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I was on the phone in my car and on the verge of tears because I couldn’t figure out where my new endocrinologist’s office was. I could hear my voice cracking each time I talked. The receptionist asked if I was on the side by the hospital and I told her, “No. I’m looking at a parking garage and there are buildings that say ‘Doctor Offices’ labeled 1230 and 1240 next to me.”
Even though I know I steered away from the signs pointing to the hospital, she tells me, “You’re on the side where the hospital is. You need to come across the street.”
I don’t know what she finally said that made me realize I was supposed to be at 1243 Cedar Crest, not 1234 Cedar Crest that I had entered into my GPS, and I was indeed in the entirely wrong complex of buildings and needed to cross the actual street…not the road in the parking lot which I thought she had been referencing. But as soon as I figured out where I had gone wrong and how I could easily correct it, I was fine.
Prior to that, I was an intelligent and successful 52 year old woman with all the blessings in the world ready to cry in frustration because I couldn’t figure out how to get to my doctor’s office.
Doctor visits have been like that for me. I keep trying to prioritize my health, but I have had too many doctors in too many places in too short a time. A doctor asks me when I last had a thyroid ultrasound or bloodwork or a mammogram, or they ask where I’ve had work done, or they ask for the name of my prior doctor or where my medical records are. And every single question feels overwhelming and reminds me that I have lost track of things. I’m a person who enjoys trivia games, who performs well on standardized tests, who organizes and manages and streamlines. And I sit in front of each doctor and flounder.
Often when I write, I imagine readers. Right now, I’m imagining readers thinking, “Why don’t you take a few minutes before an appointment to review what you might need to know?” or “I track all my medical information using this app. Here, this will help you” while writing down the name of the app and sliding it over to me or “How many doctors does this woman have that she can’t keep track??”
Readers, it’s not just the doctor. It’s all that comes from moving multiple times in a short span–the doctors and hairdressers and tailors and grocery stores. The new roads, the new routines. Every single thing taking more brain power because it’s all new.
And, for me, at the same time, the divorce and the kids growing up and my mom dying and new job, new job, new job.
I’m doing what I can. Can I do more to make my doctor visits go better? Sure. But right now my resources are going towards other things, and I’m rocking a good percentage of it, so doctor visits are both a high point (“Good job, Laurie. You’re taking care of yourself!”) and a low point (“Why the fuck don’t you know what’s going on, Laurie?”). Readers, it’s okay. I know why I’ve lost track. It’s because of a lot of change in a short span of time and I only have so many resources, only so much energy.
So I am gentle with myself and do some self-soothing right after the moment of cursing myself out.
Yesterday, I had a rough day. It was mole hills that felt like mountains. I’m now up in the middle of the night writing it out. Monday was the day I was lost in the parking lot while trying to find my endocrinologist. (I’m laughing as I write that sentence!) Tuesday, yesterday, was the day I tried to be productive during my lunch hour because the weather looked damp and yucky and not great for walking.
I called to schedule a colonoscopy. My new primary care physician (PCP), near my workplace in Kutztown, had advised me to schedule it when I saw her in March. I tried to make an appointment in April or May in the Scranton area where I lived at the time, but it was somehow a LOT of extra trouble to have a PCP in one health network and get a colonoscopy in a different health network, so I gave up and decided I would do it after I moved closer to work.
That moved happened in late June, and the next months were pretty busy–you know, moving itself, plus my mom dying and my son’s high school graduation party and both kids going to college.
That brings us to yesterday. Tuesday. My lunch hour. I called to schedule a colonoscopy. I was on hold for a half hour. (Don’t worry. I did some productive research writing while on hold. That’s my new habit, writing during lunch in addition to walking, and it’s been great. But, still. On hold. Thirty minutes.) Once someone picked up, she took down all my info, and then she said if it had been longer than six months since I had seen my PCP, I would need to have an appointment with their office prior to scheduling the colonoscopy because they needed to do a health check.
You know what? I completely respect that they need to do certain things to take care of patients and prevent Bad Things from happening.
You know what else? I told her I would just wait and have the colonoscopy in the spring of 2022 after my next annual physical.
You know what else? Just scheduling the colonoscopy appointment is a big deal for me because it strikes a chord of vulnerability. No, not because of the yucky prep and the going under and the having my insides checked out, but thanks for reminding me of all that. No, the colonoscopy appointment reminds me of my vulnerability because I don’t have anyone to take me. I was thinking I might uber, but I just had a colleague take the afternoon off to take care of her partner who had a colonoscopy, a plan that the doctor advised, and I’m thinking I might need more than uber. I talked to my sister Janet about my angst yesterday, and I cried on the phone, and I said, “I don’t have anyone to take care of me.” If those aren’t the words of someone whose mom has recently died, well…
Janet, of course, volunteered to drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to take care of me when I eventually schedule my colonoscopy. And I told her I actually would ask someone closer when it came down to it, and I knew I was exaggerating when I said I have no one to take care of me. I have lots of people. Lots and lots.
