Top 5 Self Care Habits I’m Bad At

These are the things that pop into my head whenever I see an article about self-care, the things that I immediately know will make me feel better and more at peace, the things I somehow can’t seem to do consistently despite knowing their benefits.

1. Journaling. I definitely notice a difference when I keep this up for even a few days in a row. My emotions seem more reasonable and orderly if I take time to name them and examine their origins in writing, especially at the end of the day. But my usual excuse is that I’m too tired.

2. Going to bed on time. I am a toddler when it comes to getting myself to bed. The more tired I am, the more likely I’ll stay up reading or scrolling through Pinterest. (And then I’m too tired to journal.)

3. Keeping in touch with family and friends. I love my friends and I like to think I’m close with my family, but I don’t reach out or respond to them as often as I should.

4. Exercise. Cliche, I know, but this is another one that leaves me feeling a positive difference when I do it…but is still hard to keep up past a week.

5. Prayer. My faith is a foundational part of my life, so when I take the time to recenter my thoughts and motivations on God, I’m reminded that I am not the one in control. (Maybe that’s why I approach this habit halfheartedly, given my love for control.)

Bonus! 6. Hydration. It exasperates the Engineer to no end, but I hardly ever drink water unless it’s heated and poured through coffee grounds.

All of these little things make a noticeable difference in how I feel both physically and emotionally. But even knowing that, I can’t seem to make myself keep up the habits. The inertia is too hard to break through.

What good habits do you have trouble with even though you know they’re good for you? Got any tips to get over that inertia of Not Doing Things? 

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Pets

Our new place doesn’t allow pets, so I’m taking advantage of all the snuggle time I have left with our cat at my mom’s house and the two (gigantic) cats and Husky mutt at my dad’s.  Just having a fuzzy animal around is comforting, even if Dickens (the dog) is always. Squeaking. His. Toys.

Maybe it’s because we always had cats and dogs growing up, but I’ve never liked birds.  They’re just not cuddly enough for me; they fall somewhere a little higher than reptiles and goldfish on the pet scale.  So when my roommate said she wanted a parrot last year, I thought, sure, as long as I don’t have to touch it.  Bird feet, to me, feel like a baby’s hand with talons wrapping around your finger.

Here’s the problem.  The bird freaking loved me.

This was partially my own fault – not wanting it to develop a grudge against me for ignoring it, I fed little Caspian dried papaya every time I came home in the afternoon.  Soon my roommate was calling me the Papaya Aunt and the bird himself was loudly protesting if I didn’t say hi to him when I got home.

Then one day I was in my roommate’s room and Caspian decided to leap onto her desk (his wings weren’t fully developed, so this didn’t go well), slide wildly across it, and then step, chirping happily, onto my panicked, outstretched hand.

My roommate maintains that it’s one of the funniest things she’s ever seen, second only to later when the bird would waddle across the back of the couch to try and sit on my shoulder.  I didn’t know what to do, only that I didn’t want him climbing up onto my shoulder, so I stood there with my arm outstretched until my roommate came to rescue me.

And now I’m one of Caspian’s favorite people in the world.  When I visited with Bird to get the last of my stuff, Caspian trilled at the sight of me, stepped onto my finger (I’m used to him now) and puffed up happily for a good fifteen minutes.

I still don’t think birds are good pets.  But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t really affirming to have a little creature greet me with that much excitement.

Home Part II

the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered

(in games) the destination or goal

The Engineer has lived in the same house his whole life.  I have lived in five – the one in Ohio where I was born, our first house in Washington (the “old old house”), the house that was great for pretending to be Cinderella (the “old house”), and my mom and dad’s current respective houses.  That’s not even counting Dad’s apartments while he looked for a more permanent house.

I dismantled my old room when I went to college, since Bird wanted the big room for her high school years.  I pared down my belongings even more when I moved to our Small College Town full time last year, putting mementos and old school projects into plastic totes for storage in the basement and cramming the rest into Bird’s and my cars to drive across the state.

