Pathology

Last week, I had surgery to have a polyp removed from my ovary. Surgery and the recovery have been super easy on my end–very little pain or bleeding. The pathology report, however, is another story.

Ovarian polyps are rarely cancerous so I wasn’t too worried about it. More than anything, I wanted the confirmation that everything was fine so we could get on with our lives. The doctor’s office was supposed to call on Monday but we didn’t hear from them. I called yesterday to check in and left a message for the nurse. She returned my call to say that my polyp showed moderate evidence of precancerous cells. We scheduled the appointments that my doctor wanted for follow up and my next task was to call my husband.

These are not the first precancerous cells that have been removed from my body. Shortly after we got married, I had a mole removed from my arm. The pathology report from that showed precancerous cells and that the margins were involved, which meant I had to have a larger chunk of flesh cut out. I’ve had mole checks regularly since then and everything seems to be fine. While I was a little shook up about the polyp pathology news, given my experience with my mole, pessimistic ideation didn’t set in until I talked to my husband. When I told him, he got that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that comes right before your brain formulates all your negative thoughts about potentially bad news into words. I didn’t get upset until he told me his stomach hurt.

The trouble with finding out this kind of news while you’re at work is that you have to hold it together and not overreact. Yelling, “I just found out I have precancer again! There are more important things in this world than board meeting Power Point presentations!” probably isn’t the best way to go. And not to mention that precancerous cells aren’t cancer and everyone in my office has their own personal battles–some of them I know and some I don’t.

What I did instead of yelling was download podcasts about cancer. As I said before, these are not the first precancerous cells that have been removed from my body. Twice, now, in my thirties, I’ve gone through this precancer diagnosis response. Twice is too often for someone who hasn’t even reached “over the hill” status. I needed some distraction from my thoughts and some preparation for what happens if those precancerous cells ever lose their less-threatening prefix. The podcast I landed on was an interview with Dr. John Kelly on the Chris Beat Cancer podcast.

Dr. Kelly is an advocate for a mostly vegan diet for patients that are fighting cancer. He’s not one of those people that claims you can eat vegan and forego other treatment and beat cancer, though. And while some of the studies he referenced were old, there is significant evidence that a vegan diet could stave off cancer better than a standard American diet. I’ve read about these studies before but hadn’t remembered them until I started listening to the podcast interview.

I’m one of those people who thinks that anything that won’t hurt you is worth trying. I’ve also eaten vegan and vegetarian before and for the past several months I had quit buying beef at the grocery store, figuring that if I couldn’t stop driving 90 miles a day for work, I could cut back on my beef consumption, thus limiting contributions to greenhouse gas productions. It didn’t take much to convince me to go full vegan and by the time I left work, I reached my threshold.

And that’s how, on August 8th sometime between noon and 4:30, I became vegan. Even as I warm up my delicious tofu and refried bean burrito, I know I won’t be perfect. There’s that little bit of fish still in the fridge that I don’t want to go to waste. And navigating in-law politics at Thanksgiving dinner will be annoying. And how I will miss eggs! But on the other hand, I’m not really much of a foodie and fueling my body with things that will contribute to my overall health and longevity is much more appealing than a fast food cheeseburger. And if it helps ensure that I don’t hear the word “precancerous” for a long time, that’s all the better.

Personal Symbol: River

In episode 31 of Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Gretchen talks about the idea of defining your personal symbols as a way to “know yourself better.” Over time, I’ve identified nine personal symbols: river, four-leaf clover, tree, the dark, dove, snowflake, casserole dish, book, and fleur-di-lis. In order to define what those symbols mean to me, I decided to identify twelve reasons I chose each symbol (for a total of 108). I’m starting with the first symbol I identified: rivers.

  1. First and foremost, rivers represent home to me. While rivers are a huge geographical feature in most places, Missouri is particularly shaped by and cognizant of its rivers. In fact, the state tourism office used “where the rivers run” as the marketing slogan for a while. (I keep typing that phrase as “where the rivers fun” which could be an infinitely better slogan for tourism marketing purposes, by the way.) I grew up just a few miles away from the Missouri River, in a county named for a tributary of the Missouri. In those glaciated hills of northern Missouri, etching the landscape in a particular way that feels so familiar to me. As a kid, crossing the Missouri (at any one of three places) meant we were almost at my grandparent’s house or some other family members’ homes. I still live just a few miles from the Big Muddy and crossing it means that I’m almost home from work.
  2. Just as rivers shaped my childhood, the threat from rivers also sparked my imagination. Not the immediate and devastating effect of flooding, although that definitely plays a role, but the more long-term effect of erosion. Being from a small, farming community, erosion was something we learned about in elementary school art class, thanks to some agricultural organization’s poster contest. The idea that water and rivers could carry away the rich topsoil that provided many of my friends’ parents livelihoods, including my own father’s, was one of those concepts that blow open your concrete and limited view of the world as a kid. And while we learned about it in the classroom to make those posters, the visual evidence and the fight against erosion was all around me, from the giant ditch in our back pasture to the terraced fields surrounding the town. Physical landscapes shaped by erosion continue to captivate me: the Grand Canyon, the Niagara escarpment, the Louisiana wetlands.
  3. All this thought about erosion that we had to do in third or fourth grade switched on an environmental consciousness in me as I began to formulate the concept of watersheds. It wasn’t until years later that i encountered the actual term, but I understood watersheds as soon as I learned that I couldn’t swim in our pond because of all the lawn care chemicals that were in it, according to my mom. Living on the edge of town with about 20 acres of land in the country and our house inside the city limits, ditches from several blocks ran into our pond. My brother and I often tested this after a good rain by dropping something into a ditch and following it as the water carried it to our back yard. Oftentimes during and immediately after a big rain, our backyard became a little river as all the ditches flowed together right behind (and sometimes straight down) our driveway. As I got older, the idea of our pond being polluted grew into thinking about all the pollution that gets into our water through the narrow-minded actions of well-meaning people. I still think about this when I use products in the shower or consider coloring my hair.
  4. My home state of Missouri is cut in half by the Missouri River. My permanent residence in Missouri has always been “north of the river,” but my extended family has always lived “south of the river.” The river is a key orienting feature in Kansas City, as well. It’s one of the many dividing lines in the metropolitan area that carries with it distinct ideas about what the “Northland” is. As I was in the process of creating a new nuclear family that eventually would be settled “north of the river,” my parents moved back south of the river to be nearer to extended family. Rivers are a big orienting feature of my life.
  5. My “first best friend” and I hung out a lot in our early 20s. We spent late nights out with groups of friends, took a fun trip to the west coast and even lived together for a couple years. One night we were out (I don’t remember where) and our group was a bit confused about directions. She and I knew exactly which way to go and led the group back to more familiar environs. Someone asked us how we knew which way to go and we said, “Because the river is over there.” We weren’t really in close proximity to the river and that person pressed the issue: how did we know where the river was. Our answer, “We can feel the river.” This became our answer to anyone who asked directions when we were together, no matter where we were. While this was an inside joke, the idea of “feeling the river” and using that “sixth sense” as wayfinding has carried throughout my life.
  6. Rivers also connect me to my career. In my public history job, we often talk about “cultural watersheds” that surround the four rivers comprise our area. The rivers play a big role in how we think about the heritage of the area and how we think about programming different interpretive products. There is currently a big push to tie into rivers as a natural, recreational and interpretive resource so I spend a lot of time thinking about them.
  7. Rivers play a big role in my recreational life. While I’m not very good at it and I don’t get to do it very often, I love paddling. I even took a canoeing class in college to fulfill one of my activity requirements. In addition to paddling, running is very much tied to rivers for me. The first trail I ever ran on followed the Congaree River. After I moved, I found a trail along Lytle Creek and later my favorite running trail became the Line Creek Trail. There is something about being on or near the water that makes physical activity something fun and enjoyable. It’s hard to think of running as a chore when you round a bend and hear the sound of water rushing over a tiny waterfall and catch glimpses of it through the trees.
  8. During my childhood, I lived through two big floods that majorly affected the area where I live and my family lived. The first was in 1986. I was eight and certain images stuck with me: driving through standing water in the river bottoms and rolls of sodden carpet laying in the front yard of my aunt and uncle’s house.The second flood was in 1993. I was fifteen and taking driver’s education that summer. We couldn’t get to the places the teacher normally took students to practice driving. My dad spent several nights sleeping at one of the businesses he managed because he had to sandbag and make sure the pumps were working and he couldn’t get home without driving hours around floodwaters anyway. I crossed the Missouri River bridge on Interstate 70 in a school bus on the day that the flood threatened to close the interstate highway. The flood forever changed that stretch of the river bottoms from tidy farmlands to wetlands. My aunt and uncle’s house that flooded in 1986 had water in just beneath the second floor. Luckily my dad, who was paying very close attention to the levels up-river, insisted that they move all their appliances to my other uncle’s house, out of the floodplain, rather than just putting them up on blocks. My aunt and uncle never moved back into their house and neither did many of their neighbors. That experience, especially, made me understand that our attempts to channel the river are ultimately futile. Sometimes, I can fall down a rabbit hole of looking at satellite images on Google Maps. On those maps you can easily identify the great expanse of the river’s floodplain and understand just how fragile our attempts are to overcome nature.
  9. Rivers also have significant religious symbolism, both in my own religion and in others, that I’m drawn to. The Jordan and Ganges rivers specifically hold special significance in world religion, but rivers are also often the site of spiritual purification (baptism, mikvah, misogi). Gospel music often includes a river theme as a symbol of change and redemption.
  10. I associate rivers with life. Throughout history settlements spring up along rivers. They bring life-giving water necessary to sustain a community. Not only do they sustain the life of humans, but rivers also teem with life themselves. Healthy rivers and wetlands are home to such a diverse range of species and serve to remind us that we have a responsibility to live in harmony with the river rather than trying to harness and exploit it.
  11. Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is often credited with having said, “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” I think the idea of “flow” that rivers connote becomes a theme in people’s lives as they age. The river is constantly changing, just as the world is around us. The river reflects seasonal change and change over time, just as much as a tree does. A river flows high in the spring as the snows melt upstream and new, forgotten sandbars emerge in times of drought. Over time, rivers erode the landscape and cut new channels. Whether change occurs quickly or over millennia, the only constant is change. You can never stand in the same river twice, just as the world around us changes and we are changed by it.
  12. The Heraclitus quote also reminds us that rivers connect us in profound ways. Even if we never travel to another area, the river brings to us other waters from vast territories upstream and it carries a bit of us out to the ocean. What we do in one place radiates outward and impacts the world.

Self Care and a Psalm

This past weekend wasn’t the best. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong about it–in fact there were a lot of good elements–except for the way I felt. While I didn’t have a full-blown melt-down, I sure struggled with my emotions and my self-care faltered because of that.

Self-care is something that I struggle with. Not in the “I’m so stressed I can’t…” way but more in the “I’m so uninterested I can’t…” way. I can easily fall into bad habits that feed negative emotions, which feed more bad habits. People often talk about needing a break to fill their tank. I can sometimes do such a bad job at refilling my tank that I’ve often wondered if there is just a way to make my tank bigger or get better gas mileage. (This metaphor is also true in the literal sense as I very much dislike getting gas in my car.)

As I set to work getting back into my healthy routine, I thought a lot about self-care and developing better self-care habits and the idea of “filling my tank.” As I was driving to work, I listened to an old Krista Tippett podcast, back when it was still called “Speaking of Faith.” She quoted Dietrich Bonhoffer:

I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world, that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.

This quote stopped my mind from swirling and I immediately thought, “This is how you make your tank bigger.”

Another quote spontaneously entered my consciousness, “my cup runneth over.” Often, we only think of Psalm 23 when someone dies or when we need comfort. But it also speaks to the daily faith walk that Bonhoffer describes. It speaks of duties (“He leadth me in the paths of righteousness”), problems (“in the presence of mine enemies”), successes (“Thou anointest my head with oil”), failures (“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”), experiences (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadth me beside the still waters”) and perplexities (“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies”). All this we encounter on a daily basis and yet, our cups runneth over. The psalmist puts God as the actor in each of these daily events. When we recognize his hand in our lives as the psalmist does, when we listen as he leads us beside the still waters to encounter his grace, that is how we learn to have faith. All of this shit comes our way, and we persevere; our cups run over, our tanks are filled.

When we engage in self-care, we allow our Good Shepherd to act upon our lives. The odd thing is that when you look at lists of self-care activities on the internet, so many suggestions line up with Psalm 23.

