the stopping point

It’s mid-term of the fall semester.  Like the fall semester of 2011, I have elected to give my students (and myself) a day off during this week.  They deserve it, and I need it.  But to say that today has been a “day off” or that I have any expectation that tomorrow I will be at leisure to fill my time however I want, would be to tell a falsehood.  In truth, I woke up at my usual time this morning.  I had the usual two cups of coffee, checked my e-mail and spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of my day trying to get into a wakeful state.  Then, like every other weekday during the semester, I set off to work.

Let me be clear and honest–I had completely intended to work today and this isn’t a complaint about having to work.  I may not have been teaching, but I still had work to do and was completely committed to using this non-teaching day to catch up.  Read: catch up, not get ahead.  Getting ahead is an aspiration I have for Sunday (and similarly, I hope to take all of Saturday off and not have to feel guilty about not working).  Now that I’m sitting here and reflecting on the day, I feel good about all that I accomplished.  And yet…

And yet, at the beginning of the semester, I told myself that I would stop working at 6pm Monday through Thursday.  I gave myself “permission” to stop working at 6pm and actually spend my evenings doing something other than working–cooking a healthy dinner, reading a book for leisure, talking to friends and family, cleaning, etc.  All those things normal people do during their non-working hours.  Those things that make life, well, life.  For the first three or four weeks of the semester, I was good at sticking to my stopping time, but as the semester has progressed and gotten more stressful and there is more and more to be done, I find myself working past six, past seven, past eight and even on the rare occasion past nine.  So today, on this non-teaching, catch-up day, I told myself that no matter how much I felt that I still wanted to accomplish, that I would stop at six o’clock, come hell or high water.

Well, hell or high water didn’t come, and they weren’t necessary.  I settled for setting an alarm on my phone, and when it went off, I spent two more minutes finishing the chapter of the book I’m reading for one of my classes, then I closed it and turned my thoughts to non-work related stuff–dinner, playoff baseball, checking in with my online reading club.  The happy result so far is that I’ve made some delicious tomato basil soup while listening to the baseball game streamed online and enjoying a glass of one of my favorite red wines (Middle Sister Rebel Red, in case you are wondering).  Plus, I’ve also had time to hear myself think and wonder why it is that I’m not more committed and insistent upon stopping at my stated stopping time.  It’s not unreasonable to want to stop after an eleven-hour workday.  But I’m stuck with guilt–no, that’s not right.  I’m stuck with anxiety when I stop early and leave work to do the next day.  Stopping early means having to finish the next morning before teaching and worrying that I’m going to run out of time.  I have to read.  I have to prep a lecture.  I have to be ready to teach.  Those things can’t be put off for later, and I keep telling myself: “Self, stop over-prepping. Do less.”  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  And when I don’t feel prepared, I feel guilty, like I have somehow failed to fulfill my role as a teacher.

Though I usually find answers through writing, I’m not sure that there is an answer to this recurring conundrum.  Perhaps the advice I need to give myself is to just keep doing my best. I say this to my students, but I never say it to myself.   If I don’t want to remember these years of my life being spent in doing nothing other than working, then I have to make some changes. One of those changes has to be actually stopping when stopping time comes around.

summer cleaning

Have you ever tried to clean out your life?  What do you keep? What do you leave behind? How do you decide what to hold onto and what to let go of?

Just before I sat down to write this post, I was shredding some old documents.  One of my tasks this summer has been to finally, FINALLY, go through the last remaining piles of paper I have had lying around since my move last summer.  You know how it is when you’re packing and moving—some stuff you just don’t have time to go through and so you throw it in a box, and you tell yourself that you’ll deal with it when you get to your new place.  It’s taken me a year, but I have at last gotten around to completing this task.  While shredding and sorting this morning, it occurred to me that what the shredding and the sorting of these piles of paper really represent is my continuing attempt to clean out my life.

Cleaning out your life.  What does that even mean?  I think the first time I put this process into words that held any meaning for me was at the start of my final year in graduate school.  I was teaching, writing my dissertation, searching for jobs, and looking ahead to the end of the school year when I would likely have to pack up my life and move it elsewhere.  I wanted to get a head start on that process, but it occurred to me that it wasn’t just physical things like papers, books, old clothes, broken shoes, and all the other ephemera and stuff that we accumulate in this business of life that I needed to sort through and choose what to keep and what to give away.  I also had intangible things cluttering my life—doubts, insecurities, fears, anxieties.  I had also gained a lot of weight over the course of my doctoral program and I wanted to take steps to lose those pounds.  Perhaps even more detrimental, I realized that I had a couple of toxic relationships in my life that I needed to let go of and put behind me.  It took some time, but I slowly became aware of a desire to clean out my life—to get rid of everything that was keeping me from being the person that I wanted to be, even if who I wanted to be wasn’t exactly clear to me.  What I did know was that who I was at that time in my life was not the person I wanted to be.

That light bulb moment was almost two years ago, and since then I have worked steadily to cleanse my life of so many material and immaterial things that I no longer want, need, or aren’t spiritually, emotionally, or physically good for me.  These lingering piles of paper remind me that there is still progress to be made and work to be done because the truth is that two years later, I am still not the person I want to be.  Writing this post has resulted in an important revelation:  I’m still a work-in-progress, and I’m still evolving into the person that I want to be.  This is okay, but this revelation can’t be a stopping point.  I have to keep changing and evolving and striving.

A few years ago, someone posed the following question to me:  what is the theme song for your life?  My response was fairly immediate: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2.  In the years that have passed, my theme song hasn’t changed, and admitting that is somewhat disheartening.  It’s that understanding that has inspired me to try to make sense of various things going on in my life.  Enter these Thursday contemplations.   The lesson and take-away from today’s contemplations: that change—lasting change—is hard, sometimes painful, but necessary.  Also, I need to really accept the fact that it’s time to make some difficult decisions. The wait-and-see approach I have adopted in the last couple of years is no longer viable.  If I want the theme song for my life to change, I need to make it change.