I’m not sure if it’s a remnant from a partial upbringing in perfectionist Christian culture or my natural tendency toward introspection (i.e. I read a lot of self-help books) but a question I constantly want to ask people is “What are you working on?” I don’t mean actual work; I mean “What are you trying to improve about yourself right now?”
We could talk about the problematic implications of self-improvement til the cows come home BUT I’m naturally drawn to people who are constantly self-reflecting and endlessly curious about their own actions and trajectory, so there are no judgmental implications to this question; I just love hearing how people are at work internally. I’m also very nosy!
So maybe I can reframe this question of “What are you working on?” to something softer: “Where are you growing? What are you learning? What are you trying to strengthen, or open, or stretch, or develop?” Are these better questions or are they just repackaged nosiness? No matter! Here’s how I would answer lately:
What I’m Working On:
Being a Human Animal:
My cat (my greatest teacher) is so good at being a cat. She’s exotic to me: wild, strange, and solitary, but her recent ancestors have evolved to get the attention of humans so she will do charming things like meow in my direction or nibble my hands to wake me up. She gets scared easily, and she’ll drop everything to ferociously hunt a fruit fly. Everything about her is perfectly cat-like, and even in her most annoyingly cat-like moments (i.e. jumping up on a shelf and breaking things) are well within her right and within her range of proclivities unique to her species.
I think a lot about this when I remind myself that being good at being a human means being good at making mistakes, at missing the mark, at flailing around not knowing what’s going on or what I’m doing. Ah, I’m just human-ing! I’ll tell myself, the way I tell myself that Sunflower is just cat-ing when she scratches my furniture.
Seeing humans as animals gives me so much compassion for all of us. We are silly, social, egotistical, highly creative creatures who are capable of thousands of emotions and ways to communicate. To be polished and flawless is to be non-human, and unfortunately I am not that. Oh, to be a cardboard cut-out! It’s just not going to happen in this lifetime, I’m afraid.
So, I foible my way through the day. I make mistakes I’ve made a hundred times, I have to ask for forgiveness. I try to make myself look better than I am; I strain so hard to make people like me. I take eight hours to text back because I’m having such a tough time figuring out what to say. I get extremely jealous of someone I love. I say something I know I shouldn’t, and then I feel guilty. I forget something really important, I don’t show up when I should, I never got around to reading that one book and I probably never will.
If I were a beloved pet, I can only imagine my loving companion saying, “Oh, she’s just human-ing. Human-ing today, are we?” And then I do something wonderfully endearingly human, like laugh, or have an idea, or share a drawing.
If you think I’m letting myself off the hook too much, there’s plenty of research to suggest that self-compassion (acknowledging the universality of your actions and having grace for them) leads to MORE accountability, not less. By honestly naming a failure, then extending sympathy and encouragement, we can maintain our confidence and strive to do better. There’s also plenty of research to conclude that punishment and shame are not at all effective motivators, so let’s not do that to ourselves!
Ritualizing the things that make me feel good:
I can think of millions of instances where I’ve just finished doing something lovely (starting my day off with a long walk in the park, taking a dance class) and I’m left feeling absolutely wonderful, and then I never do it again. Classic me!
To keep these instances in the millions, lest they enumerate to billions, I’m working on keeping good record of those times where I think “I should do that more often,” and ritualizing them so I make sure to do it. There are seasons of life (God bless them) where it would be easy for me to begin an ambitious new ritual: I’m going to start every day with a park walk, and there are others where it’s a once-a-week thing: Wednesday is Walk-day (I'm sure you can think of something more clever).
When it comes to growth edges, I have it in my head that they’re always supposed to be difficult and even uncomfortable. But I know it would enhance my joy significantly to announce to myself, “I’d like to spend more time in my garden. I’m going to make sure I do that an hour a day.” We may think of pleasure as something that we naturally incorporate into our lives (I don’t need to set a calendar item to eat more Halloween candy, for example) but I know that I will often neglect to do the things I love most simply out of an illusion of time scarcity, or actual forgetfulness.
The people I admire most are the ones who have many rituals around pleasure: My husband and I have appetizers in our twinkle-lit yard every night or I don’t make plans on Tuesdays so I can order my favorite take-out and watch a movie or I buy myself some absurdly luxurious soap and take a bath every full moon. I mean! Sign me up for that life!
Mastering the Grey:
I was listening to a podcast interview with Mark Groves and Africa Brooke, two people I admire very much, and Africa referenced “mastering the grey area.”
I thought that was such an intriguing concept; I usually think of mastery as a linear pursuit with a beginning and end, but mastering uncertainty, questions, and unfinished feelings (such as longing) is a lifelong practice.
I live and lead with intuition, so I often find myself unable to answer why I feel a certain way, or what led me to make a certain decision. I just feel it. Since the modern Western world values linear thinking over intuitive thinking, this doesn’t fly most of the time. People want to know why, they want info, they want answers. I’m more of a questions person.
So, when I find myself at a crossroads of decision-making or torn about where I stand on a specific issue, I will let myself “master the grey.” That means: letting myself sit with an explore questions, mysteries, fuzziness, contradictions.
And, if someone accuses me of being indecisive or wishy-washy, wouldn’t it be so badass to justify my uncertainty with “I’m just working on mastering the grey right now?”
Taking Mental U-Turns:
I am a person who is highly-attuned to other people, which sounds really nice, but can be a huge pain for everyone involved. If I’m having a perfectly fine day, for example, but the person with me is perhaps two degrees too chilly, I can’t concentrate. I’m miserable. I ask them twelve times a minute if they’re okay. I am so affected by other people’s moods and energy and casual inconsequential comments such as “A bit cold today, huh?” that it’s just a lot easier for me to exist in solitude.
Being by myself all the time doesn’t seem like an impeccable solution. So, I have to train my brain to U-turn back to my own experience: Am I having a good time?
Likewise, and certainly related, I am constantly comparing myself to others. Not necessarily in a jealous way; my comparisons often masquerade as benign observations. But, in both scenarios, I’m spending way more brain space trying to figure out what’s going on with other people than anything about my own desires or needs.
So, when I get into a mental rut of obsessing over another person’s experience or cool coat, I name what’s going on with a dose of compassion (“Here I go again”), and then give myself a command: Let’s take a U-turn.
It’s a way I can sweetly parent myself in the moment, and feels a lot better than berating myself for obvious codependent tendencies. I imagine myself gently turning my chin toward something beautiful, or just turning my bike around back to my own body. What am I seeing, sensing, feeling?
Sometimes I remind myself of a wind-up toy who is enthusiastically headed toward a wall, and once I get there, I’ll just keep moving my feet even though I’m stuck. That’s when I imagine picking myself up and shifting my direction so I can go explore in wonder and ease. When I’m too attuned to how other people are feeling, or I’m using others as a barometer for comparison, that’s when I know I need a new direction or a shift back to myself.
In the moment, this often looks like taking an inventory of what I’m sensing, but on days when I find myself spiraling into comparison or imbalanced concern about someone else, I have an emergency to-do list of things to build my own self-esteem up: write a letter to a friend, go be barefoot on the grass, organize a nightmarish closet or drawer in my apartment, be in service to others, stretch under the sun, put a playlist on shuffle and create a dance to a song, learn some new Spanish words and say them over and over.
As someone who really struggles with asserting myself, I find that I tend to communicate in complicated, unclear ways in an effort to be polite. Like, "Oh, hey, um, would you mind, I mean, if it's not too much trouble, I just really like it when, uh, isn't it nice to feel the ground beneath your feet, and also I cleaned earlier, and yeah so..." and then the person might eventually win this game of Charades and say "You want me to take my shoes off?"
What I've realized, many many times but I always forget, is that being clear is actually the more considerate way to communicate. People like knowing exactly what to do, what you can and cannot offer, and where they stand. It's a much better practice to text "Hey, I really enjoyed our date but I'm not feeling a spark" then to over-correct so much that the recipient can't tell if they're being dumped or proposed to.
In order to communicate clearly, I first have to know what my end goal is, and I have to be able to justify it to myself. My end goal is that Mildred takes off her shoes; I want her to do that because germs gross me out. My end goal is that Roger knows I don't want to see him again; that's because I don't find him attractive. I can speak effectively from there (and soften up my justification a bit). I know this sounds like...Basic Kindergarten Communication 101, but it's taken me a while to get to a point where I interpret clarity as more--not less--polite. Please take note, people who write convoluted emails!!
Experiencing vs Consuming:
Since I am a human existing in this specific society, I notice that I will often choose to consume over experience. For example: If I see a beautiful mountain, I’ll take a photo. If I see someone wearing marvelous shoes, I’ll need to know where they got them. If I’m moved by an illustration on Instagram, I want a print of it. I want to own—perhaps even dominate—the things I find moving and stirring. It’s not enough for me to be inspired; I want to capture the inspiration and possess it. Yeesh.