  • The Lord is my shepherd;
    • Write a letter to God/The Universe/Source, whatever you believe in. /  Pray
  • I shall not want.
    • Keep a gratitude journal
  • He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
    • Lying in the grass on a hill and staring up at the sky. / Lay down on the ground. / Wiggle your bare feet in overgrown grass / Be still. Sit somewhere green.
  • He leadeth me beside the still waters.
    • Go to the ocean / Find somewhere you can skip rocks on water
  • He restoreth my soul:
    • Trust the process / Read some spiritual literature / Allow yourself to sleep in / Take a nap
  • He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
    • Forgiveness of others / Practice being of service to others
  • Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
    • Remember what you’re going through is temporary / Take 5 to 10 minutes to focus on your tension, worries, fears, concerns
  • For thou art with me;
    • Join a support group / Go to church / Ask for support from family and friends / Go to a 12-Step meeting
  • Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
    • Engage in self-soothing activities / Develop supportive rituals
  • Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
    • Cooking a meal for myself and being really present / Cook a healthy and delicious meal
  • Thou anointest my head with oil;
    • Take a long, hot bath, light a candle and pamper yourself / Take a bubble bath with a good book / Haircut / Manicure
  • My cup runneth over.
    • Pay attention to the present / Recognize blessings / or literally Have a glass of wine / Enjoy a cup of tea
  • Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
    • Start a compliments file / Write out a list of 25 Things That Make Your Life Beautiful
  • And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
    • Lather, rinse, repeat. Self care is not a one and done activity.

Rebel Yell

Late last month, I was driving home from work, taking the back roads, listening to Happier with Gretchen Rubin, podcast 74. Per usual when wearing slip-on shoes, I had kicked off my shoes and was driving barefoot. Gretchen and Elizabeth were discussing a listener question about family and Gretchen’s Four Tendencies: Obliger, Upholder, Questioner and Rebel. Gretchen was giving a hypothetical example about an obliger parent being perplexed by having a questioner child who keeps saying, “but why…” The last “but way” in her list of example questions was “But why can’t I drive barefoot?” and she continued with this example saying that if you know the child is a questioner you can take five minutes and explain you can’t drive barefoot. Aloud, I said, “You can’t tell me what to do, Gretchen Rubin.” It was at this moment that I accepted that I might be a Rebel.

Gretchen’s Four Tendencies are based on how people respond to expectations. The degree to which a person falls into a category varies, for example you can be a strong obliger or a moderate one. The following is a quick description of each classification, taken from Gretchen’s blog. 

Upholder—accepts rules, whether from outside or inside. An upholder meets deadlines, follows doctor’s order, keeps a New Year’s resolution. I am an Upholder, 100%.

Questioner—questions rules and accepts them only if they make sense. They may choose to follow rules, or not, according to their judgment.

Rebel—flouts rules, from outside or inside. They resist control. Give a rebel a rule, and the rebel will want to do the very opposite thing.

Obliger—accepts outside rules, but doesn’t like to adopt self-imposed rules.

Source: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/01/four-personality-types-which-one-are-you/

She has written a lot over the past three and a half years about the four tendencies and her theories have evolved over time, but the basic premise remains the same. She’s even developed a quiz to help people identify their tendency.

A Rebel in Obliger’s Clothing

The quiz had an opposite effect on me, though. Rather than helping me to identify my category, it obscured it. I am terrible at answering personality-type quizzes because I sometimes answer based on what I think I want to be rather than being authentic. Furthermore, I don’t have strong tendencies for any personality framework. To use another of Gretchen’s classifications, I’m an “alchemist” who can reinvent myself rather than being a “leopard” who doesn’t change my spots. At any rate, before taking the quiz I suspected that I was an obliger and my answers “proved” me right. Those answers felt true at the time, but they obscured a deeper understanding of how I truly respond to expectations.

It took me a long time to recognize that I’m a rebel. I think that being a rebel doesn’t always look like we think it should. Rebels don’t sport James Dean haircuts or ride motorcycles. They aren’t necessarily covered in tattoos. As Gretchen notes, rebels are uniquely motivated by doing what they want to do. And if what they want to do goes against the grain in some way, all the better. I think this is why I often tempted to jump into extreme habits. So, if I decide–for any number of reasons–that I want to eat less meat, my inner monologue would sound like this:

“I could start doing Meatless Mondays. But that is so easy, anyone can participate in Meatless Mondays. If anyone can do it, is it really a worthy goal to set for myself? Why not just become vegetarian? Or better yet, I’ll just be vegan. Foregoing all animal products is a real goal.”

