Tag: Purpose

9Jan

Pea Soup

(#nofilter #really)

In some moments, merging back into everyday life after a vacation feels like cliff-diving into the Baltic Sea after a six-course dinner. Other moments, it feels like getting lost in a pea soup fog. Sometimes it’s more like venturing into the Himalayas on foot while other times I might as well be sleepwalking in a corn maze.

Maybe it’s just me, but when the energizing whirl of holidayness putters out—at approximately 2:30 a.m. on New Year’s when one of the grownups suggests another party game and the rest look desperately at their five-year-olds who have turned into tireless vampire Energizer bunnies and refuse to provide an easy excuse for their parents to head home to bed—I suddenly find that the previous year has left me about 3,000 hours short on sleep and go into a week-long coma. Once I wake up, my annual Simplify! Simplify! craze kicks in, and if there are not at least five full recycling or give-away bags when I’m done with a room, it isn’t done. I organize and dust and IKEA the hell out my workspace so that I can take on 2013 with no holds barred…

…and then I sit down at that freshly de-cluttered workspace and realize I have no idea what I’m doing there. The new year is just too big, its goals too daunting, its tempo too unfamiliar. I don’t know how I can possibly catch up from those few weeks away from my daily routine, much less make inroads into the here and now, and the Type A fun of tying the old year into the new with summaries and resolutions seems like a luxury reserved for people who don’t lose perspective two minutes into vacation.

Unfortunately, my perspective is 97% tied to how often I write (the other 3% is caffeine), and I have never in my life managed to keep up a steady flow of words when in vacation mode. There are so many other things to see and do, loved ones to spend time with, and comas to enjoy. Without really meaning to, I’ve neglected to tap into my own thought life for over two weeks now, so things have gotten pretty discombobulated up in here. Words have been coming to me by the pageful in dreams, but they always white out the instant my alarm clock vibrates to life, and I don’t quite know how to be myself without them.

Is it okay to be admitting this? I have visions of this blog as something beautiful and significant (as does every blogger, presumably) with each paragraph carrying its own weight in purpose, but this sentiment tends to cripple more than inspire. It’s why I’ve been circling this page for days, swooping in occasionally to peck at a stray sentence but never alighting on anything meaningful enough to settle into. It’s also why I’ve treated my husband to a Disparately-Eyebrowed Stare Of Incredulity every time he’s suggested I slip out for half an hour to blog. You don’t just create something brilliant and insightful from pea soup fog in half an hour, see, and sitting down to write when I’m short on words and time and a sense of self all at once is a fairly certain recipe for despair.

