Sometimes, lean back

I spent the end of 2015 feeling unusually present. When I say that you might think I went new-age: did yoga every morning, began a meditation practice, ate a shit-ton of quinoa, worshipped the sun for bringing me a beautiful new day every morning. LOOOOOL. Do cinnabons have quinoa?

I actually kind of did the opposite: I stopped trying so hard at life.

After a winter, spring, and summer of furious thinking and writing and creative output – all things that felt at the time like blissfully fulfilling ways to spend my time and energy – the fall found me worn down and a little tired of turning over ideas about how to be better.

The fatigue made sense on the face of it: my focus on self-improvement required near constant consideration of a figurative tomorrow, an alternate version of myself and my life that was somehow superior to the self and life I had in the present.

But what didn’t make sense was how this colorful and active lifestyle that felt like a thrilling and motivating realization of my true desires could leave me feeling so dangerously unsatisfied with the status quo. Those truths didn’t connect; they confused me.

Wanting more can be good. There is a lot about the way things are, on a micro and macro scale, that are worthy of my attention and dissatisfaction and critical eye. But what happens when that eye is cast like a nondiscriminatory blanket instead of like deliberate fingers on a piano? What if my desire for something more, perhaps the natural one for all humans, is applied so unilaterally it becomes a way of looking at the world?

Excitement for the future, of what could be, is a worthy and life-affirming emotion. But when that excitement became everything – when it overpowered (or worse, existed purely due to a lack of its counterpart) enjoyment of my present – I was in trouble.

Maybe we could move to New York! Maybe we could start a t-shirt line! Maybe we could throw this party! Maybe we could take this trip! Maybe we could start this zine! Maybe we could get into that event! Maybe we could learn this skill! Maybe we could start this tradition! Maybe we could buy this thing! Maybe we could write a book! Maybe we could get sponsored by this company! Maybe we could go to this show! Maybe we could meet this person! Maybe maybe maybe!

Imagination is a blast. It’s inspiring and thrilling and if the idea of an alternative future doesn’t get your ass moving and working hard I don’t know what does. A lot of shit gets done in this world because people dare to imagine what could be. The Future, as a concept, is part of makes youth or the proverbial beginning of something so fun. Everything ahead, anything possible. 26 seemed like as good a time as any to start dreaming as hard as I did. Any age is a good time to dream.

But at some point along the way, like a tired cliché, I forgot to cultivate and develop positive feelings for what I already had. My heart beat for the future.

Around September, heart beating out of my chest, I sat on the couch and cried to Austin for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint. My excitement mixed with fatigue began to register as listlessness and sadness. In some ways wanting, by definition, has to translate to lacking. I felt a deep dissatisfaction that made no sense when I turned it over.  Dreaming so hard started crushing me.

I remember driving up into the mountains that afternoon looking for answers. I wanted to put together a plan about how to feel better: another attempt to look forward to improve now. But no matter how hard I stared at the trees and scribbled in my notebook and listened to Bon Iver, my attempt fell flat. If Inspiration Point couldn’t get me there, I was doomed.

Seriously, that’s what the lookout I went to was called. I found it by chance and tried really hard – and failed – to see that as some meaningful sign.

Inspiration Point. Lol.

Inspiration Point. At least it’s pretty.

It might have taken me a few days to finally admit that I’d overextended myself. Once I did I had to dismantle and reroute some of my neurological pathways. If it was possible to dream too much, I’d managed it. And if you reframe “dreaming” to “looking at the grass on the other side” it makes a little more sense.

So I stopped. Or rather, I finally let myself stop.

I decided to focus, if only for a couple weeks, on what was already in front of me. This meant slowing down , dreaming less about what could be, and just living my life day-to-day. I accepted what I already had, which was as worthy of my love and attention as anything floating around in my head.

And what felt miraculous but maybe doesn’t seem so miraculous in hindsight is that my outlook inverted almost instantly. I allowed myself to be deeply satisfied with the way things were and shunned the nagging fear that gratitude might spell complacency, or worse, laziness. I allowed myself to imagine that maybe, just maybe, I could dig into my current situation and not just be okay with it but be captivated by it and imagine myself staying in it. I could fluff the pillows and love the pillows rather than search manically for the right way to replace them.

