The Balancing Act

BalancingThere it was, a meme that spoke to me more than I cared to admit. “You’re killing yourself for a job that would replace you if you dropped dead within a week.” It’s a rather simplistic thought that generalizes a bit too much, but it’s point is thought provoking. It’s main thrust might be applied to almost any situation in life with just a few changes of words. The fact is that we sometimes become so over involved in certain situations that we lose sight of what is really most important in our lives. Our work ethic overtakes us to the point of wearing us down, and then we grieve when we realize that perhaps our efforts were not appreciated nearly as much as we had thought. Finding that sweet spot that allows us to achieve balance in our lives is one of our greatest challenges, and one that is far more important than we might imagine.

We are taught the importance of hard work from the time that we are quite young. In today’s world those lessons begin earlier and earlier as very small children are enrolled in early education programs, sports clubs, music lessons and a host of activities that keep them busy from the time that they awake until they fall into their beds at night. Some tiny children have an endless round of appointments designed to develop the best of their talents. Parents and nannies help them adhere to carefully orchestrated schedules. Admittedly there are many children who thrive in such circumstances, but there are others who begin to show signs of stress in the form of crying fits, behavior changes and exhaustion.

I have seen such children hanging limply onto their parents with vacant looks and sometimes even fear. When I worked in an after school program for pre-schoolers and kindergartners it was sometimes difficult to keep them awake because they were so tired. Many of them had arrived at the school at seven in the morning and would not be picked up by their parents until six in the evening. They were grumpy and probably would have benefitted more from play time at home than the all day structure that ruled their little lives. Smaller doses of opportunity generally work better for little ones, but we all too often adopt a more is better philosophy forgetting that all of us need respite from the daily grind now and then.

As children grow older the demands on their time and energy only increase. Not only do we plan their hours, but we also introduce them to the glories of competitiveness. We expect them to perfect their skills and talents so that they will eventually become champions. Of course there is nothing innately wrong with that, but often in our quest to help them to become their best selves we over extend them so that their hours are filled, leaving them with little time to explore and create on their own. Sometimes down time can be more powerful in helping youngsters to begin to know themselves than keeping them so busy that they can’t really think, It is when they are on their own that they organically develop and learn through trial and error.

By high school the pressure on our teens can be overwhelming. Not only are they expected to do well academically in as many Advanced Placement classes as possible, but also to participate in extracurricular activities and community service. As one young man recently noted, they generally have about seven hours to themselves each evening if they stay up until midnight, less if they go to bed earlier. If they are involved in athletics or other organizations that number of hours may be reduced by two or four hours each day, leaving them only a short amount of time to study and just relax and be a teenager. Research has shown that most high school students are sleep deprived from attempting to pack so much into their daily schedules.

One of my grandsons decided on his own to remedy the trend of over extending. While he was in high school he achieved balance by carefully limiting the number of activities and advanced classes in which he was willing to participate. He realized that he was more often enriched by discussions at the family dinner table or late night intellectual conversations with his father and older brother. He understood the importance of quiet times without obligations attached to them. He saw that far too many of his peers were crashing and burning because they were carrying way too much excess baggage on their shoulders.

When we finally go to work we want to impress our supervisors as well as our peers. We are often willing to go an extra mile to demonstrate our loyalty, which is all well and good if we also remember our own personal needs. When our job becomes an obsession then we may want to step back just a bit. if we see that family and friends are suffering because we are continually absent, a real problem is beginning to brew. When we can’t even rest without dwelling on our work, we may have become over involved. 

I’m not particularly someone to give advice regarding work life balance because there were multiple instances when I became so focused on studies or work that I totally neglected those who really loved me. I have been competitive to the extreme at times, and sadly my efforts were not always noted and appreciated by my superiors. Luckily those dearest to me were always there to pick up the pieces of my disappointments. At some point along my journey I finally managed to find a kind of work/life balance that made me far healthier than I had ever before been.

I am a living example of someone who looked outward and did my best to impress people who no doubt would have quickly found a substitute for me had I dropped dead. I worked so hard to be the valedictorian of my high school that I missed many of the joys of friendship and adventure that are an integral part of growing up. My achievement was soon forgotten and I found myself having to prove my mettle again and again in real life. I strove to be that person who demonstrated a willingness to be the last woman standing in pursuit of the goals of those for whom I worked. When others went home, I stayed behind to help, sometimes even when my own children needed me to be with them. I regret that I pushed myself so hard, but I am also thankful for dear friends like Pat and Bill who gently counseled me to learn how to focus on what was most important in my life. With such guidance and the support of my family I eventually found ways to have it all. I was able to clock out from work and leave it behind while I luxuriated in the warmth of home. It took me far too long to get there.

If I had one bit of advice for young men and women who are just beginning their careers or for new parents it would be to follow the wisdom of one of my teachers from long ago. He told us that we all needed to be fully present in whatever we were doing, never allowing ourselves to dwell on other things that were bearing down on us. He emphasized that we should work hard and play hard with equal vigor. He cautioned us to adjust whenever we found ourselves too preoccupied with any one thing. Keeping that balance, he suggested, would make us both healthy and happy. His was a message that all of us would do well to hear. Unfortunately I ignored his message for far too long. I’m glad I finally got my head on straight.

Advertisements

Splat! Bam!

laziness-2

I’m generally known for my high energy approach to life. I’m the sort who can’t sit still for long and I tend to drive folks a bit crazy because of that trait. I am the Martha rather than the Mary of biblical fame. I am a rather determined soul who gets things done one way or another. Long after everyone else has collapsed into a heap of exhaustion I tend to find that last bit of liveliness that allows me to complete a task. I’ve been that way for my entire life, but another aspect of my vitality is rarely seen by anyone other than those who are closest to me. Those are the moments when the big event is over, the exams are completed, the end has successfully arrived. That is when I hit the wall like a bird flying into a clear glass window. Splat! Bam! I become a useless puddle of goo. I take to my recliner or perhaps my bed and literally waste away an entire day recharging my inner batteries for the next big push.

I seem to do nothing halfway. I’m either blowing and going like a crazed bunny, or I’m as listless as a spent dishrag. That’s been my nature for as long as I remember. I was the kid who would be dancing around the room one minute and then asleep on the floor in the blink of an eye. I throw myself into life and adventures with so much abandon that I’ve been the butt of jokes within my family. There have even been suggestions that I may have been the model for Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame. Others wonder if perhaps I’m a bit more akin to Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy. My daughter thinks I’m a kindred spirit to Hillary Clinton and a recent quiz on Facebook did indeed verify that I appear to be more in line with her than any other First Lady. The difference is that I am driven mostly by a need to do things properly rather than a quest for power which I tend to eschew. I am a self confessed control freak, but I have never wanted to run the show.

Then there are my limitations. Like any ordinary human I eventually run out of steam and I do it with the same level of enthusiasm that I attempt to apply to my other accomplishments. When I  rest I am all in, and on the day after Christmas this week I immersed myself into a state of total relaxation.  I was done, caput, unable and unwilling to make any unnecessary moves. Luckily it was a dreary day and nobody came calling either on my phone or at my door, so I was able to become a virtual hermit for a full twenty four hours.

I vegetated in my bedroom with no plan, no idea of how I would choose to spend my hours other than doing as little as possible. I comforted myself with leftover mac and cheese and an assortment of cookies that I had made for Christmas. I indulged in a marathon of programs on Netflix and dozed off into wintery naps more than once. I found myself longing to be a bear hibernating inside a cave and wondering what it would be like to spend the winter months resting up for the sunnier days of spring. I luxuriated in the gloriousness of unadulterated sloth, telling myself that I had more than earned the right to such an extravagance of listlessness.

Wishing that the SciFy Channel would run it’s Twilight Zone marathon on the day after Christmas rather than New Year’s Eve I stumbled upon a Netflix series called The Mindhunters. It captured my fancy so much that I watched one episode after another, transfixed by a well written story and interesting characters who were on a quest to understand what makes serial killers tick. Their research lead them to question whether individuals are born evil or made to be that way by the environment. In particular they began to wonder if there is a critical point at which deviant inclinations might be eliminated by a proper intervention. Of course the topic was fascinating to me and I became a junkie for hours as I lay in repose nursing my tired body.

