I was sitting on my patio this morning watching some rare summer rain rumble in from the east, the winds pushing through the neighbor’s trees as the sparrows flitted around my feeders, when I coined a new term for myself and my current reality: The Big Pause.
I’m in this weird place in my life right now where I’m sort of “in between.” In between then and now. In between health and sickness. In between joy and sorrow. And in between who I was and who I may become. As a result of all of this instability, I’m spending a lot of my time during this pandemic (and during this break in my work life) just sort of existing.
So this means I get up in the morning and I make some sort of breakfast, whether it’s oatmeal or eggs or gluten-free pancakes, and I follow it up religiously with a little cup of homemade vegan chai. I sip it from my pale green, polka-dotted teacup with a rim of gold that I bought myself after buying one as a gift for a dear friend of mine. I loved it so much – and she loved it so much – that I ordered one for myself, too. It not only made me happy, but it made me feel closer to her in a way. We are separated by hundreds of miles and many states the last few years, and I miss her dearly as a physical presence in my life.
When I’m finished downing the many pills and supplements I have to swallow in the first hours of my day, I use the mental notes I’ve taken on my body and my health since I woke up to decide what I’m going to do next. I have just a few choices these days and most of them don’t involve much.
Option 1: If it’s cool enough, I go tend to my plants in the garden or look for my squirrel (yep I feed a squirrel; I have named him Marley).
Option 2: If I have enough energy, I do a fifteen- to twenty-minute yoga practice by myself in the spare room.
Option 3: If I’m feeling creative, I sit down to write or maybe head to the kitchen to bake something.
Option 4: If I’m feeling sick, as is quite often the case in the last six months, I don’t do much of anything. I lay on the sofa and let myself reside in the “in between.” Or, as I was doing this morning, I sit outside with the rain brushing against the side of my skin nearest the wind, and I watch it form puddles on the ground.
I breathe. I wait. And I don’t rush whatever is to come next.
I’ve coined this time of my life “The Big Pause” because that’s really what it is for me – the biggest pause of my entire life. But also, I got to thinking about how most of humanity could really use a Big Pause sometimes. We go and go, and traverse a number of obstacles and heartaches, until we get to a point where we’re just worn out and have nothing left to give to ourselves or to anyone else. We’re tired from our hearts all the way to our bones and our skin, and we badly need to take a rest (although most of us rarely do).
Many of us have finally been given that bit of rest because of the pandemic (not a stress-free rest, mind you), and I’ve observed so many people talking about “making the most” of the time if you happen to find yourself in a pause because you’re jobless, or because you’re scared to leave your home, or because the world is crumbling around you and you aren’t sure how to handle it all just yet. And I don’t think becoming more busy is necessarily what we should be doing.
Well, not all of us anyway.
I think 2020 will unfold very differently for each person depending on their individual circumstances and their personality. And we should make room for every version of this unfolding in what is considered “okay” and a “successful use of time.” Some people might put immediate action and goals into place – and this is great – but some people can’t do anything but just sit and wait for a while.
I’m sort of in the latter category: I’m sitting and waiting. I know things are changing dramatically and that I’m getting closer to some truth about myself that’s been brewing for decades, but this process is not one I can push along. It’s not one I can write my way into or out of, or will my way into or out of, or otherwise tangibly manipulate until the time is right for it to manifest in my life. And on some days, when I feel particularly lost or worried about finances, it’s an exceptionally painful time to traverse.
I’ve seen many people building masterpieces in their Big Pause, which is great if that’s how life is unfolding for you - and I kind of wish it was that way for me. I honestly felt distraught in the beginning because I wasn’t able to do something of the same with my own free time. However when I examined the unique circumstances of my life rather than looking at the lives of others, I realized I was already at the end of my masterpiece (my first book). I’d been working on it for several years and was wrapping it up when the pandemic hit, so I wasn’t in a place to light new fires and create new contributions.
I’m still not.
And I keep wondering when I will be. Maybe in 2021?
I think most people mean well when they say you should take advantage of every moment you have right now (or in life in general), but I think we also need to examine what we define as “advantage.” For me, taking full advantage of this moment means I’m not doing much of anything that would be considered productive – not unless I feel like it, like I do right now. I’m in a period of desperately needed rest that I've pined for since late adolescence, and I'm not going to squander it.
I know there will come a day when The Big Pause will be over. I know there will come a day when I’ll be ready to do something else or move in a different direction. But I’m not going to force it to come before it’s ready, and I’m not going to busy myself into creating something that others deem more valuable – like churning out another book when my heart couldn’t possibly be in one right now. I’m going to do what feels right for me. And I encourage you to do the same.
Times are tough for everyone and we are all processing things differently. Don’t fall victim to the idea that you have to be anyone other than who you are in this moment, even if that means you feel like an outcast or that perhaps you should order some bonbons with your next grocery pickup.