And so I will become vegetarian for six months or vegan for two months. Both of these things I’ve actually done. And I quit being vegetarian or vegan because I decided I wanted to. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if I would have looked up the statistics (only 3.2% of Americans identify as vegetarian and 0.5% as vegan) I would’ve been motivated to double-down on my self-imposed eating patterns. In fact, just thinking about it right now makes me want to take a vow to quit eating meat and dairy right now. (Confession: I’ve never truly been vegan because I can’t get past the bees issue. Bees are necessary for pollinating a lot of plant foods so I feel entitled to eat honey. I’m such a rebel vegan.)

My trouble in identifying my true tendency was further complicated by the fact that Gretchen identifies a trait in obligers that she calls “obliger rebellion.” Obliger rebellion is when an obliger gets fed up with being an obliger and refuses to meet some outer expectation. I would suggest that this person isn’t actually an obliger, but a rebel, who has been socialized to meet external expectations, especially to avoid facing consequences. I have some budding theories on how this could be the case that are built around being raised in an authoritarian household, but I think a key to figuring out if someone is a rebel or an obliger is to ask why they meet external expectations, not just if they meet external expectations. Does a person feel bad about breaking the rule, or do they feel bad about being caught breaking the rule. (I wonder if there isn’t an unrecognized gender bias about putting “mild” rebels who are female in the obliger category. Gretchen notes that the rebel category is the smallest category, but I think some obligers who have “obliger rebellion” might be miscategorized.)

Here is an example of how I uphold the rule to avoid consequences. I used to speed all the time. I mean all the time. When I was 21, I got three speeding tickets in one year. I almost never speed anymore, not because the speed limit sign affects me, but because I do not want to suffer the consequences of getting pulled over.

Similarly, as a kid and young adult I used to be terrible about keeping my room clean. When my mother would tell me to clean my room, I would start cleaning and then find a book I hadn’t read in awhile and sit in my closet or behind my bed and read. It would take several threats before I would actually finish cleaning my room. Often, finishing meant shoving things into other things to give the illusion that I was done rather than actually doing the job.

Being motivated by avoiding consequences isn’t the only sign I’ve identified that I’m a rebel. I think another sign of being a rebel is how you act around people who are supposed to give you unconditional love. That kind of environment is supposed to be relatively consequence-free. You may irritate a family member or make them mad for awhile, but they aren’t going to fire you because you didn’t do the dishes for two whole days. In fact, using friends and family as accountability partners is often counterproductive for me. I’ve often experienced the situation where I would keep up with a certain habit or goal until I told someone about it. Once they had an expectation that I was going to do x, I struggled doing it. When I thought I was an obliger, this situation puzzled me deeply, but when I looked at myself as a rebel, it made perfect sense.

There are also certain characteristics of rebels that Gretchen has written about or talked about on her podcast that are so spot on for me it makes it difficult to deny my rebel nature. On her blog, she writes:

Rebels wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?” They’re very motivated by a sense of freedom, of self-determination. (I used to think that Rebels were energizing by flouting rules, but I now I suspect that that’s a by-product of their desire to determine their own course of action. Though they do seem to enjoy flouting rules.) They really don’t like being told what to do.

While the idea that I wake up think “What do I want to do today?” isn’t quite accurate, I realized that I used to have a very hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I would often wait until the last possible second, hitting the snooze button multiple times, before getting out of bed. On the weekends, however, I would wake up naturally at the time I tried to get up during the week. I would typically hop out of bed and get my day started. Similarly, when I started blogging in the mornings, I had no problem getting out of bed super-early. Nowadays, I sometimes wake up on my own at 4:30, get up and head for my computer. Even if my brain doesn’t wake me up that early, I still crawl out of bed at 5:45, pour myself a cup of coffee and head into the office. The difference between now and before is that I have an answer for the “What do I want to do with this time?” questions that is something I actually want to do.

