When I was in the last lurch of finishing up my bachelor's degree and trying to answer the immense, looming question of what do you want to do when you grow up, I had a fantasy. I'd buy a small cabin near water that either rushed or swirled calmly. The cabin's walls and floors would be made of unfinished wood. There would be a small, cozy loft for sleeping, and each night I'd fall asleep there, awash in the peaceful glee of simplicity, a modern day, grown, Heidi.
I would hang lanterns everywhere, the soft flames casting warm glowing orbs on the wood. Wildflowers would grow outside; there would be no lawn to upkeep.
Life would be simple. I'd have few possessions. I'd figure out a way to work part-time, and I'd write and hike and putter during my off hours.
I can still feel the quiet and peace of the fantasy.
But it's not the path I chose.
The sunlit kitchen is littered with dirty dishes and crumbs and small milk-rimmed cups. Weeds flourish among the elaborate garden the previous owners had sown. The kids erupt with demands and needs and bad moods. Too many windows are open in my mind: don't forget to take the trash out. I wish I could take a nap. Open and pay the bills. Get the laundry done before your noon yoga class. What should I be writing? How can I make more money? How can I feel more peace?
My mind runs a ticker tape of all my responsibilities: The kids. The house. The part-time job for pay. The also part-time job of writing which sometimes pays and always, always throbs through my mind, skimming and sparking stories. And then there's the list of things I don't do but judge myself for: learning to cook, cutting down on my kids' screen time, funding their college accounts.
There is a particular feeling that settles on me frequently since having children. I'd like to say it's love--and of course, the love is always present, pulsing, expansive. But it doesn't edge out the other feeling.
Instead of just saying it, I crouch around the truth:
"I'm just really busy," I say, shaking my head.
"The kids, work, writing...you know how it is." I exhale this half-truth, shaking my head and widening my eyes.
Busy sounds better, because though I don't enjoy the feeling of having a life stuffed to overflowing, our society seems to recognize and respect the shorthand. Aren't so many of us racing through our lives, filling even our precious downtime with social media showing us how busy everyone else's lives are?
You guys, I am overwhelmed.
Being busy equates somehow with success in our society, while saying "I'm really overwhelmed" feels like admitting a weakness -- it's akin to saying I can't handle my life.
But don't we all feel like that sometimes, or even much of the time? Like the to-do list is never-ending, and it's paralyzing? Like if we really carved out a plan to slow down, we'd have to see that we are living, as Mary Oliver says, our one wild and precious life? And that perhaps it doesn't look much like the life we imagined for ourselves, or more importantly -- the life that we desperately want to be living?
In the 15 years since my sweet, simple cabin fantasy, I met my husband, had two shining, charming, challenging kids, and bought a big house on a big lot in a good school district. We knew these choices would make some things harder (finances, upkeep) and some things (breathing room, good schools, privacy, neighbors with kids) much, much better. We are responsible for these choices, every single one of them.
And we're overwhelmed.
Saying it helps. I am overwhelmed. Because if I don't? If I try and squeeze it all in and hold it all together, it shows. I snap at my family. I miss out on much-needed sleep because my brain buzzes with my to-do list. I miss so many moments because I'm obsessing and worrying about everything I'm not doing.
Saying no to opportunities that don't serve me helps. Yoga helps. Meditation helps. Writing helps.
More than anything, coming back to the present over and over and over again helps: I am squeegeeing the shower. I am slicing watermelon. I am breathing in. I am breathing out.
And then, though my life isn't simple, there are occasional pauses in the overwhelm. And, sometimes, just sometimes, I can feel the peace of that quiet, softly flamed cabin.