Precious Things

About a month ago, Kate Bowler published this op-ed in the New York Times, and her question has lived rent-free in my head ever since:

What’s a precious thing in your life that would never be assigned to a bucket list?

I was stunned by the first image that fell into my brain:

It is Fall 1991, and I am walking across BYU’s campus, crunching as many dead leaves as I possibly can. I can’t remember seeing so many different colors of leaves up close—bright reds and yellows with occasional oranges and browns. It’s chilly enough that I’m wearing a coat, with my treasured cassette Walkman tucked into my pocket, listening to a tape my dad dubbed for me before I left Montana. On one side, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris. On the other, a lesser-known Gershwin composition titled “Lullaby for Strings.” This precious moment, I’m listening to the lullaby. The cool air, crunchy leaves, and comforting music soaks up my stress and slows my walk. I try to parse out the four different instruments, focusing on a violin one minute, cello the next, but eventually lose interest in tracking the individual instruments and succumb to the beauty of the group.

I could never assign those moments, walking across campus with various genres of music buttressing my homesickness and imposter syndrome, to a bucket list. I could never imagine crafting those exact sequences of moments and saying “This. This is what I want to do before I die.” But they are moments I repeated many times in my three years at BYU that when I think about it, or when I take the time to listen to “Lullaby for Strings,” still fills me with a cozy calm that all can be right in my world.

I love lists of all kinds–read these books, see these movies, visit these places. I feel a such satisfaction when I look at a list and think, “Okay. I’ve experienced these things. This means I have lived.” But does completing any list really mean that I’ve lived?

I’ve been slumpy since the school year started, off my game in nearly every aspect of my life. Many different factors play into my slump, but this week I’ve started to make concrete plans to pull myself out of it. First up?

More identifying precious things. Less living by lists.

To Those For Whom Birthdays Are Hard

If you are the type of person who celebrates your birthday with meals and parties or even declares repeatedly for weeks, “It’s my birthday month!” This post is not for you.

This post is for anyone for whom birthdays are fraught with sadness, anxiety, or resentment.

Or all three.

I’ve been thinking all month about why I’ve often felt so much angst about my birthday, and I wonder if other people with summer birthdays struggle with this. I was never in school on my birthday, so there was no built-in pool to hand out party invites. Several times in my life, my birthday was spent at family reunions, on the road to family reunions, on the road to weddings, or even on the road to a brand new state because my dad had orders to a new military base, or living in a new state where the only people I knew were my family members because school hadn’t started yet.

My family was always great about making sure I had gifts or my choice of places to eat, but parties were rare.

I grew up watching my parents plan birthday parties for each other, where dozens of people crammed into our home for hours.

So when I turned 30 I wanted to have a birthday party. 5 people came. When I turned 40, I tried again. 2 people came.

Not quite the bashes that I saw my parents throw.

Add this to the usual angst associated with aging in general, and my birthday has rarely felt like something to celebrate. And it doesn’t help that J. Lo’s birthday is the same day, and she’s only 4 years older than me and looks like, well, J. Lo.

So this year, I decided to do something different.

I wanted an ordinary day. It would be my first non-Facebook birthday in 15 years, so I figured only a handful of people I know would remember. I wouldn’t have to field text messages or deal with the anxiety of wondering if I should like or love every wish on my wall, or just do a blanket thank you the next day, or respond individually…

(Is Facebook stressful for everyone on birthdays, or just Enneagram 4s?)

Anyway. I no longer want the pressure to celebrate my birthday, and I have to say, it worked out well this year.

With no social media reminding people to tell me happy birthday, I fielded very few texts. I planned an evening that included an online workshop about Supreme Court cases, watching Paula Poundstone live at the Lied Center in Lincoln (I won tickets for web access! Support your local PBS station!), followed by Tig Notaro’s latest HBO special, and I saved the season 2 premiere of Ted Lasso for last. I watched Olympic coverage all day, did some cleaning, did some packing.

It was a very ordinary day, and I just want anyone out there who struggles to celebrate another year of life to know this: you can make your birthday an ordinary day. You can release the expectations, you can tell people “I’d rather not do anything for my birthday this year.” No meals out, no party, no cake, no gifts. Sure, some might find ways around it—like “housewarming gifts” or “moving survival kit.” (Both much appreciated, by the way, Deanne and Amy.) But you can actually control the expectations and execution of how you spend your birthday.

A birthday GIFt from my friend AE Stueve.

Holidays are hard for many. So are birthdays. And perhaps I can sum it up best this way: don’t set yourself up for Ann Perkins expectations when you know, deep down, you’re a Ron Swanson.

