To Eat or to Not-Eat

After a childhood eating unprocessed food, my diet swung towards “normal” in my teens. My parents finally separated, my mother, brother and I moving into an apartment in town. Along with freedom from the constant, harrowing stress of living with my father’s moods came a relaxation of the eating regime. My mom was working; I had an after-school job at the outlet mall. This meant less cooking and the financial freedom to buy what I liked. For several months of junior year breakfast was, religiously, a Lender’s bagel (sold-frozen white rings that toasted to an alluring combination of chewy dough and crunchy crust) caked with Philadelphia Light Cream cheese, washed down with Diet Coke. My kid brother got into PopTarts and pizza-flavored Hot Pockets, I discovered a brand of microwaveable burrito and would buy them by the half-dozen.

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Concurrent with the foray into junk food was a – possibly not atypical – adolescent obsession with my weight. At that age, there were a lot of things working against me: untamable hair that veered in texture from ringlet curls to limp waves, higgledy-piggledy teeth, plump cheeks prone to blushing, and a tendency to run to fat. Objectively, at 135-140 pounds, I was a reasonable weight for my 5’6” height. My self-perception, though, was that I was grossly fat and repulsive. The solution that presented itself was dieting. Every month Reader’s Digest, which I’d been reading cover to cover since I was five or six years old, wrote up a new diet or exercise scheme alongside ads for Weight Watchers and Slim Fast.

 

I never joined a club, but I did regularly glug ultra-processed chocolate Slim Fast shakes. Somehow, liquid seemed less dangerous than solids, less likely to stick to my sturdy waist. This rational prompted me to develop a black coffee habit, along with Diet Coke. During basketball practice and track workouts I drank Lemon-Lime Gatorade. Despite these measures, my size and shape refused to morph.

My best friend at the time was blonde, blue-eyed, and fit in the narrow confines of Levis 501s. She work Converse high-tops and wrote Nirvana lyrics on her jeans. In addition to the exoticness of having been transplanted from Florida, she’d had braces not once but twice. It was a close call which I envied more: her straight teeth, or the casual way she’d say things like, “oh, I haven’t eaten in two days”. The boys who fluttered around would respond admiringly, “no wonder you’re so skinny”.

None of the boys admired me for being skinny, nor could I ever claim to have not eaten for two days. The spirit was willing but the flesh got hungry.

Is it strange that between the ages of 15 and 25 I thought that not-eating was actively something to aspire to?

At 17, I moved across the country to go to university. More freedom, higher stakes. The first year I lived in halls and had access to the cafeteria: all-you-can-eat, three meals a day. Pizza, pasta, hamburgers, cakes, fro-yo. Like most of my friends, I put on 15-20 pounds in the first few months. Those who didn’t pursued not-eating in novel ways: one friend eat heaping bowls of plain iceberg lettuce, and nothing else; another gradually reduced her food intake to raw baby corn.

By sophomore year, eating disorders were a competitive sport. Classmates and acquaintances literally wasted away while those of us who ate kept gaining weight.

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No wonder, given our food choices. We lived, like many Americans, in a food desert. The nearest grocery store that sold produce was a Thriftway on 42nd street; mostly, we shopped at the 7-11 on the corner: Cheerios, Kraft Mac&Cheese, Kraft Singles, microwave popcorn, white bread, turkey ham, potato chips. The Papa Johns a few blocks over had a permanent two-for-one special, which we’d scarf down with the emulsified oil concoction it branded garlic dipping sauce. Our rituals included watching Golden Girls while scoffing Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, purchased and eaten in bulk from a basement commissary.

By the time I graduated, I was 160-165 pounds and it seemed inevitable. If the only options were eating and not-eating, and I couldn’t not-eat, my fate was sealed.

Proof of this was the fact that I’d been running regularly and for decent distances since 13. It kept me fit, I suppose, but neither a 20-25 mile a week running habit nor a later-acquired weight-lifting regimen made prevented or reversed the weight gain.

On a trans-Atlantic flight home, I sat next to an older couple who told me they’d lost a collective 50-60 pounds by cutting processed food out of their diet. It was the first time anyone had suggested processed foods as a specific problem, and the idea of not eating “normal food” was as eccentric as a moon walk.

