I was not an effective business person today. Instead my day was spent connecting with people in my community. I talked with Howard while driving him to the airport. I went to a lunch with a dozen women from my neighborhood. I spent an hour catching up with my back yard neighbor. I spent several hours listening to my son unpack his brain, taking him out for food, then listening some more. At the end of the day, my To Do list is the same length it was this morning, but that does not mean the day was wasted. On the contrary, this was an important use for a day. Sometimes I forget that lists of tasks done or not done are not an accurate measure for a worthwhile life.
Sometimes there comes a day when your kids who have been depressed, aren’t anymore. The new meds are working, they’ve learned cognitive skills, things are just better. Then one kid plunks herself down and chatters to you about her life for two hours, some of which covers events in elementary school. Which leads you to look up favorite teachers to see if they’re still at the school. And they are. So the next day you grab the younger brother, who also had these teachers, and you drive over to the school for a visit. It turns out that you arrived early and the kids aren’t out yet, but the teacher you visit first just happens to have an empty classroom because her current crop of fifth graders are all in the computer lab. She’s always busy, but this day she has an hour to smile as she watches your kids talk and reminisce.
Then, when you seek out the other teacher, she almost cries because she’d been thinking about your kids only a few days before. She’d been wondering about them and and planning to write you a letter to ask about them, but then you walked into the office. And there they are: standing tall (in one case, 1.5 feet taller than when last seen) with bright faces, and cheerful chatter about their lives and their plans for the future. And when the kids go run off to see the playground, you get to stand with these two teachers who cried with you over your kids when they were struggling hard, and you cry a little bit again, but this time it is happy. Because here you are on the far side of a hard dark place, which lasted much longer than anyone wanted, but which also laid all sorts of necessary groundwork for the growing that is happening now.
Sometimes you get to have that day. And it is a beautiful one.
I think it is good that Civil Rights Day (or Martin Luther King day) comes at the beginning of the year. We’re still looking around and figuring out how this year needs to go and who we need to be during it. It is a good time to be reminded that non-violent civil protest can be a hugely powerful force in the world, but only when it is fueled by resolute anger, the kind of anger that says “things must change.”
I resonate with that message. I declared it for myself this year as I try to face my anxiety head on. As a part of that, I am examining how I interact with social media, people in online communities, and people in my physical communities. The internet has enabled many beautiful things. The creative work that Howard and I do would not be possible without the internet. However there are also unintended consequences, and it is my moral and societal responsibility to pay attention to those consequences. I am responsible for deciding what changes to make in my own life to mitigate the negative effects of the internet. Every day I choose who to be on the internet and who to reward with my attention. Every day I choose my information sources and how thoroughly I examine my sources before spreading information from them. I am a participant in internet culture, and unless I am consciously working to mitigate the negative effects of current internet norms, I am complicit in the damage those norms do.
Howard recently tweeted a phrase that has been bouncing around in my head ever since: “Think globally, act locally.” For me this means imagining a world that I want to live in, figuring out what things I can do to help that world exist, then doing those things. So I will be donating to good causes with time, money, and attention. I will try to articulate my thoughts on how to make the world better instead of just complaining when it is hard. I will remember the efforts of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and hundreds of others. I will honor their efforts by making efforts of my own. Even if my efforts are small and only change me, that is still the world made a tiny bit better.
This morning I read a post from a woman whose blog I follow. In that post she expressed how chaotic and overwhelming her life felt. She has some special needs kids, and recent political turmoil has really hit home for her. Because of all of this, and some depression she’s battling, she feels like she is flailing around in the dark. She’s written posts like this one before and probably will again as she tries to find a new balance. What struck me this time has far more to do with me than with her, because this time I did not have an instant resonance with her emotional state. I spent a long time feeling as she does: lost, overwhelmed, continuing to move forward with determination instead of real hope. Today I could see all those things in her, but I could also see how much of her state is colored by the depression and anxiety that dwells in her head. She has honest cause for grief and an emotional reset, but grief, depression, and anxiety are darkening every day in ways that make her whole life difficult. This was true with me as well, but today’s reading also showed me that I’d emerged from it, at least a little.
