After spending the first fifteen years of my life being what all my teachers euphemistically called “an underachiever” and what my mother and father called “a lazy slug” I have preceded to reinvent myself as the opposite. When, at my first job, (assistant Dean of Students at a prep school for girls) the school psychologist said in a meeting, “Nerissa, you couldn’t possibly understand Student X because you’re such a natural overachiever,” I almost wheezed in indignation. “I am NOT!” I wanted to shout at her, while stamping my little feet. I say I’m not an overachiever because the truth much of the time is that the reason I do so much is in order to avoid that horrible feeling of being called a lazy slug. (Not that I blame my flawless parents, mind you.) And because I’m proficient at doing a lot of things and, more to the point, I’m good at doing a lot of things at the same time, or at least I think I am, I indulge in that fine American art of Busyness/Multitasking/Overproducing. What gets lost, though, when I juggle as fast as I can is actually noticing the fun of the activity. It becomes something to check off my “to do” list, and the only hit I get is the action of checking it off. And we’re talking fun things, here, like writing you this paragraph; like going for a walk with my daughter; like sending my mother in law a present. Why not take a moment to enjoy the task? Well, because I can’t afford to take that moment, or so I think. Until I stop, breath, relax, and do that most sacred of rituals, practice gratitude. Which by the way is The Secret, in case you haven’t seen the DVD or read the book or watched Oprah or read People Magazine. I ‘m here to spoil the ending. Practice gratitude, cultivate good feelings. That doesn’t mean whitewash, fake it, squash sadness, anger or fear down; it just means that each of us is infinitely blessed, if we can but just recognize it and take a small moment (OK, I just timed it: less than one second) to say “Thank you.” If you don’t believe in God, thank the trees, the grass, the clouds, your mother, yourself, your dog, your child, your partner, your hands, your feet.
And now, on to our regularly scheduled essay:
My sister’s ex-boyfriend once said to her, “I bet you’re the kind of person who couldn’t just go to the beach and watch the horizon. “ When she told me this story, I pointed a finger at my head like a gun and said, “J’accuse!” It runs in our family. How on earth could anyone possibly hang out and stare at the horizon? How mind numbingly boring. I have never been able to understand the appeal of the beach. What does one do? One splashes in the water. One fishes around in the sand. One slathers oneself with sunscreen. In short, one lolls. A loller I am not.
I don’t get it. I could get it if I still liked getting a suntan, which was once a part of my identity, a part of my uniform. As a teen, I scheduled “Lie by the pool from 10am-2pm” into my day planner on Saturdays in April and May. If I used any skin protection, which was rare, it would have been a tube of baby oil, but in any event I spent the summer with a nice almond colored tan. Nowadays, you need to apply oily sticky sunscreen from hairline to bikini line to top of the foot or suffer at least the fear of melanoma if not the real thing. As a person who doesn’t even bother with moisturizer after a bath (OK—full disclosure–a person who bypasses the luxurious pause of a bath for the 3.5 minute shower) I really can’t get with the sunscreen. I can’t get with the sand in the shoes. I can’t get with the water, which is too cold. I don’t like to swim, even in a heated pool. I don’t like looking at other people in their bathing suits, and I don’t really want to be seen in one. Throw into the mix my aversive givens, which are an integral part of my profession (soon-to-be-rock star): driving long distances, parking, hauling gear—that leaves one thing I might like about the beach: reading. But now we’re back to the sunscreen. Why apply sunscreen just to sit out on an uncomfortable plastic chair where it might be hot, you might get splashed only to do something which I could do from the comfort of my bed or couch?
See what I’m dealing with here?
Tuesday of this last week, I got a call from my life coach ten minutes into what was supposed to be our session. I’d gotten overwhelmed as usual, playing catch up from the weekend. I’d had two shows and then hosted a book group for my church, given a speech at the VA hospital for Women’s History Month, and continued to do all the other things I do: mother, wife, life coach, writing group leader, writer, yogini , daily jogger, etc. I had just sent an email to the other judges of a local poetry contest to let them know that I would have to withdraw from my position as the packet of poems I was supposed to read and judge was still sitting shamefully unopened on my desk. When my life coach called. I burst into tears.
