Lullabies and aromatherapy

The whir of the sewing machine has been a lullaby and the steam from the hot iron has been aromatherapy. For the last few days of this self-quarantine I’ve been holed up in my sewing room. It’s a room I’ve recently adorned with new paint (a beautiful airy light blue.. think of a salty breeze) but haven’t spent much time in. It’s not because I don’t have enough projects, that’s for sure. It’s just been a matter of time.

Yesterday I was attempting to follow a design for a Christmas star on Pinterest by using a number of extra scraps of Christmas-y fabric indiscriminately cut into squares. I failed miserably. The “pattern” was coming out all wonky, my needle kept getting stuck in the corner of the fabric as I’d try to pass it through for stitching. I was frustrated.

So then I swallowed my pride by deciding to watch even more YouTube videos and teach myself some quilting basics. Quilting is a skill I actually have never developed as an ad-hoc makeshift seamstress. My great-grandmother made a number of gorgeous quilts, all hand-sewn (to my knowledge) but she was never young enough and I was never old enough at the same time for me to learn from her. It’s been a sub-culture of the sewing and craft world that I’ve wanted access to for a long time.

For hours, literally hours, yesterday I sewed and crafted and then finally ended up with some very cute, if not a little wonky, quilt squares. By no means is this pattern done – I purposefully decided where to stop, because if I don’t stop, I will sew all night without eating or drinking anything. And I wanted to leave myself something for today to look forward to.

I wish I had more pictures of all the sewing projects I worked on as a child – dresses, jumpers, pajamas – but instead all my memories are in my head and rush out with the hum and occasional jolt of the machine. It brings my physical body back to a time of safety and innocence, of listening and learning from women. While we have our oral family stories that are passed down, our story is better stated with thread, fabric scraps, yarn, and embroidery thread.

It’s no wonder that I’ve found solace and busyness in my sewing room this week. It’s yet another skill, along with cooking, that I express to my mom as “Thanks for teaching me how to ____!” It’s a connection I cherish right now when in-person connections are not allowed or not possible due to distance.

I could feel this coming.

As far as I know, the world is spinning at the same rate as it was only a week ago. A month ago. A year ago. But now, as of 5:42 AM on March 17, 2020, we’re living in a much different world. And it’s weird to think I could feel it coming.

For several months now there’s been an disquiet in my soul about how fast life is moving. About how much for granted we all take that fact that we’re alive and breathing in this world. It’s bubbled up here and there, encouraged me to write or think or have important conversations with people. It’s sometimes been flashing this word in my mind: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve been decluttering rooms in my house but also my calendar. I’ve been saying no to things. I’ve been triaging my tasks at work to focus on the one most important task – educating and advocating for English learners and their families.

Now, being a teacher whose state of residence has shut down schools for at least two weeks, I have nothing but time to ponder these things. And in such times as these, I think it’s very important to chronicle my thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is not going away.

I will admit, upon hearing schools were closing I was a little excited. Finally, finally, we were all going to get the break we needed. The need was palpable every day at work, no matter the school. Teachers are tired. Students are tired. We’re all a little tired of each other, I think. What tasks could I accomplish during this time at home? Painting, rearranging, rehoming decluttered items, finishing a book series. Feeling a sense of karma coming back to me because after the grief of not having children, I have a quiet house for the foreseeable future.

Overall I’ve had a strange sense of calm. I’ve checked in with or family members have checked in on me as far away as Washington State, the American epicenter of this whole thing, and as close as North Carolina. I’ve been checking in on my students and making sure they know where they can get lunches this week and next. I’ve also been worrying about them – their home lives during this time. The lack of direct instruction, especially for the ones who are still in the beginning stages of learning English. I’m wondering what this will mean when we finally do come back to school, and how this will impact their lives going forward.

But yes, an overall sense of calm and okayness. I’m okay. Aaron’s okay. We’re both on the same side of the planet, in the same zip code, in the same house. We have jobs that will not lay us off. Bills are paid. I know what’s important right now and I can focus on that. I’m grateful for the time to slow down and take stock of life. It’s okay to be okay.