(If you’re reading this and your instinct is to volunteer to be my colonoscopy chauffeur, please know that I appreciate it, but I’m not writing to problem solve. I’ll go ahead and ask for the help when the time comes. I’m writing more to work my way through my angst.)
Anyhow. Janet heard what I was saying. I was saying that I’m living alone for the first time in my life, and it’s a new experience to not have a go-to person to be there when you need a colonoscopy. The colonoscopy may be a metaphor for a whole lot of things, right?
There was more yesterday. I called my PCP because I picked at a skin tag and now it’s infected, and I was on hold again (but only for 13 minutes that time!), and there are no openings at her office this week, and I just said never mind. Another mole hill. Another mountain. I’ll visit an urgent care place if it gets worse, I guess. And avoid picking at skin in the future. (Again, I’m making myself laugh as I write. Did I mention that I’m a grown-ass adult?)
So yesterday was a weepy day. And now I’m awake in the middle of the night. And I think my internet is down. And that really sucks here because I have no cell reception so I feel cut off from the world and can’t even do a hot spot thing to get myself connected. Another metaphor? Whatever.
But even though I’m indulging my very real feelings of angst and validating them as reasonable given the circumstances, I’m also not stuck in them. Yes, I’m sometimes overwhelmed. And I’m also figuring it out. Yes, I’ve had too much change in too short a span of time. And a lot of that change has been good and healthy, and I’ve been working to minimize change so I can put my energy into things other than figuring out new thing after new thing. Yes, I may not have an internet connection right now. And I will eventually, and there’s really no rush. Yes, I may be a bit more alone than what I was used to and might need to make a bit more effort to ask others for help when I need it. And I have a lot of people I can turn to.
Yes, sometimes mole hills feel like mountains. And mountains can be fucking beautiful.
My friend Angela and I were chatting. Almost every time she asked a question about how a part of my life was going, I found myself answering with negativity, complaints, disgruntled observations.
At some point, I followed up and observed that I knew I sounded angsty and like things were terrible. But they aren’t. I said, “I don’t know. I’m cranky in this moment. I’m just…”
“Out of sorts,” Angela said. “That’s something my mother would say to describe that feeling. You have so much that’s unstable and in flux right now, so it’s hard to feel settled and okay.”
“Yes.” I felt seen. “Out of sorts.”
As I write this, I’m in bed. It’s 5:45am. I think I’ve been awake since 1:35, though I may have dozed off for a time. I don’t know. I started looking at texts, email, and social media on my phone at about 4:00am. I got up and fed the cats at 5:00ish. They’re on my bed lounging with me now.
Today is August 13th. I’ve been living in this house I’m renting since June 25th. From the bed I look around.
My blue suitcase is on the floor, almost completely unpacked. It’s been there since August 1st when I returned from a 5-day trip to Massachusetts with this itinerary:
- Wednesday: depart PA with my daughter in the early morning, arrive in Reading, MA in time to get lunch, show up at the funeral home at 3:00, my mom’s wake 4:00-8:00, a bite to eat, check into the hotel, sleep
- Thursday: arrive at the funeral home by 9:00, proceed to the church by 10:00, my mom’s funeral mass, procession to the cemetery in Rockport, MA, my mom’s burial, the collation, return to the hotel, sleep
- Friday: go shopping with my sister and prepare for my son Jace’s high school graduation party, head into Boston with Jace and drive around with nostalgia, pick up Maddie (Jace’s girlfriend) at the airport, return to the hotel, sleep
- Saturday: Jace’s graduation party at my sister Janet’s house, return to the hotel, sleep
- Sunday: return home
I have 2 dressers in the middle of the bedroom that I bought second hand. They need to be cleaned again since my friend helped me carry them in from the garage this past Monday, August 9. I had carried in the drawers myself about a week ago, intending to clean and line them. I have a plan for moving a small dresser and printer stand to make room for these dressers. My bedroom is huge. And it is currently really discombobulated.
I have two boxes on the floor in the corner that I have not yet unpacked, some things in plastic bags that need to be put away, some shoes that didn’t quite make it to the closet.
I have no pictures on the walls yet. I do have framed pictures of my kids on one of the dressers next to a small glass vase of crepe flowers that Angela gave me over a year ago at my last apartment.
I like to be organized. I like organizing things. I enjoy making a house a home.
Right now, I’m out of sorts.
A friend recently texted me, apologizing for being discombobulated. I texted back, “No worries. Who wants to be combobulated anyway?”
I’m going to get out of bed. I really want to cook breakfast this morning, and I think I have time because I still have over an hour before I need to leave for work.