This early alert sailed right past me, and my journey towards a more rational diet continued on mildly self-destructive lines. Developing a clubbing and (concomitant) recreational drug habit during my early 20s peeled off the university poundage. (There’s a reason diet pills were laced with speed – it works.) Finally I could not-eat; finally, I was skinny enough to wear mini-skirts, crop tops, bikinis.

Gradually, I started eating more real food. My then-boyfriend (a slumming it public school boy) had solid British middle-class taste in everything, including food. After a weekend of coke and wine, we’d go to the market and buy fresh vegetables, fish, rice, seeded loaves and fruit. On weeknights, we’d watch Master Chef while we mashed sweet potatoes and roasted chicken breasts. I learned to make roux, red onion marmalade, creamy scrambled eggs.

Near the end of my 20s we split up and I set off for Ibiza with a suitcase. Living on a slender wage, I ate gazpacho, bran flakes, chorizo. In addition to walking 90 minutes a day to and from work, I would often take a disco nap and get up at 2AM to be in a club by three. At the end of the first summer I was thinner than I’d ever been – and had pneumonia.

What the Spanish call the punto de inflexion – the turning point – came in the form of a second-hand paperback copy of Walden, from a bookshop in Mallorca. Thoreau’s remarks about the absurdity of farmers insisting they need meat to be strong, while plowing behind oxen that only eat grass, struck a chord. There was a stringency to his logic that appealed to the part of me that still believed that not-eating is a superpower.

I became a vegetarian then, gradually, for the sake of seeing if I could, a vegan.

During a transitional period, I found a Xeroxed copy of an Upton Sinclair pamphlet about fasting in a Humboldt junk shop. It shed cast a socialist-literary aura over not-eating (The Jungle had already convinced me that not eating meat was a moral duty towards my fellow humans, as much as towards animals). Animated by this new information, I took up intermittent – then less intermittent – fasting.

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During a couple of difficult years I used not-eating as a way to manage things. For nine months in Glasgow, I ate only bread that I’d baked; or would go for days eating only raw foods, or would dine on mugs of vegetable broth laced with hot sauce. At that point, I was clinically depressed and hanging on by my fingernails. Borderline disordered eating seemed like the least of my concerns.

In retrospect, though, it seems significant – part of a pattern of carelessness/awarelessness that is individual yet unmistakably the product of a disordered food culture. The times my body most needed nourishment, I clung to the hollow comfort of not-eating. For more than two decades, self-deprivation was a goal. Though wrong, in absolute terms, I wasn’t wholly wrong about the relationship between conventional diet and overweight. Recent research indicates eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars can damage cognitive abilities and lead to early death. Not eating ultra-processed foods is the only way to avoid the physical damage they cause – of which fat is a manifestation. However, not-eating should not apply generally.

There is a world of real food – fruits, vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, nuts, eggs and naturally processed foods like cheese and wine – that are better for you, the more you eat. After half a lifetime of treating food as the enemy, it turned out I was fighting the wrong battle.

Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

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Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

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Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.

 

Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

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To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

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The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

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Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Routine benefits

One of the many things repeated moves have taught me about myself is that I need routine like bees need flowers. This flies in the face of the cherished self-perception that I am fearless, free, and endlessly flexible.

My youthful fantasy was to fit everything I owned in a backpack and earn a living with a typewriter (yep, it’s been that long).

To an astonishing extent, I managed it – at least for periods of time. This let me kid myself into thinking my spirit is free.

Trekking across the country, life crammed in a rented van, again disabused me of this wishful thought. That I mourn its loss suggests a reckoning. Why is routine a dirty word? What is freedom, really?

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When routine is wrong

My mental resistance to routine – despite the fact it is essential for my mental health and productivity – springs from the fear of being trapped.

Growing up with an authoritarian father and Evangelical mother, my ability to make decisions based on my own wants and needs was basically zero. They told me what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to believe, with hellfire and damnation to come if I disobeyed.

Physical, intellectual and emotional oppression tainted my understanding of routine. Instead of seeing it as positive and reassuring, I thought it was prison.

