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Papergirl Flow

Healthy space-out: What makes you forget what time it is?

I fold newspapers in the still dark morning. I fold them in three and snap a rubber band around the middle.

I am the first in our neighborhood to know that Mount St. Helens has erupted, that Ronald Reagan has won the presidency by a landslide, that John Lennon has been murdered.

My fingers black with ink, I pack the newspapers into the metal basket of my sparkly blue three-speed bicycle. I pedal fast. I spread the news.

As I approach each address on my route, I reach backward, grab a single newspaper, toss it onto a painted porch.

If I pedal fast enough, I'm riding down Alma Street just as the freight train comes--a Southern Pacific headed north toward San Francisco. I race the freight. I pedal faster and faster, but that train always wins.

Sometimes when I'm running late, I don't catch sight or sound of the freight train at all. Maybe I've slept in, or maybe I've taken too long with the folding. I've pedaled too slow, or I've stopped to let some angry-sleepy customer yell at me about bad throws or bad news. The sun has crested the horizon. Now the train I hear is an Amtrak commuter barreling southward, bound for San Jose. I have to finish my route.

I am ten years old. I earn eighty dollars a month. I pedal faster. I spread the news.

"That is happiness," Willa Cather wrote, "to be dissolved into something complete and great."

As my adolescence dawns, I will find other work. I will steam iron designer blouses for $3.65 an hour and I will burn my fingers, leaving scars smooth and white. I will serve sickly-sweet frozen yogurt to bone-thin women who ask "how many calories per serving?" and throw it up in the bathroom. I will clean those bathrooms. I will count the hours. I will believe it when I learn that 80% of Americans hate their jobs. I will be those Americans. But I will remember my paper route and the way that the folding and the rubber-banding and the pedaling and the throwing felt like some divinely-choreographed dance. I'll remember the way it felt to know that my work mattered, to believe it was something complete and great. I'll remember the dreamy stories I told myself even as I raced that Southern Pacific freight. I'll remember the taste of ink on my fingers. And even though I won't be able to fully imagine what I want to be when I grow up, I'll know I want work like that--work I can dissolve into like night into the dawn.

Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls it "flow," the mental state in which we are fully immersed in what we're doing--energized focus, full involvement. And it's wildly important for our mental health. That feeling comes when we strike a balance between the challenge of an activity and our skill to perform it, when the rhythm of the work itself feels in sync with our pulse, when we know that what we're doing matters.

When researchers Maria Allison and Margaret Duncan studied the role of flow in women's lives, they also came up with the notion of "antiflow." Antiflow was associated with repetitive household tasks, repetitive tasks at work, unchallenging tasks, and work we see as meaningless.

Life coach Martha Beck asks new potential clients, "Is there anything you do regularly that makes you forget what time it is?" Probably not that many people say "doing the dishes."

I asked women: "What were you doing most recently when you lost track of time?"

Here's what they said:

"Working at my computer. It happens often these days. Busy busy."

"Meditating at Amma's ashram."

"When I was surfing in Santa Monica"

"I was immersed in a video game fantasy land, running from town to town protecting innocent villagers from evil ugly guys with swords."

"Swimming laps."

"Trying to figure out a song on my guitar."

"When I was drinking whiskey last night and playing with helium balloons."

"I was drawing and painting."

"I wanted to say having sex, but the truth is I was writing. I was writing a review of Absent-cause zine I just got in the mail, and I forgot I put on water to boil for tea, and the water boiled out and the pot got ruined and I started to smell it and I was like ‘Oh Geez.' I often lose track of time when I get into writing."

"Gardening... into dusk and perhaps dark."

"HA! EVERYTHING. I hardly ever HAVE track of time!"

Work or play, is there anything you do that makes you forget what time it is?



Adapted from a chapter in Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness