled since “I’m free.” Frustrated with my own lack of progress, I really appreciated the following TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert about the creative process and its fickle nature.

I resonate with Gibert’s description of writing being a long, slow slog and fussing at her muses that she is holding up her end of the bargain. At her virtual urge, I decided to “do my part.” To ignore the siren song of groceries, friends and the Internet, I hid out in a cabin for a week…perhaps you noticed the blog lull in the later part of June? With few distractions I sat down at 9 am and made myself work til 5:30 each day without fail and finished a rough draft of book #3.

I shouldn’t be surprised, it was the only way that I could complete Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. Some can get up at 5 am each day and diligently go straight to their office; Miss Creativity and I don’t seem to work that way. She wants me all to herself and as long as the cell phone and emails can garner my attention, she treats me with the same level of affection that I am affording her.

I’ve now got a book, but there is much more work to be done. I have reached the culling, combing and cutting stage of its development, but, next week holds a family vacation and I won’t bring my laptop. I need time with my wild invisible girlfriend, but since she doesn’t share well, I need to postpone our date. It is time instead for focusing on incarnate friends, family and a devouring good banana nut muffin or two.