I listened to fewer podcasts. I read fewer news stories. I threw around fewer ideas. I volunteered a little less help and I made fewer plans. I did a little less shopping and I took a break from writing and from my blog. I dreamt a little less. Things that are fine and even great on their own, but are dangerous when done in exhaustive succession and without pause.

I focused a little more on my career and I spent a lot of time with my boyfriend and my cat and my family. I put on nice socks and danced around my kitchen. I watched a lot of Netflix. We moved back to San Francisco because we felt like it one weekend. Then my momentary deep breath turned into an exhale that stretched from a couple months into a season and into the next year.

Trying a little less and settling into my bones was a different kind of bliss. It was all the colors in the stupid rainbow.

When I say I slowed down I don’t mean I became a zombie. I didn’t sit down and stare at my walls, I just pulled them in a little bit and hung a poster up that said “DARE TO DREAM SMALL!” with a giant fluffy cat hanging from a teeny tiny tree.

It was almost as if seeking out a different “improved” life and a different “improved” me was this super cool hat I loved so much but that had begun to slump so heavy I’d gone blind to what was right in front of me. When I took it off and looked around, I wriggled my fingers and toes in amazement and reveled in trying my hand at the stuff actually within my reach. I cut myself a break and felt free.

I’m working a lot of metaphors here. It’s okay.

That’s not to say this little room with the cat poster is it for me. It’s not. I’m not done dreaming or wanting more for my life and myself. But what last year’s bout of burnout taught me was to be wary of letting my motivation blind me. If I’ll never be able to change the relationship between wanting and a perceived sense of lacking, it’s up to me to balance my appreciation of what is with my drive for what could be.

At the start of this new year I started to feel my feet jiggling again, my hands itching to create something, my brain ready to soak up something new. At first it scared me, like a shadow of dissatisfaction was once again tapping on my shoulder.

But I wouldn’t be me without my psychotic need for change and self-improvement and reinvention. It will behoove me, though, to not let that dreamy hat – no matter how beautiful and thrilling – slip over my eyes. If I do I’ll live the rest of my life fumbling around for a tomorrow that never comes. Being future-oriented is only worth it if I eventually…occasionally…let myself arrive there.

Maybe this year I’ll try my hand at both loving these walls and allowing myself to look beyond them. 

7 thoughts on “Sometimes, lean back

  1. Absolutely loved reading this and kind of needed it for some validation, Haley. I’m still an undergrad and I’ve got miles to go, but I too am incredibly future oriented and have spent this past year so focused on finding inspiration and improving myself constantly. I’m moving to Poland late next month (why not! for discovery! for self growth! to learn! — says that constant, forward-moving voice in my head helping plan the move) and since finishing my last semester, I’ve moved back in with my parents and returned to my job at home. I would usually dread this “stillness” and lack of constant activity, but after a couple weeks of resistance, it’s starting to feel… nice. Suddenly self-care isn’t scheduling hot yoga classes or starting an etsy shop, but curling up on the couch to watch tv after a long day at work or learning how to cook one of my favorite meals. And it’s nice to know it’s not permanent, either. By the time I finish recouping, it’ll be time to send myself oversees and onto the next adventure. I like to think I’m on a mental vacation. Thank you for this blog post, I’m glad to hear you’re on a vacation too :) and I can’t wait to read your posts and when you’re back from it.

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  2. I was so hoping you would write a blog post soon.
    Every single time you post, I find myself staring at a more eloquent, stylish mirror. Thank you for perfectly articulating every feeling I have, and for making me feel relief at not being the only one. You somehow organize my thoughts for me, helping me more quickly become self-aware of them.
    Law school has made me burn out and crash like I haven’t since when I was first diagnosed with depression. The dire and constant need for reinvention is something I feel much too often, and the grass never ends up being greener – it’s more as though there is no grass, and I have to reseed and water. To create, grow, and learn everything all over again to get to where I was (can you tell I ended a 5 year relationship in a panic 2 months ago, and now I’m in full regret mode?).