When I was a child, my family would drive along I-70 into the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a winding road with sharp drop offs down steep canyons. It is a stunning (if nerve wracking) drive full of amazing vistas. One trip was beset with fog. We drove slowly and carefully because we could only see a few feet in front of our vehicle. But then from one moment to the next, the fog was gone. We had climbed up above it, and we could see sunshine and a landscape of clouds, bordered on either side by tree covered mountain peaks. It was beautiful and mysterious. Such a surprise to be able to see so far when only moments before we’d only been able to see right in front of us.
I’m reluctant to draw any grand plans or conclusions from the fact that I’ve emerged above the fog this week. Part of me would like to state that my intention to live in less fear is working, the changes I’m making in confronting anxiety are working. However, there are so many other factors at play here. My kids who have all been struggling in pairs, trios, or quartets for the past five years, are suddenly not struggling in the ways they were before. Tipping over into the next year released some funds which make me less stressed about finances this month than I was last month. All of these things combine together and the fog vanishes. Also, it isn’t completely gone. I have to remember that just yesterday morning a small event had me curled up in bed with a fort of pillows so that I could cry in safety. For an hour. That sort of thing doesn’t really fit into the “I’m all better now” theme song. I’m not “all better” but I did get up, see the anxiety attack for what it was, and then move on with my day while doing my best to not berate myself for letting anxiety win.
On that foggy drive, we dipped back into the fog multiple times as the road curved up and down the mountainside. I’d expect the same from any emotional healing process. I’m still going to get ambushed by grief or anxiety. However I’m still determined to build an existence where anxiety and depression are no longer the soundtrack of my life.
I need to pause and acknowledge today. It wasn’t a day that ends up featured in family photos or social media posts. It was entirely ordinary, except it was the kind of ordinary that has been missing for a long time, so I want to pause and notice instead of letting it slip by.
Howard scripted a full batch of comics and generally felt good about the work he did. So often his brain plagues him with negative emotions or self doubt. Today was cheerful. Also he gave me one of the pieces I needed to finish RAM.
We got a big shelf unit moved from my house where it was in the way to the warehouse where it is the exact right solution to a problem I’ve been having. Sure the contents of Howard and Kiki’s studio are still exploded all across the family room, but it is a sign of moving forward and settling in. These are good things.
After carefully navigating the first week of away-from-home where my son kept refusing my advice (No mom, I don’t want any food in my fridge, I don’t need dishes. I don’t need silverware) my son had a day where he was outright cheerful and full of stories about things that happened during his day. Also, he realized that he wants snacks, cups, and a spoon. We haven’t reached bowls or forks yet, but slowly he’s beginning to recognize what things he’ll actually need in his adult life. So nice to see him moving forward.
High school girl rocked her online classes today, plowing through a bunch of work that was stalled. Then she spent the afternoon playing Overwatch with her brother, which led to “where did my day go?” frustration. But that frustration is entirely normal and a good life experience in time management.
Home school English went very smoothly. I doubt it will always go smoothly. We’re more likely to hit emotional tangles over an opinion essay than over the current grammar unit, but it is an auspicious start, and if we can plow through grammar quickly, that buys us extra time to stew when we get to the more difficult stuff.
As I said, an entirely ordinary day, untroubled with emotional crises or depths of despair. I’ll take it.
The first stages of clearing out are easy. That is when I find all the things which fall into the “why do I even still have this thing” category. The early stages are satisfying, I quickly create large piles of things to throw out or give away. The result is easily visible space created in my life. Then there are the things which still carry a whisper of the importance they used to have, or are attached to a memory. Most of those go as well. Or they are kept and put in a place where the memory can be kept safe. After that it gets complicated and/or inconvenient. In order to unload chemicals, paint, oil for a car we no longer own, I have to look up proper disposal locations and costs. We want to replace some large and heavy hardwood furniture, which means figuring out how to transport the old furniture to either a consignment shop or donation location. (And it means going through a mental process that makes it okay to let the furniture go.) Then there are the papers/photos/mementos. These things must be sorted for personal value and historical value. That sorting is mentally exhausting work.
And yet, I’m beginning to see space open up. This space is going to be crucial in the coming months when I begin tearing apart portions of our house to make them better. The space is also crucial in allowing us to grow forward without being buried in who we used to be. Bit by bit. Corner by corner. Category by category, I am making our lives better.
