Stress Fantasies

It is no secret to anyone who knows me: August is my least favorite month.  This sentiment has everything to do with the annual opening of the fall semester. To put it in perspective, August is the tax season of Residence Life (I’m sure any accountant reading this blog will fully appreciate what I’m saying.)

In August, when things blow up at work and I find myself either in the office or working at home/the coffeeshop evenings and weekends, I find myself fantasizing a lot. In fact, every quiet moment finds me longing for something I can’t have or do in August.   One definition of fantasy is “…the free play of creative imagination”. However, these stress fantasies are both strange and a little embarrassing, because their content is…not right. One should never give one’s imagination license to play freely and then come up with…

…laundry. I can’t believe I fantasize about taking the time to run multiple loads of laundry through my basement machines. Mostly, in August, I decide what I want to wear the next day and before falling into bed throw a load made up of exactly that – including the underwear, socks/stockings, and outer garments – into my washer. In the morning, the whole load dries while I shower. I dress in scalding hot garments, standing on the cold cement floor.

…sleep. Sitting at my desk after RA training activities, slogging through the entire day’s emails, I dream about sleeping. I imagine myself crawling into bed in a dark room and…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

…falling down the stairs. Ok, this is my dark fantasy in August. They say visualization works – athletes use it to successfully achieve their physical goals all the time. This is the month every year when I visualize myself falling down the library steps when my arms are loaded down with binders, balls, and coffee. I see it happening in my mind, then tell myself that this is an effective technique only if I actually WANT to fall. And I don’t, because I can’t be assured I will hurt myself in a manner that would require me to get more bedrest.

…going to the bathroom at the moment that I actually need to.  Let’s agree, no one should ever have to fantasize about this.

…winning the lottery. Enough said.

In past years, August has managed to derail my good exercise and eating habits. Suddenly, there are not enough hours in the day, and the management of work-related concerns leaves me exhausted and stressed out. This is a terrible one-two punch to the core of my healthy lifestyle. This year, though, my exercise habits are well enough incorporated into my life that I am finding time time for exercise regardless of the rest of the schedule. I feel stronger and more energized as a result. Yes, the sudden availability of a wide variety of delicious yet nutritiously damaging foods is a temptation (the dining room reopens, RAs and other staff bring treats, we bribe – I mean thank – them for their hard work with icecream and candy). Luckily, I am tempted one day and able to manage appropriately the next, so I am hopeful that I will be able to maintain recent losses.

Now that I think about it, perhaps I do have one appropriate August fantasy: the one where I survive the month feeling confident, strong and healthy. Perhaps this one will come true if I visualize!

too late

Last Saturday, I knew I was about to head into a stressful few weeks, so I planned to take it easy in the morning: a pot of coffee and some magazines while I enjoyed the cool temperature on my patio. Seemed like a perfect idea. Have you ever had a moment when you were happily moving through your day and suddenly, WHAM! you slam up against something that, unexpectedly, takes you to a place you never intended?

As I read an article recommending summer reading, and offering reviews of a variety of books to fit different summer moods or locales, it happened. The book being reviewed was You Are Free by Danzy Senna, a collection of eight stories, each of which “…surveys the dangerous fault line between parenthood and remaining childless.” The reviewer goes on to quote Livy, one story’s protagonist:

“And sooner or later all women know this,” says Livy. “You won’t know what it was you gave up until it is too late to recover.”

As soon as I read that line, it was too late for me to recover my emotional equilibrium. My mind was suddenly full of things I gave up and realized, too late, that I wanted. That beaded mask I made; certain relationships; my sense of self as an adventurer. Gave away. Gave up. Gave up on.

So, there I was on a lovely Saturday morning, on my patio in my pajamas, crying into my coffee.

Then I remembered something important: I am not my past.

I’ve watched too many movies about the perils of time travel, and the chaos that would result from even the tiniest change, to attempt to go back. And revisiting past choices with regret is like picking at a scab – viscerally satisfying in that moment, perhaps, but not good for the healing process in the long run. So, I do know what Livy says all women eventually know. But I also know this:  if it is too late to recover, it is definitely too late to cry about it. Especially on a beautiful, tranquil Saturday morning.

August 18, 2011

Another inch in the right direction! I could not be happier, given that it is August – a stressful and crazy month each year. Many years, August derails me with regard to both fitness and weight loss. I am determined that it not do so this year.

A Solo Hike

The beginning of the Cedar Crest Trail.

In my entire adult life, until today, I have never managed to go for a long hike in the woods by myself. I have started to, a few times, but always turned around in fear before I managed to go very far. No, I am not afraid of the woods. I admit I am easily startled by even small wild animals, but that isn’t why I have feared such hikes. Some of you know I can be a bit clumsy, and this might be a good reason to avoid heading into the woods solo, however, even the fear of injury hasn’t been the thing that stopped me.

I don’t walk alone in the woods because I am afraid of men. More specifically, I have been afraid of finding myself alone and isolated with a passing stranger who might seize this moment of vulnerability and take advantage of it. Or a couple of passing strangers.

I have had many arguments, with myself and others, about whether this is a realistic fear. I have debated the relative merits of curtailing activities in order to feel more secure (thereby holding myself back from fully experiencing things that might enrich my life) OR of taking a more courageous stance and going full steam ahead in spite of fear. In spite of what I have learned to think about as a woman in this world – that I might be easy prey for someone stronger than me.

