I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, mostly because I’m in a place to observe how I spend it. That is probably true for most of us lately.
I’ve been asked a few times recently how I’m spending my days. It’s a tough question to answer. Last week was slightly derailed by the third semi-move we’ve made in the last year. Roughly half our belongings fit into our new apartment, which is roughly half the square footage of our old one. The rest were stored in my mother’s garage, which was attached to the house that she just sold. With a closing date looming, it came time to sort the remaining things. What a strange thing to decide the emotional value of physical belongings. And I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to conjure the energy to do so if it weren’t for my dear friend Sara, whose ability to make one laugh in the midst of a poo-storm is absolutely remarkable. She deserves a special shout out today, because she made the absolute worst task seem like a simple afternoon of girl-bonding time, just as delightful as getting pedicures on a sunny day.
Ultimately, we parted with the majority of what was left. It felt a bit like chucking food off a life raft to keep it from sinking. Maybe that’s a bad analogy. Food is life sustaining. Dressers and armoires are not. And truthfully, I didn’t harbor much sentimentality over the whole affair. We’ve simply created space.
Now that we are through the holidays and fully unpacked, our days are fairly orderly and calm. Internally they still feel chaotic and disordered, mostly because I have no clear directive at the start of each day. I try to create one the night before, mapping out how many hours I will spend job hunting (and in which city/town/state) and how many hours I will spend writing (and for which place/publication/topic). But because none of these endeavors currently garner an income nor carry a deadline, other than the imminent need to produce something, it all feels a bit jumbled by the end of the day.
I notice that I have a lot of ideas about how I should be spending my time. I notice too how bound I am to my need to feel productive. I’ve talked about this in the past. So much of my worth depends on my daily output. But even now, when there is literally no outside pressure on me, I end each day feeling as though I have somehow fallen short, as though I wasn’t as responsible with my time as I could or should have been. I always thought that pressure came from above, from deadlines and bosses and looming exam dates. I am only now beginning to understand how much of this narrative is self-imposed. Turns out, I put my own damn self on the hamster wheel. (Sidebar, I just learned there isn’t a P in hamster, which means I’ve been spelling it wrong my entire life).
I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandburg’s Option B, which is a great handbook on grief. She wrote it in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death. She talks about how she felt so unproductive in the weeks and months following and how she was tempted to feel like a failure in the midst of that unproductivity. She was certain she would never be like her old self again, never be able to give or do as much as she used to or in ways that were meaningful. In response, she took to writing down three things she accomplished each day. Brushing teeth, making dinner, folding a pair of socks. I’ve started doing the same, though I fear that sense of failure long predates my brother’s death. I welcome this change and the notion of ending my day focused on successes instead of tallying failures.
Still, it is a challenge. I’ve been trying to habituate myself to a new morning routine, one that I can keep in place once the busyness of life resumes. Practically speaking, I anticipate any job I take on will likely start at 9 or earlier. So I have this goal to get up at 6 am and head to the local YMCA to work out before I start my day. (Let me pause to give a massive shoutout to the Y for making itself accessible even during this incomeless stage of life). I’m not hugely athletic. But movement has been a lifesaver this past year. It has allowed me to work off the excess adrenaline and stress inherent with the current uncertainty of my life, and it has proved massively beneficial in combating the depression that continually threatens to take hold.
Up at 6 am and off to the gym sounds really nice, right? I said it was my GOAL! And it is proving exceedingly difficult, even though I woke early as a teacher. I am slowly and pathetically crawling toward it. I’m a night owl by nature. Like… from the day I was born. I share this trait with my father and it is deeply, deeply, ingrained in our DNA. Only now, I’m aging to the point where I am useless after 9 pm. Too tired to think or write or produce anything of value. So it seems more fruitful to retrain myself to utilize the morning hours. I also know that once I do resume career life, there will be afternoon obligations and distractions that will make working out later in the day nearly impossible. I am committed to keeping this routine in my life, sort of like a built-in safety net. I see a huge difference when I do it… calmer, more grounded, less anxious, better moods. Starting my day out this way helps me interrupt old thought patterns and create new possibilities.
Ok, but I’m generally not getting up at 6. Or if I am, the next day my body wants to sleep until 8 (or later, but that’s non-negotiable). Currently, I’m aiming for 6:45. I can be dressed and at the gym by 7:15. I attempt to work in a little meditation while there (if any readers out there are interested, I’m head over heels for 10% Happier’s meditation app and I strongly recommend it). So on a good day, I’m back home by 8:30. Then the dog needs walked and I need to shower. (I can already hear the comments, “why don’t you just walk/run with the dog for exercise? If you’ve ever tried walking a 1.8 mo puppy with any agenda other than merely making it home alive, you’ll understand why that isn’t entirely possible. As I write this, he is making his fourth circle around the rug just so that he can comfortably lie down).
As one final step to my gloriously reformed morning, I’m trying this novel and miraculous thing called breakfast. In my past life, I might dash through the cafeteria on my way to the classroom for a dollop of oatmeal or a bagel, but generally, I skipped it. It turns out, breakfast makes me feel really good. I’m kind of amazed at the simple ways I neglected my body for so many years.