Fitting, then, that she also accompanied me last week to move the last of my stuff out of that apartment.

I have transferred my affections from one home to another several times.  The Engineer’s childhood room is still exactly as he left it.

But this weekend we’re packing all our now-mutual belongings into a truck for him and his brother to drive to North Carolina.  The Pacific Northwest will still be home even in that gaming sense, because our ultimate plan is to move back here.

So the two definitions for “home” at the beginning of this post are comforting to me, because while we wait for our “domestic affections” to catch up with us and recenter on the opposite coast (at least for a few years), our pretty new townhome and all that goes into it can represent our new goals.  It will be our home base while we explore a new part of the country.  It will be a sort of home for Bird, who plans to take advantage of our presence in her university’s timezone to visit often.  It will be our first home together.

And honestly, though I know we’ll both be homesick at first, the Engineer himself has been “home” to me for a while now.

Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Never-ending Easter Egg Hunts

“In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four, five, six yourefineyourefineyourefine seven, eight.  In, two, three four…”

I said the words in my head like a crazed conductor, sternly scolding my chest when it tried to contract again too soon.  My lungs preferred hyperventilating to this slow, rhythmic exercise.  I felt like I was choking every time I breathed out for too long.  But eventually my heart rate slowed.  The air stopped feeling oppressive.  I stopped counting as I drifted off to sleep.

For a few weeks, this was my bedtime ritual.  As soon as I got under the covers, I would immediately feel guilty that I hadn’t completed all these tasks.  But during the day, when I had the time and energy (and daylight) to devote to working, I only remembered a fraction of them.  They seemed to hold back, waiting to rush at me the second I turned out the light.

It was like a protracted Easter egg hunt.  Some eggs, hidden in obvious places, were easily spotted and placed safely in my basket – the completed tasks that I had already planned on doing.  Then there were others that I glimpsed as I went about my day – the random, little things I suddenly remembered and addressed even though they weren’t part of my original list.

And then, when it got too dark to look for Easter eggs, my workaholic little brain piped up: “You can’t go to bed yet.  We didn’t find all of them.”

“It’s fine.  They’re plastic.  They won’t hurt anything if we don’t find all of them until tomorrow.”

“But what if we don’t find them in time and the candy in them melts?  Or what if someone gets annoyed that we didn’t collect them all?  No, we should keep looking.”

“I promise you, it’s fine.  We’ll look with fresh eyes tomorrow.”

“Did you check under the sofa?  I think I saw one under the sofa.”

And on it went.  As much as I told myself that I had time, that I hadn’t missed any deadlines or accidentally forgotten to reply to someone, my anxieties had a new worry for every one I dismissed.  The most compelling of these was, “But if you forgot to do it today, what if you keep forgetting until you completely forget?”

Cue racing heart and shallow breathing.

My mental state, whether in the midst of my depression or just a lot of stress, has always been the most frantic at night.  I have trouble with the concept of “rest” when I feel I haven’t earned it, whether that be letting go of emotions until I am better equipped to address them or getting some sleep even though I haven’t exercised/written/worked “enough” that day.  So bedtime, when I put away all distractions and wait alone with my thoughts before falling asleep, is a great time for my mind to rebel.

Some nights found me up with that damn basket, hunting the rest of the Easter eggs (e.g., all-nighters on projects that weren’t even due the next day, just because they were worrying me).

Other times I’d stay up long enough to map out a plan for exactly where to look for the eggs the next day (putting together a specific schedule for the next day to address all the random tasks I was suddenly remembering).

On occasion, I do manage to shush my brain entirely, with exercises like breathing (fun fact: exhaling longer than you inhale is supposed to disrupt the fight-or-flight response) or doing something similarly meditative like saying my rosary.

Melatonin supplements work too.

