We are paradoxically stuck in the process of moving. Sometimes I feel we’ll never stop moving, and we’ve never done anything except slog through moving. Not true, of course. It’s only been about 4 months.
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash
One of the fun things about moving, for me, is creating a new home. Rearranging possessions and furniture. Making new mental maps of space and how to navigate from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen. I’m looking forward to that, but every day it feels farther ahead in an unobtainable future.
I’m figuring out strategies to help myself through this.
Right now, I’m metaphorically rearranging my mental furniture.
Most people arrange their living rooms around the focal point of a screen. It’s funny to think that’s only been true for the last 100 years or so. I would hardly know what to do with a living room that does not contain a screen.
Currently, my mental and emotional living room is overwhelmed by a big screen on which the reality show Moving is endlessly and relentlessly playing. Attached to the screen, of course, are a sound system, remote controls, and all kinds of additional tech and equipment. Beside the screen is a neon calendar counting down the weeks to yet another closing date (our fourth), and along the bottom of the screen a continuous feed of rising interest rates and costs for everything from cat food (if you can find it) to heating oil. I don’t have room to breathe. I can’t escape the noise. I can’t pull my attention away. I feel imprisoned and disempowered.
I want it to be over, to turn it off, to turn away, to think about something else.
I have hot, red fantasies of sledge hammers and the sound of smashing glass. (This is an old fantasy. I am a secret wannabe serial TV screen murderer. Turn off the effing TV!)
Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash
I can’t do much about the fact that the only sheets I still have unpacked are flannel, boxes are stacked to the ceiling in one room, another room is filled with empty boxes, tape, packing material, markers, and objects waiting for the right sized container. I’m not going to start unpacking because the weeks are dragging on.
But I can do something about my internal landscape, and I have got to get that screen out of my living room! Turning it off is not enough. It has to go, along with the sound system, remote controls, calendar, and scrolling rising interest rates.
I decided, a few days ago, to Stop Caring. Just stop. At least, Stop Caring so much.
I did Stop Caring for a day or two. A friend asked me what I did over the weekend, as she knew I was going to Stop Caring about Moving. I told her I worried about not caring, and she laughed. Will I stay stuck forever if I don’t Care? Am I supposed to Care? Is Caring some integral part of the process? Is something wrong with me if I Stop Caring? Am I abandoning or betraying the cause? Am I giving up?
I know. It’s ridiculous. But all you worriers understand. I know you do!
Anyway, I realized after I Stopped Caring I was feeling depressed. And I asked myself, is not Caring the same as sinking into apathy and depression?
Well, if so, that’s not good. That’s not what I want, either.
It was a relief to Stop Caring for a while. But I don’t want to Stop Caring about everything. I mean, I still have work to do, and people to love, and words to write, and the cats to enjoy. I still want to listen to music and light candles and exercise. I still want to read, and laugh, and hang out with friends.
What I want is to push back against the feeling nothing matters except Moving, that there is no life until we’ve successfully made this transition. I don’t want to watch the clock, watch the calendar, watch my email, watch the interest rates, worry about contracts, and think about all the places and ways I have no power in this process. I want to Stop Caring about all that.
I have to decide what to care about and what not to care about, and then I have to be constantly present with where my attention is and disciplined about redirecting it.
Oh, good. Just what I need. More work.
If we don’t arrange our living room around a screen, how do we use that space? What can I look at instead of the screen?
Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash
A window and the world beyond it. The weather. The sky. The light. Birds and trees and all the other life responding to spring, feeling the call of mating, foraging for food, living their lives as temperatures moderate and the light strengthens.
A bookcase. If you don’t love books, this makes no sense to you. If you’re a bibliophile, I needn’t say more.
A fireplace, or hearth, or stove. A source of warmth, light, alchemy, primal comfort.
A piece of art.
A spiritual altar; maybe something as simple as a candle.
And so on.
The point is I have a choice about where my attention is and what I care about. Clock and calendar watching are not effective or useful. Neither is obsessing over the interest rate or compulsively checking my email and the latest real estate listings. In fact, those activities add to my stress and make time slow down. Far better to Stop Caring about the clock and calendar, shut the computer, and channel my Caring into enjoyable things, creative things, small tasks and pleasures anchoring me to everyday life right here, right now, in the pre-spring season in central Maine.
The places in which I have power deserve my Caring and attention. They deserve my effort and presence. I don’t need to squander my love and Care in places where it’s neither effective nor appreciated.
It’s my living room, and I’m choosing what’s in it.
As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.
Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.
Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.
I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).
At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.
Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.
Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.
Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?
The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.
Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.
I have no intention of going backwards.
Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.
We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.
Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.
Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?
(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)
I follow Courtney Carver’s blog, Be More With Less, and she coined a name for a dynamic that’s been a problem for me my whole life.
She calls it schedule shaming, and it describes “measuring who we are by what we accomplish.” Accomplish in the sense of produce. In other words, being mean to ourselves at the end of the day because we didn’t “do” enough.
I’ve known for several years this is a problem for me, but I haven’t had a way to change it until I read Courtney’s post. The remedy is so simple I’m embarrassed I didn’t come up with it myself. I’m usually good at this sort of thing.
Instead of listening to that internal voice about what we should have done and didn’t do, and what a lazy, worthless, waste of space we are, she suggests applying a new set of questions, a better set of questions, to determine our value.
A list! I like lists! I took the idea and ran with it:
What were my feelings today? (Feelings are single words like mad, glad, sad, scared and ashamed, and we can experience any combination and number of them.)
After reading Courtney’s post, making my list, and making notes for this post, I put all my focus on these replacement questions every time I started hearing that internal critic tell me I’m useless and don’t deserve to take up space.
I immediately noticed two things, and those things have remained unchanged every day since then.
I am a much nicer person when I don’t judge my worth by production.
I accomplish far more, with less resistance and more joy, than I did before.
I feel like a dumbass on a couple of levels. First, I know very well (who doesn’t?) a carrot always works better than a stick. Nobody has ever been able to beat me into submission, including myself. Love and connection motivate me far more than any kind of force or coercion. As for disapproval – spare me. I don’t give a damn about winning anyone’s approval. People have been disapproving of me my whole life no matter what I do. I’m used to it.
Second, I’ve struggled with schedule shaming forever, and when I say struggle, I mean self-loathing, self-harm, financial dysfunction, compulsion, speeding, and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. And all those years it was this easy to fix. All I needed to do was put being before doing and give myself permission and recognition for the person I naturally and honestly am.
The coronavirus has cast a harsh light onto the balance between being, doing, and having. I think about this kind of thing all the time anyway, but the shutdowns, furloughs, and limitations to our ability to live normally have made many people who were too busy and driven to notice such things newly aware. Interestingly, present circumstances have impacted our doing and having much more than our being. Being goes on, sick or well, rich or poor, working or not working, masked or unmasked. Being is what truly defines us, in spite of our attachment to things, activities, and identities. Without being, we’re just empty shells, and we really are wasting our lives, no matter what we accomplish or have.
Today I laughed until I ached at our kitten, Ozzy, who falls asleep on his feet and spends minutes with eyes tight shut, swaying and slumping, before he finally gives up and lies down. That’s what I remember about my day. I cleaned the kitchen, did a load of laundry, wrote, and dealt with the green caterpillars eating my growing dill, too, but none of that was as sweet, as real, or as important as laughing at Oz and the love and gratitude I feel for this small creature.
Last week, Thursday approached, arrived and passed, and I had nothing. Nothing to post; no insights, inspiration or coherent questions. No journeys, organized notes, serenity or discipline.
What I did have was the feeling I was inadequate, ridiculously undisciplined and failing to manage my stress and anxiety. I had a collection of entirely made-up apocalyptic stories about the future and a migraine headache. I had worries about friends and their families, people who were sick and couldn’t get seen or tested for coronavirus or anything else. I had rumors about numbers of infected community people that couldn’t be either confirmed or denied. I had pacing, restlessness, climbing the walls, apathy, and a feeling of futility and disconnection I called depression. I had hours invested in online Mahjongg solitaire.
I also had squirrels in the ceiling of my attic aerie, scampering, wrestling, playing, gnawing, and making soft sweeping noises that sounded very much like making a nest. By day, the noise was distracting, even if I did smile in sympathy because it sounded like they were having so much fun. The gnawing, however, was maddening, as we could neither locate the exact location of the animal(s) or the access point(s). It sounded like they were going to come through the wall into the room any minute.
By night, their noisy activity was beyond distracting. As I lay staring up at the ceiling over my bed, I thought bitterly they were having much more fun this spring than I am. They also had a lot more energy than me. Nice for some people to have a night of romance, play and planning for a family in a cozy, sheltered place.
Squirrels are rotten roommates.
My partner and I missed walking for a few days due to weather (cold, windy, and more snow — Aargh!), and just feeling out of sorts in general.
When we finally did get out again during a breezy but reasonably mild sunny afternoon, as we walked up the hill my partner asked me a question:
“Have you ever felt yourself to be a good girl?”
Wow. What a terrific question. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I had never asked myself that question before.
It didn’t take any thought.
One of the first things I knew about myself is that I was not a good girl. I am not a good girl. Not in any sense of the word. I’m not a good female. I wasn’t a good daughter, sister, mother or wife (especially wife!).
After that immediate knee-jerk response, though, I really thought about the question, at which point I wondered what, exactly the definition of good is. A little bell began ringing in the back of my head. Hadn’t I written about good and bad in some other context lately?
As we walked that day, my partner and I played with the concept of being good or bad, how we form such pieces of identity, and how we are shaped and influenced by our self-definition. My partner said that being a “good girl” means being an obedientgirl.
Well. If that’s true, no wonder I’ve never been a good girl! My best friend couldn’t truthfully call me obedient. I noticed I immediately stopped feeling hopeless, worthless, tearful and miserable, thoroughly distracted by the conversation. In fact, I suddenly felt amused.
Somewhere inside me is a three-year-old who equates being good with feeling loved. I know, intellectually, that’s nonsense, but evidently I can’t quite get it emotionally. I keep thinking I’ve dealt with this thing as I’ve worked on my pernicious habit of people pleasing and deconstructed so many old beliefs and patterns, but a certain kind of stress and experience dumps me right back into my three-year-old self before I know what’s happening.
At that point, I temporarily forget every step of the long journey I’ve made in reclaiming myself and my power.
I went back and found my post about good and bad creative work. It made me smile, because as I wrote it, it never occurred to me to take the concepts of good and bad a step further and think about them as they apply to who we believe we are as people.
Here’s a brief review of the definitions of good and bad from Oxford Online Dictionary:
Good: “To be desired or approved of,” “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad: “Of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”
So what have we got? Two entirely subjective black-and-white descriptors, that’s what we’ve got. Furthermore, neither have a thing to do with unconditional love, which is the only kind worth giving or receiving, as far as I’m concerned. “Love” predicated on compliance and obedience isn’t love at all, it’s a toxic mimic and a control tactic.
If being good is being obedient, I have no interest in it. Neither do I have interest in being bad. Both are non-concepts. Good and bad have no power unless I have no power.
Goodness and badness are as impotent and limiting as compliance and obedience. There is no there there, no wildness, no creativity, no complexity, no gravid chaos, no resilience or flexibility, no authenticity, and no personal power.
Am I a good girl?
God, no! My whole life I’ve been so much more than that!
Like so many clichés, “Oh, no, not another ‘growth’ opportunity!” is obnoxious, in large part because it’s true.
Opportunity, or a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something (Oxford Online Dictionary), does not guarantee a positive outcome, and is most definitely a gift with strings attached.
I would go so far as to say the greatest opportunities are likely to be hidden under paralyzing layers of fear, dread, and pain.
Opportunity demands responsibility. No wonder we so often avoid it! It takes a determined effort to excavate opportunity, an effort requiring time, honesty, and dealing with our emotions, defenses, habits and denial.
Hence, the cliché. Growth is frequently uncomfortable and expensive.
I suspect every one of us has a secret list in our heads of events and possibilities we simply cannot face. Usually, we feel that way because we’ve already lived through them and they were so traumatic we’re determined to never go there again. In essence, we’re afraid of ghosts. We think we’ll die if we have to face another loss, another attack, another rejection or another battle, forgetting we’ve obviously survived the first time(s), and thus are older and wiser.
What to do when we fear we’ll have to revisit some traumatic setting or situation? Freeze? Fight? Flee?
Probably all of those, in one form or another. Yet there is another choice. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s an option.
Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.
Setting aside for a moment our history, our memories, our stories and scripts about what did happen and what will surely happen again, setting aside our fear, rage and pain, wiping the blood out of our eyes, taking a deep breath and searching for opportunity is the work of heroes. Such a choice feeds our power, rather than diminishing it.
If we can catch even a glimpse, a whisper, a rumor of opportunity, the next step is to identify what we might do with the circumstances we dread most. What is that dread about? What has not healed?
What, in fact, do we need, and how do we turn the circumstances we most fear and wish to avoid into an opportunity for hope, healing, closure, forgiveness, letting go, or whatever it is we need to do?
Now, there’s a mighty question.
Some things in life are inevitable. We can kick and scream, deny and avoid, distract and pretend, but we know some things are inevitable. I’d rather figure out how to think about inevitabilities before they occur. I can’t think when I’m shaking with dread. Dread is a dead end. It fills my mind with a dull roar, it overwhelms my senses, and it hangs out with despair, depression, powerlessness, futility and a lot of other bad actors I don’t want to have anything to do with.
Dread makes me want to run like a panicked rabbit. Opportunity embraces me like a mother.
It is possible to insist our emotions, like fear and dread, sit quietly on a bench (with beer, bubble gum and baseball cards to keep them occupied) while we interview Opportunity. It takes some practice and self-discipline, but we can succeed in feeling our feelings and setting overwhelming emotion to the side unless we’re being actively hurt in real time.
Here are some interview questions for Opportunity: