The Contrast In Waiting

One year ago, last December, I had two of the worst days my family has experienced. December 3rd was when we started to finally get answers for my mom’s increasing pain and December 10th she got the official diagnosis/prognosis. Those days were hard. I felt so much panic and so little hope. It was hard to imagine any future.

This year, December 3rd and December 10th will be marked by some wonderful things. Number One being that Mom is fine. Number The-Second-One being that I have acquired a puppy. I spent all day last week out on the far side of the state where I had traveled with the express purpose of meeting a puppy that I had already adopted into my heart. As it is part of a rescue program that carefully vets its prospective owners to ensure the dogs’ best interests are kept first and foremost, we could not adopt my new baby that day. We left, after an hour plus of cuddling and falling deeper in love, without even knowing whether we’d get to see the dear thing again.

Having to wait to hear back about the fate of my future furry friend was held in parallel to the waiting game we played a year ago, but was thankfully a much more positive thing to wait for, as well as a much shorter length of time. The rescue chose our family out of the 75 applicants for the litter of 4 puppies, and (mercifully) called early on Monday afternoon. I’m sitting here in peace and joy, cuddling a bundle of cute fuzzy energy, thankful that I am able to see the difference that a year brings. The future that I couldn’t see came, and even though it came with a lot of rough stuff, I got through it. Out on the other side, it’s easier to say that next time I might see the promise of a path through more easily. I pray that this experience means that even if I do go through worse valleys in the future, I will be able to have hope more readily.

I don’t take for granted the fact that this contrast is so stark, between a year ago and today. This is the future that I was too afraid to hope for, one where everyone is OK and things are actually going well! I feel like I’ve made it out from around a bend in the road and suddenly the landscape opened up with possibility again.

This year on December 12th, instead of answering the phone to hear of my grandma’s passing, I’ll be answering the door to hear of my family’s arrival for the holidays. Anticipating something pleasant makes it so much easier to be joyful. I don’t think that it’s just because of the change in my circumstances that I’m able to feel peace and hope. I don’t want to go through a year like 2016 again, but I have learned so many valuable things and grown so much that without this year I would be missing part of my identity.

As I look forward to an exciting season of happiness, the feeling is tinged with emotions from the past year. We have a lot to celebrate this year, but we had a lot to celebrate last year too. There is a lot to look forward to this year, but there was a lot this past year to look forward to as well. I’ve learned to live in anticipation, and how no matter what I plan in my head, the expectation never matches reality. I’ve decided that’s a good thing.

A Taste For Good Food

I remember nearly two decades ago, deciding that I was grown up and needed to behave like what I believe to be “more adult”. I asked for clothes for presents and chose a carrot cake with a skimpy amount of frosting spelling out “Happy 6th Birthday”. At that age I think I was realizing what it meant to be a “grown-up” but miss-attributing the symptoms of adulthood (making frugal and health conscious choices) with a way to achieve maturity.

It’s possible that my family’s recent experience of going fat-free or very low-fat over the course of the year leading up to that birthday contributed to my infantile sense to have almost no frosting and make my cake “healthy”, even if I didn’t really think it tasted that good. (I added frosting to each slice as I ate it, but failed to recognize the irony in my doing so.)

Nowadays, I still end up asking for clothes (adults are so hard to shop for!) and I’ve embarked on yet another attempt to pay attention to what balance of nutrition is going into my body. I have plenty of reasons to want to eat healthy, including a lot of family history risk that can be lowered by diet and exercise. But even with that incentive to practice healthy habits, I rarely remember to.

I’ve noticed that I am rarely motivated without a goal and a deadline. (Did someone say “procrastination“?) Eating healthy just to eat healthy isn’t enough to motivate me to do it, and neither is exercising enough itself to make me want to do it. Instead I have challenged myself to try to consistently meet step goals and make meal plans in order to “train” myself for a vacation.

