The Eternal Extenuating Circumstance

The first time Husband & I came to Philadelphia, he planned a surprise trip here and fashioned the experience after the Activity Guides we were required to give our students at the International HIgh School where we worked. These guides were really packets that they had to fill out, which could either be a collection of worksheets or a veritable scavenger hunt map, depending on how creative the teacher decided to be.

For our Philadelphian sojourn, he created an Activity Guide that had me traversing the city; I had to draw my favorite cheesesteak, fill out a Likerts scale with absurd categories for the various historical artifacts I found, and then there was my final task: exploring the Mutter Museum.

For those of you who have not have the simple pleasure of spending a sunny afternoon slowly wandering the halls of this palace of medical oddities, here are some of the choice exhibits:

– Fetuses in jars

– Faces suspended in formaldehyde

– Deformed skeletons

-Rusty 19th-century medical tongs

The piece de resistance was something I will never forget – at first I thought it was the hose on the world’s  first vacuum cleaner. Then I believed it to be the trunk of an elephant with elephantitis. It was curled upon itself like the small intestine of a giant, a pile about a foot in depth and two in height. Only upon reading the plaque beneath the display did I learn to my absolute and total horror that it was the engorged colon of someone who had become so… “impacted,” that when he died he had 40 lbs of excrement up in there.

I think of this poor soul on days when I feel the spiritual and intellectual constipation of being unable to express my ideas, get what I want accomplished, or expunge a feeling that is bothering me.

Why have I decided to start the week with this beautiful image and poignant metaphor, you may ask? Well, long story short – I have had terrible writer’s block. It feels like a 40lb colon in my brain. Well, perhaps not quite so debilitating – but it is beyond annoying. It is frustrating, depressing, at times agonizing, and deeply worrisome.

Photo on 2-26-13 at 4.47 PM #2

Why is this such a big deal? Well, like most things, it is not only itself. For me writer’s block means I haven’t been good about my blog, which means that this is yet another habit that I struggle to codify, and find easy to leave by the wayside. It’s funny – we always end up teaching, or lecturing, or berating others for the things we struggle with the most, don’t we? Depending on how at peace we are with our own struggle makes the difference between teaching and berating, but I find that’s usually the way our projection-cookies crumble. I have taught sensitive and helpful workshops to graduate students on time management, and helped others to find balance in their own lives, but I am SO BAD AT IT for myself.

Schedules and routines are anathema to me. I think this is a dirty secret for many who appear “on top of it,” “organized,” “together,” or “systems-oriented”: I have no systems, no regularity. Every day is a hurricane – sometimes the rain is refreshing, and sometimes I drown in it. 

Which leads me to one of the things I’ve been contemplating a lot recently is this – just because we create opportunities for ourselves doesn’t mean we’re equipped to take them. I know for myself, this involved freedom and open space in my schedule. I spent the first 25 years of my life so over-booked, with every moment in a compartment with its own To-Do List to check off, that all I wanted was to crack open a window and gulp in some fresh air. I craved freedom, flexibility, spontenaiety, autonomy – all foreign concepts. And so slowly but surely I quit my job, took a new one that offered a flexible schedule, and went running.

That was three years ago, and I still haven’t gotten the hang of it.

If I’m not working, I struggle to enjoy the open space. I fear I will “get in trouble.” I worry that there must be something I should be doing, which I’ve just ignored or forgotten. I am terrified that some secret inner lazy slug will come crawling up to the surface and plant itself in the place of the efficient and busy me I have come to know and tolerate.

It’s strange – I would think that enjoying down time, taking advantage of freedom – these things would come naturally. But they don’t. They’re habits, and I’ve learned that I am really crummy at forming new ones.

Or, perhaps, it’s just difficult to do so. I don’t know – are you able to form new habits with ease or less angst? If so, how??

This blog is a perfect place to start. One habit was writing it. Another was reading and watching the news more regularly.

When I started writing it, it was a thrill. Finally, I was writing. Finally, I was doing something just because it was a pleasure, with no end in mind. Finally, I was pursuing some of the projects I had long wanted to but put off – becoming more engaged in my community, learning more about politics.