I’m still learning how to negotiate with my own mind and body in order to get some sleep.  But even just recognizing that this time of day can be difficult – that’s a start.


What stress-reduction/brain-quieting strategies work best for you?  What time of day do you find it hardest to deal with stress and anxiety?

 

FFF Profile: Camille, “Stitchers”

Welcome to Fierce Fictional Female Profiles, a semi-regular feature where I write about current female characters in popular culture (probably mostly TV and film) that I think are well-written and realistic.  With so many tropes surrounding women in the media and affecting the way we are perceived in real life, I like to call attention to stories that attempt to break those habits.

Camille Engelson, Stitchers

196b2fa8-9cfc-4002-b97e-4011a49af834Occupation: Computer science grad student; technician and occasional Stitch director in the secret government “Stitchers” program, where she helps her friends solve murders by “stitching” the protagonist into dead people’s memories.  Also originally hired to spy on said protagonist.

Three reasons I love her:

  • Her reaction to feeling powerless after an attack on the Stitchers team was to ask the guy recovering from a gunshot wound to train her in fighting, since he had plenty of spare time.  She then proceeded to continue learning Krav Maga so that when further threats arose, she could meet them head-on.  This demonstrates her response to failure: get better so it doesn’t happen again.  (Plus we get to see some pretty badass fight scenes.)
  • The writers allow her to have flaws.  Her original role as a spy for the program director, plus her own trust in her gut, lead Camille to have some inconsistent views on trust and loyalty, a code that sometimes frustrates her coworkers and distances her from her friends.  She lashes out when she doesn’t know how to deal with emotional situations (again, that instinct that leads her to fight physically) and is still dealing with a past she’s not proud of.  Cf472DEVIAQVBSP-300x300
  • Though she has a kind of Tragic Backstory, Camille neither milks it for sympathy nor deals with it in a one-and-done episode.  The series brings up unexpected ways in which her trailer park upbringing continues to affect her, making it just one part of a complex, developed character.  She deals with some things, like kicking her brother’s ass when he shows up and robs her friend (one of the best moments of the series, in my opinion), but she still struggles to move past other reminders of her childhood, which make her a weaker team member when she shuts people out.

Icing on the cake: THE SNARK.  Camille gets the best one-liners in the series (see below), but she’s always available to offer advice and sympathy (and open a bottle of wine) when her friends need her.

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Though she still adheres to certain aspects of the Best Friend role, Camille is well-written enough to feel real.


Who are some of your favorite female TV characters right now?  What do you think writers tend to get wrong?  Let me know in the comments!

Crying in Spin Class

“Well this is new.”  I sniffled and smiled at the gym employee holding out some protein bars.

It was new.  I had decided to try a new class, cycling, at the gym.  Workout classes like SoulCycle seem so popular, so I figured I’d give it a try.  I could pick a bike in the back, take it easy, watch other people and take my cues from the more experienced participants.

Except there were only three other people in the class, so hiding in the back didn’t really work.  Not knowing how to adjust the bike properly, I felt like I was going to fall over every time I tried to lean forward and reach the handlebars.  This also meant I couldn’t reach my water bottle, which was jammed into the holder just forward of the handlebars, so I kept having to dismount to get some water.  And there were no breaks.  In Zumba, we have breaks between songs.  But this was just trying to keep my balance and honestly wondering how on earth the other three girls were making their legs move so damn fast.

That was what eventually broke me, I think.  Stand up and pedal?  Sure.  Increase the resistance?  Great.  But every time the instructor said, “Sprint!” I could not physically make my legs go faster.  And as I leaned forward and saw spots and hoped I wouldn’t somehow slide sideways off my bike, I noticed that tears were starting to gather.

Hoping to make a quiet, dignified, inoffensive exit, I dismounted and grabbed my towel and water bottle.  Unfortunately, since there were only four of us in the class, the instructor caught my eye.  She asked, “You OK?”