This is my best idea on how to reclaim my non-comatose writerly self though—digging back in for authenticity and legible sentences even if though they’re not going to win me a spot on HuffPo, even if though they’re not the deep and heavy and beautiful things I wanted to articulate, even if though I’m too busy for this and January feels like an ice-shocked Scandinavian sea and I’m more tempted than you know to adopt hibernation as a viable lifestyle. I’m here despite all that, and I’m declaring that, as imperfect a first-post-of-the-year as this may be, it totally counts as taking on 2013.

~~~

Does your back-to-work routine also include flailing and spluttering and ruing the day of your birth? How are you getting along with the new year?

12Dec

Choosiness

My mind weighs more than it should today. I have to concentrate to hold it upright and centered above my shoulders instead of sinking a slow depression between them. The #adventwindow words have gotten me again. This time, it’s “choose”—a dare, a remonstrance, a permission ripe for the picking. I’ve been staring at it for three days now, this weighty word pasted to an otherwise empty page, and the only response I’ve conjured up is a question: How?

This year, more than just about any other in my memory, has been strung up like a commercial trawling line with others’ expectations for me. I would say I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve let down this year, but this isn’t the kind of thing easily forgotten. I can recall every email, every phone conversation, and every hard-staring face that has let me know I am not entitled to my own decisions.

As much as I value honest writing, this blog isn’t the right place for sharing these particular details, for rehashing every he-said-she-said and amassing indignation. Part of me would love to vent, get a flurry of “You’re clearly in the right!” sympathy comments, and then return to the mess of life in a protective aura of superiority. However, the other, wiser part of me knows that venting is a demolition tactic, not a restorative measure, and that it simply isn’t who I am.

Who-I-am is a relentless seeker of purpose and perspective, and that means digging past crumbled emotions to locate the foundation beneath. I have to confess though—I’m stumped when it comes to “choose.” So many decisions in my life right now seem armed to the teeth. In work, relationships, and even service opportunities, my path has already been chosen by others who are ill-prepared to hear me say “no.” These aren’t usually people I can just ignore or write out of my life, and their disappointment with me registers in the same sharp key as regret. The more firmly I try to plant my feet in the best decision for myself and my little family, the more I feel like a traitor… and the more I realize that the other party wants me to feel that way.

This scenario never fails to send my thoughts into a tailspin. Am I letting myself get bullied into a powerless version of my own life? Am I letting my soul get trampled in my quest not to disappoint anyone else? Or… is this just a normal part of living in community and loving others well? Is the regret I feel a healthy reaction to my own selfishness? Is it that I’m divvying up my “one wild and precious life” to the most insistent bidder, or is it that I’m clinging to my own minor wishes above the wellbeing of others? Is my people-pleasing guilt instructive or destructive?

I really don’t know. I rewind situations even as recent as this week and play back my words in slow, critical motion. How could I have held my ground instead of caving into pressure and agreeing to the other party’s terms? How could I have asserted my decision without sparking resentment? How could I have separated the codependent mesh of friendship and favors so that my “no” would only touch the latter?

As much as I might wish for obvious, quick-fix answers, I realize that isn’t how any relationship works, especially not the one between my mind and my heart.  This is the stuff of life and breath and plot-twist and resolution, all of us learning what it means to occupy planet earth together while growing ever more into ourselves. There are no perfect comebacks. I’m never ever ever going to know the right thing to say at the right time, and it’s probably best for my sanity not to figure it out later either.

But still… I really wouldn’t mind having all the hidden motivations and truths of each tense situation laid out in alphabetical order and paired with solutions. I want to have the power to choose how I allocate my time, energy, and resources no matter how anyone tells me I should. I would love the freedom to follow what I call heart-nudges (some people call it divine prompting) without the clamor of differing opinions pulling me off-track. I’d pay big bucks biscotti (hey, it’s what I’ve got) for the assurance that “no” is as valid a word as “yes” and is in fact part of a healthy decision diet.

However, the whole point of “choose” is choice—individual, intentional choice—and it becomes a different beast altogether when I read it as an invitation. Go ahead—choose! Choose choosiness. Choose the power to choose for yourself even when there are no assurances and choice sounds like a trick question and you won’t be able to make everyone or maybe even anyone elsehappy and no one has read you your rights and you know the other party will be grading your decision with a red marker. Choose anyway. You are cordially invited by your value as a human being to pick your own actions differently than other human beings might do on your behalf. No R.S.V.P. required.

I just have to hope that the “how” will come with time.

~~~

Do you ever feel like you have little power to decide certain aspects of your life for yourself? How do you navigate the line between selfishness and self-care when your decisions might disappoint others?

10Dec

Expatriotism

I just got back from an overnight getaway in Rome, and this entry may be less coherent than usual due to the excruciatingly early hour I got up to chauffeur my business-tripping husband to the airport and our less-than-responsible bedtime last night. I’m running on three hours of sleep and approximately six espressos right now, so you may want to read this post with one eye closed and the other twitching violently. At least consider yourself fairly warned.

Even after five years in Italy, I still get a speechless shiver each time I catch myself saying things like “I just got back from Rome.” It sounds like someone else’s exotic life, as plausible as a weekly brunch date with James Bond. It’s come to my attention that some of you feel a little disconnected as well when I write about our travels, so I wanted to take the opportunity today to share a more fleshed-out perspective of what our life here entails.

First, keep in mind that daily life is daily life, no matter where you call home. Even the Pope, nested above the bewildering opulence of St. Peter’s, puts on his slippers and shuffles into the routine of his day like the rest of us. The human mind simply can’t sustain a state of wonder long-term, though I feel like I’m betraying a collective fairytale in admitting that. After all, I live in Italy, a land flowing with family-recipe wine and artistic genius. If the mundane ever stepped back in deference for a place, it would be here. However, our socks still need washing, our landlord still needs cajoling, and our drivers licenses still need renewing…

…which brings me to Point #2: BUREAUCRACY. This one deserves capital letters both because it is a capital pain and because it is such a huge part of the expat experience. Every year or so, our life is fed into a gigantic bureaucratic machine where it is immediately pulled in seven different directions, investigated, ignored, wrung through committee meetings, entered into multiple related yet un-networked computer systems, lost, found, lost again, put up for adoption, taxed, misspelled, misquoted, mistaken, misinformed, and finally returned to us with a bill for the equivalent of two months’ wages. There is no principality or power that can force the Italian government to work more efficiently, and we are still mastering the spiritual discipline of Not Pulling Our Hair Out. Living here [legally, that is] can be mind-shreddingly hard.

