The Problem of Saturday

Even before I was old enough to have a job in the traditional sense, working on the weekends, particularly Saturdays, was a concept I knew well. Many a Saturday morning, I woke up at a decent time (not by my own accord), perused the “to-do list” written by my mother, and with my sisters we decided who would do which chore by putting our initials next to said household job. And thus every Saturday, or thereabouts, we would go about the business of keeping house – we learned how to do laundry, clean bathrooms, meal prep, weed flower pots, sweep and scrub the kitchen floor (on our knees, the purported “right” way), clean litter boxes, clean our rooms (gasp!!!!). There’s no doubt that I’m thankful for learning how to complete these very necessary tasks, but it’s partially for this reason that up until recently, I could not relax on a Saturday.

I learned at an early age to tie my self-worth to how productive I was.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

Since childhood, I’ve had my share of jobs that aren’t your typical nine-to-five – working customer service at a grocery store, teaching music lessons, helping manage a private tutoring center, teaching night classes. All those positions demanded either odd hours that usually also occurred on the weekends.

For about a decade, I trained for races. Generally these plans indicated that a weekend morning would be a “long run” day, and with church responsibilities on Sunday, that meant that my long run fell on Saturday mornings. And not only that, but I felt to get the most out of my one day completely off from responsibility, I’d get up really early to take advantage of those morning twilight hours and get my run in. It became a ritual.

Now as a mid-30-something adult, for the first time in my life I have had a job whose responsibilities are contained within the weekdays. Well, at least those are the boundaries I’ve set for myself. Millions of teachers across America work the weekends. I don’t. I can’t if I want to stay in this profession for life. And I do.

And then in addition to having only one job that I worked Monday through Friday, a couple things happened that began to open up my Saturday to really being a day to do whatever, whenever: a running sabbatical and lockdowns due to COVID-19.

The year of 2020, I decided to not run, at least not train for any big races. I say that like it was really my decision, but my body was actually screaming for a break. So I took a break. And then COVID hit, and suddenly we went from being busy with something most weekends, especially on Sundays, to having wide open free time on the weekends. It was (is?) awesome. It was something I did not realize I needed, and it was also something I realize I could have done for myself without the help of a global pandemic.

I would say to no minor degree that I have reclaimed my Saturdays. Without the frenzy of church activities on Sunday plus grocery shopping and meal prep that has to happen, things can be spread out over the entire weekend. I can relish in the early morning hours of Saturday (like I am right now) without feeling guilty about not doing chores, or going for a long run.

Reclaiming a true Sabbath day (which can look different for everyone, and does not have to be a traditional weekend day) was not easy. For a long time I dealt with guilt of not doing the things I’d grown so accustomed to for years. It was like muscle memory was taking over my body, and unless I was getting things done around the house or running, my body just didn’t know what to do.

So I rode out the discomfort and began doing, actually, the things I wanted to do on a Saturday in order to usher in the weekend. This includes, generally, having coffee at home (not running out to get it, although sometimes this happens), taking the quiet morning to finish a book (I finished The Invisible Life of Addie Larue and A Court of Wings and Ruin this way), reading the paper, or now that the weather is getting warmer, sitting outside to watch the sun rise over the Susquehanna River.

These activities are different, and there are a number you could substitute in, but they are all similar in that I am present for them. In the book Laziness Does Not Exist, Dr. Devon Price draws on current research to describe how to “savor,” defined as “the process of deeply and presently enjoying a positive experience.” This is in contrast to “dampening,” which makes an activity seemed rushed or only valued because of what it produces.

…being achievement-obsessed actually makes life less rewarding and enjoyable, because we never get to truly savor or appreciate what we’ve done or where we’ve been.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

I think that’s what had happened to me – I became “achievement-obsessed.” I grew up in a family that had to hustle to put food on the table. My mom went to school full time, my dad worked on cars for extra money – and it wasn’t for fun money, either. It was our ethos, our identity, to be a family who knew how to do lots of things, do them well, and do them efficiently. That is a skill valued in our culture, and it served me for a period of time, but it doesn’t have to extend to all areas and years of my life going forward. Price says that “…weeks, months, or even years can all blend together in a haze of anxiety and obligation” – do I want to spend the next 40+ years of my life in this state? Surely not.

