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….

On the edge of thirty-five

There’s been a lot that’s come up in recent months that I haven’t expected to address right now. And lots that I have expected. On the surface, I will be reaching “advanced maternal age” when I turn 35 in April 2021, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t have children over whom to be maternal. They say 35 is just an age… but for a woman, that doesn’t seem to be true. In addition to changes wrought by nature, it brings some existential questions to mind.

My sisters have always told me I’ve been perpetually 35 my whole life. I think they mean that I’ve always been this responsible, mature, get-shit-done sort of person. Now that I’m getting to actually be 35, will I still be “35” in their eyes even after I surpass that age? I think when you hit certain milestone ages, you think about what your predecessors were doing when they were your age. First of all, my mom had a 13-year-old (me) when she was 35. It’s a sober reminder that I’m literally old enough to be the mother of some of my high school students.

Thirty-five is the roundabout age when women begin perimenopause. I read about this recently in the book In the Flo and was floored. It’s one reason I decided to cut out alcohol and make sure I’m keeping my hormones happy and healthy. According to research, what happens in perimenopause determines how awful or how not awful menopause can be. (I’m still reading up on all of this, but from what I can gather so far from hearing family members’ experiences, menopause is either awful or not awful. Change my mind.)

There’s some major cognitive dissonance to address, thinking about my reproductive life in the last third of its reign (though I’m not necessarily complaining…) and also the many years I could potentially live post-menopause. If I become as old as my Nana was when she passed away in August, I could live several decades past menopause (she was 104).

The last thing I want to mention about “35” is that I had a certain vision of future Elizabeth and who she was as a person when I was a wee lass. Thirty-five year old Elizabeth would live a life that encompassed being a mother and a wife. But I think even more than that, past Elizabeth would want to see future-soon-to-be-present Elizabeth have characteristics like integrity, perseverance, healthy mental faculties, emotional strength. Know a lot about a lot of things. Have many interests. Be interested in people. Know how to comfort someone when they’re grieving or sad or upset. Know how to set boundaries and live within them.

Maybe beyond the age of 30 people see the next milestone as 40. But I think there’s something about 35. And I don’t think I’m the only one… John Mellencamp mentioned “17 has turned 35” in one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums, “Cherry Bomb”. (He’s from Indiana, so a fellow Midwesterner. He speaks to my heart.)

“Seventeen has turned thirty-five,
I’m surprised that we’re still livin'”

And when I think of “17” being sung in a song, what else can I think about, who else can I think about besides Stevie Nicks with “Edge of Seventeen”?

“And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own
I begin again”

I think both of those ages are precursors to the next phase of one’s life; 17, to young adulthood, and 35 to…. adulthood? (Surely not middle age? But I guess if the median life expectancy in the US is 78, 35 is pretty much middle age…)

What’s classic about the Stevie Nicks song, and why it came to mind even though I was thinking about 35, is that many of the existential angst one has at 17 can still be a thing at 35, at least for me. The questions I wrestle with may be different, but there is wrestling all the same. I know the moves, I can anticipate the hits a bit more. But there are still questions that knock me off my feet and steal my breath.

With Mellencamp, his lyrics show that 18 years, the time between 17 and 35, can just be gone in the blink of an eye. Essentially, that’s a lifetime. My adulthood has almost reached the age of an adult… let me think about that one for a minute.

All in all, it totally makes sense that I’m having these feelings about turning 35. To clarify, I don’t feel “bad” or “good” about turning 35. Generally, I’ve been very grateful for reaching and living through my thirties. Because of the self-awareness and the space I’ve given myself, I feel that I have learned and grown more in the past almost-five years than I have for a decade or more. Of course, I did grow so much over my twenties, but now I’m aware and woke enough to see it.

Inevitably, thinking about 35 and the music that plays and has played a huge role in my formation makes me think about where I came from, the land I was brought up on, the land that my forefathers and foremothers turned 35 on. These thoughts and ponderings slowly turn the wheel of grief as well, thinking about those who have passed on. I ponder, I meditate, I try to commune, I remember, I cry, I grieve, I comfort myself, I sleep, I rise again to another day, and on and on.

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.

The Mean Girl in the Mirror

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You’re too tall. You’d better feign an interest in sports so people think you’re living up to your height.

You’re too skinny and too tall.

Your handwriting sucks. Erase and write your name again. And again.

Be careful about showing too much of the silhouette of your body. Men will make noises at you when you walk down the street. You’d better wear baggy clothes.

Glasses make people look smart, but they make you look too smart.

You messed up again when practicing that song on the piano. Better start over.

No one wants a smarty pants for a friend.

No one wants a smarty pants for a girlfriend.

You suck at playing piano. You didn’t practice enough and that’s why you messed up. You deserved it.

You don’t know how to do your makeup. You should learn because you can’t look as pretty as the girls who do.

Stop being so emotional. People don’t care if you feel sad about that. You’re too sensitive.

You don’t have a mental health problem. What could you ever be depressed about?

You need to get all A’s otherwise your parents won’t love you as much.

You need to pick a career that’s good for a family otherwise a man won’t want to marry you.

Stop caring so much. It’s exhausting. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway.

You’re dirty and slutty for thinking about sex.

Don’t wear that; it might tempt your boyfriend to have sex with you.

Why did you have sex again? I told you that if you did, you are weak and can’t control yourself.

I can’t believe you think you’re old enough to get married. Are you sure he even loves you?

Now you’re fat. See what happens when you don’t exercise and eat right? You have no control.

Stop eating that! Run more. It’s good if you let yourself be a little hungry. You’ll look better.

From the side you still look chubby. Suck it in.

Your thighs are too big. Why do they still touch? Haven’t you been working out?

Look at how ugly your veins are, I can see them under your skin.

Check over that email again and fix it. No one’s going to take you seriously if you write like an idiot.

Your body sucks. You can’t even grow another human. What’s wrong with you?

He’s going to leave you if you can’t get pregnant. Stop disappointing him. And stop crying about it.

Another glass of wine? I told you a long time ago you don’t have any self control. I told you so.

You need to make sure you look good. What if he dies and you need to find a new husband? No man is going to want a woman who looks like that.

He says he loves you but maybe being together now is just easier than not.

Why did you say that? Just stop talking. You’re so annoying.

Did you see the way she looked at you? No wonder you don’t have any friends. No one wants to be your friend.

You’re well into your thirties now. Why haven’t you figured this out yet? 

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