I have been working to fear less in my life. And today just seemed like a good day to set forth on my own. I felt trepidation. When I experienced a bout of vertigo upon stepping too close the edge of a rocky cliff, I worried that I might be incompetent to hike alone on a ridge-top trail! Twice (in the same spot, headed out and back in) I encountered a beaver who was as startled to see me as I was to see him.  The only other people I encountered in the woods today were men, also out enjoying nature alone (well, one guy had a baby snuggled to his chest). I tried to cross paths with them confidently and with trust in my heart.

It was beautiful, cool and crisp in the green woods. So quiet I could hear trees creaking in the wind. So still at moments that the shy blue dragonflies hovered all around me, nearly alighting on my toes a couple of times.

Holding still, you can't see his gossamer wings!

A few hours after returning from my hike, I sat chatting in a friend’s living room. She asked if I had told anyone where I was going, when I would be back. She scolded me for not doing so, and shook her head at my impulsive trek. I could only agree with her.

And yet. There was a moment on my solo walk, breathing deeply in the loveliness and solitude, when I felt such happiness that I literally broke into a run. Me. Running. Not in fear, but in joy.

Resting on a trail-side bench.

When compassion fails

One night recently, I was at a social gathering at a public venue, when my friend said, “Hey, Jen, did you recognize the guy who just served you at the counter? It’s your favorite student of all time!” I had not, in fact, recognized the man in question. Regardless, he is someone I will never forget: the only student I’ve ever worked with for whom my loathing and anger was so complete that absolutely no compassion existed in my heart for him. None. He was a liar, abusive to others, incapable of considering anyone else’s feelings, a bully, and – I felt sure – a sociopath. In all honesty, the only student I’ve ever claimed to hate.

Years have passed since he was a student. In the intervening time, whenever his name was mentioned, I’ve felt a residue of the negative feelings he inspired in me. Former students often ask, “Was I the worst student you’ve ever had?!”, and my answer is always, “Not even close,” because this other guy so clearly owns that label. So, when we were once again in the same room, I watched him surreptitiously. And was surprised to feel…nothing.

On one hand, it was good to know that the lingering feelings of rancor in my heart were no longer an active emotion. Rather, they were the ephemera left by long-remembered experience. On the other hand, it allowed me to think: what would our interactions have been had I attempted to express compassion for this young man when he was a student? Is it possible that one or both of us would be different people today had I been able to find empathy – something that I’ve been able to offer to most people with whom I interact – in my heart for him?

The easy answer is no. Nothing would have been different, because he was determined to act out in the aggressive manner he did. Compassion would have been laughed at, seen as weakness to be exploited. Indeed, I watched that happen with others who approached him offering friendship or care.

The much harder to accept answer, the one I reluctantly come to each time I parse it, is yes. I don’t know, and will never be able to say, whether compassion from me would have had a positive effect on him. But I know in my heart it would have positively affected me. It is so easy to slap a label (sociopath, for example) on someone and call your responsibilities toward that person done. I was careful to fulfill my professional responsibilities with regard to this student, and I tracked it all in reports and letters to him and to my supervisor. But I know I made a choice to forego my responsibility as a fellow human being out of anger and dislike. The fact that my feelings were activated by my care for those suffering from his actions was how I justified my choice. In hindsight, I know that is simply a way to let myself off the hook.

Why am I sharing this? The very day I saw my former student, was the day I posted on this blog that “love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in this world,” (lyrics from a Martina McBride song), and expressed my gratitude for compassion offered to me by friends and perfect strangers alike. It was not lost on me, as I sat looking at this stranger I had once interacted with, that I had not offered him as good as I’ve gotten. Mercy and compassion allow us to give back to the world some of the good we’ve been given. It isn’t supposed to just be offered to those who’ve granted it to us, a kind of karmic tit-for-tat. If I hope to add to the atmosphere of good in this world, and I do, the only way is to bring good where none previously existed. To offer compassion in response to aggression or apathy. To offer love when hatred has been put on the table.

Am I beating myself up over mistakes I made much earlier in my life? Not really. I’ve made so many, even I am aware this is just one of them. I can’t go back and change how those interactions played out. But I can learn a lesson when one slaps me in the face (yep, pretty much an apt description of my academic experiences, too!). I share it here, not because I grew up Catholic and have a need for public confession. Rather, I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, I will hold myself accountable to practice my life accordingly. When compassion fails, my ability to be my best self fails. So does my hope to help create a better world.

August 11, 2011

I love stepping on the scale, not knowing what it will say, then looking down and seeing movement in the right direction! Even after all this time, that is a little thrill for me.

Summer in a Pie Shell

I made this delicious pie for dinner on Sunday. It serves eight, so I had plenty left to share with coworkers for lunch on Monday. We had a lunch picnic on the conference table in my office, celebrating the tastes of summer despite the fact that our fall is in full swing as we prepare for the new crop of residential students!

I made this recipe for the first time last summer when I had a house full of hungry family. I followed the original recipe (thyme, tomatoes, corn, etc.) exactly then. It was delicious. But I have to say, I liked it better this time, with a few modifications.

First, I used a frozen piecrust. Much easier, and still tasty. Instead of thyme, I had fresh basil which I cut into ribbons and added liberally in place of thyme. The recipe called for 1 cup of fresh corn kernels. The first ear produced less than one cup, and the second ear was huge. I ended up with about 1 3/4 cup of corn, and added it all. I had farm grown, fresh-picked red and orange tomatoes, and alternated them in the recipe. I also threw in a little fresh mozzarella I had left from a tomato-basil pizza (in addition to the cheddar called for in the recipe). With all of the fresh corn, there was an added silkiness to the custard, and it took about fifteen minutes longer to bake – whether that was the juicy corn and tomatoes or my oven, who cares? The wait just intensified my hunger.

The first forkful was like taking a bite out of the best of summer. Yum. So glad I revisited this one!