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  • Life Lessons from Tangled Jewelry

    You’d really think I’d know better than to do this by now, but recently I had to move a couple dozen necklaces and bracelets — my own, not anything for sale — and I was in a rush, so instead of packing them individually, I just threw them all in a freezer bag. It would be a problem for mañana.
    Of course, when mañana came,  the strange force that causes headphones to tangle in a bag no matter what had transformed my necklaces and bracelets into a writhing tangled knotted mess of chain and cord. I put this problem off for a few more mañanas but, you know, I like wearing jewelry. So finally I dumped it out and looked at what I’d wrought. 
    At first I considered tossing the mess in the trash -- this would be an opportunity to make all new necklaces! It would perhaps be an excellent creative exercise, but one I have no time for and also, please. So I took a breath, and a slow look at the mess, began to see what looked like the easiest path in. I found one bracelet whose path was easy enough to trace and unravel, and I got it free. Then I found another, and another, and eventually I was left in the core of the deepest tangle — it looked like some malevolent force had purposefully twirled and twined three necklaces together (how does this happen?). But again, I looked for the easiest part of the tangle to smooth, and very soon my work was done. 
    It struck me as I was doing this this was a metaphor for complicated and intractable problems in life, and offered lessons that I need to remember. When facing a challenge, the first step is to consider the various ways of reframing the problem, which is a fancy way of saying: what would happen if you didn’t solve the problem at all? Yes, this is procrastination, but that does have its benefits.  Sometimes, very occasionally, doing nothing is the right move and problems solve themselves. (I once had a terrible view from the kitchen in a rental apartment, and considered various methods of camouflage — adhering interesting shapes cut out of acetate to the window was one — but I never got to it and then we moved, which was a much better solution.) 
    But usually things have to be resolved without a moving van, so the next step is breathing plus observation, and then it’s looking for the easiest part of the problem to tackle first. I don’t know about you, but I tend to dwell either on the entire gestalt of a large problem, or on the most difficult part. I tend to forget that working on smaller easier problems affects the larger task at hand, so that making progress along the edges eventually makes the problem at the heart of the matter easier to resolve.  
    I find this easier to remember in projects with clear outcomes. For instance, in my writing work, I’m well aware that I can’t can’t write an article in one fell swoop, but I can read what’s been written on the topic before, make a list of sources and find their contact information, schedule interviews, make an outline.  
    I know I can’t make a bracelet, ba-bam, but I can anneal some metal, cut it to the right size, drill holes, and so on. (If you’re a David Allen devotee, I guess this is the “next action” way of thinking.)
    It’s harder for me to keep this in mind in the bigger mess of life, in facing problems without a clear outcome, or that are outside of my direct control.  That could be facing a diagnosis, it could be buying or selling real estate, it could be living with the reality of President Trump, it could be  — and I’m just spitballing here — spending a few years being legally harassed by a human bleeding hemorrhoid.  
    In those circumstances, it can feel kind of useless and besides the point to fix a small problem — cleaning the bathroom mirror, getting a manicure, applying oil to a screeching hinge. But untangling the little messes does somehow make the larger ones easier to manage.  
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