The Best We Can Do

Sometimes, we have little alternative but to watch ourselves do stupid things, such as practice anxiety, to pick a random example that couldn’t possibly have happened to me this week. At these moments—or days, weeks, months—it’s helpful to remember that watching is so much better than turning our eyes away.

Tuesday morning I realized at 7:17 that I needed to give Tux, my cat, his new hairball medication. Catching the vanpool requires leaving the house by 7:18. Trying to hurry, I got the gel in his fur and on his whiskers and of course missed the van anyway. That evening, preparing to give him another dose, I read the label more carefully: administer ½ tsp. once daily, meaning the entire morning escapade had been unnecessary.

Usually, I would have laughed at myself, but not this time. For unknown reasons, much of what I had done during the week had appeared in my mind doomed to failure—earth-shattering failure, not just any ol’ run of the mill failure—and this imagined imminent demise had buried my sense of humor.

I’ve been reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and so I tried during these days to take their advice on how to cultivate joy. Over and over, I expanded my perspective and tried to have compassion for others who, like me, thought it important to mess with their own minds, or people with more serious problems, such as hunger or war. Then I forgot. Then I practiced gratitude. Then I forgot.

Breathing exercises, energy exercises—nothing prevented me from jumping back onto the mental hamster wheel of fear. But by some grace, I saw my mental gymnastics and didn’t mistake them for reality.

The universe does come through if we wait long enough. This week, help arrived in the form of this email from my mom: “When I search boat toilets, I only get boat rentals. When I search portable toilets, I get large porta-potties. When I search bedside toilets, I can’t find any rentals. When I search sr. incontinence, I get Depends.”

And then, in the immortal words of Paul Simon, nothing was different but everything changed. I laughed. Out loud. By myself. In looking for a portable toilet to take camping, we’d discovered an entire world of waste products, all but the one we needed. Thank God for the dependability of bathroom humor amidst the impermanence of all things.

Standing in the Muck

It was one of those weeks that makes me grateful other people can’t see into my head, which was more than usually full of all that muck we rather wish we didn’t carry around inside of us— fear, a sense of inferiority, frustration, meanness.

A religious sister once couldn’t overcome her inability to be patient with the other sisters in her community. She asked St. Thérèse of Lisieux what to do. St. Thérèse didn’t say a word about how to treat the other sisters but instead counseled her to be patient with her own impatience.

I decided to take St. Thérèse’s advice. I wrote myself a list of questions: Can I be loving with my cruelty? Can I be understanding with my frustration? Can I tell the voice that sees only lack that it is enough?

The answer was yes—for a few seconds at a time every now and then. Did it make a difference? It depends on what you consider a difference, I suppose. Was it all sunshine and butterflies after my first few attempts? No indeed, not even after many attempts. Was I more loving to those around me? No way to tell without popping over to the alternate universe where I chose to be overwhelmed with feelings of self-pity or take a sick week.

Though a sick week sounds pretty good—and sometimes we need those—other times we just need to stand in our own skin and be OK with ourselves as we are. There is that saying that the only way out is through. I’ve always pictured that as a relatively unpleasant journey, but maybe the only way through is love and acceptance.

Moving Grasshoppers

Well, this week wasn’t an “I’m here” kind of week. It was an “Oh *!%*#” kind of week, a week of being stuck on a level of relating to the world that is pretty useless.

Someone at work told me about a wasp that kills grasshoppers and then takes them back to a tunnel it built in the ground. Before it takes the grasshopper into the tunnel, it flies through the tunnel to make sure no one has invaded it. If you move the grasshopper away from the tunnel entrance, the wasp will move it back and then go sweep the tunnel again, no matter how far you move the grasshopper, no matter how recently it swept the tunnel.

The tunnel I’ve been running through with great zeal this week is the “I’m not good at my job” tunnel. And because I am really clever, I’ve been moving my own grasshopper by repeatedly trying to assess how bad of a person I am for having missed some deadlines. Don’t try this at home—it’s for advanced monkey minds only.

The problem is, as Cynthia Bourgeault would say, that I’m running the wrong operating system. Whether building myself up or tearing myself down, I’m still basing my identity on job performance.

It’s interesting that over identifying with job performance does not improve it, at least for me. Quite the opposite. If my sense of self is based on whether or not the magazine comes out on time and there’s no way the magazine is going to come out on time, I’m pretty screwed. My personal reaction to this situation is paralysis, which is generally not conducive to getting work done.

Jim Finley says we need to find our identity and security in God alone. That sounds pretty good. I think I’ll start judging myself on how close I’m getting to that standard instead. Excuse me, there’s a grasshopper I need to attend to. Bzzzzzz.

Momma Told Me

I don’t know why we’re designed to go two steps forward and one step back, but I’m convinced we are. Last week: Zen master. This week: whiner.

I exaggerate last week’s accomplishments, but I did have this miraculous moment of getting over myself. One of the software systems at work appears to have been designed to decrease productivity, and I generally spend a lot of time and energy hating it while using it.

This time a moment of spiritual brilliance flashed upon me. If I changed the goal from finishing the task to being present and paying attention, I could stop fighting the inefficient system because its inefficiency would no longer matter. So I changed the goal. My mind cleared up. My patience increased. My work probably improved, though I have no way to measure that.

Fast forward to this week. While working on another not favorite task, I said to myself, you could use this time as practice; where is your attention? I replied, somewhat snappishly, I don’t want to practice, I want to be miserable and complain. I clearly saw myself making that choice, but changing my approach still didn’t interest me. One step back—at least.

I kept this up most of the day and wore myself down sufficiently that, by the time I was chopping kale for dinner, I could consider the option of simply relaxing and accepting my sour disposition. Then this line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer” came floating in: “Tell everyone just to remember/their names, and remind others, later, when we/ find each other.” Some days that’s all we can do, remember who we are, and that’s OK because that day is not eternal. The next day we’ll be capable of making different choices.

I’ll end with the rest of Stafford’s stanza because he sums it up so beautifully:

“…Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.”

Giving In

Have you ever had a day when every attempt at productivity forced you to the bottom of an ocean of frozen molasses? My mom and I call that a 20% day. Don’t fight the 20% days. They are Muhammed Ali or Mike Tyson, and you are a featherweight.

The term 20% days comes from Anne Lamott’s book Plan B. In one of her essays, she tells the story of David Roche, who leads the Church of 80% Sincerity. He preaches that eighty percent of the time, we can strive to improve ourselves or attempt other noble actions, but 20% of the time, nobility will likely escape us. And that is OK.

Telltale signs of a 20% day:

  • Approximately nothing can inspire you to get out of bed, and you are not sick.
  • After you manage to get up and have breakfast (serious bonus points for anything beyond cold cereal or toast), putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher requires herculean effort.
  • When you try to convince yourself you can achieve any of the tasks on your list, your head threatens to explode.


  • As soon as you feel your head reaching exothermic potential, desist all thoughts of productivity. It is really, really helpful when 20% days arrive on the weekend.

As you may have guessed by now, I had a 20% day recently. It took me half an hour of lying in bed to recognize it and another 15 minutes to remember the bit about Mike Tyson. Fighting is tempting because it feels as if you will never find the motivation to get out of bed, but if you wait, the time will arrive.

I got up and made breakfast (bonus points for me!) and forgot again that resistance is futile. So I sat in my chair after breakfast feeling as if I should do something. Then I remembered to concede to the inevitable and spent more time in my chair not feeling as if I should do something.

That was my breakthrough moment: 20% days do not have to suck. If you don’t try to produce Nobel Prize winning research or clean behind the stove, they can be remarkably pleasant, somewhat foggy and definitely not productive, but pleasant.

And remember, 20% is one in every five days. If you’re basically functional for a week straight, you’re an overachiever.

Going Down?

As with economies, so with emotions—what goes up is generally followed by something decidedly less enjoyable. So after a rather extended adrenaline rush finishing the infamous report, there followed a week of exhaustion and then … the crash.

Almost. You may know these moments, the times when the world, which had been sunny an hour or a day before, suddenly turns to complete crap. These moments are very convincing. I’m usually somewhere in the middle of one before realizing nothing has changed from the time when everything was not crap. By then it is often too late.

Contrary to my usual practice, I anticipated this downturn; I knew the end of an intense project would eventually lead to withdrawal. The early stages of the crash had clearly arrived when my mind started to play a “you really suck” advertisement: I would never catch up with the details of my life—financial, household, relational, you name it—never send another query letter to an agent, and certainly never get married. “Never” is a good clue that you’re losing altitude.

I watched myself totter on the edge, contemplating the descent. The poet David Whyte says sometimes he sees himself walk up to the edge of the pit of feeling deeply sorry for himself and jump in and on the way down he thinks, this is going to be a good one.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I needed to wallow in self-pity for a while or whether a more pleasant route might be available. Of course if you’re asking that question, you’re already climbing down the well. Despite having multiple tools at my disposal for turning around—gratitude, exercise, chocolate—I was apparently going to refuse to use any of them.

Then somewhere in the middle of making breakfast, the universe shifted. By the time my eggs were fried, the urge to indulge in “poor me” had passed, like those times on the highway when things are inches away from going bad and everyone sails on through as if there had been no danger. It wasn’t my doing. It was grace or good fortune, depending on your world view.

I’m grateful to have survived unscathed this time. I have no illusions that every encounter with the abyss will end so well, but I am cheered by the memory of thinking, “Feeling miserable is really not going to be much fun.” That’s the beginning of sanity.

Mama Told Me There’d Be Days Like This

Sunday was one of those days most sane people prefer to skip. You may know the kind, the ones when some Monster of Gunk deep inside you decides to rise up and disgorge purplish-black sludge all over the otherwise harmless world. Though absolutely no outside circumstance has changed, you know as soon as you open your eyes that the only possible way to survive the day is to never get out of bed.

gunk monsterPerhaps the uber-sane among us find some use in these days. Maybe the Dalai Lama wakes up, spies the gunk monster, and says, “Ah, another opportunity for instruction!” But I like to think he wakes up, bangs the heel of his hand against his forehead, and says, “Oy!” (Because everyone knows the Dalai Lama is secretly Jewish.)

I don’t know of a way to enjoy these days. I’m not particularly sure how to be grateful for them. I am certain they exist, for some more often than for others, and I know it’s important to recognize and share that existence. Otherwise we start to think everyone else’s insides are full of daffodils and butterflies and we alone are capable of spewing such ugliness for so little reason.

These days do end. On Tuesday, I spent the evening joyfully eating steak and drinking very good wine with my aunt and uncle. On Sunday, I could neither feel joy nor quite believe in its possibility. The best I could do was to remember that nothing lasts; this too shall pass, and God, though obviously absent and clearly inept, is in charge. Remembering does not yield great comfort during gunk monster and me bonding time, but it keeps the bottom from falling out of things. Comfort comes only later, when the world has righted itself through no effort of my own and the blue sky and sunshine seem once again to have some relation to me.