Five Ways to Work Your Way Out of a Muddle

Late afternoon in the vineyard, Rancho la Zaca
Late afternoon in the vineyard, Rancho la Zaca

You may have noticed (or been relieved) that I’ve stepped aside from blogging, in part to promote The Bee Cottage Story, which is pretty consuming. But also because I’m confused about what to do next. What to say? Where to focus? Who to become? WTF? Do you ever get like that?

All wisdom begins with confusion, a wise friend told me, as I blathered on about how confused I was. I felt myself, alas, to be in a muddle.* Not so much a muddle of my making as one that I simply found myself in. Like I got all ready for a nice trip, knew where I was going, and then pfffwerrt, I got a flat tire in Muddle. And here I am.

Late afternoon in the vineyard, Rancho la Zaca
Late afternoon in the vineyard, Rancho la Zaca

It happens. Once a major objective has been attained (you finally landed that job in marketing, yay!), or a big project been achieved (you chaired the silent auction, bless your heart), then what? God knows there is plenty to keep us busy, but what is to keep us focused and inspired?

     “Don’t look for the answer,” Wise Friend said, “just live in the question.” Ugh. Not what I wanted to hear. She continued, “We forget that we are organic creatures that shift and change by necessity.” Other creatures, caterpillars for example–change dramatically and think nothing of it. A caterpillar does not go, Hey WTF? Is being a butterfly going to fulfill my purpose in life? What about medical school? Should I join the knitting team? The difference between the caterpillar and us is that we are conscious of our states of being (or changing) in ways that can lead us to question or judge it.

     “Just be,” Wise Friend said. You’re stealing my line, I said. I wrote a whole chapter on that in my book, for bee’s sake. It’s part of the reason I named my house Bee Cottage. She was unimpressed. “We all need to understand this is one of the processes of a healthy life. Try stopping a caterpillar from becoming a butterfly. You can’t, anymore than we ourselves can keep from changing.” Yes but the caterpillar

     Another translation of the Buddhist saying is, “Confusion is the mother of wisdom.” As Buddhists believe the source of suffering is attachment, it would follow that our attachment to the confusion, mentally grabbing at it and trying to sort it out, just makes things worse.

     But. At the risk of being pathetically UZ (un-Zen), “just being” feels to me perilously close to “unproductive,” in which case I want to stab myself. I don’t mind not having a plan for dinner (well, I do a little), but I mind like crazy not having a plan for, you know, life. So while I am stuck in Muddle, without a plan, I have indeed come up with a meantime-plan:

  1. 1. Live in the question. “Imagine yourself not in the concrete place of decision-making,” says Wise Friend, “but in the wonderful, fertile place of what-if.” Accept this as a time of seeing and sorting. Poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, advised, “to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.” 
  1. 2. Notice everything. Pay attention to your dreams. Listen to your intuition. If you believe in divine guidance, angels, or signs, pay attention. Know that your subconscious partly determines what draws your attention. You know instinctively what feels right for you and what doesn’t.
  1. 3. Keep a journal. Write in it every morning or night. No pressure or judgment. It doesn’t have to be long or sound pretty. Just jot down what you notice–thoughts, feelings, ideas, and what-ifs, whatever bubbles up. Look back over it occasionally for themes and patterns that emerge. These will give you insight into your next direction.
  1. 4. Be patient, and let your answer come. To paraphrase from my own The Bee Cottage Story, we are so wired in this culture to decide already! Do something! Make it happen! Now! Seriously? Is it life or death? Then hit the pause button. Sometimes not making a decision is the decision for the time being. Go with that until what is right for you appears or arises, which it will do if you’re paying attention. And don’t second-guess it. Inner or divine guidance is short, simple, clear, and non-negotiable.
  1. 5. Create a space to be. The mythologist Joseph Campbell was adamant about the importance of having “a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.” This isn’t something anyone else can tell you. You must learn to read your own compass.

