Today I feel rather impatient with myself. For being so impatient with myself. I want to take a step forward, celebrate my success, and then wake up the next day ready to keep going.
On Sunday night I issued my first “Invoice for Services Rendered” as an editor. I didn’t care that the total amount wouldn’t have covered my first parking ticket. It just felt so good to say, “I earned that! I can make money!”
But today I feel just as stuck as ever.
I’m still the same old me, doubtfully meandering my way through a truly amazing life while I frequently stub my toe on giant blessings and complain about them.
And not only that, I feel like I am letting everyone down when I’m not actively succeeding in my endeavors.
You see, my lower brain has this marvelous way of looking out for me by planning for unpleasant surprises. So even though I’m writing a book from a place of adding goodness to the world, my brain wants it to serve a more primitive purpose–like keeping me alive. It’s been working on this hijack move for a while now, but it was looking for just the right moment.
Enter the pandemic, my ups and downs, and the fact that even a normal cold virus lays my man low. The perfect recipe for my Grinch-ish lower brain. Sometimes my lower brain seems to resent joy and happiness and celebration because I’m safer if I just stay calm and small. But it is also very clever at avoiding pain, so maybe the trade-off is worth it?
We’ll see about that.
When it learned early in the pandemic that my family’s friend had died from COVID, it found the final ingredient for its latest recipe. And what did cook up? Well, in the words of Dr. Seuss, “You know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, (s)he thought up a lie, and (s)he thought it up quick!”
The lie went something like this: if I prepare enough, I can skip over the pain and worry that others might be feeling at the thought (or reality) of losing their spouse.
My family’s friend, we’ll call him Dan, had worked just down the road from our Colorado home, and though I hadn’t seen him in decades, one of my current friends worked with him at the place where he contracted the coronavirus. But here he was, just a few years older than my husband, father to four young children, and husband to (I believe) a stay-at-home mom. And suddenly gone. So their loss hit home for me.
But not just my true home. Not just that place where hope and my best self reside. It also hit the rickety old shed out back where my brain’s hermit lives. Old Lady Fear–I believe she is a descendant of the Grinch–who has lovingly warned me with thoughts like, “You think this quarantine business is bad? Just wait until the other shoe drops. Then you’ll wish you’d been prepared to be a single mother. Too bad you gave up your promising nursing career and aren’t rocking that kicka$$ side gig like all the other stay-at-home moms.”
(Funny how while I was a nurse, she was the one telling me what a lousy job I was doing, “You call it a momentary lapse, but mark my words, someday you’re going to get someone killed.” She liked to say this while driving on the wrong side of the road and reading an upside down map.)
So when news of Dan’s death hit me, I worked through sadness for his family and wondered how his wife was going to transition into her new life. I donated to the GoFundMe and prayed for them. I didn’t notice fear creeping in.
But then I went to check on the “hermit out back.” I knew she could get pretty worked up over even the littlest thing. Perhaps some reassurance or a little splash of sunshine would ease her worries about pandemics and mortal husbands.
I thought I could cheer up Old Lady Fear by noting how well I’d been doing and how I’d gotten to that point, but she stopped me and raised a wizened, pale finger. “You know,” she croaked out in a half whisper, “when the bad news hit my roof, I said, ‘Ope! There goes the other shoe.'” She smiled proudly, like she’d been looking forward to that moment for quite some time. “I’d offer to have you in for some tea, dear, but you’d better get cracking on that side gig if you want to keep your family afloat. Goodness knows you won’t be catching a new husband.”* She crinkled out a grotesque wink at me before crowing to herself, “Now to make a nice pot of shoe-drop tea. . . can’t let a good shoe go to waste.”
I left her to steep in the bad news.
I’m not sure why I let her live so close to my home. She’s not only grouchy and dour, she’s also a hoarder. I’d really like to see her and her “treasures” move along, but she notices everything and would flip out if I took them away.
Plus her knack for noticing potential threats feels useful, so I like to keep her around to provide surveillance. Most of the time I smile and nod, let her have her moment, and then go back to my life.
But the closer I get to evicting her forever (“after all that I’ve done for you!”), the closer I get to wondering if she’s been right all along. Maybe I should have been more prepared for the worst. Maybe I should have white-knuckled my way to success instead of developing my way there.