Shortly after I had the driving barefoot realization, I was listening to the next Happier podcast. Near the end, Gretchen and Elizabeth were answering two listener questions that were exactly the same: how do I help my rebel significant other with a job search. Gretchen’s advice was to do nothing. Encouragement would make a rebel less likely to do what they knew they should do. This completely mirrors my own recent experience with making a dermatologist appointment. I knew I needed to make an appointment to get my moles checked. I was about three years overdue, and yet I couldn’t make myself do it. My husband started nagging me, which made me feel bad but also made me resist doing it even more. Eventually we had a fight and in my memory of this, he expressed that he didn’t think I was ever going to make my dermatologist appointment. This is what motivated me. It wasn’t until I was listening to the podcast that I linked earlier in this paragraph that I realized the real motivation for me wasn’t the nagging, but the “you can’t / won’t do it” statement. While that doesn’t work all the time, having someone express to me that something is out of reach usually makes me want to at least try that thing.

Now that I’ve finally identified that I’m a rebel in this framework, I can start to use this as a way to motivate myself to change my habits and finish projects more effectively and, just as importantly, stop beating myself up so much for not being able to meet certain expectations. Giving myself grace to reject certain expectations without guilt or to meet them in my own way is certainly helping me to cultivate healthier state of mind.

Smashing the Amethyst Butterfly

I recently listened to an episode of “On Being with Krista Tippett.” Her guest was Elizabeth Gilbert. As usual, it was such an interesting and inspiring conversation. As I have done with a few episodes, I marked it as unplayed so I could listen again. I also did something I had never done before–I listened to the entire unedited conversation. There was so much good stuff in that conversation that got left, as they say, on the cutting room floor.

The part of the unedited conversation that resonated with me most is the idea of smashing the amethyst butterfly. Gilbert shared that this concept grew from conversations with her friend, the novelist Ann Patchett. Often, when Patchett has an idea for a novel, the idea is perfect; the book is perfect. It is a beautiful amethyst butterfly that flutters around her head. When it is time to write the book, however, Patchett has to smash the amethyst butterfly with a mallet. Gilbert explains in the interview, “The more she’s addicted to wanting to create that thing that can never be created, the harder it’s going to be for her to do her job, which is to make what she is capable of making, now.”

This is certainly a problem I encounter time and again, often without even realizing it. My idea for something is so perfect–or I want to execute something so perfectly–that I am frozen when it comes time to actually do it. I don’t know how to create the thing that can live up to my amethyst butterfly expectations. I don’t often acknowledge that it is impossible for anyone to create the amethyst butterfly, much less myself. But I know that if Ann Patchett can’t do it, there is no hope for the rest of us. While that may sound depressing, it is actually a hopeful statement. She doesn’t hold herself to unreasonable expectations and neither should I. I have permission to smash the butterflies that are getting in the way of my work.

If you visit a lot of historic house museums, you may have run into a story that 19th-century women (and maybe earlier, too) intentionally included a mistake in their needlework. The reasoning behind this is that “only God can make something perfect.” I’ve done a bit of research (a.k.a. Googling) and have yet to uncover if this is true or if it is one of those historic house myths that the docents pass down from one generation to the next. (If you’re ever been on a tour and heard a story about where the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” you’ve heard a historic house myth.) Despite the potentially dubious veracity of this story, the idea is a comforting one to me and coincides nicely with smashing your amethyst butterfly. Just because we can’t make something perfectly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it at all. And in fact, maybe we shouldn’t make something perfectly, even if we could.

In the interview, as Gilbert is reflecting on her own experiences with amethyst butterflies, she talks about this notion of “making anyway.” Gilbert notes that when she tries to make an amethyst butterfly, it is pieced together from trash: chewing gum, cigarette butts, some plywood she found behind the school, etc. The hinges don’t work right and it is lopsided. She says:

And yet, the feeling I have at this point in my life when I look at that finished thing is, ‘That’s pretty cool. That’s a pretty cool thing. No one ever made one like that before, maybe for good reason. But, the dream of the thing wasn’t a real thing and this is a real thing that has life in it and spirit in it and I kinda like it. And now I want to go make another one.’

The more I think about smashing my amethyst butterflies, the more I realize that they are fluttering all around me. My butterflies aren’t just creative projects, but are work projects and household chores and life in general. As long as I remember how Gilbert opened and closed this story, though, I can build my courage for moving forward and smashing my own butterflies. She says, “Do a thing….And we can leave the amethyst butterflies to the dream of perfection that is the death of all fun and all play and all joy.”

In Equal Measure

Recently, I’ve been feeling relatively okay. I’ve struck something that feels like balance and I’m actually noticing it as such.

I often get stuck in oscillations between striving for perfection and giving up. I’m either eating as perfectly as possible, hitting all my RDAs, or relying on fast food to get me through the day. I’m either following a planned-to-perfection guide for keeping up on housework or I’m doing the bare minimum and letting my husband pick up the slack. Since I’ve decided that my back pain is aggravated by running and downward facing dogs, it’s been difficult to find a reason to get off the couch.

My emotional state goes through similar cycles, shifting from normal to rock bottom. It’s annoying and exhausting and makes me feel crazy. It puts undue stress on me and my relationships. Despite the fact that I recognize this, I’ve felt powerless to combat this tendency to bounce from fine to terrible to fine again. How could I possibly have any sort of control over this? Isn’t it just part of who I am?

In one sense, yes, this is me. It’s who we all are. Everyone has highs and lows. We aren’t always aware of the emotional states of the people around us. I shouldn’t beat myself up for feeling blue, nor should I compare my insides to other people’s outsides.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that I am incapable of striking a better balance between extremes. I don’t feel like I am a hostage of the wiring and chemistry of my brain. While the physical make-up in my head does play a big role, I also believe that I can make certain choices about how I will view myself in the world and how I react to situations and that these choices can shift my perspective. Such a shift can impact me in a positive way.

I have to confess that were I not the author of these words but a reader, I might be tempted to discount that previous paragraph as a load of hooey. And I would probably also decide that even if it were hooey, maybe it could still help me. Then I would do a lot of Googling to discover how to cultivate a more balanced mindset and create an elaborate plan with daily checklists to complete. I would be amazing at checking off my daily tasks for a week, before fizzling out and feeling worthless. But this time, instead of reading that previous paragraph and making a plan to be my most amazing self, I wrote that paragraph. This time my story isn’t about how I became amazing, it’s about how I recognized what it means to strike a better balance for myself.

This story begins with Memorial Day weekend, 2016. Someone comparing their insides to my outsides may have been discouraged about themselves. I baked my friends cakes for their birthdays and cuddled their babies and congratulated them on milestones and had all the happy times. But in the safety of my own home, I had an emotional crash, complete with tears and dissatisfaction and undefinable longing. It was a bad weekend.

I recovered, but I was on extremely high alert. Every time anxiety tightened it’s hold on my chest, I started searching for warning signs of my next crash. I enlisted my husband as a spy into my own emotional state, asking him to gather intelligence and report back if there were signs of changes.

Then I started a new self-improvement project. Like always I did good for about a week. Like always I fizzled out. And I felt…okay. This fizzle even coincided with the 4th of July, a three-day weekend that, by all outward appearances, was a lot like Memorial Day: cakes and birthdays and milestones and celebrations. This time, though, I didn’t crash. I didn’t feel dissatisfied or like there was a terrible void that needed to be filled.

I had a realization as I flicked through my secret Pinterest page for July, which I tongue-in-cheek call “Better Living Through Pinterest.” I noticed I had pins for green smoothies and salads alongside pins for cakes and chili dog casseroles.  I thought, “Hmm, that seems balanced.” That day, I went home from work and did all the chores I had avoided over the three-day weekend and still sat down for an hour of Netflix. I didn’t worry about a checklist or how the evening could’ve been better or the fact that I should’ve counted the calories in my dinner or avoided grabbing a breakfast sandwich at McDonald’s or done some sit-ups. Instead I felt oddly accomplished and at peace. And that feeling continued the next day when I had a smoothie and salad for breakfast and lunch instead of fast food and did my chores and sit-ups as I watched guilty pleasure television. It dawned on me that this balance felt right and good and I didn’t need to beat myself up because I spent time reading Big Brother tweets instead of my library book. This, albeit brief, respite from my struggle between striving, failing and rebellion feels like something that I need to recognize and cultivate. I feel like I am in a moment of grace that I’ve granted myself.

The challenge becomes carrying this balance forward. How do I cultivate grace and resiliency? How do I balance striving, failing and rebelling as I advance toward the next decade of my life? How do I continue to have a positive attitude on the days when it feels like getting out of bed is a major accomplishment?

I don’t know how to answer these questions. I also don’t have a complicated plan with daily checklists. And, at least for now, that seems like the best place to start.