These Things Must Be Clues

By some accounts, things are going fine. I can still make it through long days, and I nap as needed, though that’s not often necessary. Once in a while I tell son to make his signature bean and cheese quesadillas and I meet friends or colleagues for a drink. I’m active on campus, participating in some committees that seem to have meaningful impact for the university community, and for the students. I hosted a really successful event for students this week. My research is languishing, but that’ll be all right; I still pay attention to it sometimes, and I can crank it up again whenever I can just carve out the time.

That’s why I was surprised by the appearance of rage last Sunday morning. Another morning during the week, I felt like bursting into tears as I walked to the office. There’s something beneath the surface that can’t be quelled by good habits, and it’s outing itself.

I do wonder if I’m trying too hard. Not with the basics, but trying too hard to make progress. We’ve gotten through the crisis.  Now we’re in our own rhythm. We get by. Admirably, even. But the next step–desire, ambition, long-term plans–is eluding me, and trying to get there is frustrating at best, demoralizing in its more pernicious forms. I canceled plans with a friend who invited me to a live show that will be highly entertaining and laugh-riot good times. The last few shows I’ve been to have only made me realize how much fun I should be having. I fake it. I laugh, clap, smile and resist the urge to burst into tears. It’s so false. I would have suffered through all that fun, actually, because I’m supposed to be getting out of the house, but Daughter and I got seats on the horse and carriage ride. I’d promised her that we’d do it again in the autumn, and I don’t want to let her down. And that’s out of the house, so it counts. Truth be told, I’d prefer to be outside in the dark under the stars. It’s just easier to do this for her than to try to expend effort on my happiness.

Yesterday, in the midst of yet another long, lonely weekend, I figured that it would be better for Daughter and I to attend a stargazing event with the astronomers rather than me sit around, clean, and dip into the wine. The guy who checked us in greeted me by name, and it took me a minute to recognize him as a grad student I had, back in the day. He’s working an office job on campus while his girlfriend works on a PhD. He was so excited to see me. When I ran into him a few minutes later he said he’d called his girlfriend to tell her he saw me. He continued to rave about how much he loved my classes, how much I’d taught him, he was just talking about those classes the other day, and he still reads the books. None of that penetrated, of course. But here’s what was good–I was glad that my daughter could stand there and hear that. She deserves to be proud of her mom. I inquired about some of his career plans, he mentioned talk of a baby, said he wasn’t ready so they’ll put that off, and what I felt was that this nice young couple has so much promise and enthusiasm, and I was just happy for them, making their way. The conversation didn’t pain me.

The stargazing was neat. I watched my daughter as much as I watched the stars. She is so full of knowledge and wonder. She knows so much about constellations and mythology, and there is still so much to learn. We stood on line to view the moon through telescopes. In the darkness, I could make out her form–bundled up in her tweed winter coat–situate at the telescope. I saw her pause. Then I heard a gasp. And I thought my heart might leap out of my body. I carry around a concern that these children have been destroyed, or, at least, their childhood has. When I hear her emit a gasp, I know she has not lost her childlike wonder or ambition. That’s just me.

When we got home I poured a single glass of wine and proceeded to fire up an online show that I could fall asleep to. I found regurgitated human food on my bed. I was mad–that the dogs were pilfering food, that they were lying on my bed, that I had to clean this mess when I’ve been taking care to keep my room tidy and spare, for dignity’s sake. I stripped the topmost blankets and carefully dumped them in the hallway, to be dealt with tomorrow.

I awoke this morning before dawn, natch. I got right to work, but not with the dirty work. I processed the food from yesterday’s farmers market haul. I blended up a batch of pesto, to have on hand throughout the week for a quick pesto pasta for ever-hungry Son. I soaked bowls of beans–pinto, black, and lentil. I chopped up onions, potatoes and broccoli and had a soup base simmering. I blended that up and put it away. One night this week I’ll pull it out and just add milk and cheese. I steamed sweet potatoes and blended those in the food processor. Some will go in burritos with the black beans. Some will get stirred into biscuits to accompany the soup. The kids will eat soup or veggie burgers if there’s cheese and/or something enticing on the side. I rinsed the food processor and grated a batch of beets. Along with the lentils, I’ll have the makings of a veggie burger. I pressure-cooked the black beans, then followed that with the pinto beans, fragrant with onion and cumin and chili powder. As these things cooked and simmered, I thought about the various ways I could include the dark leafy greens into these dishes. The sun rose. I tidied up the kitchen, worked my way out to the hallway and gave that a mop. I started to make piles of papers, a sign that I’m ready to revisit the finances and make another sweep at the bookkeeping, a job I dread, not because of the tasks but because of the import of it.

