What to do when having a bad day? Or a bad couple of days? What does that even mean, to have a bad day?
For me, it means feeling extremely low in spirit. And it happens. I’m trying to track these low days, to figure out whether there is a pattern. On Monday, on my desk calendar, I wrote: “feeling very low.” On Tuesday: “still low.” Today I didn’t write anything, probably because I am feeling a bit better.
I’ve noticed a few things, during these low couple of days.
First, I noticed that I’d quit Twitter and hadn’t replaced that social media scroll with anything in particular … which sounds amazing and very healthy and all the rest of it, but in fact, has contributed to this low feeling, because Twitter and doomscrolling was exactly as soothing as any addiction, it was a distraction from my own inner life, and without it, I’m left facing: my own inner life.
And a whole collection of anxieties, fears, doubts, and nameless sadness lurks inside here. It was easier not to notice when I was busy distracting myself.
This is the push of the pandemic as a whole. It dares us to pause and observe what’s waiting to be noticed underneath our once-busy schedules, our racing around, our frantic quests for acknowledgement and personal satisfaction. Here I am.
What’s come up this week is a recognition that I’m still struggling to come to peace with certain childhood indignities, specifically the feeling of being an outsider always looking in but never fully understanding what’s going on (we moved often, and lived in a few different countries); being an outsider gave me the gift of observation, but what I’ve been more reluctant to acknowledge is that it also dug a hole of insecurities that manifests in unlikeable and unpleasant ways when I’m feeling … well … low …
Oh, how I attempt to protect myself from even the smallest rejection, from loss, from disappointment.
For example. I had a mini-tantrum at the dinner table several nights ago, when I wanted the last piece of pie and didn’t get it. I could have had a tart instead, but I wanted that last piece of pie and, also, I thought my children should have appreciated and loved me enough to give me the last piece of pie. (They may not have seen that piece of pie in quite the same way). I said (and this is an exact quote): “If I don’t get what I want, I don’t want anything at all.” I might as well have stomped my foot before running out of the room. I mean, I didn’t. I spoke in a calm and rational (if petulant) tone, but the words and the feeling were undeniably childish; and I did leave the room. One of my kids said, Mom, I can’t tell if you’re kidding right now. And my inner child said, I’m not kidding!
This got me thinking about two guiding principles I’ve been living by, and would like to stop living by, mostly because I hadn’t realized until recently that I was living by them.
The first is: Save it for later.
The second is: If I don’t get what I want, I don’t want anything at all. Or: I’d rather quit than lose.
Save it for later, as my siblings could tell you, goes back to early childhood, when I would hoard my Easter bunny, uneaten, for MONTHS. The end result, predictably, was that the candy become completely inedible, melting into a sticky disgusting mass hidden away in my sock drawer. This had the effect of not only depriving me of enjoying the original treat, but also of depriving anyone else of enjoying it too. It’s quite possible that I actually didn’t like chocolate Easter bunnies and could have given the candy away to my brothers; but I didn’t. Instead, I hoarded it like I was preparing for the apocalypse. The perfect time to eat it simply never came. Note to self: It never will.
I still do this. I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to eat the chocolate now, or share it, if I don’t want it. I’m trying to treat myself, and others, to little luxuries, today, right now. It takes practice. It’s a pretty sweet practice to practice, though.
I guess the outlook is to change from a scarcity mindset to a mindset of plenty, of abundance; not hedonism, but simply enough.
I’d rather quit than lose, my siblings could also probably weigh in on. Suffice it to say, it’s a shitty way to live a life. And I’ve only just noticed that this tendency is bubbling up in me again; thought I’d cured it over the years by committing to do a bunch of things I was guaranteed never going to win at—like running races, or coaching soccer.
This mindset comes with its own sub-mindset that is a bit more complicated, but summarizes roughly as: If this is as good as I’m going to get, I’m outta here. It’s about sensing when I’m reaching my own limitations and becoming frustrated with my inability to progress. I know this was part of what frustrated me with coaching, and with teaching; I was okay at both, learned lots and absorbed lots pretty quickly, but plateaued: it would have taken so much work to get even incrementally better, and it started not to seem worth it. I don’t like being okay at things. I like to be (dare I say it?) the best.
I’m going to dare to say it, because it’s my only chance of excavating that belief, and leaving it by the side of the road.
To sum up (should I even try to sum up this mess of a post???) …
Remove an addiction and you’re going to notice issues surfacing that were conveniently masked by said addiction.
This is a bit scary. But maybe your childhood self has some messages you’ll be able to hear again. Maybe you’d like a shot at changing some of those things that are, admittedly, painful, even excruciatingly painful, embarrassing, humiliating, frightening, etc., to notice.