I woke up the following morning with my batteries fully charged and my usual enthusiasm for making outrageous plans that will fill my days in the coming weeks. I have little doubt that I will over do it just as I always have and eventually find myself only fit for a lost day dedicated to appreciating my sluggish inclinations. Fortunately I have always understood when it was time for such an interlude and I have managed to renew myself time and again.

I feel for the souls who do not have the luxury of selfishly devoting a full twenty four hours to themselves. I know that there are circumstances that preclude such excess. Babies don’t wait for their mamas to feel better. Some jobs demand attention no matter how one is feeling. Little wonder that we often hear of a major star landing in the hospital from sheer exhaustion. Our humanity has few super powers no matter how much we attempt to push ourselves to create them. The reality is that we really do need to pace ourselves lest we wind up with more than an overwhelming tiredness. We also must be willing to accept that even our leaders require time away from the clock or they will ultimately crash and burn.

Our expectations for ourselves and others are all too often beyond mere perfection. We chide ourselves for being less than we think we ought to be even as our bodies and minds tell us that we need to stop and reconsider the abuse that we are piling on ourselves. We are sometimes too unwilling to accept our limitations or those of the people around us. When a political candidate requires a day of rest while on the campaign trail we tend to write that person off as being too weak for the task of governing. If a coworker has to miss a day we become judge and jury and find that person guilty of being too soft. We create false images of perfection that are generally impossible to achieve and then chide ourselves and those around us for their inability to be all things to all people.

The wisest among us know none of us is made of iron or steel. We have frailties which make us more beautifully human and understanding. They are not bad things, but rather simply an essential aspect of who we are as people. Now and again it is essential that we learn how to embrace our need for R and R. It is a far better tactic than waiting until we have made a big mess in the act of slamming into a wall. Perhaps we would be wise to build in days of nothingness as part of our routine just as the good Lord appears to have intended. According to the Bible even God had the good sense to rest at the end of his labors. It’s time that we all learn to do the same, so go ahead and indulge in leisure. It’s a very good thing to not do anything.

Woke Up This Morning

sunrise-sky-blue-sunlight-67832I woke up this morning. Isn’t that grand? I know that it sounds rather ordinary but there is a certain mystery and beauty about the act of sleeping and then rising at the end of our dreams. It demonstrates a total sense of trust because in truth we are very vulnerable when we are snoozing, and yet in my country we mostly have the privilege of following the rhythm of life for all of our days without worry or harm.

Some of us have insomnia from time to time. Mine comes and goes often with the seasons, the stresses in my life or the amount of caffeine that I have consumed during the course of a day. I’ve learned certain tricks to keep the sleepless nights from becoming habitual, but in truth I simply don’t doze as much as I once did. My days grow longer as a result, and I always find ways to enjoy them like watching the hummingbird in my backyard flit from one plant to another. He’s a cute little thing who’s so quick that you have to really concentrate to catch him performing his antics. He’s mostly around when the bigger birds are busy with whatever it is that they do in the middle of the day. When they return to dominate, my hummingbird takes shelter in some hidden corner of the garden.

When an EMT was rushing my husband to the hospital recently he spoke of the sleep disturbances that firefighters continuously endure. He noted that he had been out on four different runs the night before. He explained that the body begins to react to the constant interruptions of slumber. He reasoned that he would one day need a desk job so that he would be able to enjoy more regular habits. He asserted that fighting fires and driving ambulances is a young man’s game that becomes more and more difficult over time.

I’ve often heard that doctors who are continuously awakened by emergency phone calls from patients generally live a bit less longer than the rest of us. They indeed learn early in their training to exist on far less sleep than everyone else, but it has a negative effect on their overall health. We don’t often stop to think about that when we make those middle of the night requests for their services. I understand that much of the time now patients are told to go to an emergency room or a group of doctors work together to create schedules that only require nighttime vigilance now and again to prevent those constant interruptions. I suppose that they have finally quite wisely decided to do something about the dangers of getting too little sleep.

