Saturday, January 18, 2014

Heart versus head

Following your gut is so much easier when you're young, the consequences of failing aren't as life altering, and you haven't had as much negative reinforcement to give you an aversion to making huge leaps and daring moves.

At risk of sounding like Verdi the snake, I really did used to follow my heart, and it took me to some wonderful places. If it took me someplace I didn't want to be, I'd stew about it for a while and then start to sort of daydream myself into a better story.

Now of course it's all so different. One bad move I made in 2005 had pretty disastrous consequences. It started when I was in a casual long distance relationship and I started to get this feeling that "adults" settled down, put down roots and committed. It's almost as if I felt like I'd been so lucky in my single parent life, had done so many awesome things, that I was somehow supposed to... quit while I was ahead? Maybe that, and then also like... I was being immature by being single. Like being happy and following my heart, which while up until then had been productive and successful, was actually a sign of immaturity and a lack of development. I felt like I was always eating life dessert and never eating my life vegetables. 

And I did love the guy I was in the long distance relationship with, and I was with him at a time when these thoughts were really plaguing me. My heart was telling me that I was happy and excited each day as a single mother, and this was how I should try to keep my life as long as humanly possible. And then my head was arguing that I was being childish and spoiled, and "at some point" there should be a home and yard and man and stability, so I should settle down with the long distance guy. 

And don't get me wrong - there was something attractive about the thought of stability that came from settling down. But it was only attractive, in my experience, as a way station or a resting place. A settled relationship seemed like a place to recharge in comfort before I got back to the things I'd rather be doing. And I couldn't picture a man who would be willing to love me, live with me, be my anchor and comfort - but also let me travel, have adventures and choose my own path. I've never been in close proximity to a relationship that worked that way. And long distance guy didn't fit that mold in the least. He wanted a wife that stayed in place.

After a year of heart (happy single!) versus head (I should settle down), I opted for settling down with the long distance guy. I rationalized that in a way I was following my heart by being with him - in some kind of twisted way, if I looked at it from a certain angle and didn't look too closely - my heart might be craving stability. Only there were practical issues - some blended family hurdles - and so we settled uneasily on some kind of forced limbo where I moved halfway closer to him geographically. It was miserable. I was miserable. 

I settled for a job at 'fabulously important place', which I hated, and moved into a house that felt like 'not my house', and settled on a few more life choices for the good of the relationship that made me feel like a trapped rat. I continued to rationalize that I was doing all of this incredibly unlikeable stuff in order to get to the ultimate place that would (if I didn't look too closely at it) make me truly happy (sort of) - which was the relationship and the stability it would bring. 

And then of course the relationship dissolved out from under me, and there was no ultimate goal anymore to the trapped miserable place I found myself. 

After that came months of being so lost, I couldn't even articulate to anyone how lost I was. I was living in a beautiful place, I was working at a place that would look phenomenal on my CV. I was given back my freedom to move freely around the planet. 
Only I was completely frozen.

For the first time in my life I had spent years building up a life for myself that was absolutely and totally WRONG for me. I had completely failed. I had (I thought) listened to my heart and hit a brick wall in a dark alley going 100 miles an hour. I found myself completely unable to make even the smallest decision for myself after that. I couldn't make eye contact with people in the grocery store. I couldn't make a decision on whether or not to go on a weekend camping trip, let alone jet myself and Ky to some other country. I felt like... I don't know, like going out on a limb was the most dangerous thing in the world. And when making eye contact with the cashier in a store suddenly feels like going out on a limb, that's a troublesome place to find yourself. 

Never in my life have I felt so stuck at the bottom of a well. Then followed a domino effect of bad decisions knocking into worse ones, toppling everything along my path. It was a horrible time in my life. I no longer trusted my instincts. I no longer trusted my life. And - because I'd spent so long convincing myself that the "settling down" plans I had been making were the plans of a mature adult, I felt like a life failure at maturity and adulthood. And I felt like I was somehow obligated to keep pressing on that path, but it was so counter to my real needs that I was always lost and churning inside.

