True Confessions of a Mom Set Loose

October 31, 2018

On the plane from Miami to Guatemala City. This is my first extended solo excursion since having children, my first trip to Central America, my first trip to the developing world in a very long time. It’s a lot of first’s and with that comes excitement and joy and a re-awakening of my spirit or some part of me that’s been quiet for some time…as well as a visceral, biological longing and sadness that I can’t control and didn’t expect. It’s hard to say goodbye to my family and, much as I am sometimes desperate to bust out of the routine and the daily grind, it’s also incredibly difficult to break away.

By chance, the man who drove me to the airport this morning grew up in Guatemala. He was stunned that that was where I was headed. It feels like the universe conspired to cross our paths. I told him (between sniffles) that I hadn’t really done much for myself in 11 years and that I wanted to soak in the moment. He said, “You are like a comet, passing through so rarely but shining so brightly.” I like that idea!

So, here I am, halfway to Guatemala with my journal out and two books sitting beside me – Open Veins of Latin America (by Eduardo Galeano) and Less (by Andrew Sean Greer) – that I might actually be able to read with all this uninterrupted time. For the time being, though, my mind keeps jumping between thoughts of travel past and the younger me; about my kids, already anticipating our reunion; and imaginings about what this trip will be like! And this tells me that maybe I should take a couple minutes to just sit and be, quietly…but, first, a haiku:

Mundane and routine

Break the mold of must and should

Rare delight, bright light.

What if I fall quote

 

 

The Fixer

Life is such a committed and earnest teacher. Everyone has their stuff. And life dutifully provides opportunities, over and over again, to practice navigating whatever yours might be.

I like to fix things. Not like broken machines, but like broken people or uncomfortable situations or disorder. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t like the feeling of anything that I feel responsible for being out of place. And I feel responsible for a whole bunch of stuff. That goes for people as well as a leaky faucet. I. Just. Can’t. Ignore. It.

I am experienced enough now (read: old) that I can see it happening, and I actually recognize it for what it is. I discover a “problem,” a switch flips in my mind, adrenaline floods in, and I hone in with laser focus on “solving the situation.” Everything else going on around me becomes annoying distraction. It’s really primitive. And if it weren’t so uncomfortable and I weren’t so focused on whatever the perceived threat might be, it’s also quite fascinating. I know what I am supposed to do here – lots of deep breaths and comforting reassurance to my anxious parts. But my brain keeps tacking back to the VERY BIG PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED. In those moments, all I really, really want is to fix it so I can put this horrible feeling away and chillax.

The way this manifests when it comes to people who need help is much less obvious than when something breaks in my house. When I say “need help,” I don’t mean like they are hurt or that their house is on fire. Surely I’d go into adrenaline-driven fixer mode in those cases. No, in this case, I mean they need help with something emotional. There isn’t the flood of adrenaline or the laser-like focus, but it’s still a problem to be solved. Internally, it feels like some sort of calling, that it’s my job to fix the bad feelings, or at least temporarily to take away the pain. That’s a lot of pressure and, rationally speaking, it’s totally unrealistic. But who ever said this behavior was rational?

I noticed long ago that very often one’s best attribute or character trait doubles as one’s worst. For me, this is where being reliable and dependable kind of backfires. I am dependable and reliable so people find any number of ways to depend and rely on me. And, of course, then I feel the need to continue to prove my dependability and reliability and to not let anyone down. And it goes on like this in a sort of self-fulfilling cycle for ever and ever…until I crash and burn because I have lent out so much of myself to so many people that I have completely hollowed out my own core. Emotional problems tend to have a longer-running course than physical, house-on-fire problems. They require the pacing of a marathon versus a sprint. But when it comes to fixing things, I have the mindset of a sprinter and, inevitably, I hit a wall and start to get awfully tired…

I think a lot of moms suffer from the feeling of having only so much to give, being needed by many, torn in too many directions, and wanting to fix things that are out of their control. That’s certainly the case for me, and I fully support little getaways here and there to revive oneself and actually be able to think and breathe and just be.

But, for me, this internal fixer is a lifelong pattern. Only after I completely lost myself with the responsibilities of parenting (I don’t even need to explain that kids have needs), childing (also known as: being a reliable and dependable daughter), working (see also: proving I am a productive citizen and “pulling my weight” because, obviously, only a paycheck tells you that), being a good friend (“you can count on me!”), did it become clear to me that the two most-used phrases in my vocabulary are “I’m sorry” and “I should.” I’m either a disappointment/failure/inadequate (“I’m sorry”) and/or I’m driven to prove my worth/worthiness/value (“I should”). Nowhere in there am I thinking, “gosh, I’d love to do that.” It got to the point where I would ask myself, “What stirs your soul?” and I had literally no idea how to answer. Because, I’m sorry, I am so selfish, I should not be thinking about myself when so many people need me.

It turns out that it just isn’t possible to save everyone without totally tanking yourself. Another disappointing life lesson, but a true one. That’s the whole reason my blog has the title it does – it’s a reminder that you can’t run around putting everyone else’s oxygen masks on while simultaneously allowing yourself to be asphyxiated. It won’t end well.

None of this is to say be selfish. Not at all. I certainly struggle with that notion, because that’s how it feels: I am letting people down. I am selfish. I should just try harder. And, of course, there are plenty of things that just need to be done, whether they fill your cup or not. That’s life, and I spend the majority of my day doing just that. Most days, I do much of my to-do list, in all its mundane glory, joyfully. And I admittedly love knowing that people can count on me, and that they know that I am loyal and reliable no matter the circumstances. The trouble strikes when I need a break and don’t know how to say no. It would seem to be such a simple word. Two letters, and virtually the same spelling and pronunciation in multiple languages. And, yet, I am much more apt to say “maybe,” which really isn’t super helpful to anyone involved because it leaves the door open to a road I already know I don’t want to go down. SO, take it from me – when your plate is full and your cup is spilling over with responsibility to and for others, make sure there is a little time carved out in there for you. And if there’s a “no” screaming in your head, say it. It’s not indulgence, it’s self-preservation.

You can be more effective, not to mention more fulfilled, if you actually replenish yourself along the way. Find your inner compass, actually listen to it, and let it guide you. Prioritize. Be in charge of your to-do list, not subjugated by it. Evaluate the opportunity cost of the choices you make – what do you sacrifice by committing to x, y, z? Be intentional with how you spend your time. Think “if I say yes to ‘x’, what will I have to say ‘no’ to?” Say no sometimes. Be true to you. Make sure you are filling your cup. I can assure you, life will provide ample opportunity to practice.

 

On Being Creative

There appears to be a creativity gene that runs in my family. One of my brothers, from a very young age, clearly saw the world differently from the rest of us. He would ask questions like, “If I bounced this ball high enough, could it hit a cloud?”, or, “if our dog’s legs were taller, would she have to kneel down to drink out of her water dish?” To which, being the compassionate and loving big sister that I am, I would roll my eyes and give him a curt and possibly slightly contemptuous reply of, “No.” Ironically, I remember sharing these stories with my eleventh grade art teacher in a joking, isn’t that cute tone, and her reply set me on my heels. “Your brother is a genius.” Huh. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Maybe I wasn’t seeing the whole picture here.

This anecdote about sums up the way I view the world and the way he does. For me, the world is black and white, yes or no, frivolous speculation about the impossible or scientifically-justified reality. If there are rules to be followed, bubbles to fill in, a nice survey to take, I am your girl! For him, there’s this incredible spectrum of gray and possibility in between the black and white. Rules are mere guidelines, best reflected on after you have taken action (for better or worse). He sees an old tree stump as a blank canvas, and a chainsaw as a tool to create something beautiful and unexpected. Matt has developed into an incredibly talented chainsaw carver, painter, and artist. Total genius.

Whittle the Wood Carving
Matt’s Winning Carving at the Whittle the Wood Competition in Craig, CO

Meanwhile, our middle brother, Alec, has turned his high school days spent strumming an unamplified electric guitar (because no one (namely our parents) wanted to hear the noise) into an actual, bonafide profession as a touring rock musician. He is the lead singer and songwriter of this little known indie band called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. When I say little known, I mean like by people like me who totally bring down the cool factor at his shows. David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, those folks, on the other hand…well, see for yourself.

So, needless to say, people ask me all the time, “What do you do that’s creative?” Until recently, my reply was always something along the lines of, “Ummm, I have zero artistic ability. I am really organized though. That’s kind of my special gift.” That’s a true fact. I am super organized. And if you want to get something done, I am reliable as all get out. But, creative? As I think I’ve mentioned, I am more of a to-do-list-as-guide kind of person. Things get really spicy when my “to do” list flows onto a second post-it note.

But here I am, stretching my creative wings, and realizing that years and years and more years of writing in a journal (most of which need to be burned, but some that contain actual depth and insight) and reading countless books eventually adds up to a few ideas and maybe a writing style. Maybe the creative gene didn’t fully pass me by! It helps that I’ve also been practicing seeing the gray in life, in general, and not taking life as seriously as I did as a kid. And, better yet, I actually love the effort of coming up with an idea and crafting a story. An unexpected plus has been that flexing my creative muscles affords a whole new dimension to my relationship with my brothers as well. They have become a sweet cheering section of 2, encouraging me onward in this endeavor.

So, with that, happy siblings day to my two very creative and very awesome brothers! Rest assured that while I may be a more fun, creatively inclined, and wittier version of the younger me, the eye roll is still very much intact.

Go forth and create! The world needs more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking!