ornings begin with a quad shot of sweetened espresso served by my personal assistant, Austin Indigo, who helps me balance my overflowing calendar and family duties. He wakes my kids in time for school, makes their breakfasts and lunches, takes care of any last minute morning disasters, feeds and walks my dogs, and cleans my house. Through his support, I maintain a finely tuned balance between my life and writing career. With a tall, toned, and bronzed body, Austin pleases my eyes, too. But his mind enchants me more than anything, as it should. He's my six-million-dollar AI manservant. What a treasure, especially since I won him in a fabulous fiction contest . . . I wonder if I could program him to…
“Mom! Wake up! I'm going to miss my bus, Dad's gone, and the van's broken down. Remember? I need help. We're out of lunch bags and juice drinks,” my son shouts.
“What?” I mumble. “Wait. Did you bring me an espresso?”
My son stomps off, almost hyperventilating. Although my mind wants to linger longer in my dreamscape, I wipe away the drool streaming down my chin and hobble out of bed to begin the morning dash. The dogs' needs follow. I'm last, as usual.
Like any DIY, we need to sculpt a strong platform for support.
Unfortunately, balance is an ongoing do-it-yourself project (without servants). Like any DIY, we need to sculpt a strong platform for support. Otherwise we risk everything falling apart. With so many tools and techie devices in hands, pockets, and on desktops, we juggle more projects than ever, working like robotic drones, all the while forgetting to care for ourselves. Without preventive maintenance we cross our wires and crash, much like our computers and gadgets. Once we're weak from fatigue, we make ourselves vulnerable to viruses as well as mental and physical shutdown.
During a seventeen-year stretch, my husband and I relocated to nine different cities across four states. By the middle of our mostly-intertwined lifelines we'd begun rearing pairs of kids and dogs, on top of our careers. Somewhere along my path, I lost myself.
Fine, feathery cracks had formed inside me over a long period of time, growing continuously deeper. I didn't heed warning signs because I'd regarded my work and family as more important, always placing myself last. Under heavy stress a few years ago, I fell apart and so did my writing. Although I'd blamed my brokenness on marital woes at first, I misdirected it. Marital issues had simply become the last glitch to enter my already tired system. I alone caused my loss of balance through years of multi-tasking, futile perfectionism, and self-neglect. Fortunately, I've turned life around through a series of steps. I'm a work in progress; yet, I embrace a surreal balance between life and writing that I couldn't grasp earlier.
If we want balance we need flexible stability
A balanced writer's life requires word tweaks and self re-wiring. If we define balance as static, not moving, not tipping the scales, then we make it unattainable. But life isn't static or fixed; we live in constant motion and flux, inside and out. If we want balance we need flexible stability. How do we make this paradox work? Re-wire stronger selves. When we wield strong identities, we empower ourselves to ebb and flow with every challenge we face.
How many of us take the time to think about who we are, what we want, and why we do what we do? Who has the time? Balancing writing with life (or any career) requires a well-deserved selfishness. I took a long time to walk my L.A.B.Y.R.I.N.T.H. to gain balance. Of course, I needed heaps of work. I doubt readers would need as many self-tweaks. But I offer my stones as fodder to ponder for a well-deserved personal scan.
The first stone in my labyrinth of flex-stability revolves around two core words that make some people squirm.
When my kids read this stepping stone they'll say, “Mom, you're queen of all dorks,” and I'll say, “Yes, but I'm a cheerful dork, which makes me better off than a lot of ‘cool’ people.” Years ago on Saturday Night Live a character named Stuart Smalley did a skit called “Daily Affirmations.” With a quirky grin, Stuart gazed into a large mirror and said, “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” I'm not this melodramatic, but I no longer pluck the gray hairs sneaking into my mane or grimace at the mom pooch in my midsection where I used to expose flat abs. One-piece suits please me just fine and highlights provide subtle tiger stripes.
I love in a way that radiates, and it's a necessity for a larger reason. We convey to others what we carry inside. What about you? Do you love yourself? Do you wield a strong self-confidence? If you answer yes, you'll step on the next stone without stumbling.
What about you? Do you love yourself?