In difficult times, when we feel out of sorts, eating healthy foods on a regular schedule, staying physically active, spending time outside, taking time to connect with other people, and getting plenty of sleep on a regular schedule–these things seem key. I’m struggling with the sleep part (I’m good at falling asleep but not at staying asleep). But I’m not too bad with the other items.
I got no ending. I rambled here. I’m tired. I’m discombobulated. I’m out of sorts. But I’m really looking forward to my breakfast.
My plan has been to write my dad’s stories. I’ve started that project, but somehow I have been stuck. So this morning I’m writing what I feel called to write and hope I’ll get un-stuck on my dad’s stories. (Sorry for the delay, Dad!)
I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Soul Matters group which I usually call a book group because the term “spiritual growth group” isn’t my vibe. But, really, it’s a spiritual growth group, or maybe a personal growth group, with a leaning toward social justice and anti-racist ways of being. Each month we have a packet of resources on a particular theme and select an activity to do or a question to answer based on that theme.
I hosted our group on zoom yesterday, and our theme was Becoming. I loved that theme because I entered a period of intense growth most clearly marked by my divorce, though my personal changes were most pronounced August through December 2020 when I started a new job and blogged about my growth. During the past month, I thought of several ways of addressing the Becoming theme, including working on an art project I’ve been thinking about for awhile or chronicling some of the experiences that have shaped who I’ve become.
Somehow, what I landed on was sharing keywords that have marked various parts of my life. “Keywords” are associated with search engine optimization, but teachers also use them to help students unlock ideas that may be new to them. Exploring a limited number of keywords in a semester-long course allows students to trace and contribute to important threads of research and conversation in a discipline. For example, keywords in a first year college writing class might include “rhetorical situation,” “genre,” “discourse community,” “code meshing,” “affordances and constraints,” and so forth.
I didn’t plan on having keywords for various parts of my life, but I guess these things sometimes just happen. I shared them yesterday during our Soul Matters discussion, and this morning I’m continuing to reflect, and that’s what’s compelling the writing.
So here ya go. Three parts of my life, three sets of keywords. And they overlap and inform each other, of course–the separation as artificial as the lines between discrete colors in the rainbow.
THE TEEN YEARS: altruism and aesthetics
I did a career inventory in high school, and my two highest values were altruism and aesthetics. I didn’t know what either word meant and had to look them up. Once I did, it made sense.
Altruism was all about helping others. I belonged to a youth group as a teen and had a strong orientation toward service. I didn’t think about future careers in terms of money but instead in terms of helping. Much later I wondered whether this orientation reflected societal gender norms and whether I would’ve had different values if I were male. No way to know, but I wondered.
Aesthetics was all about beauty–creating beauty and appreciating beauty, both in the arts and in the natural world.
The career inventory said my number one job was Art Therapist. I did study psychology as an undergrad, and I also got certified to teach elementary school. But reading and writing were always loves of mine, so my eventual turn to earning a Ph.D. and becoming an English professor fit my values of altruism and aesthetics pretty well.
These values haven’t left me. They are still part of who I am. But their centrality has shifted with ebbs and flows, highs and lows, over the years.
THE PARENTING YEARS: safety, kindness, character
Like a lot of (most? all?) parents, I didn’t know what I was doing ahead of time but rather figured it out as I went along. At some point fairly early, I realized that I had to decide which rules were non-negotiable and which rules were flexible. I don’t remember the exact point when I articulated the criteria, but I do know that safety and kindness became the first guideposts. I told the kids, if a rule was about safety or kindness, don’t bother arguing. I wasn’t going to bend.
When Callie was old enough to play softball and randomly wanted to quit, I added character. Honestly, both “safety” and “kindness” are hard to pin down and are full of gray areas that I never acknowledged to my kids, but “character” was even trickier. It was connected to following through on commitments, showing up on time, doing your part, being honest, and more. We didn’t really discuss the ins and outs. We just went along deciding as we went whether a rule was about safety, kindness, or character…or whether it wasn’t.
My kids are 21 and 18 and they will still talk about these values and priorities. I don’t know what else I taught them, though I’m sure I instilled way too many lessons I wish I didn’t just because I’m human and mess up on a regular basis. But I’m glad I gave them this. And in the process of articulating these three values to them, what mattered also became clearer to me.
THE MIDDLE-AGED YEARS: integrity, boundaries, intention
When I was young, I thought the thirties and forties were middle-aged and the fifties and older were decidedly old. But I’m not young anymore. I’m 52. I’m middle-aged! That’s what I’m calling it, anyhow, and I have experienced and have heard from others that this time of life can be full of introspection and change and renewal. So it makes sense that new keywords would develop.
I have done a lot of work to think about what has guided my life to this point, and I have been a harsh critic of my own behaviors, decisions, and lack of decision making. At moments I have felt like my whole life has been a complete and utter mess. But my healthier self is a bit more gentle, focusing less on self chastisement and more on how I want to behave now and ways I want to grow.
