I just finished listening to a Tara Brach podcast about contentment. And it brought me back to this question I’ve been asking myself for several years, How do I relax and enjoy my life?
It’s an enigma, right? And I think it’s compounded by social media where it feels like everyone is doing just that. Totally nailing it.
Take Tieghan, with Half Baked Harvest. Her recipes are amazing. She lives in some picturesque corner of Colorado (recipe book is conspicuously missing those famous Rocky Mountain High Brownies, so I’ll stop you right there if you thought she was THAT kind of Colorado cook) and shoots all of her photos and demonstrations in a monstrously beautiful kitchen. Damn, that girl has something figured out that I don’t. And she’s completely self made. No training. Just a killer instinct for food and bev.
Or take Kate Hudson who is getting serious about working out for the first time since the baby. And she is putting out beautiful family photos and videos of intensely sexy workouts [I have yet to try the one where she balances a shoe on one foot with the leg is extended while performing a completely log roll…and I have no excuse because the equipment is literally leg and shoe]. Meanwhile, I’m in my comfy Snoopy jammies while she’s posed with a fancy bottle of vodka downing cool little drinks poolside with friends. Am I surprised I’m not as glam as Goldie Haun’s daughter?!
In the meantime we run into this ever-present crossroads of, Do I embrace eating or exercise or neither?… because the two kind of conflict. Actually, I remember when I realized this. I was almost 30 and I had spent the better part of my 20s dialing my domestic skills, including cooking and baking. I was working at the Idaho state mental hospital and I realized, after a cold winter’s mild weight gain (Seriously cold! The water in the toilet froze one Sunday and I had to run the oven, which was a convenient three feet from the toilet in our strange shack, just to thaw it!) that I was spending all of my time in this cycle:
It might have been my first step toward awakening because I remember thinking to myself, There has GOT to be a better way!
Then in my 30s I sort of went the other way. I separated from my ex-husband and started weight training. [Highly recommend that, incidentally. It was a very helpful practice to show myself I was strong as I was taking on something so scary.]
So I was weight training and eating basically whatever I wanted, which meant I was gaining weight because exercise has a way of making bodies hungry! I liked the muscles, but was thinking, I CANNOT be getting divorced AND large at the same time! So I got into this keto diet and it was super effective, in part because I had this great layer of muscle built up, but also because I realized how much emotion I was buffering with food.
And when your comfort item is a veggie or can of salmon, it becomes very, very dark, very, very quickly.
This was a mixed blessing. I did end up with a weird relationship to food, but I also got a lot better at listening to my body. I developed this ability to stop eating when my body said “full!” To taste the first bite of cake and then realize only a few were needed because only a few were really enjoyable. It required me to get really present with my body and subsequently my feelings.
It was also during that time I began to feel like a raw nerve. I wrote this post: Floating Like A Rabid Ghost, titled after a line from Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s interesting because, of all the things I’ve written, that’s one that gets frequent search engine hits, likely because I quoted Strayed. But I’ve received some really beautiful feedback from readers who were going through their own rabid-ghost phase.
So back to the raw nerve! In PA school we learned what a deglove injury is. It’s basically what you would imagine, the skin pulled from a person’s hand like a glove. And that was the image that kept coming to mind.
I felt EVERYTHING.
It was like I had been walking around in a sumo suit for my entire life and finally took it off. I felt freer, but it was also terrifying and So. Damn. Loud. [in my head].
It was during this period I started asking myself that question, How do I just relax and enjoy my life?
I felt like I was messing something up because I couldn’t. Life was not that enjoyable. The days were hard and they started so early because the nights were hard too! I would wake up early and on the days when I didn’t have R, I would walk the neighborhood in the pre-dawn light because the bed became so unfriendly.
I remember feeling like I had to change something and so I tried. I tried lots of things. And I tried lots of NEW things because I felt like the OLD things had gotten me to this point of great suffering.
And people might have looked at this new life, however it appeared on social media, and thought I was killing it. Interesting job. Cool hobbies. Fit body. Cute kid.
Those things were all true. And I was incredibly brave during those months and years. I earned massive chops on adulting and life. A lot of that is documented in the pages of this blog, though I still cringe about some of the things I’ve written, the way I’ve handled some things, the way I launched myself into things that didn’t work out.
But maybe that cringe is exactly what we need to focus on here.
That cringe is what kept me from writing all through my 20s. I had this sense that I might change my mind about some things. I might learn something that would then make my previous writing a record of my past stupidity. And how could l tolerate that kind of legacy!?
If I’m being honest (which is my current life’s work), I also had a sense that I was living in a manner that wasn’t true to me and when that’s the case, you kind of always worry you will be found out. And then people will know you are a fraud. I still carry this worry to some degree. It’s my fragile ego, that thinks I need more letters behind my name and more money in the bank before I can attempt to create anything that might be useful to anyone, anywhere.
And this question!—What if it turns out I am completely ridiculous!?!
Yikes! I might be!
I might completely mess this life up. Like what if I get to the other side and realize that I should have kept all those Mormon covenants? What if I get addicted to alcohol or shopping? What if I feel like I’ve got the weight thing figured out and then get fat? What if I write a blog and no one reads it? What if I tell people I want to write a book and then I never finish or it never gets it published? How will I LIVE with myself!?!
Last year I went to family court to try to get my kid enrolled in transitional kindergarten at my neighborhood school. I started the process before any of us knew what covid would be and in retrospect that might have played a role in this failure. But I went into that hearing and lost custody time with my son.
Family court never wants ANYONE to feel like a winner, so I got a FEW things changed that improved my schedule, but I lost. And I walked out of there feeling all the feelings you would guess.
I actually fail at lots of things. I failed at refinishing my kitchen cabinets. For this reason, they have never had doors, as long as I’ve lived here. So far I’ve failed at talking my five year old out of right-wing conservative politics (election years are really difficult in this family!). I don’t save money as quickly as I want to. My car hasn’t been vacuumed in months. I gave up on cleaning my own house and now pay a wonderful, god-sent woman to do it for me. I kill plants on a regular basis. I broke an heirloom pick axe earlier this summer.
But seriously. I fail in relationships. I say the wrong thing. I judge people. I am unkind to myself.
And THIS is where contentment lives. I guess it HAS to because I keep failing and I don’t see an end to that.
Contentment is acceptance. Tara Brach defined it as a state of needing nothing and pushing nothing away. I love that, particularly because so often I am pushing things away more than I am needing. Her advice was to make a practice of noticing the moments, when nothing is needed and nothing is being pushed away. And her promise was, by noticing those moments, we would build a gravitational pull to bring them near more often.
I love that.
We tend to fear that if we let go of the wanting or the pushing away, we never improve. We will fester and engorge ourselves or languish and die.
Maybe some people will. I can’t speak for everyone on this.
But, for me, I’m into this experiment—> What if I trust in my own goodness? What if I believe I have a good compass inside of me and it will tell me where to go and what to do, but also when to rest or when nothing will help?
I believe this is an inner goodness we are all born with. It gets muddied and covered over by life. By trauma. By socialization. And, so far, every little fleck of it I pick off reveals that inner goodness.
Shhhh…let’s listen to her for a minute.
She knows when to push.
She knows when to fight.
The whole ball of wax that is