Remember that gardens need a fallow period in order to grow green riches that spill over the sides, with tendrils grasping at soil and air, climbing out to become the greatest expression of what they were meant to be. Don’t skip that part. Don’t be ashamed to not "produce" for a while. Don’t be afraid to take your Big Pause - especially right now. I think more people than ever need to stop and breathe for a bit so that maybe humanity can be different going forward.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, is now available for purchase! Click the button to find out more about the book and order your copy today.
I’ve never lived through a pandemic before and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. So each one of us is approaching our lives right now without a toolbox. Without an instruction booklet. Without a compass or a shortcut and without knowing how to make it to the other side.
Go easy on yourself.
I think we’re all having days where we’re struggling to maintain our positivity. Sometimes the dark thoughts completely char our world for a few hours, or sometimes we recognize keenly that there will be more collapse and death before this chapter of our history is closed. The ongoing daily trials of soldiering through so much uncertainty can make us feel very sad or very afraid sometimes. At least, this is what happens to me regularly now.
But I like to remind myself that my feelings are heavily influenced by my brain—the part of my body that thinks and plans and maps out a future that doesn’t even exist yet. It’s just one part of my body, true. But it’s a powerful one when it goes rogue from all the stress.
So when I feel like I’m drowning emotionally, I’ve made an effort to put my screen away and get quiet instead. I use that time to tune in to my essential self: the “me” that sits calmly beneath the ruckus, unbothered and unafraid. The “me” that knows humanity has been subjected to plagues and pandemics before, that many people died, but also that many people lived and went on to build new and different ways of being—often better than before—from the ruins of those experiences.
The essential me understands that we humans are mere specks on this planet and in this universe, and that although we think we are in charge, we really aren’t. We have an illusion of control because we conquer and destroy and consume, but we don’t have it, really. So then I ask myself, “Why, Elizabeth, are you worrying about a lack of control when you never really had it to begin with?”
I find it’s often best to let my fearful thoughts roll onward like storm clouds, and to just make the best decisions I can every day. You know, like washing my hands and staying safe at home. It’s also helpful to stand back a little and observe whatever transpires in order to discover the lessons in what I’m living through. I don’t think it’s an accident that any of us are alive at this moment in history.
Some of you know that I used to be a yoga teacher before my health issues hit. In fact, I’m a certified yoga and meditation teacher although I don’t wave it around obnoxiously. I tell you this because I think now is an exceptional time to learn how to get quiet. It’s the best way to maintain our sanity when we’re flailing around, because we remove ourselves from an unwritten future and instead focus on the present moment. And unless we’re in the hospital or being mugged or our cat is dying, the present moment is usually okay.
I like to take my lessons from the pages of Thich Nhat Hanh’s playbook. One of them goes like this:
2.Breathe in and out.
3.Notice that you are breathing in and out.
My favorite variation of this exercise, if you want to explore it a bit more, is where you say to yourself (while breathing):
"Breathing in, I smile. Breathing out, I release all my worries and anxieties."
I find that even a few breaths like this can be grounding and will turn down the intensity of my emotions.
I know it doesn’t feel like it, but there really are so many things we can do despite living in a time of social isolation and perceived powerlessness. We can choose how we respond to the world and to our stresses, and we can choose to do this positively (to the extent that we're able to, anyway). We can also breathe in and out, as I mentioned. Or we can think about our dreams and start sketching out a roadmap. Or we can write. Or we can walk. Or we can find ways to help others. Or we can just rest.
There is so much possibility in the pause.
My hope is that all of us take this time to not only contemplate what we might like to do differently in our lives going forward, but to learn something about ourselves and how we can continue to evolve. I know you’re hurting in one way or another; I’m hurting too. Even the people who still have jobs and whose loved ones aren’t sick are hurting and live in fear of what’s next.
You are not alone.
So while you try to cope, make sure to breathe and pull yourself back into the present moment every once in a while—where you are okay, where you still have food, and where you still have a roof over your head. None of the catastrophes in your mind have happened yet. And anyway, you’ll figure out how to persevere through everything once "everything" finally gets here. You have infinite knowledge in the quiet place inside of yourself…that non-thinking place. It’s where the answers to the hardest questions in life lie.
And if all of this doesn’t work on a particular day? Just go to sleep and try again tomorrow. Shutting my eyes and starting over with the sunrise works miraculously for me when even breathing feels too hard. Mornings have a way of bringing new perspective and a fresh start.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt or to order a copy. Click here to subscribe to my blog/mailing list.
I was listening to a podcast the other night and it really resonated with me because I’ve struggled for decades to find meaning and my place in the world. There was a specific quote from Oprah that has stuck with me, and she said, “Whatever is holding you back in your own life, whatever is preventing you from being your authentic self, is also keeping you from your truest, greatest power.”
When I look back at the last 17 years of my life (meaning the time I entered the professional workforce after college), what I see is that graduating from college was the point at which I began rejecting my authentic self. Up until that point, I’d followed my heart and did what I wanted to do. I wasn’t worried about bills or the future or choosing a practical field; I wanted to study literature and Spanish—so I did.