Part of empty nesting for me is trying to get in touch with my gut instincts again. I've been trying for years, but so much fear has built up that it's been hard for me to tell the difference between my gut telling me something is wrong for me, and my fear holding me back from something good for me, giving me a false stop sign. 

Because going with your gut sometimes is scary. It's scary, exhilarating and challenging. And figuring out if you're that kind of scared - the kind that precedes an awesome, terrifying, exhilarating choice... or the "red flag warning" kind of scared that tells you not to do something ultimately bad for you - is really hard when you're not tuned in to the differences. Your mind can convince you either kind of fear is the other. I've been stuck in that tug of war for way too long.

I've always envisioned having a core of things that are incredibly important to me. Things I genuinely love, things I genuinely believe in. Those form the heart of me. Anything I do that keeps close to that heart, that stems from it genuinely and never strays too far, are the right things for me. Sometimes I end up traveling so far from my core, doing something I dislike, thinking that where I'm going is ultimately going to return and touch the core again, and that I can just "bear with it" for the greater good, etc etc - that never works. I get so far out that I'm miserable. And I can no longer remember why I thought running so far away would bring me closer. And the farther I go, the less I can remember the way back, the less I can hear and feel that core. It's a terrible place to be. 

Working back to it is very hard. And over and over I have to remind myself that when I get close to it again it will be scary. But it's a different kind of scary than being far away is. I have to be careful and re-learn how to tell the difference.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Empty nesting milestone: out of the trenches

Having Ky leave on the bus to head back to college was, as anticipated, pretty hard. I'd gotten used to being in my role of Mom to a teenager again and it's the role I think I've loved the most in parenting. I know, every stage (except age 3) was "my favorite" and that hasn't changed over the years. I still think each year is my favorite.

But I've never felt like an especially natural, wonderful mother. At least not compared to those who post every triumphant and perfect moment on blogs. As a single mother, I never really knew if I was doing it right. I didn't have a partner to bounce things off of, and I never had the chance to take a time out to reconsider or observe things with any perspective except "in the trenches."

But parenting Ky as a teenager has always felt really good, really natural and right. I felt like maybe 8 times out of 10 I really was making the right choices, saying somewhere in the neighborhood of the right things. And for me, who was never a 10/10, hit-it-out-of-the-park-each-time mother, 8/10 felt like HUGE success. Near perfection at times!

So yeah. Watching my teen stumble onto the bus with a raft of other teens going back to college, in their new Christmas boots and North Face jackets, dragging skis and kicking backpacks and duffles along the filthy bus station floor as they texted furiously and drowned out the bus driver's announcements with shiny looking Beats that cost more than the Frye boots I splurged on for my birthday. Ky in 4 year old Doc Martins and LL Bean coat and a fuzzy blanket wrapped over shoulders like a long trailing cape.

The drive home for me filled with exhaustion, sadness, missing Ky already, looking forward in some small way to having the house and my time to myself. This will be "the usual". 

Back to contemplating the view from outside the trenches of daily hands-on parenting. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Oh I wish I still had a little baby

I got tears in my eyes reading this article reporting Pope Francis encouraging breastfeeding in church

"If they are hungry, mothers, let them eat, no worries, because here, they are the main focus,"

I don't practice a formal religion, though I was brought up Catholic by a mother who was schooled in a convent, and a grandmother who was raised in a Catholic orphanage and served the Church so fiercely and sweetly in her life that you'd have thought she was a nun. 

When Ky and I traveled to Italy, we visited the Vatican. Pope John Paul II was still interred and they hadn't yet finished building his weird Sleeping-Beauty-esque eternal sarcophagus in St Peter's Basilica. (In fact there was a "coming soon!" sign over the construction area where his glass coffin would soon reside - as if he were a Sephora franchise in a mall). My main memory of the Sistine Chapel? "No photos! No photos!" being yelled by the guards. I barely took in the beauty for all the simmering anger and stress. 

