I posted a couple of weeks ago about being overwhelmed and not knowing which sources of stress were worth the anxiety and which needed to be jettisoned.
And I have a few remedies to share, in case you, too, have those days when there is just too much to do. When you have to choose between blinking and breathing, try these:
1. Visit a wise relative. I spend a morning with my grandma and felt refreshed. At one point in a conversation about a neighbor, she said, “You know. the whirlwind of small children is a blink in the span of your life. It feels really big, but it’s just a blink.” She’s wrong, of course, because having small kids for ten years or so amounts to more than 10% of your adult life, no matter how long you live. But the fact that she remembered at her age how challenging the frenetic under-five set is, that she’s seen several generations go through that, and that she didn’t warn me about how much harder teens are all sufficiently reassured me. That people get through this. That it’s not as big as it feels. That things change, every day. And that someday all this 80mph will be a memory.
Perspective offers a long-lasting respite.
2. Meet a friend. In the past week I met, face to face, with four different people—by choice—whose company I enjoy. Drank coffee, watched laugh lines, marveled at grey hairs that weren’t there the last visit. It’s a rather impressive phase of life in which to have good friends you’ve known for a while. My friends are getting older, and in the process honing a more condensed version of the person I’ve always known. A lot of the chaff falls away in your 40s. My friends are ditching the bullshit. They’re glimpsing mortality and deciding what they want to do with their lives. They’re caring for older parents and they’re caring for kids. And they’re still smiling and listening to new music and seeing art exhibits and writing short stories. You can get information, but you can’t get full sensory pictures from email or phone calls or blogs. Go watch a friend’s face while they tell you a story. Really watch them. The process is compelling.
Friendship provides a salve.
3. Change your music. I am, by nature, a creature of ruts. Not just habits. Deep, well-worn grooves. I used to listen to a tape on a loop for weeks without cease. (Hey, that was fancy in my day…tape decks that offered continuous play changed my life. Don’t go on and on about your MP3 playlist. When things are important, you sit with the tape recorder by the radio and you push pause before you hit record and play so that when the song finally comes on the air you can catch it without the sudden sounds of stops and starts by just releasing the pause button. And then to play the whole thing on a loop? Technological nirvana.) I once went three months without changing the tape. That’s some serious dedication (and change aversion, but that’s another story for another post). I do it with foods, too: eat the same foods for weeks at a time until I can’t stand to see them anymore. But feeling panic at being overwhelmed and having too much to do and being paralyzed with stress does not benefit from ruts. Sometimes releasing the valve on the pressure means getting some air in there and shifting the contents. (Not, for heaven’s sake, like the scene in Just One of the Guys. Playlists don’t itch.)
Music informs mood and alters rhythms.
4. Change your food. As mentioned again, I default to habits. Pressed for time and energy, I tend to default to what’s worked before. The same veggies, the same fruit, the same protein courses over and over. Lentil-bulgur burgers. Scrambled eggs with cheese. Bean stew. Stir fry tofu and udon. Pasta. Burritos. Goat-cheese-flatbread rollups. Salad. Peanut butter on apples. Pancake sandwiches. Eggs and cheese in rice. Al prepared with kids fighting around me, as quickly as possible, with stress pressing me to move quickly, efficiently, and without genuine engagement.
So I went to the fancy grocery and found a few small ways to bring adventure to a process that was wearing me down.
I quickly cut and arranged the fruit on a plate. Then I made a typical dinner. And we had adventure night. We all sniffed and tasted the fruit, compared notes. We talked, we used our senses, and we spent at least five minutes present, aware, and engaged. Together. And ate our so-called boring, expected, normal dinner with a sense of newness.
Adventure engages all your senses.
Adding a knowing grandmother, several good friends, some new music, and dragonfruit to my week, I felt as though things had really changed. Spring cleaning for the rut of stress and fluster. I’ve begun to remember that life is pretty manageable. That we’re lucky and that it doesn’t take a week in the tropics to feel as though we’ve restarted. That sleep is important and so is art and writing and family and food and exercise. And that a little taste of each whenever I can get them is what my current reality. Little bites of adventure, little efforts at balancing and exploring and listening and smiling are exactly what will fit right now.
And that’s pretty adventurous for me.
A dear friend asked me to accompany her to the Museum of Modern Art this week. I quickly agreed because I don’t get to see her nearly enough.
And luckily for me, she happens to have a PhD in art from Cal, so she knows her way around a museum. I mean, I do, too. You pretty much start at the door and walk through the rooms looking at stuff. But I have to read the identifying plaques and puzzle out meaning from the piece exclusive of its real historical context. She just…knows. Who, what, when, where, why, what critics said, how history has changed what critics say. I’m awfully happy to know her, and it’s a delight to see her in action in an artistic setting. Her students are wicked lucky.