And that’s when I started crying in earnest.

The instructor led a bewildered, quietly sniffling me to a recumbent bike, adjusted it so I could just use it as a regular seat, and told me to take deep breaths while she got someone to check on me.  In a few minutes, the front desk lady brought over a handful of protein bars and asked if I’d eaten that day.

“Yes, I had dinner right before this,” I said.  She smiled, but still looked concerned, so I added, “This is new.  I honestly have no idea why I’m crying.”

I often forget the link between the physical and the emotional, probably because I spent a lot of my adolescence doing my best to ignore the former and rein in the latter.  But as a counselor pointed out, suppressing negative emotions or reacting to unwanted thoughts takes physical energy.  And I had been a little stressed with wedding and moving planning, so I had been suppressing more negativity than I’d realized.

Until I exerted myself physically and lost the energy I was putting into keeping up the emotional barrier.  At least, that’s my working theory.

I didn’t tell the nice front desk lady this.  I told her that I’ve never been able to lean too far forward (which is true – I can’t do a somersault or a cartwheel, and I always think I’m going to fall when I try to touch my toes) and that was probably it.

But it was an interesting reminder to pay attention to how my body reacts to stress.

Move

to go from one place of residence to another
to advance or progress
to arouse or excite the feelings or passions of; affect with emotion
Someone had to drive across the state to move the last of our stuff, so Bird was nice enough to accompany me on one last road trip.
We’re gathering our boxes, mine and the Engineer’s, in my mom’s basement until he and his brother take everything cross-country to our new home in North Carolina.  It’s been a lot of back and forth – it took multiple trips to get all our belongings from our little college town to our respective homes, and we’re still consolidating boxes.
It’s mostly lateral movement so far, both literally, east-west on the map, and figuratively, in that we’re shuffling stuff between impermanent housing options.  But in just a few weeks we’ll be advancing instead of just snuffling.
And our new house is so pretty!
It’s not super fancy or anything, but it’s somewhere we can both see ourselves starting a new phase of adulthood, starting a marriage, and making a home.  I’m in love with the windows – despite it being a middle unit townhome, the big windows let in so much light that nothing feels squished.  Thinking about arranging it, about hanging those two pictures in the blue and silver frames at the landing of the staircase, is exciting.  (And doing laundry.  We have an in-house washer and dryer.  They don’t require coins to operate!)
So although the process of moving has moved me to tears at least twice – I can’t wait to move forward.

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

*Requisite spoiler warning

You know those books where after finishing the last page, you close it, sit for a moment, take a deep breath, and restrain yourself (or not) from grabbing passersby and shaking them and telling them that they absolutely must read this book?  The books that turn you into a book evangelist?

This is one of those books for me.  And Bird.  And our mom.

I’m a sucker for microcosms, so the premise of Amor Towles’s novel had me hooked immediately.  Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat convicted for his status but spared for his poetry, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the fall of the Tsar.  The idea of a man building a life within the parameters of a single building, even one like the Metropol, appealed to my “watching from inside a small space” personality.  The story spans Rostov’s years inside the hotel, introducing us to the friends – and enemies – he makes and showing us the spaces he carves out for himself along the way.  The ensemble of side characters are just as charming as the protagonist, and as well-drawn, and the conflicts within Rostov’s shrunken world represent the greater clashes of larger powers outside.

Successful as he is in making his own little niche work for him, Rostov’s gentlemanly skills are put to the test when he becomes the foster father of a friend’s daughter.  Watching him (and his Metropol family) try to fit a precocious, energetic child into such a small allotted space (illegally, no less) reminds readers of the bargain Rostov makes to maintain a delicate peace with his situation – he has given up a future.  He has accepted the petering out of his own spent life.  But his sense of justice, of noblesse oblige (for, despite the revolutionary ideals of his jailers, Rostov’s greatest honor remains true gentility) will not allow him to accept the same lack of future for an innocent child.

