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Confession: I’m Not Very Good at Normal Life

This is a confession of sorts. The gist of it? I'm not that good at living a normal life.

This is something I learned about myself a long time ago, but it's something I seem to forget from time to time. In thinking about my good enough project, and the hows and whys and the kinds of changes I want to make to my life in order to improve it, I remembered this thing about myself. And I wondered if perhaps it's part of the problem.

When I say I'm not good at regular life, I mean I'm not good at normalcy. I'm not good at status quo. I'm not good at content. I'm not good at things being…well, as they should.

When I was fourteen both of my parents found out they had cancer. Their diagnoses came within months of each other. Our lives were instantly thrown into utter turmoil.

I was young and there was a lot I didn't understand about what was going on, but I did understand was that I was getting pulled out seventh grade (my most hated year of school) a lot. I understood that life had a new urgency to it, that things like math homework and the fight I was in with my best friend suddenly didn't matter anymore.

In fact, lots of things didn't matter anymore. Things that I didn't care about in the first place. Like going to bed on time, or putting away laundry. Like routines and sensible dinners. Like making long-term plans or planning for the future.

My parent's illnesses threw all of that out the window. Life became immediate, to be lived in the here and now, to be lived the way we wanted.

As terrible as the reason for it all was, I suddenly felt liberated. I felt free. Free from the mundane tasks that make up day-to-day living, free from schedules and social drama, free from trying to figure out who I was. It turned out to be quite exhilarating. We all drove faster, stopped harder, slept later, ate worse and stared up at the stars longer than we might any other night.

Over the next ten years my life became a roller coaster of these kinds of periods. Ups and downs. Normal and not normal. Life would always return to its even keel for a while. I would resume regular school, my parents would pay bills and make dinner and scold me for talking on the phone late at night. But then suddenly I would be sitting in a class at school and some administrator would come in and beckon to me from the doorway. The rest of the class would watch as I packed up my things, and off I would go to the hospital or home, wherever it was where things had just taken a turn for the worse.

When these things happened life suddenly became brighter, faster, more exciting. In an awful way, of course. And it really was awful. There was never one minute of my parent's illnesses that was fun or enjoyable. It was always heartbreaking and always terrifying.

But there was also a small part of me that began to live for these burst of freedom, these moments in which I was propelled up and out of my life, bound on a streaming ship for places I hadn't even conceived of yet. I discovered that the boundaries to my day-to-day life were as breakable as dry spaghetti, and that snapping them in half was just as satisfying.

My mother died when I was eighteen, and that became the biggest moment of them all. NOTHING mattered anymore. Absolutely nothing. And through my grief that was the one thing I clung to. The freedom of it all.

I wasn't afraid of anything anymore. The very worst had happened. There wasn't anything that could ever happen that would hurt more.  I went on a spree. I got a tattoo. I drank too much. I drove too fast. I traveled to far away places by myself. I dropped out of college for a while. I moved to New York City at 19. I wasn't afraid of any of it.

The icy, black freedom that came with her death lasted for years. And each time life threatened to become a little too normal again, something else would happen. My aunt died. One of my best friends died. And eventually, my father died.

For years and years, I lived on this edge. I lived as if there were no tomorow. Because there wasn't. It kept getting ripped out from underneath me. I stopped believing in tomorrow. It just didn't matter. School loans and parties, trips to Asia, and career changes? Car wrecks and broken relationships? Those things just made life seem all the more real. What was living if you weren't teetering over a giant, black abyss?

I didn't know anymore.

But then a couple of years went by. And then a couple more. And nothing happened. Life started to smooth out. I started buying paper towels in bulk and chipping away at my student loans. I started thinking months, and then years, down the road. Life became kind of normal, for the first time in a long time.

Granted the last three years have been filled with big changes — cross country moves and getting married, pregnancy and my first child — but all of those things have been good ones. None of them have made me want to throw myself carelessly at the world, like I used to.

Just the opposite, in fact.

For the last three years I've felt more cautious than ever with my life. I've felt more careful and appreciative of it. I've worked harder than ever to preserve what I have, and I've (as painful as it has been sometimes) relearned how to acknowledge the future, to live beyond today.