*For those familiar (or not) with  The Bee Cottage Story,  and more importantly its subtitle How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My way Back to Happiness, this is a different muddle 😉

Moody sunset at Rancho la Zaca
Light on the horizon at Rancho la Zaca


  1. Frances, Did you write this just for me? No, of course you did not, but I have been grappling with the same muddle for the last few weeks. What next? Why? Recently wound up many projects, volunteer obligations, both kids launched successfully 3 hours away, hubby not quite ready to retire…several ideas on the shelf but reluctant to click the Go button on any yet… and I don’t know why! I think I will take your advice, especially #2, and listen. Maybe you are one of the voices I was supposed to hear for now! Thank you! Linda

  2. Your sentence, “all wisdom begins with confusion” got me thinking about the etymology of confusion and its possible connection to the wise Chinese philosopher Confucius – Makes sense. And that word Muddle got me thinking that maybe Tolkien should have named his human-inhabited “Middle-earth” Muddle-earth instead – Makes sense. But what really got me thinking is not whether the butterfly is thinking about joining a knitting team, but whether the Silkworm is – Make sense? ;);) I enjoyed your post Frances, as I’m often in a Muddle, but I don’t mind because a Wise Friend once told me, “If you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars.”

    1. Dear Donna, Girl you are on a roll! Cannot imagine with wit and imagination like yours that you are ever in a muddle. Thank you, thank you, and you are exactly right. I wouldn’t miss the stars for anything. Love, FS

  3. Seems to be the theme of the week. I came across this saying (which spoke to me as I needed to hear it) from the Book of Runes – “we do without doing and everything gets done.” Sometimes we just need to pause and be silent in order to hear what’s next.

  4. Frances,
    This is a keeper. We all have times when things can seem hopeless or beyond our capabilities to work through. These tips will help that next go around when I’m in a muddle. 🙂 Thank you so much.

    1. And the funny thing is that just talking about it here already makes it better, or less daunting somehow. Naming a thing gives it presence and power, but it is also a first step to dealing with it? Thank you, dear Karen.

  5. Use Mindful Meditation. I have been taking a course on it. Concentrate on one thing for several dedicated minutes – don’t let your mind wander. Concentrate on your breathing. After your allotted time just sit for several more minutes and let your mind wander where it wants. Write down the wanders and aha you will come up with something. This is good stuff. Try it.

    1. Thank you, Donna, for this great suggestion and for taking the time to write it. I’ll try it! I am a life-long meditator but have not tried this articular technique. “Meditate” should have included in the list, but instead I sort of finessed/implied it with “Create a space to be.” Isn’t it interesting and great that mindfulness practices have come so much into the mainstream. I read that recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the most popular sessions were the ones on mindfulness. Cool, huh?

  6. I love this post! William Bridges calls your Muddle the “Neutral Zone”. I promise you will love his book, Transitions, Making sense of lifes changes. It is a classic that has been around well over 25 years. It will help you better understand your Muddle and feel almost good about it. All the very best to you Frances.

    1. Thank you, dear Jennifer, and I feel better about it already, truly! I am familiar with Bridges’s book but haven’t read it. Will call the bookstore first thing Monday! xo Frances

  7. Beautiful post. I love your honesty. I got in a bit of a muddle after publicizing a business book I wrote. For months, I had a publicist guiding my actions and then, one day, it was just me in a quiet house trying to figure out what to do next. Breathe through it and the next idea will come along. I’m the opposite of zen (is there a neurotic form of buddhism?) but believe whole-heartedly in serendipity.

    And a follow up to The Bee Cottage Story would be divine. Loved that book!

    1. Thank you dear Jen. What is your business book? Do tell! And yes I know about that post-publicist-depression, too! ha! Maybe we could start a group for neurotic Buddhists…I believe in serendipity, too. Blessings, Frances

  8. What if the muddle is our subconscious confusing us on purpose, making us slow it down a bit, take a rest and get ready for the next big thing? Then whammo! When the idea hits you will be ready to take it on full steam ahead! Personally I am feeling daunted by all I know I want to do, and I need to muster the energy I need to do it! So I am glad for those rest periods! Peaks and troughs….

    1. Dearest Merrill, I think you are exactly 100% spot-on. To continue with the caterpillar analogy, you are saying to enjoy the cocoon. After all, what’s not to love about a cocoon, right? As long as it’s tastefully decorated… Love to you, and thanks, Frances

  9. Hi Frances,
    I’d like to encourage you to spend time in the Bible daily – there you will find answers. Enjoy your day!

  10. Well, I know for me, I need a getaway. A trip to NYC, alone, usually jump starts the under-surface creativity that is wallowing. I go in search of the inspiration needed to start writing but often return with so many disjointed thoughts it takes months to sort them all out. It’s a viscious cycle, really. Midwestern girl longs for adventure while, at the age of 60, the girl sadly knows adventure has long passed her by. (I know, I know. Sixty is the new 40 or something like that. Tough birthday, this one.)

  11. Well, gosh, Frances. You always hit the nail on the head and I ALWAYS get some sort of guidance from you. I don’t know that I’m in a muddle, but more of a suspended state. Suspended in that I want to do something, but don’t know what so I just hover. Please don’t give up giving us poor unguided souls your thoughts. They always make me think, hence, make a move. To be continued…….

  12. Frances,
    I simply love what you’ve said and it is wise beyond words. Once I got past the need to be “doing” instead of “being”, life got incredibly better. That is no quick trip either so infinite patience for myself was required. Life is so much better today with out all the constant “shoulds” and “oughts”. I’m much kinder to myself (self care) and less critical & judgemental of myself and others. I laugh more and am lots more fun to be around. :)))
    I’m 62 so it took me awhile.

  13. I really enjoyed your honest and thought provoking post about working your way out of the muddle. All five of your points were on target, especially about waiting for divine intervention. An old Amish saying is “Around and around we go, while the truth sits in the middle and knows”. It’s about how we get to that truth that counts.

  14. Your last post made me recall a comment I recently overheard- which was that she had never learned a thing from joys but always learned from problems. That was such a profound message for me at the time and felt that I had meant to hear it and put it to use in my own life.
    Your posts are always welcome in my inbox.

  15. Frances, I’m not sure you truly accept how much your audience enjoys & appreciates your quiet words, paintings & pictures where you give us quiet introspections to ourselves. Bee Cottage was wonderful for you and your followers. Don’t let us distract you with interviews & expectations. It’s so easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Go back to your soul with confidence & clean breath & faith that purpose will elvove. Don’t rush with expectations just accept gratitude. I have faith in the beauty you give, wish I could give it back with hugs, smiles & faith, Anne

    1. Dearest Anne, not only have you made my day, but you’ve fed my soul – and doubtless the souls of all who have read this. For do we not all wish the same for all those we love — and even those we don’t know we love yet. Thank you, love, Frances

  16. Hi Frances. I also have had to “rest in the questions,” so to speak. I like that. But here’s what the that still small voice said to me as I wrote in my journal one question after another: ” I go before you. I know all the answers. You-Leslie- just do the NEXT THING and the answers will all come in My perfect timing.” Isaiah 30:15 has been my mantra-“In quietness and trust shall be my strength!” Then I looked around at all the “answers” around me, some I hadn’t even known I would need! For you one of thoses sweet answers, is that beautiful bee book of yours! I appreciate this post! I know I am not alone in muddle land. (-; xo

    1. Yes you have, Ms. Leslie, and from what I can tell you have lived them with kindness and grace. Thank you for this beautiful advice, and that ol’ Isaiah knew a thing or two, too, didn’t he. Love, Frances

  17. “…join the Knitting Club”. Wait, what knitting club?! 🙂 I jest but I am currently knitting and sewing and embroidering my way through a muddle too. Keeping my hands busy frees up my mind to wander. Sitting still? Sure, sometimes. Not having a life plan? You must be kidding me!

    You’re a wise old soul, Frances. Best to you always.

    1. There you go! I wasn’t kidding about knitting! Or doing whatever brings joy or mindfulness. And there you are creating beauty in the process – a purpose in itself! Thank you dear Lisa, Frances

  18. Darling Frances ~ Oh, how you made my day! After watching the beginnings of Bee Cottage in a favorite magazine, I was so delighted to finally receive the completed book. It led me to your blog, where I found kindness, warmth, and encouragement from both you and your readers. March brings with it an anniversary “muddle” of loss: health/relationship/career/home … I’ve been feeling as if I’ve done nothing but tread water for eons. Thank you ever so much for this post. Perhaps it will lead to a new beginning.
    ~ In Friendship, Terrie xo

    1. Dearest Terrie, and thank you for making my day. Knowing my little book and blog have brought you kindness, warmth, and encouragement brings the same to me. I am sorry for your anniversary of sadness and will say a prayer for your heart to ease and for you to find a way to that new beginning. I have a hunch it is right there in front of you. Good luck, and keep in touch. Love, Frances

  19. I have just finished The Bee Cottage story in one sitting ! It was delightful ! Thankyou …I also found myself single after a 28 year marriage and a little bit “adrift”! My daughter in law insisted I look at a little century. Ontario Cottage that had just come on the market, it was love at first sight …it had such good energy and was so cosy …985 square feet …just perfect ! It became my refuge happy place . Now 10 years later my new husband is sharing it and we are making it our perfect retirement home . So glad I found your book …thankyou again !

