On the Fourth of July I had two very important tasks ahead of me:
1. Go to Highland Park. Eat junk food. Play board games. Watch fireworks.
2. Finish A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout.
I tackled #2 before leaving the house, because I knew full well after a night full of games and fireworks, plus a treacherous drive home where the entire freeway slams on their breaks when they see a lone, illegal firework rocket from nearby tract housing, I would not be reading anything when I returned safely to my bed.
The book is this: a well-traveled, smart, careful Canadian woman becomes a photo-journalist, travels to Somalia and is kidnapped and held for ransom. I’m going to tell you that she gets out because you probably already figured that, seeing as this is her memoir, and also the story is not whether or not she’s free, but about the days spent in captivity. It’s about not losing her spirit as her life gets bleaker and about making me realize, as the reader, that we can withstand a lot more than we think we can.
So, on the day that my country celebrates its independence, I wanted to finish reading the story of a woman who held on for over a year before receiving her own. This story is the type to stick with me for a while. It’s been a few days now and when I’m having a hard time feeling productive or worrying about not accomplishing enough, I think about Amanda and how sometimes her days were just waiting, ears straining to hear footsteps coming down the hall. My worries pale in comparison to what real stress and anxiety must feel like, yet I often find myself paralyzed with What Ifs. Of course, this is the equivalent of telling someone to eat all of their meal because people are starving. I cannot compare my experiences to someone who has been locked away in Somalia because we will never share the same world view. But it does give me the teensiest bit of perspective on things like exercise and writing.
These are things I get to do. I get to make the happy choice to spend my mornings walking exactly two-and-a-half miles from my home, in any direction, and then return without really worrying that someone is going to steal me and ask my family for ransom money. I get to use a computer to spend some time writing every day and because I don’t have stories involving a knife at my throat and threats in a language I don’t understand, they can be made up. I can write fiction even if no one ever sees it.
But what I’ve realized in my four weeks of no school or work, is that all this freedom is causing me a different type of anxiety. Before it was the constant rush to meet deadlines, whether it be time to get in the car to get in slightly less terrible traffic, to clock in at work, to take my breaks on time, to use my lunch to get my reading done, to finish my assignments, to argue with my counselor, to make sure I was getting to the gym, make sure I was remembering important dates and holidays, to keep up with a social calendar.. and so on. When I went to sleep at night, I was so exhausted I’d pass out the second my head hit the pillow. And now? I feel like I’m floating between activities if only to keep myself busy.
I’m waiting. Right now it’s submitting applications to find work and going on interviews. There’s a scary deadline of when jobs will stop being offered and the school year will start and.. I won’t have one. And that fills me with the type of dread that sends me napping in the middle of my un-filled days because it’s easier to be unconscious than think about failing the job hunt after all this schooling and student loans. But this doesn’t make me special, which is almost worse, because these problems are not unique to students coming out of college every year. It’s just that I’m thirty-two and not twenty-four.
But now I can tell myself, okay, you’re unemployed, but at least you aren’t in a cell in Somalia, and that makes it a little easier to go on and tackle one of those projects I put on my to-do list when I had zero time “to-do” anything.
The other book I’m reading is Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before. I like Gretchen’s voice and right now I especially like her chapter on the excuses we make for ourselves when it’s time to create a good habit. I’m guilty of at least four of them, if not all. I was so much better at creating and maintaining good habits when I had less time in my day. Now it’s easier to put things off and suddenly it’s dark and, hey, we don’t go outside at night in Temecula. Or something.
But, what I really wanted to say about Gretchen is that I’ve developed a funny mantra from reading her books. Her first book was all about finding happiness and she would spend a month doing a different thing, like forming a collection just to see if that’s something that would make her happy. In the end she realized it was okay to not do things that other people did and that the most important thing for her was to “Be Gretchen.” Every time she started trying to fit herself into another mold she’d remind herself: “Be Gretchen.” So, for me, when I think “Oh, so-and-so does this and has these great habits and why can’t I be more like that, blahblah–” I stop and think this exact, ridiculous thing:
“Be Gretchen.” Be Katie.
As though by quoting her first it reminds me that it’s okay to say the second part. I’m not blazing any trails here, I’m just following someone’s lead that’s already made it acceptable to live in her own skin.
So, while I stood on the lawn of my friend’s beautiful home in Highland Park, watching the 360-degree view of firework displays going on all around the city, I thought about declaring my own independence from negative, poisonous thoughts. And not just my own thoughts, but sometimes social media inundates me with articles about famine and cancer that I simply cannot cure and sometimes I need to take a break from that, too. And that’s okay, because I’ve found two voices to guide me through this process: Amanda, who has survived things I will never have to even try to endure and who’s experience puts the blisters on my feet into perspective, and Gretchen who reminds me to just ” be Gretchen.”