States of Mind by Miriam Sagan

Feels like a season to take stock. My 64th birthday has passed, and I’ve been “retired” for almost a year and a half. I’ve been thinking about the mental states that compose my day—my life—and want to try and understand them here.
Balance is something I strive for, but it does elude me. Balance between what and what? In asking that question, I came up with six categories.

1. Chaos. This is my least favorite state. It is when someone you love is suffering. It is sitting outside the ICU. It is the state that cries out for the first of the twelve steps—I am powerless over…heroin, my drunk uncle, a broken heart, you name it. Each person will have his or her scary things. Mine include medical procedures, and embarrassingly, even having my teeth cleaned. I don’t think I ever say—give me more chaos. Rather, I’m apt to limit my exposure. When I was widowed, I did not get my teeth cleaned. I’m not suggesting this as a good habit, just being honest.

2. Emergency. I think of this as the kind of chaos I can respond to positively. A sick child. A distraught friend. A financial crisis. An injured cat. This is where I have the skill set to cope. I like to limit my emergencies too—not take on someone else’s unless I have it to give. Emergency can devolve into chaos, or solidify into the next state—work.

3. Work. This is what I am supposedly retired from, but that isn’t really true. Work is what we do for money, or necessity. I count all of (traditionally) women’s unpaid domestic tasks as work. For if we didn’t do it, someone would get paid to. But much of work is satisfying, because here effort really pays off. Unless you have a soul-numbing or body destroying job, I suspect most people enjoy feeling competent and the sense of a job well done. I don’t mind work, but I don’t adore it. However, it turns out I do need some of it.

4. Play. This is a purposive activity that doesn’t produce something salable in our culture. Obviously the line between work and play is malleable. Creating a beautiful garden or writing a novel can go back and forth between work and play. Sometimes there can be emergencies or chaos in there as well. Sports the same. A good job will have elements of play. As a poet, I feel odd saying “I’m working” on a poem. I might be partially, but Im also playing.

5. Focus. Technically this might be samadhi, a state of focused attention. I associate it with meditation, but it can appear in almost any situation of work or play. It is a great asset in an emergency—and I suspect the EMTs I’ve known often benefit from it. It is probably my favorite state of mind. I like to write in the state of flow, throwing in bits of play and work as needed. In fact, all will go well with a poem in samadhi—until it doesn’t. That’s when work comes in, consciously looking at technical problems and solutions.

6. Moments of Awareness. Like chaos, this tends to take us unawares. It can be anything from an existential instant of being to a Zen-like awakening to the nature of things or a child-like sense of wonder that erases self-consciousness. You can find it in psychedelic drugs, solitude, nature, and spiritual pursuits. Actually, you can find it in giant Walmart too—because awareness tends to find us as much as we find it. It is good for writing—and emotional health—but it doesn’t actually create anything unless you bring it back to play or work.

I hope to write a bit more about this in the next few days—and welcome your comments.

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