All this is compelling alone.  But it is Towles’s language that makes the book great.

I can only describe the syntax as musical.  This is a “me, too” book, one that observes common experiences in such a way that they feel new.  A few chapters in, for instance, Rostov must cull his belongings to fit into his new attic apartments (a disgraced aristocrat being unworthy of his former fourth-floor suite).  In a few paragraphs, Towles meditates on why it can be so much more painful to let go of things than to let go of people – and I promptly had to read it aloud to my family so that they could also say, “Yes, that’s exactly it!”

In other books, the reader would quickly tire of too much time spent pondering life’s little quirks.  Not so with our gentleman in Moscow.  The sentences lilt and flow in such a way that none of Rostov’s many reveries feel too weighty or boring – and if they ever begin to drag on, Towles brings in another character to cut the monologue short, and Rostov himself chuckles at his own tendency to get lost in thought.

With good characters living out an intriguing story in such beautiful language, this book is one I will continue recommending (loudly, eagerly) to everyone.

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

The Looming Negative Streak

I currently have a 141-day streak on DuoLingo.  The more days in a row I practice Spanish with that little green owl, the prouder I feel – and the more determined I am to keep my streak going.  Losing those 141 golden calendar days and having to start over at 1??  It’s unthinkable.

Clearly, the concept of being On A Streak is motivating to me.

But The Streak has an evil twin.  This is the string of accumulated days in which I have not done something, not started that habit I kept meaning to do, not read that book or taken that walk or called that friend.  Similar to cold being the absence of heat, this isn’t really a streak in itself, but the absence of one.  It’s a buildup of squandered potential.  It is The Negative Streak.

The Negative Streak doesn’t cheer me on the way being On A Streak does.  Instead, it hovers.  It looms.  All those blank calendar days, all the unchecked boxes, peer over my shoulder and *tsk* at me.  And whenever I tell myself that any day is a good day to start something, The Negative Streak taps me on the shoulder.

“Remember all the days you’ve already failed?” it asks sweetly, frowning in false concern.  “You’ve already procrastinated so much.  Be honest with yourself.  Today won’t be any different.”

Suddenly, instead of facing forward, looking at all the time I have in front of me, I’ve turned around to view an insurmountable wall of wasted days.  It’s dispiriting, to say the least.

They say that perfectionists procrastinate to preclude failure, and I think The Negative Streak is born of that same mindset.  “Look at how easy it was for you to fail on such a small scale,” it says, “and think how much worse it will be when you (inevitably, given your track record) fail at the big stuff!  Much safer not to fight the inertia and just keep not doing things.”

The main place I’ve seen this lately is in my writing.  All the days of not managing to post on this blog or to even open the document of my manuscript have snowballed into an overwhelmingly enormous idea of this big, blobby project labeled just “WRITE MORE” which is hardly actionable or realistic because it has nowhere to start.  I am a person who needs lists, steps, concrete actions to take.

So I did two things.

One was that I actually kept a habit journal.  For the month of June, I tracked the habits I would ideally like to make a daily occurrence in my life.  I didn’t write once in that time, but I did get a better picture of where my priorities are, and seeing the places in my life where I am On A Streak (reading for fun, getting outside, exercising) was helpful.

The second was reading a blog post by a dear writing friend where she talked about why she has decided to start a secondary project just for the fun of it.  She explains that her Real Work in Progress is daunting, scary, and difficult, and she needed something to remind her why writing is fun.  And I realized I also needed something to remind myself why writing is fun, without any attached expectations.  So I dug out an old idea for a story and started writing.  There’s no cohesive narrative, no specific plans for story – I’m just having fun developing that world.  (There are dragons!)

So for July, maybe I’ll get to fill in the little color-coded square for “wrote today” more often, even if it’s just a paragraph about the etiquette of talking about hoards in draconian culture.  I’m hoping to put some distance between me and The Negative Streak.