I write for a living. By that, I don’t mean, as some erroneously assume, that I occasionally get a check here and there and use it to pay for splurge items like Italian ice. No, I write to pay the mortgage and for clothes and for food and, hopefully some day, for the kid’s college education and my eventual retirement. As a result, I write a lot, and not everything I write is glamorous. I get paid very little, for instance, to write compelling stories about my life. I get paid a lot to write tips. That’s the nature of things.
Lately I’ve had a lot of tips to write. In just one week, there was a story for Prevention . Also, were three stories for a corporate publication. I was also writing about mindful eating. And, among the more interesting assignments, was a narrative tale for Reader’s Digest about hoarding.
It was a lot, and I felt grateful that the husband and son were gone — far away on a road trip. There would be no one around to ask me questions while I was in the middle of concocting a bad analogy. There would be none of that intense guilt when the son asked me to toss a ball in the backyard and I said, “In a minute” when I really meant “in five hours,” and I knew he knew it.
It was just me and the keyboard.
But it really wasn’t, you see. It was also me and an empty fridge that needed to be filled. Me and a stomach that complained of hunger. Me and a dog who enjoys a certain amount of attention. Me and several friends who happened to be in the middle of various crises. Me and a load of volunteer work that, as my good fortune would have it, all really needed to be completed on the same timetable as my work deadlines. For the past week, I’ve been up with the sun, and I’ve been working late into the night. I’ve been as out of balance as a person can be, and it was the best thing that ever happened. Why? Because I learned a lot: about my self, about life, about happiness, and about beets. Yes, beets. Intrigued? Read the list.
- Many time-management experts compare life to a pie, saying that, for peace of mind, you must have equal sized slices for family, work, self-care, spirituality, and friends. Well, you know what? Pie isn’t your life. It’s something you eat, usually when your life is out of balance. In reality, life is like your kitchen cabinets. You probably keep many items in your cabinets that you don’t use very often, things like rice and ice cream cones and those rainbow colored sprinkles that are probably killing us all slowly. You keep other things there that you use every day. But occasionally, you sort around those cabinets and you find a treasure, say a jar of Nutella. And you think: Where did this little piece of happiness come from? And suddenly it’s you and Nutella for days. Life is like that. Rather than go on, I’ll just let you ponder Nutella for a while. You’re welcome.
- Life is also like an ER. When people come to the ER, they are not treated the same. The person who comes in with a missing arm and blood splattering all over the walls is going to get treated a lot more quickly than the person who comes in with the common cold. That’s triage, taking the most urgent cases first, but also never forgetting that the less urgent ones are waiting. Each day, during the past week, I mentally sorted: What needs my attention now? (The friend in crisis, the deadline at the end of the day, the hunger) Soon? (The upcoming deadline, the other friend whose crisis isn’t as extreme, the dog who needs a walk) What can wait til July? (My nightly habit of watching Modern Family reruns, the friends who are not in crisis, everything that doesn’t have a deadline). What doesn’t need my attention at all? More about this later.
- Speaking of the ER, when one is super busy with looming deadlines and friends in crisis, the last thing one wants is go to the ER on a Saturday evening and wait to see a doctor. Just fyi: If you’ve been eating a lot of beets, you probably don’t have stage 4 kidney cancer and stage 4 colon cancer. Also, you can save yourself a lot of time by Googling, “Should I go to the ER because…” before you go to the ER. Again, you’re welcome.
- Just as an FYI, all health writers think they have undiagnosed cancer lurking throughout their bodies and about to kill them at any moment.
- If you’re life is going to be wildly out of balance, you need to take excellent care of yourself. For a nearly vegan vegetarian, that meant I needed to eat super healthy, so I went to the grocery store and bought a ton of greens and beets. (Just FYI: beets are full of iron and see point #3). It also meant that I would walk every day, and I tried to do yoga whenever possible. I also took periodic meditation breaks, just sitting in my office chair and, for a few minutes, just breathing.
- Sometimes, no matter how much you still need to do, your brain goes on strike. You could get all weepy and emotional when this happens. You could worry that your brain just isn’t what it used to be. You might even put a note on your calendar to have your doctor check you for early dementia. (Note: Many health writers think they have this, too). Or, you could just walk loops around your house, sit and cuddle with your dog, call that friend who isn’t in crisis, wash the dishes in the sink, eat more beets, sit outside and listen to the birds, take a meditation break, go for a walk, or take a shower because, just-so-you-know, you really need one. Your brain cells have not died. They will work again.
- People will get testy with you, especially if they were counting on you to do something and you either didn’t do it on their timeline or you did it so badly that it would have been better to not do it at all. This isn’t the end of the world. Truly it’s not. Trust me, when the world ends, there will be a big, unmistakable fire ball. No fire ball? The world hasn’t ended. Here’s what to do: be vulnerable. Say you wish you were better, stronger, smarter. Apologize. They will forgive you, often right away.
- There will be times when you get all grumpy and think, “I can’t believe I have to work this hard. It’s not fair. Why do some people have private airplanes, but I have a roof that leaks? Why!?!” When this happens, remind yourself that you’ve chosen to do this work. Sure, you didn’t choose to have bills to pay, but you did choose your profession. You wanted this. Also, consider the alternative: the not having work. Some people have that problem. Let me tell you: not having work can make you as anxious as having too much of it. And if that doesn’t work, consider what it might be like to be an elephant in Kenya, a mosquito who must risk his life every time he wants to eat dinner, or just someone who has much less than you do. There, not so bad, right? You’re damn fortunate. You know how to read, and you have time to read this post. Happiness comes from within. You already have everything a person could possibly need.
- You can ask for help. You really can. You can delegate. No one will see you as weak, and few people will feel put upon. The vast majority of people in your life will consider it an honor. By asking for help, you’ll see this, and your heart will grow all warm and gooey inside. You’ll feel so loved, and it will be wonderful.
- And yet, there will be moments when you are torn, when you feel you need to be in two places at once, when the world needs you, but you can’t help the world. Understand that this is the problem of the meaningful life. And, use the advice that a good friend offered to me this week: aspire to emanate. That’s what Buddhas are known to do: be in more than one place at once. How awesome would it be to send part of your mind to the friend who really needs someone to talk to and another part of it to your writing task and still another part to your poor dog who thinks the world will end if she doesn’t find someone to scratch her itchy little neck? Just consider it, even if you think I’ve just rolled something and am smoking it as I type these words. You don’t have to have an ounce of faith to know this: It would be amazing, awesome, and all the other positive words in the dictionary. So just think, “Someday, I will be that person. Someday, I’ll be more.” This is how you train to be more: by being out of balance, by striving, by biggering your mind, your motivation, your effort, and the number of words you can type in a minute. Then look back. See that, in the past, you were less. Five, ten, twenty years ago, you would not have ever thought about life being like an ER. You would not have known how to tell which friend most needed you, and which one would be okay with you not returning a call for a while. You wouldn’t have known how to listen when the friend who needed you the most sounded as if she she were having a panic attack. You wouldn’t have know that, to help her, what you most needed to do and be was this: at peace.
So embrace your out-of-balance life. Know that you can’t get it all done, but you can choose each moment and make each and every one of them meaningful.
And, by all means, you can also do this: eat more beets.
Note: Yes, there are typos and errors in this post. You know why? I triaged and decided that I didn’t have time to proof read it. If you caught a typo or ten, feel smart. Point them out, if you’d like. Consider it a kindness. Do it in the comments. Have a discussion. Be awesome. And if you are reading by email, click through to comment.