The End of Advent: T’was in the Bleak Midwinter

First of all, a Merry Christmas to everyone!

This being the end of Advent, I feel compelled to give a recap. So, I’ve found this Advent practice to be useful, but it hasn’t illuminated everything the way I’d hoped it would. And how could it, really? Making space and eschewing the toxic stuff we cling to isn’t a simple thing, it isn’t clean. It’s messy, it’s tiring, it’s incremental. It’s not as satisfying as I’d wanted it to be. It asked more questions that provided answers. Boo.

But this actually raises a point I’ve been struggling with all season. We don’t talk about the darkness within Christmas very much. We focus on the light and the sweet, all that glitters. Trust me, I like glitter as much as the next girl. My living room is currently covered in it, due to some particularly glittery ribbons. But the light that shines at Christmas shines brightest because of the darkness that surrounds us, at the nadir of the year. The sweet tastes so sweet because of the bitter winter to which we have become accustomed. We celebrate a baby born to die, as are we all, but this one born as a sacrifice. Does knowing that temper our joy, or enhance it?

It’s true that suicides spike at Christmas, and people blame the loneliness that comes from not being able to celebrate with family or friends. But I’d argue (without any basis, I grant you) that the loneliness that causes someone to take their own life is chronic, a feeling as extreme on a random Tuesday as on Christmas Day. I wonder if the forced frivolity and the constant urging to feel joyful, shiny, merry and bright, might make people feel like their inability to feel happy all the time is a personal failing.

Because I’ll be completely honest, on paper last Christmas was way, way better. I was beginning a new, promising relationship filled with romance and fun. I had just been promoted in my job. I was staying with my folks for the holiday and was completely relaxed, not working, not having any responsibilities. This year I ran my ass ragged from work meetings to doctors appointments up until last night, I’ve been single for the past three and a half months after discovering the aforementioned promising relationship partner was a cheating pile of human garbage, and I’m hosting my parents this year. Despite having experienced a pretty shitty past few months, I’ve felt the pressure to count my blessings and be happy, for myself, for others, and that same pressure has made me brittle and resentful.

And you know what? So what. Fine. Be brittle, be resentful. That’s how I feel. That’s where I am this Christmas.

But I’m also sitting on the couch with my parents who traveled thousands of miles to see me, watching Love Actually, after enjoying a delicious meal cooked for me by best friends. Last night we all had a wonderful fancy meal next to the White House, getting to walk with those same friends in the city in which we now all live, a dream we used to share in law school that is now a reality. I have a new job that is challenging, which feels hard, but is so much better than the boredom and entropy I was feeling at my previous job. My health, as confirmed by those previously referenced doctors appointments is improving. Slowly, but still.

That’s also where I am this Christmas, and for now, that’s enough.

Make it Better

What would you be willing to give up, if you knew it would be replaced with something infinitely better?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, the tenacity with which I will cling to things that clearly no longer work for me. It has been a challenge both big and small, keeping me in my old relationship, and making me resistant to a variety of practices that might improve my health, like eating breakfast. I used to wander through my days hungry until 8pm, and never understood why I’d been so irritable until I could shovel food into my maw in a fugue state. It was only when someone pointed out that technically I was starving myself that I saw the flaw in this plan. I thought breakfast was something for children. I don’t really know why I thought that, now that I consider it. But I certainly held onto it ferociously, even in the face of personal evidence to the contrary (see also my discussion of sleep).

Breakfast is a small example, but on the macro level, in relationships that no longer work, in jobs that no longer fulfill, I would argue many of us stay longer than makes sense. Single women of a certain age are often admonished to settle, because we might wake up one day as dry husks incapable of finding love or bearing children. But, the question we’re not asked is whether we’d find that preferable to waking up in a loveless marriage, or without the partner we planned on to raise those kids. I’d rather gamble on myself than someone I’m unsure about.

It occurs to me that this is a fundamental issue of trust, and of faith. I don’t trust myself to find a better way, or I don’t have faith that the universe (God) will provide one. I know what I’m doing is not working for me, but something feels getter than that big, scary, empty nothing that looms until…a new something. And who knows when that will show up?! No, definitely better to just stick it out with the shitty known then the potentially awesome unknown…

Such is the bargain of Advent: are you willing to put up with crap, or believe that something better is just on the horizon. No doubt the waiting is excruciating. The time spent alone, examining, releasing whatever you were clinging to with such fierceness, feels like an eternity. But I’m ready to try, to expect that by clearing out the so-so, I’m making space for the great.

