On physical therapy as therapy.

This is kind of a theme of mine, so forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.  But working out today I had the chance to chat with a friend who is also a physical therapist at the office I go to (it’s a “continuing fitness” rehab thing for those of us who are pushing beyond PT per se but still need support from time to time — brilliant, I say).  So anyway, there we are, and I’m asking about whether it’s best to use a foam roller to iron out difficult muscles before or after working out.  John, my friend the PT, says at first that you should do it afterward.  Then he thinks some more and says that there’d be no argument against doing it before, especially for someone like me, where the tensest muscle groups tend to be the ones we’re trying to strengthen.  And for me, that statement causes a total Lucy Van Pelt moment:

“That’s it!” I holler (internally, lest people think me strange).  I want to strengthen what’s all balled up (my writing, my consulting, my willingness to be out there in the world), and instead of working on the simple, feel-good steps along the way (which are, incidentally, totally vital), I beat myself up for not being there yet.

Once again, pt offers a perfect metaphor for my life.  You can’t properly strengthen muscles that are foreshortened due to tension — they are in the wrong places, using bad habits, and you have to guide them into better paths before they can really do what they are designed to do.

I realize that this may mean I need to stop watching Grey’s Anatomy, but only if I want to take my own medicine.  Which I may not.  But here’s the thing: I’m a writer. I’m a reader and a teacher and a thinker and a critic and an organizer and a grower and a maker and a friend and a mother.  Of those things I am meant to do, the only ones I GET to do are the ones I HAVE to do.  I parent because I have kids and they rock the house.  I read what I have signed up to teach and I teach when I get the opportunity because it’s the best way I know to make a buck. I read and critique what I need to to be useful on the board I’ve committed to serve; I grow in the summer because it’s cheaper than buying food; I make things I’ve promised to make, and I don’t often promise any more.  I am a friend when I can squeeze in a phone call without kids around (can ANYTHING make them whine and cling faster than seeing me pick up a phone?).  But overall, when I look at my life with clear eyes, I offer this diagnosis:

I am no longer broken; I am not in pain.  But there are many things I long to do, muscles I long to work, that feel like “luxuries.”  Just like using the foam roller feels like a luxury.  If it feels good, this particular logic goes, it must not be very important.  Pain is the indicator that something is broken, and if we can limp along without much pain, well then, we are fine.  Today, I think: fine is not good enough.

Today I want to sort feeling comfortable from feeling alive; feeling pain from feeling vulnerable.  Because vulnerability, discomfort, awakeness when we’d rather be asleep, are the things that make us whole.  They are that deep and welcome ache when you hit the specific muscle that needs release.  They give us room to live, to thrive, to explore, to develop.

Here’s a handy reference tool for sorting what is crucial and what is luxury.  For me, now, today.  Feel free to make your own.

Warm delicious snuggles with loved ones: crucial.  (Ezra staggered into our room at 6:10 with his new dinosaur book, flipping on the light and climbing into bed between us, only to discover later, I think, that he was not in fact really awake at the time.)

Stretching, foam roller, or other forms of muscle relaxation: crucial.  (Just because it feels good does not mean it’s non-essential.  It is hard work for me to remember that.)

Strength-training, in body and spirit (weight-lifting; meditation): crucial.

Long delicious shower after a workout: crucial for spirit; luxury in terms of time.

Writing up creative ideas for community projects and being willing to share them in their draft stage: crucial.  Also, luxury, because more time would make for better work…but what great practice at letting something take shape among people rather than just in my own mind!

Taking a nap: probably a luxury today, since I got a good seven hours last night.  But sleep: crucial.

Eating well and making good food for my family: crucial AND a luxury.  I have a friend doing the hard work of cooking in advance and freezing whole meals…that’s hard work that makes sense.  But I’m not there yet.  I’m here.

Exploring new ideas through reading and writing: crucial.  Crucial, I say.

Watching tv for downtime during lunch…well, I’m allowed a little luxury, right?

On doing one thing at a time.

Like many of you, I struggle to be all things to all people.  Rather, I’ve given up EXPLICITLY trying to do that, because I’m too smart to keep at the impossible (sometimes), but I’m not smart enough, it seems to give it up entirely.  I still worry, when I’m parenting, that I’m not bringing in money.  When I’m bringing in money, I worry that it’s not building a career.  When I’m having conversations about building a career, I’m worry about the experience my kids are having in daycare and wondering what I should give up on in order to be more present somewhere, sometime.

But the bottom line is, we have to choose.  Most of us, as the self-help books point out, choose by default: we limp along in agony until eventually we fall on one side of the path or the other.  It’s unpleasant but surely saves on decision-making.  I am rather a master of this skill.  Case in point: a pretty fantastic job appeared recently at an institution near me, and I sweated for a week over whether or not to apply.  But every time I turn the decision over again, filling the wee hours with my remorse and trepidation, I arrive at the same place. I am not ready to go back to full-time work yet.  I want to spend more time in my children’s lives.  Other people may not; I may not eventually; but right now, I would feel sad and cheated and resentful if I could not spend these two-and-a-half weekdays with my boys.  So I will honor that and choose not to apply for full-time work.

