I was born with shpilkes. That’s a yiddish word that my mother would say is the equivalent of “ants in your pants”. More formally, it’s defined as a kind of nervous energy; the inability to sit still. It’s one of those things that’s just always been there. I’m not really happy unless I’m doing three things at once. Alright – those of you who know me and are nodding your heads and saying “no kidding” to yourselves – relax. I haven’t tried to hide this personality trait – not that I could. It’s been there and a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. It’s morphed into something that’s highly valued these days; the ability to multitask. For me that has meant that much of the success that I’ve had professionally can be attributed to my ability to do multiple things – at breakneck speed – at the same time.
Years ago, while spending a summer in Victoria, BC, I was fortunate enough to see the play You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. There’s a great song in that show that talks about working best under pressure. The lyrics sang directly to my spirit. As a student, my favourite way of taking courses was during the summer when a full year’s syllabus would be compacted into a six-week period. I wrote my Master’s Thesis in the hours between when I put my kids to bed and had to get them up for school; and I liked that. I completed a Doctorate as a single Mom with three kids, a full job and sometimes part-time jobs to make ends meet since I had no other financial resources to draw on; just my determination and the support of my children who let me spend hours at the dining-room table working away. Indeed, I do remember my daughter telling people on the phone that “no, you can’t talk to her right now, she’s writing”. My sons pitched in too, doing some of the meal preparation. Thanks again Josh, Nili and Motti; I definitely couldn’t have done this without you. I guess I’m a bit of an intensity junkie.
That’s who I’ve been. Shpilkes come naturally to me it seems. I could hypothesize ad infinitum about why I have shpilkes. Is it genetic? Is it a defense mechanism meant to keep all experiences at a level that doesn’t allow for full impact? After all, if you’re doing three things at once you can’t delve deeply into any of them. The introduction of the iPhone to my life has driven home how much this multiple-focus activity reduces the value of anything going on. Have you had this experience? You’re having a conversation with someone, sharing something important with them, and you notice that they’re looking at their iPhone or Blackberry (or Crackberry as my friend Steven calls it), or whatever exceedingly intrusive devise they’re carrying and there they are – in the midst of your conversation – sending somebody else a message. You pause in what you’re saying. Moments pass. Long, quiet moments filled with tension. Finally the person you’re purportedly talking with looks up in surprise because – having hit their send button – they’ve just noticed that you’re not speaking. I seem to have an awful lot of those kinds of moments …. and I don’t like it. I don’t like it when others do this to me and I don’t like it when I catch myself drifting into iPhone euphoria when others are talking to me either. To those of you who I’ve done this to; please forgive me!
Here’s the thing though. As I’ve grown older – and perhaps (hopefully) wiser – I’ve come to realize that this isn’t a trait I particularly value and that there is so much more depth to experience when you’re not trying to do multiple things at the same time. This may not seem like much of a revelation but to me it represents a huge change in perspective and awareness.
In some ways I suppose that I began this journey years ago when, as a young hippie in California, I tried meditation. Indeed I even took a course at UCLA in The Psychology of Zen Buddhism. Here’s how that course was structured. We’d meet one evening a week. For me that meant finishing my day working at the University of Southern California in their Clinical Psychology Department and driving directly into the sun as I wended my way from downtown LA to Westwood. If I was lucky enough to find a parking spot (and yes, I think it’s true that some students have simply quit UCLA because they couldn’t find a place to park) I’d get to class by the starting time at 7 p.m. We’d sit in a small classroom with banked theatre-style seats attached to the floor, and we would wait for the professor to arrive. He’d come in (don’t remember his name), place a pillow on the table at the front of the room, climb up onto the table, sit down cross-legged on the pillow, and begin to talk – quietly and calmly – about that evening’s focus. The talking would go on for only a short while before he’d ring little silver meditation bells he’d placed on the table beside him to help us focus on our “true selves” and then we’d sit and meditate. In a classroom. After a very long day of work. I will admit that more often than not I found myself so deep in meditation that it might have been confused for sleeping. I guess the professor knew that I wasn’t quite ready for this meditative practice when I asked him one evening if the first person to reach Nirvana would get an “A”. Yes, I was a bit of a philistine I suppose.
From that I moved on to meditation in a less academic environment (good idea huh?), trying transcendental meditation which was almost a requirement for flower children in California in the ealry 1970s. Being someone with sphilkes, however, means that meditative practice not only doesn’t come easily to me but is an enormous challenge. To quiet my mind! It’s a mind-boggling challenge for sure. But try I have, in fits and starts, attempting to find ways to bring meditative practice into an altogether too busy life.
My most recent reconnection with meditation was through a wonderful course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that David and I took together this past winter. If I thought meditation was hard for me, David put a whole new light on how hard it could be for someone not practiced in inner quietness. Part of what drew me to this particular course was the quotation from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets that I found on their website: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” When I was an undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario I took a lot of film courses and in one of them I had to make a film. I found a street that had just been resurfaced; it was a purely black surface. In letters several feet high I wrote this quotation in thick white chalk letters. Hoping that nobody from the city authorities would find me defacing this new road surface I did it just after sunrise one morning. I sat on the roof of my car with a movie camera (on loan from the university) and was pushed slowly down the street so that I could film those words. I don’t have a copy of that film anymore, but the words have always stayed with me … somehow lurking in my subconscious just out of reach.
Which brings me to now. In just a few more weeks I will wake up and not have to rush to work. Can I handle that lack of pressure? Will I be able to manage not having to multitask? I’ve been saying for some time now how much I enjoy doing things one thing at a time but, I confess, I’m worrying a bit about whether I can really do this. Slow down. Become mindful. Be “in the moment” instead of “in the strategic plan”. What does not being so busy, not meeting ten challenges an hour, mean to someone who – in the end – was born with sphilkes? Am I deluding myself thinking that I can change? Can anyone ever really change? If I can get back to where I started – before work and rushing and stressing – and “know the place for the first time” … well, who will I be?
As my people say: oy!