I finally had to contend with the dirty blankets. I decided I would dump the thrown-up remains-of-whatever-it-was into a paper bag. I’d start by filling the bag with the cardboard in the family room, where they’d torn apart a pizza box. Yes, the other night they pulled a pizza box off the counter and ate the last piece of pizza. While cleaning that up I found the bag of bread from Friday. I thought that Son had gobbled that up, but the dogs had. And another loaf of bread, from yesterday’s farmers market, dragged off the counter last night. What is up with these dogs dragging food off the counter? That’s not on their list of naughty doggy behavior. Hmm, I thought, filling up my garbage bag–pizza, bread, bread, something on my bed. My goodness, these dogs are craving carbs! At the advice of the enthusiastic pet shop owner, we’ve been buying some fancy, paleo, no-grain dog food. I’m not keen on the paleo craze for humans, but I trusted the pet shop owner’s advice. Ends up that the paleo craze may be just as trendy for dogs. Whether it’s for the sweet carbs or the trusty fiber, my dogs are craving grains.

That’s how I found myself scraping dog throw-up into the garbage bag murmuring, “poor doggies.”

I’m proud of myself for not pitching a fit and raising my fists at the universe when I found throw-up on my bed at bedtime. I’ve learned not to exaggerate problems, and how to deal with them or put them off until I have the energy. I’m glad, though, that I’m still attentive to nagging thoughts. The dogs have been sending me clues about the dog food. My lack of happiness is also a clue. It’s not navel-gazing. I’m prone to depression, and if I persist in this state of not-happiness, I’ll slip into a funk that will be bad for all of us. I’ve got to be happier because I’ve got to be healthier so that I can raise my children and do my job and maybe even live my life in the process. I know this. But I can’t force it. I’ve got to pay attention without fixating, to trust my gut about getting out there into the world and know when to pull back. 

I guess that’s the progress. I’m not achieving happiness or even enjoyment, but I’ve got to be patient. Limbo is not a nice place to be, but there are worse places to be, aren’t there?

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The Merits of Pacing Oneself

As we near the middle of the fall term, I gotta say, I’m feeling okay. I remember the middle of last spring term, because it landed on spring break. I was spent, and I really, really needed that week off. I gave my job and my kids all I had, and I didn’t have much left in me. I felt like I was clinging to a mast of ship in the midst of a storm. I couldn’t fathom how I would return from spring break and do it all again. I did it, of course. And this term, as I near the midpoint, there’s none of that thrashing and clinging and worrying. My energy level is fine. When my energy is low, it’s nothing that a nap can’t take care of.

I’ve learned how to make the most of each day, do what I can, not dwell on what I can’t, and not worry about plowing through the week. Part of this has to do with my schedule. I teach right up til the end of the week, so I’ve got to pace myself. Sometimes I find a few hours midweek to take a breather. I might catch up on lingering tasks at the office, or chip away at my research project. Occasionally I take a nap. Whatever it is, that midweek work slows me down and restores me. By Friday, I’m not gasping at the finish line. Good thing, because my weekends are not very lesiurely, anyway. So I steal relief where I can. I steal time for labor when I can. There is quite a bit of mopping and toilet bowl scrubbing and laundry and reading and lecture writing around here before the sun rises, but I just chip away at these tasks. Somehow, I’m accomplishing things, slowly, without giving it everything I’ve got.

Here I am on Friday night, looking at a weekend where I might catch up on household chores, plan some home improvements, cook, clean, cart the kids, prep for Monday’s classes and some campus service work, and if I’m lucky we’ll get the dogs to the dog park. I’m not exhausted. My lizard brain is urging me to get outside and enjoy the fall colors. I’d planned to, but my Friday walk date fell through. Too bad, because I was going to suggest we walk the wooded nature trail. I then thought it might be nice to hike or kayak this evening, but daughter had a friend over for a Star Trek marathon, so I needed to stay put. I knocked out some household chores, fired up the computer, and discovered that Season 3 of Luther is available through Amazon’s video streaming. My Friday night just got a whole lot better. I took the girls out to pick up pizza, ate mine with an episode of Luther, and soaked in the magic of Mr. Elba. I paused my Luther binge, looked outside, and got out there with a broom to sweep the driveway. I don’t usually sweep the driveway, but a layer of leaves accumulated, and it will get slick if it rains this weekend. Maybe it’s because I taught about torts this week, or maybe it’s because daughter’s friends parents are going to see my dishelveled house when they pick up their daughter. Whatever the reason, I swept my long, steep driveway, which seemed ridiculous but necessary. As I kicked up the leaves, the smell of fall wafted through the air. Then I came back inside with more Luther at the ready. Call me a has-been, but that’s a pretty decent Friday night.