    I will always understand that sanity and your life is much more important than this blog. However, please know I check often to see if you’ve posted (even though I’m fully aware I will get an email when you do), and sometimes even reread older posts because of the clarity and sense of serenity your writing brings me. So, even if you decide to stop for good, know you were much appreciated during your time sharing your thoughts over the internet to strangers.
    I wish I could say more, and comment specifically on every point you made, but I’ve been dancing in my living room for an hour instead of doing a case commentary I have due, and I should really stop procrastinating.
    Keep being you bbg, and keep them legs hairy.
    PS: if you ever have a desire for a new email pen pal, give me a shout. I think we could write in circles, analyzing every thought back and forth, with the necessary angry feminist obiter dicta.

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    • Awkward moment when I reread my comment and realized I used law terminology in real life… I’m the biggest dork.
      “Obiter dicta” is latin, basically is a side note in a case/commentary/whatever. Just a “hey this doesn’t pertain to what is the main point but just as a by the way, here you go” kind of thing.
      My holiday break was only 10 days and we had a paper due right after it, I’m going to go ahead and blame it on that.
      /dorkrant

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    • Hi Mercedeeees. Thanks so much for being smart and honest and kind to basically a stranger. You’re sort of a dream. It never ceases to feel weird and gratifying and surprising when people so deeply relate to very internal experiences I share here. Even though I know we are all in some ways the same, it still feels special. I think we’re more the same than most though.
      Your metaphor about replanting seeds once you get to the other side of a grassless hill put my convoluted hat metaphor to shame.
      Oh and thanks for teaching me some law terminology! I’ve been watching The Good Wife and it totally makes me want to be a lawyer in one of my alternative parallel lives. Not that that show is remotely realistic but I love arguing and memorization and structure so it appeals to me in a super superficial TV way. That said, anyone I know in law school says it’s basically evil. Until you get out! No surprise you’re burned out. :(
      I’m so sorry you broke up with your boyfriend. Duuuude, that’s the hardest and worst. How are you doing? Definitely email me! thesimilarish@gmail.com

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  3. I just stumbled across your blog today, and reading this post makes me so happy I did! You’ve reassured me that there’s no shame in dreaming a bit smaller, because for so long I’ve been feeling like if I’m not working towards an aspirational version of myself then I’m wasting my time. People are forever telling us to dream bigger, try a little harder, and be a better version of ourselves in order to reach true ‘happiness’. But if there’s something I’ve realised, it’s that real happiness is something you find in small moments of daily life, not in some imagined future, however amazing that is when you conjure it up in your head or even if it does actually materialise. And I completely agree with you about how exhausting it all is! I have a never-ending list of all the things I ‘should’ be doing (blogging being one of them!) and another full of things I’ve started, whose state of incompleteness makes me feel like I’ve somehow failed. Your comment about being a lawyer in a parallel life is just the kind of compartmentalisation I need to grasp, because I am the worst for thinking of all the things I could be doing and living in ‘what ifs’ instead of appreciating the life I actually do have. So yeah, thanks for making me feel a bit happier about today :)

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    • Hannah! I’m so glad what I said connected with you. It sounds like we’ve been around the exact same cognitive loops. I love that you called out my comment about being a lawyer in a parallel life, because I actually remember that feeling like a freeing way to phrase it, and one I hadn’t necessarily considered before. And I like how you called it compartmentalization. It’s not something I’ve ever been great at, but I think it’s a good tool for people like us. I just wrote another post and am only now realizing how linked it is to this one. Maybe it’s not so much about taking a break from dreaming, but dreaming about the right stuff. The stuff that won’t make us feel like panicky failures. Okay, I may have just surpassed your comment in length so I’ll cut off. But thank you for writing to me! Makes me happy to know you’re out there. Dont know how my lil old blog found you but I’m glad it did. Nighty night.

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  4. Pingback: Monday Motivation 3

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