“My therapist told me to be kind to myself.”
It was 9 pm, and I was driving home from the downtown Whole Foods, where—as I was telling A over the phone—I had made a post-therapy pit stop to impulse purchase a pair of expensive probiotic beverages along with an eighteen dollar, copper-colored tube of organic mascara.
A paused. “Do you even wear mascara?”
An hour earlier, I had practically lunged between our couches as aforementioned (new) therapist asked whether my current load of responsibilities constitutes my normal.
“Do you do this often?” She asked, her expression curdled to one of grave concern. “Overcommit?”
“No!” I said, perhaps too loud. “No. I do not.”
It is a terrible thing to be misunderstood, and especially terrible in the context of therapy. So I hastily explained that, contrary to my current reality, in general my life is not this way.
In general, I told her, my life is rather leisurely: for the three years since earning a pretty low-impact graduate degree (let’s be honest: my “dissertation” was a story about my life), I have strung together just enough work to afford a (low-cost, Midwestern city-based) lifestyle—one that leaves a surfeit of time for my own (haphazardly disciplined) writing, very regular exercise, and a pretty active social life. Also in general, I am single.
Which is to say that all the things that are generally true for me are, presently, not so much.
My therapist replied with a skeptical nod. The gravely worried look remained.
Your face may have looked similar, had I listed off (as I had for her) all that’s been going on in the last two months: how I’ve begun a new, intense teaching job (one that involves regular grading of eighty composition papers, two thirty-minute daily commutes, and conflicts with my long-beloved exercise class routine) at the same time that I’ve entered a new relationship at the same time that duties with both my prison work and freelance writing have amped up, at the same time that I have had to travel across the country four times in eight weeks to the bachelorettes and subsequent weddings for my two oldest, best friends.
Like I said: not normal.
And you can probably guess at how my nervous system has responded—not well.
Hence: kombucha and expensive beauty products that I rarely remember to use.
Here’s the thing about me and yoga: since first taking up with it five years ago, I have not been faithful. I’ve dipped in and out, for some stretches going every day, for others neglecting the practice in favor of sweatier, less mindful things like boot camp and running.
When I have turned to it, it’s been for a range of reasons: at first it was a post-break-up respite; later, a haven from drama-frought grad school moments. Sometimes I’ve gone for the activity, sometimes for the quiet, often for the simple act of leaving my phone at home and being reminded to take long breaths.
Last Thursday, between bad rush hour traffic and a bike ride/movie date with the dude, I managed to squeeze in a class.
And as the gentle-voiced teacher warmed us up with instructions for moving our arms and fingers and ankles and toes, I thought: this. This is the reason that, in this moment, yoga feels so valuable.
This being one hour in which someone else tells me what to do.
I rarely think up certain words or ideas when yoga teachers invite you to conjure an intention for class. But on Thursday, as I filled with gratitude for having a stranger control some small chunk of time, I thought of the word surrender.
There are so many ways in which our culture encourages us to assert authority over our lives. Our relationships, too, and careers and creative achievements. We are founded on the idea, after all, of self-reliance—the perverse notion that we can achieve anything through our own work.
But in infinite ways, our control is limited: our efforts mitigated by stronger forces—other people often among them. And as valuable as it is to pursue our goals and be disciplined and persevere, it can be just as necessary to give in.
Especially right now, but pretty much always, I feel a low-lying anxiety about not doing enough—not working enough, not writing enough, not being a good enough aunt or daughter or teacher or friend. (Often, this is true.)
But this anxiety is rarely productive. I hear that people exist (such as, evidently, the kind philosophy professor down the hall who has taken to checking in with me while making copies, occasionally taking a staple or two and always leaving a nugget of teaching or life-related advice), who, respond to busyness with relentless and efficient efforts to manage their time.
My response, on the other hand, is to get so overwhelmed as to feel panicked, and then paralyzed—such that I do nothing but lean back in my windowless office chair, stalk strangers on Facebook, feel horribly guilty for all the things I should be doing but am not, and daydream about sex. (Oh, hello, Thirty-One-Year-Old Female Body, is there something you’re trying to say? Sheesh.)
Fortunately, I can most often summon the tools to override this tendency. I meet deadlines. Eventually, uncomfortably, I do get things done.
But in this transitional moment, with all those normals upended and my nervous system in a basic state of what the fuck, that yoga class seemed like a significant reminder that giving myself kindness can mean, in some moments, giving in.