Today I am putting on my own oxygen mask first. I have at least 20 things on my to-do list, but instead of making my writing item 21, I’m putting it first.
I have spent the summer coming to terms with the fact that I will never be one of those “highly productive people” so revered in American society. This realization has required lots of therapy and downtime. No matter how organized, scheduled, and efficient I am I will never be able to do all the things I think I should be doing. And that’s OK. And I will keep telling myself it’s OK everyday until I don’t doubt it anymore.
Trying to do all the things has just led to levels of stress and anxiety that aren’t healthy for anybody. So I started scaling back, and during that process it became painfully obvious that most of what I was trying to accomplish was about pleasing other people or living up to an impossible standard of womanhood—or both.
The other day a friend asked me if I enjoyed life We were out in the garden and I was picking some beans for her to take home, so this understandably seemed an unnecessarily philosophical question for the activity at hand. All my brain could muster at first was “umm, what the fuck?” I mean who enjoys life? That’s not what life is for. It’s for getting shit done. Making sure your family is fed, clothed, and happy. Making sure everyone you work with is happy with your performance. Making sure you stay thin and pretty forever, because otherwise they revoke your woman card. Making sure you keep up with every horrid thing our fascist president and his crew of stormtroopers are doing so you can resist, resist, resist forever and ever, amen.
Her question irritated me. What was there to enjoy? It only took me a few minutes to realize my reaction was the sign of a problem. (Only a few minutes to recognize my own crazy—that therapy is paying off!) My friend was perceptive enough to see that I am perpetually stressed and she took the opportunity to check in with me. I decided not to shoot the questioner and get honest with myself instead.
I never learned to enjoy life because I have been letting the bastards win for over 40 years: the weight and beauty police, the mommy industry designed to make mothers feel like failures (bento boxes, limited screen time, educational crafting activities—who who the fuck are these people?), the capitalist co-opting of feminism that lies and tells us we can have it all if we just work hard enough and spend enough money, and now our racist cheeto president who makes everyone with a soul feel like it’s a betrayal of justice to feel even a moment of happiness. To paraphrase Lucinda Williams, they took my joy and I want it back.
So, my first step is getting back to writing by getting back to basics. Here are three things I need to get the writing done and reclaim my joy right now.
space and time
Both seem impossible to find most of the time, but often it’s because I refuse to allow myself the luxury of putting myself first. Somewhere deep in my psyche I don’t believe I have done enough to earn my writing time. Because it must be earned. Anything pleasurable must be earned by sacrifice because otherwise I’m just being a greedy bitch. This is internalized misogynist thinking that I must unlearn if I want my joy back. So I left the kids home with my husband and went to a coffee shop where I wrote first before answering emails or focusing on clients. I allowed myself to feel joy without earning it, even if it was only for an hour. Even small steps will lead you home if you just keep walking in the right direction.
Since I work from home, there are days when I don’t leave the house. More often than I want to admit I have waited until mid afternoon to brush my teeth. Why? Because I told myself I needed to get my work done before tending to my bodily needs. It would be selfish to take care of myself before finishing that project or folding that basket of laundry. Sound familiar? It’s the same fucked up thinking I use to deny myself writing time. These wounds go deep. So deep that I have made something essential like brushing my teeth into a luxury.
When I got to the coffee shop to write, I bought some lunch and then opened my laptop to a blank screen. After writing for a bit I really wanted a cappuccino. My internal critical said, “you haven’t written enough to earn that coffee yet.” After that negative messaging, creativity started to leave me. The words wouldn’t come anymore. And I knew I had to get that cappuccino. Art requires us to be tuned into beauty and pleasure. If we cut off our access to them, we lose our humanity, our sense of connection to the world around us, our empathy. I love the way the foam dances on top of the cup and the way you can smell the bitterness of the coffee before it hits your tongue and how the last sip is always sweeter than the first no matter how well you mix the sugar. The coffee kept me in touch with my senses, my bodily connection with the physical world—with pleasure and joy. I needed that little bit of pleasure to stay in my artistic space.
Writers need other writers. This writing thing, it’s hard. Six years ago I signed up for an online writing class with Janelle Hanchett. The honest writing on her blog, Renegade Mothering, was the kind of writing I longed to do but couldn’t because I was stuck in an academic structure that didn’t fit my creative needs. In her class I meet my people—other women struggling to find their voice and the courage to share it with the world. We were all smart, professional women—a doctor, a lawyer, a chef, a student advocate, a physical therapist, a Fulbright scholar and former member of parliament, and even another college English professor—who had suppressed our desire to write. We all wanted our joy back, and we found it with each other’s help.
But joy can be fleeting. It requires constant attention. Janelle recognized the special bond we had formed, and has organized two writing retreats for us in a magical spot in California. That place has kept the joy of writing alive for every one of us. The last time we were all gathered in that spot, one of our members, Tracy, gave everyone a bracelet engraved with the GPS coordinates of our little retreat house in the woods. I wear it almost every day, but especially on days when life and its never-ending responsibilities and expectations are trying to suck the joy out of my life. On those days my bracelet and I go to the coffee shop, buy the cappuccino, put in some headphones and write. We may do it again tomorrow.