Art is a gift. It's as simple as that. I was born with an imagination rich with infinite shapes and dimensions, and even more colors to wrap them in. It has been a personal frustration of mine, that these beautiful creations have rarely been manifested on paper or canvas, with the intricate detail I could see them within my own mind's eye. However imperfect in my own artistic merit, I have been blessed with the sight to gaze upon others' vision of the world around them, while absorbing representations of emotion that couldn't hope to be captured in words, but only color, strokes, and explosive textures. While language is powerful enough to blanket my heart with awe, visual offerings can leave me equally dumbfounded. Perhaps it's my empathic spirit, but with each piece, I can feel the complexity of the artist's persona as they purge their overflowing muse into the world, with a glimmer of hope that it will touch another, or simply, that it's mere existence will free the artist from the torment of singular ownership.
Back in 2001, there was a delightful RomCom entitled Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. It was a predictable, yet heart-warming tale of love within the context of fate. The idea that something invisible might pull two people together, with such absolute and undeniable force, left me feeling comforted. Something is watching, and masterfully placing pieces of a puzzle together over time, providing me an outcome I can trust is meant for me. It's a nice idea isn't it? Granted, given time and a hearty helping of life, things can seem less shiny. My context of serendipity, or happy accident, casts a wider net than the limited romanticism of my 20's. When living life through the lense of gratitude, I have started to see a more inclusive manifestation of serendipity. It can be found everywhere, if you're looking.
I am so fortunate. At this season of life, I'm able to work doing something I truly love, every single day. How many people can say that? I imagine that all of us have been subject to a character building job once or twice in life. I myself, have had so many of these positions, that I have character oozing out of my eyeballs. There appears to be quite the trend in popular culture to complain about younger generations lacking a work ethic, exhibiting entitlement, or general laziness. I don't have much of an opportunity to work with younger people in my line of work anymore, so I don't know how accurate these assumptions are. What I can say, is that I have had a job since the moment it was legal for me to work. Sure, I've complained about working in the past, trying to skirt by with less than enthusiastic effort in my younger years, but overall- I've been an exemplary employee in most positions.
Since I was a tiny person, I have savored alone time as a precious commodity. Given whatever circumstance I was grappling in the real world, I could become completely engulfed in my own thoughts. Whether it be composing a future rich with witty banter, or greeting conflict with poise, I found the answers by myself. It's curious to me, why people would find it sad or pathetic for a person to eat, shop, watch movies, or do any activity solo. I find it refreshing and liberating. Introverts are typically people who are recharged and refreshed by spending time alone, while extroverts derive their energy from others. You've met those social butterflies, always eager to run off to other plans and delighted with their full dance card. Myself, while I enjoy time with my friends, colleagues and patients, I require time on my own to reflect, create, and meditate on the world around me, in order to promote emotional wellness.
This weekend was a mad house. The holidays can be particularly challenging, when navigating celebratory meetings, gift exchanges, and baking binges. All of this coupled with daily responsibilities of being an unconditionally supportive single parent, housekeeper, cook, and counselor to the masses. I'm down with that. I often make jokes about volunteering for cloning experiments, and feel well-versed in the art of time management, out of survival if nothing else. My planner is a thing of beauty, and I cherish it with my very life. Every year, I make it a habit to focus on the goals I would like to accomplish in the coming months, celebrating the squeaky clean slate offered to me in a new calendar to fill with obligations, coffee dates, and scheduled workouts. It gets me giddy. One of the things I enjoy the most, is figuring out what feeling I want to invite into my world. Danielle LaPorte(one of the powerhouse figures I admire) states in her bestselling book The Desire Map, that you need to focus on the feeling you want to evoke in life, not just single events that leave you feeling disappointed and empty when they are over. My desired "feeling" has always been freedom. FREEDOM! (Enter George Michael).
Every time I tell someone I used to be a smoker, they look at me as if I'm trying to play a trick on them. As if it couldn't possibly be, this educated mostly-together professional used to engage in such a nasty habit that leads to premature aging, and all sorts of nasty diseases. Yep. I sure did. Not only that- I loved the heck out of it. I talk about smoking the way some reflect on a past lover. It was really love at first sight...or puff. I was a teenager, skulking the streets of downtown on some weekend with my best friend, when she pulled out a pack of Winston cigarettes and a lighter. I remember thinking that this is one of those peer pressure moments you see in after school specials. The just say no kind of deal, without the crying child yelling "I learned it from you!" to his dad. It wasn't drugs. It was cigarettes! That's not as bad right? I remember my big brother used to smell like smoke sometimes, and the Chinese restaurant down the street always smelled awful from the stench of stale tobacco you could likely scrape off the wallpaper. I figured, it wasn't a big deal. No way would I ever turn into one of those old, wrinkly, horse-voiced, skinny people on oxygen, counting their days -and their breath until their last. I don't think anyone ever thinks that with their first cigarette. I took my first puff and thought- what's the big deal? Then my friend informed me that I didn't inhale. I guess she figured that I should be coughing. She was right. With my second puff, I could feel my lungs weeping- immediately followed by this wave of absolute dizzy, light-headed pleasure. Woah. THAT'S why people smoke. That was amazing. With each drag, came another wave of joy. I thought to myself, I could get used to this.
This may come as a shock to you, but social workers get burned out. It's true. There is this perfect balance we all try to reach- somewhere between being a superhero, and collapsing in pile of goo on the ground. Being human can be extremely frustrating at times. My heart is literally always in the game, but my psyche doesn't always muster up the "umph" that I would like to bring to the table. I get so much fulfillment from creative expression, friendships, professional growth, and parenting- but at the end of the day- how much is left? I've talked about self-care before. In fact, it was one of the first articles I published on this bad boy. For good reason. Self-care is the only way to survive in the world of mental health without ending up on the other side of the couch (and believe me, I've been there). Usually, burnout sneaks up so slowly that you can't even see it coming. One day- the world is darker and the couch is comfier, and before you know it- you've lived off of carbs and sugar for months, lost touch with friends, and got a little fluffier around the middle. No thank you!
We are all raised with an idea of what family looks like. Whether it's Ken and Barbie, or Adam and Eve, people usually start their family in pairs. While I've talked about the perils of single parenthood in the past, I've also managed to find the most unique and special gratitude gems to fill my tank through this adventure called parenting. Last weekend, I was invited to a birthday party for a special little munchkin that is connected to me in this giant patchwork quilt of my modern family. These events come up during the year, soccer games, birthdays, Christmas... where we find all of our connections in one room. As I crossed the community center to grab some chips and hummus, I found myself hugging Charlotte's step-brother's grandparents, uncle, baby sister, and his step-mama in one fell swoop. I banter with Charlotte's stepmom about her fabulous new jeans, as I watch my daughter's little sister prance around showing off her new 4-year-old dance moves. Baby daddy is teasing me about something (probably my age), while our daughter braids his beard. We do all this while navigating appetizers and juice boxes- adding another year to our memory bank of our kiddos growing up too fast.
During the pivotal years of latter adolescence, most find themselves flailing to capture a persona that feels authentic yet entirely unique, while ironically emulating others. During this time, it's not uncommon to try on different hair colors, college courses (hello ecofeminism), social groups, and music taste. This identity eventually chizzles itself into a perfect and one-of-a-kind you. While these years are excruciating with confusion and misdirection, there are beautiful passions born and nourished here. Pieces that feel like home, even after a lifetime has passed. One big chunk of my insides were fashioned from the feelings evoked from the musical goddess- Miss Ani Difranco.
Last week I was struck with a mighty bug. The kind of bug that most certainly graduated at the top of it's class. It appeared to be gifted in the art of misery. As often as I try to push myself through anything because I am known throughout the masses as a stubborn and resilient gal- it just wasn't happening. One good part of this temporary state of quarantine- rest. I was able to sleep, watch Netflix in excess, and to boot- I had a break from parenting. Thank goodness. The only major problem was telepathically willing the kitchen to my bedroom for a cold beverage that didn't even exist. A friend of mine offered to hop a flight from PDX to get me an ice cold gatorade, but I declined. That would be a bit much. The offer was certainly appreciated, and goes down in the books as one of the most exceptionally awesome imaginary gestures I have ever received.
This morning, as I drove my daughter to school, she told me she felt like she was overflowing with gratitude, and just wanted to keep telling me thank you. I asked her what she wanted to thank me for, and she paused and said, "you just do so much for me." Wow. Big mama moment. Later on the tone of the conversation changed when she blurted with exasperation, "What did you expect? My mom is obsessed with gratitude!" As far as obsessions go, I think I'm doing pretty well. The Kardashians? Nope. Football season? Dear God no. Gratitude? Absolutely. Plus, the fruit of these efforts keep giving back in life, and in my family. For instance- this whole social work gig. I still can't believe it's been nearly 10 years since I started grad school. I'm pretty sure I live in a time machine set on "fast forward," so my daughter's childhood can whiz by as quickly as possible. That being said, I'm surprised I've been a social worker as long as I have. It seems as though it was just yesterday that I was swallowing my internal terror when talking about death with someone. Now I'm happy to talk about death, or discuss bodily functions while eating viscous foods. Not a blink. Social work has been quite a gift to me, and I have been utterly honored to contribute to that path for others. Today I am thankful to pay it forward.
Have you ever watched Gilmore Girls? Well if you haven't, you should for a variety of reasons I can itemize for you at a later date. If you have, you know what I'm talking about. The lead character Lorelei has this sixth sense about winter coming. Almost every season, she wakes up from a dead sleep with the "feeling" that it's about to snow. She's never wrong. She can smell it. I have that same skill for detecting the onset of autumn. While others are still squeezing the last joyous outdoor adventures from their summer, my little feelers go on high alert for the moment I smell the leaves starting to change. It's a feeling that totally covers me in a giddy blanket of possibility. Let me tell you why.
There are many types of people in this world. When I was a kiddo, I used to get so upset with myself that my interests weren't seen as valuable to this world, at least monetarily. I remember in elementary school, one of my teachers actually told me to pay more attention to english and art, because boys were just better at math and science. While I'm sure I internalized this on some level, I have certainly felt an affinity to creative subjects since (I imagine) my first breath. My interests have not always correlated with natural talent. I love music, but creating it took so much time and effort, that my efforts waned. Art is a passion of mine, but representational depictions of images weren't in my skillset. I prefered stylized or abstract work. Again, not seen as valuable among popular culture in the art world. But writing? Yes please. As a young girl, I felt connected to characters like Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie), and Jo March (Little Women). All writers, and powerful role models.
When you're used to going 100 mph through life, it takes a while to learn to rest. I'm one of those people that only relaxes during the last ten minutes of a 90 minute massage. It's not because I'm a total stress case, I'm just an excessively busy person. If it wouldn't break every HIPAA law on the planet, I'd let you take a looksy at my weekly planner. It appears that I'm collecting the next mass census. Nope, that's just my patient load. Sometimes I look at my schedule on Monday morning, and break into a hyena-like laugh. While a stranger would question my mental status, my co-workers see my face and offer me empathy, while expressing gratitude for their chosen profession- not social work. I love my job. I love almost everything about helping other people for a living. My only complaint- human limitations. As my magic wand is utterly useless at reducing the price of pulmonary prescriptions for people that can't breathe. That being said, I've got it pretty good.
I've never been one of those people that just can't wait to curl up with a good book. You know who I'm talking about. They may be working on one, but they have a pile of five backups they're just itching to start. Fiction irritates me. (Take note that none of my complaints apply to anything written by J.K. Rowling. I mean...obviously- PUN)! I went through a pretty good "coming of age" themed reading trend in the early 2000's, but for the most part I prefer non-fiction books that teach me something. My attention cannot be held while a classic writer spends ten pages just setting up a scene. Come on. I have very little free time, and if I do catch a moment to actually sit down after work, I am likely to binge watch something on Netflix and rest my eyes after a ten hour day of counseling, and paperwork. I realize you watch Netflix with your eyeballs. Just go with me here. So you're thinking, thankful for books huh? I'm not feeling it. Wait a sec.
I would like to paint a picture for you. A beautiful life. Great love, children, and fulfilling career executed with absolute knowledge and expertise. You are able to reminisce with high school friends, the exact clothes Mr. Such-and-such wore while smelling of pipe tobacco and talking to girls' chests instead of their faces. You remember your first kiss, adolescent fumbles and every argument with your first boyfriend. Broken hearts, choices of all kinds, college. Your favorite song mimicked perfectly, every pause seamless. The computer system at your first job, passcodes for things you haven't accessed in years. Your first cell phone ringtone. All of this perfectly shapes your history to this moment. Every experience a puzzle piece that makes you- YOU.
In my earlier years, I didn't have the appreciation for my body that comes with age. It seems as though you never notice how much you need your thumb, until you smash it in a car door and think, "I miss my happy thumb!" I think that's true of all of us. As teens, we eat as much junk as possible. It's not unusual to spend the majority of the week's meals dining at a place with a drive-thru. Not only that, but alcohol, or recreational drugs- come on! How much abuse can a body endure? Health is a blessing that goes uncounted until something jars you into awareness. That may be a family member's illness, a friend's struggle, or any number of influences.
My daughter and I went to a department store last week, and she exclaimed with (semi) concern and delight, "Back to school supplies!!!" My daughter loves school. Granted, getting her to complete her homework in a timely manor is a lot like pulling teeth out of a crocodile, but since she's gifted, she likes the freedom to explore concepts, and solve problems- on her own timeline. I literally never felt excited about school as a child. Since I was chubby, and generally used as a target for rhyming slurs, I dreaded the drive to school to see what fateful assignment was posted on the entrance to Jackson Elementary. This paper instructed my mother on supplies, a list of my classmates, and the name of my new teacher. It was a lot like a prison sentence for me. School was never about learning, but about survival. If I hid in the bathroom stall during lunch hour, the bullies couldn't find me. Number one goal? Be invisible. Learning didn't make the ranks in priority.
I was raised in a bubble. My parents were brought up in the depression era, and entered their teen years in something not unlike the movie Pleasantville. I'm not exaggerating. My dad lettered in everything, mom led Sunday school, and looked very much like a Disney princess in her senior picture. I don't think anyone ever raised their voice in my house. Don't get me wrong, we had our own version of dysfunction like any family, but it was a far cry from the abusive homes that many are forced to endure. In fact, our favorite pastime was watching Little House on the Prairie, anticipating Harriet Oleson's narcissistic antics. This bubble was never confronted with things like violence or race.
The number one complaint I hear from patients is their never ending struggle with "busy brain." You've been there. You crawl into your cozy bed. It's quiet. The lights are off, and suddenly you think of the humiliating debate experience you had in 8th grade. Or the toilet paper you forgot to pick up at the grocery store, or that one guy's name you just can't remember! Egad! Make it stop!