Pare Down, Pause & Find Joy -- As If Your Life Depends On It
When's the last time you felt alive or maybe even just quenched inside? Independent of circumstances surrounding you, when's the last time you, inwardly, felt a moment of balance--rested and/or restored?
I can hear your dismissive "tuh-HA!" I see and hear you scoffing back at me, "Rest!? I don't know what that is," ..."anymore" or "...never have" or "that's not for people like me." And let me first just affirm you in that, because, truly I know exactly what you mean. I have been in places similar to where you've been, and maybe even to where you are presently. Also, I have not arrived anywhere. I'm journeying still--just like you. I know the steady, all-consuming pressure and sometimes the eventual numbness to feelings that bring forth words like these--which is why I can image hearing and seeing you, saying them in your mind and some of you out loud as you roll your eyes at the very idea.
May I offer you some admonishment in love and care?
This is in many ways the same admonishment that was offered--and when it came to my mama, at times, forced upon--me when I and people who care about me knew that I was drowning and likely to give up and sink at any moment.
My dad said matter-of-factly, "you're in the driver's seat." My southern auntie said, "this [life is] a marathon, chile, not a sprint." A writing teacher I once had used to always say about the power of simplicity in words and written thoughts, "pare down." Make each word do work and eliminate what is not essential. (Charlotte Matthews, if you're out there, I love you. Thanks for all my lessons. Sending you power and love.) And as I look back over the last few years of my life, most noticeably all points after learning five years ago that I had two surprise babies on the way, I can see where I lost my grip on perspective as seen from the vantage point beyond some of my own most basic needs--like water, oxygen, and rest. Another need, which I truly believe is essential to mind, body and soul health, is joy--not happiness, absolutely necessarily, but joy, which to me feels a little more transcendent.
When all four of my children were under five years of age, and I was in the throes of trying to eat enough food to produce breast milk for twins plus be present for a toddler and a little kid, I would open my eyes when the sun came up after being up in the night with my #twinfants and say sincerely, almost begging to my husband on his way out the door, "I can't do it today. I just can't." He'd look at me helplessly, and depart to work after giving me a hug and a kiss. Weeks in the same leggings and grey v-neck t-shirt, often without a shower in spans of days; work piling up in my email inboxes, on my desk, in my text indicator bubble; body aching and feeling brittle down to my bones; mourning the loss of my grandmothers (one who was with me like my mother) who'd only transitioned from this life weeks before; sad for my parents who were mourning the loss of their parents and who were now balancing their own work with helping me do mine; trying to figure out how to find my self--my thoughts, my figure, the outdoors, my own space, my feet squarely beneath me and holding me up again. There were many days that I cried when the babies cried.
I recall one particular night, coming upon this blog Finding Joy, and it was just the thing. I remember the author of the particular post I read those years ago saying about mothering children specifically, "laugh when they laugh." It was an epiphany for me. To me, it was simply a note to be with them, my children, here and now. As I held that in my heart I began to realize more and more that this time, with all its intensity and unique specifics, was only a season. I noticed the beauty in it--healthy living children, means to care for them, the support of close family and friends, time to spend with my offspring in their earliest years when they're forming the basis of their understanding of movement, language and relationships--and began posturing myself in gratitude for that as well as for the vomit and poop and blood-shot eyes and crying and tantrums and bunkering down away from people and much of a social life for a bit. The season became distinctly bitter-sweet and moment-by-moment more manageable when I began to find the joy, even and especially in the chaos. I know now that these were my first exercises in what has now become my practice of mindfulness or keen present awareness.
Another thing I observed in this time was that I'd notice myself when the house was still, gasping, (yes, gasping) for air. This was the first time I paid attention to my body signaling to my consciousness that I wasn't paying enough attention to my basic need to breathe. I was so consumed in doing and thinking and seeing to everyone else's needs that I wasn't taking in full breaths! And! I was doing that for sustained periods of time, almost as if I was holding my breath. Now the simple science behind that is, our bodies need oxygen to function optimally. Our brain needs oxygen, our muscles, our joints, our organs. Headaches? Sore back, neck and shoulders? When's the last time you slowly filled your lungs (not your stomach--there's a difference) with air, held it there for a second or two and then slowly exhaled? Try it now, if it's been more than a while.
Maybe you can't escape a stressful situation and take a vacation on white sands near clear water. You can go inward though, and retreat to a sacred place inside yourself. Your breath is always with you. I integrated tis alarm into my life recently as I've been working to heal--mind, body and soul--after traumas. It goes off every three hours as a reminder to simply bring awareness to my breath and affirm to myself that whatever it is I happen to find myself doing when this alarm sounds, wherever I am--even if I'm utterly failing--"my right now's best is good enough." See, I had this woman in my head--me from before marriage and before kids--constantly holding me to expectations that just don't apply anymore. Additionally there was a version of me that could only see and long for a future circumstance that may or may not ever be my reality. That inner conflict would induce anxiety at times and depression at others. (I'll talk more in another post about the "shadow-embracing" part of my journey.) I'm steady practicing mindfulness, full presence in the now, and learning to be gentle with myself. There is such magic in the breath.
And what about what we hear ourselves say? "I have to" do this, "I have to" do that. We're in the driver's seat of our own lives, remember? I decide. You decide. If things are piling up and you notice a whole day or span of days or weeks has gone by and you haven't done anything that you actually want to do, it may be time to pause and pare down. Pour a glass of water and sit still. Get situated to make a note and write out some things "you decide" for yourself: "I will" do this or do that because you "choose" to and not because you "have to." Watch your own words as there are levels at which you truly do have whatever you say.
When my twins were a little older and I was peak angry about feeling exhausted and overwhelmed I went (as I often do) looking for resources. I found this book that puts itself forward as a guide to self-care and inner renewal for African-American women and also could be footnotes for people of every gender and race identification. If you're struggling with actionable steps to take toward paying more attention to you, I highly recommend this reference as a place to start: Sacred Pampering Principles. And that's not even an affiliate link. I just believe it might help you. It has certainly helped establish some basics for me.
I always ask people now who I encounter in crises or exhaustion of one form or another, "what brings you joy?" In her above-mentioned guide book, Debrena Gandy offers an exercise where she asks the reader to list 10 things that bring you joy now and 10 things that brought you joy as a child. I thoughtfully made a list many years ago, right in the book to be exact, and though it has changed somewhat over time, I find it interesting that it has mostly remained the same. Many of the things on my list make me feel most at home, most like my self, most at ease, don't cost much or any money and don't take a whole lot of time. When I do one thing or a few of the things on my list I notice afterwards that I have more energy to do other things.
I want to extend this exercise offering to you. If you can't think of 10 joy things, just think of 3. Make a list and keep it somewhere where you can find it. Be specific and try to keep it to things for which you do not get paid. If it does end up being work-related, what aspect of it would you do even if you weren't getting paid for it because, it just makes you joy-full? I mentioned earlier that there is a difference for me between happiness and joy. Happiness to me somehow feels a little more superficial and dependent on external circumstances, where joy seems much more like an inner place that one can go to and live from, even in unhappy situations. What are your thoughts on that?
And while you're at it, tell me (most importantly, tell you): what brings you joy?