What’s a nice Protestant girl like you doing with a glow-in-the-dark rosary?

Sometimes stopping is harder than starting.

The following post is my response to this Quest 2015 prompt by Charlie Gilkey:

“Pursue knowledge, daily gain. Pursue Tao (wisdom), daily loss.” – Tao Te Ching

We often think too much about adding new things, when the source of a lot of our growth is eliminating old things.

What do you need to STOP doing in 2015?

I’ve been avoiding answering this question for days.

This question and I have a love/hate relationship.

I love it because it aligns with a path I’ve been on now for a couple of years–a path toward minimalism. My journey began when I was working as a professional organizer. For two years, I saw other people’s junk–mountains of it. As I got to know clients through organizing and time management sessions, I became intimately acquainted with their stuff, and more often than not, it rocked me to my core.

There is so much stuff in this world. Stuff that isn’t necessary. Stuff that isn’t used or wanted. Stuff that might be useful if the people who hoard it could release their death-grip on it and get it to the people who don’t have enough. Stuff that will never in a million years be useful to anyone. I have a souvenir from my organizing days, a reminder of how far we’ve taken the ridiculousness of ownership in our culture. It’s a glow-in-the-dark plastic rosary, a freebie from St. Joseph’s Indian School.

You can’t make this stuff up.

A glow-in-the-dark plastic rosary. From St. Joseph’s Indian School. I can’t even begin to enumerate all the things that are wrong with the existence of this object.

I wonder how many glow-in-the-dark rosaries there are out there in the untamed wilds of closets and the far reaches of distant cabinets. How many actual ones. How many metaphorical ones. It’s this kind of wondering, and its attendant implications, that has steered me down a path toward minimalism.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on paring down my possessions. It’s amazing how addictive this becomes, how liberating it is. How many people who otherwise love me have obviously begun to wonder if I am some kind of lunatic. But I know that this path is right for me. It’s in line with all that I believe, with how I know I want to move through this world.

The thing is, getting rid of stuff is the easy part. It’s the minimalizing of other aspects of life that’s truly soul-wrenching. After I pared down my things, I began to pare down my commitments. I simplified my schedule so that I could focus on the essential–my family, my writing.

But I’ve done a horrible job of focusing on myself.

Just typing that feels weird. It feels self-centered, egotistical, even hedonistic. After all, I’m a good Protestant girl. The spiritual descendant of Pilgrimmy folk. Puritans. Work-hard-and-do-your-duty peeps. Compound that with being an oldest child (the weight of the entire freaking world is on my shoulders!!) and being a woman (it is my job to do ALL THE THINGS!!) and a mother (LIVES are at stake!! Or psyches, at least!!), and you will begin to understand just how cluttery it is inside my head.

It’s a hot mess in here, yo. And not “hot” as in “smokin’,” but “hot” as in “the fires of hell.” (That whole “hot mess” thing confused me for a long time).

Today I decided to stop procrastinating and tackle this question of stopping. I started with a list. Because, you know, oldest child.

This is it, in all its raw stream-of-conscious-y messiness:

  • stop being self-destructive: get more sleep, stop bashing myself, eat better, exercise more
  • stop expecting too much of myself
  • stop trying to micromanage everything
  • stop trying to be perfect
  • stop putting off my own writing and creativity
  • stop putting myself last
  • stop wasting time online

That’s where it ended, because it was exhausting me already. And because each item on it represents some way in which I am failing myself. I am not taking care of me. I know, I know, I’m supposed to secure my own mask before assisting other passengers. I stink at that. And it also stinks that I live in a culture that glorifies that kind of stupidity as some kind of noble self-sacrifice, particularly for mothers.

I thought I knew where I was going with this post. I thought it was going to be about stopping being hard on myself, and it sort of is, but as I write, I’m finding something else here, too. There’s some kind of weird, messed-up competition happening in our society, and it’s not the so-called “Mommy Wars” or even a women’s issue. It’s a people issue, and it’s the insistence that our value is found in busyness, that we’re not important unless we’re stressed-out to the max and we’re not valuable unless we’re constantly trying to make our bodies hotter and our houses cleaner and posher and our kids more accomplished and we’re all displaying all these things on Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram in perfectly backlit photos with The. Best. Captions. EVER!!!

And this girl with the glow-in-the-dark rosary is DONE. I am tired of worshipping at this altar. I’m tired of constantly trying to be better, to do more, to perfect my waistline or my complexion or my wardrobe or my cuisine or my resume or my children’s athletic/academic/cultural/musical/underwaterbasketweaving abilities. Well, it’s not that I really was ever actually actively working on any of these things, but I’ve definitely been letting the pressure get to me. And I am over it. Because it’s all so many plastic beads, like that Mardi Gras crap that, let’s be honest, is super-shiny but has this grody chemical smell when you get too close to it. That you have to bare your boobs or sell your soul or otherwise compromise your integrity to gain. That is going to end up, some day, in some cosmic landfill somewhere with all the other stuff that we just had to have.

So this is what I’ve realized. This is why the question has been eating me alive [shakes fist at Charlie Gilkey]–because, while I’ve done a pretty darn good job of shedding the physical crap and even the time commitments, I haven’t even started with the stuff that really matters. The soul-stuff.

Once (okay, not once, who am I kidding, more than once), I found cobwebs in the corners of my house that were so old that the spiders who made them had kicked it, leaving the cobwebs to gather an impressive layer of dust. I’m imagining right now that this is what it looks like in my psyche. Even the flippin’ cobwebs are dusty.

But here’s my problem. I’m always trying to do better, be better. I’m forever embarking on some self-improvement project. I’m constantly compelled to refine myself, to burn away the dross, to make myself a better me. Now, though, in grappling with Gilkey’s question, I’m not sure why I’ve been doing this. Am I really so awesome that I just keep desperately needing to be more awesome, or am I trying to keep up with something else, someone else, some alien culture in which I barely speak the language?

I am a dynamo, and not in some kickbutt sense. I just don’t stop moving. I never settle into where I am. As soon as I’ve fixed something, it just makes me want to fix about 50,000 other things, every one of them bringing a sense of desperate, gnawing urgency.

And, frankly, this wears me out.

So I’ve decided. I’m going to stop starting. I’m going to stop trying so hard. Or, at least, when I feel really compelled to change something, I’m going to ask myself why. 

I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I think I feel a little better. I feel like this is a really half-baked post, but maybe not in a You need to fix this RIGHT NOW, YOUNG LADY way. Maybe in a good way. Maybe in a becoming way. And maybe, just maybe, if I leave it alone, if I don’t poke it with a stick and keep checking on it to see how it’s coming along, these thoughts will metamorphose into what they need to become.

I think it’s time to stop.

I’m going to go play with my glow-in-the-dark rosary now. Or maybe eat too many cookies. But either way, I’m going to stop poking this post and just leave it alone for a while.