    1. Oh Jaye! Thank you! It truly warms my heart to know you have found your happy place and that other happiness was not far behind. Blessings to you, Frances

  20. Hi Frances,

    I just finished The bee cottage story a few minutes ago, and loved everything about it. It was light, fun, and I enjoyed your subtle sense of humor. Just what I needed. Your decorating tips were fun to see, and your writing style was quite enjoyable to read. We live in a three bedroom home which was originally my husbands. We have redone a number of rooms, and now you’ve inspired me to consider starting on a second go around. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Dear Cathy, it is always music to my ears to hear my little book has brought joy and inspiration, and a giggle or two. Thank you so much for your kind words and your thoughtfulness in writing. Good luck with your round 2 😉 Warmly, Frances

    1. Thank you dear EBH. Funnily enough no sooner did I write this than the fog began to clear. I think that’s how it works. And treating ourselves to a bit of is always a good idea, too Frances

    2. Thank you dear EBH. Funnily enough no sooner did I write this than the fog began to clear. I think that’s how it works. And treating ourselves to a bit of is always a good idea, too Frances

      1. Thank you dear EBH. Funnily enough no sooner did I write this than the fog began to clear. I think that’s how it works. And treating ourselves to a bit of is always a good idea, too Frances

      2. Thank you dear EBH. Funnily enough no sooner did I write this than the fog began to clear. I think that’s how it works. And treating ourselves to a bit of is always a good idea, too. 😉 Frances

  21. I painted my front door and nearby pair of shutters mountain laurel and I painted the inside of my front door not Galapagos Turquoise but a very close to it shade called Jade Garden – and in high gloss – so dramatic – after reading your book I have new respect for the color green.
    I loved the book and looked at the pictures over and over – so inspiring. And as far as muddle goes, old Japanese saying is: chop wood, carry water (not literally but you know what I mean) while awaiting your next “message”, inspiration, guidance, etc.

    1. Dear Suzanne, I bet your house looks terrific; in fact I kinda know so because you are an artist. And a philosopher. You are exactly right about the chopping wood and carrying water, and that is just what I’ve been doing. It works. Love and thanks to you, Frances

  22. Dear Frances,
    I found your book on display at Marders along with some beautiful jars of local honey. I took both home. The honey satisfied the sweet tooth and your book the creative soul. Thank you for sharing your journey. I’m sure that the next leg of the trip will be amazing!

    1. Dear Gail, thank you for this and how lovely of you to write! How inspiring is YOUR own beautiful blog and work, which I am so happy discover and know my readers will be, too. Kind regards, Frances

  23. I just finished the Bee Cottage Story….couldn’t put it down. Have a similar parallel myself; lost the love of my life and bought a cottage that needed LOTS-of-love. As with you, it was the perfect therapy. Seventeen years later, I’m still working on my garden!! Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life, truly enchanting. As you say, Bee happy. Leslie

    1. Dear Leslie,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I sm so glad my little book was meaningful to you, and more importantly that you have found your own meaning in it.
      Blessings to you,

  24. Hi Frances, Jodi Hoffmann here. We met last May at Marge Piccini’s Inspire Conference. I felt instantly drawn to you; DON’T WORRY, not in a stalker kind of way, but more in a kindred spirits kind of way. As a result of your inspiring keynote speech to the group, I signed up to work with Marge in her Catapult Program. What I discovered about myself kinda surprised me, but it explained why I felt drawn to you. I have been in a “muddle” for years, and after reading your book, The Bee Cottage Story, and working with Marge, I knew instantly that I wanted to buy and renovate a whole house. My Ah-Ha was (similar to yours) that renovating a house would be a mirror image of my own internal transformation. So THANK YOU for your courageous and inspiring words!! xox, Jodi

  25. Hi Frances- LOVE this piece, especially the Rilke quote, which would be my tattoo of choice ( IF I were an inker!)
    We are going to meet 6/1; after reading some of your blog posts, I already feel like I have a Soul Sister waiting for me in CA!

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