Pope Benedict wasn't a very familiar or beloved figure then. When we were in the Vatican, we heard about 100x more "Pope John Paul" references than "Pope Benedict" and Benedict's wares weren't selling very well in the gift shop (the grace note?). I don't think people ever connected to him. 

When Pope Francis was elected I loved him first for the name he chose (it's a family name for me - Ky was nearly a Francis!) and then for the things he said, and then for the acts he did. Each time he makes the news, I feel even more warmly towards him. 

It makes me wish that Ky were a little baby again. That I could breast feed if needs be in the Vatican, knowing the Pope had given it his blessing, knowing that he'd made the world just that little bit safer and happier and more real. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Becoming a better person

That sounds unbelievably trite, but I'm not sure how else to phrase it without new agey 'self improvement' language. At its heart, the issue is that at 40, I'm so sick of the things I'm not good at. I'm tired of making the same mistakes, over and over. I know what my big failings are - or at least I have a good idea of the things I keep tripping over, repeatedly, and the things that always seem to be standing in my way.

Every few years I do this sort of life-level spring cleaning. I use Freemind to map out all of my shortcomings, and then I have "branches" and "clouds" to group them and form solutions. I seek help from professionals for those failings that seem fixable with help, and I work diligently on my own to fix the things that only I can come to terms with.

Not body image. Not "becoming a better housekeeper" or "learning harmonica, once and for all" - but the big things in life. Developing friendships. Giving energy to the people who matter to me the most. Giving my own needs equal weight in decisions. Being warmer, more open, less shuttered in my heart. Following through when I start to reach a place that makes me happy, or gives me peace. Allowing good things to happen with open acceptance. Communicating. Admitting to myself what I truly want, what honestly brings me peace and happiness, rather than assessing my life choices from the perspective of an ex boyfriend, my mother, a coworker who barely knows me. 

I feel like I fill my life up with jobs, work, extra interests, travel, planning travel, planning jobs, planning out ways to enhance my extra interests, and even to some extent running - all to avoid sitting quietly and looking at each of my weaknesses. Thinking about their impact on my life. Deciding to change things, or to accept them. 

During the years when I do my "spring cleaning" I often use my love of hard work as a way to, strangely, avoid the hard work of sitting still with my thoughts. I come from a blue collar family. There is hardly a higher compliment than to call someone a hard worker. And hard work, to my family, means constant tangible busy-ness. Looking at two options for how to spend your next hour and choosing the least sedentary. Often this means choosing the least appealing option. 

When I have the chance to sit still and look at my thoughts, my failings, my feelings about my failings, and tracing them to how they affected my life and evaluating whether I can live with those effects - or, alternatively - to make lists, source self-help books and counselors, create a task list of things to do that can solve each problem in turn, then download productivity software that allows me to track my progress and remain accountable on each area... well, I always opt for the latter course of action. 

I once spent an entire Saturday installing black foam board panels in a checkerboard line marching around my bedroom walls, each with a pinned on title: SELF, HOME, WORK, COMMUNICATION, TO-DO, and then under each title, an ongoing list of action items that were either on the "complete" side or "incomplete", so that each morning my first view would be of the progress I'd made (or had not made) and an instant check-in with myself to start my day. This resulted in stomach aches each morning and averting my eyes so they would never, ever hit one of the boards on my bedroom wall - then complete avoidance of my bedroom as a whole. 

But the act of buying the foam boards and nailing them up onto the wall and writing out the cards was very satisfying, and made me feel like I was "working hard" to fix myself. I was hammering, I was running errands, I was taking charge. Only I really wasn't.

For the rest of this month I'd like to work on "becoming a better person" by allowing myself time to sit and think about the things I'm struggling with. I don't completely discount talking to professionals if that's what seems the best course, or writing lists if I should find myself needing to do more than one thing, but that I'll do that only after some serious, quiet contemplation of the place I find myself, and where I'd like to find myself instead. 

(I wrote that and immediately felt myself getting excited about finding the perfect place to sit and quietly contemplate, what I might use to help me relax [pillow? blanket? yoga pants? candle?] ---- no no no. Just sitting still. Just whenever I have time, just in a quiet place and just in whatever I'm wearing, feeling and smelling at the moment.)