The hard part, of course, is less making the choice and more living with it.  I have always believed in a keep-all-doors-open policy, which makes perfect sense if you are not sure where you want to go.  And so I mistrust my own clarity when I do have it.  But enough sleepless nights, going around the same circles, and even I come to see that my conclusions are always the same.  So the math leads me to believe what the soul has been trying to say all along.

This macro-dynamic of too-many-things shows up everywhere, of course.  In college, I changed majors four times, the last time in the middle of my junior year (bad idea, in case you wondered).  When designing courses, some people think about what reading and assignments to include; I have to think about what to leave out, because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to work with.  Last month I purchased no fewer than eight sample cans of paint in order to decide what color to paint the kitchen (and please note: they were all shades of white.  The kitchen is white).  My any.do app which I use to manage to-do lists typically includes eight or ten things under “today” and a similar number under “tomorrow”; never mind that any ONE of these things might be (was, in fact, today) enormous: making curtains for a friend.  (FYI, that project involves cutting and sewing ten panels of various lengths, hemming on all sides and creating top pockets for the tension rods she will use.  The fabric is a gauzy linen; the sewing machine is a temperamental thing with a bad attitude about tension.)  What special form of self-flagellation leads me to put all these items on a single day?  I realize it’s mostly a commitment to keeping the doors open, in case circumstances direct me to one or another of these things, they are all right there for the doing.  And on an average day, I probably do cross off three or four things.  But…three or four out of eight is kind of depressing.  I want to feel more efficient than that.  I want good reasons to tell some of these nagging voices to pipe down.

So as part of my commitment to Peace in All Things (a mother of two under four: bwahahaha), I decided today that come hell or high water, I would achieve SOMETHING.  I was not going to spend my available time on Pinterest and Facebook, planning and pining.  I was going to find my way into that beautiful, soul-soothing creative space and emerge without having done everything but having made something.  Because that has to be enough, and I have to practice it.  And so I did.  Four panels only, but that’s something for an afternoon.  Small hands may have helpfully pushed each pin all the way into the pincushion (“I like the colors, Mama!”), and even smaller hands may have spent quality time measuring my chair repeatedly (“My measure tape!  I measure for you!”), but I was able to be and do together.  This feels like spiritual practice.  It feels like good work, one thing at a time.

On the making of goodness.

It sounds rather grandiose, now that I write it down, but I’ve been trying lately to imagine how it is that we make space for making goodness.

For making good things, for allowing basic goodness to creep into whatever it is we are making anyway.

Specific examples include the lamb-leek-barley soup I made last week and cannot get over; the upcycled wool scarf I made Len for Christmas that both of us quite adore; the hour spent in the kitchen with both boys this morning as we explored  spontaneously the acoustic properties of an old vacuum pipe and a cardboard wrapping-paper tube.  In every case, there was the magic of serendipity (one can never properly estimate the right amount of leek, am I right?); the hard work of preparation (finding the best way to set the tension for the walking foot and cleaning out all the felted wool lint repeatedly); the challenge of setting down expectations and just showing up to what’s present (a two-year-old’s insistence on toting around a long ShopVac tube and helpfully “vacuuming” freshly painted walls while hollering seemed like a good opportunity for redirection).

It strikes me now that this post would do well to include the soup recipe (inspired by this), the scarf tutorial, and the fun description of sound games to play with toddlers…and perhaps it shall.  Another night.  For now, let it be enough for me to share my gratitude for delicious local foods, for friends with a superior grasp of sewing machine workings, for fun and interesting kids who are malleable enough to move with me sometimes.  Let it be enough to remember that making things is often better than not making things; that flailing wildly is really just a natural part of the creative process; that resilience in the face of failure is a whole lot better than being so safe you never get to fail.  And once in a while, you get to feel the good in the product, even, and not just the process.  Those are good days.  And the rest just keep you humble, right?

On relearning the important parts.

It’s exhausting to keep living this nonlinear life, with its ups and downs, its difficult lessons, its outrageous joys.  You learn something, then forget it, then spend years learning it again.  I much prefer more academic models of learning, where we learn something, check it off as “learned,” and move on.  (It doesn’t really WORK that way, but the shared illusion is so pleasant.)

Alas.  Here we are. And so this holiday season totally ate me alive, and I was not present or thoughtful or connected.  Indeed, I was barely civil.  I spent much of my time holed up waiting for something loving or memorable or fun to happen…and as you might guess, those things don’t typically come looking for you.  You have to generate them, and generative was about the last thing I was.

But it’s a new year now, and another new beginning.  I will write again.  (See?  See?  I AM writing.)  I will read more.  I will ask better questions of my friends and family and I will work harder to remember the answers.  These are not resolutions, because those are part of the whole linear mapping of the world that frankly doesn’t work for me.  But if I can hold to these simple intentions, I will be grateful: to show more often the love I feel; to use more often the gifts I cultivate; to move more often beyond a place of comfort.  To hold myself open to the pleasure and the pain.  To be both the adult and the child I am.  To cherish, savor,  create, let go.  Most of all, to remember that ass-on-couch is a default mode rather than a true rest, and that restoration often looks like work.

Thanks for reading, friends.  I hope to hear from all of you as your new year’s journey unfolds.