I am learning how to be less afraid. This is not an easy task since anxiety is so omnipresent in my life that I often don’t recognize I’m responding to it. This year I’m trying to take daily small steps to confront the anxiety and see it for what it is. To help with that effort, I’ve got a page in my journal where I write down small things I do to confront my anxiety. Here are some examples from the last three days:
1/2/18: I did not go back to speak with my son’s service coordinator after my son left. It would only have served to vent my fears, not provide the coordinator with additional useful info. The coordinator and my son will build their own relationship. I need to stay out as much as possible. If the coordinator has questions, he’ll ask me. But I really wanted to go back.
1/3/18: I donated a hardwood dresser even though the likely replacement will be IKEA pressboard. I don’t need to be the keeper of historical dressers. Particularly not partially broken ones from 1980 that I picked up at a garage sale. It took an hour to convince my brain I had not made a terrible and life altering mistake.
1/4/18: I sat with the anxiety of not knowing how my son is doing at his school. And I didn’t contact him or his service provider to resolve it.
1/5/18: I could hear Howard and my daughter’s voices upstairs, but not the words. Tones told me that Howard was in lecture mode. I did not go and check to make sure that Howard wasn’t making daughter upset. She’s an adult. They have a great relationship. If he was annoying her, that’s between them. No point in me showing up to referee. It is not my job to make sure all conflicts are prevented or resolved, nor my job to ensure that my loved ones always have good relationships.
1/5/18: I started the day with a vague feeling that I wanted to cry or curl in a ball. There is no reason for it. My son is not doing fine at his new school. He called and told me all the ways he is struggling, but he is struggling in exactly the ways he needs to struggle in order to grow. If I try to step in to make him feel better, I will only prevent that growth. Instead, I took hold of my own brain and focused on something that distracted me from want-to-cry, until after the feeling faded.
These are only a few examples. Many more things made me slightly or significantly anxious during each day. Keeping the list is helping me notice how pervasive anxiety is in my life. Noticing the anxiety and naming it is a step toward not letting it win.
The house feels empty and today felt long. I can feel the absence of my 20 year old son. It happens dozens of times all day. At the grocery store when I don’t buy an item which we stocked because he likes it. In the house when the floor creaks and it isn’t because of his footsteps. When I do laundry, because I discovered a load of his clothes still in the dryer which I’ll need to deliver to him later in the week. I have lots of feelings about him living elsewhere, but I try to land on enthusiasm for the things he’s going to get to do.
We remembered how to do the morning off-to-school routine. Some years I have to struggle to remember how it goes, but this year it all fell right back into place. And college girl, who is finishing her last semester from home, fit right in to the patterns. Then during the day she undertook several household projects that would not have been completed today if she weren’t here. Howard’s office is being rearranged so it can function as studio space for two artists instead of just one. They’re both quite excited about it.
I had more trouble picking up business tasks. I had to take time looking at all of the work tasks and re-establishing urgency and priority for each one. So many things got shuffled to the side during the holiday shipping rush, holiday, and then getting my son settled at school. But I made a start on getting things done. I’ll do more tomorrow. Slowly but surely I’ll knock tasks off the list.
All things considered, this feels like the true first day of the New Year. It was the first day when we began to establish patterns that we’ll try to hold onto. I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions about the coming year as a whole based on results from today, but today was good.
I began 2017 with trepidation, as I said in my New Year Ahead post on January 1st. In some ways I met the goal of that post: to grow my heart. In other ways I could have done better. I do know that I reach December of 2017 feeling worn out and battered, which was discouraging. Politics and the world at large felt like impending doom all year, but on the home front everyone was doing better. We weren’t “all better” but everyone was growing which was a nice improvement over the shrinking several of my children did for a couple of years. Unfortunately growth is always a thing of fits, starts, and backward steps. We hit a harder patch in November/ December, which had me counting down toward the day when 2017 was over. The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was a gift that granted me a measure of calm, clarity, and perspective.
2017 is complete. The beautiful things about it are safe in treasured memory that can’t be damaged by anything in times to come. The things that were hard about it, I can mine for lessons, then let go. Which leaves me looking forward.