I think (and hope) that a global pandemic has taught us all a few things we can learn from. For me, it was how to rest, relax, and recharge without guilt. Of course, this requires saying no, something I’ve been thinking about and practicing for several years now. I’m happy to say that saying no is almost my default mode.

I, for one, will never go back to filling my calendar to the brim with no room to breathe. Of course, there will be busy times – life and work are not static. But “wow, this week was busy” will not be what I say on my way home from work every Friday. I don’t want to “work for the weekend,” as American as that is. I want to see a new American cultural norm – one where yes, people work hard and efficiently, but also set boundaries that are respected so that they can rest and do the other things they enjoy – spend time with family, cook good food, go boating, go fishing, go shopping, camping, whatever – and do those things without guilt or getting work email notifications in the meantime.

One sign to me that I’ve been successful at reclaiming my Saturdays is that not only do I have time and mental energy to read, but to actually analyze and evaluate what I read. For some books, I pause to take notes. I think about what I read, and change my perspective and add new knowledge that will really stick. When I’m reading fiction or fantasy, I can savor the story and immerse myself with the characters. It’s enjoyable.

The time to reclaim our Saturdays is now, folks. If we don’t choose to do it and find our own ways of working in some relaxation and reprieve, other things will do it for us; namely, sickness, injury, and burnout.

My constant companion(s)

Mental illness is a bitch. She’s the shadow behind you when you look in the mirror. She’s the one who whispers, “I’ll always be with you.” And she’s not wrong.

I had a stark realization that this will forever be with me. I can’t shake it. You name it, I’ve tried everything. Prayer. Medication. Meditation. Yoga, all kinds. Therapy. Hot baths. Cold showers. Running marathons. Running in the woods. Retreating from the world. Writing my thoughts with pen and paper. Turning up the music so loud I can feel it in my bones. Playing “Moonlight Sonata” with all my heart and strength. Focusing on work. Distracting myself with alcohol, sex, TV. Watching sunrises and letting the hope of a new day dawn. Scanning sunsets for ways to make the light last longer so I don’t have to start over.

I guess there are things I haven’t tried. Drugs. Cigarettes. Sleeping around. But I know better than to dabble in those painful pleasures. There’s an indelible line that I won’t cross, a glass wall. I’ve been observant enough to see others go down that road, and to then see the pieces of themselves that come out on the other side.

When I was a young teenager, when all these ups and downs were new, the roller coaster was admittedly a little intoxicating. I felt such strong feelings as the pendulum swung and caught me in its arc. Back then I thought it wouldn’t last forever. That it was part of adolescence, a rite of passage that a percentage of people went through. It wasn’t treated seriously, and I surrendered myself to the god of achievement. I flayed my heart open on its altar, all for a chance at acceptance. And it delivered, until it didn’t.

As a young adult, freshly and acutely aware of my responsibility to the world, I realized that the dark clouds weren’t going away. Oh, I desperately wanted them to. I thought there would be a wind that would finally blow them away. I was taught that if I prayed enough, had enough faith, really truly believed that God could heal me, that it would be gone. But I still trusted in science, in sound logic, in the words of people who were smart and got degrees in things like medicine and counseling.

I opened myself up to a counselor at the health center at my university. I tried Prozac and then Celexa after Prozac gave me crazy nightmares. Finding a medication that worked was not easy, but it was worth it for the relief I felt was coming. There was a moment where I thought, “Will I have to take these for the rest of my life?” A big component of the depression and anxiety back then was situational. If only I could get into some new situations, things would be better.

Situations arose, but not necessarily good ones. Depression and anxiety found me in the valleys of military life and infertility and losing loved ones. Anxiety found me at their gravesides, worried about my fate, wondering how their genetics might live on in me. Still, I thought I could pray it away. Or that if I could just get through the grief, happiness and freedom from illness would be waiting on the other side.

