Take it easy

When I moved to Austin, I was struck by the slow pace of life. The summers make every activity languid or halted – crowds of people stand and sit drowsily in fancy complex pools, linger over their melting frozen drinks, and skip afternoon runs in exchange for naps in front of fans.

Lately, I find myself frustrated with the slowness in my life. I’m ever-so-slowly modifying my activity and diet habits. It takes me approximately 10 years to write a blog post or read a book. Most of all, I’m frustrated with the halting start-stop of self-care progress: one giant step forward, two baby steps (ice cream cones) back.

Don’t get me wrong, my heart still races. There’s this feeling I get when two major parts of my personality crash into each other: anxiousness and playfulness. I get it when I’m power walking from the bus stop to work at 6.45 am to make sure I can leave early for an event. I get it when I’m waiting for a friend I haven’t seen in years at arrivals in Austin-Bergstrom. I get it, non-stop, during the music portion of SXSW. And lately, I get it at 5 pm, when I arrive home and I see that beautiful beacon, my tiny oval shaped pool, staring back at me, and I know there are dishes in the sink, plants to be watered, and poop to be scooped. My relaxed Austin attitude is replaced by a heart-pounding feeling of FOMO and immediacy. 

Leave it to me to be anxious about fun.

I’ve been pondering a piece of self-care advice about slowing down that I got from the inimitable Zelda. She says:

When I really don’t feel like cleaning/doing tasks that will make my tomorrow better, I do the thing(s) and count to 100 aloud. Sometimes when I hit 100 I go okay cool fuck this and sometimes I have momentum and can do more.

Yesterday, I got home in the beautiful, temperate (for Austin in July) 95 degree heat and all I could do was picture me on my mac-n-cheese-colored float, sipping a seltzer. I debated if I’d wear my tropical swimsuit or my other tropical swimsuit as I turned the key in the lock. I opened the door and saw litter on the floor, dishes on the counter, a full dishwasher, and shoes everywhere. Shopping bags obscured my beautiful mac-n-cheese float. That SXSW flutter in my heart that tells me (Aerosmith voice) “I don’t wanna miss a thing” began to rise up in me.

I remembered two things in this moment: Zelda’s advice for slowing down and Caroline’s note that it usually only takes one song to unload a dishwasher. I imagined myself putting off the tasks until after the pool, and then after the pool wanting to take another drive in the relaxi taxi, putting it all off to tomorrow. So I decided to be an adult.

I counted to 30 (I do not have the attention span of Zelda) and felt my momentum rise. In the span of 15, count em, 15 minutes, I watered Nicole’s plants, my succulents, made sure all the dishes were where dishes live, made the floors look like humans are in charge of cats and not  vice versa, and put the shoes in a new pile, this time in my closet. It wasn’t so bad.

The moral of the story is, I conquered that panicky fun-anticipating feeling and was actually able to have unadulterated fun because I slowed down – what a concept. I slow cook, I slow walk, I slow shower, so why wouldn’t I slow fun down a little bit?

Anvils, Oprah, and the capacity for delight

Ever the wannabe Oprah, I cannot count the number of times I have told a heartbroken or struggling friend, “It’s okay to feel your feelings.” I mean, it’s not okay: it’s horrible and hard, and sometimes you’d rather feel someone else’s good feelings, god dammit.

I am neither heartbroken nor struggling, but lately, I’ve had trouble following my own advice. I’d rather have a cocktail or put on the television than be alone with my thoughts. Circumstances have changed. My lifestyle of long solitary walks, which allowed me to really digest my feelings about my situation, has lately been interrupted by chronic foot problems. It’s become more acceptable to throw back a wine spritzer every night of the week now that my companion is home. My writing and painting time has been interrupted by happy hour after happy hour, pool cocktail after pool cocktail, nightcap after nightcap: time to dry out!

But the problem isn’t truly that social drinking is clouding my connection with myself. The problem is that I’ve been using socializing, drinking, and TV to disconnect. What am I missing? What is it that I’m trying to avoid?

In an effort to use some creative energy to understand why it is that I’m so uncomfortable sitting with my thoughts, I’ve been rereading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The book is prescriptive and self-helpy, with instructions about how to live creatively, unencumbered by the weight of other people and life situations. It’s a great read for anyone seeking a new way of framing their lives. I was struck by Julia’s insight about ways to cultivate happiness. She writes, “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight.”

That may seem rather opaque or rather vague, depending on your point of view, but it totally blind-sided me. I had a moment of revelation where I felt the rug of my preconceptions of happiness pulled out from me. I was Wile E. Coyote meeting the unexpected cliff. What does Julia mean by the “capacity for delight”? She goes on to explain that the power of observation, the opportunity and willingness to be enchanted by the small things going on around us, can overwhelm the negative or creativity-squashing circumstances in our lives.

I vocally and steadfastly reject the notion that one can choose to be happy and for it to just be so. As a person who has known mental illness intimately, I know that happiness isn’t always a choice. However, the “capacity for delight” seems more doable, more possible, even in the throes of depression. Can you find one good thing in your field of vision? One good memory about the day? It’s a welcome new practice for me, someone who has been glossing over the small delights in an effort to disconnect from it all. By being more observant, more open to little sparks of joy, I hope to make my way back to my feelings, which aren’t so scary after all.

Some delights for me this morning: the cat is craning her neck to nuzzle my face; the man whose car alarm goes off every time he turns the ignition is leaving early for work today; I woke up on the first, not the third, alarm; the new coffee maker works like a charm. A night without a social engagement and the wine that comes with it has left me feeling my eyes open a little wider, my mind a little fresher.

Not everything will be a delight, of course. There are uncomfortable feelings there too, the ones I so often ignore lately, such as feelings of self-doubt and creative constipation; feelings of anxiety; and feelings of exhaustion. But today, it all feels more doable when I smile about the car alarm instead of glower. Contentment with my surroundings, even small pieces of it, is my gateway drug into the harder stuff. Not heroin, but the fiddly bits of my brain that are making noise.

Luckily for me, my Wile E. Coyote cliff has landed me in a placid pool full of cute ducks and palm trees (do these two things exist together? Whatever, it’s my imagination, I can do whatever I want!) along with the anvils and the puffs of smoke.