Structure, Cage or Bones?

I’m a little at a loss these days, dealing with the delightful problem of feeling better. Seriously, it’s a rather strange and foreign feeling after over 6 months of decrepitude.

My current dillemma is one of how to rebuild my life, and into what? I have so many interests and things pulling at me, I’m trying to remember: while I can do pretty much anything, I can’t do EVERYTHING. I’ve been around long enough to know just making choices based on what’s most on fire at any given point doesn’t always further what’s really important. So yeah, I know that. I’ve spent a goodly amount of time these days thinking about what my priorities are in this current iteration of my life. I know the what, but I’m not sure about the how. I seem to want to set aside some blocks of time for my various priorities, to see that my time gets spent there, but I also recognize I’ve created the flexibility I have in my life for a reason. Sometimes my body says no; it doesn’t care about no frickin schedule, there’s no point in me getting uptight about that.

And I move in a delicate and complex dance with my muse; when I try to force myself to write, I often write cerebral monkey-mind driven pap, and I don’t want to waste a url on that. The flip side of that is the period last summer where I posted every day put me in a space where I wrote things I never even knew were in me. It was an inspiring and transformative time. On the other side of that (flip again!) the strain of that imposed structure ultimately lead to the kind of cognitive burnout that left me with panic attacks and unable to fathom negotiating the complexities of downtown traffic (on FOOT for crying out loud!). So, yeah, I’d like to not do a repeat of that.

So, I’m putting it out there as a question to you all: you contract workers, creative types, beautiful weirdos who are bucking the system and making your own rules. What rules do you make for yourself, what kind of life do you build when you can build any life you want? Hm, that last is maybe a question for us all, really.

When is structure the thing that constricts and impedes you, and when is it the bones of what you can build on?

22 thoughts on “Structure, Cage or Bones?

  1. Interesting ponderings. I’m going to take this away and think some more but I wanted to get something down right away because if I don’t I’ll forget my first thoughts about this.

    Recently I’ve felt that my job is a curious combination of cage and bones. It is a cage because I’m a cog in a huge organization that seems to be going in a direction that sometimes devalues the cogs. I’ve learned that my position is being reclassified into a lower pay and status bracket. So if I wanted to switch jobs it would be financial suicide to do so. And apparently for similar jobs across Canada, Alberta pays the highest salary. So that also limits me from moving to another part of Canada. On the other hand, similar jobs in the US pay about $15-20K more. But of course there are other factors playing when I think about moving to the States.

    My job is “bones” because I work within a team that allows me to work to my potential and creativity using all my knowledge and skills and also challenges me to develop and grow. We have great fun doing it too. Which says a lot.

    My dilemma comes in that I’ve come into a relationship which tempts me to think about retiring early to spend more time having adventures with my new partner. And my financial advisor tells me that at my current status, I cannot do it unless I change one of the variables like increasing my income.

    So I’m in a situation where my job is both cage and bones at the moment. And rethinking and processing those thoughts are a very current topic for me.

    As to advice to you Valerie, I’m going to take some time to think about that before I add my 2 cents.


  2. I think it’s a little of both for me. I’ve realized I need some structure – the bones – to get things done in a timely fashion. I do feel that too much structure puts me in a cage. I like that I have a little flexibility in my hours at work. As far as my contract work, I know that I need to set my alarm for a certain time, and that I should start by a set time or I end up wasting the day away. Getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee or matcha, having a little breakfast, and getting started usually sets me up to get stuff done. It’s nice to have the flexibility to not have to be doing work at home by 8:30 am. I also have started to set the rule that I take time off on the weekend unless I have looming deadlines with my contract work. I’m still working on the idea of what kind of life I want to build when I can build (somewhat) any life I want. I say somewhat because I’m still confined by a regular job in combination with contract work.


  3. The way I look at it, you guys stress too much. You’re trying to become happier by being more successful. Fuck success; concentrate on happy.

    Here’s how I do it:

    1. Find the physical space that you have the most control over;
    2. Put a book in that space;
    3. Write/paint/burn/cut/colour/smear/etc something happy.

    Then repeat.


    1. Well said sir!

      The one thing I’m becoming really aware of this go-round is the inverse relationship I have between how busy I am an how fulfilled I feel. Doing “more” & success by other people’s standard does not make me happy
      …at all.


      1. Here’s a cool TED Talk on positive psychology by Shawn Achor:

        He says only 10% of our happiness comes from the external world. The other 90% is how we internally perceive that world. He nicely sums up 5 ways we can rewire our brains to be happier:

        1. Write down 3 gratitudes every day for 21 days.
        2. Journal daily about one positive thing that’s happened to you in the last 24-hours.
        3. Exercise.
        4. Meditate.
        5. Perform random acts of kindness.