Recently I was describing the basis for my current decisions to a friend and I identified these keywords: integrity, boundaries, and intention.
Integrity is about honesty and wholeness. First, I am working to be honest with myself. I’ve discovered that I’m good at ignoring what is stressful, difficult, inconvenient, or painful. To counter that tendency, I now do a lot of self interrogation and journaling, and I also allow spaces of quiet in my life rather than filling my life with distractions and making myself so busy that I can easily avoid what is difficult.
Integrity is also about wholeness and authenticity–the ability to be honest with others, to not suppress who I am in order to fit in. I’ve realized that I can split myself into parts, accommodating situations like a chameleon, pleasing others and being likable. I’m still figuring this part out. I’m figuring out when I should speak and when I should remain silent. When I should listen. When I should stand up. When I should go along. I don’t want my ego to dominate, and I also don’t want to fake my way through interactions. Figuring out negotiations between self and others is an ongoing project.
Boundaries connect with integrity. I have a history of trying to earn love by pleasing and helping others. This tendency is the altruism of my teen years gone awry, because helping others to earn love is really about helping myself. My therapist sometimes quizzes me: When should you help someone? she asks. The correct answer: When they’ve asked for your help. And, we should add, when I’m able and willing to help without sacrificing my own well-being, my own wants and needs.
I also have a history of hoping to be rescued by others, and this tendency has led to times of passivity, letting others take the lead while I go along for the ride. Having healthy boundaries means I give help and receive help when the give-and-take works for both people or entities. I don’t need to sacrifice myself for others to be worthy of love, and I don’t want to give anyone else the role of saving me. Saving and being saved, rescuing and being rescued–these are unhealthy entry points into relationships, even though they are all too easy to fall into.
Having healthy boundaries also means that my work does not dominate my life. I do my work and do it well, but it does not define me. This attitude about work is new for me. I’ve spent far too long using work to distract me, using work to define my worth. Ugh. Integrity and boundaries. Healthy and helpful keywords. Grounding keywords.
Intention is the third point on my current keyword triad. It’s about making choices actively, reflecting on choices, revising choices. As noted, I have been passive in my own life far too often. At times I have discounted my own wants and needs, sometimes not even recognizing that they exist. For just one glaring example, when I bought a car completely on my own for the first time this past summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should get. It took me days and days to ask myself what I wanted. Does this seem messed up? Well, it is.
Intention is about owning my decisions. It’s about accountability. And it’s about attention to what I care about, where I’m going, and how small everyday moments can reflect my priorities…or not. And if they don’t, I’m not going to be happy because my days will be misaligned with my sense of my own life.
I told my
book group spiritual growth group that I often wake up and spend 15 minutes mindlessly scrolling through social media, and this passive approach to my day does not reflect what I actually care about. So living with intention means that I recognize this misalignment and adjust, asking myself what I really care about and how I can reflect that in my morning routine. I don’t do it perfectly. I’m a work in progress because once I’m all done I’ll be…all done, as in, no longer living.
But centralizing intention is helping me to move towards alignment between everyday decisions and big decisions and what actually matters to me. It’s helping me pay attention. I want to be an actor in my own life.
That’s it. Those are three stages of my life, three sets of keywords, one way of thinking about the current Soul Matters theme of Becoming.
At the end of our Soul Matters zoom conversation yesterday, we talked about how good it was to hear from each other, and how good it was to take time for an activity that had some depth to it. Even in the course of prepping for our monthly conversations, I do work and reflection that I would be unlikely to do otherwise.
I don’t know why I wanted to write it up here. Maybe just to remind myself of at least part of what I learned. Maybe just because it felt good to spend time writing on a Sunday morning and this was something on my mind and in my heart that I could share (versus the many things I experience and think about that center on other people and thus aren’t right for public spaces). Maybe I needed to kickstart my blogging again and this was low-hanging fruit.
So I’ll end here, without any real conclusion, except to say thanks if you’re reading this. I appreciate the space I have here, on the internets, to share what’s on my mind and to hear what’s up with others. These are odd kinds of connections, these online moments. But they are, indeed, connections. And I really appreciate them.
When I was a little girl, my sisters Janet and Diane and I had the same bedtime for many years, and our mom would usually tuck us in. Occasionally, however, my dad would take on the task, and it always felt like a special treat. (Side note to pause and recognize how often the person doing the role of primary caretaker is taken for granted. As an adult with hopefully more awareness than I had as a kid, I’m super grateful for all the nights my mom tucked us in without any fanfare.)
Invariably on the nights when our dad tucked us in, Janet and Diane and I would beg him to tell us stories of When He Was a Bad Little Boy, and he would usually comply. I don’t remember much about these stories except they took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts, his actual boyhood home, and they regularly involved him playing tricks and telling fibs and getting into all sorts of mischief in the manner of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.