With all that, I’m at my desk by 9:30/10. And that feels AWFUL and ridiculously late! So here I pause. I seem to have these self-imposed expectations of when a work day should begin, though I seem to have none about when it should end (often my daughter is dragging me away from my desk to start dinner). I seem to be perplexingly and impressively committed to the American work culture that I thought I vehemently abhorred. I’m surprisingly attached to the idea of a 9-5. And I value productivity… even in its most futile form… over caring for my body and mind. It’s kind of illogical. I am twice as productive when I visit the gym first. And yet, it feels like a guilty pleasure. It feels like spending time doing a thing that won’t eventually yield an income.
Silly, right? But I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.
I am trying to practice acceptance. I am trying to focus on what I am accomplishing. I am trying to look at the big picture and acknowledge that creating new habits is really difficult. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the payoff is there. In addition, I’m aware that my body is doing some deep healing. It is working to expel grief and trauma from the DNA of my being. And not just last year’s but a lifetime’s worth. The last year simply opened the door to things that have long been closed. I feel like I’m leaking rusty oil from my joints. And so, in the midst of trying to produce an income, my days are simultaneously geared toward allowing space for all these things to be processed and healed. That feels like an incredible gift.
As a part of that process, I’ve started doing acupuncture. There’s a beautiful community center in our city that offers it on a sliding scale. Little life-saving luxuries suddenly accessible. For the past few Saturdays, I’ve walked into a peaceful, meditative space. I choose one of four foldable, zero-gravity chairs and remove my shoes. I tell the acupuncturist Sam about the way I feel stuck in my body, about the inexplicable anger that I cannot seem to shake, and how I worry that I will never move forward from this stuck place. In response, Sam sticks me full of needles. Most recently, he asked if I have the persistent feeling of a lump in the back of my throat. I look at him as though he has guessed my secret lucky number (of which I have none) and tell him, “Yes! For years!”
“That happens,” he says, “when we are angry.”
Apparently, I’ve been angry a lot longer than I thought, swallowing it down, keeping it tucked into the unseen place… or trying to. Sam wants to let it out. “You might feel a bit explosive over the next few days,” he warns. “Also, this will be a process. It won’t happen in just one week.” I wonder if I should call my friends, one by one, and tell them not to talk to me until the lump in my throat has safely disappeared. Or my daughter.
My daughter, the other reason I currently find it so difficult to rise at 6. I am living with a miniature version of myself, at least as far as nocturnal habits go. Like me as a teen, she is habituated to staying up until 2 or 3 each night. Her favorite (read: only) time to talk is around 11 pm. I am a half-human by then, generally on my third attempt at going to bed. I am heading downstairs to turn off the heat because I forgot the first three times, and suddenly, she finds that she can articulate complete sentences and fully formed reflections. She’s ready to discuss the history of the Salem Witch Trials and I’m trying to figure out why I only have one sock on my foot.
I am a woefully light sleeper. In our old house, I relocated her bedroom to the dining room when she turned 13 and became a vampire. We had previously shared a single wall between our bedrooms, and every hour I woke convinced a bomb had fallen on the house. It was usually just my daughter turning the page of whatever book she was reading at 2am, but the two events are basically the same.
I keep a sound machine in the hall and another in my bedroom. But as square footage goes, there isn’t a lot of space between us now. The click of the bathroom door when she finally brushes her teeth at 2:30 sets me back another hour. Last night I stared at the ceiling from 4am to 6:30, trying to calculate the point at which all the morning exercise makes you sleep for 8 hours.
Maybe I should mention that to Sam too.
Still, I consider all of this forward progress. With the holidays and moving behind us, I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I feel that I’m shucking off pieces of baggage that I have clung to for far too long. I’m doing things I never thought I’d have the stamina or willpower to do. These are things I always wanted to make a part of my life. But I realize it all has less to do with willpower and more to do with how much I value myself. I hate the term “self-love” but perhaps only because of the ways it has been abused and misconstrued. Truly practicing self-love is more than binge-watching netflix at the end of a bad day. It means showing up for yourself day after day in ways that are life-giving and sustainable. I see the difference, even when checking out at the grocery store. I’m more buoyant, lighter, readier to smile.
Of course, now that I’ve told everyone about my grand goals, I will have to resist the urge to blow them up. I guess that’s part of the process too. I will have to resist the urge to throw in the towel and feel like a failure when I miss a week. I’m just going to keep trying this thing, because I believe in making my time on earth matter as much as it possibly can.
It’s 10:30 pm. I’m still at my desk and my daughter just walked in for a late night debate over the merits of unlimited screen time. That’s my cue to begin the first of many attempts at getting to bed.
Next week marks the one-year anniversary of my brother. I’ve been writing a lot as I near that date. I hope to share a bit of it soon.
P.S… the cat is doing well. Daily, I laugh about the fact that my cat… my cat… is on anti-anxiety meds. I guess it makes me feel a little better about making it through the year.