Thursday, January 20, 2022

Work Life Balance


Yesterday while I was working I thought to myself, “I could do this all day long!” And that’s a good thing because that was the plan. I recently went from a very loosy-goosy, vascillating schedule of some weeks a lot of work, some weeks very little to full-time — sometimes more, occasionally a lot more.

I was worried about returning to this full-time schedule. When I sold my business a few years ago I was committed to slowing down, to having an easier, simpler life. I vowed never to return to the stresses of that lifestyle. When I took on this fulltime schedule I fretted about what would become of my happiness. I worried about my work life balance. 

When I first started this new full-time regime I didn’t love my new job. I didn’t fully understand my new role and the learning curve was steep and hard. I was convinced that I’d have to abandon ship. But now I know what I’m doing, I’m more competent in my role, and it turns out I like my job! I don’t resent the hours I work. It feels right and I feel balanced.

The great irony is that I I feel like I actually have more work life balance than I had before. I am a person with a ton of energy. I am always planning, organizing, creating something. My partner calls me Hamilton (Why do you write like you’re running out of time). Productivity is my love language and is hard for me to sit still. 

Working this much turns out to be just what the doctor ordered. Before I had too much life, too much time to fart around and create things to produce. Now I have enough work to keep my inner Hamilton occupied. And still I have time for life, much more time than I thought I’d have. I still make granola and take walks. I still have time to see friends and talk on the phone. I still eat dinner with my family at a decent time. I’m planning a reunion with my four siblings and another with my high school friends. My days are and full and it suits me. Like Hamilton, I like to get the job done and my new work life gives me that opportunity everyday, all day long. And I get paid! 

The thing I’m most grateful for is that I’m happier right now. I feel more like myself when I’m working. I feel more alive, more engaged, more me. I feel like a better mother, a better partner, a better sister, daughter, and friend. I know a lot of people struggle with work life balance. Their work is too much and there isn’t enough time for life. I’ve been there. That’s real and I know I could get there again, even with this job that I like.

Today I have work life balance and it feels good. I won’t count my chickens before they hatch; things could change — my boss could leave or my family responsibilities could get heavier. Life isn’t predictable and I don’t know how things will go. But for right now I am gratefully aware that I have something I only dreamed of in years past. Today, in this moment, right now, I have work life balance.



Monday, January 17, 2022

Sometimes I Just Need a Ventilator


I’ve heard more about ventilators in the past two years than in my fifty-plus years of living. At the beginning of COVID, I bought an oximeter because I was struggling to take deep breaths. The panic of COVID rendered me almost constantly anxious and I worked myself into phantom respiratory distress.  

In those early COVID weeks when I struggled to breathe, I thought a lot about people who truly can’t breathe; people whose lungs stop working, how horrible that must feel. And the relief they must experience when they get on a ventilator, finally getting some relief, some oxygen into their system.

This latest round of Omicron has not affected me nearly as severely as the past COVID surges have, but I’m definitely impacted. Yesterday morning when I woke up there was nothing amiss in my life (besides Omicron). There was nothing particularly stressful or worrisome in the day ahead, but when I woke up I could tell that I was a little off. I could feel the underlying rumblings of agitation bubbling beneath my skin. As I moved through my day, things that normally would have washed over me stuck like a burr in the heel of my sock. Everything bugged me. 

It felt like emotional indigestion — little fits of discomfort that only go away once everything in the abdomen is fully digested. By late afternoon I was seething. I wanted to scream. In cartoon land, plumes of smoke would have been shooting out of my ears and flames would be erupting from the top of my head.

I went for a walk. I walked hard and fast, angry steps marching me towards something, anything but this feeling. The cold air clung to the top of my ears and the tip of my nose. Under my down jacket and two layers of shirts, I was getting hot. I unzipped my coat to let the cold air in.

As I walked with my jacket open, the winter air cooled me down but inside the emotional turmoil was raging. I felt completely overwrought with agitation. My body was tense. I felt flooded, unable to think clearly, unable to breathe deeply. I was desperate to get rid of this feeling. 

I called my sister. No answer. I called a friend. When her voicemail picked up I said, “I’m not calling for any reason. I just need to vent. I need a ventilator!” Then I tried another. No answer. Finally, I reached a friend. Barely giving her time to say hi, I launched right into a tirade of unspecified fury and irritation. She listened until there was a pause and then told me that she wasn’t in a place to talk at that moment. But before my friend hung up she said, “Laura, I know. I know this feeling. I’ve been there. I can't talk now but I’ll call you later.” 

And that was enough. I had let my agitation out and by getting it out I had room to breathe again. And it wasn't just that I had vented for fifteen seconds; it was that I wasn’t alone in my craziness anymore. As irrational as I felt, I had told another human being that I felt that way. I wasn’t alone. 

This morning the friend I’d left the message for yesterday about needing a ventilator called me back. I woke up feeling much better today, but I took the opportunity to talk to my friend about how I felt yesterday, and it felt good. The conversation left me with more energy, more oxygen in my lungs.

In this round of COVID, more people are vaccinated and boosted and fewer people are in need of actual ventilators. But times are hard — the collective worry is still with us and life isn’t quite back to normal. I haven’t pulled out my oximeter for nineteen months and, most days I can breathe well. But sometimes I still need a ventilator. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Light in the Darkness

 

When I look outside it is dark almost all the time. And raining. It will be like this for months here in the Northwest where I live. Every year I wonder how I can possibly endure this weather, and every year I do it. These past few years the restrictions on travel have made the winter months more intense. The wet darkness can feel interminable. When I wake up it is dark and when I climb upstairs from my basement office it is dark. All-day long I can hear the patter of raindrops against my office window. 

I used to keep my curtains open so I could see if it was raining or maybe catch a rare glimmer of sunlight but on Zoom, the direct light on my face created a washed-out, exhausted, geriatric woman yellow with liver failure. That was just too hard to look at all day long, so now I keep my curtains closed. If there is a rest from the rain I am not aware of it.

Darkness has always represented something ominous and dangerous to me. Growing up I feared the darkness in my neighborhood. There was lots of crime where I grew up and in the dark, I was always looking over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t fall prey to the dangers of the night. I’ve always been an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person, preferring to sleep through the darkness.

In one of my regular self-care practices, Yoga Nidra, we actively invoke opposites — of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This practice trains the mind to welcome everything as it is, to truly be in the present moment. It also has the miraculous effect of unlocking a part of the brain that is neither here nor there. In truly welcoming opposites we become suspended, everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

As I look outside to the darkness, hearing the constant rain, I feel anxious. I am fearful that it will swallow me up, take me down a dark hole into a depressive state binge TV watching, junk food eating, slothdom. But then I remind myself that the opposite of darkness is light. I can close my eyes and imagine looking out the same window into the light. For me, lightness is the peak of summer, the perfect time of year here in the Northwest. 

In my mind’s eye, I see a blue sky, a banditry of chickadees popping around the lilac bush. I smell freshly cut grass and flowering jasmine. I feel the warmth of the summer air touched by the cool breeze coming up from the lake. I can hear the caw of the crows on the telephone wires that wrap the air around my house and the honk of the geese who live on the grassy edges of the lake. I imagine walking barefoot out of my open back door to pick lettuce and snap peas from my small garden, filling a basket feeling the thrill of the bounty I’ve grown.

As I sit here writing now the rain is growing heavier. It is pounding on our metal roof and I wonder if today the rainfall will be substantial enough to permeate the leak we’ve been watching in our basement wall. I’ve been up for a few hours already and it still looks like midnight outside. The darkness here is real. But the darkness won’t last forever. And I know that, with my imagination, I have to power to find the light. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Heartbreaking Choices of Motherhood


I watched The Lost Daughter on Netflix last week and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. 

You don’t have to be a mother to be moved by it, but if you are a mother, it cuts to the core. The protagonist, Leda, who is played by Olivia Coleman is a young mother but also a brilliant scholar. When her daughters are five and seven years old she leaves them to pursue her career as an academic in the field of comparative literature.

The movie is set during a working holiday Leda is taking in Greece, alone. She is forty-eight-years-old and her daughters are now twenty-three and twenty-five. During her vacation, Leda forms a relationship with a young mother of a daughter who is about the same age as her daughters when she left them.

Throughout the film we are taken back to Leda’s memory of being a young mother; a young woman also trying to pursue an academic career. There are heartwarming and heartwrenching scenes of her life as a young mother. It is clear that Leda loves her daughters but she also loves her work and she is devastatingly torn between the two.

I find myself thinking about the movie at random moments of the day. How could Leda make that choice? And how couldn’t she? In the film, Leda’s husband is also a young scholar and in memory after memory, it is her work, not his that is compromised because of the children.

When Leda finally leaves, her husband begs her to stay. He tells her he cannot do this on his own. He threatens to take the girls to live with Leda’s mother. He drops to his knees, weeping, imploring her to stay. But she can’t. She knows that her work, her brilliant work will die if she stays.

In the end, we learn that Leda left her girls for three years and then came back for them. But the damage was done. Leda had done the unthinkable and left. And though she has clearly reached success in her career, she is eternally haunted by this decision she made those many years ago. Her life is forever changed. She is plagued by having done the unthinkable. 

Leda’s life story is a catch-22 that so many women face. Is it possible, as a mother, to put your career, or to put anything before your children? Even with ample support, an engaged and loving partner, can a woman feel at peace about putting her work before her children?

I think about women like Sheryl Sandberg and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, outliers who parented and excelled in their careers. I wonder how they found balance. I wonder how they found peace. Or if they found peace. Maybe they struggled like Leda. 

At one point in the movie, the young mother Leda befriends in Greece asks Leda how she felt leaving her girls. “Amazing,” Leda replies. This honesty is why Leda’s story was so powerful for me. The natural thing to say would be, “horrible” or “guilty.” But Leda is crushingly honest.

That moment of Leda declaring that being free of her responsibilities of motherhood felt “amazing” is why she could leave her girls in the first place. Several memory scenes in the movie show Leda in a playful relationship with her daughters. She loves them and they adore her. Though young Leda is married, she and the girls spend all their time together and Leda appears to be their sole provider.

But Leda loved her work. She was inspired and dedicated. She was being noticed, receiving acclaim for her brilliance. And there wasn’t room for it. We are taken to a few gut-wrenching scenes of Leda losing all patience with her children, showing nothing but frustration and irritation. 

After so many moments of seeing that she would never have enough time for her work; that these two daughters, constantly in need would always take priority, Leda makes the life-changing decision to walk away from her children. 

In the movie, Leda is playing with her daughters, deeply engaged with them. They are having fun, connecting with each other, but then the girls want more. They need more from her and something shifts in Leda. Slowly she gets up from her chair, even as the girls are calling for her. She puts on her jacket. Her face is steady, solemn, and there are tears in her eyes. She knows that she has to do this, now.

As she walks out the door, her young daughters calling to her, that is the moment when, as a mother, my heart broke. I felt so much sadness for all of them — for the girls, for Leda. That is the moment when their world changed; when the mother-daughter relationship was ruptured. That is the moment that would haunt Leda for the rest of her life. 

I have been thinking about this movie for days and I’m sure I will keep thinking about it. Motherhood is the most amazing experience in the world, but, as Leda so beautifully shows us, it can also be a life-changing heartbreak. Thank you for writing this book Elena Ferrante and Maggie Gyllenhaal for making this movie. I think you are brilliant geniuses.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Future Used to Be so Bright

I wept twice on New Year’s Eve. I wept for the future — not for myself — I have lived a good long life. I cried for my daughter Lucia and her friends. They are juniors in high school, at an important crossroads in their lives. They are preparing for what is next; for what will come when they leave home in a little over a year. 

I don’t love New Year’s Eve. As I’ve aged I have a clearer understanding of who I am and I’m not a big party person. New Year’s Eve feels like a lot of pressure to feel excited and act inspired. I didn’t always feel this way. When I was young New Year’s Eve felt exciting. I remember planning with my friends how we would celebrate, what we would wear. I remember looking at the clock every few minutes between 11 pm and 12 am to make sure I didn’t miss the moment. The night was joyous. My biggest worry in those days was who, if anyone, I would kiss. 

I had big hopes for Lucia this year. I wanted her to have some of that excitement I had when I was young. I felt hopeful this year. Everyone in our small world is vaccinated and boosted. I’d hoped for her that she would be able to experience a party or some kind of celebration with her friends. But on the evening of December 31st the temperature outside was 22 degrees and that day the highest number of COVID cases ever was reported. There were no gatherings, no parties for my daughter.

My partner Nancy and I were invited to our good friends’ house for dinner. We all tested negative in the morning and planned to celebrate with a quiet dinner. We had Lucia drive us to our friends’ house so that she could keep the car in case she wanted to go to a friend’s house or maybe to a bonfire some kids were hosting at the park. 

One of the effects of climate change on our Northwest city is frigid winters, colder than they’ve ever been. Unlike the midwest city where I grew up, here we are unprepared for snow. We don’t have snow plows or salt trucks. Our hilly streets are icy and perilous. We have a four-wheel-drive car and I’ve given Lucia some snow-driving lessons, but it’s a scary prospect for anyone to be driving, especially your seventeen-year-old daughter on New Year’s Eve.

We got most of the way to our destination when I told Lucia to just drop us there and we’d walk the rest of the way. The narrow hilly streets were sheeted with ice and I didn’t want her to have to navigate those roads alone on her way home.

Nancy is from New Orleans and she is as comfortable with snow as I am with hurricanes. I am the authority when it comes to driving and dressing in cold weather. As a kid growing up in Chicago I learned that, in cold weather, you always dress like you’re going to get stranded somewhere. So, as we trudged the last five blocks to our dinner party, Nancy, wearing a beautiful coat that was not nearly warm enough for 22 degrees, was freezing, frustrated with me for having aborted our ride. I was warm enough and I felt relief that Lucia wouldn’t have to travel more icy roads than necessary. 

Nancy was steaming. In her mind, my anxiety had gotten the best of me and I’d made a rash, arbitrary decision about Lucia dropping us off so far from our friends’ home. For me, my decision felt right. I had weighed the options and decided that fewer icy, untravelled roads was better for Lucia. I felt absolutely justified in my decision.