At some point Emily and I will start a podcast (maybe this is a great time for it?) but one of the things we were talking about a few days ago was that we feel so much more in tune with the earth and the divine and the ‘collective consciousness’ (or whatever other name there is for this) than we did years ago. I feel aware of the earth groaning and creaking and sometimes even screaming out. I feel aware and even sensitive to the vibes that people throw off when they’re tired, exhausted, running ragged, just need a break. I feel aware of my own heart expanding to take in not the feelings but the people, and especially children, who need this awareness.

As I lament to my therapist, “Being woke sucks sometimes” because you see how not woke the rest of the world can be. There’s so much more to life but busyness and the illusion of busyness. Of the self-inflicted pat on the back for a job well done. There’s more to life than getting the newest car or cutest shoes or having take-out every day for lunch.

There’s delicious homemade food, made with time that you carved out intentionally from a crazy schedule. There’s special phone conversations with loved ones that you can have because you’re not scheduled with activities from 6AM to 9PM seven days a week. There’s daily walks around the neighborhood, nodding to passersby and chatting with a neighbor. There’s early morning times of devotions or reading a much-loved book because you got a good night of sleep and could wake up early.

At times I feel my journey to a simpler and richer life echoes many people (mostly women) who have now written books about it.. and not just about simplicity in the concrete things, but some about their journey to a faith that makes sense to them. Books like Present Over Perfect, Out of Sorts, Faith Unraveled, Eat Pray Love, Wild, Searching for Sunday, The Year of No Nonsense, The Untethered Soul, The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen, Slow Church, Leaving Church, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Some would say these books are a dime a dozen now, but I think it speaks to a societal shift that could be happening… where we again value presence with nature and people and not dependence on things or titles.

Writers and artists have often been the prophetic ones, sometimes the canaries in the coal mine. They have not only admonished us but given us a way out and action steps to take, and this momentous and pivotal time is no exception. I will leave you with this song.

Equal and opposite reaction

Physics was not my best class. Here I was, senior year of high school, vying for the “Seven-Semester High Honors” title I would share with many of my classmates. Our grades weren’t weighted, but I’d be damned if I got either that honor or valedictorian (something I shared with 20 of my classmates) without going toe-to-toe with them in classes like physics and calculus.

While physics didn’t even make the list of favorite classes, at least I remember one of Newton’s Laws of Motion – For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It also helped that I have a science teacher for a mom.

All those days sitting in school (ahem, I’m still sitting in school, voluntarily) and I wondered if I’d ever use those laws. Well, here I am, 15 years plus out of primary and secondary education, and I will say that yes, I am using what I learned, but in an unlikely way to a 17-year-old – an existential way.

I was pondering this whole people-pleasing thing I’ve been doing for basically my whole life, and how it really hit a peak shortly after we moved to Maryland. I was talking with Emily, my younger sister, about our very different but at the same time similar experiences of moving across the country (I went east, she went west.. I hate counting the miles). She said that when she moved to the PNDubs, she didn’t commit to anything other than work for a long time. She went sightseeing and exploring and took in everything western Washington has to offer.

I, on the other hand, was moving to Maryland whilst needing an “attitude adjustment,” as my dad calls it, and I avoided much exploring or discovering or spontaneity at first, at least not beyond the whole, “Wow, I’m living equidistant from Philly and DC. Let’s go.” Feeling like I should go. Not necessarily because I wanted to all the time.

I threw myself into everything – work, church, friends, volunteering for a nonprofit. I didn’t know my place yet in society, being childless not by choice and fresh outta infertility camp. Instead of doing the inward-looking word of reflection and introspection, I externalized all my hurt and anguish and feeling of not belonging. It felt like an equal and opposite reaction to basically having my life turned upside down within months – cross-country move, Grammie’s death, and really deciding to not pursue parenthood. It’s a perfect storm, really, and in my case, a Nor’easter.

Now, over four years later, I’m trying to back out of that equal and opposite reaction, because now it’s beginning to backfire. I’m experiencing burnout from all this externalizing that’s led to “yes” to all the things. When life seemed to implode, I reacted and clung to my highest-seated coping mechanism – being the “yes” girl.

Because that would make me wanted. Because that would make me needed. Because people would like me if I participated in their projects and presentations and ministries. Because I could quiet the monkey mind pretty easily if I were busy all the time.

After years of work, some on my own, some with a therapist, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I matter. I can prioritize myself and my own health and the world will not come to an end. I am worth a healthy mind and body. I can say “no” to so many things that don’t point me toward my goals or comprehensive health.

