In Which I Become Unquantifiable

Drawing of fitness band and smartphone with statistics on it.

I’ve boxed it up. After four years of consistent and unwavering usage, I have taken off my Fitbit, unlikely to ever be used again. The level of self-awareness from this device has now reached the point of diminishing returns. It just became a habitual accessory with curious bits of information that I ignored.

I recently deleted my Goodreads account, despite having filled lists with hundreds of books. I never wrote public reviews, felt guilty using a reductionist rating system, and wondered why I was advertising a solitary habit that I had done all my life without fanfare.

One by one, I began to look at all the ways in which I was tracking and quantifying my life. Counting calories, making lists, tracking exercise, inventories, writing journal entries. I’ve done these things one way or another since I was 13, keeping a running list of flaws and excesses and not quite getting things right. It is a lifestyle geared towards being better – until the time, energy, and devices become a replacement for a life. It’s a sterile proof of life. Would you know me by my steps, my carbohydrate intake, my reading peccadilloes? Does the nebulous, contradictory shape of my being need data for definition?

Orange and red rays of streaming data.

Perhaps menopause, and all its accompanying mood swings, seismic corporeal changes, and the catching of breath before entering the final third of my life (if I am lucky) has sent me off the deep end. I do not wish to live in a data-driven world, dragging cookies with me from one internet site to the next, ads popping up to tell me just what a screw-up I really am or that despite how messed up the world is, I should be buying this device and make sure I’m getting apps that tell me that I will never, ever be good enough.

It’s frightening to leave my life up to me. Ever since I cut heel holes into leg warmers and wore collarless sweatshirts to do Jane Fonda’s ab blasters, I’ve expected services, apps, people, books to give me the magic answer that will make me good enough. I am capitalism’s most perfect mark. Got a problem? We know you do. Buy this. Listen to the guru. Download this app. Purchase these magic beans.

I’d been staring out of the window watching the birds and squirrels in the yard when my phone beeped to tell me it’s time to meditate. Wasn’t I just doing that? Perhaps if I just let myself be, I’ll be drawn inexorably to what I need. I can listen to myself or make Pavlovian choices, dropping down into a sitting pose on a beep. App deleted.

If I sound strident, I am. It’s uncomfortable – this unregulated, un-tracked being I now inhabit. At 53, I see where I have robbed myself – of joy, of adventure, of passion – in an effort to be good enough. My life feels like a succession of apologies and renovations. At times, when I thought I was reinventing myself, I was just swapping out new tracking methods, different-colored charts, but really it was the same old plan. Stop being me.

In 1982, “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene was on the charts. We used to snicker at the song, saying things like Well, I’ve been to me and it wasn’t that great. Jokes as a cry for therapy. I did therapy too. But I was so concerned that the therapist would think I was a nutjob, that I processed and packaged my feelings. When I told her I was going to stop therapy, she felt satisfied with my progress. I am, when push comes to shove, a skilled liar. Mostly to myself.

Megaphone with words on it like feedback, opinion, and view.

So how does one unravel self from a world eager to define it for you? How does one stop speaking the language of critique and review and feedback? How does one disentangle what it means to be human from what it means to be a citizen, consumer, a content regurgitator?

As part of an MFA program, I am required to do workshops. I hate workshops, but not for the reasons one might assume. Feedback is nominally useful, because most workshop feedback is organized around a disparate group of readers who don’t the writer’s intent. It’s a messy process and less useful than one might imagine. I decided to no longer read with a critic’s eye and it has changed how I approach the work of others. I approach it with curiosity – what is the writer trying to do? How can I help them do that?

Keyboard with shopping cart key.

This shift in my approach is bleeding over into other areas in my life. Approach with curiosity. The adjustment period is awkward. You can’t miss how people talk or write – all the pronouncements, opinions, critiques about everything. Were we always like this? How have we been trained to see and point out the flaws in the most minor things? I heard the phrase deficit advertising to explain how we are convinced to buy, buy, buy through the calculated strategy of making us feel as if we are not enough. We are vicious critics of ourselves. That’s a problem, but there is probably an app for that.

Is the absence of planning, tracking, and logging in, a plan in and of itself? Perhaps. It feels more like scraping away the distractions to see what is there. Who am I without data? Who am I without the automatic longing for something else and the ongoing, constant data feedback from my life? Does this body still have good bones?

