Remind Me

This Friday, we’ll celebrate a Big Event at work. I have allowed preparations for the festivities to take over a rather significant portion of my life and mental space and use up most of my stress allowance. (Wouldn’t it be great if we really had a stress allowance and when we reached the end, we were cut off? Nope, sorry, that’s all the stress that you’re allowed this week.)

To counteract this, my mom has been sending me reminders every day of the things that are truly important, like love and smiles and miracles. We humans need a lot of reminders. The urgent easily sweeps us away from the important. I don’t know why. Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers as saying, “Why is not a useful question.” It’s the way we are, no reason attached, like the way chocolate tastes better than broccoli.

I have not remained in a blissed-out state of gratitude all day every day because of her notes, but the people around me have probably breathed a little easier. For example, when someone has said, “I have a question for you,” I’ve replied, “No” with good cheer instead of snarling.

There will always be a next big event, and we can always forget the important stuff when deadlines loom. Important stuff includes wondering at the way light falls from the sky through those specific clouds on that spot in the ocean that will never look exactly the same again, accompanying your co-worker to the storage room because there might be rats and that is creepy, remembering that it is all gift and that it is important to treat each moment, whether it is in preparation for a big event or not, as the gift it is.

So let’s remind each other—of love, of beauty, of heartbreak and the healing that comes afterward, of friendship, of grace.

Should No More

Usually, if trying to weigh myself down, I will eat excess Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, but when a friend wrote about unburdening herself this week, I realized I choose other weights as well.

My friend discussed both the physical clutter in her life and the time she spends mentally distracted from what she truly values. I don’t usually think of myself as burdened, much less self-burdened, but I certainly have my share of material and mental junk.

When I imagined myself as mentally unburdened, a number of the things I habitually feel I should do lost their urgency. Another friend told me recently she thinks of the word “should” as mental terrorism. You, too, can now feel guilty of mental terrorism and tell yourself you should stop.

I am really good at the shoulds. At any given moment, I could list off at least fifty things I should be doing.

I tend to think that without the shoulds, I wouldn’t do any of the things that make me a functional member of society. Assuming for a moment that functioning in society is desirable, here’s the thing: that ancient laptop I should have taken to the e-recycle years—yes years—ago is still sitting in my office. The shoulds aren’t causing action, they’re just making things heavier.

When I entertained the possibility that the world was not going to stop spinning on its axis if the pile of papers on my bedroom floor didn’t get sorted this week—it has been there for months—it actually felt more possible that the pile might disappear someday. It also made it easier to prioritize the bedroom pile over the office pile because neither one held dire consequences anymore.

We may never escape our sense of duty, and that may or may not be a good thing. But life is going to give us enough truly difficult things to deal with that we might consider cutting loose the ballast we don’t need.

The Fretting Gene

Someday, they will isolate the gene for worrying. At that time, a great quandary will face the human race: should it be genetically engineered in or out?

Arguments against the gene:

  1. The medical community seems to believe that stress is not good for you, and I have yet to encounter worry without stress.
  2. Worrying is not particularly enjoyable.
  3. The Visit wrapped up last Thursday morning. It was, by all measures, a stunning success (she said humbly). On Saturday, I dreamt that I’d failed to plan a way for our visitors—who you will remember had gone home two days earlier—to get to Easter mass. Apparently my ability to produce anxiety can overcome both the separation of church and state and the space-time continuum.

Arguments for the gene:

  1. One non-worrying friend claims that only worriers can write novels because writers have to imagine horrible things happening to their characters. When I caught myself thinking that some student research posters might get stolen out of the back seat of my car at Office Max, I decided there might be something to this theory. I had to tell myself sternly that no one nearby wanted to know about albino quail enough to break into my car.
  2. Another friend who doesn’t worry told me multiple times over the last month, “Don’t fret.” What American would even remember such a fine word as “fret” if she didn’t have someone telling her not to do it? This argument is only applicable if you know someone British.

Calm and peaceful friend number one also contends that whether or not you think up every possible calamity, you end up in approximately the same place. That is the problem with non-worriers—they lack the imagination to recognize that the rest of us are holding the world together. So those of you who think things just work out should thank the rest of us for saving you from the hordes of giant, rabid, albino quail.

A Little Help

Hypothesis: Self-medication through stress eating, shopping therapy, and the like are seriously underrated.

You may have guessed that I have undertaken some such behaviors recently. Specifically, I don’t want to know how many grams of sugar I consumed yesterday—please no illustrations about the size of a sugar cube and the distance between the earth and the moon.

The cause of said consumption is The Visit, which is two weeks away and breeds details at the rate of particularly fervent bunnies. I’m beginning to suspect that my to-do list contains some sort of feedback loop that adds two items to the bottom when I cross one off. Though meditation might be more effective, eating sugar allows me to treat my officemates with some modicum of kindness.

The wisdom of this choice perhaps depends, as do so many things, on the degree and duration of the practice. A couple glasses of wine to unwind after a stressful day—fine; a couple bottles—not so good. A couple of extra cookies for a few weeks—OK. Excess sugar for the foreseeable future—diabetes.

It’s almost more annoying for things to be sometimes OK. It requires us to exercise real judgment, to recognize when a behavior has crossed the line from helpful to harmful, and to muster the self-discipline to stop. It’s much easier to designate something as right or wrong, no self-regulation or decision making required. The rigidity we impose on our lives if we go that route, though, can be just as harmful as whatever we’re trying to avoid.

Or maybe I choose to believe this because I am really bad at sticking to any self-prescribed course of action. The proof will be in the post-visit pudding, or lack thereof.

It’s Not Worth It

October carries a heavy load. Not only does it host ghosts and goblins, it has also been hallowed National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Rideshare Month, and perhaps others I am unaware of. In addition, the first week of the month contained the little-known celebration Rachel Freak Out Week.

Man freaking outApproximately everything stressed me out last week. Approximately everything included but was not limited to: a report for work, every time someone tried to talk to me when I thought I should be working on said report, every task that took time away from the report. Plus, because these lists breed like rabbits, all the usual suspects, such as my peculiar inability to clean things and my not yet having found the meaning of life.

Sometime midweek, a friend, we’ll call him John, and I were walking between meetings and met a coworker whose wife’s job is grant-dependent. The coworker, in good spirits, said an upcoming grant renewal deadline was “do or die,” and John said, surprisingly seriously, “No, it’s not.”

Both John’s wife and granddaughter faced and fought off cancer. Both have been in remission for a number of years now, but I’ve gotten the impression that these two illnesses changed his thinking about life in general and work in particular.

After this meeting, when I felt like keening over sections of the report, my mantra became, “It’s not worth it.” Unfortunately, the mantra did not lower my stress level, but it did help me realize it was optional. In the midst of my Chicken Little syndrome I could at least tell myself I had a choice, even if I was incapable of acting on that choice. Somehow knowing the stress was self-inflicted helped me retain a sheen of sanity.

We need a lot of reminders in this life—of what is and isn’t important, of what choices we do and don’t have. One way of interpreting those reminders is the now familiar, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” But maybe some of it is breathtakingly precious stuff, too precious to obscure with anxiety.