Go to Bed

There’s a point at which you realize you’re at your breaking point and you are dog-ass tired. And then there’s a point beyond that. I’m in the beyond section of this particular emotional homegoods store. And it’s because one of the things I consistently fail to do is go to bed when I am tired. Seems so simple, but I’ve always fought sleep. Maybe FOMO, maybe just being a natural night owl, I have always noticed myself yawning, being tired, and will still stay up for another 2-3 hours. It’s not atypical for me to go to bed at 1am on a weeknight. Which is also why it’s not atypical for me to roll into work at 10am… which means it’s not atypical for me to not leave work until 7pm… and so on and so forth.

So I’m rolling up to the day with a less than awesome mood. These are packed weeks. Despite this advent practice and my admonishment to myself and others to experience the season without frenzy, frenzy remains. I got my tree up and trimmed, gifts packaged and shipped, house cleaned and prepped for my parents who will be staying with me for 10 days. There are also additional obligations at the National Cathedral (where I sing in the choir), this being one of the busy seasons for the Big Guy, and I’ve once again embarked on another aggressive round of doctors appointments, this time with special-er specialists. I’m excited to see my parents, I’m excited to give everyone their gifts, but mostly I just feel like taking a 3-hour long nap. And I know I won’t get the chance until approximately Christmas Day, and that makes me a little angry. This is not how I want to be celebrating the Baby J.

But last night I knew it was coming, could feel it coming, and still I did nothing to prevent it. I knew when I was coming home from choir practice 9:30pm and still had another two hours of housework ahead of me that what I really needed to do was just go to bed. But instead I did two more loads of laundry, cleaned the kitchen, and finished the tree. I pushed past it, knowing that the result was going to be me being tired and cranky they next day. And, here I am: tired and cranky.

What do I think will happen if I just let things slide? If I didn’t do the laundry, if the kitchen was a bit messy? If I just went to bed when I was tired?  I’m not a slob, my house is never truly dirty, and my guests are my parents, who arguably will forgive me for being less than 100%. But I feel compelled to make things perfect, to compromise myself in order to do so. I tell myself I don’t need to rest-don’t deserve to rest-because I haven’t done anything. And yet, I am tired. Res ipsa loquitor. Once again, I’m fighting my own body instead of listening to it, and who knows how far back that’s putting my recovery. I keep running into that same brick wall: me.

One of the things I’d like to learn this Advent, and bring into the new year, is how to listen to myself, and even better, act on what I hear. Instead of constantly telling myself I don’t need, I don’t deserve, I haven’t earned, how about just giving in? Not giving up, but giving myself what I need, exactly when I need it. Go to bed when you’re sleepy, eat when you’re hungry. A novel concept, and a hard one, especially when it stands in opposition to what others need, or more to the point, what I presume others need. Because I have sneaking suspicion that everyone would be just fine if I took a nap.

Keeping Score

Comparison is the thief of joy, right?

Tell that to DC. Comparisons that you’re winning are very satisfying. But that satisfaction only lasts for so long, until you need another hit. Because like a drug that constantly pushes that button on your dopamine or serotonin centers, it’s a false fix. It’s externally focused, and therefore can never be completely within your control. You lose as soon as you begin to play.

So why do we do it? I’m sure there’s some data (I’m not going to look for it) that might suggest that comparison keeps us safe. By keeping up with the Joneses (seriously, could we have picked an easier name to pluralize?) from time immemorial, we were able to pace ourselves against the middle of the herd. “Did you hear about Grog? He wore that bright deer pelt and got eaten by a saber tooth tiger!” “Well, that will teach him to be different!”

Or something.

So yes, comparison keeps you striving, keeps you working, keeps you motivated. But it’s a carrot that you’ll never catch, because someone else is holding the line, someone or a societal group of someones that are not interested in you succeeding, they’re interested in keeping those goal posts moving so you’ll always feel inadequate. Our only choice is to participate, or not.

Last night I went to my team’s Stella and Dot Christmas Party, and it was a blast. I was surrounded by amazing, accomplished women from all walks of life who do all sorts of different and interesting things besides empower women through independent entrepreneurship (and so much sparkly jewelry). When you’re surrounded by that much awesomeness, it’s easy to fall into comparison. “I’m not selling as much as her, and she has 3 kids and a full time job, what’s my excuse?” “My team isn’t doing as well as her team, and she still finds time to train for a marathon (which admittedly I’d never do).” But it’s a choice to give into that urge. The other option is to let your jealousy motivate you. Instead of “what does she have that I don’t?” you can ask yourself, “what does she do, that I don’t?” And, the more important question, “Am I willing to do that to get what she has?”

Sometimes the answer is no. There are a lot of women on my team who go to lengths for their business that I simply know I will not. So I can’t judge them, or myself, against that. You can pace yourself against them, look to them for inspiration, but you’re your only true competition. And as I’ve progressed through this Advent, I’ve realized that one of my major goals needs to be to stop fighting with and being mean to myself. To be gentle with myself. I am doing the best I can, and so are you.