So here I am, a nebulous, unfocused, undefined being. I do not know if I have maintained a good carb-fat-protein ratio. I have not met any personal goals today. I’m not sure how many books I have read this month. Or if REM sleep comprised enough of my night. I do not know how many steps I have walked today. I just know that I am moving in a different direction.

Administrative Note: I have not included a recording of this post and will not for the foreseeable future. I wanted this blog to be more accessible and to provide other options for those people, of which I am one, who get way too much screen time. The problem is, I’m not very good at creating recordings. After trying a lot of different configurations for a duct-taped sort of studio and using free recording software, it still takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. It stops me from writing here, because of the work it will entail. I’m not famous or in great demand or even paid for this. When I am any of those things, I will find someone who knows what they are doing and they can record it. Until that time, I’m going back to the basics of writing.

Terra-exodus: Menopausal Mutations

canstockphoto45409296Since it’s summer, my family and I have indulged in some low rent binge watching – namely the profligate Marvel Universe on Netflix. On the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., humans undergo a process called Terragenesis in which they evolve through one method or another into inhumans – humans with enhanced powers. In the show, The Ghost Rider is another character who gains the skill to become a fire-hurling head of flame.

My head has felt surrounded by flames on and off for a month now. I’m going through peri-menopause, on my way to being done with my childbearing years. Every two minutes, I feel like I’ve just opened an oven door in front of my face – prickly heat, the sweat, then the cooling off and chills. Insomnia is putting me on edge and writing is interrupted by chaotic thoughts hopping through my head, like frogs on lily pads, leaping from one random word to another.

canstockphoto6610591Normally, I wouldn’t bother writing about “lady issues”. But there is some glee in doing so when we have a president who is viscerally offended by any bodily function of a woman. He’s expressed his heebie-jeebs about menstruation, weight, breastfeeding, using the restroom, children – anything that mars his puerile focus on beauty queen attributes. I’m not really interested in reading about other people’s bodily functions, hygiene or bathroom habits, but I know they exist and don’t act like a ten-year old afraid of girl cooties.

It is euphemistically called a change of life. Metamorphosis is the word that keeps cropping up in my mind. Will I shed my skin? Will I become something worse, lesser, weaker, older? My body seems no longer under my control, with the unregulated thermostat turning the furnace on every time I get the least bit comfortable. Now that I will no longer be a fertile being, is this the time when primordial husbands look for eggs elsewhere?

My body has been through a lot – all the running, marching in combat boots and gear, canstockphoto5272635martial arts training, childbirth, endless menstrual cycles. I calculated that in my lifetime, I’ve had a period at least 400 times. 400 times of hormonal changes, fat loss and gain. 400 times when sappy commercials made me cry, I’ve blurted out the wrong thing, I’ve lain on the couch with a heating pad, bottle of ibuprofen, and a box of tissue. My body has been in a constant state of change, but this time the change will stick.

Death anxiety has been keeping me awake as I approach my 50th birthday. All that time under the bridge and I can still feel the rapid heartbeat of knowing that in an instant, I could be dead. I’ve had death thoughts all my life, part and parcel of a family gene of mental morbidity. They mostly come to the surface when I’m under a great deal of pressure or anxious about something. They pass as I finally get sleep and eventually wake up to the day with gratitude – that I made it through the night.

canstockphoto7381679I don’t dwell long in that place – I know it’s not helpful. But these days the thrum of my anxiety isn’t waning. It is staying at a rather constant, exhausting level. This is where the desire to do something drastic and different arises. Anything to relieve the idea that this is it. That my life has culminated in a mere pittance and that any hopes or dreams I have are on a timer.  It gets dark in my head, before a challenger arrives.

The challenger is this moment. In this moment, I get to sit in my study and write. I look past the happy cat snoozing on the window seat, into a green space with grape vines and flowers growing. My teenager is whiling away the morning in a horizontal position that seems to shift only slightly throughout the day. My husband, who has surely had his own death thoughts, is downstairs working, on the phone with his colleagues. I’ve had a good breakfast and there’s a full coffee pot.