I’m here to tell you that they’re still here, those long-suffering companions of mine. Maybe a therapist would say that I shouldn’t personify them, that doing so gives them power. But they’re part of me. I see my reflection in the way they enter my mind, color my vision, convince me of half-truths. They already have power, but their power can be measured and analyzed only in the light. The dark casts shadows that hide their true form.

And the truth is that they’re not going away. The spiral can still catch my heel as I struggle to get free. It can still tap me on the shoulder when the sun is shining and I least expect it. Or it can be a black hole, and drag me down so deep that time stops and it feels like I’ll never be free.

Today I had one of those spirals take me down. While I’d been entwined in its throes before, it hits you the same way the exhilaration of zero g’s hits you on a roller coaster. It can feel like a slippery oily hug, comforting like a blanket but snuffing out the light when you turn your head to catch your breath. It can make you think that the present experience is all there is. You stand on the porch and look at the storm as it comes for you. There’s a beauty in the power, and colors become saturated. That pendulum falls and catches you and pulls you along effortlessly. You know after the storm, there will be sun. It’s the law of nature. No matter the damage from its path, the sky will turn from sickly green to scary gray to brilliant blue, all within a matter of minutes.

These forces within me are as much biological as they are psychological. I have been the constant in the Universe’s fucked up experiment. I know this because of all the things I’ve tried to “fix” it. And nothing fixes it. So it must be inherent in me. So don’t feel pity for me, don’t try to tell me that it’s not me. It is me. And the sooner I realize it, the sooner I can treat it, the sooner I can come to terms with it and try to find its blind spots.

I can sleep at night knowing that I will come through; I always do. There’s never been a time I’ve seriously contemplating taking control of that outcome. I can rest my head on the pillow knowing that I will never pass on this shitty biology, these genetic curses. The students and children I work with see the best of me. They see the strength that rises from the ashes of the Universe’s arson on my soul. For those things I am grateful.

Change as ethos

The desert feels close today. The gray sky makes me think of cozy but infrequent days when the clouds shrouded the Franklin Mountains like a light jacket, unsure about the change in season but ready for spring. The experience of driving in El Paso feels near, of enjoying that first new place. I grew immensely as a person there – I believe it was the basis of my whole adulthood, perhaps forever steeped in strange newness, acquiring the scent of the surrounding air, learning the language of my heart – a language I may not have been born with but one I’ve had space for.

And my time in El Paso makes me think of change. To the naked and unexperienced eye, the desert looks two-dimensional and constant. But at a closer glance, it is always changing. When I lived there, I learned the language of change, of responding to the knock of an opening door with curiosity and bright eyes shining with wonder.

The world is resistant to change, or rather, the humans have shackled the earth with an axis that no longer turns of its own accord. But change is the ethos of the planet; without it we would cease to exist. All the earth can be our home if we would just embrace it and stop seeing it through ravenous eyes, only wanting what it can give us rather than letting it show us how we are wrong.

And wrong we are about so many tings. We think we can know the mind of God. How arrogant. He still speaks to us and guides us, but I don’t believe we could ever fully predict what is in store for us any more than we can predict the sun will rise sometime in the immediate future.

I’m cut out for this

I realize that I don’t write much about my “other” life: the hours of my life I spend as a public school teacher. I do my best to have healthy boundaries between work and play, and in the past year this need has become more pronounced. I use my commute and other teachers who are also family members or close friends to process quotidian joys and frustrations before walking in the door and stripping off the school ID and title of “Ms. W.”

This year is the year I’ve been teaching for twenty years, thirteen as a certified teacher. Did I think I’d still be here all this time later? I’m not sure. I have known that since I was young, I had the “thing” that you need to be a teacher. Maybe an attitude, maybe the “teacher look,” maybe a natural talent, maybe a bit of arrogance – and just maybe a mix of all of the above. Teaching is a career of compassion and understanding, but also it necessitates an attitude of confidence and competence, which for me can sometimes border on self-importance.