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

T-minus 4 days

Ky is headed back to college on Sunday. 

I've had very few "knacks" as a mother. I don't have a knack for knowing the right things to say during times of angst. I don't have a knack for making a teenager's bedroom cozy but cool. I don't have a knack for cooking, or picking clothes that Ky will actually be willing to wear (not even expensive cool stuff like a leather jacket, or a pair of Doc Martins - I always seem to choose something just a hair off) or care packages. 

So I've been surprised to find myself with a knack for parenting a teenager who is verging on adult. I first noticed this with my own teenager of course, but then it spread to Ky's friends - who always seem happy to see me, confide in me, ask me for advice and tell me they miss me when running into me grocery shopping. And I noticed it while teaching undergrads - who write me emails long after their classes with me have ended, telling me they wish I taught more, or asking if I would go for coffee and catch up. 

I don't try. I don't think about it much. I just sort of do my own thing, and that particular young-adult age group just seems drawn to it in a very sweet and genuine way. And because I tend to see Ky's developmental stage in all of them, this makes me happy and comfortable and more myself. The best version of me.

People my own age tell me I'm chilly, standoffish, hard to get to know and hard to get close to. I think that's probably true, and it's something I NEED to fix now that Ky's away and I'm struggling to put a life together without the constant presence of my (adult) lifelong shadow and foil. I need more peers to balance the sheer number of young adults and students in my day. But I'm really good at parenting (advising, just being in front of) teenagers and young 20-somethings, and I'm not very good at adult friendships. Something I know I need to work on.

In any case it's t-minus 4 days until Ky goes back to school, and my heart has been filled and I've gotten to laugh ridiculously and spend approximately 10x our normal grocery budget (and I don't care) and just feel like myself, the best part of myself as a mother. 4 days from now I'm back to working 2 jobs, staying late with impunity, coming back to an empty house and cooking for one, spending more time in my bedroom than any other room of the house.

I feel like this is the time to really think about how I can add to that part of my life, rather than having it turn into a waiting game for Ky's vacations. Filling the empty evenings with even more work and projects. Turning to people my own age - awkward as I seem to be with them - and learning how to be my best self with them, too. 


Unlikely fashion side note: Ky has been telling me I need to go outside my conservative comfort zone of jeans, Frye harness boots, tshirts and cardigans. My winter uniform. 

Therefore over the last week I have:

1. Dyed my hair "medium golden blonde" and it looks approximately 5 shades lighter than the color on the box, and....

2. Impulse purchased Revlon ColorStay Ultimate liquid lipstick in "Brilliant Bordeaux" because I had a hazy thought that perhaps my newly blonde hair and minimal brown-ish color family eye shadow could be punched up with a dramatic lip. As it turns out, this is a lip "stain" rather than a "lipstick" and though I tried it on last night and have since eaten, drank, showered, washed face twice, brushed teeth, applied chapstick, slept 7.5 hours and had an entire pot of coffee, my lips are still the most vampy dark read imaginable. I honestly don't think it's going to come off. I think I have tattooed an impulsively chosen dark red color to my lips. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Empty nest milestone: the first semester away

As of January 2014, I've gotten through the first semester with Ky away and the first lengthy break back home. Some thoughts about this first step into my empty nesting journey:

I miss Ky less in the day to day than I thought I would, though my "life" misses Ky more than I expected to. 

Truth be told, I actually enjoy having the freedom of guilt-free time to do what I want, work as late as I want, go running at odd hours and to schedule things back to back to back without break. Single parenting an only child means that you're all they've got - you're the one they talk to, ask questions of, eat with, wish goodnight before bed. When I wasn't home, Ky didn't have that sounding board and companionship. Guilt used to flood me like acid when I couldn't get out of a commitment and Ky would be left with a microwave leftover dinner (more likely microwave popcorn) and Tumblr or a TV show. Sometimes Ky would call me at work to ask my advice or complain about a terrible day and my mind would spin, trying to switch gears from work to Mom-mode, and I was never the Mom I wanted to be at those times. 

