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.

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?

Coming back into my body

Over the past seven years or so, I have been made acutely aware of my body. At first she seemed like a stranger to me, someone you pass in the night but can’t quite see past the darkness and shadows.

It’s quite ironic that I was so separated from my body because I am tall. I take up a lot of space, all 5’10” of me. I have big feet (size 10-10.5), relatively broad shoulders, a large bosom (though pretty proportional to the rest of me), and in general I have always been aware of the space I take up, but not necessarily been in sync and felt unity with my own body.

On being tall & taking up space

In conversations that date back to my years going through puberty, my aunt and I explored some of these feelings I had about my body. I felt I was too tall; she said I was beautiful. I thought my feet were too big; she said that if I didn’t have big enough feet, I would fall flat on my face. I guess this is probably true. But her messages about my body seemed to contradict the jokes I heard from other family members; namely, the ones about my shoes being pontoons and the cups of my bra drying above washer being soup bowls. Those comments were made in jest, for sure, and not meant to harm at all. But seeing as I am the only person in my immediate family who seems to carry the Scandinavian genes more than the others, it really made me super aware of the space I took up. And you can understand why during those years, I began to dissociate my self from my own body.

Recently I attended two consultations with plastic surgeons. I was interested in getting a breast reduction. I spent hours pouring over before and after pictures (I have never seen more boobs in my life….), comparing my breasts to headless women who kind of looked like me. I imagined the types of clothes I’d be able to wear, including cute lacey bras that resembled small ice cream cups rather than soup bowls. I imagined getting the surgery during a long break from work and healing up before a beach vacation, ready to take the ocean with my new & improved perky boobs.

Throughout this process of consultations, I had conversations with my insurance company about the surgery. I got a letter of medical necessity from the chiropractor. Even when the procedure may not have been covered by insurance, the money really wasn’t an issue either way. We could have saved and made it work, if I had really wanted it.

A switch flipped in me about such a radical surgery. On the surface, it seems relatively harmless and it seems people get plastic surgery all the time. However, in the few months I spent obsessed with this idea, I began to get attached to my boobs (emotionally…). I saw them in a different light. I began to mourn their loss and eventually decided against a breast reduction.

On being infertile

Nearly seven years ago now, we began trying to conceive. As we know from other posts on this blog, it didn’t work. And in that process, the dissociation I felt with my body that began in adolescence only grew more pronounced. I began to resent and even despise my body. It’s a very uncomfortable state to be in because you can’t really get away. Thankfully I didn’t choose to engage in self-destructive behaviors, though I can imagine for some people that that would seem like a way out from those feelings.

It took a lot of therapy and research, even surgery (to diagnose and remove endometriosis) to help me heal. It took a rewiring of my brain when my period would start, that instead of absolutely hating my bum uterus* and emotional pain it caused me for so long, month after month, I just accepted that this is my body right now. I’m still in the reproductive, “child-bearing” phase of my life, and it is possible that very soon I will enter what is known as perimenopause. I decided that I can’t just hate on myself for the next 10-15-20 years until my body stops bleeding every month. I have to accept myself, come back into myself, and act like I love myself.

*I was misdiagnosed – I do not have a septate uterus. It turns out that I had benign uterine polyps and stage 2 endometriosis, mostly occurring in the deep cul-de-sac. I had a D&C to remove the polyps and excision for the endo. 2.5 years on, I feel pretty good, though I suspect the polyps might be coming back.

On being a sexual being

They say that women lose some of their inhibition around sex in their 30’s. I’ve not read up on the reasons why, but from personal experience, I could say that the previous two experiences of being tall and being infertile have had something to do with it. Once you peel back the layers of why your body & soul are disconnected, it’s really hard to not keep going, keep discovering, staying curious about yourself.

My journey with my one and only body has also been spiritual, which necessitates an analysis of my previous spiritual experiences and an examination of the things I was taught about my body. If being tall, having big boobs, and being infertile made me feel shame and embarrassment about my body, then learning that my body, literally the existence of it, could be tempting for boys and men or inherently sinful certainly did nothing for my self-esteem.