The pandemic has challenged me in ways I never anticipated. Throughout this season, though (and it is a season: nothing can last forever, not even a pandemic), I have been grateful that I have years of my career behind me; there are so many reasons to be grateful for those times spent overextended, upset, stressed, and inexperienced. I have a lot of tools in my arsenal these days, and memories of “normal school” have pulled me through. I feel for new teachers who have experienced the glut of frustrations, both technological and relational, that have plagued our profession throughout a global health crisis.

Over the past academic year, I’ve found a new stride after years of working different jobs in different fields and with different ages of students. You could say I’ve rediscovered my happy place: high school. I’m sure there are many personal reasons from my past that have impacted my decision to work here, walking the halls among angsty and hormonal teenagers. Junior high, or middle school as most places now call it, was a tough time for me. But in high school, I found my place… mostly. I found my “people,” and I used academic achievement as an escape. I confided in and trusted my teachers and counselors.

The tasks I’ve had on my plate for the past several months have sat well with me: conversing with students, making small talk with new-to-me students, planning lessons for classes, interfacing with staff from teachers to administrators to counselors, advocating for students’ specific linguistic needs and ensuring their education is equitable. Of course, I can’t always check these to-do’s off my list every day, and they’re not always done to perfection. I’m sure as well that I’ve committed my own fair share of social faux pas as I’ve met no fewer than 100 new staff this year.

But all it takes is one really good day and weeks sprinkled with dozens of positive student-to-teacher interactions to remind me that I’m in this for the long haul. And to be honest, I didn’t expect the pandemic to reveal this truth to me: I’m cut out for this.

Helping our inner child find the way

When you are a child, the eighteen years you spend as a child feels like eternity. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait until I’m out on my own. Until I can do whatever I want. When you’re an adult, the years you spent as a child grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and all those worries and desires seem insignificant compared to the worries and desires of adulthood. However, something I’ve observed and learned in my own experience is that the years we spend as children drive the trajectory for our adulthood, maybe forever.

Recently I cried myself to sleep. I don’t say this for pity or sympathy or to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. I cry a lot – when I’m sad, when I’m happy. Basically anytime I’m moved emotionally, I cry. Sometimes the most appropriate and safe time for me to show that much emotion is in the dark, amidst the white noise of the fan, wrapped in blankets and comfort. While I’d cried myself to sleep many times in my time on Earth, this most recent time felt new. Instead of spiraling down, down, down to the pit of hopelessness, I began telling myself a narrative, a story if you will. I began parenting myself.

We all internalize the narratives and stories that our parents tell us, either verbally or nonverbally. They weave narratives with their actions, words, stories about their pasts, how they react to our transgressions and moments of impatience. We go out into the world with these stories that seem to be complete. As time goes on and we experience life for ourselves, we begin to find the incongruencies and missing parts of those stories. This can happen whether we grew up in the most loving, supportive household, or if we fled from an abusive home when we were young, if only mentally. It’s not a matter of the type of home that bore us as children; it’s the activation of our unique DNA, which can experience and receive a story from our own lives.

I looked at The Other…fragile, exhausted, disillusioned. Controlling and enslaving what should really be free…trying to judge her future loves by the rues of her past sufferings.”

By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, Paulo Coehlo

I found myself soothing myself in my own head. I soothed the four-year-old Elizabeth who couldn’t quite grasp abstract concepts and reasons for “why,” and I soothed the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth who, with her smart mouth, drummed up a retort to pretty much any comment or directive. By soothing all the versions of myself, my almost-35-year-old self could then take a deep breath formed around a resolution and drift off into a restful sleep.

I’ve been in touch with the young Elizabeth more in the past couple of years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s the distance that makes young Elizabeth clearer; maybe it’s the reflection and retrospection I employ to look at my life in the past. As I soothe those other long-gone versions of myself, I feel a healing taking place. A rebirth, a mending.