This impulse comes up in some funny ways: I was noticing a couple weeks ago that I started feeling all this anxiety as New York was graced with gorgeous fall weather, of all things. I found myself frantically scanning for times on my calendar when I could suck the pumpkin-spice marrow out of the month of October. I was determined to hit up a pumpkin patch, go apple picking, see the leaves upstate, and whatever else is on the Instagram Bingo Card for fall.
I quickly realized this autumnal bucket list of sorts was just making me fretful, and did apple-picking even really appeal to me that much? I decided to bring some fluidity to the month—allowing the days to take me where they wanted, rather than trying to control them with my plaid shirt aspirations. I haven’t done a single classic fall activity yet, but I’ve really enjoyed some unplanned evening walks, a spontaneous soup afternoon, and waking up from a nap with the window open to feel the crisp breeze tickle my hair.
October has unraveled itself as it was meant to: it’s brought wonderful days, hard days, and very few photo opportunities. It’s been such a beautiful month, and I’m glad that I quickly stopped trying to consume its beauty and just bask in it instead. My favorite poet John O’Donohue taught me that the word ‘beauty’ comes from a Greek word for ‘calling,’ i.e. beauty is whatever you’re being called to. And instead of trying to keep it, I’m choosing to let it wash over me, teach me, form me—then let it be experienced by someone else.
This is another way of saying “I’m trying to not be so controlling.”
I believe that every lesson we need can be found in nature, so I will often take walks through Prospect Park and ask, “I’m available for a lesson right now. What do you have to teach me?” Sometimes the answer comes in the form of a deeply-rooted tree; sometimes it comes as creek water, slipping over rocks and snaking around twigs. The water has been catching my attention more and more lately, reminding me to move with obstacles and move with the shape of the world I’m already in.
In the abstract, this sounds lovely and easy: Simply be the river! In practice, when I have an idea of exactly how I want my day to go but it ends up raining and someone cancels and I just missed the subway and the restaurant has a two-hour wait, it’s less easy. I want to be a rigid rock. I want to sit there like a lump and contemplate all the ways this moment could be improved upon: a feedback survey for the universe. One star.
But, I physically wiggle around and remember I am 70% water. The world is also 70% water. That means, the world is just as fluid and adaptable as I am. Can we work together a little here? Can I slither myself around an obstacle, and can the obstacles shift with me? This image helps me relax into my own ability to adapt and shimmy my way around what the moment is offering.
Here’s a fun Leunig prayer to help be a more river-like person (insert your own higher power):
God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.
Nothing like a plot twist to kick-start your growth!!
Tending to Friendships:
Someone asked me the other day if any particular lesson or sentiment has stuck with me from my internship at a hospital a few months ago, and while I'm uncomfortable with the idea of suffering people as the deliverers of life lessons, this one observation has stood out more than anything:
The people who had the most optimistic perspectives, who were able to find the most joy throughout pain, who projected the greatest resilience, were the people who had really good friends.
It didn't seem to matter whether the patients were single, married, had kids or not, had good jobs, had lived a rich life or a life full of bumps, whatever--the #1 thing that all the happiest patients had in common was deep friendship.
I've been thinking about this a lot as I make intentions about how to spend my time. Friends often fall by the wayside of work, romantic relationships, family obligations, and lethargy...how inordinate. I am working on tending to my sweetest friendships like the sensitive and ever-evolving living things they are, like they are treasured flowers in a garden who need time and care and appreciative observation. I believe that the highest calling of friendship is to be witnesses to each other's lives, and I'm working on being a sacred witness to all the lives that intimately surround mine.
I'm focusing less on saving time, and more on taking time: waiting to respond, cooking for hours, walking instead of running, waiting a few days before unpacking my suitcase. I'm available for the lessons of cooler weather, and so far it's teaching me that downtime is necessary prep for a harvest season.
It reminds me of a little story my friend Ruthie told me recently (I've searched for its origin to no avail):
An artist is lounging in his garden, letting the sun warm his face and his eyes rest. His nosy neighbor looks over and says, "What are you doing?" The artist replies, "I'm working."
The next day, the artist is outside painting on a canvas, and the busybody neighbor asks, "Are you working?" The artist replies, "No, I'm resting."
I often get my best ideas when I'm staring at a tree. I'm doing more staring lately, and I'm all the more inspired for it.