How’s Your Summer Been?

I have been living a mostly pandemic-driven summer, but on the occasion that I venture out and run into people I know, one of the first questions they ask is “how’s your summer been?”

And I don’t know how to answer that, really, because first of all, it’s small talk, but second, I can’t tell if they are expecting me to regale them with tales of adventures and plans for the ten weeks that I’m not beholden to the high school.

I’m not sure they want to hear about how I’m procrastinating the curriculum fine-tuning that I wanted done by June 30 (it’s not done), or the schedule I’ve set up to pack all my things in preparation for a move the first week of August, or how I’ve been in physical therapy since just before school got out for “significant vestibular weakness” that I’ve probably had for at least a decade but was only diagnosed after a gnarly case of bi-positional paroxysmal vertigo.

They might want to hear about how I got rid of every piece of furniture I own except for my piano and my nana’s dining table (got rid of the chairs that went with the table, though—those things were torturous to sit on), and built a TV stand, a bookshelf, a desk, an office chair, an end table and a lamp. All. By. Myself. I bought a couch and a pouf, and I no longer despise my environs.

But that’s a long story to tell, really, so when people have asked me, “how’s your summer been?” or “any big plans for the summer?” in that small talk way, I really might just start replying, “Do you want to see a pic that sums it all up?” And show them this:

A screenshot of my bandwidth usage this month—the highest it’s been in 11 years.

Feels good to have accomplished something concrete.

30 Years Ago Today…

Graduation caps are the epitome of the patriarchy telling women they do not belong in education.

Exactly 30 years ago today, flanked by my two of my best friends in high school, I sat in a sea of green robes on a hard metal folding chair in our high school gym. After a handful of speakers, I walked across a stage, shook hands with the principal, and graduated from high school.

In a few days, seniors I’ve taught this year will also graduate from high school. And the one thing I want any graduating senior to know is this: you have time.

You have time to figure out what your talents are and how you can best utilize them.

You have time to travel.

You have time to go to concerts, see plays, visit museums.

You have time to date, or to not date.

You have time to change your mind.

You have time to go back to school.

You have time to change careers.

My life is nothing at all what I envisioned when I graduated from high school 30 years ago. But I couldn’t have envisioned the things that really mattered:

The cities where I would live.

The writing I would publish.

The places I would travel to.

The people I would meet.

And a million other experiences that I wouldn’t trade for any of the envisioned life of an 18 year-old.

No, my life is nothing at all what I envisioned when I graduate from high school 30 years ago.

I daresay think it is better.

Existential Paradox

I really had planned to write more regularly this month, sharing a variety of tools from my mental health toolbox, just in case someone who stumbles on this sparse space of the Internet might find it helpful.

But I forgot what May does to me in a normal school year, let alone wrapping up a school year which I, my friends, my colleagues, and my students all completed amidst a global pandemic.

Existential crises have abounded the past two weeks:

Does anything I do even matter?
I feel so helpless when I see (friend, colleague, student) struggling.
Why can’t we just assume everyone is just doing the best they can with what they have?
Why are some people just flat out mean?
Why are some people just flat out selfish?
With all the mean and selfish people in the world, why do I even bother trying to be kind to anyone?

It starts to spiral for me, and I struggle to find my footing when questions like these batter me. I showed a class this clip from Wonder Woman last week, and I almost cried, because I felt that—using a shield against a barrage of ammunition was too strong a metaphor to take in.

So what to do when the existential crises batter me and the panic attacks set in and no footing can be found?

Well, last week, a pint of Haagen Daaz Rock Road did help slightly.

But here’s a mental health paradox. When the crises and attacks hit, the instinct is to withdraw. Hop in bed, pull the covers over my head, and try to sleep long enough to at least feel a little more numb to the barrage.

The paradox is this: connection is necessary.

It’s sometimes difficult to reach out when my head is swirling with oh so many thoughts. But reaching out—texting a group chat or making time to talk in person with a friend—that is what saves me, every time.

Also, it’s hard to do, every time.

I’m still feeling all manner of existential crises, every single day. But I’m lucky.

I have a great family, with wonderful sisters who answer my texts.
I get to eat lunch every single weekday with people who notice if I’m down and don’t dismiss my existential crises as hysteria.
I have friends all across the country who, if I called, would listen to my endless list of unanswerable questions.

The trick is to take the step and ask for the connection, to not withdraw.

So think about that if you’re feeling the push to withdraw. Send me a text, give me a call and I’ll sit with you for a spell.