And grocery shopping (or not) is so much easier. I'm a creature of habit in the kitchen, and $30 in produce and a little meat can get me through a week or more without a hitch. It's actually nice to not feel I have to be inventive with dinner, or even make dinner if I'm not hungry, or eat at 10pm if that's when I get home. Added bonus: if I buy a treat, it actually lasts until I finish eating it myself!

However I feel a lot more loneliness in the life-sense than I was expecting. I didn't realize how much Ky anchored me. How wanting to be a better mother and better example for my child actually made me a better person. How much of my definition of myself hinged on the fact that I had someone in my life that was half (or more) of the reason I did things on any given day. How Ky gave me most of my direction and purpose. 

I guess I've realized that as a parent I've grown like a bonzai tree branch around my role as a mother, and with my child subtracted from my day to day life, I'm this weird twisted shape standing alone, not seeming to make any sense without the scaffold I'd been wrapped around.

I always thought I had an incredibly strong sense of myself and sense of purpose as an individual. If I do, I can't remember how I expressed those things just yet. Part of my journey - if that word doesn't make it sound too hokey - is remembering how that rusty machinery works.  

Having Ky back for break has been a huge relief. I feel like things are just as they should be. I don't know how I'll feel next week, when college starts up again and Ky gets back into the ins and outs of dorm life, committees, classes and friends - and I get back to the ins and outs of an hour + commute, two jobs and the hectic rush of trying to fit in one too many obligations to fill the hole I don't want to acknowledge in the center of my life.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Winter running versus treadmill

Last winter I made a concerted effort to run every single run outside, rain or snow or ice. I did a month long running streak and spent plenty of icy evenings after work, headlamp strapped over my winter cap, reflective vest, mittens, slipping over the frozen snow. I dug it. It was something new, a challenge.

This winter? I feel so over it already. 

I ran on the treadmill for the first time in my life yesterday. Dragging Ky to the gym with me took about 80% of my energy and the 20% I had left was good for 6 really, REALLY boring miles. Ky's face popping up in the mirror behind me, trying to catch my eye to sign "can we leeeeeeave???" and me looking anywhere but at that place in the mirror, toughing out my whopping 7 miles per hour, realizing my running clothes have a kind of perma-smell that I never notice when I'm running outside, wishing I hadn't forgotten my bottle of water, wondering why the woman on the treadmill next to me looked so much more graceful than me.  Good times. 

I'm now reclining with my coffee wondering if today's run is better served by 2 foot snow drifts and frozen sidewalks or the boring, stinky, dry treadmill. 

I think I'm going for the snow and ice.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Empty nesting : traveling alone

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I can do to turn things around in the funk I've been in lately. 

Here's a short list of things that seem to work for me:

  1. Consistent running
  2. Planning travel
  3. Immersing myself in my latest obsession (whatever that is)
  4. Cleaning out my (literal) basement and closets
  5. Cleaning out my (figurative) basement and closets by catching up on communication and other things I've let lapse.

Lately I find my mind keeps getting snagged by #2, planning travel. I absolutely love daydreaming about travel, investigating foreign cities from a distance, picturing myself not just visiting there, but actually living there. Somehow this is what travel seems to turn into for me. I want to imagine living there, and spend my time there doing the things I would do if I lived there.

In my daydreams and plans I picture myself on a commuter train, or in a small pub somewhere listening to music, people watching and writing in a journal. I picture going on hikes, finding a nice place to sit back and think or walking through the aisles of a grocery store. And yeah, I also do touristy things once I get there, but it's not what pulls me in to a new place when I'm sitting in my bed at home, staring out at the snow in my yard, imagining a new place to discover.

Traveling alone or as a single mother to a growing child has never fazed me much. It's always felt as natural to me as walking around my own town by myself, and I feel like my mind has always worked perfectly well in that way. Maybe also after 18+ years of single parenting, I don't automatically think of wonderful times and the creation of memories in terms of turning to another person to share them. 

Ky has a lot of jumbled little kid memories of the different places we've lived and traveled around the world (Ky's memories are of 'the place where the toothpaste tasted like soap' and 'that place where you told me not to pet the dogs' -- if I ask if Ky remembers our beach house in Moorea, I might get: "Is that where I dropped pineapple and the ants ate it for days?") -- and I love this, love that those memories are of those day to day experiences that are important to a kid. 

Had I put any forethought at all into becoming a mother, I might have pictured this as the ideal life for us. At 21
 I had almost never pondered the question of whether or not I wanted children or marriage. Those were questions for someone older than me, perhaps someone closer in age to my parents. Someone who had gotten all the adventures, crazy times, horrible mistakes and good stories out of their system. When you were ready to have children, I might have thought (had I put any thought into it at all), you were also ready to wither on the vine, relive your best days and finest hours only while drinking one too many glasses of wine at a dinner party thrown by equally has-been friends, and morph into the pudgy, friendly, boring-yet-responsible template of the parents you remember having when you were small. And that wasn't me, not 21 year old me.

I grew up in a huge family, inner city, blue collar, no money. We went camping for vacation, none of us had ever flown in a commercial airplane and we were only vaguely aware that a larger world outside our neighborhood existed. My fantasies about this larger world came from the only source of "global" information a kid could get about it back in the 70's - National Geographic. And the larger world, according to National Geographic, was apparently contained within tiny, colorful villages in Africa, where everyone was constantly topless, and dancing, and puncturing their skin and stretching their necks with beautiful beadwork and metal rings. And my god, the advent of seeing pictures of Jane Goodall actually LIVING there, not only making herself at home in this exotic place but forging an entire profession out of sitting under trees watching animals and contemplating life... this was everything that I could possibly imagine wanting for myself. 

I could not imagine that there was any life for me that didn't include a fate similar to Jane Goodall's. Being discovered by some crusty, foreign museum director. Having my earnest potential shine through. Through unclear, hazy mechanisms being transported to a continent that very literally could not be more different than my 2 bedroom apartment housing a family of 9 in an ethnic neighborhood of an overpopulated city. Being paid (or not, I didn't care) to sit under trees, wash my hair in a stream, be observant, think, ponder, put ideas together, write, watch, listen, walk barefoot, quietly soak in the word and let my observations mix, meld and reform what I had thought I'd known the week before. I could not think of any future that did not include that.

Fast forward to finding myself 21 and pregnant. How could I already be in the stage of my life that required me to be past all of those adventures, past all of the war stories of excitement, fear, struggle, triumph... without ever having tasted that life? To me this fate was unimaginable. 

I pretty much couldn't live like "old people" without living first like myself. And a baby was very definitely on the way. Therefore, I supposed, I must live the life I anticipated, expected, fully ran towards - but AS a mother. 
In the end Ky and I did live some form of that life. Now that I'm 40 and officially "old people", I can flip back through my mental photo album of Ky and I on the deck of our tiny house in Moorea, cooking in our campsite on the Osa Peninsula, shivering in our townhome in Aberystwyth. I can flip through images of myself studying on trains and planes and in pubs, a sleeping Ky on my lap, getting my degrees and always volunteering for any and all data and sample collection that involved leaving the country. 

Traveling around the world as a single mother came naturally to me, and the infrequent times Ky's dad had summer visitation time and I had some solo time, traveling alone actually felt exponentially easier, safer, and freer. When Ky and I would arrive someplace new, my thoughts were mainly about Ky's safety and comfort. My main vulnerability was my child. When I had the luxury of traveling alone, the realization that I could focus on my own experience felt like an unexpected windfall. I almost didn't know what to do with that much freedom (almost!)

When Ky became a teenager and Ky's dad (now married with several younger children) was more able to spend weeks at a time parenting, I suddenly found myself with the regular freedom to travel solo. At last! Perhaps 16 or more years had gone by since my days of sleeping on the beach with friends in Mexico and I knew I couldn't go back to those days and relive them as a 30-something year old adult. It wouldn't work. But I still felt as if I were being pulled by something inside of me toward the places I'd always imagined traveling alone. 

