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organization: thicket style

October 30, 2012

The grant process I just finished showed me how much I’ve been teaching myself without realizing it. Here I thought I’d been futzing around with no direction. That could be a true way to characterize things, although it would also be misleading, because direction isn’t what was missing.

The entire time I’ve been living in Maryland, I’ve felt like Chesapeake Bay was trying to get my attention because it needed something from me. I’ve been going round and round trying to figure out what I could do for Chesapeake Bay. Coming up with nothing that seemed right.

I kept asking the universe for help because I thought, well, I’m stuck in a rut, so maybe someone else will come along and pull me out. And that will give me some insight into what I need to be doing.

That’s not at all how things unfolded. Yes, I suddenly became aware of this grant process, and yes, it was a catalyst for transformation. But no one at the foundation in question knows anything about me. The questions I was asked to answer weren’t particularly pointed.

To be worthy of as much money as is at stake, my thought/feeling process made a quantum leap, which carried me over some kind of mental threshold, which had been acting as a barrier.

In hindsight I can see that I might’ve come up with a good answer much sooner if I’d somehow found the heart of the matter, and worked outward. But of course, I had no idea what the heart of the matter was.

And the beauty of bottom-up/self-assembling/”thicket” organizing is that I don’t have to know anything before I start. Indeed, the process seems to work much more robustly when I don’t have any preconceived notions.

I’ve had all the building blocks near at hand all along. I just wasn’t combining them usefully.

Something I’ve been doing in a completely different context that developed relevant transferable skills? Writing anagram poems. Sometimes I come up with a reconfigured word that seems like utter genius—but the remaining letters can’t be made to spell anything nearly as good, and sometimes can’t be made to spell anything at all. So I persist with the process until I find the combination that really sings. In the first poem, “map en scale”, I wanted lines that that suggested slightly surreal images, and sounded poetic. The structure was thicket like because even though the source words share a certain kind of similarity, which the poem title also evokes, the reader doesn’t know what that similarity is. And it’s not necessary to know what it is to appreciate the poem. The underlying similarity is kind of like cell structure, when you’re actually contemplating internal organs. If I’m looking at my liver or my kidneys, I’m not focusing on whether or not both organs have mitochondria inside doing similar things. They probably do, but that’s not my focus right then.

I got more ambitious with the second anagram poem. The underlying similarity remained, but was narrowed in 2 ways, 1 of which was by only using words that began with P.  Then, as I assembled the groups of words, I realized some of them seemed to fit a theme: water, fish, a boat. What if I kept working at subsequent lines to strengthen that connection to a watery theme? What if I assembled the poem so that this time all the lines were related to each other? That was much harder. But I did come up with something that worked.

The grant application process centers around a creative project that you propose to spend the grant money on. I couldn’t write any of the essays until I knew what my project would be. I kept returning to the idea of Something Environmental. But I also brainstormed other ideas that were more about going back to the fork in the road I faced circa age 15. I was on the cusp of adulthood, and I had two projects through which I intended to set the course of my life. One project was my idea, and I’d been working toward it for three years. The second project was much more open-ended, and suggested by circumstances proposed by my father (of all people). Both projects together were going to be the Beginning of my Glorious Destiny. Both projects were yanked away from me without any warning; one project’s demise was accompanied by a heaping dose of shame. The combined effect was so devastating that I never really recovered from it. When I should’ve been planning for college and a career and Everything Else, I was heartbroken and afraid that nothing I really wanted was possible, so why bother trying? I gave up. I wanted to go back to that feeling of promise, and write a different ending.

During the entire brainstorming process, I didn’t think these competing themes—Environment, and Personal Infrastructure—could come together. But both were really important for me to fully consider. Think through from every angle. For just this one moment in time, put myself first. I thought about this project, pretty much every moment, from October 11 through October 25. In the second week, I started going through my blog posts, looking for ones that would fit the writing sample requirements. I came up with five that showed a range of topics of interest. I swapped out a few.  I began writing notes for things I wanted to cover in the 5 essays, even though I didn’t have a creative plan yet. I began assembling the lists of accomplishments.

I’m amazed that it took me 14 days to come up with my plan. I looked at the issue from every angle I could think of for 4 years and 5 months. What’s so special about 14 days? (Well, they were extremely focused days. I dreamed about these topics. No wonder what else I was doing, I was thinking about this. Every seemingly unrelated issue that arose in my life, I looked at through this lens. Inspiration was bound to strike eventually.) On the other hand, I was looking at it a million different ways—why did it take 2 weeks? That’s where the anagram poems come in. I had to keep combining things until I got the optimal composition. I didn’t want something that was one perfect word, with the rest junk. I wanted the best, most robust, overall combination. I wanted a neighborhood where everybody wants to be together.  No one outshines anyone else. They don’t all agree, but they all respect and like each other.

When I had that, I started writing my essays. And then I realized I needed to rethink the blog posts in my writing sample. One of them was so perfect for feminism and my interest in (making my own) clothes and gender presentation. And yet, in the required format of double-spaced 12 point type, it was 3 pages long, for a section that could not be longer than 10 pages. So I had to take it out.

Three of the four blog posts in the writing sample section were about water; the fourth was about the community I belong most to.

Then I went back through everything I was writing, looking for places I could either modify my current metaphors or insert new ones so they all dealt with specific motifs: sensory, touch, movement, Water. I revised and rewrote the prose so it was as poetic as I could make it.

Late in the last day, I decided to add a budget. That concrete data sharpened my thinking in other places. All the while, I kept in mind the gestalt.

A thicket is complete unto itself. There is no hierarchy. There is no top or bottom, there are just spatial/positional indicators. The architecture is clearly not human designed. It looks random and chaotic, but it isn’t. It’s self organizing, and it’s much more interesting and complex than anything I could have designed from the top down. Because my raw materials and my environment were my partners—we all collaborated until we got a result we’re all happy with.

And because I ran the numbers, I know what’s possible at various levels of budget, including the most likely of not winning the grant at all. My project is still possible. It will just look different; it’ll follow different paths. But that’s true of anything.

This time, unlike earlier iterations of my own unnamed-nebulous project, I have an idea for a job-ish title that is ambiguous enough to still be intriguing. I know what I want. And I have a clear feeling of what might help me get there, and what won’t. I don’t much care what anyone else thinks of any of it.

Having this project in hand is inspiring me to work that much harder at defending my own interpersonal boundaries. Keeping the opinions of others safely outside my head. A thicket can act like armor.

More to follow. . .

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