I plan on needing to walk a lot on vacation, and I intend to watch what I’m eating as both a way to stay on budget and to fuel the adventure. At least with the reward of an exciting trip in the future I have a time limit to give myself some urgency. Then I won’t spend a-whole-nother year telling myself I’ll kick it into gear “next week” or “tomorrow”.

So far I’m enjoying the experiment in better food because it has gotten me out of my rut eating the same old food over and over. I’ve tried some flavors that I wouldn’t have expected to like, and I’ve found some unique ingredients that I’m surprisingly fond of. Right now my favorite is banana milk, or banana anything really. Yogurt, flour, bread, I’ve had them all in the past week. My next food related challenge is to balance my ambition with reality so I don’t end up making too many dishes to finish before the leftovers are beyond saving. Thankfully I should have plenty of mouths to feed my experiments to over the holiday season.

It’s hard to say that I expect anything more out of myself than the umpteen times I’ve tried this type of thing before. But this time at least the motivation isn’t just to feel grown up, it’s to actually act responsible for my body. Hopefully I’ll come back with more progress than topping off my healthy lifestyle with more “frosting”. In the meantime, I’ve got some incentive to practice!

Everybody’s Little Sister

Some days in life I like the feeling of being coddled like a younger sibling. As an eldest, any opportunity for this comes from someone outside of my family. Usually it comes from my friends. Almost all of my friends are older than me, by various degrees. I’ve got a group of people from college, people from church, and people from work, all of which are able to provide me their unique perspective on the world.

When I first arrived at college, I went from being the oldest in the group of people I spent time with, to being the youngest. From being a high school senior among a few dozen home schooled kids, some even a decade younger, to being a young freshman in an unfamiliar environment. I suddenly made a lot of friends, where I was used to having a small set of people I would interact with, who I had known for years. My bubble got a lot bigger and filled with people whose advice was valuable. Even though there were annoyances in my dorm experience, I truly felt adopted by many of the people I met in my first weeks of school.

While a lot of those friendships were formed by convenience, or forced community, I treasured the experience of being mentored and listened to by people who could have just as easily chosen to ignore me. I garnered a whole host of big brothers and sisters, whose life experiences I could use to gain some perspective outside of the insulated world I grew up in.

I loved that feeling. The sense of value from people’s willingness to give me their time and attention. I don’t presume that they all perceived me as their little sister, but in a lot of ways I felt treated that way: treasured and nurtured. It didn’t matter if I felt clueless or confused when there were so many people around to help me grow.

Many of the people who filled that role for me when I first reached college have passed out of my life. While a few of them disappeared from my life gradually, as I spent more time with certain friends, others grew distant themselves, or left the college altogether. I am glad to have met them, and experienced their comradery and kinship.

I still run into this feeling with most of the people I spend time with. I’m a very team oriented person. Always saw my own sisters as equals, and family unity is important to me. I care about the people around me in the same way. I value my team mates and friends as members of an extended family, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings.

I’ve mentally adopted all these relations as part of my emotional investment in their lives, as part of the exchange where they have invested in me. I want to value the incredible people around me, and spend as much of my attention learning from them while they are a part of my life. I want to learn skills from them to be a good listener and mentor myself.

Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

There are still so many people around me who I can spend time listening to and investing in, more of my own “little sisters”. Although my own sisters, who are my first and very dearest friends, can never be replaced. I like to think of it like my sister-in-laws do, they have adopted me as just another member of the family.

I love being everybody’s sister, it gives me a good perspective on how to interact with others, valuing them and treating them with respect.

Preparing To Move

Change is hard. Some people like change, some are even addicted to change, but for me it’s hard.

I tend to avoid change for that reason, along with my inherent laziness and procrastination. Small changes aren’t immune to my avoidance either. I would rather spend an extra five minutes every morning instead of going to get my hair cut, because the change isn’t worth the effort. These types of mental compromises happen more subconsciously than intentionally. I’m really not against change, but something about the unknown factor freaks me out on a primal level.

My discomfort, however, is nothing compared to my husband’s. We’ve recently purchased a house and have been getting it ready to move in while we finish out our lease at our apartment and his nerves are getting the best of him, even though we know what we’re getting into.