I’m not exactly sure what all my goals are. But slowly and surely I’m learning what I’m not willing to say “yes” to anymore. It’s not an option to not learn this skill, this very important two-letter word. But I do know one of my goals is to see how a different, more positive and life-giving equal and opposite reaction plays out.

When ‘no’ means ‘yes’

Busyness is a form of people pleasing, and people pleasing is a coping strategy. If I can’t feel good about myself from the inside, then I make sure to get as much external validation as possible. The more I say yes, the harder I work, the more validation I receive which, because of how I grew up and interacted with the world as a child/teenager, makes me feel good.

But at the end of the day, crawling into bed, it just makes me tired.

Not only does being busy for me mean the relentless act of people pleasing, but it also means I get to escape from my reality. I don’t know much about the history of why humans are the way we are, but I get the idea that humans have needed some form of escapism as a means of survival.

Sometimes escapism is just me daydreaming about the clock saying it’s time to go home, and at other times, I’m so not at home in my own skin that I absolutely need a promise of something otherworldly to allow me to relax, even for a second.

Our forms of escapism are wide and varied. Mostly, I think about vacation and not having my cell phone (like, forever banishing it to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay), and walking the gangway onto a cruise ship bound for warmer waters. I think about early retirement or tending a large garden outside our homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains (we do not in fact own a homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains). I think about camping among the huge evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, of the breeze on my face as I ride the ferry out to the San Juan Islands. I think about the freedom of a day with no worries, cares, checking the bank account, making grocery lists, doing laundry.

My preferred form of escapism is busyness. Always floating and moving from commitment to commitment, filling up my calendar to the brim and always being on the move. If I’m always moving, I never have to actually sit and be faced with the fact that I’m not in fact on vacation right now or sailing away from Baltimore or taking a hike up to a waterfall. I can just move from event to event, place to place, and maybe stop for a second to fill up the gas tank but just keep ignoring the fact that the car needs maintenance, that it’ll be just fine for a few more miles.

But at some point, the car will break down. I will have to take an entire Saturday to either sit at the repair shop waiting for it, or work out a way to get a ride to and from and anticipate that fated call that tells me I’m going to take a chunk of savings to fix the damn car (and a part of that savings was probably for real vacation). And the Saturday I was planning on using to relax and do some “self-care” will be shot.

For some reason, cultivating a life that’s a mix of work + play, consistently, seems not only outlandish but also irresponsible. To open my calendar during a regular workweek and not see anything scheduled outside of my working hours just seems unnatural.

It seems unnatural because it is. But my body and soul and spirit are reeling, they’re telling me,

Elizabeth. It’s been 30 years of this busyness & people-pleasing bullshit. We can’t take it anymore. Please stop.

I think the things I daydream about while entrenched in my reality are clues to things I could actually do now to live the life that makes sense to me. I could go for a hike after work, or on a Saturday morning. I could load up the kayak on a Friday afternoon. I could sit on my porch with coffee and a book in the morning before work. I could spend a weekend in the woods.

But if I say yes to all those things, then I’m saying no to other things, and *gasp* ‘no’ to people. The horror. It’s a skill I have not yet mastered, but I’m working on it. Practice with me. (Disclaimer: this might feel a little bit like a grammatical exercise. Bear with the linguist/teacher here.)

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do].

Great job. You said your peace (piece? I think it can be both…). Now, let’s practice by adding ___ + so that ____.

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job so that I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry so that I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day so that I can have time for exercise.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause so that I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid so that I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period so that I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee so that I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day so that I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night so that I get enough sleep.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner so that I can take care of my body.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss so that I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking so that I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do] so that [insert positive alternative here].

Can you see that the statement that comes after so that is actually a value statement about your own life?

  • I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • I can have time for exercise.
  • I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • I can get enough sleep.
  • I can take care of my body.
  • I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

Last step, my friends. Let’s add yes to those statements. And now you have guiding affirmations.

  • Yes, I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • Yes, I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • Yes, I can have time for exercise.
  • Yes, I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • Yes, I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • Yes, I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • Yes, I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • Yes, I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • Yes, I can get enough sleep.
  • Yes, I can take care of my body.
  • Yes, I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • Yes, I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

FYI I did not copy-pasta ‘yes’; I typed every single one. It felt good.