Whatever we do to others, others do to us. I prefer nobility treatment, even when I clean carpets and toilets, mop floors, wash dirty clothes, iron, scoop dog doo, or mow lawns. I treat everyone the same, no matter who they are, where they're from, or what they do for a living, whether they speak Spanish, Chinese, Slovak, or Tagalog. My paternal grandparents immigrated to America in the 1920s from Slovakia; my maternal ancestors originated from England and Ireland. Unless you descend from 100% Native American bloodlines or another race, you're a mutt too. So love yourself, act nobly, and start thinking about specific stressful matters you can turnaround.
“…my throat clenched tightly shut,
forcing me to drop to my knees.”
Breathe and Budget
Money worries and financial troubles give birth to internal knots that fester like viruses. But budgets and savings plans vaccinate against them. Suze Orman owns a website for organizing finances, savings, wills and trusts, and many more tips (www.suzeorman.com). Automatic transfers, even in small amounts, from checking to savings accounts establish a good starting point. As a stay-at-home mom for my kids’ younger years, only volunteering at schools and in fundraisers, I put aside money in an IRA as soon as possible.
By saving, even though slowly, I paid myself. If you take control of your finances, you'll feel and breathe better. It sounds silly, but under too much stress, we can impact this involuntary function. One day as I scrambled to finish several projects at once, during my career phase, creating a new lesson plan, grading midterms, cleaning my house for guests (a futile task that I'll clarify later), and more, I choked. In between tasks I chugged some water, and my throat clenched tightly shut, forcing me to drop to my knees. I couldn't even gasp. Apparently, I forgot to breathe which made me choke on the water. If I'd slowed down and asked for help with one of my tasks, I'd have avoided the incident. I'm lucky. Some people suffer heart attacks under pressure. I learned my lesson and tested my lungs after I recovered.
Give yourself a break.
Yodel for Help
Misplaced pride prevents us from asking for help when we're tired, sick, or simply need a break from the daily grind. If we believe we can and should “do it all,” we live a myth. A signal, yelp or yodel for help makes us smart. Yodeling can be a little loud, but it entertains far more than whining once we reach meltdown point. If you want to hear a fun short yodel, search the internet (http://misslink.org/sound/yodel.wav), and enjoy the silliness of it.
During school morning madness when my prepubescent kids peak in hormonal vertigo, moaning about one of their issues, I yodel or sing. I'm so awful that they can't help but laugh. This might not work well in an office setting, but it works great at home. You can even buy apparel that says, “Yodel 'til you get polyps.” They sell track wear, tee-shirts, bibs, and even dog tee shirts (www.cafepress.com/yodel). Can you yodel? If you haven't tried it, then you might stumble across the central-most pair of stones.
Relax and Reflect
Do you even know how to relax and engage in pleasure-only activities? Do you have time for it? Make the time to avoid all work. I steal time by excluding trivial tasks. I refuse to dust my house. I live in a high desert climate where dust thrives; so, if I dust, it returns within a day. No joke here. Also, dust eventually makes its way to the floor where my vacuum inhales it. Do you dust? Give yourself a break. No one performs the white glove test anymore. Take a bath instead, sit in a bookstore to read or watch people. Reflect on the things in life that warm your heart and soothe your mind.
If you work at home but you can't leave your younger kids, lock yourself in a closet for a few minutes, lie down, close your eyes, and role play. Imagine you're on a beach or sailing on a cruise ship, or riding in a limousine headed to your dream spot with your six-million-dollar partner, sipping your favorite no-caffeine beverage. (This one saved me from insanity many times and rescued my kids from my impending emotional outbursts). Do you want the classic? Take a magazine into the bathroom, lock the door, turn on the fan for background noise, and read or think, whether or not nature calls (I learned this one from my husband). If you can't relate because you're too twisted into knots, you're long overdue for physical fitness.
“Your greatest investment is your body because it houses your mind…”
Don't say you don't have time. Fit it into your schedule for at least twenty minutes a day, three times a week. Ellen DeGeneres once joked, “It's been about two months since I've worked out. And I just don't have the time. Which uh . . . is odd. Because I have the time to go out to dinner. And uh . . . and watch TV. And get a bone density test. And uh . . . try to figure out what my phone number spells in words.” Does this sound familiar? Ellen's words could fit a universal sentiment for an “I'm too busy to exercise” campaign. But exercise gets priority status if you focus on preventive maintenance for your body. After crossing the comfort curve (the time it takes to develop a routine), you'll end up with more energy. Your greatest investment is your body because it houses your mind and all the vital parts for attaining flex-stability.
