January is more than half over, or how to get past New Year Failures

As many people do at the beginning of the year, I reflected a bit on what I wanted to accomplish in 2020. I’ve been listening to Kate Hanley’s podcast and her New Year’s episodes offered such a different approach to goal setting as a year starts that I decided to try it.

One suggestion Hanley offered in an episode was to routinely check in with what plans you make on Jan. 1. That doesn’t seem like an extraordinary task, but it’s one that I haven’t really employed, well, ever. So I set an event in my calendar to check in every Sunday night. The first Sunday, I was proud of my dedication.

This Sunday, not so much. So I did something fairly revolutionary, and something I think Hanley would approve of (not that I need her approval, but you know what I mean): I reassessed.

I took a good 30 minutes and read everything I wrote those first days of January. I reflected as to whether they were truly sustainable actions. I felt pretty good about two actionable tasks, less good about the others. I thought, what do I really *need* in order to have a more peaceful life? Because at the end of the day, that’s what I want 2020 to be about.

I narrowed down to three things I need to do daily. But then I realized that keeping those three things in my phone or in my journal won’t help me when I come home from rehearsal, completely wiped out, or from school, completed brain dead.

So I did something uncharacteristic: I used fancy post-it notes that I reserve for other people, and used them for me. I put them in places I’ll see when I get home, and thanks to the fabulous Emily McDowell, I also get a nice little positive message at the top of each note.

So if, like me, you woke up this morning and realized that January is nearly over and you’ve already given up on something you set out to accomplish Jan. 1, let me offer this gentle advice: reassess. Don’t berate yourself, and don’t give up. Adjust. And if you can, make yourself concrete reminders, instead of leaving those plans languishing in your Notes app or a journal. Whether it’s Jan. 1 or 20 or the end of September, you can always reassess and adjust.

Punctuation matters…notice how the connotation changes based on the punctuation. #GrammarNerd

Hang in there…

If you or someone you know is in need of immediate mental health assistance, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

A year ago, I was quite sick. I didn’t want to admit to anyone how sick I was, including myself, and it wasn’t until I almost drove myself to the hospital that I realized how sick I was.

As I was stopped at a red light, deciding whether to turn left and drive home or go straight and drive to the hospital, I knew I needed more consistent care.

Every other time I’d gone to therapy, I realized, it was for an acute, immediate need. And once that need seemed to resolve, I’d shake hands with the therapist that helped me survive, and move on, never addressing the larger issues at play with my depression.

Somehow, (friends, family) I got through the one-two punch of holidays and the musical, and once the show closed, I set about finding a therapist that would treat me for the long haul.

Last night before I went to bed, I looked around my home. No dishes in the sink. No clutter on my dining room table. Blankets on my couches neatly draped. Laundry washed, dried, folded and put away.

I thought about this time last year, and while I was never living in squalor, I wasn’t taking care of a lot of small things that add up to making a big difference in my quality of life.

I hate doing almost all of those things.

So in the spirit of this post that has gone somewhat viral off and on for the past couple of years, I present you with:

A List Of Things I Hate Doing But Do Anyway Because They Help Keep Me Alive (not-comprehensive).

  1. Using a meditation app morning and night.
  2. Doing my dishes every evening.
  3. Creating daily to-do lists of 5-7 tasks, and completing all tasks.
  4. Planning all meals a month at a time.
  5. Meal prepping on Sundays.
  6. Budgeting once a week.
  7. Putting away my shoes every night.
  8. Only spend two nights a week at home.
  9. Forgiving myself for creating lists that aren’t in multiples of 5

Holidays are hard. Life is hard. And when I look back on the past decade, one triumph is our collective culture’s admission that talking about mental health helps to destigmatize it. It’s easy for me to write posts like this; it’s harder to click ‘publish.’

But I’m publishing anyway, because right now, at 8:05 p.m. on a Friday night five days before Christmas, I don’t feel like I want to die. Despite this year’s heartbreak, despite major personal shifts, despite not accomplishing everything I wanted to this year (and decade), I’m feeling okay.

But I know someone in this world might not be feeling okay. And I guess I hope that this, or some other brave writer’s work, finds its way to that someone, and that they hang on for one more second, one more minute, one more hour, until those time segments become days and weeks and years.

For a great podcast doing excellent work to destigmatize mental illness, check out The Hilarious World of Depression.

Courage: Advent 2019, Week 2

It’s getting to that time of year when I’m reflecting a lot and trying to figure out if people really can change. Every December I feel like I get to a mental state similar to any seeded sports tournament: survive and advance. And in the midst of the surviving and advancing, my brain spends time planning the future, and how I might be able to be just a millimeter better in the coming year.

Today I arrived at church a little earlier than usual so I could sit and listen to the organist and write, and see if my mind would start to figure out what and how I could change for 2020. And then I saw the title of the sermon: courage.

