Have A Calmer New Year (All Year): Stop Relaxing

BlogHer Original Post

I stopped making New Year's resolutions about six or seven years ago. Instead of looking forward and making plans, I started instead to look back at the months already fading away in life's rear-view mirror and name three things I did well—or even just well enough. This way, I start the year with a pat on the back, not a kick in the ass. (Life itself is pretty good at doling out those kicks without assistance from me, thank you very much.)

Other perspectives shifted with this change toward summing up instead of planning out: I begin every year with the (humbling) reminder that what I achieve, discover or survive in any given year has a pretty loose connection with what I had "planned". Not always, of course. We move into a new house as expected. We change jobs after thinking about it for a year or more. Our child graduates from high school. But the rest of the stuff, related to goals and dreams and struggles and triumphs? It simply won't be scheduled.

I have to accept that life will probably never be calm, stress-free, predictable (and therefore, it's impossible to make resolutions for). The haven of serenity I spent years puzzling out how to find with some combination of planning well, learning to want less, having the occasional massage, letting go, finding my zen, whatever, was a mirage, a beautiful image we've created with our collective longing to pause time and get to take it all in, all that we are living, with no noise and scuffle in the background.

And so I made my absolute final resolution: To give up on relaxing.

No, wait, stay with me here! Don't click over to Bejeweled just yet! I have a point to make, one that has enriched my life, even if it can't calm it down.

grown-up coloring book

Part of the lure of that mirage is that we think calm comes only when we have put away all the laundry, paid our bills, eaten a healthy lunch and then opened our arms to nirvana with a tidy home. But at a time in my life when those simple goals were utterly beyond me (husband ended marriage, had a big new job and a new little baby, house was falling apart and so forth), I stumbled across this quote, which ended my search for quiet: "PEACE. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart" (Unknown). And I realized that most of my ideas about relaxing did not help me find that calm in my heart. At the end of all my exhausting days, I was "relaxing" by merely RECOVERING, by giving myself permission to shut off and veg, to indulge an hour or two of not having to be responsive or responsible to anything or anyone. I could disappear into mindless TV or drift from one website to another with no particular goal in mind, and go to bed having brought the hi-rev roar of my overstimulated mind and body down to a dull rumble. So it succeeded on that level. But did it re-energize and reward me? Nope.

I bought myself a little spiral notebook and started writing down all the activities I like to do but don't ever seem to have time for: jigsaw puzzles, making photo albums, learning about photography, board games, coloring books (yes, coloring books!), researching a new cooking challenge, teaching my son bits of French. Yes, I also wish I were more in touch with friends, wrote more letters, had organized tax receipts and no dust bunnies under my bed, but I vowed to make this list free of anything that gave me that twinge of "ugh." Even just writing the list was an interesting experiment; it revealed how wired I am to assign myself tasks, as if that is how I earn my place on this earth.

Then, after I finished the list, I started focusing on replacing my evening downtime with these activities. And by doing this, I found a natural eddy of calm that existed within me, that was already there, waiting to be engaged—when I thought all that time the inner calm was waiting for me to come to a stop.

And the internal conversation that unfolds when I'm lost in these activities is creative, supportive, regenerative, about inspiration and friends and family and ideas and ideals—all those items I thought I would find on the mythical day that I arrived on the mountaintop and was truly present in my life. When I'm on the sofa recovering from an exhausting day, my mind's mumble tends to drift to what I need to do tomorrow. So much for "relaxing."

Of course, I'm no celestial being, so I do have those ordinary, human days (like last night), where I retreat and recover, curling up on the sofa with some wine and tuning out the hum of anxiety instead of replacing it (this post was due yesterday, ahem). But I do it less, because I know that when I get to the end of the year, and I start looking in that rear-view mirror, it will not register. Instead of relaxing by emptying myself out, I instead choose to fill myself up.

What are your simple pleasures, the activities you do to fill yourself up? Share them in the comments here, and maybe you'll inspire someone to discover a new way to re-energize and reward themselves. And yes, the coloring book and colored pencils in the photograph are mine.


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