We humans have been wary of the dark since the beginning of time. Things go bump in the night. Surrendering ourselves to a state of oblivion is necessary for our health but can also be frightening. There are indeed times when we sense the danger in doing so.

I once spoke with a young man whose family was trapped by the high waters that resulted from the collapse of the levees in New Orleans and surrounding areas in the wake of hurricane Katrina. He and his parents somehow managed to get to the top of a freeway overpass. He said that other people were there as well. They took turns sleeping because gators were lurking around not to mention other people with devious intent. He recounted how difficult it was to relax enough to finally reach a state of slumber. He said that he was exhausted but unable to surrender for fear of what might happen when he became unconscious. In many ways falling asleep is the ultimate show of confidence because we just don’t know what will occur while we are out.

I am reminded over and over again of the shock that I felt upon learning that a friend’s husband had died in his sleep. When he failed to get up long after his usual time for rising, she went to check on him and realized that he was not breathing. There had been no signs that something was wrong, no warning of the impending tragedy. While it was definitely a very peaceful way of going, it actually haunted me for a quite some time and reminded me of something that my mother had always done.

She had made a habit of telling me and my brothers how much she loved us before she went to sleep each night. If we had exchanged cross words during the day she apologized whether it had been her fault or not. She insisted that loving words should be the last ones we ever heard, and she followed that way of doing things until the end of her own life. I suspect that she sometimes wished that she had been able to tell my father just how she loved him before he died in his terrible car crash. She learned from that horrible time that we can’t take anything for granted, not even that we will see each other when the sun rises at the start of a new day.

Since my husband’s stroke the happiest part of my mornings comes when he opens his eyes and walks downstairs with a big smile and a greeting. My heart literally fluters with gratitude that both of us are still here and my prayer is that we will be for many days to come. Still I’ve made it a habit of late to do as my mom taught me and express the gratitude and affection that I feel for the people who walk with me in this life.

Our rest revitalizes us and prepares us for the work to come. It should also be a time when we close our eyes confident that we love and are loved, that we forgive and are forgiven. We should celebrate the miracle of each new day that we are allowed to see. There is so much beauty in the people and the world around us. All we need do is open our eyes and soak it all in.

We All Fall Down

maxresdefaultI was twenty years old when my mother had her first mental breakdown. Mine had been a somewhat sheltered life. Aside from my father’s untimely death when I was only eight, I had not seen much of the dark side of existence. I certainly knew nothing about mental illness and the dramatic symptoms that seemed to so suddenly change my mom from a strong, independent woman into someone paralyzed by depression, paranoia and manic episodes. As I witnessed her decline that summer I was overtaken by a state of anxiety that made me feel as though I might surely die. I would visit her during the daylight hours and then return to my apartment in the evenings where I attempted to understand what was happening and to rally help for her among my aunts and uncles whom I was certain would have much better insights into her condition than I had. Mostly though I suffered from my own form of mental stress experiencing panic attacks that threatened to render me useless in the battle to bring my mother back to a healthy state of mind.

I slept little during that period. In fact, that August marked the first time that I was plagued by insomnia. I generally lay awake each night silently crying and feeling as though an elephant was sitting on my chest daring me to breathe. I felt so very alone, convinced that nobody might possibly understand how worried and sad I was. I was walking through those days in a continual daze, pretending to be in control of my situation while actually wanting to run away screaming in desperation. As my mother’s symptoms grew worse I realized that I had inherited total responsibility for her welfare. Circumstances forced me to grow up by a factor of one hundred. While my friends, save those who were fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, were still enjoying the adventures of college and the freedom of their youth, I understood that if I didn’t take charge my mother and my brothers would be in danger. I took a deep breath and became my mother’s keeper in a strange relationship that would span four decades. It was something that I would have happily given up if given even half a chance but the reality was that there was nobody else who could do this for her.

I was as imperfect at being unselfish as anyone might be. There were times when I was hardly able to function myself and when I resented the cross that I had to bear. I became an Academy Award worthy actress, hiding my fears and pain along with my mother’s tragic story as though it was an ugly and unspeakable secret. My unwillingness to open up to people who might have provided succor to me only made things worse but I was not yet ready to accept that I would be far happier bringing the truth into the light. When my mother became well again I naively believed that all of us were going to be fine and that I would never again have to face such a daunting experience. Sadly, she was sick again in only a matter of a few years and I fell apart at the realization that her illness was going to be a chronic fact of our lives.