Just as I need to reassure my inner child, I also need to steel my present self. Recently during a yoga practice, I was astonished by a meditation given at the beginning of a practice. Esther Ekhart, the yoga teacher, brought attention to her legs and arms and body and made the point that when we remember how strong our bodies are, we can remember that we are adults and we are able to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t in the present, we’re stuck in the past and in the future. For us, our inner child sometimes lives in the past and reminds us of past hurts and follies.

Paulo Coehlo, renowned and beloved author, says in By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.”

Therefore, we cannot ignore the inner child and we cannot let them play us like a violin, either. There has to be a balance. Just as a parent shows their children a balance of love and discipline, we must do the same for ourselves. It’s a way we can become whole.

This is how you do a staycation

This past weekend we experienced something new – a staycation. After nearly 18 years together (!!!!!), it’s always surprising to find something new to explore together. But thanks to COVID, winter weather, and frugality, we suited up a three-day weekend with PTO, video games, coffee, delivery pizza, and so many couch cuddles with the dog.

The whole work-from-home but also live-at-home paradox was a struggle for me at first. I’ve always physically separated my work life from my home life, though mental separation is at best an amateur effort on my end. I had no idea at the beginning of this (you know what I mean) how I was going to get the rest I needed from work when my work location was the same as my mailing address.

Relaxation is the precursor of being aware and present.

paraphrased from a yoga practice with Esther Ekhart, Ekhart Yoga

However, after a couple weeks, I found ways to separate the two. The first thing was to set up a space just for work, as many have done. Some weeks I worked downstairs at the dining room table. Other days I would work at my tiny desk in a makeshift office upstairs. As it became clear that a new school year would not see me driving off into the sunrise every morning, I took a few more steps to make my “office” my office.

Largely I found that the key factor with successfully working and playing and living at home was my mindset. Imagine, the thing I’d been working on for several years through the avenues of therapy and yoga. Making physical space in my calendar is important, but mental space is importanter. Just kidding; mental space is the top priority.

I took my newfound ability to compartmentalize and applied it to our staycation. Our tag line for the weekend was “no adulting”. This meant no discussion of house projects, no talk about work, no seeking out chores that need to get done (except for dishes because, well, we cooked a lot). It involved limited time on phones, lots of time cuddling and watching movies, and time just chatting as we drove down the highway to check out another location in our new-ish state of residence.

We gave ourselves space and room to breathe. We loosened the belt of capitalism and stressful jobs and expectations of adulthood, only for a few days. But I slept so much better (8.5 hours of actual good sleep versus 7 hours of so-so). I ate really delicious food. We had novel conversations and confided in each other. It was what we needed.

I think building up time spent in this mode of vacation is necessary. I needed to try it out, flex my mental muscles to see if a staycation was a good fit. Turns out it was. I can’t wait for the next one.

Wintering is almost over

Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is wrapping up, coming to a close. While it is mid-February and we still see frozen precipitation of every kind (and least of all snow, sadly), there are signs that longer and warmer days are coming.

We have been walking the dog in the dark for what seems like months now, both morning and night. However, in the mornings we can sometimes see the inky twilight to the east and slowly spreading north and south. The river changes colors with the budding twilight. On weekends, we might even walk the dog in the daylight since we get up later. But not much later – we’re getting older and messed up sleep schedules aren’t good for anyone.

Nightly we comment, “Look how much light is left in the sky, and it’s [insert time here].” Every year, the earth completes its revolution around the sun. Every year as spring approaches, the Northern Hemisphere bows with a curtsy towards the sun, allowing our daily bath in sunlight to be a little warmer each day.

Next year at this time I don’t want to be blindsided by what seems like a yearly audit, or check in.

in my journal, January 28, 2021

Despite the excitement of a new season on the way, I will miss winter. And this year more than ever. The pandemic has brought my go-go-go to a halt in the best way. I’m learning how to regulate my erratic nervous system. I’ve been listening to my body and finally it doesn’t need to scream at me for me to meet its needs. Weekends have become a weekly staycation of sorts, where my to-do list involves a book, a fuzzy blanket, dog cuddles, and a couple good hearty meals that take longer than 15 minutes to cook. I view naps as a restorative exercise instead of a waste of time that showcases my laziness.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.