I do remember part of a story my dad told us, however. In this particular story, he was running away after doing something Very Naughty and trying not to get caught, and he ended up falling in the ocean. He was well on his way to drowning when he was rescued by a mermaid who brought him to shore. That mermaid was, of course, my mother. They fell in love and she became human.
Yes, I spent many years of my childhood wondering if my mother had actually been a mermaid at some point.
Fast forward forty-something years and I have once again asked my dad to tell me stories. Not stories of When He Was a Bad Little Boy, though such stories are not necessarily precluded. But instead stories of parts of his life that I may not know about, or may not know much about. Stories I want to hear because I’ve caught glimmers and glimpses and want to hear more.
We are in a pandemic and I last saw my parents during the summer. I miss them. My mom is not able to tell stories about her life very well anymore, and I’m sad about that missed opportunity. She’s given me lots of other gifts, though, just like she did when I was small and she regularly tucked us in at bedtime, so I’m not complaining.
But I am grateful that my dad is still willing to tell stories. The word “history” in the title of this series might seem a bit grandiose, hinting at some greatness in my dad’s story or perhaps some kind of Forrest Gump pattern of brushes with greatness. While my dad is great, I use the word “history” as a way of marking his stories as intertwined with things bigger than him. I also use it to evoke a sense of history as a series of stories, as much about the ordinary and everyday as about the grand. My dad’s life matters, and his stories do, too.
Our process as we get started? I call my dad and he talks to me about part of his past. I record what he says (well, the first time I thought I was recording, but it turned out that hour-long recording wasn’t saved…but, in general, I record what he says). I transcribe it, which takes a long time, and I send the transcription to him for any editing he would like to do.
The next step is for me to publish each story as a blog post, a process that will involve some framing on my part and perhaps some arrangement of things he’s said. My dad’s autobiographical stories are not discrete entities but instead are a series of events and sensibilities and relationships woven together in all kinds of cross-currents and themes and webs to form a kind of multidimensional tapestry.
So far I have just two recordings, but more than two stories are represented there. I will add visuals and commentary to enhance what my dad has said. My dad and I have talked about making sure these stories offered for public consumption do not hurt anyone.
That’s pretty much it. The process may shift depending on how well things work.
For now, I’m looking forward to this journey, hearing from my dad about his experiences, giving voice to his stories on the page, and sharing this journey with family, friends, and others. Thanks to all readers for your time and interest. There’s something about stories that connects us, and connections seem especially important in these times of physical distancing.
The following video clip is from a (silent) home movie. I think it’s 1973, and I think the baby is my cousin John (aka Pipes). And that was my dad, famous for stories of When He Was a Bad Little Boy. The hairstyle and the paneled walls alone suggest that individual stories and wider histories of people cannot really be separated….
I started blogging because I wanted to take stock of some ways I’ve been growing and things I feel good about in my life, and I wanted to do so as a kind of public conversation to acknowledge that we’re all figuring things out, moving forward, making headway. I’m not alone. Neither are you!
When I think back on the series of posts, I see 2 consistent themes…I just wrote them out, and then I decided it’s really just 1 theme so I put them together.
Pay attention; give time and energy to what matters.
Here’s what I wrote that seems to add up to that basic edict:
- an intro
- posts about routines that make my life better (partly by allowing time and energy to be spent on other things)—food and work outfits and writing and walking (“walking” is also included in the next category, and food really should be, too)
- posts connecting physical and emotional wellness—walking, dealing with lower back pain, and footwear
- posts reflecting on insights gathered from multiple venues—self-help books (here, and here, and here), AITA twitter, my son, a yoga class, and an election night dream
- a post about existential dread (lol; I just couldn’t figure out where this one belonged, so it got its own category!)
And now this post, bringing some (temporary) closure to the project. Note: I will probably add to #TheLaurieProject at some point when called to do so. It’s been a wonderful thing to work on.
I started making lists of things—things I’ve learned or value or believe or whatever. But it was feeling so general as to be meaningless. If I had to put some of it into words, which keeps pressing at me despite my generous use of the delete key:
I guess what matters to me is allowing a wide range of emotions, making time to play and create, connecting with others, taking care of myself, getting everyday shit done, being part of the wave of people in my election night dream who are there for others in ways big and small, and continuing to pay attention and be okay with messing up and trying to do better.
A list of some short-term goals
- make fitness (in addition to walking) a regular routine
- spend time with my kids doing activities we enjoy together (cooking with Callie? watching movies with Jace? brainstorm with them)
- try out the #DadInHistory project to see if that might be a good thing
- get to the tasks that keep moving to the procrastination pile (with a recognition that most of it is paperwork connected to finances, like completing the Fafsa)
- try out dating (mid-January, after the holiday season is over)
In the spirit of knowing that plans only become reality when you act on them, I’ve already taken steps on some of these. Others are on the back burner. But definitely on the stove top.