I hope you can see that this form of self-care actually extends beyond self and into the world. If you believe that we are all in this together, we sentient, feeling, emoting human beings, then you probably agree that if we take care of ourselves, put on our own oxygen masks first, then we’re taking care of all of us. We provide a much-needed yet humble model for forging a new path in our burdened, overworked, stressed society. And we make it better.

Out of grief, thankfulness

As the plane circled Midway, I was fuming. Angry. Upset. And desperately wishing the pilot would turn us back to Baltimore.

I looked out the window and my body told me that it remembered the intense, confusing, and raw grief I experienced several years ago when my grandpa died and I flew ‘home’ for the funeral. I had to borrow money from my parents to afford the plane ticket. I was alone. I was utterly broken and anxious and exhausted.

The body remembers, and this past December, it was internally screaming, making sure I didn’t forget the grief.

It seems the number of times I’ve gone ‘home’ for funerals have equaled the number of times I’ve gone for things other than funerals. As I write that and count it in my head, the latter is more. But the sadness and grief seem to often outshine the happiness and delight on trips back to the Midwest.

As we deplaned, I thought about the long ride ahead after picking up luggage from baggage claim while also taking a breath and gearing myself up for an emotional few days.

We drove to central Illinois from Chicago, and my heart jumped as I looked out the window and found some comfort in the monotony of the flat, flat farmland dotted with groups of trees, shielding houses from wind and bad weather.

Over the holiday, I wrestled with the grief and the togetherness. I was angry, and also felt blessed (but not #blessed). Angry at my grandparents for all leaving me in the world to figure it out on my own without their physical presence and guidance only a phone call away. Feeling blessed that I was able to have them in my life for as long as I did.

Today is Mimi’s birthday. She would have been 86. And damn, don’t I know that she was born in 1934 because every. Single. Time we went to Steak ‘n Shake, she let me know that she was born in the same year the restaurant was founded.

Two years ago on this day, I don’t remember if I called her or not. After the dementia started progressing more rapidly, it became more difficult to call her, though our talks would last only about 5 minutes.

Two years ago on this day, I had no idea that only 7 months later, I’d be grieving her deeply, having spent some time at her side while she was dying. I wasn’t there for her last breath. But I think my soul felt at peace when she passed.

Now, as I’m in, and have been in, a phase of my life that has been difficult and confusing and sometimes frightening, I wish I had her here more than ever. Time and time again in my mind I imagine walking into her house, through the back door after climbing a few steps. Coming into the kitchen, TV turning on with a quick press on a button. All the scents of her wrapping me in a blanket of safety and acceptance. Downy and Dove and Glade Plug-Ins.

We’d sit in the living room and she’d tend to her nails while I tried to figure out how to get my toes unstuck from the stretchy afghan on the couch.

We watched a lot of reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers and Golden Girls and Designing Women and The Nanny. After I’d get ready for bed (showers because to her baths were just washing with dirty water), I’d put on one of her nightgowns or cinch up some of her PJ pants (she weighed more back then and shopped in the ‘big mama’ section). She would tell me that wearing a sports bra at night would keep my chest from growing (that’s not true, btw).

In the winter we’d watch figure skating. I was mesmerized by the grace and talent of the athletes. And after I’d become older and didn’t spend as much time over there, she’d call me on her way home from work and tell me to look outside because there’s a beautiful sunset or that figure skating was on tonight.

For some years after that, I wasn’t as kind or innocent towards her and I didn’t always keep my negative thoughts about her to myself. I’m sure I rolled my eyes when she called me some of those times. Now I’d kill to have that call, and have her remember where I live (not Texas anymore, Mimi) and that Aaron and I are married (When are you getting married?). I’d share my story of infertility because I know she’d give me a hug and love me just the same (When are you and Aaron going to have kids?)

As I let the emotions roll through my body, juxtaposed with grief is an equal or greater amount of thankfulness and security from my memories with her. Memory is beautiful. I can travel back anytime I want for a hug, a kiss, a call.

Happy Birthday, Mimi.

Self-actualization

I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself in the past few months. Summer was a lovely time of watching sunrises, reading books (check out my Goodreads on the side bar), namely, getting back into fiction and even fantasy. I’ve been really connecting with who I am at my core. And also getting shit done. (That last one is vague but still hopefully conveys a strong message.)