What is it that would make this experience better? Do I need something or have I become so accustomed to scrabbling for more, I don’t know when to rest? The idea of rest, of not fighting so hard to be disciplined or accurate or on time or willing, bothers me. Yet I wonder if it would make me kinder and more joyful and less anxious. I’ve always wondered if we all aren’t just trying too much. And maybe that is the secret to being happy as one ages. To not try so hard.

canstockphoto2121325I think about my lifetime pursuits thus far. What was I looking for? For me, it has often been safety. This is a sad realization on my part. I would do anything to be safe, not surprised, not noticed – just safe. I grew up with unpredictability, so I needed to be my own rock and I’ve spent a lifetime being careful. I keep waiting for that crushing, regret-filled moment when I see it all so clearly – what I’ve missed out on because I was safe.

That moment may never come. I will likely never be a wild woman, a revolutionary with fiery ideals and bold actions. I won’t be making history. As I sweat through another hot flash, I think about what might be released from my pores – fear, anxiety, pain, old memories, regret, disappointment. Perhaps this is the change that is really happening – that I am becoming unknown to myself again, because everything that has defined me is subject to question.

A Small Tmesis Before Re-Entering the Fray

canstockphoto0492793The muddied waters of a chronic depression have surrounded me for months. My highs haven’t been very high, my lows not too low. A mental shoulder shrug answers when I check in with myself. Autumn is in the air and with it, a sense of relief. Finally a season to suit my mood. Melancholy is in vogue again and the suntanned Pollyanna of summer is out.

The weeks following a long Pacific coast vacation became jumbled with school starts and appointments and busy-ness. I was taken off guard even though I’d planned well in advance. Life dragged me along, a dead weight of wry gloom. It felt like surrender. This is me now, I thought, driving my kid to activities, making sure everyone has clean skivvies, wandering listlessly through grocery aisles. Struggling to communicate, make eye contact, be present.

A man came to the door and tried to talk to me about God on Sunday afternoon. For the first time ever, when someone asked of my faith, I called myself an atheist. I’ve gone with agnostic in the past, but I didn’t want him to think he had a way in. And I’m not adept at explaining secular humanism or my true philosophy that none of us knows anything, but it doesn’t really matter as long as we’re decent to each other.

canstockphoto3235320His proselytizing interrupted me while I was reading a book on reasoning, so I didn’t mind the discussion. He asked about what comforted me. I didn’t tell him about the fuzzy socks and coconut-scented lotion and burritos and piles and piles of books yet to be read. I pointed to my garden and muttered something about family. The fact that I was polite only encouraged him. The doorbell will ring again.

Menopause is enveloping me. Hormones infect my dreams with flying house centipedes and my husband leaving me in a souped-up red Prius. Somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking optimistically that my life was only half over and started thinking, oh shit, my life is beyond half over. My heart starts pounding and I frantically think about what I still want to do and how, if I haven’t done it at this point, it might be too late.

My weight circuit training class started up again. Over the years, training in Taekwondo, taking spin and weight classes, many of my instructors have been affable men in their late 20s who looked like they might not be able to complete the routines they were teaching. It was a way to make a little dosh, but not a way of life for them. No harm in that, but what I had in discipline, I lacked in inspiration.

canstockphoto0464175My new instructor is a female competitive power lifter. My inability to move this morning attests to her training acumen. She is a tad gung-ho for a community ed class and the looks exchanged by my classmates suggest that there will be some drop outs. For me, this is a spark in the gloominess.

I think about this idea that people want to elect people to whom they can relate – someone they’d catch a game with or meet with at a coffee shop in yoga pants. I’d rather elect someone much better than myself, because whoever it is, they should appeal to my better nature. I want leaders, teachers and guides who raise me up through example – who are smarter and more adept than I. My circuit class instructor is much stronger and more athletic than I and in the end, I will be stronger and more athletic because of it.

Stephen Fry now cheers me daily. Several seasons of his radio program, English Delights, is out on audio book at my local library. Wordplay is my bliss. He introduced me to the term tmesis, which is when a word or phrase is split into two parts by intervening words or phrases. It’s heard mostly with informal speech, such as abso-friggin’-lutely.

I keep having these moments when I’m standing outside of my life. Even on vacation, with people I adore, I’d find myself detached and observing, thinking more than once, just give me a moment. Let me stand still. Let me be quiet. I can hear myself talking with people without being engaged. My life is broken into parts, by heavy realization and not much wisdom. canstockphoto1402910

Autumn usually has me planning new goals and I have energy to pull them off for a few months. This year is different. My goals remain the same in regard to writing and fitness and family, but now there’s something in the middle of it all. Listen. Slow down. Sink into it. No need to rush to the next bit.