I will likely make meditation a part of my life at some point, but it’s not a priority for me today, so it’s not making the list.
I know 2020 has been a difficult year, and I don’t want to downplay that in these next sentences, but here’s my truth. I was a mess a year ago. I was in the middle of so many transitions that all I could do was keep moving forward, step after step after step.
I’m in a much better place now. I’m not completely together, and I don’t expect I will ever be able to make that claim, but I learned I am good at landing on my feet. I am gradually listening to myself, figuring out what I care about, and noticing my problematic habits and addressing those. I’m also beginning to move out of shame spirals and understand that we can do a lot of good even when we are still messing up and learning and messing up again.
That’s what I want to remember a year from now, when I will likely be facing new challenges. 2020 was not easy but it was an incredibly good year for me. It makes me look forward to 2021, not because I expect it to be better but because I want to see what’s next. I’m excited for my life, like a Netflix series I’ve been binging on. What will happen? How will the plot unfold? I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to finding out.
Thank you for reading. Thanks especially to those of you who have responded in some way. I’m glad we’re in this thing together.
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you’re on your own?
The Beatles sing about getting by (and high!) with a little help from my friends, and that’s definitely true of me. (Well, I haven’t gotten high since my college days, but the night is still young.) These days, many of us are living in a socially distanced and sometimes lonely world.
It is not only the pandemic that makes my current life situation drastically different from anything I experienced prior.
For most of my adult life, time felt like a precious commodity that I just didn’t have enough of. My favorite pastime was reading and napping in the sun, a solitary activity of drowsy escapism. As my kids were growing up, if they fought or did something wrong while I was in the shower, they were in big trouble with me; I fiercely protected my 15 minutes of daily uninterrupted solitude. My favorite Mother’s Day was the year my husband took the kids out so I had a whole morning of gardening without anyone distracting me. Don’t get me wrong: I love my kids. Time to myself was just scarce. I appreciated every moment I got.
Work didn’t help. My first full-time faculty appointment began in fall 2005 when my kids were just turning 3 and 6. That first semester, I combined my professorship with administrative work, and I never stopped. I worked summers, weekends, weeknights, first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, holidays, and while on vacation. I worked on my phone and on my laptop. I never pulled all-nighters as a student, but I did as a faculty person. I had trouble shutting off. When I had a stretch of open time, I felt obligated to be productive. There was always more to do. I could never fit enough into a day.
And now everything has shifted.
My 18-year old son lives with his dad, and I miss him terribly. We usually have dinner at least one weeknight, and he stays with me every other weekend, but he’s 18. That means he goes to school and works and socializes and spends most of his time away from me. This would be the case even if he lived with me full-time. Next year he’ll be going away to college and I’ll see even less of him.
My 21-year old daughter is living with me right now because of the pandemic and her university going fully online, so I get to see a lot more of her than I would otherwise. We have dinner on Mondays, and sometimes we spend time together on a weekend, but she’s 21. That means she goes to school and works and socializes and spends most of her time away from me.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy my kids are becoming young adults with lives of their own. It’s just that I suddenly have extra time on my hands. I feel like I’m living that Harry Chapin “Cats in the Cradle” song! lol…except I’ve actually spent a lot of time with my kids, so not so tragic.
And work, happily, doesn’t fill up my open time the way it used to. I shifted from a faculty-chair position with a lot of flexibility in my schedule to a full time administrator working Monday through Friday, 8:00-4:30. My prior “flexibility” meant I felt I should always be working since there was always more to be done. My current structured work schedule means that when I’m at work, I work; when I’m not at work, I don’t work. Sure, if there’s a special event outside of the typical work hours or something pressing that needs to be done, I gladly fill my responsibilities. But, in general, I have gaps of time in the evenings and on the weekends.
Now, instead of trying to fit more into the day, I find myself wondering how to fill the time I have. Some evenings, I find myself scrolling mindlessly through social media or playing a game on my phone that leaves me numb in body and mind. Some evenings I force myself to do one activity after another–wash the dishes, paint a picture, repot a plant, fold the laundry, paint my toenails, and on and on–in hopes that I can escape an overwhelming blah feeling. On two occasions I ended up on a dating app just to distract myself. For the record, I’m not against social media or dating apps or any of the other activities I’ve used to pass time. I even believe seemingly meaningless play is a wonderful thing and I plan on never giving that up.
But I am against frittering away my life, looking for something to fill some kind of void, building a suffocating cocoon of distractions. I’m still in the process of shifting.
I don’t have perfect answers for adapting to a changing sense of time. It presents a sort of existential crisis for me, along the lines of what is my purpose and time is running out and that feels paralyzing. And the surplus of time has also made me—a person who grew up in a big family and who has always been surrounded by other people—lonely. That’s at least part of what I’m coping with.
But I do, of course, have a few things I’m learning.
ONE: It helps for me to recognize and name feelings such as loneliness, grief, and anger. Instead of distracting myself from feelings, I’ve been trying to experience them. I spent a lot of years using work to distract myself, so I have some catching up to do. But I’m getting there.
TWO: Instead of asking myself “How will I fill this time?” I can ask myself, “What do I want to do with this gift of time?” The former question frames time as a problem, a challenge, something to slog my way through. The latter question presents me as an actor with interests and desires.
Too often, I’ve been passive, letting life happen to me instead of shaping my days according to my priorities (“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans“). I’m trying to pay attention to what I care most about. I want to use my time to reflect those cares. Note that this point is related to Mark Manson’s book, discussed here; it’s also something my friend Kelly said on the phone to me the other day, which brings me to my next point….
THREE: In the words of the Beatles, I get by with a little help from my friends. When I find myself engaged in mindless activity waiting for the minutes to pass with a terrible sense of blah, often calling someone–a friend or relative–gives me momentum to shift my mood or my activity. This blah feeling is different from feelings such as loneliness, grief, or anger because it seems stultifying; experiencing it makes me feel more stuck, whereas experiencing other feelings makes me feel more alive and free.
Just the other evening, I was wrapping gifts and ran out of tape. I had started with 4 tape dispensers, not realizing that they were all partial rolls, so the discovery was quite a blow when I finished the last roll mid-gift, as you can imagine. It would take me about 10 minutes total to drive to a drugstore and buy more tape. But that task seemed like WAY TOO MUCH EFFORT. Until I texted my good friend Lindsey about it. And then I went and bought some goddamn tape and about 17 other items I needed. It took about 20 minutes because of the extra shopping, and both my night and my week improved immensely. Thanks, Linds!
For real, sometimes the step that will break me out of a potentially blah empty evening is reaching out, not necessarily with any emergency call for help, but just a “hey, how are ya?” kind of conversation. I need to push that technique up to the top of my list of coping strategies.
FOUR: Sometimes it helps to focus on what I’m avoiding and why I’m avoiding it. Whole new worlds can open up. Before I started this blog series, I went over a month without blogging at all. I also had stopped watching TV. Each evening when I would consider what I wanted to do, those activities were quickly discarded. I was somehow never in the mood to do either.
Then I heard people talking about The Queen’s Gambit and I wanted to see it. As I watched the first episode, I realized that I had been avoiding blogging and TV watching because I didn’t want to sit on the couch where I usually sat for those activities. Why? Because I had lower back pain. I was avoiding enjoyable activities because they could be painful, but I was unaware of my motivation until that evening.
I found ways to sit that would be okay for my back, I began doing stretches and exercises while watching TV, and soon after I began blogging. Both activities are great for me–they help me process things and they are often just plain fun. As far as blogging: “It’s wonderful to be here. It’s certainly a thrill.”
When I talked with my therapist about this discovery, she said she was glad I had noticed sooner rather than later what I was giving up because of my instinct to avoid pain. She pointed out that sometimes I have a talent for avoiding pain, which in itself can lead to…a different kind of pain.
And that brings me back to item #1 in this list, doesn’t it?
That’s it. That’s what I got so far. I have time off December 25 – January 3, and I already had trouble sleeping one night, getting anxious about facing that time with options limited by the pandemic. In non-pandemic times, I think I’d travel to a beach for a few days where I’d be happy walking and reading and playing in the water.
I asked for ideas on Facebook, and I’m grateful for all who made suggestions. I will spend some time with my kids and spend outdoor time walking or hiking with friends. I have a couple social zooms planned, and I’m looking forward to taking care of some small projects. I’ll probably finish my #TheLaurieProject blog series, and I will likely get started on my next writing project. I’ll definitely read and watch some TV.
I’m not sure what else I’ll do, but I have a feeling the days will fly by. When I was in high school, I wrote this poem. I think it had a first stanza that I no long remember, but here is the middle and end.
The funny thing is clouds
which seem to keep quite still
while they easily pass over the grass
and beyond the furthest hill.
Who can count the years?
or the days or hours or minutes?
We hardly notice when they fly by
on wings of the swiftest linnets.
That’s PastLaurie teaching PresentLaurie to pay attention, to notice, to live. And when I find myself in a numb or mindless or blah state, to refocus on what and whom I care about.
Even though I have always loved to read and write, for most of my life I was the kind of person who thought I should be keeping a journal. It wasn’t until summer 2018 that I actually went from someone who wrote in a journal sometimes to a person who keeps a journal (and you can read a bit about that here).
In July 2018, my journaling was a way to help me recognize all I was doing, which was important because my days were regularly full but I easily focused on all I had not accomplished. Journaling helped me organize my thoughts, plans, ideas, and schedule. It helped me take time to process. And it helped me give myself credit for the many tasks I was completing.