Put Some Glitter on It!

I have really short, stubby nails. With the help of gel manicures on the reg I can maybe manage them passing my fingertips once a quarter, but that gets expensive, and then inevitably your efforts are for naught, as the gel itself causes them to weaken and break. It’s a vicious cycle, from which there is no escape.

This afternoon I was thinking about how long it’s been since I got a pedicure due to my skin issue, and because I like to pile on myself, that lead to contemplating my short stubby hands and my washerwoman fat sausage fingers, and I thought, why do I even bother drawing attention to these hands? These hands that look like I could pull beets out of the ground, not call a handsome man over with a single wave, or point with authority at anything. These hands that would be welcome seaside, for the knitting of nets, not making a toast with cut crystal.

And yet, I think of all my hands can do. These are strong hands that can make a delicious meal, and lift a heavy load, and soothe a grieving friend. They are hands that help me convey my thoughts (like, right now), and that enable me to speak (because I seriously couldn’t without using them, like most Mediterranean people). Sure, they may not win any awards at Sally Hansen, but do the basic jobs of hands, and remind me that I don’t have to be perfect to do good work.

So I put some glitter on them. I got a free bottle of Deborah Lippman confetti glitter nail polish in my latest Sephora order, and I put it on. My nails are no less stubby, my hands no less squat. But they look like they’re having a party, and they deserve it.

Trivial, perhaps, but it made me wonder what else in my life I was punishing, or suppressing, instead of covering in glitter…What else am I mourning when I should be celebrating?

Soft Animal

Is there a more dangerous word in the English language than “should”?

Well sure, there are more powerful words, and more moving ones, but “should” carries with it such intense pressure, societal, familial, internal, that it’s sort of a catch all for every anxiety. Not keeping up with the Joneses on any front, that’s what “should” let’s you know. Loudly. At every moment of every day, “should” is there to tell you that you have been found wanting.

So as an Advent experiment this week, I’ve eliminated it from my vocabulary, at least as much as is consciously possible. I have certain areas where “should” pops up more than others, and I imagine that is true for most of us, although the areas will vary. My “shoulds” are particularly loud around food, work, and relationships. OH WAIT THAT’S ALL OF LIFE.

What I found by banishing “should” was that there was another voice there, perhaps the voice that Mary Oliver refers to when she writes in Wild Geese of the “soft animal of your body”.  That soft wild voice, perhaps tentative from all the shouting “shoulds,” that now takes a moment to realize there is silence enough to speak, to name a desire. And what shall we do with that soft animal? “Let it love what it loves.”

This week I listened to that soft animal. I listened to her, and didn’t respond with judgment, with “should”-ing her into submission. I just listened. Every moment. Sometimes I did what she said she wanted, and sometimes I didn’t, but I didn’t argue with her, telling her that she should be working, or eating better, or calling that friend back. I just let her love what she loves. Whether it was wanting to sit in warm quiet with all the lights off but the Christmas strings lit up, whether it was eating a bowl of cereal because the crunch of the flakes against the cold of the milk sounded good, or whether it was taking a walk without a coat in the cold because she wanted to feel the bracing wind, I just listened.

And shockingly the walls did not come tumbling down. Here we are, still standing, my soft animal and I.

Advent Weekend Wrap-Up

Technically I said I’d do a thing a day, but some concepts take longer to come to fruition, and aren’t tidily contained by 24 hours. This whole weekend I’ve resisted posting, because I didn’t want to talk about this. This was one of the biggies, and I wasn’t entirely ready for it. I also realized that while the things I’ve released so far have been relatively easy, like turning off a light switch, some things are going to require practice. Some things are going to require attention for a while.

This weekend I worked on releasing my fear of saying “no.”

“No” is a boundary, an assertion of your own needs, and I’ve always struggled with asserting my needs without persuasion or justification. I know this will come as a shock to those of you who know me, since it generally seems like I have no trouble at all directly stating my opinions and preferences. But voicing my idea about where we eat dinner or what I think of reality tv is not on the same level as being able to say “no” to someone or something I care about.

I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, I guess if I say no eventually people will stop asking. That’s certainly what kept me on the dating rollercoaster I found myself on last year, and what keeps me double booking things several nights a week. I suppose you could call it FOMO, but that’s not really it. It’s not a fear I’m missing something, it’s a fear that this is the last something I’ll ever get invited to, or asked to join. Which is ridiculous as I write it, but feels very real to me, and only child who grew up precocious and nerdy and not particularly popular. It still feels like a minor miracle that people seem to enjoy me being around them. That same little girl still worries what will happen if she stops singing for her supper.

