So here we are at the end of the season of Epiphany. Boy, time sure flies when you’re having fun! When this season started the first week of January, I committed myself to writing 6 essays (one weekly throughout the season) to sum up some of the insights I’ve gleaned from the past year or so. Looking back on what I wrote, I feel people who don’t know me well might think I’m a bit of a basket case! Well, perhaps I am; or maybe, for better or worse, I’m just more forthcoming with my neuroses!
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I lead a lot of workshops and facilitate a lot of retreats and teach a lot of classes where, one way or another, people frequently express how stressed out they are with life. Around the start of this new year, I read somewhere a Top Ten New Year’s Resolution list. I figured #1 would be “losing weight” (and/or exercising more) with “stop smoking” being close to the top as well. Boy was I surprised to see “Have more fun” listed as #1. But the more I thought about it, I really wasn’t surprised. People are stressed out! Of course having more fun is going to be high on the list … even first.
I actually got the “have more fun” message from the universe no less than 3x within 6 months about a year and a half ago. The first and third were from complete strangers and the second was from a friend I’d had no contact with for a number of years. All three asked me, “What are you doing for fun?” I’m not sure I’d ever been asked that question before and what struck me most profoundly was that I wasn’t able to come up with an answer. There was a time in my life where if I had been given 3 words to best describe myself, “fun” would have been one of the 3, maybe even first. But I suddenly (and sadly) realized that now, if you gave me an unlimited amount of words to describe myself, I’m not sure that “fun” would make it onto that list. What happened to Fun Tracy?
Well, life … or, more accurately, “life” happened. I had gotten so sucked into paying the bills and making ends meet (not easy for many but a freelancer does have some unique challenges) that I didn’t even realize I’d lost a piece—a big, honkin’, identifying piece—of myself. It’s like the metaphor of the frog in the pot of water that ever so slowly heats up to the boiling point. The increase in heat happens so incrementally that the frog doesn’t notice it until it’s too late; she’s cooked. Well, I was cooked and I didn’t even know it until someone … three someones … asked me point blank what I did for fun and couldn’t think of a single thing. OK, time for a major overhaul!
And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for more than a year now. Having more fun is a big part of it but my lack of fun was symptomatic of other things that drastically needed to change. The good news is that I am having more fun and some significant lifestyle changes have been made. The bad news is that it’s not been easy and I still have a long way to go. Old habits, long-ingrained practices, even muscle memory are deeply rooted and aren’t going to change overnight or simply because I want them to. My efforts, while valiant and well-intentioned, haven’t always been successful. The process has been frustrating and the temptation strong to just give up. But ultimately, I don’t want to just “live” (i.e. have a beating heart and working lungs) … I want to LIVE!
My life requires that I fly fairly regularly. I’ve therefore been through the airplane safety drill innumerable times, so many times, in fact, that I tend to tune it out now. But the part that always gets my attention is when they remind parents traveling with children that if the oxygen masks drop, they are to fasten their own masks on first before assisting anyone else, even their children. The reason they have to remind parents of this is that it’s counter-intuitive; of course you’re going to be tempted to first help those who are dependent on you. But if you can’t breathe (in other words, if you have no life) you’re not going to be much good to anyone, including yourself. What a metaphor for life!
So how to get from point A (“life”) to point B (LIFE) without getting overwhelmed and throwing in the towel? Bird by bird.
Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, wrote a book by that title a number of years ago. It’s basically a “how to” for would-be writers but the title comes from a family story when she was still living at home. Her brother had a big school project where he was supposed to write a report on lots of birds. He procrastinated until the night before the paper was due and then freaked out because there was no way he was going to be able to complete all the necessary work that night. He implored his father, “How am I going to get this done?!” And very calmly his father replied, “Bird by bird.”
So that “one foot in front of the other” or “baby steps first” philosophy has been behind many of my recent lifestyle-change attempts and much of what I’ve written these last 6 weeks. As with most “self-improvement” suggestions, it’s not really rocket science. But for someone with an excessive personality who has always seen the big picture and taken the macro view, paying attention to the micro on a daily basis has been a real shift, but one that’s reaped wonderful rewards.
About a year ago I started color-coordinating my calendar (both written and digital). Gigs are green (for money!), teaching at Wesley dark blue and at the Ecumenical Institute light blue, miscellaneous things are black, you get the idea. Well, I’m proud to report that there are now a steady splash of pink (fun things) as well as purple (things that feed my soul). I make an attempt to be in contact with someone of significance every day (at least in a way where I can hear their voice, but seeing—including Skype—is better). I try not to sit at my computer for longer than 30 minutes at a time (even if that just means standing up to stretch). In fact, when I rearranged my office I purposely spread things out so I would be forced to get up occasionally rather than have everything within reach of my chair. And I’m also intentional about saving little things like making my bed, brushing my teeth, and getting dressed to give me something to do and a reason to get up every 30 minutes. Thanks to Groupon I’ve taken salsa lessons and Nia classes and gotten more into yoga. And now that it doesn’t hurt to walk anymore I’m enjoying my neighborhood again.
All small steps, to be sure … bird by bird … and there are many more “birds” to explore but I’m now on the path … or a path … or at least a different path. And it feels good, not just for me personally but what I feel I’m able to give to the world as someone who isn’t just breathing with a beating heart, who isn’t merely subsisting, but as someone who is more ALIVE. To quote Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Amen! So be it! So it is!