Hey there, Pollywog —
As I mentioned earlier, November marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life, to use a totally clichéd expression, and the start of a new adventure. One where I do things I’ve never done before and become more independent overall.
It may be an adventure, but it’s still sad in a lot of ways, because a new beginning means there was an ending. And it’s stressful because it’s a change — a huge one, actually. Like any major change, there’s a lot of upheaval, a lot of chaos, that goes along with it.
My personal chaos took the form of packing, consolidating, and apartment hunting for the first time in my life, all on top of a busy pet-sitting month.
Then there was a whirlwind of activity after I found an apartment. Hauling things from the old place to the new one. Unpacking. Setting up the utilities in my name. Driving all over town on a scavenger hunt for the things I need for my new life, like a microwave that isn’t the size of an army tank.
Re-reading my Look Lists for the past few months, I’m kind of astounded. And, if I’m being honest, completely freaking exhausted. How did I do all that stuff?? And please, please, tell me I don’t have to do it all again, at least for another
Putting my chaos to work.
But I’m an opportunist at heart. There’s no way I’m letting all that experience go to waste. I’d like to use it to help other people, because it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the only one going through chaos and upheaval.
Looking around, I see a lot of people going through their own huge changes. I have friends whose relationships have ended. Some of them have lost people they love to illness or are facing health problems of their own. Some of them, like me, have moved.
It wouldn’t surprise me if most of them have seen their passions fall by the wayside as they try to cope with everything that’s going on.
Maybe you’re one of those people?
Maybe you feel lost without your interests… and a little conflicted. Because on one hand, you feel like a bad artist/writer/musician/chef/flaming chainsaw juggler. But on the other hand, you wonder if it’s OK to even think about your passions when you have so many Responsible Adult Things to do.
If this sounds familiar to you, I want you to know that it’s OK, and we’re in this together. Here’s a basic road map to guide you back to the things you love — all of them. I don’t have everything figured out just yet, but I’ll give you what I’ve got so far. No details spared and nothing glossed over.
Do what you need to do first.
Nine times out of ten, I believe in putting your passions first and shaping the rest of your life around them, but here’s my exception to the rule. It’s better to accept that chaos will disrupt your routine and your ability to do creative work.
It sucks — I won’t pretend it doesn’t — but especially when chaos first hits, you need to do triage. To figure out what’s most important to your physical survival and make it a priority, and to do this with as little judgement as possible because the things you do now will make sure that you can create later.
So find a place to live (and to store all those art supplies). Unpack those kitchen and bathroom boxes first, even if you imagine your dolls or whatever else staring at you with sad and pleading eyes. Make sure you have running water, food to eat, and a way to cook it.
And as often as you can, remind yourself that triage, like Resistance, has very little to do with your commitment to your passions and everything to do with being human. Right now, you’re a human in survival mode. Survival mode won’t last forever, I promise.
Remember (and apply) your Polymath Fundamentals.
The things I wrote about tackling gigantic projects and keeping a Look List aren’t just for creative projects. They come in handy for the rest of life too, including — or maybe especially — chaos. Remind yourself to…
1.) Break big projects into smaller ones. If you’ve moved, setting up utilities might be its own project. The next could be unpacking essential boxes, then storing nonessential ones. Once you have the bare bones done, finishing each room and making it a comfortable place to work and hang out might be a separate project.
When you’ve done most of this, you might find yourself with little random mounds of stuff on the floor, the way I did. I call them my WTF piles, because WTF is this crap, and where do I put it??? Try making each pile into a project.*
(If you want to be cute about it, give them names like Mount Junkpile and Random Crap Peak. I was tempted to stick little flags in mine.)
2.) Give yourself credit where credit is due. This is so, so important during a chaotic time.
Chaos can damage both your perspective and self-esteem if you’re not careful. It drains you of your physical, mental, and emotional resources and leaves you feeling fragile and empty. This can make you question your emotional strength and sanity, for starters.
It can even make you wonder how you got into such a stressful situation to begin with… and start coming to all kinds of crazy and wrong conclusions.
Like… it’s because you’re stupid. Because you never do anything right. Because you’re a terrible, horrible person who deserves it. Ugh. Been there, done that.
To keep away from this toxic mindset, write down every single thing you accomplish, no matter how small. Even if your list is full of things like got out of bed, refilled phone, and bought a kitchen trash can.
It won’t always be easy to keep this up. More than once, I felt like I was too busy to sit down and open that document. Sometimes I completely forgot to do it, and other times, I couldn’t remember what I’d done that day — a lovely little side effect of all that stress.
But if you’re prone to self-blame and self-abuse the way I am, take the time anyway. Make yourself re-read that list over and over. Think about how much strength and intelligence and persistence (see what I did there?) went into every item on it. It will be worth the effort.
Use your interests as therapy.
Finally, we’ve come to the creating part of creating in chaos!
Once the worst of the chaos has passed — or there’s at least a lull in the chaos — and you’ve taken care of the things you absolutely need to do, gradually introduce your interests again.
Do this even if you haven’t crossed off every single item on your to-do list, and do this with as little guilt as possible. For one thing? You’ve earned it. And for another, doing what you love is one of the best ways to take care of yourself.
In fact, I recommend starting with the interests that are most therapeutic to you. Because if you’re anything like me, you love each and every one of them, but some are a little more meditative than others or a little better at helping you manage your emotions.
One of the first things I reintroduced was experimental cooking. I made a spicy black bean soup with leeks and garlic. Not only was it packed with vitamins, minerals, and nice healthy plant proteins, but it also helped me claim the new space as my own.