The question we are most often asked by Italians is “WHY?” As in, “Why are you here? Why are you putting yourselves through the bureaucratic migraine machine? Why in the world would you leave your easy life in the States?” It’s a valid question, and I’m glad we’re reminded so frequently to examine our motives. It can be all too easy to slip into the groove of daily routines (when we’re not trying to reclaim our life from the system, of course) and forget that we aren’t here for the pasta or the travel opportunities or the bilingual daughters.

We’re here because these are our people. This culture is where our heart is, where our sense of home is rooted. We’ve been accused by homesick expats of loving everything about Italy, and I can assure you that’s not the case; however, the community we’ve found here is worth every frustration, inconvenience, and empty hair follicle. It’s the why.

The speechless shiver of getting to spend a night in Rome is just an auxiliary wow.

5Dec

Grace as: Role Call

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” ~ John Irving

It all started crumbling at the mention of a playdate. One of our girls is going through some social disconnect at school, and Dan very reasonably suggested that we invite one of her classmates over to spend an afternoon. “You don’t have to do anything,” he added more reasonably still. “In fact, why don’t you take your laptop and go out somewhere to write while I watch the kids?”

At which point I, very unreasonably, began to cry.

~~~

More than a decade has passed since I asked fundamentalism to move out, but I’m still finding his records scattered through my collection. One of them is called Roles, and I don’t mean to play it, not exactly, but its strains are so familiar that my hands move to the needle like a sacrament. One moment of scratchy white noise, then the old refrains start up, pricking at nostalgia as they go.

You are a woman, the record croons in gentle condescension. You were designed to be your husband’s helper, the keeper of his home, and the caretaker of his children. This is your place, the place you were tailor-made for. The music begins to waltz through the corners of the room, brushing across smudged windowpanes and stirring up dust bunnies. The notes touch down heavily on the notebook where I scribble my goals, and I cringe as the song turns sinister.

Shame on you, shame on you, so much shame. Your ambitions are unforgivably selfish. Not only are you neglecting your duties as homemaker, but you ask your husband to give up his valuable time and help you. You ask the family you should be serving to accommodate your dreams. You put your energy and attention into writing instead of hosting play dates, and it is your fault your daughter is struggling in friendship. It is your fault your husband has so little leisure time. It is your fault you have to fight your own mind for confidence. It’s time to give up this charade of individual purpose and passion. You are, after all, a woman.

By the time the melody fades away, my sense of self has faded too. I wonder wearily why I ever asked fundamentalism to leave when he’s the one with the ready answers. I wonder how long I’ll have to channel June Cleaver before my soul stops trying to escape. I wonder what, if any, is the point of me.

~~~

Who I am now is a gift, pure and simple. When fundamentalism moved out, freedom and choice and the unique beauty of personhood moved in, and the one-size-fits-all role of woman was replaced with my very own skin. I can’t express just what it means to learn that I, as myself and no one else, am valuable… though truthfully, it’s such a fantastical notion that it doesn’t always stick. Some days, I dismiss it as too good to be true, and other days, old records dismiss it for me. Even the mention of a responsibility-free playdate can trigger a mental landslide, adding support to my fear that this identity is only a façade.

When Dan mentioned inviting a friend over, he had no idea that my mind would snap first to the disaster zone that is our girls’ room, then to reluctance over cleaning it, then to guilt that it isn’t already clean, then to capital-g Guilt that my housekeeping failure is damaging their friendships, then to capital-everything GUILT that I’ve been following my call to write rather than my role as ‘50s sitcom housewife—compounded by the fact that my vastly superior and male husband was offering to watch the kids for me—and finally to utter despair. (Surprisingly, it did not make me feel any less like a worm when he apologized for the misunderstanding. Does the man have to be so kind?)

This is grace though—that I can listen to the Roles record play like an earthquake in my heart and feel my life discredited from the inside out, that I can spiral down into a trapped, hopeless, and shamed shell of myself, that I can reabsorb the bone-deep lie of inferiority… and then, even with tears still blurring my vision, that I can recognize the prison of old mindsets as the real façade, square my uniquely beautiful shoulders, and march out.

I am, after all, a woman.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

29Nov

Honestly

I set up a Facebook page yesterday. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took me a year of “Huh, I should get on that”s and noncommittal throat noises to actually click the button… though honestlyhonestly, it might have something to do with this fun personal fact: I’m afraid of attention.

We’re talking woodland creature skittishness here, jumping beans in my stomach, thoughts sprouting gray hairs. I don’t think even Dan knows this yet (hi, honey!), but I had to fight back stage fright at our wedding. I still agonize trying to guess which day of the year Italian women will switch from ballet flats to boots because yes, the world will in fact end if I leave the house in unseasonable footwear. From the time I was a girl attracting double-takes with my homeschool uniform (picture an eleven-year-old Michelle Duggar), I’ve always had a wild desire to go unnoticed in public, and that self-protective instinct gets twitchier than ever when it focuses on my writing.

The simple truth is that this is my heart, strung out in black typeface and compulsive backspaces. When you read my blog, you read my heart, and my posting here is something like the CIA declaring Open House Day. My insecurities are here, my doubts, my hopes, the issues I struggle with and mull over, the insights that bring me peace… and by drawing attention to them, I am well aware I’m opening them up to criticism. It feels like standing on a busy intersection in my puffy denim jumper and even puffier bangs, waving.

There are the other fears too—the vulnerability of starting something new, the fragile alliance of “like” buttons, the safety net of personal privacy settings sidestepped. Always, always, statistics and purpose compete for precedence in my mind, and perspective can be as difficult to nail down as a live squid. I’ve moaned to Dan on an occasion or two [slight understatement] about how unfair it is that I was wired to write. As long as I’m following these heart-nudges, my goals and my personality will be at odds, and I wish I could be fulfilled in life by something simpler, less emotionally risky. Deep sea welding, for instance.

However, I can’t turn off the light in my core that says this, here is what I’m meant to be doing. It’s as clear a sense of vocation as I’ve ever experienced, and as much as I might like to dismiss this blog as a mere hobby (a monthly ritual of despair, which I’m sure has no correlation whatsoever to other monthly occurrences) or hide it under a bushel or amputate every stubborn neuron compelling me to write, a force stronger than fear keeps me here… and not just here, but honestly delighted to be here.

I know that sharing this with you is not exactly the act of withdrawal my inner stage-fright was hoping for. It’s the opposite in fact—a declaration of purpose and vulnerability waved from a busy intersection, eyes staring deliberately into the headlights. However, I wanted you to understand how much it means to me to be here with you, in typeface and photos, insecurities and Tweets, and a heart that wants to connect with yours far more than it wants to hide.

~~~

Is there anything your sanity compels you to do that simultaneously terrifies you? I’d love to hear about it; after all, commiseration and encouragement are two of the very best things about this great internet of ours.

Oh, and don’t forget to head over and “like” my Facebook page (why yes, I am making ironic quote marks with my fingers right now) if you’d like to connect, get blog updates, or otherwise make my day.

14Nov

The Long Exhale

It’s here, in the collective slump after the girls have been tucked into bed and the dishes washed (or ignored, as was almost certainly the case tonight), when the clock picks up a stray echo from the shadows and my thoughts begin to puddle, it’s here in the long exhale of evening that I most often wonder if I’m any closer to becoming myself than I was one year ago, or two, or five.

I can’t remember a time when this question of identity wasn’t waiting under cover of tiredness to command my attention. It carries a pocket reel of my day and winds through it in reverse. There I am, tripping my way through a chapter of Pippi Longstocking in Italian as the girls color snowflakes and pajama cuffs purple. There I am paying bills, scanning documents, and rearranging euros among spreadsheet boxes as if their military gray borders will hold our finances in place. There I am pushing a grocery cart between produce bins of green, all the while pining for the green of the park and that elusive half hour just for running. There I am, pen in hand at the tip of dawn, trying to make out if my words will fly in formation or startle into a flurry of nothingness today.

Intentional living has never been the problem. I was raised on it, taught to imprison every minute with my mind and reform it into something of eternal significance, and that pressure to force every moment into a holy mold still bullies the way I think. It is exasperatingly difficult for me to simply appreciate life in all its organic, beauty-steeped mystery. Cultivating wonder can be as challenging for me as cramming for a final, and cultivating self is even further from the comforts of routine and right answers.

I’m on my own trail, though; I can tell. My feet are finding familiarity in new landscapes, a heady déjà vu, and I have enough clarity left over to look my question of identity in the eyes when he finishes the reel, thank him for his concern, and wish him goodnight without ever needing to mold our moment into an answer.

23Jul

The Gift of Permission

When I told Dan that I only got a cumulative ten minutes of sleep last Wednesday night, he ran it through his Bethany Hyperbole Filter and concluded that I meant seven and a half hours instead of my usual nine. (I need more sleep than any creature I know, newborn sloths included.) The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the point is that I spent Thursday tired, and even a luxury nap after breakfast didn’t jump-start the kind of energy or inspiration one would hope for on her birthday.

My perceptions of cold, hunger, tiredness, and sadness have always confused themselves with each other, and so I never was quite sure throughout the day if I needed a snack or a blanket or maybe some stand-up comedy. In reality, I probably needed some double espressos with an extra spoonful of grace, but clear thinking is not my forte when I’m running on a sneeze-worth of sleep. Instead, my instinctive drive to do more! accomplish more! amps up in direct proportion to my rising exhaustion—all the more so on “special” days—and I basically turn into my own personal Dementor.

Sucking out my own soul is a habit I’d love to kick in this coming year, so my first instinct was to put that at the top of an extra special birthday edition to-do list:

  1. Stop sucking out own soul.
  2. (But really, accomplish more please.)

Self help clearly isn’t my forte either.

It’s just that I want to feel in every synapse and pore of my being that I’m doing life well—living it deeply, thoughtfully, openly, and significantly. I crave purpose the way our palm trees crave water; that’s my internal design, and it could be a force for good if I could simply ditch the accompanying stress. Search for purpose – guilt-ridden paranoia + a chill pill. (Optional: more wine and/or Rumi.) Sounds pretty perfect, right? To that end, I’m writing a different kind of list for myself this birthday. Instead of lining up the things I hope to do this year (see 2008, 2009, 2010, and a dizzy buzzing noise from 2011), I’m giving myself permission this year to not do. (Feel free to adopt this list for yourself or anyone else in your life who could use a break from self-flagellation.)

  • You have permission not to catch up with friends’ online worlds before getting in touch. It’s okay to call or write a loved one without knowing exactly what she’s been up to the last few weeks (or, ahem, months). If anything, it will give you more to talk about one-on-one, so ditch the guilt, mark all as read, and spend your valuable time enjoying the relational part of your relationships.
  • You have permission not to take other people’s success as indication of your failure. Personal amazingness is not the last piece of pie; there is more than enough to go around in this wide, ever-possible world of ours, and it has no expiration date. You can’t be late to a game that doesn’t exist, so stop worrying that your friend’s book deal was meant to be yours (it wasn’t) or that the scholarship accidentally fell out of destiny’s hands into the wrong person’s (it didn’t) or that each new name worked into a Ben & Jerry’s flavor pun knocks you even further out of the running (Fruit Bassett for 2015, anyone? anyone?).
  • You have permission not to wait until ideas are fully formed and Beowulf-epic before acting on them. Your husband is right in warning you that incubating a project until it’s reached theoretical perfection means never starting that project at all. Wrinkles are best smoothed out with forward motion anyway, so put more energy into your doing than into your thinking, start small, and at least try to befriend imperfection along the way. (He’s so much more interesting to hang out with than perfection; just think of the stories you’ll accrue!)
  • You have permission not to wear all your hats at once. Just one at a time is enough, I think, but not the everything hat. It’s not really a hat at all—just a piece of tinfoil hot-glued with delusions of grandeur—and the only thing you manage to do while wearing it is bump into walls; please, for the love of all that is holy, throw the everything hat away. Also, you know the housecleaning hat is too tight, so limit your time with that one; the mama and friend and writer and teacher hats fit you much better. As long as you don’t wear them all at once.
  • You have permission not to protect the worry. I know you think that someone has to be responsible for worrying, and not just for worrying but for keeping the worry comfortable, well-fed, and safe from harm, and if you don’t do it, who will? I also know that sometimes worry feels like the only constant you can grasp when life is surging around you. But oh honey—the worry doesn’t need a protector. It’s an animal of prey, and you know all too well how it bites the hand that feeds it. You already have plenty to do without this job on top of all; you have my express and hearty permission to resign.

The gift of permission

Bonus: You have permission to slip away to the park for an hour or two and fill yourself to capacity with fresh air. Recommended especially for those with a Dementor habit to break.

 

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