        He’s got a book that I hear is pretty awesome.


        1. Thanks for sharing this inspiring talk. The humour that is infused in the talk also reminds us to not take our lives too seriously. I do three out of the five things he suggests. Maybe that has helped me have a better outlook on life. Guess I should try the other two and see if it makes a difference too.


        2. Great video. I don’t agree with ‘fuck success’. I think if someone narrowly focus’ on what people think is success, there is a good chance they will fail or be miserable in its pursuit but having success is generally better then not having it. Mike Row from dirty jobs argues that those who live life as it comes, work hard and take advantage of opportunities before them are often happy. I never feel more invigorated then on a weekend while doing a physical job.

          Since I work on a computer, I incorporate labour in other parts of my life such as; soap making, manually washing dishes and laundry, tending my plants, sewing, bread making etc. I don’t do enough of this sort of thing though and at some point I will want to own my own property and tools and more of my time. This requires some amount of success.


          1. I agree with you Chris B regarding the “fuck success” Of course it depends on what definition one uses for describing success. Success to me is being happy in whatever you do. That happiness will spread not only in one’s own live but also in the lives of others around us. taking pleasure in the day to day things is really important. That’s where we will find the things to write down in our gratitude journal – the 3 things from the video Corporal shared with us.

            I work with special needs kids and every day there is something to be grateful for. Even the fact that their families want to bring them to us or have us go to their homes or schools to work with their kids is something to be grateful for. Even on the most challenging days when all the kid ever says is “no!” I’m grateful that they can even voice their need. It’s frustrating at times but that doesn’t mean that I can’t find gratitude for this opportunity.

            So I guess the bottom line is to find the things that make you happy and do them. Find the people that make you happy and spend time with them.


            1. So we can learn what makes others happy and try it out but in the end the environment and mental state we need for being happy is going to be unique. If happiness were easy, we’d all have it all the time.


          2. It’s probably worth defining what I mean as success if I’m gonna say (or agree with) “fuck success.”

            Success has its joys to be sure. When I try to do something 15 frickin times and finally succeed on the 16th attempt, that is REALLY bloody rewarding, and definitely worth pursuing (and persisting for). Success! Huzzah!

            The illusion of what it means to be successful, as if some sort of life is to be more sought after than another, to pursue being “a successful person” as opposed to living whatever life brings you joy… well, fuck that!

            That’s my spin anyway. The Corporal may have other ideas.

            And yes, Chris, I too love a dirty job. The work that I’ve had to come home from and shower has always been more rewarding than the job I’ve had to kick off insensible shoes from. YAY DIRT!


        3. dear Valerie, Corporal, Donna, Chris, Patti,

          Interestingly, I didn’t read these questions as being about how to be happy. For me, the activities of life are water to swim in. Minutes of happiness come. I could be washing dishes for a job, counting my pennies, living in a basement, and I would still have half the happiness as being on holiday, at least half. Contrast being with people I love with not seeing anyone, might make a maximum of 4 times as much happiness, more difference but not so much more (to my math-experienced mind).

          (Unlike some people, I think misery, starvation, abuse, war, etc, does take away at least 90% of happiness. It’s not mind over matter, it’s not all within our control.)

          Building a life and making choices has value. Not so much for happiness, as for love, contribution to the future, selfcare, self-expression, creativity, and the siren calls of dreams.

          Very interesting!


          1. “Building a life and making choices has value. Not so much for happiness, as for love, contribution to the future, selfcare, self-expression, creativity, and the siren calls of dreams.” This sounds like a very happy life indeed. And if you are able to follow this then those around you will feel your sparkle.

            And you are right in that although having people who love you and you love around makes for happiness, it is entirely possible to be happy on one’s own too.

            As to the things that spread negative stuff that we don’t have control over; our power is to not accept it as the status quo, to learn from it, to teach from it and maybe, just maybe the future will be better. To think otherwise is indeed paralyzing and leads to despair and happiness being annihilated. I want to believe that planting seeds of good no matter how small will affect change. I’d rather be that way then to succumb to hopelessness.

            Hopelessness is a cage.


            1. Thanks, Donna.

              For me, the siren call of dreams goes dead quiet on a regular basis. It sucks. Usually the same dreams come back, fortunately. I find, a day or 3 of losing all hope is not a cage. It’s terrifying and horrid, paralyzing except for the guiderails of schedule and companions. But it’s possible to take a few steps, or get by on momentum.

              Faith is my best stop-gap substitute for hope. Unfortunately, it’s hard to think or notice thoughts in hopelessness, hard to see turns in the path or the next cairn. Or maybe dullness and hopelessness are separate but simultaneous trends. Then it gets worse day by day, until it gets better. I am repeatedly astonished by how much I forget, or how horrid it is. No advice, please.

              This is why I want more (general, personally tested) rules! Now someone tell a joke!
              Warm wishes from me


    2. I never said that I wasn’t happy. In fact, I’m probably the happiest and relaxed I’ve ever been. I was just saying that an increase in salary would allow me to retire early and spend more quality time with my companion. And that is the cage for me.

      Valerie rightly told me in a twitter message that the other cage that I’ve put myself in is to perceive that the life I have now is some how lacking. That I do agree with. She reminded me that I have a pretty awesome life right now. And instead of wasting energy on trying to figure out how to make it better, I could better spend the time enjoying what I’ve got now.


  4. So following the various threads of comments Valerie; What brings you the most happiness? Is there a string of activities that you cannot do without in your day/week? What are the activities that you crave when you aren’t doing them? the answer to those questions could be your starting point in deciding what are the bones you build your life on. The leftover activities might be the cage you can leave behind. And that’s not to say that the bones can’t change from time to time, or that the cage can’t ever become bones.

    It sort of like Lego. You can build one beauty of a structure one time, but using the same blocks in another configuration at another time, you can create a whole new world. That’s the timelessness of Lego. That’s why it’s a classic. With a few basic choices the creative possibilities are endless.

    Your life is like that Valerie. You have built a rich base from which to start creating something extraordinary and still be able to change it in the future to another fantastic world.


    1. Like you, I never said I wasn’t happy. I’m actually rather gloriously so. I’m just feeling a little unfocused. Like your lego, I’ve got all these lovely pieces all scattered about (I love the potential in that!) and wondering what to put together next, what that looks like.

      I like yjanti’s rules below. I’ve already developed some similar. They all mostly fall under the heading of be excellent to myself. …and I think that may be an entire blog post of its own so I won’t fill this comment box. But they are the first blocks I’m clicking into place as I rebuild. And making sure I’ve got lots of spaces, don’t fill everything with blocks, seems like wiseness to me.


      1. dear folks,

        Valerie, I await your promised rules! Donna, I am sure you look good in colours, as well as in black. I was playing duplo (/lego) with my 2.5 year and 8 month neices yesterday. My neice made ducks. Then the ducks were kissing.

        Free muffins at school today. I’d rather write 3 things I’m looking forward to than 3 gratitudes, mostly because I start to feel formulaic (and caged!) after all the times I’ve written gratitudes already. Springy wishes to you all.


      2. Leaving spaces in your lego structure – I love those little windows that give your a view through to the other side and actually another perspective because you have to focus through the window. Too many spaces and the structure is weak but just enough makes the building infinitely more interesting. I’m a great believer in the beauty of negative space. Some of my most favourite artists are the ones who play with negative spaces. So your comment “Don’t fill everything with blocks” is wise.


  5. I could use some more rules. One rule I like is, go outside. (Sub-rule: go to the river.) Another rule I trust is, when I start to have bad dreams, get out of bed. Then there’s the check Valerie’s website rule.

    In terms of muse and fancy footwork, I learn and say completely different things when I’m journalling, emailing, writing letters, talking, and perhaps even when writing in crayon. (If I write affirmations, I use pencilcrayon.)

    Are you sure the cognitive shutdown and panic attacks were a result of posting every day? (Horrible either way, ow.)


    1. Hey Jyanti,
      I like your extra rules. I’m like you – finding happiness going outdoors. It’s one reason I have to get my mountain and lakes fix at least once a year.

      And I love your use of pencil crayon for affirmations. There is a self help author who uses vibrant colours to write her books. You get happy just seeing the print. You don’t even have to read the content. I think colours speak to our inner self and can lift our spirits nonverbally.

      Although I know I look good in black, I’ve recently chosen to pick clothing with colour now. I think my day to day outlook changes with the colours I choose and vice versa sometimes.


  6. Okay, as a general comment to all these comments, I have to say how floored I am by the beautiful tangents my thoughts on structure have branched into discussions on happiness, the meaning of success, gratitude, acceptance, and the value of just digging in to do something physical!

    You guys RAWK! And bless all my beautiful pages with your sincerity, openness and earnest efforts to just be whoever you are! I’ve smiled and laughed and nodded along with all you have written.

    When I wonder who I am and what I do in this world, one of my certainties is I’m meant to be here, to create spaces where conversations like this happen. This, more than anywhere else is where I find MY fulfilment.

    Thank you!


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