Real-life routine

As an adult, I’ve never quite lost my fear of it. Yet, despite a peripatetic life and work-style, routine finds me. When I was writing a book and had no outside obligations, I woke, drank coffee, ran, showered, worked, ate, slept at the same times every day. For the past nine months, I left the house at exactly 15:55, Monday to Thursday, to walk to work.

Writing, eating, yoga, walks with the cats, happened as if to a factory clock. Being displaced from them feels like be yanked from a deep salt current onto baking sand.

The geographic change has pushed sunset back an hour, the cats are disorientated; I don’t yet have the structure of out-of-home work. Worse, there is a mountain of one-off tasks: hoovering, mopping, washing, unpacking and packing. Rattled, my brain is creaking along in fits and starts, adding anxiety to the general feeling of unsettledness.

Lacing this is my stubborn, though discredited, notion that I should be able to carry on as if nothing happened. To my dream self, moving a thousand kilometres would be as easy as crossing the street.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Routine = daily ritual

Routine carries connotations of repetition, boredom, drudgery, lack of imagination. Ritual, on the other hand, has overtones of ceremony and celebration. When we think of rituals we picture weddings, christenings, funerals (even sombre rituals are elegant).

Part of readjusting my attitude towards routine is giving it a proper title: daily ritual.

Waking up, feeding the cats, boiling water for coffee are small, valuable rituals. Drinking coffee from our matched mugs (mine’s the chipped one) while the cats poke around the yard, also ritual.

The order of work, chores, movement, even grocery shopping, can all be appreciated as a part of the ongoing ritual of sustaining a meaningful, productive, satisfying life. That’s no small thing, when you grow up with no concept of what that kind of life looks like.

Routine can make us part of something bigger

Routine helps us create a collective life, too. Work, education, society and politics couldn’t function with the rhythm of ritual. That’s not to say existing patterns are sacrosanct – there are many routines we would be right to change – but the move would have to be in the direction of a better routine, not chaos.

“You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing,” wrote the Victorian critic John Ruskin. “It is, on the whole… dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must, or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes.”

He continues: “A butterfly is much more free than a bee; but you honour the bee more, just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society.”

Being “fit… for orderly function” isn’t just a social benefit, it is a personal good. Human beings need community and a sense of purpose. Positive routines nourish the relationships and responsibilities that make for a rewarding life.

 

 

Blame it on the rain

Why do I feel uprooted (panicked, dismayed, trapped)?

I blame a four-letter word: Rain.

Remember Milli Vanilli? I was nine when “Blame it on the rain” came out. We weren’t supposed to listen to “secular” music but my big sister sneakily tuned in Casey Kasem’s Top 40. The chorus never left me: “Blame it on the rain/that’s fallin’ fallin'”.

 

Growing up on the central Oregon coast rain was a constant. The occasional days a high north wind pushed away the clouds were bitter. Wet and cold were the warp and woof of my childhood. They crept past windowpanes and under doors of the crumbling ex-holiday cottage where we lived. The small, square black wood-burning stove and ancient electric heater never made a dint.

The other constant was the wild fluctuation of my father’s moods. Fear permeated the air like water, raised goosebumps like a chill.

The things I carry

My brain learned, fast and young, to blur the present and project itself to the safety of the future. This let me survive and escape. It also sapped my ability put my experiences and emotions in context, leaving vast gaps in my self-awareness.

It took moving to Glasgow in an unusually cold, wet year to acknowledge rain’s hold over me. Rainfall elicits anxiety, hopelessness, depression, anger, helplessness. I feel like a child again.

Living in Glasgow catapulted me into clinical depression. I wanted to die; also, stubbornly, I wanted to live. Which, at that point, meant leaving as quickly as possible and promising myself to never again live somewhere that required GoreTex.

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Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Plotting the resistance 

Now, I’ve broken that promise in style, husband and cats in tow.

Maybe it’s a dumb risk to leave a lazy, sunny town for a cold house in rain country, thereby putting my mental health and relationship on the line.

How else can I overcome my fear of rain?

I don’t want to be a prisoner of my childhood anxieties. Avoiding uncomfortable emotions and circumstances is a strategy, not a solution.

To be happy anywhere, I need to cultivate my capacity to be happy everywhere.

As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult…. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.

Whatever the year brings, I want to live with intention and integrity, in the rain.