Tag: Coping


Pre-Race Anxitement

The marathon is four days away, and my bones are full of caffeinated ants. I can’t stop moving. Even when I try to sit straight in my chair and take deep breaths and remind myself that everything is well and truly okay, I flick on and off like a bare light bulb in some dank blood-spattered basement.

I’ve never been particularly good at dealing with anxiety, and what’s more, I’ve never been particularly good at distinguishing between anxiety and its friendlier associate, excitement. I guess you could say I am anxcited about the marathon. Excious, even. What I am not is calm, composed, or the kind of cool-flippant hybrid you’re supposed to embody when pretending you’re a competent athlete.

Study questions:

  1. What was I thinking in signing myself up for this?
  2. No, really?
  3. How do you deal with bouts of anxcitement or exciety other than strapping yourself into a straightjacket? Twitchy minds want to know.

When A Manic Perfectionist Takes On Recovery

The sky this morning is a disrupted marina, clouds racing full-sailed across like illegal dragsters. I’ve been watching them scud into each other and kick up backsplash for the last twenty minutes or so. Maybe longer. I kick myself under the desk on purpose.

Here is what happens when a goal-oriented achiever with perfection mania decides to take the month as a mental recovery period: She will wake up the next morning determined to engineer the best damn recovery ever. She will stock her Kindle app with inspirational books and her desk with lined notepads just right for spontaneous to-do lists. She will schedule the entire month’s mornings with activities that should most effectively result in a whole heart—two hours of writing, one of reading, half an hour of meditation, and then time left over for language study or correspondence before the kids come home for lunch.

She will forget, of course, that the kids appreciate having an actual lunch to come home to. This will startle and dismay her every day for two weeks until she remembers that soup makes excellent leftovers. Lunch will become known in her house as soup o’clock; one problem solved. Unfortunately, having a fridge well stocked with leftovers will not solve the other flaws in her plan. For one thing, she’ll quickly remember that her creativity does not respond well to stopwatches. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her crank out a heartfelt essay in two hours flat.

A typical morning will start with her sitting down obediently at her desk, typing the date on a blank document, and then staring out the window for twenty minutes wishing that she could just describe clouds for a career. She will realize with a start that she is failing to follow the Efficient Recovery Plan and will redirect her gaze to the blank document, which will perversely remain blank as the left half of her brain shakes the right half in frustration. Time will slip by. Soon, she will grow far too sad to write anything, but this is her scheduled writing time! She is following the golden rule of just showing up, and nothing is going to move her from her chair until she has accomplished something.

To help combat the frustration and jumpstart her inspiration, she will open her blog reader. There will be 674 unread posts. This will make her want to cry, but she will wade in anyway because this is her one and only strategy for salvaging the morning. Lovely sentences will grab her from the screen, and she will spend the next hour and a half pacing between Bloglovin’ and her blank document asking herself, Are you there yet?

Finally, with twenty seconds left in her allotted writing time, a first sentence will present itself. This will stir up joy, relief, and panic in equal measure. She is writing! Whew! But also: The schedule says she should have finished by now! What to do??

She will stick with the writing, of course, because she knows that words are irreplaceable; nothing else in her day will bring satisfaction if she lets go of this thread right now. She will be furious, however, at her obstinate horsey brain for not coming around earlier, and the footsteps of passing minutes will echo above the sound of her typing. She will almost certainly not finish before lunchtime.

Once the afternoon crests, she will be swept up by the current of daily responsibilities, and maybe she’ll find a few calm minutes to finish writing and maybe she won’t, but the schedule is shot anyway. She has failed to recover efficiently. She will berate herself for failing and then, realizing how counterproductive that was, berate herself for berating herself. This will go on for several layers of beration before she’ll give up trying to make the day mean anything and resolve instead to make the next day count extra. This is a great plan, she’ll think. I’m going to win the hell out of this recovery. It’s not even going to know what hit it. Boo-to-the-yah. 

Yeah. So.

Over the four weeks since declaring my intentions to recover from soul shut-down, I’ve meditated exactly zero times. I’ve read a few books but lacked the energy to process much of what they said. I’ve managed to get words on paper about ten times—a good start, all things considered, but I’ve struggled to feel any satisfaction over it. My Plan called for so much more. Of course, one might argue that my Plan was poorly reasoned and doomed from the start, but then, one might never have tried to soothe a goal-oriented achiever with perfection mania before. We will not be soothed. In fact, we may even subconsciously crave failure; why else would we so adamantly insist on setting ourselves up for it?

I’d like to be able to say that I came to my senses and abandoned the Plan today, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. After all, I’m sitting here with my eyes full of clouds, goading myself into writing because I’m desperate to accomplish at least this much with my day. However, there is one subtle difference in my reason for doing so compared with my reason other mornings this month. Rather than sitting here writing because I remember it used to make me feel alive (thus warranting a spot on the recovery schedule), I’m sitting here writing because I know that it does make me feel alive. Present tense. And yes, there were other things I’d hoped to do with my morning, but this thing I’m doing now is recovery… and what else is a recovery period for if not for throwing well-intentioned schedules to the wind and watching them set sail?


Nostalgia vs. The Substance of Now

We hear fireworks in the night but can’t see them. Though each boom and popcorn-crackle reverberates through our open windows, no light reaches high enough to clear the row of apartment buildings in front of us. I’d be all for shrugging off the disappointment, but my mind has already snuck down the street to our old house with its legend of a balcony. We used to stand there under the stars with the tip of my beloved Van Gogh tree beckoning the moon and watch no less than a dozen firework displays at once, the surrounding region our own personal snow globe. We could communicate with the weather from there—whisper to the first tentacles of fog slipping around church steeples, harness the green-eyed energy of summer storms, rub the golden hours between our fingers. My goodness, but I miss that view.

Once the pages of memory start turning, stoic indifference is almost impossible to keep up, and my nostalgia over fireworks and gold-tipped fog quickly turns into something sadder. The scent of heaven still lingering in my newborn daughters’ skin is a repeat offender at times like this. Could any memory possibly be more heart-wrenching after a day in which I have snapped at those same daughters for fighting over board games when they were supposed to be doing their homework, on a night when their legs seem to have grown longer than their mattresses and their hair forms sweat-tangled updos on their pillows?

Other memories stand at the ready too, each unwrapping its own flavor of longing: Firelight painting gold on the walls of our snowbound house in Delaware. Herds of zebras grazing below the hilltop where I journaled in the South African sunrise. Pecans nestled throughout a Texas-sized backyard like autumn Easter eggs. My heart blinking in delight the first time Dan met me at my front door with a kiss. Our girls (ours!) laughing past the point of motor control on the teacup ride at Disney World.

These sensory treasures are now rooted permanently in the past, and I feel what would be regret if not for the comforting sweetness in the center. I know that I’ve been at least a marginally responsible moment-enjoyer; every one of my fond memories exists because I welcomed it in person. No, regret has no place in nostalgia.

I’m still in the grip of a hollow sadness though, as though a balloon has inflated in the base of my throat, and I’m unwilling to let this be my final reaction to nostalgia either. Sometimes I feel like my truest profession in life is that of a war strategist against sadness. It targets me from so many angles, triggered by things as insignificant as the smell of oatmeal cooking or the sound of fireworks in the night. I can’t predict it and may never be impervious to its sudden charges. I can, however, fight back, so I take on my memories tonight with the biggest force of reality I can muster.

First, I coax my mind back to the present. The sum of my former lives is too much to take on at once. This is about now—this new house, still startling me with ways it is unlike our old; these precious family members sheltered inside, still startling me with ways they are unlike my impressions of them. This is about change, how I so readily dive into it without remembering how hard it always is in the end. I did it this summer, throwing myself into our move with gusto, never considering just how fiercely I would miss the familiar floor plans of the past. Now that we’re here, my heart keeps looping back on itself; it’s no wonder I find myself tangled.

The fireworks continue just beyond my reach, and I lay our former home life to rest in my mind. There were so many reasons we needed to move, issues of cost and architecture and utilities; it helps to give a slight nod to each from time to time just to acknowledge that we made the right decision. And then there’s the Van Gogh tree I so dearly loved; our landlord unexpectedly cut it down two days after I took that photo. I’d had no idea I was posting its obituary.

The tree reminds me that nostalgia is so often a revisionist history. There never were any Good Ol’ Days when all the magical elements of the universe came together at once. There was only ever the beauty and struggle of everyday life, followed by change and then by a different set of beauty and struggle. Those newborn babies I miss so much were accompanied by sleep deprival and postpartum depression. Those South African sunrises were followed by grueling days of physical and emotional labor. Those holiday nights we stood on our old balcony drinking in the display were often tense with frustration and frigid fingers due to problems with the house. The struggle was always alive and accounted for, just as the beauty is now.

I consciously turn my thoughts toward our newest version of everyday. We’re still getting used to it of course, but I can already begin to pick out the elements that will one day reshape themselves as nostalgia. Our neighbors, for one. We’re lucky enough to share this little complex with sweet and generous families who are well on their way to becoming friends. And then there’s my new kitchen, so spacious (at least by Italian standards) and gorgeous that I feel like I’ve won the culinary lottery. I will always remember this as the house where my girls grew into bona fide big kids—Sophie putting on her new purple glasses and trotting off to first grade, Natalie devouring Boxcar Children books with a reading lamp after her sister goes to sleep. This darling white writing desk is where I might actually finish the book that’s been simmering in my imagination the last ten years. This apartment is where our daughters’ childhood memories may one day come to roost.

These are the days of marathon training, walks to the bakery before lunch, pirate stories at bedtime, and family Uno championships. Likewise, they are the days of unreliable hot water heaters, occupational uncertainties, relational challenges, and tendinitis. Nostalgia won’t want me to remember the second list, but this is what gives the everyday its substance and meaning: struggle and beauty together, light and color blooming in the dark.

Acknowledging this is enough. My sadness retreats amid a shower of sparks.

Orange sparkles


A Daily Dose of Truffles

I lost my voice in Texas two months ago. Within 24 hours of stepping out of DFW International into my sister’s arms, my laugh had developed a smoky rasp. Another day, and I was passing myself off as Keith Richards on the phone. By Day 5, I could only do a bullfrog’s rendition of a whisper, and I had to eat throat lozenges like M&Ms for the next few days in order to [audibly] deliver the toast at my sister’s wedding. It was awesome. Between grown-up slumber parties with my sister, long drives with my cousin, dinners out with friends, shopping marathons with my mom, and game nights with my brothers, I was in good conversational company for about 21 hours a day. (Related: Sleep, schmeep.)

This trip back to my hometown marked the first time I’ve really gotten to know many* of my siblings as adults, and every one of the eleven days I spent with them was a spadeful of sand unburying treasure. My voice box was simply the conduit for years’ and years’ worth of conversations delayed by age gaps, stage-of-life gaps, and geographical gaps. Goodnights took two hours and a shared tub of ice cream to finish saying.

* There are eight of us, plus assorted spouses, kids (mine), and dogs (everybody else’s). 

And then there were the sales clerks—women with ready Texas smiles, men with hilarious anecdotes at the ready—and I talked with all of them. I chatted with the gas station attendant, the intern behind the front desk at the Y, the mom whose toddler ran over my foot with a tricycle. It was such a thrill to be speaking American English, to be using terms like “the Y” and “fixin’ to.” I wondered if they could tell that I was from those parts (which I am) or if I came across as a foreign species visiting from distant lands (which is equally true). I reserved my secret life in Italy for my family, who I’m sure loved having me point out a new cultural difference every five minutes. (“Whoa, I’d forgotten that you can actually pay at the pump in the U.S.! LOL. Things are so different where I live, haha. Oh, and have I ever told you about speedometers in Italy…?”)

Returning to that secret expat life, however, I found my throat blocked by a lump the size of the jalapeños on my honky-tonk nachos. I’d never really experienced homesickness before, so I couldn’t be sure that’s what it was. It was something, though, and that something propelled me to the corner of our house farthest from the front door. I sent Dan to the store for milk. I let the phone ring itself hoarse. I lay in bed with my mind ping-ponging between jetlag and insomnia and my mouth tightly closed.

It’s just so hard here. Can I say that? Can I tell you honestly that this beautiful life I’ve been given with its ancient cathedrals and its bowls of pasta and these two little bilingual daughters traipsing across castle grounds on a Saturday morning can be too heavy for me sometimes?

I feel like an ingrate for it, but at least I can be an honest ingrate. Here it is: Every interaction in Italy, no matter how small, requires more than I ever feel comfortable offering up. An acceptance of lost dignity is the main prerequisite, and I cannot think of a sensation more exactly opposite of the thrill I felt speaking Texan among Texans. Any time I open my mouth here, I advertise the fact that I am a foreigner (aptly, the term is “stranger” in Italian), and even though the person I’m speaking to has already seen my freckles and knows I am not a local, speaking aloud feels like zipping up a sore thumb costume and launching into a set of jumping jacks on the street corner.

So, there is the psychological effort of un-belonging, and then there is the mental effort of the language itself. The words still come to me slowly, like doddering old men reluctant to leave their rooms, and the worst part is and always shall be choosing the correct subject-verb endings to accessorize the things. Italian is a language that must be spoken with confidence and spice, completely unlike the gently sloshing Spanish I studied growing up, and I regularly trip over my false teeth trying to infuse my words with Mediterranean spirit.

In fairness to my Italian friends, I need to make clear that no one ever disparages me for speaking imperfectly. All of this drama takes place within the confines of my own head. Still, my head is a rather significant part of my life, so “ciao” is never just “ciao” for me; it’s emotional and mental strain followed by a very special like-it-or-not brand of humility.

And so my post-Texas self clammed up for a while, the difficulty of interaction here contrasting too sharply against all my fresh memories of hometown and kin. I wanted to get right back on an airplane to the States and savor the easy cascade of words for another few weeks. My goodness, but I wanted to greet a friend without having to button up my courage first. I found myself grieving, honest-to-goodness grieving, over this gorgeous adventure of an expat life.

I know the world’s tiniest violin is playing right now in mock sympathy for my plight (“Privileged Woman Chooses Fairytale Life, Whines That It Is Hard”), but this is real life, compliments of the real brain in my real head, and I believe that we allow grace to exhale pure ambient relief around us when we’re real with each other. Plus, I found a way out of my clamshell, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love while running a few weeks ago, and though I had previously read the book and watched the film (and re-read and re-watched and then re-re-watched if we’re going for full disclosure here; I do love a good spiritual/travel/gelato-themed memoir), and though I thought all of the relevant parts had already made their impressions on me, something new jumped out:

“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me… The words made me laugh in delight.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, referring to Italian, and once living in Rome, she actually drops out of language school so she can have more time to enjoy trying her vocabulary out on shopkeepers, seat mates on trains, postal clerks, soccer fans… basically everyone I most dread having to speak to when I go out.

My mind immediately drifted away from the book, and between the usual mental soliloquies that take over while I’m running (“Ow.” “Hate. “Why.” etc.), I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of language learning as delight. It was hard at first. I’ve lived here for six years now, and my perspectives have become worn to the point of shabbiness with daily use. There is nothing particularly glamorous about daily life, after all. Take out the trash, walk the girls to school, do a few linguistic slapstick routines while saying hi to the other parents. This is no Julia Roberts flick.

But consciously relishing each word as it leaves my mouth is something I can do without the least disruption to my routine. I don’t have to do anything different, in fact, except remember to enjoy my free daily language practice. My daily dose of truffles. It’s incredible how something as insubstantial as the concept of delight can reshape the mind’s topography, turn canyons into playgrounds, turn long afternoons at the pediatric allergy clinic into extended word games. It’s changing so much for me, not necessarily for the easier but certainly for the happier. I even picked up my old grammar book the other day and read a few verb conjugations out loud just to feel them melt on my tongue. Voglio, vuoi, vuole, vogliamo, volete, vogliono. Like chocolates, like throat lozenges, cures for a lost voice.


One Week Forward, Two Days Back

This morning dawned as damp and unappealing as a washcloth left in a puddle overnight. Hazy attempts at blue stain the cloud cover outside my window, but the effect just depresses me; even the gloom is halfhearted today. Morning air hangs sodden over my nose and mouth, and I file through my collection of coping mechanisms for something that won’t A) leave me feeling like I squandered this gift of time or B) result in me having to explain to the rest of my family why all the chocolate chip cookies have disappeared.

I settle on a butter-yellow candle and Sigur Rós in the headphones. Immediately, I remember a comment I recently saw on a photo of Sigur Rós in concert: “Too bad they’re endorsing in homosexual & promiscuous live styles, violent environment protection & Neo-paganism – Nordic worship.” Oh, Internet Comment Sections. You win again with your unique interpretation of grammar and utter incomprehension of The Point.

The Point of my candle and my gay puffin-worshiping music, of course, is to reinfuse my senses with beauty. Weekends can be so depleting in that regard—my hours unstrung from their usual weekday progression and looped around the laundry basket, the dinner guests, the pages of curlicued a’s that Sophie needs to finish for homework—and as much as I love the concept of diving headfirst into Monday morning, I inevitably start the week with an aching need to backtrack and collect myself from where it was dropped on Friday.

This has long frustrated me. The comic book version of myself that my imagination keeps on file is steadier than this. She doesn’t lose her sense of footing or the rhythm of her creative pulse after a mere two days of busy distraction. Her laser vision catches the sparkle of life beyond the weekend, and she can relax into the happy confusion of game nights and home improvement projects knowing that her super self will be waiting, suited up and ready to go, on the other side.

The real me, the one sporting reading glasses and unwashed hair (true to form, our building’s hot water went out again for the weekend and is now sleeping off its hangover on a friend’s ratty couch somewhere), the me who is equally unhinged by runaway schedules and the color gray, the un-heroic, un-super, un-steady me has yet to make peace with weekends. It is how it is. But not how I want it to be. If I am allowed so much want in a life already characterized by abundance, I would add this: that I want to make peace with time’s anomalies, find joy in them even, and retain such a vibrant sense of presence throughout that Monday mornings of the future will find me already in forward motion.


Do you experience weekends as disruptions or rewards… or something entirely different? What is your routine for transitioning back to the Monday morning world? 


Give It Up For Sanity

The school year has been blazing to an end in a last glorious succession of ceremonies and recitals and plays and class dinners. Folks, we haven’t seen white space on the calendar in three weeks. Ordinarily, we could focus our energy outward on all these events and just half-ass our way through home life, but rental agencies have been showing our house, and if you’ve ever had to get a building inhabited by two miniature artists and their work-from-home parents ready for viewing on a daily basis, then you know how absolutely minuscule I feel by day’s end.

Granted, I tend to lose perspective within two minutes of our schedule filling up, but it makes sense that I would feel like only a quarter of a person if only a quarter of my soul-waves are getting any airtime. When you’re moving and freelancing and juggling the unique physical-emotional-socioeconomic needs of your children and trying to keep your small family world spinning on its axis, there isn’t a whole lot of room left over for navel-gazing, not to mention frivolities like reading poetry in the bathtub or, say, communicating clearly with your spouse.

I know some people who seem to thrive on busyness, but I am not one of them. Sleep deprival and deadlines turn me into a manic-depressive robot (emphasis on the depressive). I have one of those high-maintenance souls that need long stretches of quiet—endless stretches, really, because if I can see the end, my mind will paint it as a deadline, and then the gentle work of steeping myself in reflection will take on all the pressures of a high-stakes job—and breathing room cluttered by nothing except for fresh flowers and the steam swirling off a cappuccino. I also need ungodly quantities of sleep. Think toddler on Benadryl.

The problem is in trying to arrange these amenities for myself while ever conscious of 1) how much I’m needed in the domestic and social and occupational circles beyond my own head, and 2) how little right I have to ask for luxuries like space and time when I’m already so very privileged. When I try to look at my life through a global perspective, I’m paralyzed by the disparities in women’s rights and opportunities, and if I am lucky enough to have fresh flowers and hot coffee on my desk, how could I possibly ask for a side of endless quiet?

I know this isn’t how compassion is meant to work; my freezing up with assumed guilt isn’t going to make the world a better place any more than it’s going to force my body-soul-mind mechanism to operate efficiently. Also, I’m cringingly aware of just how often I end up writing variations on the theme of Self Care Matters Even When Life Gets Busy. (I don’t dare scroll through my archives right now.) However, I have to admit that I still have zero idea HOW to maintain my own inner balance when life fills up. Everything that I do on a day-to-day basis feels important—indispensable even—so what do I give up in order to meet my ridiculous but necessary soul-needs?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. I really would like to hear from you, find out what you sacrifice in order to keep yourself whole and healthy, hear how you prioritize sanity in the thick of your own busy lives. Do you let the health food aspirations go and hire Papa John as your weeknight chef? Do you sweep your kids’ Legos under the bed when no one’s looking? Do you stock up on dry shampoo and pharmacy-grade deodorant and downgrade personal hygiene to “a nice idea?” What is it that you give up in order not to give up on yourself?

Help wanted

High-maintenance minds want to know.


Swim Lessons

Natalie windmills through the water, her arms smooth as oars. She flutters her feet like mermaid fins and relaxes on the cushion of the water with an ease so unfamiliar to me. I didn’t take well to swimming as a child, and I still tense up in the water, trapping wisps of air in lungs squeezed too small, beating back the deep with panicky chops. Not my impossibly long eight-year-old though. She trusts the four feet of chlorinated blue beneath her and the tenor of her swim instructor’s voice. She breathes easily, my calm girl.

On the other side of the pool, Sophie laps up distance like a puppy, her hands pawing the water enthusiastically, a big grin visible just above the surface. Four months ago, she was afraid of getting water in her eyes; now, her confident splashes lead a pack of five-year-olds up the lane. I remember whispering to her about bravery last summer at the pond. We had stood barefoot on the grass staring down its rippling green, both of us trying to ignore the silvered flashes of fish through storm clouds of silt at the bottom, and I had whispered in her ear about how being scared is the first half of bravery; the other half is jumping in anyway. She jumps easily now, my brave girl.

I perch on a clear plastic stool and watch them through the glass like a mother hawk. I feel such tenderness toward those little bodies in motion below me and such fierceness toward potential threats, including that of the water surrounding them. My mind slips briefly toward Oklahoma and those children huddling around their teachers while the sky bludgeoned their school around them, but I can’t dwell there right now. I just can’t. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe when I’m not watching a poolful of little ones in the earnest upswing of learning.

For now, just this—calmness and bravery, and a childlike trust that we’ll be held in all that deep beyond our control.

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