Thankfully, the way moving has worked out for us so far has been for us to work on fixing up the house for a few months, instead of paying to break our lease and rush out of the apartment. There have been plenty of projects to keep us busy and delay the date of actually changing residences. My list of things to procrastinate on do is ten pages long, but I continue to be surprised by just how much we can accomplish when we prioritize and motivate.

I feel like this time of transition and adjustment being so long is both helpful and a little bit more stressful, just because of the anticipation. The best approach I have found so far, in the middle of change, has been to hold onto things that are constant. I’ve noticed how much time I have spent with my friends, even while my life feels consumed with packing and planning for the move.

A lot of my friends are also in the midst of periods of intense change and we have been drawing together and finding stability and consistency in each other’s company. I love that I can count on our bi-weekly breakfasts and bonfires. Routine is so important during change. It gives back a measure of control in situations where there is so little we can predict.

As I approach the final stages of a big life change, I can’t say that I’m going to be ready for it. I just know that whatever happens, life will not be the same again, and that’s OK.

Returning To The Outside World

Over the course of the past 12 months, I’ve felt very insular. I’ve been sequestered in my apartment and made a plethora of excuses to avoid going out. Some valid, some just excuses. It’s been a long year, and as a person who thrives on time to think, I’ve spent a lot of that time in introspection.

I’m starting to learn though, that I still need people. I need community. I need to be surrounded sometimes, by others who can carry me up and out of a funk. As much as I claim to be an introvert, being buoyed by people around me is what is starting to bring me back to a healthy mental state.

I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t think I’m mentally ill, but I know I’ve had a lot of things going on this year that have made it harder to feel happy. I haven’t been depressed, I do not suffer from anxiety, but I’ve been deeply upset and concerned and those feelings have lasted longer than I’ve wanted them to.

People I care a lot about have suffered in the past, and especially this year, with feelings of anxiety and depression that amount too much more than my limited experience can understand. They have needed the help of trained professionals to make adjustments in their lives to help them feel “right” again. Some of them haven’t gotten that help, even when they asked for it. I don’t want to diminish their experiences, but I want to share mine. Because I’m tired of hiding in a corner.

One of my default behaviors when I’m upset about anything is to try to get away from other people. Most often I’d rather deal with my feelings alone than in front of strangers or friends. This means I internalize a lot of my feelings until they come spilling over after a point. I only had a few days in the past year where I literally curled up in a ball and hid under a blanket to try to escape. Most days aren’t like that. I’ve had days I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to work either, but I’ve also used work as a distraction and a way to cope with my feelings through sheer avoidance.

I had a turning point. I had high hopes that it would be sudden, a specific experience I could point to and say, “look, I’m better because of this.” Instead, its been a gradual crawl back to the new normal. I had a good day of escape, far away from reminders of my troubles, surrounded by people who care about me. A sort of retreat, but a retreat that let me advance past the state of mind I had been stuck in. I’ve made more progress in the past few weeks than I feel I have all year.

It feels like it’s been long enough for me to process all the things on my plate, I should be caught up by now. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it’s needed to make any kind of change.

The frozen feeling is finally thawing and it feels safe to make plans again, to look forward to things. A lot of those plans involve making sure I continue to spend time with my friends. As much as wanting to spend time with people is an indication of my improved state of mind, I also credit it as part of the cause for that change.

People are important, being around people is important. Trying to solve everything alone is not a sustainable approach. I’m learning it’s OK to rely on others and not expect myself to be OK all the time in “public”. So from now on I won’t be as reluctant to engage with the people around me even when I don’t really feel like it. I hope doing so will continue to surprise me in the way it improves my attitude.

Helpless Worry As A Control Freak

Along with my strong desire to fix other’s problems, comes my empathetic worry for their situations. There are some problems I know I just can’t fix, some nobody can fix. In those situations my helplessness takes over my attention and all I can think of is how I want things to be different, but there’s nothing I can do to change them.

As I sit here, a thousand miles away, there is a hurricane barreling down on my old hometown, the likes of which have not hit the area in over a decade. I remember the damage a decade ago, and how much potential there is for danger and destruction in a storm of this magnitude. I’m helpless to protect my family, and its much too late to make it down there before the storm hits. Instead, I am worrying about something I can’t control, and anticipating outcomes I can’t predict.

I’ve run into a lot of this type of worry lately. It’s especially common because I’m so far away, but also because a lot of things like health and well-being of others are never in my control. It can get overwhelming when the things we care so much about are things we can do nothing about.

Hurricane
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

I haven’t been able to talk myself down from the panic I’ve been feeling all day about the storm, but I’ve noticed an interesting trait: sometimes talking to other people about the situation can help me to feel more confident that it will turn out OK. Maybe its a measure of bravado, where I feel like I need to both diminish the danger so I sound cavalier, and still impress my audience with the gravity of the situation. It isn’t a great coping mechanism, but right now I’ll take what I can get.

Another way I can try to calm myself is by comparing one situation that I’m currently in to another that has come out alright. When I’m worried about someone’s health, I can remind myself of how many times I have already seen them come out of similar circumstances. I claim these events as evidence of God’s faithfulness, in hopes that it will carry me through again. Sometimes that is enough to help. Sometimes it isn’t.

I am full of worry. As much as I would like to say I take these verses to heart and “do not worry about tomorrow,” it is always a struggle. I like to be in control, and when I can’t feel control over my circumstances, it’s easier to lose control over my attitude.

There is a lot of growth left here still. Just like with my jealousy, I hope that by recognizing it, and talking about it openly, I can hold myself accountable to change my perspective. I don’t want to worry, and that’s what worries me the most.

Friendships in a Male Dominated Field

In my profession, the disparity between the number of men and women is stark. Twice as many women computer science majors graduated with my mother than with me at the same school. I have always expected that any place I work will have fewer women than men because of this fact.

It’s kind of sad that I never expected anything else, but I have always been OK with the fact that I would end up working with a lot of men. Sometimes it even feels like I’m working with a bunch of boys whose senses of humor are stuck at a middle school level. Which can be both entertaining and very inappropriate. Then again, I never really enjoyed spending time with girls at that age anyway.

Despite growing up with two younger sisters, by the time I got to college, it was easier to talk to guys than girls, especially if those girls were in my Computer Science classes. In fact, the first few weeks at school I was approached by some older girls on my floor who wanted to warn me that it looked suspicious that I had half a dozen different guys up to my room over the course of a week. Little did they know it was always related to homework, just a side effect of the fact that I was one of two freshmen girls who had declared my major. I guess they were more right than I wanted them to be, since I ended up marrying one of those boys from my first CS labs.

That other freshman girl in my class didn’t end up sticking with the major (the girls I graduated with came over to CS from math and engineering). Some part of me still wants to take some of the blame for that girl leaving the program, because I never really talked to her to encourage her to stay. At that point in my life, I was taking great pleasure in being the favored child in class, flitting around talking to the boys and showing off how much I knew. I felt like I needed to prove myself and that somehow she was my competition more than the guys were.

I kick myself now for such behavior, because I recognize how immature it was, but that type of attitude is still something I’m working on. I don’t need to be the best in the room, and I don’t need to show off for attention. I can be kind and friendly without discriminating who I show those attitudes to. And without looking or acting like a terrible flirt (thanks again floormates for that epitaph).

I imagine avoiding the perception of flirting is somewhat easier for me than it would be for a single woman, since I’ve got a ring to indicate I’m taken, but it’s sad to think that friendliness could be so easily misconstrued. But everyone should be able to form friendships without being perceived as having an ulterior, romantic motive. How can we treat our colleagues and friends as uniquely valued individuals unless we put aside such attitudes and perceptions of others.

The men in my life are really all throughout my life. At home, at work, with friends, I’m constantly surrounded, and often out numbered. Finding a way to relate to and engage with the people around me has necessitated forming friendships with them. Friendships with these people come out of the environment and attitudes we share, and help me to grow by giving me access to different perspectives. Perspectives that are different and valuable to me, regardless of what gender they come from.

I value and trust my male friends, but I also know the importance of being able to relate more easily in some ways to my female friends. There aren’t nearly as many around me to be friends with, but that means I value them even more. I’ve learned, since those early days of college, that I cannot be in competition with people in a way that will push them away. Their successes are not my failures, but admiring their skills should help drive me forward in developing mine. Friends build each other up and challenge each other.

I know its cliché, but the best way to make a friend is to be a friend. And that means being a friend to the people around you, regardless of their gender. Friends support one another, and I know I would not have made it where I am today without the support of the people around me.

How To Say No

People Pleasers unite! Sometimes I feel like I can do anything and everything that I am asked to do, and volunteer for even more. It’s part of what I need to work on when I invest in others to my own detriment, I just want to help, and so if someone asks, it is really hard to say “no” to a well-meaning request. This is especially true if I am signing myself up for something I know I can do better or more easily than the person who asked me to do it.

Does this mean I’m a bad delegator? Sometimes. Other times my need for control manifests in telling others what they need to do instead of just doing it for them. I’ve been getting better and better at knowing when I should trust someone else to take care of a project for me, but a lot of times I still want to take on the responsibility, because I believe I’ll enjoy it.

For example, I have this project I’ve been working on for myself, but I’m administrating several other sites as well as favors for different individuals and groups. I also have commitments to teach and lead club meetings for groups I am passionate about and whose members matter a lot to me. I love saying “yes” to these types of things because I enjoy doing them, but it doesn’t always mean I have the time or energy to do them all.

A person’s priorities are revealed in how they spend their time and energy. Whether that means they spend time on work, relaxation, volunteering, family, it is all motivated by what that person values. It’s easy to over simplify this, claiming that a person makes one of these too high of a priority, without realizing that each person has their own motivations and reasoning for why they do things. For example, it might be easy to say a workaholic prioritizes their job or money without reflecting the fact that they spend time at work to maintain job security or sufficient funds for their family. Without knowing the personal perspective of an individual, judging them by what they spend their time on can never give an outsider a clear picture.

By saying “no” to some things, we make conscious decision that we have other commitments that we are treating as more important. It’s OK to make those choices because time and energy are limited resources.

Every once in a while it becomes necessary to reevaluate and reprioritize, and that’s OK too. Just because I have been doing something for a while doesn’t mean there isn’t something I would rather be doing if given the opportunity.

This is where navigating these decisions gets tricky: when you have to tell someone else that you have prioritized out a task that you were counted on to get done. It feels like you are letting people down, and that you are breaking commitments, and I won’t advocate that either of those things are OK in all circumstances, but in most situations there is a gracious way of letting people know that you need to step down from a role. And most mature people will recognize that such a decision is made out of a healthy preservation of self, not out of selfishness.

Be honest, sincere and brave. You know your own life better than anyone else ever could, so you know when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and the best course of action is to avoid overextending yourself, because that will have a negative outcome in the end. Even when others question your choices, you are not obligated to justify yourself to them. It is your life to live, and you choose what to say “yes” to.

Motivation in the Face of Procrastination

I have never excelled at self-motivation. No matter how many times I end up cramming in a project at the last-minute, frantically cleaning as friends walk in the door, or packing late into the night before a trip, I never learn.

The procrastination isn’t limited to chores or schoolwork, although putting those off were the hallmarks of my high school years. Prime example: I started this very blog post approximately two months ago. Even hobbies and fun projects get put off, or end up half started, like all of my energy is used up with the inspiration and none is left for the follow through.

I have a list, longer than I would like to admit, of things I need to get done, to say nothing of the things that I want to do. Especially now that I have a house to maintain and this blog that I have decided deserves some of my energy, it has started to get overwhelming.