Then I started writing again. Free-writing isn’t just a way for me to wake up, clear my head, and get down to work. It’s also the safest way I have to get my emotions out and process what I’m going through. So I went back to 750 words and did just that.
Next I started working on The Persistent Polymath again. Not just because I’m absolutely obsessed with this site, but because it’s my way of focusing on the future and the kind of life I’d like to make for myself. With every post I publish or crazy idea I come up with, I start to feel more like maybe, just maybe, that life is within my reach.
So start free-writing, doing yoga, going for bike rides. Get out your hammer and pound the crap out of some metal. Do the things that make help you feel better emotionally and physically.
And if you still feel a little pang of guilt about bringing back your interests when there are Responsible Adult Things that need to be done, remember that taking care of yourself is one of the most responsible Adult Things you can do.
Some interests will be easier to come back to than others. Maybe because they have a therapeutic aspect, or maybe for different reasons. They might be easier for your stressed-addled brain to handle because they’re less structured or require a little less concentration.
(Because chaos doesn’t just mess with your memory. It also affects your ability to plan and focus.**)
And if some things will be easier to come back to? That means… you guessed it. Others will be harder. You’ll save yourself a lot of tears and frustration if you accept this as soon as possible and resolve to be patient with yourself as you struggle.
For example, free-writing was easy for me to come back to. And because I’m an abstract painter who doesn’t bother with perspective and proportion, adding painting to the rotation for the first time in years felt like the most natural thing in the world.
But I’ll be honest. Writing this post? Something that was more structured and intellectual in nature? Was hard. I’ll even say, it was awful in parts.
I had some false starts, some loopy tangents, a lot of frustration, and then a period of several weeks when I just let it sit. I painted, I made jewelry, I cooked, I played with my dolls, and I generally avoided the heck out of it.
In the end, I’m glad I did. I’ve come back to this post with new insight… and the ability to express that insight in a semi-coherent way. Besides, playing with dolls was much more fun than continuing to beat my head against that brick wall.***
So when it comes to the harder things, go at them a little more slowly, a little more deliberately. Take a lot of deep breaths and a lot of breaks, especially when you feel frustration bubbling up to the surface. Skip the hardest parts.
And if you’re really frustrated? Save these most challenging things for later. They’ve waited for you before as you’ve focused on other projects, interests, and passions. They can wait as you get back to yourself.
It can feel like a defeat to put things on a back burner, I get it, but just keep reminding yourself… it’s only for awhile. Try to think less about what you can’t do at the moment, and focus on the things you can. There are so very, very many, which is one of the great things about being a polymath.
Find your new normal.
This is the final step. Once the chaos has died down and you’ve reintroduced some of your projects and interests, it’s time to figure out your new normal — your new way of working, creating, and being, in general.
You might be wondering why there needs to be a new normal when the old way of doing things worked just fine before. Well, it’s because parts of your life aren’t going back to the way they were before, and they’ll affect you in a number of ways.
- Maybe you’ll have a new work space to adjust to and a new way of organizing your tools and supplies.
- Maybe you’ll have new neighbors and a landlord to consider, which will make you rethink a few of your interests (or at least, the timing and location of these interests) like using a hammer and torch on metal.
- Maybe your schedule will change. You’ll go to bed and wake up at different times, which may or may not line up with your most productive times of day.
- Maybe you’ll be away from home for longer stretches of time and need to find ways to make your projects portable.
Take some time to notice what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. Use your observations to combine old and new ways of doing things, and take note of what works for you… and what doesn’t. If you’re not sure what to try first, look to some of your creative role models for ideas.
Honestly, finding new ways to work is something I’ve been excited about. I love exploring new places, spaces, and ways of doing things. It keeps my Rebel Brain happy with plenty of novelty, which makes means more inspiration and less Resistance.
Of course, not everyone’s brain is a restless little demon like mine. Finding your new normal might be frustrating for you, but try to see it as an adventure. A chance to tiptoe outside your comfort zone. Remind yourself that fantastic things happen just outside of our comfort zones, and be patient as you look for the methods that get you where you want to be.
To sum it all up.
Whew! That sure was a long post. Here are the main points:
The big takeaway.
If there’s one single thing you take away from this post, my Pollywog friend, I hope it’s this: be patient with yourself and your situation.**** And while you’re being patient? Be kind, be gentle, and be firm.
There will always be some degree of change and chaos in our lives at any given time. In the end, there is no absolutely perfect time and place to do our creative work — we have to work with what we have and be clever, resourceful, and a little stubborn about it.
But as long as we have a loose road map in place for the crazier times? I think we’ll be OK.
Now it’s your turn: Are you going through chaos right now? How are you handling it? And mostly importantly, is there anything you need help with? If what you’re going through is too personal to share with the rest of the class, I’d be happy to chat with you via email.
*And if it’s a really stubborn pile, and you can’t seem to get through it, dump it in a box and push it out of the way. WTF piles are not part of triage. Put your interests first and reserve your little boxes of WTF for times when you’re bored or listening to a good story.
** Personally, chaos messes with my spatial skills, which are questionable on my best days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into walls or bonked my head on random objects. One of my therapeutic projects? Might be customizing a nice helmet. Le sigh.
*** Another place where the helmet might come in handy.
****And if you can’t be patient or accepting, maybe you can accept that these things are out of reach for now. That’s OK, too.
PS: Creating In Chaos now has a Part II, which you can find right here.