Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Examen

Off and on for the last couple of months I’ve been watching a lot of animation. I’ve always liked animation as a way to tell a story, but lately I’ve been doing something a little different: sometimes at the end of a really good scene, I’ll think to myself “I have to see how they do that.” I’ll grab the DVD remote and watch scenes again and again, slowed down to a fraction of normal speed, sometimes paused completely so I can scrutinize a single frame.

This process gives me a totally different perspective on animation as a form of art. It helps me see details that I’ve never noticed before (I remember the surprise when I first saw that a character was totally off-screen for a few seconds of one shot, and I had never even realized it). Hand-drawn animation is especially fascinating in this way, knowing that every single frame is a separate drawing, and that it takes thousands of them to make up one episode of a half-hour TV show, many more thousands to make up a feature-length film. So much work, so much careful and considered art, and I miss so much of it when I watch things (or often, skim things) at normal speed.

It’s an interesting coincidence that about a month ago my counselor introduced me to a spiritual practice called the examen, the cornerstone of a set of Christian spiritual exercises designed by St. Ignatius. There’s plenty of information about it online, but my introduction came via a brief, wonderful book titled “Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life” by Dennis Lynn, Sheila Fabricant Lynn, and Matthew Lynn.

The examen is neither complicated nor especially time-consuming. It is intended to be a daily practice, undertaken at least once a day, though more frequently is possible. To use the process as described by the Lynns, take a few moments to become quiet and aware of God’s presence, and then ask yourself two questions:

For what moment today am I most grateful?

For what moment today am I least grateful?

There are other ways to pose the questions; sometimes I use the form “what moment today gave me the most life, and what moment drained the most life out of me?” Whatever words one uses, the point of the exercise is to get in touch with how our experiences really affect us by choosing to slow down and examine them at close hand, not assuming that we catch everything important as it flies by at full speed. Paying attention to the details of our days, making a point of noticing what parts of our experience really bring us life and which don’t, can make us aware of the deeper longings and hurts of our hearts. It can help us get out from under our muffling habits and preconceptions, things that help us dig ruts and keep walking in them. It can help us to understand God’s guiding and intentions for us — the examen relies on a belief that God speaks us through these details of our very own lives, calling us toward him and what he wants for us. In general terms, God’s will is for us to do more of what gives us most life. But unless we stop and pay attention, sometimes we never detect what our own supremely life-giving things are.

I’ve been asking myself the two questions every night before going to bed and writing the answers in a notebook. In reviewing all my answers over the last several weeks, I’m already starting to see patterns emerge. One primary source of hurt and longing for me is isolation, my long-standing tendency to hold myself apart from other people. As I look at all the days on which my sense of fulfillment or lack are directly related to the presence or absense of other people, I can’t deny that I need to develop more and closer connections with other people. It’s not easy, but as I become more aware of what the examen is showing me, I’m starting to make some different choices here. There are other patterns; how I spend my time, how I to treat myself and think about myself, whether or not I listen to fear. I’m developing a better awareness of how each of these things affect me, and that naturally influences my daily choices regarding these things.

Just like watching animation in slow motion gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the animator’s art, watching my own life more closely, frame by frame, is helping me understand how to live a better life, my own better life, apart from old habits and other people’s expectations. It’s guiding me in how to sketch the next frames, how to write the next scenes, what kind of characters I want to include, and what sort of character I want to become.

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Perspective

This story begins with working on the Leaning Tower of Ignored Filing that sits on the corner of my desk. (The oldest things I’ve found in it only go back a couple of years, so it hasn’t been ignored for that long, by my usual standards.) Amid the process of organizing papers into file drawers, I found a folder labeled “Calendar – 2006.”

I’ll readily admit that my filing is sprinkled with some odd things. Not all of them really matter, but at some point I thought they did, or stuck them in a folder just in case. But “Calendar – 2006” struck me as a strange one. I use calendars to see what’s coming up, not what’s already happened, so I don’t keep old ones. As soon as I set eyes on this one, though, I remembered it. I knew why it still deserves a place in my file drawers.

It is a tiny wall calendar, about six inches square. The pictures are scenes from Quebec, which means it came from my very good friend who lives there. Across the days of 2006 there are handwritten notes, things like “20 minutes,” “1 hr,” “walked around festival.” Not every day is marked, but a lot of them are.

In 2006 I decided that I was going to walk regularly for exercise, and I used this little calendar to track my progress. It’s not just a calendar to me, it’s a record of success, of an intention well-kept. It represents a time when I proved that I could set myself a healthy goal and carry through.

At some point I let my walking habit lapse, and ever since, the idea that I should resume walking regularly has lurked in the back of my mind. I knew it was good for me both physically and mentally — I find walking time to be great thinking time. I finally got serious about walking again on July 31, 2011. I know it was July 31 because that’s the day I stepped off my treadmill and recorded the date, time, distance, and estimated calories burned on a notepad. I know that tracking is an important tool for making change happen, and I still make a note of the stats every time I use my treadmill.

I kept on walking through August, then through the fall, then straight on into this year. It’s not a perfect record, there are gaps where I didn’t follow through with my intention to walk. I’ve always gone back to the treadmill, but those missed days niggled. I knew there were blocks of time not represented at all on my notepad and I felt bad about them. Missed days are a sign of wobbling intentions. I didn’t want to stop walking, but those missed days started to feel like advance markers of impending failure. Worry started to mean more missed days, and then more worry.

Right into the midst of my anxiety appeared a folder named “Calendar – 2006.” I flipped through the pages of my old calendar and read my notes, looked over the record of my progress, and put the calendar back in my files. The next day I whistled up Microsoft Word and told it to print out a basic calendar, each month on a single page, starting with August 2011 and reaching to the end of this year. I fetched my walking-stats notepad and a Sharpie marker, sat down with my new calendar pages, and started marking in X’s. Every day on which I had taken a walk got a big red X. When I was done I spread them out so I could see them all at once.

Those worrying missed days fade in significance when they are bracketed by big red X marks. The eye goes automatically to the days when I won, the days on which I carried through with my goal. For the first time I got a real sense for the scope of my “impending failure.” Days marked with an X far outnumber the days unmarked. The longest stretch of X-marks-the-spot days is over two weeks. The longest stretch of blanks is only four days.

I know one of the broken things about my brain is that it always seeks out what’s wrong, what’s failed, what’s faulty. It finds the places where I have messed up and gnaws on them obsessively, filling me up with anxiety and sapping my ability to make good choices. I can’t let my brain get away with it. My stats-tracking notepad is useful and I’m still recording data on it. But it’s not visual enough. It doesn’t force me to look at the scale of my success. I need to put my successes in front of my eyes over and over again, or I forget about them. I need to fight back against the brokenness that only remembers what went wrong, magnifying that wrongness out of all proportion until I am afraid I can never succeed, a fear which makes itself true by keeping me from ever trying.

I printed my calendar a couple of weeks ago, and that day marks an instant change in my walking habit. The first half of March was really shaky, non-walking days actually outnumbering walking days. The last half is near solid X’s. Those calendar pages are now taped to a wall where I can see them from my treadmill, all the old months full of red marks, and the new month waiting to be filled up with them. Every day now when I start to walk, I look over at those calendar pages, at the record of my success. I find the current day and mentally X it off, in advance of marking it with my Sharpie, and I feel good about choosing to get on the treadmill for another day. I have done such a good job of keeping this habit going, all the way since last summer, and there’s no way I’m giving up on it now.