It takes a great deal of courage to change, and I really do feel like I’m careening toward a crossroads in every possible aspect of my life. I am skittish about changes I can control, and terrified about changes I cannot. And it would be so easy to just put my head down, maintain the status quo, and hope nothing changes at all.

I’m finding it hard to write about advent this week, probably because early in the service one of the pastors today paraphrased a passage from Winnie-the-Pooh: “you are braver than you believe, and you are stronger than you seem.”

She related it to Mary and Joseph, and how much courage it took for both of them to embark on the parenting journey that was asked of them. But it stopped me in my tracks and I didn’t think about much else the rest of the service, or the rest of the day, really.

Change is scary, and I don’t think there’s any hierarchy to it–one kind of change isn’t scarier than any other. But we can be brave, and we can be strong, and some changes will be painful and others joyful. And the best part of Advent is a renewed focus that through it all, Jesus is constant.

Hope: Advent 2019, Week 1

One of my favorite ornaments my sister Deanne made for me years ago.

It’s been a few years since I actively celebrated Advent or even decorated for Christmas, and given the past four months and the general emotional upheaval I’ve felt, I wasn’t sure I was going to do much this year to celebrate.

The gingerbread festival that has, for the past 20 years, been a stake of stability in my efforts to feel any yuletide spirit has been discontinued, I’m no longer teaching piano lessons where I spend December playing fun Christmas duets with my students, I’m not playing the primo part of a 4-hand accompaniment in the school Christmas concert.

And since I’m taking a sabbatical from my church right now, I’m not singing in any Christmas concerts or programs or playing the piano for any soloists.

All the usual pulls toward celebrating Christmas are gone this year.

I wasn’t raised with a liturgical Advent, but in recent years, I’ve felt drawn to it, so I observed it as best I could, using resources I found online. But I went to a church today, one I’ve been attending off and on for the past few months, to see what it would be like to observe the first Sunday of Advent with others.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I left the service with two commissions from the pastors.

Commission one: “May our hearts be open to the unexpected places where we encounter the sacred light of God that leads us toward hope.”

How many unexpected places might I encounter God’s light this month? I will spend hours at school teaching, working basketball games, supervising newspaper deadline, helping with musical auditions. I will spend time with friends and family and see movies and read books. The commission to be open to God’s light reminds me that I can find it in so many places, and will have opportunities to be that light to others.

Commission two: “May we see every Christmas tree as a symbol of hope.”

I’ve never thought of a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope. Instead, I’ve seen it as a symbol of what I don’t have. As I’ve often said to friends when they ask if I’m decorating for Christmas, “Why should I put up a tree when there’s nothing to put under it?”

But shifting my Christmas paradigm a bit to see a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope feels revolutionary, subversive even. I think of the ornaments I’ve collected over the years—gifts from students, tokens from places I’ve traveled, heirlooms from family members—and my Christmas tree morphs into a symbol of a life well-lived.

Hope, as our culture has come to define it, can be hard. When coupled with faith, we tend to equate it with wishing for things: an illness to heal, a child to love, a spouse to care for. Or maybe we hope-wish for a better home, an air fryer, or the latest tech gadget. And when those hope-wishes don’t materialize, it can feel like hope is futile and faith is weak.

But what if the biblical definition of hope points us to something else entirely, something unrelated to dipping our toes in the prosperity gospel pool?

Looking at the Greek base, the word hope is more closely related to anticipate, usually with pleasure; expectation or confidence.

Those words as synonyms for hope carry a purer meaning for this first week of Advent—the expectation that Christ will come, the confidence of what His coming means for the entire world in terms of peace and salvation.

Reframing my definition of hope is vital to observing Advent and celebrating Christmas, because I do expect Christ to come, and I expect that with confidence. A biblical hope isn’t reliant on medicine or biology or another person’s choices or how much money is in my bank account. A biblical hope is simply expecting Jesus to come, to teach, to save.

So despite my usual feeling that putting up a tree and other Christmas decorations is a general waste of my time, this year I’m going to pull out the tubs of ornaments and nativities and try to remember that what they all truly represent is hope.

A Return to Self.

During an appointment with my therapist in early October, I lamented that for two straight months, I hadn’t accomplished anything. Yes, starting a new school year is stressful. Yes, I was managing significant personal turmoil. But wasn’t goal-setting supposed to help me through that? Give me something to focus on, to work toward? Why was I failing?

Her advice: don’t set any goals in October. Just exist. Do the necessary things on a day to day basis, but use October to stop putting pressure on myself to always be working toward something.

I’m a planner, a goal-driven person. So it seemed counter-intuitive. But after a week, I noticed I felt more relaxed. Like I could breathe. So I took October off from the self-imposed expectations, and it really was quite wonderful.

So here it is, November 1, and I’m feeling restored. I feel like I can return to my planning, goal-driven self. Including…

NANOWRIMO!

Wish me luck. I will definitely need it this time around.