Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Year of the Sledgehammer, or Why I Stopped Planning Too Far Ahead


In her book Traveling Mercies, the wonderful writer Anne Lamott talks about the Year the Big Eraser in the Sky wiped away much of what she loved. That image has always stayed with me. It helped me name 2005, perhaps the most tumultuous period in my life to date. The Year of the Sledgehammer broke me open, smashed to smithereens much of what had grown rigid in my world view, and it exposed me to wonders I never could have imagined in my fastened-up heart and brain.

It also made me a poor planner.

In January of 2005, it dawned on me that an auspicious year lay ahead. One child would come of age, my youngest would finish high school and go to college, I would reach a landmark birthday, and my husband and I would celebrate a big anniversary. All of which seemed worthy of some kind of BIG celebration as a family. A cruise, perhaps? A grand family reunion? To be sure a graduation open house, an anniversary fete, and three grand birthday celebrations needed planning. I started scheming, looking for venues, nailing dates.

All my life, I'd been trading on my tenacity, energy, enthusiasm - and as it turns out, a very warped view of my own personal power. Until 2005, I figured if I wanted something badly enough, I could make it happen: just turn on the willpower, apply extra doses of enthusiasm, and start planning.

But the Great Unknowable had something else in mind for me.

Within 6 months, I was breathing my way from one minute to the next, coming to grips with how very little power and control I honestly had in life, holding "it" together as best I could. Planning wasn't even an option.

In a nutshell, three generations of my beloveds became terribly ill and I was the primary caregiver for all three. There was blood -- and other body fluids. There was a putrid open chest wound the size of a dinner plate. There was psychic anguish only months of wailing could vent. Revelations no one wants to hear. There were shakes and paralysis. There was the wretched and sour smell of too much alcohol metabolizing in a person's malnourished body. There was urinary incontinence and tubes and hospital fluids and crashing blood pressures. There were falls and bruises and sleepless nights and emergency room runs and taking an adult to day care and locked up "mental health" units. Surgeons and infectious disease specialists. Wheelchairs. Hospital wrist bands. Frantic calls to physicians and psychiatrists.

There was no cruise.

And in the midst of the blur on the personal front, there was the job that suddenly exploded into 5 jobs. The caring for beloveds, then working till 3 am to keep up with job expectations. Responsibility for millions of dollars that meant other people's livelihood. Trying to learn and meld 3 new cultures within an organization so that they functioned in a healthy way together. A staff that grew from 3 to 25 overnight. Traveling to promote a book, leading workshops, forging important partnerships to keep the "mother ship" alive and afloat, building a Web site with a partner I found hard to abide, arm wrestling with a glitzy ad agency that didn't have time for the work.

I cringe now when I think about how I answered the simple and innocent greeting/question, "Hi, how are you?"

I thought I could mange all this by myself. But the Great Unknowable had something else in mind.

On one particularly bleak morning, a colleague handed me a print out with dates and places and smarmy-sounding names like Serenity Today and Steps and Traditions. She smiled knowingly and said "Maybe this will help." She's was right; it did. I found refuge in a 12-step program for families going through similar hard times. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days where for 1 hour I stepped out of the mayhem and into peace. Sometimes I left those meetings sobbing. I always left feeling understood and heard. I reached out to a wise woman who became a guide to sanity. I learned, somehow, that I had to take care of myself. And in doing so I made the most remarkable, mind-blowing discovery of my life.

Here's the revelation: Whether or not my beloveds healed was not up to me. That's right. Their recovery was just that; THEIR recovery. Mine was mine. Bingo! I understood for the first time in my life the concept of boundaries. It was humbling. And it was liberating. I was responsible TO them. I was not responsible FOR them. So simple, and yet so profound.

Coincidentally, two of my beloveds were in fact healing. It's easier to see in hindsight than it was to see in the moment, but there were signs. One of my beloveds died. And I was broken open enough by that point, in November, to discover in the dying process incredible beauty, the slowing down of all that matters, the singular focus on love and comfort.

It would be many many months before I regained vitality. I was emptied out by the Year of Sledgehammer, and it required much sitting still and staring at my feet and taking walks and intentional nothingness to mend. But in that empty and broken place, unbeknownst to me, the Great Unknowable had cleared room for the entry of joy and delight, the likes of which I'd never known before. And it was at that point I made a decision to center my life around joy rather than on controlling my destiny. Best decision I ever made.

A dear friend who has been a big part of helping me along my joy-filled path mentioned today that she is amazed at how spontaneously I go about things. In other words, she's a planner, someone who thinks months ahead and gets the good deals because of it. I, on the other hand, am more spur of the moment kind of gal. There's a heftier price to pay for being spontaneous, but it's mostly worked well. Still, I really have to explore whether I've become this way out of fear (as in, if I plan too much I might invite another Year of the Sledgehammer into my life). I truly have come to trust those little messages that pop into my head that suggest doing something "this" way rather than "that" way, as long as my motives are honest. But I also think there's room for more thoughtful planning, so long as I don't hang onto to a certain outcome.

Dear Great Unknowable - I'm going to try to introduce a little planning into my life now. I trust you'll let me know if I'm taking it too far. And if I am, would you mind using a Beanie Baby rather than a sledgehammer this time? OK, thanks, bye!

Image: The Jungle Store

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