Run, Drive, Paddle, Read, Laugh, Cook, Drive, Repeat

I ran the 5k on the new highway. It was neat, really neat. The course was a little tougher than I expected, what with the hills. I thought I would be out on the new highway, laughing, snapping pictures, but I pretty much just looked ahead and ran, and everybody else did, too. I didn’t run fast, but I worked those hills and didn’t give up. The highway was wide and white and still. It was so eerily quiet. The pre- and post-race, on the other hand, were full of laughter. All sorts of local folks showed up. It was nice to run into friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and it was heartening to see that so many people keep up with their running. It felt convivial and congenial, and I felt like I was a part of this community. So that’s good.

I went to a dinner party that was a little challenging for me. I had to mingle with some people who let me down. I’m no longer longing for things people won’t give me. Still, it helps to have a glass of wine in my hand at such events. It helps to remind myself that these people are not my friends, they don’t really care about me and the welfare of my children. These are acquaintances, who want to share some laughs, brag about their kids, see their charmed lives reflected. I can reflect that back to them, and enjoy the gift of laughter, be regaled by stories, enjoy the good food they so generously share. Not everyone has to be loyal and true, and I need to get out to events like this to remain part of the social fabric. And it’s an honor to be invited. So that’s good enough.

Pseudonymous Friend, who has forever distinguished herself with her compassion and kindnesses, suggests that life is harder for most people on the globe than it is for me. Good point. I understand the privilege that I have. I’m not trying to say that my life is the hardest in the world. I do have hardships, though, that exceed the inconveniences of these intact families around here. I can deal with these hardships, by starting the day at 5am, driving, driving, driving, remaining hyperorganized, and letting go when needed.  The problem is that my daily challenges just distance me from other local people. I don’t fit into this crowd that groans over their shared inconveniences, such as having to drop off kids at two different school starting times. Oh, cry me a river, I don’t say, as I stifle my words with a sip of that wine I keep handy for  moments like this. I spend the conversation suspended, smiling weakly, taking a sip of wine, in my own little world. And I wonder why I have trouble integrating back into this community!  Still, I try.  I say something good-natured. Someone else says something funny. I laugh in turn. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.

This gets to the more intractable problem. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It doesn’t take. The superficial socializing, watching the sun rise or the moon rise while I’m on a jog or a paddle–I got nothin’. A friend thanked me for telling her about the horse and carriage ride. She went on a clear, starry night. She said it was one of the most amazing things she’d ever done, “maybe ever.” Wow. I knew it was nice, but hey, wow! I’ve seen this joy on friend’s faces, after the 5k on the lonely highway, after an evening of paddling. They are open to the beauty and they are utterly moved. I’ve introduced them to these things, and I just think *shrug* it’s all very nice. This is the bigger problem. I can be in the thick of the simple pleasure or catch a glimpse of the sublime, and it just doesn’t penetrate.

I know I’m making progress in my energy levels, my socializing, and my acceptance.  I even had lunch with a colleague who had to bring his baby. I actually had an instinct to bolt when I saw him walk in the restaurant with the baby, but I held fast and tried to act normal. I spent an hour staring at a 19 month-old, and I didn’t cry, and I even tried to be friendly to the baby, like she was just the little person she is, deserving of my respect. Such progress! I feel like something snapped when I found my husband. I fear that I lost some kind of life spark. It’s hard to describe the loss, because I feel it viscerally, but it always manifests differently. A few months ago, it felt like dark bile coursing within me. Nowadays I feel it like a cord that has been cut. I can’t retrieve the optimistic, open-minded, ambitious person I used to be (who liked babies), a person who appreciated things. But if it’s a cord, then I can reweave it. Hence all this tying myself into the social fabric, accepting from others as much as they’re willing to give, offering as much as I’m capable, accepting others how they are and hoping they do the same for me.

All the material resources won’t make you happy if you can’t let happiness in. External advantages are helpful, but they are not a substitute for internal health. I know this is true because I watched my husband suffering, for years, when he had so much going for him. But I’m not my husband. I am a survivor. I know this because all of these nice things are not lifting me, but I do them anyway. They are holding me up, and I need that. I am fighting like hell.