My Garden is Screaming

It’s been two weeks since Karyn left for India, two weeks of being on my own with the kids. I’m six weeks into my training for the Breast Cancer Walk and much of my time each week is spent walking the streets, hills and beaches of Santa Cruz. I’ve been coasting along, enjoying the summer, when suddenly this week, I made a list of all the undone things that were piling up—two manuscripts I took on to edit that I had barely dipped into, the logistical preparations for my retreat at Commonweal, the things I have to do to get Lizzy ready to go away for a month away this summer, all the things I was nagging Eli about, the arrangements I have to make for the animals, the question of where Eli would stay while Lizzy and I were out of town. Suddenly it all piled up and I began to feel stressed.

I’d get to the end of the day and realize that I hadn’t watered the garden—yet again. The squashes were growing monstrous and looked at me balefully, the head of cauliflower was teetering past its prime, the kale and chard remained unpicked, and my neighbor Paula came over to ask me when I was going to pick the apricots. I’d forgotten to turn on the sprinkler, again. The flowers were wilting. The fruits and vegetables were screaming. My negligence was apparent everywhere. Every time I sat down to get something done, Lizzy would beg me to watch another episode of Heroes or to make her something to eat, and my own list of tasks were going undone. I could feel the tension building inside me. My relaxing summer was eroding before my eyes.

Yesterday, I called Doug, as I do almost every Thursday. After cheerfully telling me how delighted he was to hear my voice, his first question was the same one he asks every week, “What are you feeling, right now?” He’s asked me that same question for years. I’m supposed to respond with the name of an emotion—happy, sad, angry, afraid. For years, I would be perplexed and silent when he asked me that question. You want to know how I’m feeling? How annoying. You want me to step out of my head and into my body, to be aware of what I’m feeling? No way. But over time, Doug has trained me well; I’ve learned to notice and respond, “I’m feeling anxious.” Or, “I’m feeling relaxed and at peace.” Or, “I’m feeling numb.”

For the past few weeks, when Doug has asked how I’m feeling, I’ve been saying, “Happy,” after which Doug responds, as he always does, “And what have you done to create happy?”

It’s the same dance. Whatever I’m feeling, he wants to know what I’ve done to create it. I always hate that question. He expects me to take full responsibility for how I’m doing and what I’m feeling, and I’d much rather blame it on something or someone else.

Yesterday, when Doug asked his #1 question, I had no doubt what I was feeling. I answered, “Stressed.”

“And what have you done to create ‘stressed’…”

I felt a flash of annoyance, then answered, “Well, I’ve been hanging out with the kids and doing my walking and enjoying the summer. My work, which is usually at the top of my list, has drifted way to the bottom. I’ve been enjoying that, but I’m not getting anything done that I have to do.”

Have to do?” Doug questioned in his inimitable way. “What do you have to do and who said you had to do it?”

Silence. As I struggled for an answer, Doug asked, “May I make a suggestion?” When I gave my assent, he continued, “Try this on for size. ‘This week I created pressure by the expectations I placed on myself.’”

I started to laugh. This was classic Doug. “Yeah, that fits.”

Doug continued, “How about this? ‘I structure my life and my expectations in a way that keeps me stressed.’ Try saying that out loud.”

“I structure my life and my expectations in a way that keep me stressed.” I paused, letting it sink in. “Yep, that just about says it all.” I repeated the words, taking ownership of them: “I structure my life and my expectations in a way that keeps me stressed.”

“So why do you do that?”

Long pause. “Habit, I guess.”

“Are you willing to restructure your life and your expectations so you don’t push yourself into stress?”

Doug is very big on willingness. If we’re willing to change things, that’s the first step in making a change. I answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

And then we went through my list of things “I thought I had to do” and pared them down to the real essentials. I decided to return the manuscripts I didn’t have time to edit, along with my apologies. I realized I could have my assistant for the retreat help me before the retreat, doing all the things I didn’t really need to do myself. I decided to get the kids to help me pick the apricots and to give them away so I wouldn’t have to do anything with them. (As Doug put it, “You could just let them fall on the ground and rot. Or you could tell the kids, ‘It’s a privilege to live here. Everyone who lives here gets to help. This is a family home and these are family apricots.’”)

I hung up the phone, laughing and relieved. The kids and I picked the apricots and brought them over to Paula, who’s going to turn them into jam. I sent back the manuscripts. I asked Dona, my assistant, to come and take over a lot of the preparatory tasks for the Commonweal retreat. I made a deal with Eli that I would stop nagging him about all the things I “think he should be doing” this summer, if he cleans up after himself, does one family activity a week, talk to me for at least 20 minutes twice a week, greet Lizzy and I verbally when he comes and goes, and not grimace when I ask him to pitch in. We were both relieved. Then I told him he could work off the $50 he owes me if he supervises Lizzy’s sleepover this weekend so I can get a decent night’s sleep. And I made a firm promise to say no to anything new that requires advanced planning or commitment. I’m going with spontaneity–if it works in the moment, fine. If I have to plan it, forget it.

Talking to Doug is always good for a new perspective: Every thing I add to my life is a choice. No matter how good each thing sounds in the moment, when added together, all the good things create stress—and preclude the freedom to be relaxed and available as life unfolds.

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