Running has taken a back seat, though my most recent ink pays homage to my hobby-turned-natural-antidepressant. In fact, I’ve been pursuing this hobby, and PRs, for ten years now.

Ten years of running, of training, of actually only a couple of injuries. This past year held some roadblocks, like the month I had to wear a walking boot for plantar fasciitis, or the time I fell on concrete going downhill and gave myself a painful elbow sprain.

After the bout with PF, I achieve a couple PRs this year: the 10K and the half marathon. And I worked my ass off for those PRs.

Throughout this decade, running has been an outlet for all the self-guessing and -doubting from not being able to conceive. It was damn near necessary for my mental health while my husband was across the big blue ocean in the Army. It has helped me process a lot of life’s quandaries.

Now I’m no longer surviving, folks. Life is now not a struggle. That sounds quite melodramatic, right? But when you’re kind of wired to be a person who looks at the glass half empty (and at the same time don’t like what’s already in your glass), this is kind of huge.

Most people just go from day to day protecting themselves and making sure nothing goes too wrong…they see life as a threat. A good day means you made it through without getting hurt.

The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life. I moved in and out of this way of thinking, but now I’ve crossed “survive!” off my list.

When you’ve been doing this for so long, it’s hard to know where to go next. So I’ve been letting my heart lead me instead of my brain.

I’m reading, sitting in silence, going for a kayak, doing some yoga, exploring my faith and spirituality in a much deeper way, opening myself up to new relationships and opportunities.

And guess what? I’m thriving, yo.

Anyone who’s studied education or any related field knows about good ole Maslow. I’ve moved past the bottom two rungs and now I’m thriving in relationships. I’m doing a pretty good job in esteem, and mostly concerned about how I esteem myself. And I’ve been doing a lot of work in self-actualization.

I’ve been focusing a lot of energy here, and also in being mindful and aware. I’ve needed to slow down and take everything in. Instead of getting my views from the road, I’ve been getting them from the porch or the water.

And now that I’ve moved up to the upper echelons of this pyramid, my question is, how can I help others do the same? I have some ideas….

Unconditional ice cream

School is out here in Maryland (finally) and consequently I’ve been able to do errands like grocery shopping and running to the post office during regular business hours. It’s been glorious. And I know when late August rolls around I will whine and complain that now I don’t have time for work because I just have so much other stuff to do.

But at the grocery store, I’ve seen more than one grandma carting around her grandkids, picking out things. Today I was at our local grocery store and noticed that one grandkid was asking for some sort of ice cream treat. “Mom-mom, can we get….?” I don’t remember how the grandma replied because immediately I was thrown into my own repository of memories of these exact trips with my own grandma, Mimi.

The first anniversary of her death is approaching (August 11) and besides being reminded on my own trip sans children to the grocery store about our close relationship, I’m reminded of how she gave ____ to me unconditionally. Fill in the blank with whatever – love, chicken wings, Little Debbie cakes, cups of Sleepytime tea – and it’s still true.

Holy heck, I love her. I miss her. I thought she was one of the richest people in my own little sphere, simply because she just gave and gave. As I got older, I realized that she was not well off (she lived on a fixed income from the State of Illinois and the Social Security Administration) and sometimes she gave more than she had. But you know what? She always, always, gave with joy.

Now lest anyone thinks that I was spoiled only with 12-packs of cream soda and Zebra Cakes (I was), I never ever doubted that she loved me, supported me, and would open the door for me at any hour.

I blame Mimi often for my sweet tooth. We had treats at home, too, but man I loved it when she bought TV dinners and pudding.

I recently had some bloodwork done – I had a high fasting glucose reading awhile back and wanted to follow up on it. Turns out my glucose is fine, and so is my A1C. I thought maybe it’d be high from the sweets I ingest and sometimes binge (Oreos….?).

While I’m thankful for my health and no evidence of Mimi’s generosity as it relates to my A1C, I am equally grateful for the long-term effects of her emotional generosity as well.

I think as time passes and memories resurface, I will discover and realize more things about how she lived her life. Memories will always be alive and have the ability to be examined different ways.

I hope that grandkid sitting in the cart being pushed by his grandma realizes how special those mundane moments are, because someday they will be gone.