Monday, June 15, 2009

Odds and Endlessness

I haven’t quite worked through my to-do list yet; quite a few things burn rather restlessly on my brain. Obtain permission from a local ethics board. Apply for a research permit. Get research permission from the city. Locate French and Arabic translations of the standardized interview protocol I included in my methodology (and whose use required considerable defending toward the IRB). Visit this library, get in touch with that professor, locate those articles. Did I mention permission from the ethics board?

In other words, I have multiple to-do lists. I also have a clear purpose to motivate the effort. So then why do I feel so listless and adrift?

I spent my weekend idly sitting around, feeling as though I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to keep me company. I also spent the weekend reminding myself that rationally speaking, these feelings have no basis in reality. I have more than enough to do, a matching number of places to go, and a valuable collection of people who care enough to take an interest in all of that. But emotions do not always listen to the voice of rationality, of course. A miscommunication that leaves me wondering where and how this lack of energy emerged. I hardly recognize myself. Aren’t I usually at my best when there are things to be done? Doesn’t stress bring out the productivity in me?

Yesterday evening, as I agonized over these questions from a chair at the Jazz festival at the Chellah and utterly failed to afford the European group on stage the undivided attention it deserved, I realized why.

The problem is precisely this: I have more than enough to do. In my head, it feels a little like this. Imagine a picture of a chocolate cake. It’s moist, dark, full of chocolate, and I can already taste it on my tongue. I can already imagine how it’d pair with a glass of white wine, and I want nothing more than to make this cake. I’ve put my bowls out on the countertop, my mixer is plugged in and ready to go, and I know what ingredients to use. I just don’t know how to put them all together. Do I add the sugar before or after I put in the butter? Should I separate the eggs, or just throw them in whole? And should I be using chocolate chips, or larger chunks?

I know what needs to be done. I spent the better part of my flights to Rabat and my first week here making long lists and mindmap charts to put it all into perspective. It’s been documented, made sense out of, and deconstructed in every which way. I know what I’m doing it for – like the picture of chocolate cake, my purpose is clear and appealing. I just don’t quite know how to go about getting done the things that need to be done. What needs to be tackled first, and what can wait? For which items do I need help, and who should I ask for assistance? What does this item comprise, and how do I break down that task into doable, bite-size pieces?

Despite my multiple attempts at committing the various to do’s to paper, I’m just not sure in what direction to go, and as I contemplate my first steps, I feel pulled in all directions at once. If I decide to devote an afternoon to translating my CV into French, I wonder if I shouldn’t really be making a call to that psychiatrist, or to that organization to see about that research permit.

Making matters worse is the imperfection of the chocolate cake analogy. I erroneously see my purpose, my research project, as a picture – that is, as an object or finished product. After spending more than a year carefully weighing each word of my proposal, crafting and re-polishing each sentence until it conveyed just the right mix of subtleties, it’s hard not to see it as a finished two-dimensional story that needs only to be translated to the three-dimensionality of a moving picture. That’s not how it works, of course. A research project is never a finished project, not even when it’s finished. No matter how many things I cross off a list, I will never ‘be’ there. As much as I am aware of this, and as much as I’ve been warned that a research project is an amoeba-like intangible mess of a thing (not ‘thing’! ‘process’! ‘process’!), it makes the picture that I still can’t expel from my head seem like the proverbial carrot on a stick.

And just as I keep running but never catching up with that picture, perhaps I’m constantly one step behind my motivation to keep going, as well.

All this having been said, or in this case written down, I’m not sure it’s changed much. I was hoping to create some breathing room in my head by cutting and pasting these thoughts from brain to paper, but just now, as I realized it’s five-thirty and time to get something done before I call it a day, that same listlessness returns.

I’m not sure what to do. Probably, it’s a matter of forgetting about that picture for a while and just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Taking it one item at a time. And probably, it’s also a matter of reminding myself that regardless of which item on the to-do list I choose to tackle right now, there’s always tomorrow for the other tasks. I’ll be ‘there’ before I know it.

I hope.

1 comment:

rothko said...

I often feel this way. Like if I tackle this one thing on my to-do list, what else am I NOT doing, and maybe I should be doing that thing instead. And if I let that feeling override, then I wind up with nothing done. But once I delve into one thing, and then another, and I can begin to put a line through some stuff, then it gets easier to focus and I start feeling good.