“I can’t do all these things!” I sobbed. “I need a Sabbath!”
She did that annoying thing that life coaches do—she didn’t tell me what to do but instead said, “And how would you go about giving yourself a Sabbath?”
This is where time consciousness comes in. Instead of filling up all the blank spaces in my calendar, a little trick I use to keep myself busy or as my cruel life coach says, to keep myself from having to feel all my feelings, I would need to leave down time. I would need to say no. I would need to accept imperfections; need to accept that for now anyway, I may set goals, but I probably won’t meet them. I may want to be in super physical shape, and I can be if I don’t also want to be an adequate mother and wife and get some writing done and earn enough money to keep us in our lovely house. I may want to be a famous folksinger, and I can be if I don’t also want a full-time presence in my home and town, my community. Also to be sane and healthy.
In short, I may need to stare at the horizon.
My life coach said something wise and helpful: recognize that when you say yes to one thing you are saying no to something else.
I hate that.
However, through my struggles with food, I understand this. I may want to eat an appetizer, a main course, a salad with bleu cheese, dessert and bread with olive oil and two glasses of Cabernet, and to fit into my favorite jeans—but I have to choose. Of course, I could run six miles a day or make myself puke it all up, but that was not a solution the Buddha would have chosen. It’s the same way today. On the plane, I wrote down a list of Sabbathy things I wanted from my four day vacation to Florida.
1. Be with my family
2. Get some gentle exercise
3. Read Anne Lamott’s and Liz Gilbert’s new books
4. Write in my journal
5. Take Lila to the beach (not for me, you understand, but under the rubric of “being an adequate mother and witnessing key moments in the life of my child.”)
When the collective pulse started its post-caffeine/high-impact-aerobics-class beat the first morning, and we had to agree on a schedule, I forewent my jog in favor of a trip to the detested beach to see if in fact I could stare at the horizon.
We slathered on the appropriate amount of sunscreen and headed off, hauling our gear and parking and the whole nine yards. Once there, I had a moment of panic. Id’ forgotten a book! Oh, yeah—I had a child and my whole purpose was to be in the moment with her, to watch her first experience with horseshoe crabs and conch shells and not miss her childhood. Let’s see if I can just be with her and see the beach from her perspective. So I did the work of slowing down, which to me feels almost like shedding my skin. Have you ever seen a snake do that, by the way? They go very still and seem almost dead. That should have been a tip off for me.
I got behind my eyes. I held Lila and stood next to my mother, a fellow Type A overachiever and together we let our feet sink into the sand, getting buried a little more each time the waves passed over. It felt delicious. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to feel the wet sand between your toes. The Gulf of Mexico is the perfect shade of blue green and the water in the low 70’s. I had the pleasure of watching my husband go tearing into the waves, swimming and splashing like a golden retriever. Lila watched and squealed but was too scared and still too cold to touch the water herself. Tom took her for a little walk and I squatted down in the place where the sand gets covered by maybe every fourth wave. I built a little dyke and watched the water overcome it. I dug my fingers into the sand and got lost in the sea shells, the bits of rock. I noticed that my mother (who earlier had been jonesing for a jog worse that I was, even) was now sitting in her beach chair facing the horizon. I turned from where I was and sat, too, my legs sticking out towards the water in staff pose. And just took in the view. Pelicans were diving, delighted, a hundred yards off. Older kids were hauling a green blow up sea turtle. The air was soft and moist and benign. The water felt warmer. Tom came over with Lila in his arms and I reached for her. He put her in my lap and proceeded to slather me with still more sunscreen. I promptly dropped my resistance to sunscreen. What exactly is wrong with having someone you love slather you with cream?
Lila didn’t seem afraid anymore. She laughed at every incoming wave which splashed up into our laps and even when a big one got us both in the face, she didn’t seem to mind. “This is the beach, Littley-Lou,” I said. “This is where we come to just sit and be with the water.”
Now I can’t wait to go back.