When things like laundry and dishes start piling up, instead of choosing to take care of them, I let them aggravate me and put them off until they feel convenient, and of course they never do. This isn’t the way to live, in constant state of procrastination. I can’t let things get to the point where I choose from my to-do list the item that feels least distasteful and let the rest wait for tomorrow. At that rate, I will never be able to actually accomplish anything.

Thinking like this runs the risk of getting overwhelmed and never starting anything. If there’s so much to do that it won’t ever be finished, why even bother?

One of the best ways I’ve learned to deal with this mindset is to prioritize the tasks waiting for me and chip away at them with smaller goals in mind.

This is an approach we use in software development, dividing up more complex projects into a manageable size and working on the next most important thing until it is all eventually finished. By setting smaller goals they seem achievable instead of impossible, and that alone can make enough difference in perspective to get started.

It is very important to set goals that are reasonable to accomplish, but still require hard work to achieve. I can give myself a month to pack for a trip, but if that is the only goal I intend to accomplish during that time, I’m still procrastinating on the other tasks I should take on.

Having someone keep me accountable when I feel like procrastinating has also been helpful. Feeling like I’ll have to tell someone when I’ve failed sometimes is enough motivation to proceed with distasteful tasks. Other times that person is the one who tells me its OK to relax when my to-do list is stressing me out. I have found this so important to keep me from getting burnt out on a project and giving up entirely.

So now that I’ve procrastinated on publishing this post for another few weeks, I’m going to follow my own advice and call it finished. This post doesn’t have to be done perfectly, it just has to be done. And with one thing completed: do the next thing.

Life Is Not A Competition

One again, one of my “strengths” is also one of my fatal flaws. This time it is my competitive drive, to do the best, be the best. And most of the time I can keep that in check and focus on myself without comparing me to others.

During college I took a somewhat lame personality test that was all about finding traits that a person is strong in so that they can cultivate them. I don’t put a lot of stock in personality tests, for a variety of reasons, key amongst them is a distrust of labels. Since that time I’ve learned how labels can be tools for understanding and empathy instead of just alienation, and I can appreciate the use of such analysis to foster conversation about personality by providing vocabulary.

However, before I came to this understanding, I was dead set against taking a test to tell me who I am. My results from my college experience were a set of five traits that included empathy and competitiveness. I’ve already addressed and acknowledged my tenancy towards extreme empathy, but learning to deal with that behavior has been a wholly different animal than learning to balance competition.

In some ways the empathy and competitiveness combine to produce a horrible result: jealousy. My empathic heart lets me feel what others are feeling, but my mind just wants to compare my situation to theirs. I struggle with maintaining a sense of my own contentment when I am pushing for continual improvement in myself.

As the oldest child in my family, there have been a lot of things that I was the first to do: first to learn to drive, first to graduate, first to have a romantic relationship, first to purchase a home. Some of these things are a rite of passage, but others are never a guarantee in life.

I struggle a lot seeing other people get things that I want faster or more easily than I can. It sounds immature, but here’s an example I’m willing to admit: I want a puppy. I have wanted a dog for a long, long time, and it hasn’t ever been possible due to our housing situation. My family even got a dog after I went off to college. Visiting family and friends’ dogs isn’t the same as having my own, and I always leave feeling disappointed that other people can have something I want while I have to wait a long time or work really hard to make it happen.

It’s not just trivial things like wanting a pet, I have spent a lot of energy trying to accept the fact that my life’s path is not the same as anyone else’s, that my version of contentment and success is unique. I don’t have to have the most glamorous job, the most put together home, the most exciting vacations.

I can’t keep living like this. I can’t continue to envy everyone else’s successes. I have to choose not to see someone else’s successes as my failure in comparison. There’s no need for comparison.

If I can stop myself from trying to one-up everyone else…

That doesn’t sound quite right.

My life is nobody else’s and if there is something anyone else has that I want, I either need to use that as motivation to make it happen, or realize that I don’t care enough to make it happen…

Nope.

This one’s hard. I just don’t know. It’s not a healthy way to live, and I’m trying not to, but right now, I don’t think I have the answer.

And maybe that’s OK.