I watch my mother get ready for work while I’m visiting her in Medora, North Dakota. At 76, she spends the summer months selling expensive trinkets in some tourist trap at Teddy Roosevelt National Park. Always an early bird, she’s out of the sack by 6 a.m. She doesn’t have to be at work for another five hours, but you wouldn’t know that by watching her.
Already dressed in her mis-buttoned work shirt and her size 5 sneakers, she scurries into the bathroom where she slaps on thick globs of mascara and a wave of blue shadow that ends up in the vicinity of her eyelids. She rearranges her unruly gray hair with a wide-tooth comb, followed by the palm of her hand. I’ve seen her do this a thousand times before. When she comes back out, seconds later, she looks like she’s groomed herself in the dark, or in the backseat of a jeep bouncing along the Serengeti.
Then the count down begins. She sits at attention on the very edge of her bed with a paperback; mindlessly wolfs her breakfast, the crumbs of her muffin raining on her lap; and checks her watch every five minutes on the dot. I can feel her anxiety; that sense that at any second she’ll need to bolt. She’s got to be ready. She can’t be late. She must be prepared. It’s my last day with her after not seeing her for three years. She nagged me incessantly about making the trip, but now that I’m here, she’s on to the next thing.
When I was a kid, we’d sit as a family at the dining room table for Thanksgiving and my heart would sink at the sight of the kitchen I’d be expected to clean. Potatoes dripping from the mixer blades onto the floor; the cast iron skillet on the stove top, both of them slick with grease; every bowl and spoon we owned strewn across the counters, laying in pools of cream of mushroom soup or canned cranberry sauce or melted margarine; the Saran Wrap roll torn to shreds by what would appear to be a rabid raccoon because, once again, it’s been separated from its serrated box.
Chaos piled higher and deeper. As if my mother had been putting out wildfires with a dishtowel all morning instead of cooking a meal: getting it all to the table before the gas range exploded.
And even before the turkey was carved, there Mom would be, dragging the Christmas tree box up the cellar stairs; depositing it on the living room floor. As the rest of us looked on, out would tumble plastic evergreen branches; a tangle of lights that would take my irate father hours to unravel; unsalvageable clumps of silver tinsel; blue silk ornaments that, unwound, looked like dirty snowballs. All shoved into the container the year before with no thought to anything but getting er’ done. Getting to the next thing on the list.
She’d blown out the Jack-O-Lantern candle, put the Halloween decorations away while my brother and I organized our candy, and begun her preparation for this holiday, this moment:Thanksgiving. But, Christmas was next. She had to get ready for it NOW, NOW, NOW.
I am my mother’s daughter. I can’t complete a single task without worrying about the one that comes next. And the ten after that. I have a difficult time being in the moment, enjoying the here and now. I stand breathless at the net, waiting for the endless volley of tennis balls I know are coming, never noticing where I am, how I am. Always at the ready to slam back whatever comes my way.
The feeling is familiar. I’m home.
I apply my makeup and even before I’m done, I’m looking around for the blow dryer. I forget my eyeliner or my lipstick. While I dry my hair, I search for the earrings I’m going to wear. I skip the back section—which makes me look as though I’ve slept in an electrical field—which doesn’t matter because I can’t see that part of my head anyway. I’ve got a call in an hour. I need to prep for my talk on Thursday. With one earring in my ear, I begin my day. I’m ahead of schedule with nowhere to go. I try to sit in meditation, but who has time for that? After I fake it for ten minutes, I run to my computer. Walt, who’s sitting next to me at our studio table, notices my shallow breathing. He tells me I look crazy. He can hear my gears whirling.
It’s only when I write, or speak with a coaching client, or teach, that I can lose myself in the moment. When I can stop thinking about the ten million things I have to get done, and just be. Be. Here. Now. I look up and hours will have passed. And I won’t have a clue where the time has flown. And then I remember that there’s never enough time. I’ll never get it all done. The anxiety returns. Because that’s what I know.
Even in Ireland, peaceful, green Ireland, I feel the anxiety creep in. The cows are in the field, the bunnies are eating my strawberries, the ocean is beckoning, and I’m reminded once again that I can make myself crazy anywhere.
So I breathe: Five counts in. Twenty counts hold. Ten counts out. I do this exercise fifteen times. And for a few minutes I feel grounded. I remind myself that I don’t have to be my mother. I don’t have to continue down that path. I get to choose.
This is always what happens when I forget my tools. When I go too long without journaling, running, meditating, sticking to my weekly plan. Like a bi-polar who feels great because of her meds, I stop doing the things that make me feel good and, once again, plummet.
My coaching client tells me I can’t possibly understand what it feels like to be under the gun all the time. Oh, my love, but I can.