I continued to be quite secretive about my mother’s fight with mental illness. My own stress increased to an unfortunate level as I quietly and continuously watched for symptoms that would alert me to get her to a doctor before she devolved into a more serious state of mind. I failed to mention my own bouts with anxiety and mild depression but they were quite real and they made me feel as though I wasn’t nearly as strong as I needed to be and that I was somehow defective.

At some point I was no longer able to maintain my silence. I began to speak of my concerns, my feelings of guilt, and the sense of despair that often overcame me. At first it was only the most trusted friends who heard such things but eventually I found the courage to talk with my doctors and finally anyone with whom I had contact. I learned that nobody was going to think ill of me or my mother. Nor was I abandoned. In fact, my admissions generally lead to sharing of similar stories and unlikely alliances. Over time I realized that we all fall down from time to time for one reason or another. We may lose a loved one, face a terrible disease, endure the breakup of an important relationship, fail in achieving a goal, become a victim of violence or suffer from mental illnesses of our own. The truth is that we are both fragile and resilient beings. As such we experience ups and downs throughout our lifetimes. Sometimes are lows are so devastating that we feel as though we may not make it through to the light of day.

I have found that there are always kind and empathetic individuals who are just waiting for our cries of help. All that we have to do is open up our hearts and we will find them, kindred spirits who have also had moments of brokenness and terror. They lovingly provide us with comfort just when we need it, but they will not be able to do so unless we are willing to confess that we are hurting. In acknowledging our humanity we take the first steps toward healing. It took me far too long to admit that I was as imperfect as I am.

I remember kneeling in prayer in the office of an assistant principal who cried with me as he spoke of the people in his family who also suffered from severe mental illnesses. I found succor from a doctor who was giving me a physical for work. He noted the checkbox that indicated that some of my relatives suffered from depression. He gently guided me to a confession that radically changed my life as he assured me that I had no reason to feel guilty about the times when I resented my role as a caretaker. I have had countless individuals hug me in an embrace of solidarity as they outlined their stories of struggles with either their own or someone else’s mental illness. Never once has anyone reacted negatively to my recounting of the journey that me, my mother and my brothers had taken in the house of horrors that was the reality of mental illness. Instead with each telling I felt reassured that I was not and never would be alone.

We all want to be viewed with dignity and respect. It is difficult to admit that we have feet of clay or that we make mistakes and yet it is in facing the demons that attack us in the middle of the night that we find the clarity and calm that we seek. Not only do we find a clearer focus for ourselves, but often we help others as well.

I know of two young ladies who are dealing with very difficult situations. They are far more advanced than I was at their ages. Rather than hiding the hurt and the pain that stalks them, they have been willing to share their feelings and the efforts that they have made to set themselves aright. They write blogs and speak to other young people. They tell of their journeys and admit that they still falter from time to time. The work that they are doing for themselves and for others is not just laudable, it is important. They are living proof that even the seemingly most perfect individuals often find themselves struggling to cope. They are both exceedingly beautiful, intelligent and talented, hardly the type of women who might falter, and yet they have. Their willingness to unmask their struggles is inspiring. They prove that the world is far kinder and gentler than we may imagine and that even the most remarkable among us may need a safety net now and again. It’s as easy as voicing the word “help” to begin the process of healing. We all fall down but there will always be someone willing to pick us up if only we ask.

Off Season Adventures

Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-16-HD-Image.jpgMost of my life has been directed by the school year calendar. Whether as a student, a parent or an educator I measured my days in six or nine week cycles filled with reading, study and compositions. It was only in the warm months of June, July and August that I had enough free time to experience the wonders of nature beyond the confines of places near my home. I saw the world from the perspective of only a quarter slice of time. I had little idea that so much was happening in the places that I so loved while I was ensconced in classrooms and libraries. Because I did not have the benefit of taking a vacation at a time of my own choosing I never truly experienced the changing of the seasons or the differences in color and light from one month to the next. Mine was always a holiday shared with vast crowds. It was not until I finally retired from my labors that I began to see the world around me in new and quite enchanting ways.

Travel is quieter and less hectic when schools are in session. Campgrounds and hotels generally have many vacancies from which to choose. The roads are less congested and the drives are leisurely. There is no ticking clock announcing a need to hurry. There is a glorious feeling of aimlessness that allows for random explorations that lead to exciting discoveries. For the first time in my life I am at liberty to take advantage of my freedom from an academic calendar and head in any direction that I choose on any day that I wish. I experience an exhilarating freedom every time that my husband and I hitch up our trailer and head onto the open road.

I have seen the rich hues of red, orange, yellow and gold that paint the fall landscape. I have felt the crackling of the fallen leaves beneath my feet and the sting of a cool afternoon on my nose. I have stood all alone in a forest while the wind blew across my cheeks and tousled my hair. I have listened to the silence all around me. I have enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of chili at the top of a mountain in a restaurant preparing to close for the coming winter. I’ve stopped at a Buccee’s when I was able to park right in front of the door and walk straight through without bumping into hordes of people. These were wondrous moments for me because heretofore I had never been able to enjoy such experiences. I would have been busy imparting the knowledge and skills of mathematics to the latest members of my class.

I have learned that the ocean is perhaps at its loveliest in the winter. Its aspect changes from hour to hour. It may be draped in early morning fog and then glistening in afternoon sunshine. The beaches are pristinely empty and it takes little imagination to feel the sense of wonder that may have been the reaction of the first explorers who landed in such glorious places. There is a majesty in hearing only the sound of the waves and the flapping of the wings of the birds who have reclaimed the area for the season. I so love staring into the horizon and feeling as though I am looking into forever. I think of all of the people who have stood in the same spot from which I am viewing the splendor of the sea and wonder what dreams and stories unfolded from my vantage point. I find buried treasure in the form of sand dollars and shells of many shapes and colors. I eat the lunch that I have brought in silence, starring out as far as my eye can see and feeling that surely I have found a tiny slice of heaven.

I have passes to the Texas state parks and all of the national parks as well. I love to explore the trails and pathways that invariably lead to the most delightful destinations. I feel my energy and health improving with each step. It is a glorious way to exercise. I have no need of machines when the great outdoors is beckoning me. Everything that I need to shed anxieties and pounds is right in front of me. I forget about the stresses and concerns that so often plague me when I am communing with the forests and the creatures that skitter around me. I feel at home enjoying the bounty that no man is capable of reproducing. For all of our genius we cannot build a mountain or an ocean but we can enjoy and honor the wondrous bounty that nature still provides us and there is no better time than when our footprints do not have to compete with big crowds.

I never sleep as well as when my trailer is parked in a secluded area surrounded by trees or the vistas of a lake. I am caressed by the quiet and warmed by the heavy blanket that I always carry for cold nights. A simple cup of tea tastes like the nectar of the gods on such nights. The starry sky puts my own place in the universe into perspective. I understand that I am but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things and yet I am unique and important. I feel content as I become a shadow in a darkness that is not possible in the lights of the city. I feel relaxed and I find the comfort of slumber so easily.

The food that I eat on such journeys always seems to be so good. A bite of baked chicken or a crisp apple lingers on the tastebuds of my tongue. I have no need to hurry my dining. I sit at the table and slowly partake of my simple feast while enjoying the antics of a rabbit or laughing at the cardinals that zip past my window. Sometimes a family of deer strut through my campsites and on occasion I see something truly exotic like a moose or a turkey or a roadrunner. It is like having dinner and a movie, more special than the most expensive night out and often I am among an elite group lucky enough to be present when few others are there.

I feel blessed to be able to enjoy my little adventures and to discover the world as it is during the school year. It is truly grand to visit places in the off season when the tourists are mostly gone. Sometimes my husband and I may be the only people in sight. In those moments I feel as though I am royalty enjoying a private beach or a castle in a forest of my own. Who knew how many simple pleasures were just waiting for me to find them? Traveling at odd times of the year is truly one of those little known secrets. It is the best.