(I always wondered about Rothko, had my own opinions. Now I know more and the opinions still hold but are informed by historical, artistic, and critical context. Education is super cool.)
We went to the SFMOMA primarily to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
It took him three years, but Marclay put together a 24-hour film montage of clips from thousands of movies, all of which reference a specific time (often with a visual of a clock or watch). And he spliced them such that the time announced by the actors or shown on the screen is the correct time of day for the viewer. So the whole film references time, tells time, and keeps time.
It’s outrageously cool.
Mind-bogglingly, unsettlingly, jaw-droppingly cool.
But here’s the thing I noticed after exactly three minutes: in an overwhelming percentage of instances where a film references the precise time, something incredibly important is about to happen. Someone will die in a few minutes or someone is expected in a few minutes or an explosion is coming in a few minutes or something intense makes characters check the clock every few minutes.
It’s an exhausting film to watch because the filmmakers whose works are combined together to produce the effect of an accurate-time experience actively choreographed those clock-referencing moments to be adrenaline-provoking. So after 20 minutes of Marclay’s work, I was quite anxious. Jumping out of my chair “let’s go we have to go we only have a few minutes” kind of anxious. The only relief in those 20 minutes of watching watches was a brief interlude in which The Breakfast Club’s characters whistle the Colonel Bogey march that evokes Bridge on the River Kwai and anti-Hitler sentiment. And even that moment is tense, because we all know Principal Vernon is coming in in a few seconds. At eleven-thirty, in fact, as I’m now keenly aware.
The importance of the word “momentous” became strikingly clear: we note that something is so intensely significant that it requires we pause and pay attention to that particular moment. Then five or ten or twenty groups of people pay rapt attention to one moment. Then the next. The accumulation of the momentous moments makes real life seem slow and insignificant, and simultaneously make the moments the film marks and marks and marks into a river of exclamations. Imagine hearing and seeing, “Pay attention to this precise moment!” shouted dozens of times every minute.
We didn’t have long at the museum, but it was amazing. I learned bits about artists and contemporary art reviews that I never would have. I saw The Clock. I saw disturbing images that made me think about our role in society, art’s need to disturb the afflicted and afflict the disturbed. I made lame observations that will haunt me for a while.
So other than being a long-winded artsy equivalent of Instagraming what I had for lunch, I want to urge you to go experience some art. We often forget how important it can be to see how someone processed the thoughts they had about the time in which they lived.
See The Clock at SFMOMA if you can. The museum closes June 2 for renovations, so go soon. And early, because the line is daunting.
Or perhaps just watch The Breakfast Club again and keep your eye on the big clock on the back wall.
And think about how long a minute can really be.
Since our sweet old cat died, the family has been embroiled in a convivial battle of “dog or cat?”
We loved our cats, but we might be dog people.
We adore dogs, but we might be cat people. (Okay, let’s be honest. We’re not cat people. But Spouse misses our cat and I miss our cat and we’re willing to accept that there might be one or two more cats out there somewhere who would be just perfect.)
The kids seem to like both cats and dogs, though they’ve been pressing for a dog. Peanut, our eldest, is an animal whisperer. Living creatures trust him, and he has the right balance of sincere gentleness and authoritative confidence with critters who are not his brother. Dogs love him, cats love him, sheep flock to him. He’s the kind of guy who can convince spiders to walk out the front door (ours is a no-kill house and we usually ask spiders to climb onto a piece of paper for the ride outside). I’ve actually seen cats hiding under a car come out for Peanut only after the rest of us walk away.
Butter, the three-year-old, is unpredictable. (That was redundant, I know. But I’ve heard there are a handful of three-year-olds who don’t calmly pet pets and then shriek and take off chasing them. Or, say, gently carry a duck’s egg for five minutes before pitching it like a baseball. Sorry, farmer lady!) I pity any pet who is near Butter if the wrong mood strikes. And since he’s three, the wrong mood always shows up at least…what…once an hour.
So during the process of getting ready to visit a few animal shelters today, I stopped fight number 8,314 with the reminder that we can’t bring a pet home until we can prove we can be friendly to each other. That pets are helpless creatures and they need absolute, inviolable kindness.
So the boys shaped up and played nicely and talked nicely and touched each other nicely. We didn’t find our new pet, but we got more information during the search.
And by bedtime the boys were at it again. Disrespectful to each other, saying hurtful things, reacting to hurt with fists.
I stopped them and reminded them that we have to be kind.
But Butter put his foot down. “Nope,” he said. “I don’t want any dog or any cat or any pet.”
I asked him why.
“I don’t like to be gentle and nice,” he insisted.