Katherine May in Wintering

I think if the weather allowed, I would want to winter forever. At least that’s what I feel right now. Endless rounds of coffee and reading, or coffee and writing, watching the snow (or ice) fall, bundling up in sweatshirts and blankets. At some point, we have to emerge from hibernation. Our skin and souls needs the sunlight, especially those final rays later and later in the evening. Our retinas need more input than gray, gray, gray.

I would say that winter will always be there for us, as a meteorological season. But will it? Climate change poses a real threat to this yearly probability. We will have to take the practices that allow us to conserve energy and appreciate nature into the future.

If anything, we can still find a place to winter deep in our souls. The cold and snow and lack of light, and not to mention the pandemic, are external drivers to help us find that place: nature demonstrates its practice to us. It’s a place we must return to if we are to grow and change as human beings. Recently I wrote in my journal, “I want my default setting to be positive and optimistic, to be able to be content but also curious.” Winter is a time of curiosity, of delving deep and doing some seeking. I equate the positivity and optimism with spring – the trees and flowers and grasses share that with me. That is when we do the finding – just as the leaves on the trees find their shape and reach east towards the sunlight.

You are not your calendar

It’s okay to step away from something, even if you’ve been doing it for years. Especially if you’ve been doing it for years. It’s something I’ve been trying to tell myself. Unfortunately, some of my time that I’ve rediscovered as I’ve stepped away from commitments is steeped in guilt, kind of like the half-drunk mug of tea I left sitting on the end table last night.

I look at it, realize that it’s very uncharacteristic of me to just leave things like that around the house, undone, but then it only takes a minute to clean it up and get on with my day.

There’s always a new day, and a fresh pot of coffee.

That’s what it feels like to strip away the patina of the calendar – like that first sip of coffee. Though I’ve been looking at clocks and calendars my whole life, it feels new to look at a clock and not be rushing to the next commitment. To take that first sip of the morning and not be immediately pouring it into a travel mug.

Fresh starts were good; that separateness was where you could feel yourself, where you could learn who you were apart from everyone else.

Akwaeke Emezi in The Death of Vivek Oji

Don’t be deceived that this is easy. Lots of people go around telling people that all you have to do it say, “No.” Emphatically. Like you really mean it. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have scores and scores of people in this country tired, beat down, exhausted, and fatigued from every day life.

I get that we’re in a pandemic right now, almost a year on, however this state of affairs only serves as a magnifying glass for this huge dare-I-say ridiculous and out-of-hand societal problem of “yes.”

I sit here, sipping my coffee, and this is the morning when my work-from-home dream ends. Never again in my career will I experience schools shutting down for a global health crisis (at least I don’t anticipate another pandemic…. but we’ll see what the Universe has in store). Never again as a public school teacher will I commute from my kitchen to my office, never having started the car or stopped for gas or even put on makeup like I used to.

The pandemic has helped me say no when I felt like I couldn’t. When I really, really, wanted to, but felt like guilt was holding me down. I was forced to just… stop. And breathe.

As my sister and I reminisced in a conversation recently (podcast episode to be posted this week), 2020 was a year. But it was also a good year. Which feels weird to admit. BUt one of self-reflection and growth and learning to say “no” and damn the consequences.

My whole life my identity has been wrapped around my activities and accomplishments. While it may look great on paper, my propensity for filling up my calendar is actually an attempt to fill a large gaping hole that is hungry for Guilt. And Self-Sacrifice. The only way for me to feed Guilt is to sacrifice my own self-worth and sanity. And I did it, for years.

And did you see the verb tense I just used? “And I did it.” Past tense. Not present perfect, not past progressive. But past. Because I’m done feeding that monster. I’m beginning to fill up that hole with reading and walking and pondering and conversations and relationships. Soon there won’t be any room at all for Guilt and its companions.