One last thing: Make sure to tell someone if you’re feeling low. It’s really really hard, and it really really helps, just to confess out loud: I’m struggling here. Here’s the thing: other people can’t read your mind. I know it’s hard. But reach out and tell someone. The alternative is to keep sinking lower and lower, and that becomes quite a dangerous thing. Just so you know, I did reach out and talk to someone, and it made me feel almost instantly better. Didn’t fix the lowness, exactly, but immediately I felt less alone. My inner child was so relieved.
Find your safe person, or a counsellor. Please. A bad day can feel like the end of the world; it doesn’t have to be. You might feel selfish or foolish or ashamed to be asking for help, especially if you’re seen as (or see yourself as) a high-functioning person who wears a mask of competence. We’ve all got our masks on, and sometimes the person behind the mask just needs to take it off and be seen.
My goal is keep my mask off. Someday. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, helping my inner child through the important life experience of not getting the last piece of pie.
I have a toothache. It’s affecting my outlook, I confess. This is the week of doing things that need to get done, so I’m going to see a dentist. To tell the truth, I kind of want the tooth just pulled. Last fall, I paid for an expensive root canal and less than a year later, the ache is back; was it worth the drilling and pain and cost?
It occurs to me, as I write this out, that pulling the tooth — the desire to pull the tooth, and be done with it — is a metaphor that perhaps I should explore in more depth.
Let’s assume I want to pull the tooth. Am I, therefore, the sort of person who rips painful problems from her life, leaving gaping holes, rather than spend the time and energy to fix them? Or am I the sort of person who recognizes that the fix is a scam, that when all the work is done, the tooth will just be hollowed out and crammed with filler, a shell of its former self, shored up for cosmetic purposes? It’s interesting, isn’t it, how a metaphor can be twisted any which way, to support opposing views.
Maybe it’s just a toothache. But I want it fixed!
All the fixes are imperfect, okay, I accept that. My question is: Which imperfect fix is worth it, given the costs? How can I ever know, when I’m trying to sort these things out? What’s the healthiest allocation of resources, what’s important to prioritize, what will I miss when it’s gone? No wonder it’s so hard, when making a choice, to say no — it feels like giving up, but also, it feels like an absence, a void, is scarier to accept than something known, even if the known thing is causing pain and can’t be perfectly put right again.
I know, I know. I’m over-thinking.
One of the problems of the pandemic is seeing fewer people, less often. It’s a recipe for unchecked eccentricities!
A friend said to me that she asks herself (and others): What do you want to do, and what can you do?
Another friend recommended long ago not to choose resentment over discomfort. Or at least to notice if it’s become a habit: truth is, if it’s what you’re accustomed to, resentment feels easier to accept than discomfort. Many of us (women, especially) are socialized to believe that feeling discomfort is bad and wrong, and that, when we feel it, we are bad and wrong, or we’ve done something bad and wrong. Resentment, by contrast, is an outer-facing feeling — blame someone else, blame the situation, blame anything but your own choice. Oh, resentment, you’re so easy to step into and you go on and on and on.
I think these are similar philosophies that acknowledge the difficulty, the fraught-ness, of decision-making. And I’m making decisions, choices, whether by doing or not-doing, all day long; some more consequential than others, but all fed by my private interior calculations that take into account (unconsciously, more often than not) my values, my relationship to others, my whims, my interpretation of available resources.
My daughter, Annabella, says that human beings have limited will-power, and that’s why routines are so important: a habit is a choice already made, and our energy can be spent making other choices, instead.
What do I want to do, and what can I do?
I want my tooth to stop aching. I also want the least expensive, least complicated option. But I don’t know: will I feel ugly or self-conscious if there’s a gap in my teeth?
I wonder how often I make choices based on how I imagine I’ll be perceived.
This post was never about the toothache. Not exactly. I like how these posts drift into the unexpected, into the weeds. I don’t know what’s waiting to be found till I come here and look around. More and more, I appreciate that this space exists, whatever its nebulous purpose. It feels like there’s room here for nuance and exploration and questioning, and eccentricity. I wander out into this space to make a few observations, see if anyone’s around. This is my overgrown empty lot in the middle of the city. This is my front lawn.
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
Celebration; grief. This is me, right now.
How to hold two extreme emotional states within one mind and body, all at once? I can’t do it. Instead, I seem to have landed somewhere in the middle, in flatness that speaks of protection, flatness that is an antidote to fear, but also to joy.