But that's where this confession comes in. There is still a part of me that longs for that terrible thrill of freedom. I still crave the wild strength that comes with loss and heartbreak. I miss getting to forget about bills and student loans, to stop caring about going to work every day or about how the car needs an oil change. I sometimes long for the fierceness of life, for the immediacy of it.

This is where my good enough problem comes into play. I think that when life gets too normal I get bored. It doesn't seem interesting enough to put my full effort into. Good enough becomes good enough.

Therefore, one of my new goals this fall is to practice mindfulness. I'm going to urge myself to be more present to even the most mundane of daily living. I took a long bath last night (part of my project that has been really effective so far) and as I sat there in the warm water I directed all my thoughts to appreciating everything about my present existence. I thought about my daughter asleep in the next room, and my husband at work in the living room, about the cats and the houseplants, and our little home that I love so much, about how everything was exactly as it should be, and how good that felt.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor Frankl

21 Comments

  1. Totally agree. I too struggle with finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

    Comment by Bryce on October 18, 2010 at 10:06 am

  2. Exactly. And that, right there, is the great challenge of life, I think.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 18, 2010 at 10:08 am

  3. For different reasons, I guess — mine actually…aren’t reasons at all — I have often been in the same place as you. I’ve long hurled myself at life just to keep things interesting, and when things start to feel like they’re balancing out, I do something stupid to shake them up again. Because imbalance has been the place where I feel most balanced: Does that make sense?
    My therapist has been working with me on mindfulness as well. It’s not FUN, per se, but it’s necessary. I’m going to drive myself over the edge at some point if I keep living on it.
    Good for you.

    Comment by Paige Worthy on October 18, 2010 at 10:22 am

  4. I understand…somewhat…having had occasional bursts of “needing to shake life up”…but not so much with my second husband, since he liked to shake life up too…mine was more of “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence”…what I was good at was moving on…which is probably the opposite of what you’ve experienced, since I always felt like I was running away from life, rather than runnin toward life…now that I’m way into senior moments, I find moving on doesn’t hold the romance for me it once did…dealing with the here and now is excitement enough

    Comment by Theanne L Crossett on October 18, 2010 at 11:30 am

  5. I loved reading this post. Beautifully written. And while I can’t identify with your exact experience, know that I feel much the same way. I look around sometimes at all the people in my life who seem to be ok with the status quo. With the general ordinary-ness of life, and I wonder often what’s wrong with me. Why can’t I be satisfied like that?
    I love your writing. You are a comfort.

    Comment by Erika on October 18, 2010 at 1:25 pm

  6. I find great peace and comfort in reading God’s word and knowing how much He loves each of us.

    Comment by Rita on October 18, 2010 at 6:27 pm

  7. Thanks, Rita. We all have to find what works best for us!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 18, 2010 at 7:57 pm

  8. Thanks, Erika. I agree. I often find myself envious of people who seem to be content with the ordinary.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 18, 2010 at 7:57 pm

  9. Oof, the grass is always greener is a HARD one. I run into that one a lot too. Again, I think its about trying to come back to the present moment, trying to be appreciative of the here and now.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 18, 2010 at 7:58 pm

  10. That totally makes sense, and is just what I was saying. I, too, feel much more balanced in the midst of imbalance. I really think this is a challenge a lot of people face, to varying degrees. But its one well worth striving to change and grow from.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 18, 2010 at 8:00 pm

  11. in took me 60+ years to get there (and the death of my beloved husband) but I find that I now live very much in the moment…I was always telling hubby to stop and smell the roses…now I spend most of my day stopping to stick my face in the roses (roses that very much resemble the curly heads and adorable faces of my g’kids…lol with joy)

    Comment by Theanne and Baron on October 18, 2010 at 9:55 pm

  12. Contentedness is such a difficult thing. It’s funny, just this morning I was thinking about how I’m starting to get restless again. I’ve made some really big changes in my life this year and am just beginning to settle into them, and of course that’s when the restlessness starts all over again!
    I’ve also been reading quite a lot about mindfulness recently — when I do manage to practice it, it really works very well. I hope you have success with it too.

    Comment by Sophie on October 19, 2010 at 1:08 am

  13. WOW, I had chills reading this post. CHILLS. I am the EXACT same way! I had a very, very stable childhood in a tiny Midwestern town and I dreamed of the day I could escape to palm trees, beaches and the excitement of a 24-7 city. I left when I was 20 and haven’t looked back (I’m 34 now). The problem is, I feel like I haven’t “grown up.” All of my friends are settled into homes, have kids and do the little league games. I’ve been married for 10 years but we don’t have kids yet and I honestly don’t know when I’ll feel ready for them. It’s been 14 years and I’m still living on the edge. I could never sit still in a cubicle and finally broke free with a freelance writing career. Mundane things like staying in an apartment for longer than a year, paying bills on time, getting “settled” into one place…it all bores me. I’m not sure why I’m so restless but I know I need to “grow up” and settle down soon. I think L.A. is the perfect place for a gypsy like me to lay down roots – the city is always changing and even I can’t get bored there. I’ve gotten addicted to moving all over the country on a whim and I know it needs to end soon. Thank you so much for this post – I can’t believe how much I could relate to it. I’ve actually been admiring the fact that you can wait until next summer to move back to L.A.! I want to go now, now, now but I know I need to save more money first, like a responsible adult. :p

    Comment by Liz on October 19, 2010 at 1:24 am

  14. First off, I would have moved back to LA a year ago, when the idea first occurred to me. BUT I have a very sensible husband who insists on sensible things like making plans and creating savings accounts. Sometimes I go along with his ideas. :) Second of all, Im restless too. I have zero interest in settling down somewhere. Even LA sounds fleeting to me and I already find myself thinking where well go after that. No desire to buy a house, or lay claim to a plot of land. The opposite really. But now that I have a child, Im beginning to consider these things just a tiny bit more.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 19, 2010 at 9:14 am

  15. Thanks, Sophie. I think that mindfulness might be the very thing to combat restlessness. Lets keep working on it!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 19, 2010 at 9:15 am

  16. Ha…cute. I find that being with my daughter is the easiest time for me to relax into the present moment. There is truly nowhere else Id rather be when Im with her.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 19, 2010 at 9:16 am

  17. Exactly! People are always like, “but you can’t buy a house in LA!” I couldn’t care less because I have no desire to be tied down to a house. I understand the thought of even LA being fleeting, but I think I have to settle this time because I am driving my poor husband nuts.;p Honestly, I’ve been all over the US and I could see me getting restless anywhere after a while – maybe I’ll be fighting this my whole life. I think it’s awesome you are listening to your sensible husband on this one! I’m trying to learn to do the same. You’ve helped me realize I need to stick it out here a little longer and save more money. Thank you. :) LA will be my Christmas present now I guess. Here’s to being sensible!

    Comment by Liz on October 19, 2010 at 2:13 pm

  18. Ha…cheers!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 20, 2010 at 9:44 am

  19. you’ve got it….

    Comment by Theanne Crossett on October 20, 2010 at 11:23 am

  20. Buying paper towels in bulk. Oh, how I can relate to that! have been buying in bulk for many years, but a recent serious health scare had me re-thinking that for a while. Coming home from the first inconclusive diagnostic appointment, I stopped for groceries. Standing there considering my usual stock-up purchase of a 25 pound bag of sugar (don’t judge me — the holidays are coming ;-) I thought “But wait…if I’m not around to have a Christmas party this year, there’s no way Jim will ever need more than a cup of sugar in the house for the rest of his life!” So that day I came home with just the smallest bag on the shelf. Happy to say that yesterday I hauled in the 25lb. bag we’ll clearly be using over the next few months, so either all really *is* well, or I’m completely off my rocker here ;-) My point, if there ever was one in this comment, is that those moments of intentional clarity can often be very fleeting, so kudos to you for trying to capture that and live the moment. Truly, life is short. I may *think* I’ll be around for the annual baking spree, but if a truck happens to hit me on the way to buy the bale of chocolate chips, who’s to say Jim won’t be stuck with all that sugar after all? So why can’t I keep that in mind when it comes to staying on top of the laundry pile all the time? Or not :-)
    Priorities. What *are* mine? What should they be? What would they be if…?
    As always, Claire, thank you for another thought-provoking post!

    Comment by Carroll on October 20, 2010 at 1:04 pm

  21. 25 lbs of sugar!! I want to come to one of your holiday parties, Carroll! I think its really a challenge to strike a balance between living in the moment and planning ahead. We have to do both, really. But its tricky. Very tricky. (And whats going on?? Emailing you…)

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 21, 2010 at 7:43 am

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