You don't need an expensive membership to a gym, unless you need a monthly bill for motivation. If your legs work, walk a dog; if you buddy a cat, rub its belly and step back a stone to find a magazine that discusses different fitness routines you'd enjoy. I invested in a Denise Austin Workout DVD that left me tripping over my uncoordinated feet at first and laughing at my clumsiness, but I lost inches after a couple of months.
Do you know yourself?
We benefit internally and externally through routines. Check out Web MD for a little medical advice (http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/benefits-of-exercise). Doctors can verify that exercise stimulates hormones in our brains, like endorphins, that give us a “happy” feeling. Low levels of endorphins link to depression. All aspects of life feel copasetic when my sweet little “dolphins” swim through my mind. Through exercise we gain energy to revise our deeper selves on the next stone.
Nosce te Ipsum (Know Thyself)
Do you know yourself? This Latin phrase appeared in one of the Matrix movies, where Neo visits the Oracle. Bits of wisdom surround us, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Nosce te ipsum is critical for flex-stability. Who are you? Don't answer with what you do for a living, to whom you're married, or the children you parent. Who are you on the inside? Are you loving? Religious? Spiritual? None of the above? Why are you on this planet? If you know yourself, then you'll know what you want from life.
What rewards give you the most joy?
More wisdom appears in a series of Laura Joffe Numeroff's kids’ books centering on cycles. In her first one, she writes, “If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for a glass of milk.” After numerous requests the last sentence comes full circle, “… And chances are if he asks for a glass of milk, he's going to want a cookie to go with it.” Numeroff's fun books imitate life's cycles. If you know who you are, you'll know what you want and, if you know what you want, then you'll know how to…
Pure decadence and brain benefits!
(Photo: Sue's Candy Supply)
What rewards give you the most joy? Walking in a flower garden? Sniffing lilacs? Hiking? Sitting on a park bench alone in a crowd? Nibbling on chocolate while writing? I'm worthy of dark chocolates and sweets. On Mother's Day and my birthday, my kids restock my candy bowl. Pure decadence and brain benefits! Dark chocolate treats more than our taste buds; it stimulates more swimming dolphins (I mean endorphins). Web MD reveals other foods that carry similar powerful effects (http://www.webmd.com/diet/guide/eat-smart-healthier-brain). Small treats can fill us with selfish joy we deserve. With my tasty treasures, I laugh more and locate humor in small things. On the final stepping stone, remember how to guffaw.
Do you remember the last time you laughed so hard you hurt? Or smiled serenely at nature or a piece of artwork? Do you remember what gives you giddiness or giggles? If you contemplated all eight stones before this one, without pausing or needing self repairs, then you probably laugh enough, and that's a rare occurrence for many people with technologically-over-driven lives these days. Laughter also stimulates endorphin production, which makes it our third brain boost in the cycle (http://women.webmd.com/guide/give-your-body-boost-with-laughter). Here we end a flex-stability-affirming cycle because humor may cultivate a loving feeling, which takes us back to the beginning.
“I'm a retired perfectionist,
rebooted and revised writer…”
To re-cap my L.A.B.Y.R.I.N.T.H.'s concentricity: If you love yourself first, you can act nobly to others; if you act nobly to others, you're free to breathe deeply, budget your money, and gain wisdom to yodel for help on occasion; if you're wise enough to yodel for help, you'll make time to relax, reflect on your life, and incorporate exercise into your routine; if you exercise regularly, you'll find the energy to “nosce te ipsum” and treat yourself accordingly; if you treat yourself regularly, humor waves through you, watering seeds for continuous love.
I'm not a psychologist, but this year marks my first flex-stability anniversary. I'm a retired perfectionist, rebooted and revised writer, mother, wife, and more. Like a bionic woman without the metal components, I face each day with renewed strength. Sure, I'd be even happier with a manservant like Austin, but that's what dreams are for . . .
Sue Donckels used to write for a living in an academic sense, as a composition and rhetoric instructor. Today, she lives to write fiction, non-fiction, and any style in between and beyond. “I've always walked along a writer's path, yet early on I veered off onto the wrong fork,” she says. “My master's thesis on feminist dialogic silences in three 18th century British novels serves as a 21st century dust collector on my bookshelf.”
Sue lives near the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with one husband, pairs of kids and dogs, and bowls of dark chocolate and sweets for regular jolts of joy.
Sue Donckels is a Contributing Editor for WOW! Women On Writing.