Before I got pregnant I dreamed almost solely of living like Jane Goodall in East Africa. After Ky was born I couldn't pull that image up too clearly in my mind because it was... I don't know, too personal? to me as an individual. I had to put it away. So while I vowed to not let being a young mother keep me from my dreams, in the end we seemed to travel and live pretty much everywhere but there. 

And when I found myself in 2012 having hit rock bottom emotionally and stagnating in my career, and Ky's dad with an entire summer of visitation, something inside of me dissolved and I felt that same strong pull inside of me. East Africa. I had to go. It wasn't even a question of if I should go, but just that I was being pulled halfway there already and just had to work out the rest of the details. So I went, and so I stayed for 3 months, and so I had every adventure and then some that I ever imagined and so a new branch of my life grew. And so 2012 became one of the strongest years of my life. 

And you probably couldn't have told me that I had any more to learn about traveling alone before I left, but I think I learned about 1000x more than I even knew was missing.

So after all of that roundabout reminiscence, I find myself feeling down and looking at the list of things that seem to lift me when I get to this point in my life.   
  1. Consistent running
  2. Planning travel
  3. Immersing myself in my latest obsession (whatever that is)
  4. Cleaning out my (literal) basement and closets
  5. Cleaning out my (figurative) basement and closets by catching up on communication and other things I've let lapse.
And I feel so pulled to travel again. I feel that same magnet pull that I've always felt, and with Ky in college, I can't help but realize my "young empty nesting" is probably going to take me back to the roads and work and friendships I made in East Africa. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Was 2013 a good year? Will 2014 be better?

It would be hard to beat 2012. That was my year. It should have been transformative (that triumphant compilation of hard work and reward, like the Philly run scene in Rocky) but I'll have to settle for it just being a really, really good standalone year. 

To be completely honest, 2013 was something of a let-down on a personal level.

Ky graduated highschool and left for college, and that part of life had its own set of highs and lows. 

But most of what I'm exploring here is the me that is supposed to exist beyond parenting, and if I try to look past the parenting to whatever else exists in me... I wasn't a stellar performer at life this year. 

2012 was one of those low-lows & high-highs years. I was depressed, hit rock bottom, gathered up some courage from somewhere, took the plunge and was a complete bad-ass. 

I rode the high of that summer of success for... what, maybe 6 months. But as 2013 got into gear, I was spinning my wheels. I was still coasting along nicely from 2012, but I wasn't generating anything new. 

And that's where I found myself all of 2013, and where I find myself now at the opening of 2014.

I keep wondering: is this normal? Do normal people work so hard to achieve something, and then have this amazing experience, a month or two of peak performance, and then ride the high of that for a while before plummeting again? I don't mean emotionally, but in actual life experiences? 

I keep thinking about 2014 and all the "one word resolutions", "bucket lists", "This is the year of ______!!!!" and potential mantras. And it just makes me feel pretty tired. Surely one year should come along in which I think: "I'm in a really good place. Nothing huge, just nice. I hope this nice place keeps existing for a long time, so I can enjoy it some more." 
Instead of feeling like I'm gearing up for something huge (again) or gearing down from something huge (again). 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Running and depression

I started running in 2011 when I was working at a high-intensity, world renowned, much sought-after Institute with such atrocious working conditions that mystery illnesses and drinking problems (my own on both counts included) were practically part of the working culture. I used to get stomach cramps on the stairs on the way up to my workspace, and the particular smell of the hallways that I'd initially loved - an old-world museum storage room smell - started triggering my gag reflex. 

Every few months I'd go to my doctor asking for blood tests, sure that I had a thyroid problem. My skin was terminally dry, my hair was so thin I could feel my scalp with my fingers in even the thickest parts and my energy level was zilch. My blood tests were all normal though, and he'd always very kindly and gently suggest that maybe I was experiencing stress, and that a healthy way to find out would be to combine regular exercise with a wise and caring person to talk to, either professionally or casually. I would always tell him I had no time for (nor interest in) therapy and exercise, and I'd go about my exact same business again, only to return a few months later thinking that I might have a different metabolic disorder. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually my contract at the high intensity famous place came to an end, and by then I was in such bad shape physically and emotionally that I pretty much just embraced unemployment with absolute relief. Ky and I traveled to Europe for a few weeks and I absolutely reveled in having no cell service, no email emergencies, no stomach pains and nausea hanging like a pig-pen cloud around me. 