I am a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up my calendar and saying yes to all the things. You are a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up your calendar and saying yes to all the things. Let’s make our default “no” and carefully and cheerfully say “yes” to a few things that we can do well, and with that we will snuff out Guilt.

BONUS POST: Narratives we tell ourselves

One of the most important things we are able to do as humans that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is reflect. We can look into the past and remember in order to make the present or future different. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.

These days, it’s all too easy to look back; in fact, there are apps like Timehop and Google Photos that do this for us. However, the narratives that are told again are not necessarily the important ones, the ones that inform our thinking. Often when I get a notification from Google Photos to “look back at this day,” it’s random pictures I took of my homemade dinner. Or a cute picture of the dog. Or a beautiful sunrise. But these aren’t the most important things we need to remember, to reflect on.

Oh man, was it that much better then? | We were left alone, we were proud of our pain

Fleet Foxes, “A Long Way Past the Past”

I’ve kept journals off and on since I was about 7. Unfortunately, the ones I still have in my possession that have somehow made it through two cross-country moves don’t begin until when I was in junior high. I came across my journal from when Aaron and I were dating and trying to decide when to get married, about fifteen years ago. We were young and it was a busy time. A confusing time. I literally felt like my whole life banked on a decision about something like whether to major in Spanish, or whether we got married in December or in June.

At that time in my life, I let myself receive narratives from others, and my own narrative was buried. However, at the time, I didn’t realize that my own desires and needs were nearly indiscernible. I told myself that because I was so young and inexperienced, I should rely on older adults to make decisions for me. So I took people’s suggestions and prayers and ideas and wove them into my own tapestry so I didn’t know where theirs began and mine ended, and in the end, I gave them credit for my life decisions. It was a relinquishing of precious autonomy and agency that I’m just now wielding back into my possession all these years later.

One the narratives I have told myself since going through infertility is that “I really wanted to be a mom my whole life. That’s all I wanted – to be a wife and mother.”

It’s not true. I’ve realized while fumbling through my memory that this narrative isn’t true. Not 100 percent. I think when infertility was fresh and raw, this was a comforting thing that I told myself. It helped me feel close to the only community that I had access to at the time: the infertility community, where people go to great lengths (and into great debt) to have a child.

However, as I was thumbing through an old journal, not sure what I was looking for but hoping to find something poignant to cling to, I found:

I definitely could be happy being just a mother and a housewife, but I feel like there’s this other part of me wanting to be unleashed to go fight in the world.

2006

For some context, I was in the middle of my undergrad studies, Aaron and I had basically decided we were “it” for each other, and I was really struggling with my decision to pursue teaching Spanish over teaching math. This was also before all parts of people’s private lives and thoughts were made public, so I had no audience for my writing, outside of the things I would post on my Xanga (take that one to Google!). There were some years when I didn’t journal, no doubt because of the shitstorm of honesty it would have released. But that’s a topic for another time.

At that time in my life, getting pregnant was not something I wanted: “Pregnancy would be the least logical thing to do… to amount to.” I think that maybe I had been influenced by my mom who wanted me to graduate college before getting married and having babies. It’s something she didn’t do, so when we were all 10 and under and finally in school, she decided to go to college full-time. And the hits “Get Married After College” and “You Don’t Need a Man” was the song she sang all throughout my formative years.

Even when Aaron and I got married two years from the date on that journal entry, I remember pushing off all the people at church and elsewhere who were clamoring to know when we’d start trying for a baby. We’d only just been married! Our answer was five years from getting married. And, kind of like clockwork, we started trying about six years into our marriage. We waited for a lot of circumstances to line up – no more deployments or long separations, stable jobs, having paid off a lot of debt, et cetera.

So now that I work through all of that, it’s possible that the narrative I told myself as a salve was partly true. But only partly.

I have to trust 20-year-old Elizabeth who was writing for no one but herself, to chronicle her life and feelings. And damn, did finding that journal entry bring some perspective and remind me of the logical, sane, conscientious person I can be who has a part of her that needs to “go fight in the world.”