So now I’m looking for a shelter that will trade a sweet dog for a sometimes-sweet preschooler. Let me know if you know of one. I’m sure they can adopt Butter out if they put clear guidelines on his kennel. “Does well with people and children and pets. Sometimes. Sometimes he’s a raging a**hole, so he needs just the right home where everyone understands that he’s not a bad guy, he just needs some positive reinforcement training to get some freaking manners.”
Any chance you have a pup you’ll trade for that?
But this year is different.
I have a healthy, adorable, smart, funny grandma who lives an hour away. I visited her today while the kids were in school. Being with her infused me with wise, cross-generational “aren’t we lucky, even though the first years with small children are challenging, they’re a blip in the grand stretch of your life” perspective. Being grateful to have her makes a pretty nice Mother’s Day.
I have a healthy, sassy, energetic, interesting mom who lives an hour away. I saw her last week and will see her again for Mother’s Day. That’s a pretty freaking big deal after having lived the first two years of my son’s life in an isolated pocket of Hell (Los Angeles). Being grateful to have her, too, makes an increasingly sweet Mother’s Day.
And I somehow stumbled onto the best idea ever for a Mother’s Day gift. Beginning a few years ago, I forced my husband to engage in this ritual with my kids:
Buy or find the prettiest, smoothest rocks you can get your hands on. If possible, send partner and kids to beach by themselves to collect rocks.
Take dictation from children in Sharpie on the rocks after asking them, “What do you love about Mommy?”
Keep writing their answers on rocks until they have no more interest.
Have children decorate a plain box (wood, cardboard, glass, whatever). As big or little as you want.
Put rocks in box and hand them over on Mother’s Day.
Throughout the year and whenever I want, I can reach in and read a reason, in my sons’ own words, why I’m the best mom they’ve ever had.
And I can’t wait to see what they write this year. Really. That “thanks for cake” rock is begging for a “thanks for 1,092 healthy meals a year” companion. We’ll see.
Mother’s Day. It’s not about sleeping in (as if), or breakfast in bed (ew, the cleanup), or peace and quiet (insert uncomfortable laughter at the realization that it’s never going to happen).
It’s about asking your kids (and partner if you have one) to make the present you want. And need.
And since they can’t build a Krasinski/Rudd/Fiennes/Gosling four-sided hologram, have them build you a box of love notes.
I woke early because the boys were fighting about whether one of them should be allowed to cough at 5am.
We stumbled grouchily through our morning and got everyone to school in clothing with food in their bellies. The principal cornered me to ask if I’d proctor one of the loathsome State Standards Tests mandated by No Child Left Behind Or Lovingly Taught Much Other Than Tests. I was in a fog trying to catch up of errands on this, my child-free morning, and finally got to email at noon.
Please pay your bills, please comment about this idea about the soccer team pizza party, please reply to the doctor’s office about whether your kid’s new allergies are responding to the new medication, please buy stuff at our exclusive, super special sale, please offer to proctor the state test, please proofread this white paper, please edit these case studies, please subscribe now to the children’s theater season, please submit emergency contact forms or your kid can’t come to camp this summer, please sign this petition, please double check your automatic order before we send it, please pay for preschool, please share this committee plan, please go to the Board meetings, please send the school money because we’re underfunded, please respond about your preferences regarding the temporary buildings, please look at this budget so we can talk at the next budget meeting, please read this thread so we can position ourselves for the next funding round, please send a proposal that includes high level strategic work as well as simple deadline-crunched writing, please read this book, please sign up for soccer for Fall by Friday because fees go up next week, please use your reward points before they expire, please bike to school tomorrow a part of the massive community effort to minimize local car trips, please plan Mother’s Day so you’re not doing it last minute again, please look over the lease and sign it by Friday, please return or renew your library books, please return or renew your kids’ library books, please let us know when you mailed your Netflix disc, please upgrade your software, please take care of our cat while we’re away for a week, please rate your experience…
That list of emails, which was tame for the middle of the week, put me in a major, shoulder-slumped funk. I certainly don’t have to answer all those requests, and those that need replies can often get a “no.” But a lot of the things on my list I actually *do* need to do.
Please tell me how people do all this? How do they or you or I fit it all in? I want to do a good job on the projects I’m being paid to write or edit. I want to do a good job rewriting my book. I want to submit a proposal for a conference because I’ve had a paper brewing for four years and still haven’t written it. I want a clean house and don’t have the option of making someone else clean it. I want to run several times a week and go fencing at least twice a week and do yoga at least every other day. I want to actually play with my kids when they’re here. I want to prepare and cook good food for at least three meals each day. I want to see my friends and read a book and watch a movie or two. I want to reply to letters written me by dear friends. I want to take the kids to museums and play word games and develop their science and math skills and remind them about gratitude and teach them patience and kindness. I would like to learn another language or two. And I want to sleep more than four hours a night.
So tell me. How do I do that?
How do you do it?