I have things to build this year. Most of my Christmas gifts were power tools and related paraphernalia. We have some home renovation that needs to be done. I’ll be doing some of it myself. These physical renovations are an external manifestation of emotional and family dynamic renovations. We have changed who we are, and we are still changing, it is time to alter our living spaces to match. And changing our living spaces assists us in the work of re-defining who we are and how we see our lives.
Yesterday I wrote a post about the end of 2017 and someone asked “I thought this year had been better for you.” It was and it wasn’t. But most of the reasons it wasn’t have to do with my anxieties and my emotional reactions (or over reactions) to events that occur. Additionally, I think I let the weariness of November/ December color the year too much. After all, it was a year that included all the brightness and joy that was my trip to Europe. And I finally delivered all the Planet Mercenary packages, I have to remind myself the magnitude of that success, because my brain is more inclined to focus on how afraid I was during every step. Afraid I’d do things wrong. Afraid the shipping funds would run out. Afraid that it wouldn’t get done in time. And then there was all the anxiety related to national events… Viewing 2017 through that haze of anxiety colors everything.
I make my life harder than it has to be, because of the quantity of energy I spend on being afraid of (and preparing for) things that haven’t happened and might never happen.
Of all the things in my life that need to be fixed, that is the largest one. I want to build a life with less anxiety in it. To do that I have to change habits of thinking. I have to change my physical spaces. I have to get rid of the detritus of past selves which aren’t letting me clearly see what is needful in my life right now. Attempting to reduce my anxiety is a project that will spawn a hundred projects, some new, some already ongoing. I’ve cleared away the memories contained in the blog books. I’m now clearing the happier moments of those years by creating matching family photo books. (When I’m stressed, I write words to sort it. The happy moments are more likely to get recorded in photographs. There are hundreds of tiny, happy moments even in the hardest of years.) I’ve already been sorting and discarding old stored things from my house.
I’m not going to try to do a massive grand renovation. I’m going to do a hundred small construction projects. I’m not going to “hit the ground running” or plan to go fast. I’m going to make small, consistent, persistent changes. I’m going to change my surroundings to remind me of those changes and to reinforce them. I will spend this year building: physically, creatively, socially, and in my community. It is time to roll up sleeves and get to work.
Each year I take the blog posts from that year and turn them into a paper book that I can sit on my shelf. I like doing it, and it helps me to have physical evidence of the fact that I do write a lot of words in a given year. Except, I hadn’t made one since 2014. Nor had I created the annual family photo books. I’ve been so far under water, nearly drowning, that I couldn’t face going through the words and pictures from those years. I did not want to live them again. Until, suddenly, this past week I did. Somehow as I neared the end of 2017, I wanted to clear all of that away, put it to rest for good. So in less than 7 days I put together books for 2015, 2016, & 2017. Going through quickly gave me the benefit of some additional perspective. I have a lot more compassion for past me than I did before. I’ve spent weeks feeling like I failed at parenting in dozens of critical ways. After three years in review, yes I failed at some things, but not the biggest ones, and I never let failure stop me from trying to do better. Which is the true measure of success: don’t let failure be the last thing you do.
This past year has been one of finishing up. We finished up Kiki’s college education. We’ve finished up Link’s residence here in our house, launching him into his next life stage. We (finally) finished up the Planet Mercenary project and the seventy maxims project, which represents massive effort and success on my part. I rescued both of those from failure, and was rescued from my project failures by amazing collaborators. The biggest thing I want to finish up before the end of 2017: I would like to cap off and close the five-year-long chapter of my life where my daily existence was dictated by mental health crises. I want next year to be different. Finishing off the books felt like a step toward that.
While I was making the books, I also made a list summarizing my parenting experiences in the past five years. (For the entirety of which, with only brief respites, I always had 2-4 children in crisis.)
2013 Transitions and meltdowns
2014 Melting down and getting smaller
2015 Pit of despair and shrinking
2016 Stabilizing and grieving
2017 The intensity knob went up to 11 and I got transitions, meltdowns, despair, grieving, and (miraculously) enough growing to counter balance most of the rest.
This was a year defined by anxiety and fear. I want something else now. But I wouldn’t give up the growth that happened this year, and the growth was a direct result of everything that came for all the years before. So thank you 2017 for existing. I now release you, and turn to move forward.