But then as so many other have discovered during times of unemployment, what starts out to be the best vacation of your life at some point turns into a sort of keening hopelessness as you lose even the unlikeable scaffold of schedule, and in my case my sense of myself as a useful human being. Yes, I was still a mother, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister, a volunteer. But as someone who had always defined myself partly as a mother and partly as someone called to my particular profession, I felt like I'd lost half my identity. 

I drank too much and despaired quite a bit. A new kind of depression settled in as I realized that my much hated job and unemployment were two very unlikeable sides of the employment spectrum and I would very much like to be somewhere in the more agreeable center. Only I was too mired in depression to find the energy to get there. 

This is when I started running. Maybe it was the ghost of my former doctor's voice telling me that exercise would help me work out my issues in a healthy way. Maybe it was reading something about a happy person running. Maybe it was the desire to not have Ky see me sitting on the couch after school, still in my pj's, and instead to see a mother who was actively engaged in some seemingly useful activity. 

Whatever sparked it, I started running because I was depressed and I was desperate for some tangible accomplishment in my life. If I ran, I had done something with my day. If I ran 2 miles, I had tackled an obstacle that I thought was unachievable the week before. If I ran, I had something to talk to Ky about after school. "Oh, I went for a run and I saw this HUGE osprey catch a fish!"  I found some running message boards and joined them for a sense of community that I desperately needed. Often during my run was the only time I made eye contact with another adult in the course of my day. It gave me a purpose. 

I didn't enjoy running. I wasn't any good at it, and in the first couple of months I only enjoyed the feeling of being finished with a run for the day. But at some point, I think when my runs started taking a solid 45 minutes or so, something finally kicked in and I began looking forward to the hour I had to sort out problems, think of solutions, be somewhat honest with myself about where my life was going. Or to zone out and fantasize about what my life would look like if it were different, better. Sometimes I jammed in earphones and blasted music from a better time in my life. Sometimes I daydreamed. Sometimes I carefully brought out the real, painful issues in my life and examined them in bits and pieces, using the run-generated endorphins to smooth the rough edges. 

I stopped drinking as much, because it ruined the next day's run if I was dehydrated. I started gaining a tiny, small amount of confidence as I improved. I started signing up for 5K's and ultimately half marathons to gain some small amount of community. I never went to races with anyone, and I rarely spoke to anyone while I was at one, but just running in a crowd felt like company and community to me.

I made some huge decisions while running, and ultimately my life changed quite a bit. I stopped needing to run to get away from my desperation, and started needing to run as mind-maintenance. 

But something in the last year started going south again. Lately my runs have felt more like the forced march they used to feel like. I need them for emotional triage once again, and each one is an emotional roller coaster once again. I wish I didn't find myself back in this dark head space again. I wish I was joyfully running along the road each day out of happiness and an overabundance of energy, but I'm not. Not consistently. But I'm glad that at least this time I have a template for getting back to that good place in my head. I don't have to reinvent the wheel - I can use it as the tool it is, hard as that is to accomplish.

When I went running today I found myself taking an old running route, from the "dark times", from the times my head was in a bad place and 5 miles was the longest run I could imagine. Today even felt like that as I plodded along. Like 5 miles was a long, long distance and my head needed to be convinced to stick with it when it was telling my body to just stop, just walk, just lean on a tree and let myself fall apart. I did ultimately do that, in the park across the street from my house, against the tree I've run past several times a week for the last few years. 

But even as I did that, I was still grateful for the endorphin-softened fall and the knowledge that I can run it out again tomorrow, and the next day, until my heart and head catch back up with my body and my life can make it back to that good place again.