But lately I’ve simply had no choice but to say no-a lot. I’ve just not been physically up to the same tempo as I usually keep, which, admittedly, might seem exhausting from the outside. As an extreme extrovert, it makes me happy and keeps me energized to have something going on every night of the week, and weekends too, on top of working two jobs. But these past three months, while dealing with this health issue, I’ve been forced to listen to my body and rest. It’s excruciating. It’s frustrating. It’s a bit terrifying, actually, to feel so far removed from my normal self. But I’m determined to listen this time, since the last time I didn’t I got thrown into this particular crisis, and I want to do everything I can to move past it.

I need to rest. It’s really hard for me to say that, especially without qualifying or justifying it, without outlining an argument to somehow convince you all, and myself, that my need to rest is valid. I need to take it easy, which makes me feel and sound like a Golden Girl. I hate feeling old, or infirm, I hate feeling unable, or incompetent. I hate feeling like I have no control, and I really, really hate disappointing people.  But no matter how much I hate it, no matter how much I fight it, the truth remains: I am exhausted and I need to rest. My body is waging war on itself. It doesn’t matter if I don’t think I have the right to be tired or have worked hard enough to relax (which I don’t- I’m not very nice to myself sometimes). It doesn’t matter if I would rather be doing anything else. And it certainly doesn’t matter that I could dragoon my carcass around to do all the things I think I have to do, I would still eventually fall over, and be worse off than when I began.

So I’m practicing saying “yes” to myself first, and “no” to anything that doesn’t align with that. It feels foreign, and hard. Selfish. But I remind myself that advent is about patience, and nothing in my life has tried to teach me patience like this illness. I will try to be patient with myself, and take care of myself, so that I can return to taking care of all the people and practices that matter most to me.

Advent: Day 3

So, I’m getting a little bored with these titles, are you? Expect changes.

I am a logistical dynamo. I multitask like a champ, toggling between real life functions like a teenage swipes through apps. Generally I like this about myself, my ability to waste no time (or, alternatively, waste a lot of time in a highly diversified and efficient manner).

But there are days, like today, when it borders on compulsion. All damn day I was mentally jumping onto the next thing, trying to figure out how I could cram it all in, running permutations and triangulating metro/uber options in my head. It was exhausting. I was exhausting myself trying to figure out how best to plan out my Friday night, a night that by definition, can totally lack plans. Basta.

I left work, I took a deep breath, and I committed to letting the night take me where it will. Likely that will ultimately be my couch, but along the way I’ve gotten my hair done, grabbed some groceries and dinner, bought gifts, and checked out a street fair. Sometimes I need to remember to pencil in nothing.

Advent: Day 2

Unsubscribe. I have literally pressed this button 100 times today. So many coupon offers, so many opportunities to spend or buy or “save.”

This isn’t so much a thing to release as a chronic problem, but it’s a very tangible example of being over-full. My inbox runneth over, with things that take my time and attention and give me nothing but anxiety in return- “Should I be jumping on the green juice bandwagon? There’s a coupon…”. Coupons are the devil. They take things you weren’t entirely sure you needed and turn them into things without which you can no longer continue to exist.

I don’t think the 20% off of jeans I DON’T WEAR is worth the trade off. Perhaps with space in my inbox I’ll be able to return the three important emails I get a day with some thoughtfulness and focus. And since I’m not looking at my screens every three minutes in public, I won’t feel the need to compulsively delete. I love it when things work out that way.

Advent: Day 1

Under the wire, this one. What to release on my first day of this Advent practice? I wanted it to be something big, something that had been troubling me for a while. I figured a big thing up front would give me some space to fudge later in the month. Always thinking, I am.

But the day got away from me, and nothing presented itself. I was not quite ready to tackle the Important Nouns, like Judgment or Shame, so I dismissed those right out. For now. But still, the day wore on, into night, and I didn’t have a thing to release. I feared my big experiment would be a failure before I even began.

Then on the metro ride home, as I was juggling my ipad and my blackberry (look, I’m a government worker), I looked around the train car and saw everyone else doing the same. Heads down, eyes focused on little screens, just like mine. Before I moved to DC I didn’t do this. I encountered the world heads up, eyes front. But living in a city you start to avoid eye contact, especially on the train. And with the loss of eye contact comes a lot of other things, the loss of picking up on other people’s stories, or seeing the small dramas unfold in the lives around you. I used to like to make up stories about the people I shared space with, an intellectual game to pass the time. At some point I traded that in for declamatory biographies on facebook and instagram (and yes, I recognize the potential hypocrisy of posting this to facebook). A peak into another person’s world, true, but an editorialized, focused view. Not the unvarnished truth, electronically hidden in plain sight.

So, today, in an effort to reconnect with my fellow human, I release keeping my head down in public. I’m sure I will falter, but I will embrace the intention to walk again through life head up, not buried in an glowing world of my own creation.

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