My writing evolved. When I was a faculty person, my work life and personal life blended together, so I kept one journal. Eventually, after moving to full-time administration, I needed separate journals for work and my personal life. Both journals combine the kind of deep engagement associated with reflection or grappling with difficult things and more rudimentary writing—to-do lists, notes, reminders. I dog ear pages I need to return to. I use Google Keep and white boards to help me keep an eye on bigger projects so I can make progress without feeling anxious about remembering everything. I take pictures of my journal pages chronicling grocery lists or errands before I head out the door.
When I go to therapy, I bring my journal with me. I usually don’t open it, but having it with me is a reminder of the questions and concerns and issues I’ve written about, the things I know I want to talk about, the parts of my life I need help figuring out.
I usually sit in my car at the end of a therapy session and write about what I learned. I have a good therapist; she reads my life and offers insights that are worth sitting with. I don’t often reread my journals, but I hold onto things more through the simple act of writing them. They become mine. Inscribed, if ever so lightly, on who I am.
I prefer spiral bindings and lined paper, but I will write in anything. I prefer pens that roll smoothly without bleeding through pages or smearing. I want my writing to be pleasurable. It’s not a chore. It’s not something I should do. It’s something I want to do. It’s a gift.
I have become someone who journals.
Back in 2010, I heard Bump Halbritter (that’s a great name, isn’t it?) speak at the CWPA (Council of Writing Program Administrators) Conference in Philadelphia. He said that if we want our students to write using new media, we needed to be using it ourselves.
I left that conference and began a video blog so I could learn how to make videos and how to blog. That first video blog was recreational, but it taught me a lot and influenced my teaching, my administrative work, and my scholarship in wonderful ways. I ended up creating lots of collaborative blogs over time, and you might enjoy some of the ones from classes I taught, like this one or this one or this one.
As you can see, I’m still blogging. (I’m actually still making videos, too, but that’s just a chance thing needed in my workplace because of the pandemic. I think I will always love editing video. But that’s slightly off-topic right now.)
In a lot of my blog posts, I chew on ideas in ways that are similar to my personal journals, but I spend time editing and reviewing and revising when I blog. The writing is informal, of course, and conversational, but I still take more care than I do in my journal.
Blogging has helped me take a lot of my personal stories and internal journeys and offer them up to others. It’s a humble kind of gift, one that I offer readers and that readers give right back to me by taking the time to listen. This is what happened to me or Here’s something I’m thinking through or I’ve learned something, maybe. I often don’t know the narrative of a blog post until I write it. I often write it too long and cut out chunks. I sometimes do very little editing or revision and just let a post out into the wild, warts and all. I’m often figuring out the journey right along with my readers.
Blogging helps me feel more connected, less alone. I’m someone who journals, and I’m also someone who blogs.
In the last several months, I have brainstormed and written tiny pieces of a novel. It’s something I would like to read if I ever get it written. It’s on the back burner for now.
Over many years, I have worked on a semi-scholarly book that I have plotted out and which I love thinking about but towards which I haven’t made serious efforts in quite some time. Academic writing takes a certain kind of sustained energy, and I may return to it in a focused way or I may dabble; I don’t know. That’s on a back burner as well.
And I have another writing project I hope to embark on soon. I don’t know yet how it will work, but it seems worth trying. Updates will come later.
I’m not sure what my point is except that different kinds of writing may or may not energize me and become part of who I am at different points in my life. As an academic, I have spent a good bit of time over the years writing for publication, usually for an audience of other academics. I’m happy with the work I’ve published; I worked to contribute to scholarly conversations that matter. But that is not what matters to me right now.
As far as this time of growth and healing and trying to process an unbelievable amount of change in my life in a very short time: Writing has meant everything to me. Publication is not the point.
Writing keeps me focused and organized at work, and it keeps me focused and moving forward at home. It provides a kind of buffer between the life I live / the actions I take, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, my intentions and plans and hopes and feelings in relation to the plot of my life. It creates room. It allows change and growth. It helps me see more clearly and listen better. It helps keep me honest.
Of all the things in my life that have been good for me, writing is right up there with food, sleep, water, and exercise. When I don’t know what to do with myself as evening falls, writing has helped me speak into the void, has helped me reframe the world, has helped me see myself anew by expressing myself anew.
I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I’m going. But writing gives me a kind of stability, a pathway through the fallen snow that I shovel out with my pen (or with my keyboard? whatever…), one step at a time, allowing me to move forward rather than get stuck in the drifts.
I don’t know if that metaphor works, but it feels apt since I just did a lot of shoveling last week. That was some heavy lifting! And probably very good for me and my small muscles. It was hard, but it felt good when it was done and walking and driving became safer and easier. In this time of isolation compounded by a winter storm, shoveling opened up the world just a little bit; it made more things possible.
And, with that, I’m going to say it is indeed a good metaphor.