I am OK | I am not OK

Two Randi Ford prints, one Paul Stoub print; one Basil Wiering photo; one Butch Schepel print; one Nora Faber clay painting; two Chris Overvoorde works (preparations for paintings); one horseshoe found at my Grandpa’s farm in Zeeland; on the far wall a photo by Evvia Marshall, and an image of a print of a tulip that I tore out of a magazine over 25 years ago.
I am doing OK. 

Work life is good

In this COVID-year I’ve had paid work that took advantage of my mixture of skills–writing, social media, newsletters, administration, organization. The week after my church started doing online services, I started sending out weekly emails newsletters (and print versions by mail for those members who don’t do email) that contained news about the church and about each other, and a meditation by the pastor. I gleaned the news from anywhere I could find it: Facebook, Instagram, emails. My new best friend was command-shift-4, so I could take screen shots and, ahem, borrow photos from those platforms.

To this I added a weekly email for parents/grandparents-who-bring-their-grandkids-to-church with children’s bulletins, notes of encouragement, information about kids and coping and parents and coping with COVID, flyers for writing Pandemic Prayers, faith formation activities. Four times in the last year, I printed out faith formation activities for the children of the church, added snacks and fun craft supplies, and driven the packets out to each house and apartment. I hosted Backyard Bible Clubs in my backyard when the weather was good. The videos I made at first weren’t as successful among the kids (our parents didn’t want all their kids’ time spent online), but I can now shoot a video, edit it, and upload it no problem.

A month into the pandemic the leadership of our food pantry left, and I was the one to pick it up–to make sure that we had enough volunteers, to change how we gave out the food so the volunteers and the community would be safe, to order the food and decide what we were packing each week, to report to FeedingAmerica. This was good work and I felt connected to my Dutch ancestors who helped their family and neighbors get through the Hunger Winter, that last year of WWII.

While the church building has been fallow I’ve been doing a deep re-organizing of the children’s materials, the storage rooms, and the church filing system. Organizing is one of my favorite things to do, and the resulting ease of use of each space is a satisfying reward.

This work of keeping the congregation connected and encouraged, and keeping our community fed, has been a privilege. Having paid work that is so meaningful has kept me going, for sure.

But it’s also, if I’m honest, sometimes a heavy emotional burden.

I am grateful for the active and energetic deacons we selected this fall; they’ve taken over leadership of the food pantry and I just get to do the fun part, taking the names and information of those who come for food and handing them their bursting bags. I know them all by name, and I love seeing our regulars every Tuesday morning; I worry if we haven’t seen them in a couple of weeks and can get teary when a missing regular comes back.

My church is full of encouraging people, so I get thanked for this work all the time.

But still, after a year of this, I’m bone-tired.

Kids are mostly good

My adult children are home with me. It’s been good to have them home because I both love and like them, but this has been a frustrating time for them. Neither was in school or felt solid about a direction for school, and work has been hard to find. They’d prefer to be on their own, but that just isn’t possible now. They did enjoy the fire pit I put in the back, gathering with their friends for late-night fires, and I loved hearing the sound of raucous laughter again. We’ve always been the hang-out house, and I miss the kids’ friends.

But it’s been hard to know how to parent adult children in this time. What is the right balance of encouragement, empathy, and incitement to action when so many things feel impossible? They’ve had forward motion in important areas, so they’re feeling less stuck, but it’s been tough. There was so little of a difference I could make in their realities.

My romantic relationship is good.

My boyfriend and I have been pushing back the furniture and dancing in the dining room instead of at Billy’s. We’ve made an event of cooking together on Friday nights and watched a lot of good TV and movies. We are good for each other and I’ve been so grateful for him.

But oh the sameness of everything. The unrelenting sameness.

My house is good.

In September I took my only week of vacation during 2020. Didn’t go anywhere, but dedicated that week and the following few months to doing ALL the nagging jobs in my house.

  • Redid the basement: removed carpet, painted floor and walls, reorganized storage room (the mouse infestation clarified what to get rid of), made an exercise space.
  • Redid garden in front and back yards.
  • Added fire pit and chairs.
  • Repainted kitchen floor and exterior kitchen cabinets.
  • Repainted all trim.
  • Repaired many things myself and hired out what I couldn’t do.
  • Organized all closets.
  • Added a bar in the kitchen and learned how to make mixed drinks.
  • Finally learned how to keep a clean house, not just a neat house.
  • Framed and hung ALL the art I’d been collecting from friends for many, many years. This is the thing that makes me happiest when I walk around my house. The cover photo is the grouping from my stairwell. The one below is from my dining room.

