My mother had a saying she used to toss out when she wanted me to (not) do something, a line that alerted me to the existence of passive-aggressiveness some 20-odd years before we formally met:
“They’re your feet.”
Served up with a shrug in the most detached of tones, that line always-but-always got me to put down the Shoe of the Moment (blue Dexters with the white topstitching excepted. And yeah, I regretted those blue shoes pretty much from two months after I got ’em until I finally, mercifully outgrew them.)
Did her words sting? Do I wish that one of the 87 zillion good–to–genius books out there on communication today had existed back then, and that she would have read it with an intent to learn? Duh. Mom would have killed on Twitter, but being her daughter was often an arduous and spirit-crushing job.
Still, in her crisp, acid, Mom-koan way, she was, I believe, trying to impart this truth: live in the moment, but abandon context at your own peril. Yes, God protects fools and little children, but if you make a steady diet of Doritos, put QVC on speed-dial, or otherwise continue to stick your finger in the light sockets of life, eventually He’ll hand you over to the Karma Department. And trust me: there is no reasoning with those guys.
So what is context in this, uh, context?
Cultivating a sense of your finiteness and puniness, for sure. Remembering what has come before and using that to stay aware of what might come next. Paying attention and methodically exposing yourself to new things. Deepening your understanding of others. Expanding your ability to meaningfully connect with them. All the stuff that makes life worth living, and that makes it an ongoing pain in the ass. (Like you’re not going to float a sigh of relief onto that last breath? Come on.)
Part of what has been so painful about this decluttering/excavating phase I’m muddling through is that each thing added to the “donate” pile reminds me of the short-sighted assery I default to without constant vigilance. Impulse buyer, thy name is “communicatrix”! From books to clothes to iPhone apps, I must have it, and now. One can do this on a budget, believe me; they have a door in the drop-off area of Out of the Closet that leads right to the showroom. And if you shop fast enough, you can get out of there before your old stuff hits the floor.
Have I examined this proclivity? Oh, yes. Yes, I have.
Partly, it’s a buffer against existential dread, of course. The more more more, like booze or drugs or what-have-you, helps to fill that empty space inside, albeit temporarily. The prescription for that kind of consumption is to still myself and fully feel the feeling, then (usually) to go make or do something. (Or sometimes, hug the dog.)
Partly, it’s hope. I will learn piano/Portugese/vegan cookery. Or take more vacations. Or take a vacation. My old art director had a penchant for what she called “running-on-the-beach dresses”: floaty, impractical things that whispered “take me to the beach so some handsome, romantic fool* can rip me off and make wild, passionate love to you in the surf.”
What helps now when I reach for something with this intent is context, from a recall/projection standpoint. What have I committed to already? How do I feel about how full my schedule is? How will I feel if I add this to-do to my list?**
Finally, and this is the one that’s new to me, it’s holes in the fabric of my self-knowledge. In the absence of a clear plan and well-defined goals, it’s very easy to make grabby, stupid decisions. And to have those, one has to really know oneself. I know parts of me, but not the whole of me; in middle-age, I am finally seeing facets to myself I never saw before.
My hatred of dressy raincoats, for example: a loathing so deep, my wallet is better off choosing umbrellas and dampness. I have lost count of the number of dressy raincoats I’ve bought and not worn in my life, yet still, I persist. Because everyone has to have a dressy raincoat, right? Even people who live in deserts need them. For Traveling.
Which is why, in the midst of decluttering and holiday partying and end-of-year-ing I committed to a bit of an excavation/illumination process with two friends and our respective copies of another friend‘s book. Initially, I questioned the value I’d derive from it; I’m disdainful of style in general except for what I’ve already found suits me, more interested in getting on with things as the years pile up and time available runs down. Now, several hours into the process, I’m a convert, and a humbled and contrite one as well. Yes, it is effortful to pull all of these things out into the light and look at them, but there have been enough surprises and revelations thus far that I’m now certain I’ll come out of this being able to do more with less, and possibly with an added note of grace.
They are my feet, you see, and they carry me on my path. Attention paid to one cannot help but illuminate the other…
*Possibly your current honey; probably not. The further out the fantasy, the greater the chance that you’re out of touch with more than just your need for a break from work.
**Or, in the case of running-on-the-beach dresses, both a schedule check and a loop back around to existential-dread land.