What has done something, in fact a lot for my self-esteem is engaging in exercise, especially long-distance running and yoga. Concerning running, there’s nothing quite like completing a marathon and realizing that your own body took you that far. It’s impossible to not feel proud of yourself, to shed the self-consciousness about what you might look like running 20 miles on country roads during training.

Yoga has by far been the most transformative experience, and the most daring I must say. In some Christian circles I have been a part of, yoga has been looked down on and considered “giving the devil a foothold.” I will be honest, though: the conservative Christian rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies, pregnancy, and infertility did very little for me as far as healing was concerned. (I have written a lot about that here, here, and here.) So I decided to explore elsewhere.

Forgive my facetiousness, but as it turns out, I have not turned into a witch or a Satan worshipper. I have, however, developed a broader sense of spirituality that I needed at the time which also includes my sexuality.

In Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about the need for a new approach to sexuality as Christians. She makes a clear distinction between purity and holiness (hey-o those are some buzzwords!) that helps validate my journey to uniting my own body and spirit:

Purity most often leads to pride or despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with and purity is about separation from.

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This brings me to the last practice or habit I’ve explored to help me come back into my body: reading. It’s been a way for me to round out my experiences of intense emotions, to inform my journey going forward. I have found that the topics of books I have read that have helped me realize a deeper connection to my own humanity include sex within the Christian world (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation), sexual health (Come as You Are), endometriosis (The Doctor Will See You Now), Jesus as a husband (The Book of Longings, post here), women’s health (In the Flo, Womancode), spiritual memoirs written by women (The Very Worst Missionary, Out of Sorts, Inspired, and Christian mysticism (The Universal Christ). While these topics might only seem marginally connected, the reflect the interconnectedness — union — of who we are as humans – complicated and complex in our sexuality and spirituality, in our body and our soul.

Choosing to not drink is easy; sobriety is hard

I don’t mean that the act of not drinking is so difficult. I mean, it can be, especially on the Saturday of a long weekend where I just feel good all day, and what could make it better besides a lovely cocktail or two? In all honesty though, overall it hasn’t been difficult for me to choose to not drink.

That said, after posting this at the beginning of November, the de facto start to the American holiday season, I did imbibe on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Neither time was crazy. I had maybe two glasses of good wine. No hangover, not really any disrupted sleep. But it felt empty. Kind of pointless without the high.

So since Christmas Eve, I’ve abstained. And the difficult part has been the actual state of being sober. The fact that I’m not using alcohol as a proverbial lidocaine to numb my feelings feels a bit like drinking water from a firehose. Emotions are no longer dampened or delayed. They scream in your face, wanting attention, wanting to be dealt with and examined. Right. Now.

Sobriety and self-regulation go hand-in-hand. In my experience (your mileage may vary), you can’t navigate one successfully without the other. It doesn’t have to be sobriety as in abstinence from alcohol, either.

Back in March of the ill-fated year of 2020, I remember feeling like finally all my hard work in therapy had paid off because the world was closing in around us (that’s quite hyperbolic… but that’s 2020 for you) and I felt sober of mind. I felt like I could see the world from up above, and observe my own actions and thoughts rather than be my actions and thoughts. And it was freeing and overwhelming at the same time.

I remember thinking that even beyond work done in therapy, I had come a long way, being able to withstand an undetermined amount of time of isolation at home. Uncertainty everywhere else. I’d come a long way from the child or teenager who when she just couldn’t stand it anymore (pick whatever it you want) she went to her room and slammed the door. Or walked out of the house and slammed the door. I slammed doors a lot.

The slamming of a door, proverbial or literal, is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. As a teenager, I let the annoyances, sadness, and frustrations pile higher and higher because “You will be Little ladies,” and “You don’t need a nap during the day,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and “Do you want an attitude adjustment?” Instead of trying to enter the conversation, I was intimidated by whatever consequence awaited me (and I assumed there would be from prior experience). So I just grinned and bore it. Or didn’t grin. But definitely had to bear it. And then it would get to be so much that eventually I would yell so loud and slam the door so hard and cry so uncontrollably as I walked as fast as I could to my friend’s house across the church parking lot and present my emotional dysregulation volcano or dumpster fire or whatever metaphor you want. I made it someone else’s problem because I wasn’t given the skills or the safe space to practice. There was very little room for error, and especially since I was a high-achieving, super motivated student and responsible member of the family.

So now as a grown-ass adult, I am doing my best to realize when I am getting ready to slam a door, and being completely sober can make it even more difficult. But I don’t like slamming doors, or yelling, “I hate you!” or “I never want to see you again!” or “You don’t understand me and you never will!” so I try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

I’m still learning how to self-regulate. The third week in January, a four-day work week I might add, was one of great emotional dysregulation. By that Friday night, every single grief, worry, sadness, emotion was turned up loud. And the only way I knew how to navigate it was to just pull the plug from the wall. I’m still learning how to turn the volume dial.. like back in the day when you got a new boombox and the volume or tuner dial were oh-so-sensitive. Or when you accidentally gun the rental car out of the airport parking lot. Nothing under 90, amirite?

The problem with using alcohol or any substance to soothe is that the practice of regulating yourself is delayed. You might think, Yeah, I need to work through this, but not tonight. It’s been a week. I’ll relax tonight and deal with it another time. But doing that is only putting a kink in the hose. It’ll straighten itself out at some point and then where will you be?

I think one reason I don’t turn to alcohol when I’m confronted with negative experiences or emotions is that it isn’t my only coping mechanism. I think this is key. I write. I read. I go for a walk. I go for a run. I message a friend. I have other ways of turning down that dial, and those things have aided in my entire journey with alcohol.

Running is for humans

Early on in my running journey, I did anything and everything I could to not think about what I was actually doing with my body. I kept abreast of cracks in the sidewalk and gusts of wind. But if I could distract myself from the physical duress I was voluntarily enduring, I did.

Many times, though, I was convinced that my choice to run was not voluntary. It was some sort of cruel punishment for eating too much, or in anticipation of eating too much (Turkey Trots, anyone?). It was to get my body ready for a very long race that I had impulsively signed up for: marathons come to mind.

At first I felt so self-conscious running up and down University Street, a very busy thoroughfare with four lanes. I thought, surely people are wondering why this tall slightly overweight girl is flailing her arms and legs about. But what I learned is that no one cares, or very few people do. And the ones who do aren’t worth my time. I have my music up so loud I can’t hear them anyway.

I grew accustomed to the feeling of badassery and triumph upon completion of a run, whether it was 2 miles, 5 miles, or 15 miles. I’m a purist, so I relish the roundness of the number on my round watch face. I also loved the self-confidence that running imparted to me.

At the beginning I spent a lot of time choosing specific songs to add to my playlists, first on an iPod and finally on Spotify on my regular smartphone. There were many times, either running outside or working out at the gym, where forgetting to charge my phone or headphones would leave me mentally unable to hang with the planned activity for the day. And then guilt would enter, and then the next day I would work twice as hard to work off my guilt, and so on.

The other day I had an absolutely beautiful run. When trying to decide to go for the run or not, two things were not factors in my decisions. I ignored my slightly sore legs from walking and hiking the few days prior, and I ignored the blustery wind I saw from my home office window, bringing down the next-to-last stubborn leaves, not quite given the opportunity to complete their cycle.

As soon as work was done for the day, my physical body matched what had been going on in my head for a couple hours, and I stepped out the back door and pushed “start” on my watch.

Cue exactly 3.10 miles (I’m a purist, remember?) of bliss incurred by the combination of the autumn angle of the sun, a cool breeze off the river, the perfect pace, and the perfect music. I celebrated the best run I’d had in a long time and I’m sure my husband could tell you that my mood was elevated for the entire evening. I was high.

The high didn’t come from a manufactured experience like it did early on in my running days, nigh on a decade ago now. I wasn’t purposely trying to distract my entire being, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional, from what I was choosing to put my body through.

No, I was one hundred percent present. I was present with the leaves on the ground, their crunch barely audible above the Mumford and Sons song blaring in my ear. I was present with my breathing, very labored at the pace I was maintaining. I was present with the contact of my shoes on the sidewalk, then on the board walk, then on the road. I was present with the fact that so many people cannot run because they are sick with this virus ravaging the human race.

And then, I was present with my own thankfulness running up and down Union Avenue. For being alive, for being at the very heart of it, human. And that’s why I run.

Boundaries

I don’t normally write for this blog on my work laptop and I usually have my Sunday post done by now, but my personal laptop seems to be dead. At least for now. Quite a bummer, too, because I was working on a very cozy vibe for a mid-autumn Sunday morning – complete quiet, a drowsy and cloudy sunrise, French press coffee. A few years ago something like my laptop completely kicking the bucket would have really thrown me off, but here I am writing about it.

I think we can all agree that in this time of the pandemic, having boundaries is good and helpful. Obviously we have the concrete example of a face mask, a literal boundary that we wear every day. We have “social distancing” as another concrete physical boundary. I hope that people also are beginning to understand the importance of work/life boundaries.

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to this practice of creating and enforcing boundaries. Long before infertility, long before moving to the East Coast, tunneling through time to when Aaron and I were first married, I had to set a boundary with work and life. He had been laid off and was in the process of joining the military, active duty. I was in my first year of teaching – which many teachers say that no matter what, is like this year for everyone.

In February of that year, Aaron took his last paycheck at the job that laid him off, and he was set to leave for basic training in April. Only two months away. I knew that it would be at least ten weeks from the time he left for Missouri to the time I’d see him again, and who knows after that. So I created a boundary with work, that I would get what I needed to get done at work, and come home at a decent hour so we could take advantage of the time we had together.

My memories of my first year of teaching are becoming fuzzier as I make room for more memories of teaching high school, but I do remember that not everything got done every day. My to-do list was long and never-ending, but I had to draw a line in the sand and say, “Done. I’m done for the day.” Because spending time with my new husband was more important. Because enjoying time we had together before an enormous change in our life was important. I was fortunate to have to learn about boundaries so young.

As the years went on throughout our experience as a military family, many boundaries were created, especially with time. When he would come home for a visit, such as Christmas break during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or on leave from his tour in Korea, I would drop everything so we could 100% focus on being together – just the two of us and also with family. Yes, work was important, but our time and health of our marriage was more so.

As it turns out, this practice with concrete situations has really served me well throughout our time of attempting to add to our family, failing in the “natural” way, making decisions about which treatments to pursue if any, and then finally deciding to live without children.

It has not been easy, and for most of it I’ve been afraid of pissing other people off or at the very least, making them uncomfortable. However, at some point when you are so desperate for some peace and quiet in your mind, you stop caring about what people think and you just do what you need to do to feel safe.

I had not really considered that avenue before, as growing up I was taught to just deal with the feelings, push through, get over it… whatever phrases there were circulating from parents to children born in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, I heard it. I was taught to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I think that’s a good thing to teach your children, but it crosses a line when that becomes a detriment to the emotional safety of the individual.

Over the last six and a half years, since we officially started “trying” (those of you in the “actively trying” camp, please revise the list of jargon…), I and my husband both have had to lay down some boundaries.

Consequently, they have come in quite handy over the past few weeks. I’ve written a lot about church and the pressure on anyone who is not married with children to become married with children, be it single people, young married people thinking about becoming parents, or older people who have been widowed (minus the children part). I have a lot to say about the culture of the church, but I will leave that there for now.

There are many activities at church that just aren’t comfortable or welcoming for us. They weren’t even as young married people who weren’t ready for children yet. Trunk or Treats… small groups that are demographically alike… certain children’s ministries… They are all difficult, we have had to put our foot down about it. Sometimes we give a reason, sometimes we don’t. Mostly whether we give a reason or not depends on the apparent willingness to empathize of the intended party.

It had been awhile since I waved my infertility flag at church, probably since a Mother’s Day where I wrote in to the person who works on the service order and request that a single carnation be placed on the altar in honor of all mothers who could not become mothers for whatever reason. But I was asked to help out with a virtual “children’s/family ministry moment” and I had to decline, and in addition I have many feelings about the use of the word “family” in church vernacular.

Immediately when in my head I decided “Nope, can’t do it” all the justifications were running through my mind… Things like: ,Don’t get me wrong, I like kids but… or I just don’t have time right now…

But I didn’t use those to justify saying no. Instead, after reviewing the situation and the person asking, I decided to be honest and speak my peace. Having not done that in awhile, I was nervous… and this was over email! So I told the person something to the effect of, “Thank you for inviting me, but after our struggle with infertility, some things involving children are difficult and I cannot participate.” And guess what, my faith in humanity rose even the slightest bit with receiving a very empathetic and caring response.

So that happened shortly before Halloween.

Then Halloween arrived, and we were ready with costumes we bought from Walmart and full size candy bars. Yes, friends, we want to be those neighbors. Just like the folks who lived on Washington Street in our hometown gave out full size candy bars.

I really anticipated that I would be okay. The first few Halloweens of our infertility journey found me grocery shopping – all the kids would be out and about, so it was pretty peaceful to run my errands. For the past couple years, I sat on the fence, one foot in the tradition and one foot out – I would sit on my porch with candy, but have a drink in my hand. Alcohol does wonders for numbing feelings, let me tell you.

This year, I haven’t been drinking, so I’ve been having to deal with my feelings as they come up. It sucks when the feelings are in the “bad” category. And on Halloween, instead of participating like a “normal” human being (I’ve been lied to and tricked into thinking that alllllll Americans participate… and they don’t), I sat in my house, front porch light off, not dressed in my Halloween best, because at the last minute I had to draw a boundary. I didn’t anticipate it, but I whipped out that skill like a pumpkin pie out of the oven on Thanksgiving. (You can see where my mind is…)

So not only have I been running interference on boundaries, but my husband has as well on our behalf. It was pretty clear to him that I was struggling with some things and so when a situation arose with a family member, he shut it down. He didn’t even consult me first, and that felt really nice. Like he had my back. And that comes from me continuing to communicate about the boundaries I need and how I use them, and from his confidence in shutting down certain situations. We’re still a team, children or not, and that is worth its weight in….. candy bars? No, gold. It’s worth its weight in gold.

Fooling myself

For a good chunk of my life I had no idea how to relax. I would be so excited for what seemed like endless amounts of time on the weekends or school breaks, and then it would feel like I squandered it by doing… I don’t even know what, exactly.

By the time I reached high school, I simultaneously was excited for and dreaded breaks or time off. Through high school and college, I suffered from depression during those times, especially summers. The lack of routine and set schedule really got me down.

Since then, there’s been a push and pull of priorities, some due to the privileges I enjoy now and some due to many years of creating healthy boundaries and “work-life balance.”

In talking with my therapist the other day, I discovered that in the times I felt depressed on winter [or insert whatever holiday] break, I didn’t trust myself. During the week or times of routine, I relied heavily on my schedule to determine the appropriate times for all my activities. I hadn’t quite learned self-regulation of my own schedule.

For instance, I have a history of starting a project and either getting so carried away with that I can’t stop until it’s finished, or I leave it to collect dust for a number of months until I remember my fondness for it and dig it out of the pile of Misfit Projects. I think many times I would abandon a project because I would get too much into my own head about “wasting” time on something that I actually did enjoy instead of engaging in something more “productive.”

This practice of never penciling in unscheduled activities came to a fever pitch when Aaron was out and about (either in the field or deployed) with the military. Whether it was for two weeks, a month, or our longest separation of 10 months, I found myself jumping at every last opportunity to be busy or spend time away from the house. It was just too hard to be there alone.

There’s a long path of steps up to my current level of self-actualization that could not have occurred without those trying times and bouts of depression, however. I needed to go through the tough things to appreciate the good ones. To appreciate myself for who I am – independent, worthy of relaxation.

These days I still have a list of projects, some that are completed with a feverish pace, and others that sit for months until I pick them up again. I always am caught in a flurry of hobbies and love immersing myself in creative things when I’m not working. But no longer do I feel guilty or weird if I spend, for example, two hours on a Sunday afternoon napping, or watching football, or cooking food for the week.

I think the key is that I can’t have so many boundaries for myself during my time off. I need to allow myself a large swath of time to ponder, explore, and create. It keeps me mentally healthy. I inwardly rejoice even upon waking up early on a weekend morning, or especially upon waking up early on a weekend morning. I see nothing but potential for the day, be it through a cup (or entire French press) of coffee, reading, cross-stitching, napping, cooking, whatever. The joy in the day is not derived by the activity necessarily, but in the agency involved in choosing the activity. And having no regrets for how I spent my time.

Life right now is not at all what we planned it would look like. Humans are kind of programmed to predict events, so this pandemic really threw a wrench into everything. Nonetheless, it gives us a perfect opportunity to see our habits and actions for what they really bring to our lives – either how they serve us or how they manipulate or cause destruction.

In the view of the finite breaths we all have left, it’s imperative that we take the time to reflect on how we spend our time and if it’s all “worth it.” We can take everything out of our pockets, lay it out on the table, and really examine every piece in an objective light.

For me, hemming and hawing about the way I spend an hour or two, or even an entire day, doesn’t serve me well. If I complete an activity and then spend time regretting it, that is a waste to me, my friends.

In fact, I guess you could say I’d be fooling myself….

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.

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.

Just Say No, AKA the Year 2020

How are your New Year’s goals and resolutions going? Did you make any? I haven’t made them since probably around 2013 when I resolved to make the bed every day. I have to say, it’s stuck and I still make the bed five out of seven days.

Instead of resolutions, I try to stick with a theme that’s a bit more overarching and esoteric. 2019 was the year where I declared to myself to Be Honest. And I was. I was honest about everything from what I ate making my body feel like garbage to the nasty habit of rarely cleaning my bathroom to the negative garbage I continue to spew at the girl in the mirror. I was honest about my feelings about my weight, my house, paint colors on my walls, how I really feel about baby showers (heh), and about the things on my calendar that I actually like doing (I’m at about 70% right now).

It was a year of self-discovery, though I am ashamed that it took me 32, wait no, 33 years to discover the person I’m with all day long. But guys, I did it. And did I die? No. I did not.

Twenty-twenty is the year of Just Say No. I have to say that the DARE program with the cute little bear we got to pass around the class (and Mom made me tumble said bear in the dryer for no fewer than 30 minutes) didn’t do much for me in the way of saying no to drugs (probably because I came off as a goody-two-shoes and was never offered them…). But hell, it would have been nice if someone had told me as a young woman, There are going to be lots of people who will pressure you to do all the things. Just say no to 80% of the things, and focus on the other 20%. Nope, none of that.

I’m on to you, all you people who keep asking the same people over and over and over again to do more things. My type of people are responsible, organized, loyal, dependable, and sadly, but not so sadly for you, yes people. And frankly, I’m sick of it.

I know the door swings both ways. I do not absolve myself of responsibility in saying yes to all the things. And I will not deny that there was a time in my life I really needed to say yes to all the things… during college, for example (as in classes and papers and odd side jobs). During student teaching… working my way through new and different jobs the first ten years of my career as we moved around the country.

Goals are weird, amirite? You make a goal and think you want to reach it until you’re almost there, or actually there, and then it’s like, huh. Wow. Okay. That’s it? (This has been my personal experience for the accomplishment of many goals.) I think that actually, one of my goals all along has been to put myself in such a position that I could say no to things and either 1) not give a shit about what people think of that dreaded two-letter word coming out of my mouth and/or 2) financially and professionally afford to say no.

I’m now a recovering yes person on a multi-step program (don’t ask for specifics, maybe that’ll come later) to becoming a no person. So, let’s focus on the positive… what are the things I’m currently working on saying yes to in 2020?

  • Reading. Lots and lots of it. Mostly in front of my YouTube fireplace. With a dog. And a blankie. Because 10-year-old Elizabeth is resurfacing. My current goal is to read 40 books this year.
  • Spiritual introspection and discipline. Continuing to find new ways of approaching my Christian faith in a way that edifies myself and the Church.
  • Exercise that isn’t running. Gasp. Hold the damn phone. I know. This year I think might be a running sabbatical.
  • Making good food in my beautiful kitchen.
  • Drinking less caffeine. Also on the list of things that don’t make sense.
  • Being honest about who I am and what I want out of life. Approaching my weirdness with a curiosity rather than contempt.
  • Connecting with family and friends.
  • Reflecting and revising my teaching practice.
  • Making the bed every day (???)

[Insert conclusion here]. Aren’t conclusions the worst things to write? All said, I’m on this journey to become a more decent human being. To treat myself and other with respect and dignity. To stamp out evil and poverty of the mind. To expose myself to new experiences and live in the moment. Whew. Let’s do it.