I did all that so I’d have my mind free to get back to my own writing. The idea was that with nothing hanging over my head (except this COVID) I’d be out of excuses not to write.

And I haven’t written.

Food is good.

Like so many others, I explored in the kitchen. I made my own granola for the first time. There’s almost always cabbage in my fridge now because I discovered how easy it is to make great coleslaw with mayo doctored with Asian and Mexican sauces. And I love coleslaw. My Community Supported Agriculture share brought in tons of veggies that I used in all kinds of things I’d never made before–Asian-flavored Swiss chard; the Spanish sauce Romesco (with red peppers and almonds); the Middle Eastern dish of eggs cooked in tomato and pepper sauce, Shakshuka. It was a really tasty food year.

But I keep burning myself.

Four of the nine scars in a row; two more on my index finger knuckle.

I have 9 scars on my right hand from the last 6 months. They will be a lasting reminder that this has been a hard year, that even when things were generally OK, they were also generally hard. I’ve never burned myself on the racks in my oven this often. And that doesn’t include all the times I’ve picked up a hot handle with my bare hand.

To me, this is a physical sign of how not-OK I am. I’m scatterbrained, when I’ve always been focused. I am not careful with myself, not paying attention.

My other relationships are not good.

This inability to focus on anything but what is right in front of me (and sometimes not even that) has meant that my friendships and family relationships have suffered. In the summer it was OK because we could see each other outside. But now that it’s winter, I’m over Zoom (and so are they) and I forget to call during hours when people are awake, and I feel guilty for neglecting my parents. I vow to do better, and then I get distracted.

My devotional life has suffered. I’ve spent so much time and energy making sure the children and families of the congregation have faith formation things to do that I’ve neglected my own spiritual practices unless my church has a Zoom group. We’re reading Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery now and it is excellent–each devotion includes a slave’s story. But I’m so tired of my own excuses for neglecting time with God.

The state of the country is not so good.

In June of last year I wrote about the opportunity we had with the pandemic and all of us feeling our lives and hearts plowed up, to enter a time of truth-telling and reckoning about systemic racism in our country. The skyrocketing sales of books about Black Americans’ experiences this summer tells me that lots of individual white people have learned a lot. But the country as a whole barely budged.

It is so disturbing to me how a solid one quarter to one third of the country is under the glamour of a huckster and fully invested in a complete delusion–that Tr*** is even remotely competent, that he has been treated worse than any other president in history, that the election in November was not safe and fair and valid. Even more disturbing is how many Christians have been taken in–and that they use their faith to justify it.

Admittedly, my general stress level is reduced since I no longer have to hear the previous president’s voice all the time, or read what craziness he’s up to every day. But the people he emboldened are still here, and the Republican party is, for the most part, still in his thrall.

I now that chances are better if we love people out of a delusion, but how on earth do we do it?

Right now is good.

I’ve been lucky to not lose anyone I know to the disease, although I know lots of people who have, lots who’ve gotten it, including one friend who’s a long-hauler. Things are looking up for my kids. The vaccine rollout is happening.

I’m on my first real vacation in years–not visiting anyone, just relaxing. Doing yoga, going for walks, napping, taking saunas, reading, and trying to jumpstart my spiritual practices and my writing. Aggressively taking it easy to correct the burn-out I was so close to.

I’m finally reading All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, the last of Mildred D. Taylor’s books about the Logan family, describing their lives from 5 years after the Civil War to the 1960s. I read the previous 9 this fall. The storytelling is amazing and important.

How about you?

How was your COVID-year? What was your combo of “I am OK | I am not OK”?

I Will Not Should On Myself

It’s 45 minutes before my alarm. I’m awake. There’s no hope of my falling back asleep. Some of you lucky good-sleep people would be able to, but not me. Instead, I get this:

I should do my devotions.

I should get out of bed and do a Twenty Minute Win of writing before I need to get everyone else up.

I should do some yoga. A few sun salutations would work this crick out of my neck and ease the stiffness in my lower back. And it would counteract the complete lack of exercise from the weekend.

I should get to the gym or hop on my bike more in the next two weeks. I’ve got that family reunion coming up and I’m going to have to be in a bathing suit in front of young cousins who look adorable in their bikinis.

I should make a grocery list so I can go straight to the store after taking my son to the orthodontist and then school.

I should get up so I can get lunches ready before I have to get the kids up (yes, my kids still have school).

I should get up and do my Morning Pages. I’m supposed to do them first thing in the morning, before I’ve had time to filter myself. That time is now.

I should bag all this stuff so I can make the kids eggs for breakfast and start their day out right.

What did I actually do?

