On Becoming an Authority in My Own Life

It’s ironic that in my last post I was writing about my need for accountability, since for the past several months I’ve had a big shift in my mindset about that. Not that there’s anything wrong with accountability, or setting up situations to make it easier to accomplish one’s goals. But what if I could bypass that sticking point, and change my tendency altogether? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that growth is more important than what you start with. And studying the Enneagram has shown me that even personality is not fixed; I don’t have to be stuck in any box.

So, at some point this summer, I got angry that I had allowed just about everyone and everything else in my life to be an authority, and given that power away. From parents (and I love them dearly, so not harping on them at all right now), to teachers, to bosses, to church leaders, to professors, to doctors, to “experts…,” I have consistently lived up to the expectations of others while struggling, and often failing, to meet my own goals and expectations. But tendency is not destiny, and I realized that I have as much, if not more right to be an authority in my own life, and to live up to my own expectations and accomplish what I want to, regardless of whether I have someone checking on me or not. Now, I’m not saying I’m a rogue who disregards all advice or outside expectations; I absolutely consider advice and other’s needs. But instead of feeling stuck in a cycle of disappointing myself, I’ve come to a place where I’m much more judicious about who gets to be an authority in my life, and knowing that I deserve to consider myself someone whose expectations I will live up to.

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For Nancy

My great-aunt Nancy passed away last week. I had what felt like a premonition a few days before she passed, when I came out of my room after dressing to hear strains of the soundtrack from the Phantom of the Opera. Quint couldn’t say why he’d picked that music, which we hadn’t listened to in years, as he and the boys built with Legos at the table. But it immediately took me to my Aunt Nancy’s house, sitting in front of the stereo as we listened to “Phantom,” me poring over the cassette tape’s liner notes. Nancy’s life was filled with music, and it spilled over into my own, from the instrument-less hymns at her church and a cappella arrangements she directed during rehearsals for weddings, to teaching me “Edelweiss,” to blasting Phantom from her car stereo as she sheepishly grinned at the joy it gave her.

“Do you like the Sound of Music?” she onced asked me, as we sat in the twilight of a Fourth of July on the grassy hill at the McKinley Monument waiting for the symphony to play the 1812 Overture. I was confused. What kind of question was that? At eight years old, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the movie or musical. As I puzzled over how to answer, she explained she was going to treat me to a local production of the musical, a night after which I dreamed many times of the children dancing and imagining myself as Leisl, leaping from garden benches.

Aunt Nancy was such a fixture in my life growing up that when I was about ten, I decided she needed her own special grandmotherly appellation, and coined Grancy, for Great-Aunt Nancy. Grancy was the one waiting in front of our house when I got off the bus on days when my mom couldn’t be there; she came over regularly to help us tidy up—cleaning the fridge (“When in doubt, throw it out”) and scrubbing surfaces in the kitchen. Living in the same town as us, she was there for us in a way that my actual grandmothers couldn’t be, much as they would have loved to.

“I learn something new every day,” I heard her say many times. For her, it wasn’t a trite cliche, something to say when you didn’t know what else to say. It was the way she lived—curious, active, forging ahead. I can’t think of anyone else besides my parents from whom I learned so much.

I learned from her that a woman could be a protector, a guardian, assertive and strong. One of my earliest memories is one that I don’t think I experienced so much as inherited through being told the story many times: Aunt Nancy yelling into the phone and scaring away a creep who had been calling our home repeatedly. She was our guardian angel, and I was in awe of her strength.

Grancy always kept African Violets in a pot in her “parlor” as she called it. Whenever I visited her, she would fill the watering can and let me water the plant, showing me how to carefully place the spout under the leaves to send water straight to the soil. My favorite color has always been purple, and I can’t help but think those bold, dark violet petals had something to do with it. I read recently to have something living in every room in your home, and it made me think of those violets. Every room of Grancy’s life was full of living.

Trying, not failing

I’ve wrestled with all the feels this summer, and related to our decision to try out school, albeit a private, non-traditional one, I’ve struggled to fight off feelings of failure. Failure to do it all myself. Failure to impose a structure on myself. Failure to be able to meet everyone’s needs and my own, on my own.

But what I’ve come to see—through many sleepless nights and the tear-cleared sight that comes after a good cry—is that trying something different is not failure. It’s trying something different.

And something not working is something that can be worked on. I’m still exploring why I even frame so much of life in terms of a test to pass or fail in the first place, and why I so often feel like setbacks–even simply changing direction– mean I am failing.

A recent episode of the TED Radio Hour highlighted how one company incentivized failure, giving bonuses and vacations to teams who ended their projects instead of bullheadedly continuing along a path that wasn’t working and wasting time and resources. The message they were given was, come back fresh and excited to try something new.

We’re shelving full-time homeschool for my oldest for now, and trying something new, offering him and our family new experiences to grow. I don’t know how long it will be for or how it will go, but I am confident that we will learn through it, and whenever we need to, we can always try something new.

What I’m Learning

That breaking inertia is the hardest part
That you can’t argue with feelings
and yet motion changes emotion (see Amy Cuddy’s TEDtalk on posture for one example)
To ask for time to process, to give him a script for asking when I’m ready to discuss, and know that my response doesn’t depend on him saying it perfectly
That the times when I most feel like I want to lie in bed are often the times it’s the worst thing for me to do
That my Type 4 attachment to identity and feelings can be turned into a strength (hello, growth mindset!)
That The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme) is great for getting Big Feelings out
Bubbles help, too
That singing is the best use of my voice with my children
To seek the uneven ground

Practice

  I am only just learning about practice. I mean that life is all a constant learning and growing, and not to hoard supplies or wait until we’re better. To just do. I used to stress out about not wanting to “waste” paper or paints, not understanding that they are never wasted in learning, experimenting, discovering–only in not being used.

Now, all of my life is practice.
I practice being grateful for the low early rays and cool air of the morning, for the excitement with which small children greet the sun and each other.
I practice asking for help and calm before I rise.
I practice taking a moment to take care of myself.
I practice sticking to my grocery list.
I practice being gentle with my family, taking a calming breath and reminding myself a mess is not an emergency.
I practice naming my anxiety.
I practice, every day, the life I want them to learn.

The pressure of trying to get it right every time lifts a little each time I remember. Every day is an experiment, something which my kids seem to know already. Like the person who practices yoga or meditation, practice is not for an upcoming test, or for the “real thing” later (whatever that means). The practice is the thing, the step every day on the path I want to live.

Enjoying These Moments

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Navel oranges, their juice bursting in their skins

Painting my nails while all my boys are out

Bees busy in the honey-sweet blossoms

Sketching from a favorite photograph

Listening to Beatrix Potter stories while the kids paint

Reading The Count of Monte Cristo for the first time

Baby Girl’s movements becoming larger, fuller

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