After that, as real life hit, I almost always took whatever jobs were available regardless of whether or not I wanted them. I was afraid to change trajectory and afraid to examine what could be, and I was also afraid to walk away from any opportunity to earn the money I needed to pay bills. The result is that the last 17 years have been a complete and total loss of myself despite material advancement and professional success.
The podcast was looking back to 1997, when Ellen Degeneres came out and when I was 16 years old and still being me. It examined how the negative fallout of her telling the truth morphed into something beautiful and impactful, and ultimately became the best version of Ellen’s life that there could be.
I’ve found myself in the same space lately. I’m forcefully rejecting who I’ve pretended to be for so many years (a corporate professional) and instead am seeking to become who I truly am (a writer and a teacher). If you’re out of a job like me, it’s the perfect time to contemplate whether or not what you’re doing is authentically you. Are your life and/or career choices allowing you to not just grow your bank account and skills, but to grow into the greatest version of who you were meant to be?
I said to someone the other day that I’ve been chasing money for a long time. I’m not a materialistic person at all, to be clear; I’m a person who spent her childhood and most of her young adulthood hurting for money. So I live in fear of returning to a feeling of lack. I live in fear of running out of food, of losing my home, of not having even fifty cents to spend on anything extra. So my response to that fear was to use my liberal arts degree as a way to chase increasingly larger paychecks in the absence of a meaningful career path, and therefore avoid finding myself in a bad financial spot.
But what happened was that, while I avoided becoming financially poor (although I did become poor again for a while in 2010), I instead became a different kind of poor. I became poor in spirit, because I was doing jobs that sucked the life out of my soul. I became poor in health, because the stress of my work was taking a daily toll on my body. I became poor in emotional happiness, because the turmoil of doing something that was not “me” was a constant gaslighting on the inside.
I’ve spent years insisting that everything is fine, that I’m making good money, that I should be grateful instead of perpetually discontent. And I've also reasoned that life is pretty darn good and that I really have nothing to complain about, so I just need to soldier on because nobody really loves their job anyway.
But lying to myself is pushing the real me down into a black pit. It's dimming the light inside of me that has always strived to do and to be extraordinary, and instead has caused me to settle for what is instead of striving for what could be.
As I sit at this juncture in my life (as an unemployed person who’s lost yet another corporate job that was antithetical to who I am), I feel like Ellen probably felt in 1997: I can no longer continue living a life that isn’t actually who I am. I have to tell the truth about me. And the truth is the complete opposite of the life I’ve been living.
“Me” is not the managing editor in charge of digital marketing programs to make a corporation money, like I most recently was. "Me" is not the technical writer or the project manager or the marketing consultant, which I’ve been too.
No, “me” is the writer who creates meaningful blog posts like this one and who also has a book coming out about how to get through life. “Me” is the 5th grade teacher that I was back in 2010-2011, who wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids but was dismayed to find it was just too hard.
“Me” is also the Student Body President I was in high school, leading other students in activities such as painting an old man’s house with Habitat for Humanity, or cleaning up garbage along a creek, or tutoring elementary school kids who needed help. “Me” is the lit major focusing on American lit and African American lit before life hit, and having in-depth conversations with professors and students about humanity and all its flaws.
So that’s me.
Now, who are you?
It pains me to admit that the only true-to-me things I’ve done in my post-college career are writing a book, starting this blog, and teaching school. Everything else was a boldfaced lie that I told to myself and to the world so that I could avoid that poverty thing I’m so afraid of. And I suspect this is probably why every single one of my corporate jobs imploded—even the ones that started out with promise. They just weren’t who I wanted or was meant to be. I only did them because of fear, every single time.
Change is hard, but when I look at Ellen and how her life completely transformed after she had the courage to just be who she was, I can’t help but think my life will be the same. All of our lives could be the same if we just had the balls to figure out how to be more truthful about ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard to stand vulnerably in front of the world, waiting to see if you will be accepted or rejected for who you are. But there is no other way to live fully except to be whoever you happen to be.
To discover our true selves, we can start by listening to our guts. I think if you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right in your life, or if you just can’t seem to be fully content in your days, or if you think you would love to do (or be) something else, then you’re probably living some form of a lie that you know is there. The question is, how long can you continue living it before you just can’t do it anymore?
I turn 40 in November and I’m at a point where I cannot, for one more second, continue to live the lie. I cannot work in places I am morally opposed to. I cannot participate in capitalism when the real me is not a money-making machine. I cannot give so much of my creative and physical energy to jobs such that there is nothing left for myself. And I think if I just follow “me” wherever I go, as long as I really do follow my truth, things will turn out ok. I’ll make it. Life will unfold in a magnificent way.
So I look forward to stepping boldly into my next chapter with naked authenticity. I look forward to finally being myself and experiencing the magic of living a life based in truth. I also look forward to seeing who will accept me and who will reject me, and finally deciding I just don’t care about anyone’s opinions anymore.
How about you?
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt or to order a copy. Click here to subscribe to my blog/mailing list.
The Big Pause