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On lost days, and getting so little right
I could see it coming from a mile away, the way the day would fall to pieces. It started on Sunday in the middle of the night when I woke with a fright at 2am, realizing I’d completely spaced on dropping something off I’d promised to friends who were flying across the Atlantic first thing in the morning. (How first thing I kept thinking at 2am, then between anxiety dreams at 3am. Did they mean 7am? Or did they mean 10am? Should I run over now, in the dark?) It was a million degrees in our flat (winter turned to 28c/85f degrees in a day), Brits don’t do A/C, and by the time I woke at 7am, I knew the day would be an uphill slog coated in oil.
Between 7 and 8am, I’d guess that four separate fights erupted in our house — someone said something nasty, someone else refused to do a household chore, someone else refused help, etc. You know how it goes. Soon I was screaming at everyone about how I’m the only one who does any housework around here and what would happen to you guys or our house if I just stopped managing everything??? And someone had the balls to say, Everything would be FINE! Or maybe BETTER! And I think I maybe walked out? Or maybe I took the dirty laundry to the laundry room we share with, oh, 100 other grad students and fellows and can never be guaranteed will be free, and anyway did everyone see how I was still doing the laundry even while walking out??? Or maybe I went out with a gin and tonic to decompress from another circular argument with a tween — or maybe that had been the night before?
My work schedule right now is such that I can, blessedly, give up on the morning and take a nap if I am really in dire straights (husband, wisely, as I picked one last fight with him before getting back in bed: I don’t think we should talk about this with you in this state). All this meant that the work day didn’t start in earnest until 11am, which caused me no small amount of angst.
I am getting sort of desperate and terrified about how little of my morning writing time I have left — I can feel my LA life ready to squeeze me, like a pair of those horrendous compression socks — and I wanted to cry at the lost hours. None of it was made better by the fact that I got dressed listening to Laura Vanderkam talk to Dan Harris on Ten Percent Happier about time management, and I sort of wanted to kill her? (I can see why my husband had long since fled the flat.)
I am one of those people who yearns for advice from anyone who seems to have anything figured out — about marriage, time management, schedules, family life and parenting, screen time and skincare — and I also, I must admit, sort of hate those people. I hate them! Why do they have it all figured out? Do they? Do they really? (I’m looking at you, Gretchen Rubin, who I’ve listened to devotedly for eight years!) I have a hard time believing them and I am also hungry for any nugget of advice they have. (Yes, it can be hard being me.)
In that spirit, last week I read The Secrets of Happy Families, and decided, like Bruce Feiler recommends, we should hold a family meeting once a week to go over what went well, what went badly and what, as a family, we can work on in the upcoming week. This, apparently, creates family cohesion and also might smooth out problem areas, like morning fights, see above. We idiotically started the meeting while I was still dealing with dinner (not what he recommends), so I was in and out of the kitchen testing pasta and couldn’t really focus or properly lead the meeting (also not what he recommends). Predictably, my daughter said what was going badly that week was “this stupid meeting.”
Invariably, moments like this — when I am trying to improve or optimise some part of myself, my life, my marriage or family — bring up so many muddled feelings about the value of trying to improve anything, especially when they seem, from the outset, doomed to fail (see: this stupid meeting).
When I was listening to Vanderkam talk about her 9 rules for whatever, I knew that it was the sort of thing I’d excitedly do for, like, three days (exercise before 3pm! track my time! look at me finally setting down my phone!) and then give up on because I don’t seem to be someone who is capable of maintaining any semblance of self-improvement (or, let’s be honest, self-discipline?) for any period of time.
It is sadly the way I am with so many other things and something I kind of loathe about myself: my inability to improve how I eat, exercise, speak to my husband, stay off my phone, meditate regularly, do my pelvic floor exercises. You name it, I have only kept it up for so long. And these are all things I’d genuinely, hand to heart, love to (and need to) do better at.
The only things I seem capable of keeping up with (other than, you know, my job) are: working consistently on my novel; staying in touch with friends (though, admittedly, badly from here, across the world); taking care of my kid; running our house; this newsletter (every single week for three years and, sorry! not as predictably here from the UK, see novel, above). Exercising here has been replaced, luckily, by hours of walking. Cooking is mostly off the table here but that takes up much of my time at home and I take it seriously (and mostly joyfully). I do like my daily nap. I read a whole lot. I realise that this is already enough.
My point is perhaps that like the existential dread I am overwhelmed by when we travel, the same thing happens when I try to fix myself or any of my habits. If you, like me, are a devoted Happier podcast listener (or have spoken to my husband lately), you can probably guess that I am a Questioner, which is perhaps the most annoying personality type of all. “Why” is all I ever ask. Why not eat the cake? Why curb the kid’s screen time? Why walk 10,000 steps a day? Why have a weekly date night? Why drink less coffee? Why fit into a size 6 again?
The only relief I’ve found is in yet more advice (God help me), this time in the form of Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, which is the only time management (and I’d argue, anti-self-improvement) book that I’d revisit again and again. He basically says: Our lives are finite. They are also very messy. Prioritise the things that really matter to you and devote yourself to them. The end. You will never, ever, ever fit everything in, even if you wake up at 4:30am, so please, just let the rest go!
Maybe the joy of this time away has been that time has sufficiently loosened, some obligations have been shaken off, and I’ve been able to mostly follow Burkeman’s advice. My days have largely gone to things that matter to me.
None of this means I don’t, often frantically, want all the rest, too: to eat more green things and less sugar, to be in better shape, to lock up my phone, be nicer to everyone in my family, improve or streamline our schedule. I want those things a whole lot. Gretchen Rubin would say that I don’t yet know the “why” well enough to implement those changes, but I think I know perfectly well why I should do them. I just think it is very, very hard to change ourselves in any sort of permanent way.
And, truth be told, I am all too irritated by the very notion that I shouldn’t just let myself be who I am: someone who will always bake and enjoy the cake, who will perhaps snap too quickly at family and friends, who will laugh loudly and sing Taylor Swift or Sara Bareilles with much gusto even when her daughter turns away in shame. Perhaps I want to live into all the messiest places and call it my life.
ABBY’S SECRET SUMMER SCHOOL is having a soft opening over on Instagram (trial prompts to get you all set), and I’d love to see more of you there! We start in earnest on July 1. You can sign up right here.
And if you missed it, last week I wrote about the metaphorical implications of my capsule wardrobe for Cup of Jo!
I highly, highly recommend Elise Loehnen’s On Our Best Behavior. xoxox
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