I’m six weeks into the Mary Oliver Challenge. How’s it going?
I’ve been away a lot. The challenge of being myself, of believing that I am good enough—with all of my shortcomings, needs, and desires—goes with me wherever I go. But it’s strongest when I’m at home. That’s when everyone else is carrying out their normal lives of work and family responsibilities, while I live in this artificially self-centric world I have created.
In Mary Oliver’s poetic words, the challenge is to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. So the very first step is to persuade myself that the challenge itself is a good idea: that taking time off to work toward self-acceptance is is neither selfish and hedonistic, on the one hand, nor self-destructive on the other.
I’m still working on that first step.
Two weeks ago, I felt really stuck. The previous week had been, I thought, a great balance of activity and rest, social connections and time to myself. But then suddenly I was slammed with fatigue, back pain, and self-doubt. And my self-defeating behaviors came out of their dark, dirty hiding places, pushing their way in between my “soft animal” and what it loves. Instead of reading a novel, I played solitaire—which is fun for about five minutes, then just numbing. Instead of connecting with friends in person or by phone, I kept returning to Facebook—which can be a great way to stay in touch but is never a substitute for real human contact.
Going into this experiment, I knew the risks of unstructured time. In my initial blog post, “What is the Mary Oliver Challenge?,” I noted my fear of setting goals for what I would accomplish during this time off, then failing to achieve them. I wrote:
But what if my goal was not to set goals? What if my plan was not to make plans? I might want to do those things eventually. But at the outset, what if I just try to do what I want? . . . This challenge will necessarily involve wasting time. . . . What if I accept that inevitability as part of the process rather than considering it a failure?
Two weeks ago, I did wonder if I was failing the challenge. Last week, I realized that those frustrating days were not squandered—but it is time for an adjustment.
The Mary Oliver Challenge is about retraining and, in many ways, restraining my mind. I’m training it to take a step back from harsh judgments and from what-ifs and if-thens: what if I commit to attending that Tuesday yoga class I like so much, and then I don’t feel like going? I’ll be a failure. If I commit to that class, then I really need to add more strength exercises into my daily routine. And don’t forget cardio. This all-or-nothing outlook dooms many of my good intentions: rather than do something incompletely or imperfectly, I won’t do it at all.
In Phase One of the Mary Oliver Challenge, I needed to free myself from those commitments, from schedules and obligations. That was necessary to begin freeing my mind from its constant worry about accomplishments, and to let my body continue healing from the effects of pushing myself too hard.
The retraining is starting to work. The tyranny of the to-do list has loosened its grip a little bit. It’s a little easier to breathe. This blog, when I’m moved to write on it, is liberating.
Now it’s time for a little more structure.
The goal is the same: let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. Learn to separate my wants from my “shoulds,” and then learn to let myself do what I want.
But hours of solitaire and Facebook are not what I want. I don’t keep beer and tortilla chips in the house, because I will consume them all. They taste great, but they don’t satisfy the deeper hunger that makes me overindulge. Just as I impose self-discipline to steer away from chips and beer, I can steer myself away from excessive screen time that doesn’t bring emotional satisfaction. It’s safe now, I think, to commit to myself: I will go to that Tuesday yoga class when I’m able. And if I don’t feel like going but I know I will benefit, it’s okay to push myself.
Similarly, it now feels safe to take satisfaction in getting things done. In Phase One (I can’t type those words without hearing, “In which Doris gets her oats.”), I needed a radical break from my to-do list. I still need to watch out for my dependence on accomplishing tasks as a source of self-worth. But there are a few things that I need to get done, and a ton of things I would like to get done. I’m going to try to create ad hoc daily schedules in which I will intersperse periods of productivity (chores, errands, household projects) with activities that are just for myself, but more rewarding than solitaire (reading, genealogy, yoga, walking in the woods).
I guess you could say that the Phase One of the Mary Oliver Challenge was a six-week detox, in which I tried to curb my perfectionism by eliminating all expectations of myself. In Phase Two, we’ll see what happens when Doris gets some oats.