I lay in bed thinking about all these shoulds until there was only time to make the kids’ lunches and make myself a cup of tea before going upstairs to announce, “Cold reality is back — wake up!” The kids had Frosted Flakes for breakfast. I never did my Morning Pages, nor did I do a 20 Minute Win. I did take a kid to the orthodontist, finish the laundry, do the grocery shopping, drove 40 minutes either way to attend my Artist’s Way group (having not done the Morning Pages nor all my reading), browsed Facebook and Twitter, attended the school sports banquet, called my parents, played a little online Boggle, finally did my devotions (at 10:45 p.m.), and started this blog post.

Other shoulds that floated through my head over the course of the day.

I really should eat the crust of my second 1/2 piece of toast. Then again, there are oh so many people who say I shouldn’t eat toast because the carbs are making me unhealthy, but I think I should be okay because it’s whole grain toast and I really like vegetables and fruits and quinoa and I eat them, too. (Not to mention that the last time I went totally gluten-free I lost 12 pounds in two weeks, but I was constipated for 3 months, which made it officially Not Worth It.)

I should figure out when I can get to the gym this week, because I keep missing my regular classes for other business. I miss cutting loose in Zumba; going on the treadmill is really not the same.

I should get a Zumba DVD so I can do it at home when I want.

I should sign the kids up for their final two camps that I have already promised them they are attending.

I should read and comment on my friends’ blogs. I did read, but I didn’t comment — commenting more was one of the goals I set for myself after the writer’s retreat two weekends ago. So I should get back on the wagon and comment.

I should stop playing online Boggle.

I should tackle my home in-box.

I should work on my synopsis and revamped query letter for It Is You. And go back to my agent research. And do more agent research.

I should stop using those packaged face wash cloths and just wash my face with cleanser and water again.

I should watch my son brush his teeth so he does a better job and the orthodontist doesn’t get on our case anymore.

I should vacuum. This floor is getting crunchy.

I should give the printed manuscript to my friend who has a friend who is a reader for a publisher.

A Should Vacation

And then a friend sent me the image at the top of the post.

I thought of all my shoulds. Some of them are actionable items. Many of them, actually. Others come from outside, societal pressures and not from a personal commitment. Still others are based on daydreams about the kind of life I could live. To take a vacation from telling myself what I should be doing sounded lovely and freeing.

But then … what would a should vacation actually be like? I love that image of the woman caught mid-leap. It’s inspiring and makes me smile. I love to leap. But would I want to live a life free of shoulds? Even for a day?

The more I think about it, the more I connect it to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the idea being that we wouldn’t have strife with each other, if only we didn’t have countries, religion, and possessions to mess us up.

It turns out that I’m too much of a Calvinist to buy that. I think we’d find different reasons to hate each other and kill each other.

Besides, each of those concepts is a mixed bag of benefit and detriment. Yes, countries invade other countries, and teach their citizens that they’re the best kind of people on earth (and all other kinds of people are clearly not the best kind), and discriminate against those in their own country who are not “the right kind.” But countries also learn how to negotiate, how to take others’ needs into account. They can hurt more, but they can also help more. They provide a framework to meet people’s needs and respond to emergencies (as large as a tornado and as small as a house fire). They can inspire people to greater acts of generosity and deeper feelings of unity.

Religion has and does inspire hatred, an us vs. them mindset; it provides fuel for bullies and inspires war. But it also teaches us about love and sacrifice and fuels compassion and challenges us to act outside our comfort zones. It insists on justice for the oppressed, hospitality towards everyone, generosity to those on the margins. It gives us a reason to be one.

Possessions is a harder sell. It’s easy to see the problems of greed, of idolizing stuff. The only deeper benefits of stuff I can think of have to do with attitude: when we have an attitude of abundance (even if we don’t have very much actual stuff or not as nice stuff as those people over there), we will be generous, we will share.

My shoulds are a mixed bag, too. Some I really do need to make happen, either because they are important to the smooth running of my family, or because they tie into my deep dreams and visions for what I want to do with my life. They spur my discipline and move me beyond doing merely the good-for-now, the whatever’s-in-front-of-me. I don’t want to drop my awareness of these things, not even for a day.

So instead of not should-ing on myself today*, I will practice self-compassion. When a “should” comes, I will weigh it. Some things will be allowed to stay. But for other shoulds, I’ll talk to myself like I would to a friend who’s being too tough on herself, “Oh honey, give yourself a break on that one.”

It should be noted that I still have not vacuumed.

What shoulds will you drop today? Which will you keep?


* Is anyone else hearing echos of those KMart ads, “ship my pants,” and “big gas sale”?