And so I set aside a few hours each morning – from 8:00 – 11:00 – to go to a coffee shop and write. I would do no work during this time. I never scheduled meetings or appointments during this block. I woke up an hour earlier to walk the dogs to make time for it. And it was wonderful. I let myself cuddle into the wooden chair, sip on a coffee for three hours, and just write. Sometimes I would glance at the clock and realize two hours had passed without notice. I fel like I went elsewhere, my mind fully wrapped up in the pleasure of just writing. It made me feel settled, warm, and most of all happy.

So what happened? Why have I stopped?

Suddenly, there were conflicts. My morning block started to leak through tiny holes that began to gape. Eventually, there was always something – a meeting with someone who could only meet in the mornings. I had the flu. I was in New York City. The extenuating circumstances seemed limitless.

As a wise man (my shrink) once said: “Ah. So you were dealing with the Eternal Extenuating Circumstance, Life, then?”

Why yes, I was.

All of these “interferences”  weren’t things out of my control – I was planning them all. And suddenly writing – my friend, my companion, my out – became a source of anxiety. 

I started writing more about myself, and less about the news, and the fear crept in. Jesus Christ, I thought, is this going to be one of those blogs where a year down the line I’m charting my moon cycle and take pictures of my breakfast? I was worried to see that I, rather than communities or politics or current events, was becoming the topic. Did this mean I am a self-obsessed person? Can I not find anything to write about other than my own life? Isn’t there a big world out there – and wasn’t the point of this whole thing to go a learn more about it?

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On the other hand, this wasn’t something I felt comfortable flicking away. It felt important, albeit embarrassing and uncomfortable.

I have never challenged myself on a more profound level than I have in the last eight months. I have taken every part of my identity – from my job to my city to the food I will or won’t eat, my friends, my family – and turned it upside down. Dumping the box of my personality over and shaking it until most of its contents fall out, it’s been very interesting to see what remains. And with those remains, I’ve had to undergo a process of reacquaintance; like realizing you’ve been married for twenty years but haven’t the faintest clue about what matters to your partner.

What are some of the things about myself that I see in that box?

– I make myself busy – too busy. I needn’t be this busy. But the flip side for me has connotations that I cannot stand – that I’m lazy, that I’m purposeless, that I’m disconnected – and so I’d rather (or am more accustomed) to running myself ragged, making myself sick, and struggling to burn down the lapping flames of anxiety by doing, rather than the alternative, which is far worse to stomach.

– I love being with people, and I love helping; this impacts the projects and people I’m drawn to. But I also use these projects as a way to not work on becoming better acquainted with, and more stable within, myself – an undertaking I have long deemed a self-indulgent luxury, “unproductive,” product of being of a spoiled & over-therapized generation, and generally less useful than working on the behalf of others. (Paging Dr. Freud . . . .)

– I am scared, a lot, of many things – I didn’t realize how scared I was, and how much that influenced my actions.

– Despite being scared 99% of the time, I can also be brave. It comes in fits & spurts, and therefore sometimes doesn’t feel like my own, but bravery is in there and makes me take chances and do bigger things when my more fearful everyday self leaves the room for a moment.

– I have spent many, many years looking for ways to heal; both myself, and others. I have tried writing, art, therapy, drugs, work – they’ve all healed me in some ways, and hurt me in others. I’m only now realizing how important healing others is to me, and that it’s something I’ve been trying to find a medium for over many, many years, with mixed to poor results – it usually comes off as judgment or lecturing. I think I’m finally getting closer.

– I am like a cheese-o-phile who is lactose intolerant when it comes to freedom: I have a huge appetite for it, and little capacity to handle it well.

So – now what?

Moving forward, I’m recommitting to writing this everyday. Even if nobody reads it. Even if I think it’s drivel. Even if – the horror to me of all horrors – it ends up being about me in some way. Maybe that’s where it needs to go, repugnant to me as that is. But if this whole thing was taken up as a learning process, who am I to stand it the way of an education?

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