I can’t reveal more, and recognize that it may seem disingenuous or deceptive to hint at drama without offering details. I apologize. I don’t mean to be locked down, or to seem vague or untruthful; but also, this is too much of me not to speak of it at all. The depth of grief involves a personal situation, close to my heart, and I’m unlikely ever to reveal details outside my very closest circle. The height that deserves celebration involves my professional life; and this, I think, will be revealed more widely in due course, just not yet.
To say that I am distracted would be an understatement.
To say that I am challenged is accurate, but not strong enough.
To say I’m hanging in here, staying focused on what matters, jettisoning temporarily all that can be let go, surviving, feeding myself, breathing, reaching out to ask for help as needed, is true, all true.
I look forward to sharing my good news, in good time.
Saturday morning, just as kids were gearing up for soccer tryouts (parents too, as we’re both coaching rep teams), Kevin came into the kitchen and quietly said, “The vet just called.” I could tell from his expression that the news wasn’t good. One of our beloved dogs, DJ, has a suspicious lump in her mouth, and the vet thought it might be cancer.
And it is.
And so, with tears in our eyes, we told the kids, all of them gathered around the dining room table playing a board game together, in their soccer gear. There were many tears. We don’t know what will happen next, but as F (age 11) and I walked the dogs later on that day, she had many questions, many thoughts. “DJ doesn’t deserve this!” (No one deserves this.) “Do you think DJ knows she has cancer? I don’t think she knows. Maybe it’s good that she doesn’t know.” “I don’t want DJ to feel any pain!”
We decided that we would be grateful that DJ is currently her usual self, not showing any signs of pain or distress, eating well, and enjoying her walks and naps. But it is still hard not to worry about the future.
I have no time for this post, it has been written in a hurry. But I must explain that photo at the top of this post.
The kids had the Terry Fox run at their school last week, before we had DJ’s diagnosis, and CJ (age 8) came home with a large sticker which he stuck onto our kitchen counter. It reads (and I’m correcting his spelling): “Terry ran for me. I am running for … my step-grandma and maybe my dog.” F also ran for her step-grandma.
There are too many people to run for. I’m sure you have your people too.
Sending love and hope out into the universe.
“I don’t see why you have an office, Mom, when you’re so happy writing in the car.”
My laptop was the best investment I’ve made, writing-wise. It comes with me to the pool, to the backyard, to the couch, to various soccer fields, to parking lots, and of course, to my pocket-sized car, aka the Chub-Chub.
I spent this past week driving my eldest daughter to a soccer camp about an hour away. That meant I had to stay for the day, which, trust me, was all part of my master plan. In this way, I carved out a writing week (or four days), mostly spent sitting in the back seat of the Chub-Chub. I napped there. I ate snacks there. I read stories there. And I wrote there. Next week, I’m off to a writing workshop in New York State, where I will be an anonymous participant: camping with a friend in our family’s enormous ten; eating vegetarian meals; doing yoga at dawn (if the mood strikes); and writing, of course.
On Sunday, I put that tent together all by myself. I was perhaps unreasonably proud of the accomplishment, as you can see from my body language, above. I’m not mechanically minded and this is the sort of endeavour I happily off-load onto to Kevin, but I did it with a little help from a YouTube video (an elderly couple lifting up a tent that vaguely resembled ours), and a lot of thinking, and some jumping and throwing (the tent is very tall and I am not, and getting the fly on is really a two-person job). It took over an hour, I will confess. In the end, I observed that seeing behind the scenes to the mechanics of production does not inspire confidence. I preferred not knowing that this airy structure over my head was made merely of thin rods and poles stuck through nylon sleeves. There is knowing, and there is knowing. There is knowing in a theoretical, yes, dear, way. And there is knowing in a visceral, I hammered those stakes myself way. And the thunderstorm that threatened the afternoon seemed much more threatening when I’d built the damn tent myself, and knew its materials intimately.
To be responsible is to be forced to confront vulnerability. That is my observation about growing up, generally. The older I get, the more fragile the structures around me seem. The more tenuous. The more invented, in a way. What I mean is that the security of everything I hold precious and dear, even my beliefs, is supported by a certain level of cognitive dissonance, but also by the suspension of disbelief. To dig in, to help build, to get my hands dirty, to make or unmake, is, for me, to witness the complexity and arbitrariness of experience, of life itself, against which there can be no absolute assurances of safety and security.
All of this from putting up a tent in our back yard.
And, also, from sitting with my laptop and thinking and thinking and thinking.
PS Yes, I have my voice back. It is weak and a bit raspy and rough, but it exists, and I am once again in the world, where it is so much easier to participate with working vocal chords.
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