Nightmare 1: You waste time. A lot of time.
Nightmare 2: You tell yourself it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. You make mistakes. You don’t necessarily learn from them.
Nightmare 3: You stay up ridiculously late on Ancestry.com, even though you have not fully recovered from a two-day period of unexpected and unsettling fatigue.
Nightmare 4: Despite #3, you start the day with energy and motivation for some needed house cleaning. But then you spend your time on Ancestry.com and solitaire instead.
Nightmare 5: You have all the time in the world to do things you love—reading novels, walking in the woods, personal writing, family history research—and to catch up on projects you’ve been wanting to get done. You do a bit of those things, but spend a mind-numbing amount of time playing solitaire and perusing Facebook.
Nightmare 6: You have all this time because you quit your job with the goal of learning how to “just be.” Your sense of self depends too much on what you are able to get done, so you set the goal of doing only what you feel like. When a friend says he would flounder without structure in his days, you can only nod and try to explain the seeming paradox: you have deliberately created a situation in which you often feel that you are undermining yourself. Unsurprisingly, your friend is confused by this decision.
In the past five days, I have lived all of these nightmares. I call them that because they’re the opposite of what you expect from responsible, highly effective people, those with oodles of self-discipline and excellent habits that help them get where they want to be in life. Sometime in my 30s or 40s, I finally stopped having the forgot-my-gym-clothes-can’t-find-my-locker-don’t-know-the-combination-lost-my-class-schedule-can’t-find-the-classroom dreams that had followed me since junior high school. These are the new version.
A few mornings ago, as I wandered around my backyard draped in my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (don’t ask), I felt the urge to finish up my prayers so that I could get on with what I’m supposed to do.
That outlook was bad enough when I had a schedule to keep. Prayer is what I’m supposed to do, I would remind myself. It’s the way I’ve chosen to start my day. It’s not something to get out of the way so I can commence with the real stuff.
Now that I have quit my job and am not “supposed to” do anything, my impatience is just plain ridiculous. But the other day, the thought struck me from a different direction: I feel the need to finish counting my blessings so that I can start earning them.
In yoga class today, I tried to do a handstand.
No. I tried the thing you were supposed to do if you couldn’t manage a handstand. Then I tried the thing for people who can’t manage the substitute.
I couldn’t do any of them. But I tried a few times, attempting to push away the thoughts about how ridiculous I looked. When the disabled war veteran keeps falling in that inspirational yoga video, it’s … inspiring. When I do it, not so much.
“Never Give Up,” the video caption says.
At this moment in my life, that’s a complicated message. I’m trying to break my dependency on measurable goals and achievements. I’m trying to accept myself in my current, unimproved state. If “Never Give Up” means “Never Be Satisfied With Where You Are In Life,” then it is the wrong slogan for me.
But I do have goals. One goal is to try things out, even when I’m afraid of them. (Like this whole blog, and the Mary Oliver Challenge itself.)
A related goal is not to stop trying just because the first attempt fails. So in class today, when I put my hands on the floor and my feet against the wall and they slid right back down, I tried again, and again, and again.
It didn’t get easier. I didn’t see any improvement. I may never achieve a handstand, and I’m not setting that goal. But if I’m in a class where handstands are on the agenda, I’ll give it another shot. I might give up on specific goals. But I won’t give up on myself.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.
“You don’t have to find yourself,” says the sign at the yoga studio. “You have to create yourself.” But I think I do need to find myself.
That’s not to pick a fight with the sign at the yoga studio. There is no ready-made, off-the-shelf self waiting to be discovered, like the perfect wild raspberry hidden along the trail. Finding myself is not a matter of practicing the right asanas, chanting the correct prayers, or following the proper program. It will take a lot of creative effort. So maybe we’re on the same page, the yoga-studio sign and I.
Still, “finding” is a central part of what I need to do. When I lost my father, I lost a part of myself. Three years later, I’m still not sure what that part is, let alone how to find it.
I used to have a workout playlist that started with Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” and ended with his “The Promised Land.” Great tunes, driving rhythms, uplifting theme — what better way to start strong and finish strong?
A technical glitch zapped that playlist, along with the rest of the music on my iPod. Some life glitches zapped my workouts, and the Humpty Dumpty playlist is one of the things I have not yet put back together again.
But I’ve been thinking lately about the Badlands-to-Promised Land trajectory and how it so perfectly fits our culture, with its stories of true grit and triumph over adversity. It perfectly fits the trajectory I was trying to follow in my life: the better-stronger-higher-deeper ethos that not only pervades popular culture, but also motivates some of the people I most admire.
It’s a great story line for getting me off my tuchus to exercise. But as a life story, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Today is the first full-fledged day of the Mary Oliver Challenge, and it is a challenge. My soft animal is feeling the sharp, pointy teeth and claws of anxiety. The challenge is to grapple with that feeling instead of letting it take over or pushing it into a corner where it will lurk, glaring at me and waiting to pounce again.
My last day of work was Tuesday. Wednesday, we left for vacation. Last night, after we returned, I immediately began to feel the pressure of Getting Stuff Done. I unpacked from our trip and started the laundry. Then I set aside time to write in my journal. There was so much else to Get Done: emails, household chores, putting away the stuff I brought home from work and dumped on my dresser last week. Plus things I wanted to do, including writing a blog post and responding to friends who gave me such kind, supportive feedback on the first post. (If you are one of those friends: thank you! I haven’t forgotten you.)
But I reminded myself: there will always be Stuff To Do. I have to learn to live with that. And I made two resolutions for the next day: I would not stress out over chores, and I would not stress out over whether to go to the $5 yoga class that meets downtown on Mondays.