Because the more fully I embrace my writing, the more Old Lady Fear seems to “drop by” with some new version of, “You really ought to be more focused on that book if you think it’s going to pay for this–” she looks around with a haughty air as she finds the right words, “–frivolous waste of space you call a home.”
She gathers up the fallen shoes from her tree and tries trick me into making something out of them. Shoe-drop tea didn’t work, so she packages the shoes up as gifts.
Sometimes the shoes have little emoji faces drawn on them as if they’ll connect me to my feelings. Other times they come with a cute pun to remind me of how clever I am. One even wore a tuxedo and top hat with a note that read, “Smile more! Your sour face won’t attract a replacement husband ;).” Her little gifts hit me like bad news, but they look so harmless when she hands them to me that I’ve been letting them stay, at least until I have time to round them up and take them to a donation site.
Except that now it isn’t just old shoes piling up. It’s all the cruddy stuff I thought I’d parted with permanently.
“Wait–what?! This throw pillow is from my people-pleasing set! Where did you get this?! Did you seriously dig it out of the garbage? The thing is rotted through on one side and has earwigs crawling out the other!”
I drop it in the garbage can and look up to see that she has dragged all sorts of shoddy beliefs back into my home–false narratives, perfectionist’s rules, impossible standards, even the imagined slights from others.
“No! I got rid of all this stuff so I could finally breathe! What makes you think you can just drag it all back into my home?! You don’t even own this place!!”
I try to lock her out, but every door and window is like a Hydra. The moment I lock one, two more appear, and they’re both unlocked.
I begin flinging the filth out the windows, sobbing in my defeat. “I was about to invite my husband and children into this place permanently, and now even I can’t live here!”
I fall against a moldy old sofa named, “I’m Too Confused to Make a Decision” and let the tears take over. “There, there,” the old lady soothes. “I’m here. I always knew you would need this stuff again. Let’s just take a moment to get our bearings again. We’re going to make this place as safe as it ever was.”
I hear her packing away my dangerous new thoughts, the ones that keep me aligned with my true self. Then she busies herself with the feelings of Love and Compassion I’ve developed. “We won’t be needing these anymore, will we?” She holds the beautiful blooms at arm’s length, their stems like a dead rat’s tail, as she drops them into the waste bin.
She pauses in her bustling about to exclaim, “Oh, I do believe my delivery is here! I went searching through the past and found some real goodies. Just you wait!”
I hear the beeping of a dump truck preparing to shift its burden onto my front yard. With energy I didn’t know I still had, I careen out the front door, flag down the driver, and tell him in no uncertain terms that his load needs to go straight to the incinerator. And since he’s already muddied up my driveway, I’m going to ask him to wait while I shove a few more things into his truck.
While Old Lady Fear protests my every move, I pack up all her garbage and slam the tailgate shut. Then I tell her that we’re going for a little walk. I assist her to the passenger seat and address the driver, “Hey there, Old Man Memory! This little lady is a whiz at finding garbage. If she tells you to stop for something, here’s what you do: You pick it up, tell it thank you for serving its purpose, and then you burn it. Got it? No matter what excuse she throws at you, tell her it’s time to let it go.”
And that’s how I made the fearful part of me useful instead of letting her take over again. I will probably need to remind Old Man Memory of our arrangement all day every day for a while. I can already see his dump truck pulling back into my yard with him sitting in the passenger seat, a sheepish look on his face. Old Lady Fear is so persuasive and acts so caring. I understand why he let her keep the garbage and take the wheel. But he’ll learn. Our future memories depend on it.
In the future, I plan to never remember the version of 2020 that Old Lady Fear has been creating alongside the narrative my true self draws from. I know courage and joy drove me forward on this path of writing, not some fear that I might be left without the means to provide for my family. And even if that were my motivation, I know preparation is a wise move, not merely a response to fear. As I keep writing, I may be discouraged at times, and I might have to try a few approaches to get the humility I need, but fear will lose. I will find a way because faith and love and joy win in my book(s).
But if I ever think I’ve already lost to fear, I know a good editor. He has a way of making progress out of even the most stuck places I’ve been. Hope is always an option looking forward or back.
* Not that it stopped her from acting like a miserly old matchmaker for me, bless her heart. Which horrified me at first, but I have since learned I am not the first stay-at-home mom whose brain reacted to potential spousal loss this way.