Hinterland, Week Ten: Over to you, Shauna
True story: I don’t really have anything to share this week. I thought I could write about one thing, and then I thought I could write about another thing, and then I thought about making a list of things. And while I could write about any of those things and many others, I’d rather take a break and pass the mic to one of my favorite sharers of things, Shauna Niequist.
Shauna has a whole host of wise and true things to say, but given that we’re nearing the time in which we all resolve to be better at life, this excerpt from Bittersweet seemed especially relevant. It’s a story about people who seem to be able to do all of the things, and about people who want to be able to do all of the things, and the reality in between. I hope it’s as helpful for you as it has been for me.
A few years ago, at the very end of my frantic twenties, I was working more than full-time, all the while pricked with invisible needles of dissatisfaction, waking up in the night longing to write, buzzing through the days on coffee and adrenaline, wearing clothes that should have been taken to the dry cleaner six wearings ago. I was trying to think about becoming a mother. I knew it would change everything, but I couldn’t picture it, because no one ever can. I couldn’t see a way through to any other way of living, but I knew that there must be one. I saw women who were older than me, who did work they believed in and parented well, and, most surprisingly, didn’t seem nearly as frantic and chronically unkempt. I wanted what they had, and I had no idea how to get it.
Out to lunch one day with my friend Denise, I asked her about it. Denise is a mother of four, and a grandmother, and she works and writes and travels and cooks, and — most important to me at that time — she seems settled in some fundamental way. There’s something she knows about herself that I didn’t yet know about myself, certainly.
We were at the Blue Water Grill, on a beautiful lake, unless you’re from Grand Rapids, apparently, because then you know that it used to be a quarry, and to them it’s sort of like having lunch crater-side. But it’s beautiful to me, having only known it as a lake. We ate pesto pizza and spinach salad with red onion slivers and poppyseed dressing, and long after the food was cleared, we drank iced tea and watched the water.
And this is what Denise told me: she said it’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about. Her words from that day have been rattling around inside me for years now, twisting around, whispering, taking shape. Since that time we’ve worked together, traveled together, cried together, but when I think of her, I will always think of that day, and the wind on the fake lake, and the clarity and weight of those words.
I’m a list-keeper. I always, always have a to-do list, and it ranges from the mundane: go to the dry cleaner, go to the post office, buy batteries; to the far-reaching: stop eating Henry’s leftover Dino Bites, get over yourself, forgive nasty reviewer, wear more jewelry.
At one point, I kept adding to the list, more and more items, more and more sweeping in their scope, until I added this line: DO EVERYTHING BETTER. It was, at the time, a pretty appropriate way to capture how I felt about my life and myself fairly often. It also explains why I tended to get so tired I’d cry without knowing why, why my life sometimes felt like I was running on a hamster wheel, and why I searched the faces of calmer, more grounded women for a secret they all knew that I didn’t. This is how I got to that fragmented, brittle, lonely place: DO EVERYTHING BETTER.
The three together, DO EVERYTHING BETTER, are a super-charged triple threat, capturing in three words the mania of modern life, the anti-spirit, anti-spiritual, soul-shriveling garbage that infects and compromises our lives. And I’m the one who wrote those words on my very own to-do list. I’m in a lot of trouble with my own self for that, because the “do everything better” way of living brought me to a terrible place: tired, angry, brittle, afraid, hollow. And Denise’s words keep ringing in my ears, a song I had heard in the distance, like steel drums across the water, a song I want desperately to hear again.
She was right. Deciding what I wanted wasn’t that hard. But deciding what I’m willing to give up for those things is like yoga for your superego, stretching and pushing and ultimately healing that nasty little person inside of you who exists only for what people think.
It’s brutal, making the list of Things I Don’t Do, especially for someone like me, who refuses most of the time to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a limit to her personal ability to get things done. But I’ve discovered that the list sets me free. I have it written in black and white, sitting on my desk, and when I’m tempted to go rogue and bake muffins because all the other moms do, I come back to both lists, and I remind myself about the important things: that time is finite, as is energy. And that one day I’ll stand before God and account for what I did with my life. There is work that is only mine to do: a child that is ours to raise, stories that are mine to tell, friends that are mine to walk with. The grandest seduction of all is the myth that DOING EVERYTHING BETTER gets us where we want to be. It gets us somewhere, certainly, but not anywhere worth being.
And all God’s people said: Preach.