By the time we reached our dinner engagement Nancy and I were stewing at each other. I was filled with worry for Lucia, checking my cellphone for a text from her letting me know she’d made it home okay. And I was mad at Nancy for not having worn a warm enough coat. Nancy was irritated with me for letting my anxiety bubble over as it has so many times in our long relationship.

I was wound tight as a rubber band ball, completely stoic, knowing that if I spoke something would snap and I would cry. Our gracious hosts, friends we’ve known for a quarter of a century, could see right away that we were not okay.

We all sat in front of the fire eating hors devours awkwardly until one of our friends took on the challenge of facilitating a conversation between me and Nancy. I started crying immediately. My stress for Lucia’s well-being was consuming me. Not just about the snow and ice, but about the loss of New Year’s Eve (again!), the possibility of not returning to school (again!). Nancy apologized for misreading me. I cried. I was grateful to have been able to release this tight knot of fear and sadness that I’d been holding.

As we ate a beautiful meal, dressed warmly, windows cracked for ventilation, we engaged in easy conversation for a while. We laughed and toasted. Eventually, as the outside temperature dropped and the room we were in started feeling colder, we started talking about the weather. This led to a conversation about climate change. And this led to me crying again. I was crying for what Lucia and her generation have lost because of the state of our environment. 

When I was a senior in high school (1986) there was a song on the radio, The Future’s so Bright, I Gotta to Wear Shades. I was heading off to college, looking ahead to my life. I had hope, excitement for this next chapter. I looked ahead without the burden of a thirty-year time limit on an inhabitable earth. 

My tears were about my daughter not having the freedom of this feeling — the feeling of untainted hope — a future so bright she’s gotta wear shades. As I cried the despair inside me swelled. It was so big for me. How must it feel for her? Thinking about this brought more tears. 

On New Year’s Eve Lucia stayed home. She had a friend come over for a few hours but there were no celebrations, no fireworks. And she was okay. She’s grown used to these disappointments. Thinking about this makes me cry again. 

I realize that this despair is not sustainable. I cannot stay in this place of sorrow for what Lucia doesn’t have. Sometimes I wish I could be a climate denier. Then I could look at a bright future again. I could believe in something amazing for Lucia, a reason for her to wear shades. But my despair is not helping my life or Lucia’s. For my sake and hers, I have to find a balance between this despair for the world and hope for the future. 

I hold onto my despair because I want to stay connected to the world, to what is happening to our climate. If I hold onto the truth of what is happening I am living in reality. But in doing this I am losing too much. I am depriving myself of hope. And isn’t there always hope? I have to welcome both despair and hope. 

When I am deeply sad, filled with anguish for this next generation it feels disingenuous to also have hope. It’s like sitting on a train track meditating while feeling the vibration of the train approaching and not doing anything. But the truth is that, though I can do my part for climate change — stop eating meat and dairy, fly less, drive an electric car — I cannot stop the train. I am too small, too insignificant in the grand scheme. In spending so much energy worrying and stressing and angsting, I am not giving myself space to feel hope. And without hope, there can be no joy, no gratitude, no peace. Without hope, what is the point in trying?

Sitting on the tracks having a spaz attack, filled with anxiety and despair, freaking out, is not going to slow the train. I know I can’t stop the train but I can try. I can hold onto hope and joy and peace even though I know the train is coming. 

On Christmas Day we watched Don’t Look Up (stop reading here if you haven’t seen the movie). At the end of the movie everyone is gathered at the dinner table eating pie and drinking coffee. They are all holding hands as the rumbling of the earth grows stronger. They are calm, sipping their coffee, eating their pie, experiencing this moment together. They are resigned, waiting for the inevitable destruction of the planet. They all know it’s coming. They can literally feel it coming, but they are present, aware, in the moment of being together. They feel total love and gratitude for each other. 

I think of that last scene in Don’t Look Up. They have all tried hard to interrupt planetary destruction. Despite their efforts, the end of the earth came and they all died. Everyone died. But they had hope until the end. They tried until the end. 

I hope that we find a way to slow down the destruction we’ve brought upon our planet, to even reverse the direction a little bit. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. Crying on New Year’s Eve released something for me. It was the pinnacle of despair. Coming into another year of pandemic and climate destruction and teenage angst brought me to an emotional brink-- an important realization.

That end-of-the-year weepy New Year’s Eve night helped me recognize the importance of accepting these two opposite perspectives — despair for the world and hope for the future. If I want to have joy in my life I have no choice but to welcome them both-- to live with the awareness that the end is coming but to have hope anyway. 




Work Life Balance

Yesterday while I was working I thought to myself, “I could do this all day long!” And that’s a good thing because that was the plan. I rece...