Some years down the line, I will remember saying things like these to myself, sentiments that are far from one another on the spectrum, and realize that I met myself in the middle. Both narratives and perspectives have a place. Which begs the question, How do you know where the middle is if you don’t know where you’ve been?

The calm in the winter storm

It’s Sunday and the sight of the fluffy flakes calling outside is enough to bring tears to my eyes with the anticipation of rogue, anarchic mid-afternoon caffeine soon to hit my veins. As I wait for the coffee to brew, I lean against the doorjamb and observe that the shade of the heavy clouds matches the shades of the mighty river and the sidewalk in my immediate view, the only slightly melted snow – just a different sheen. Flat to eggshell to satin. Sky to water to ground.

I am absolutely giddy with the experience of the winter storm – forecasted but not always realized here in the mild Mid-Atlantic. I yearn sometimes for the snowstorms of my youth, the sheer joy of seeing my school district’s name scroll lazily across across the screen to indicate a day off. Very little responsibility lay in wait for me as a child on a snow day, except for maybe a few mundane chores – no shoveling, no driving, no cooking. Maybe that’s one reason I lean into winter. However, I do realize that memory is a strange animal and cannot always be trusted not to be hyperbolic in nature.

I have often heard talk of the nostalgia of snow, the way that we always imagine our childhoods to have been snowier than they actually were.

Katherine May

I fully embrace Mother Nature’s soft whisper that sweeps across buildings and streets and lampposts – a quiet directive to calm down, settle down, take a break. Tomorrow I know that because of the wonders (and annoyances) of the Internet and modern technology, I will have to teach anyway, but today I savor. I relish. I spend time keeping up with completely regular household chores like laundry and cooking and sweeping the floor, but only so that I can relax even more fully.

In the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May talks about how she welcomes a bad cold. Not because she likes feeling poorly, but because it gives her a concrete reason to take time off: “I love the inconvenience [of snow] in the same way that I sneakingly love a bad cold: the irresistible disruption to mundane life, forcing you to stop for a while and step outside your normal habits.” Society these days has a hard time giving people the space they need to take a break, and instead labels them weak.

I think the yearly sinus infections I suffered throughout adolescence was probably allergies gone neglected and awry, but I remember welcoming them. Obviously not because I liked feeling like my head was going to explode, or because I felt the occasional feverish chill, but because it was a good reason to not be active for at least a couple of days. I remember setting up my daytime camp on the couch in the living room, collecting a box of Kleenex, liquids like Sprite, and the pillow from my bed. At night I would make my way upstairs to my bed, and for those nights my bed felt so much cozier, like a warm hug. I was, and still am, someone who really was go-go-go and had a hard time relaxing, but those sinus infections would knock me down off my high-energy high-horse. And I relished in the relaxation it brought.

As an adult, I am learning how to recognize the “wintering” times – the seasons of life that could last years, months, or even just a few days, like a sinus infection. But beyond a concrete sickness, I’m learning how to take myself seriously and just say no, emphatically. To release myself from the pressure to perform perform perform, and go go go, despite what my body and mind are telling me – Stop. Relax. Recharge. Find a new normal. Find what’s next.

For the past several years, I’ve been on a journey to find what’s next for me. Biological children were obviously not the next step, and while parenthood could have been my path, I chose not to pursue it. How will I know what’s next if I keep clouding my vision with activity after activity, waking up and zooming through my day (or at this point, literally Zooming) and then crashing into bed at night, so tired and delirious because of being so busy?

I can’t. And I won’t. I need to create some space that I don’t end up filling with yet another obligation or hobby. A part of me is scared of what creating space will do. That maybe I’ll be lazy. Or heaven forbid, bored. I’m not sure I’m scared enough of boredom to say I have a phobia, but sometimes my actions speak otherwise. Boredom is good. Wintering is good. Contemplation and meditation can bring forth some of the most prolific work of our lives. What will mine be?