You walk down the beach, cold and flat, wind whipping. The flat sand is dotted sparsely with walkers and dogs who chase and dance at the seagulls. The tide is low, running rivulets down the hard-packed sand speckled with mica, oil slicks, sand dollars burrowing, sandpipers running like ladies with their skirts drawn up to their knees.
About a mile down is where you get to the trees where the county park begins. There’s no line in the sand, but as soon as you cross into the park it’s summertime. The air is thick with sunscreen and barbecue coals. Kids flail on boogie boards, surfboards, skimboards, in wetsuits and swimsuits and gooseflesh in the sea.
The sea is blue under the blue sky and gray under the gray sky. The sky scuds in its stripes. A cloud bank sits like a pillow of smoke over seal rock where the sea lions bark and yawp undisturbed. The breakwater of the rock extends along the horizon far to the south.
The waves crash jade when they’re clear and foam-laced when the foam is high. I fall in love with the jade crash but I can never seem to get a photo of it. I see a jade wave and I go wow and take my phone out but then the next one is sandy and gray or foamy and white or it crashes too fast.
That thin wall of translucent green doesn’t want to be photographed. It’s only to see and to happen and to end.
Just as the waves aren’t water they’re just energy.
I’ve been trying for a while to tune into this body of mine.
The problem is trying. Trying is a lot like shoulding.
Take my years-long quest for the right glasses prescription. Things still seem blurry some of the time. Or do they? I can’t really be sure. I go to the optometrist. We do the eye chart thing. She confirms I have the right prescription. But by this point I’m overthinking my vision. Everything looks bizarre. This can’t be what the world looks like, can it?
It makes me realize I’m not seeing things as they are. I never have, never can. All I can do is manipulate these organs and muscles into helping me gather enough information to stay alive, the legacy of millions of years of ancestors who developed many cells and crawled out of the sea. The picture is not perfectly crisp, even at 20/20, but it’s good enough to spot mold on the bread before I eat it and to admire a sunset.
These muscles in my face, the eyes that are the MVPs of my nervous system: they’re my only way of being here. I’m in this meat suit. I am this meat suit. But being really present in this meat suit isn’t so easy. It requires turning down the noise on everything else. And everything else loves to be noisy as hell.
To my surprise, the voice of my body is really quiet. It doesn’t withstand overthinking. Like the little voice the other day that told me to go for a walk instead of writing. I began to second-guess it, negotiate with it. It shrugged. I walked.
Listening hard enough to hear this tiny voice is such a mind shift. An example: I’m still coming to realize that nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants especially) tend to make me feel pretty bad. Years of dieting and control will numb you into inattention, because that way of life is all in the numbers. “Health” is all about metrics, which a computer or a book or a trainer can instruct you on. A potato or a tomato becomes a number of calories, or of carbohydrate grams, or it is on or off of a list of approved foods. That’s a quick way to forget how to listen into the meat suit. Do you actually like potatoes? Do they like you? How would you know?
Ironically, a lot of us begin trying to control our bodies because something dissociates us from them in the first place, whether it be the normal dose of nonsense the culture feeds us, or actual childhood trauma. We become dissociated from our bodies’ needs because these events make it advantageous to look outside not inside. Then, because we are dissociated from our bodies’ needs, we “overeat” and can’t tell what we actually need. Then we are “obese.” Then we ask someone outside us to tell us how to stop being fat. We perpetuate, rather than solve, the problem—which is to tune into what the body needs.
My shouldless day reminds me of intuitive eating. Let’s talk about that.
If you aren’t aware of intuitive eating, the basic idea is that you stop shoulding all over your body when it comes to eating. No more diets, control, punishment, restriction, forcing, measuring. Just tuning in—tuning way in—and listening to what the body is asking for. Is it asking for more food? Less? When? What kind? How much? Every day is different.
We are not cars; we do not run on the same amount of unleaded 87 every so many miles. Some days we want a giant salad. Some days we want a bag of cheetos. Some days maybe it’s both. It’s all neutral.
If you’ve been living in this society (hi!) this may sound radical, irresponsible, stupid. We tend to believe that our bodies are these reckless agents of chaos which, left to their own devices, would fatally gorge on cake. To avert this disaster, we learn that we must do our research on what the best, healthiest, most slimming, most “super” foods are, and eat primarily those. The “better” we eat, in some sense, the more moral we are. It all has very creepy religious overtones.
But this causes most of us a lot of grief, not to mention ill health, if you factor in the mental anguish of trying to live like you’re a car.
Anyway, I’ve been on my own meandering intuitive eating journey for the past four years, and now that I’m also on a shouldless journey, I’m pensive.
Both eating intuitively and living shouldlessly are about trust. It’s about bringing the locus of control right inside yourself, not outsourcing it to a calorie-counting app or a to-do list.
For many of us, living like our locus of control is outside us causes us to fail. Our bodies rebel against restriction. Our hearts mutiny at the thought of yet another hectic week with no reprieve.
If you experiment with the idea of loosening the reins, the question becomes, can you trust yourself? Can you trust your body?
That’s an incomplete question. Trust yourself to what? Trust your body to what?
Can you trust yourself to be a productivity machine seven days a week? No, not for long, and the payment for trying will eventually come due.
Can you trust your body to shaped fashionably? No. That’s not its job. No more can you trust a dog to file your taxes. You might be able to train him to do a lot of the tasks, and he might even get some of them right, but at the end of the day, the IRS is going to call you on some major errors. He’s a dog; he needs to walk, and smell butts, and nap. He does not need to collate last year’s statements, and he’s not terribly good at it.
In the same way, your body wasn’t designed to be thin, to look a certain way. Some people’s bodies may naturally look the way that you wish your body wanted to look, but the whole reason the rest of us generally spend our lives fretting about not looking that way is that our bodies don’t really want to look that way. If they wanted to look that way, they probably would by now. If that dog wanted to file your taxes, you might have found him once or twice poking around your filing cabinet, hunting for your W-2s.
Letting go of this idea that we can control ourselves into some external version of perfection can be sad, and scary. But I think it’s the only way of starting to living a life that actually suits us, rather than contorting ourselves to fit our lives.
So the whole point here is letting go, relaxing that white-knuckle grip you think you have on your digestion and nutrition and appearance. Tuning in, neck-down, which is the only way you can start to figure out what’s really for breakfast, and what your squishy little self wants your day to be. That’s the focus of our next post.
I’ve long been intrigued by Ellen Burstyn’s habit of occasional “shouldless” days.
I have what I call should-less days. Today is a day where there’s nothing I should do. So I only do what I want to do. And if it’s nap in the afternoon or watch TV, and eat ice cream, I get to do it. I had that kind of day yesterday.
The shouldless day always seemed out of reach. My shoulds live on my daily to-do lists. I can’t remember the last day I existed without one.
But today I’m having a shouldless day. It’s going great. Much better than the other kind of “unproductive” day I’m familiar with: the wasted day. On a wasted day, I procrastinate, rebelling against the to-do list, and I’m neither enjoying myself nor making good use of my time.
Yesterday, when I decided that today would be shouldless, there was the fear that it would feel like a wasted day, with that semi-nauseous feeling, a mix of boredom and overstimulation and guilt. There was also the hope that it would be the opposite of a wasted day: I would be a woman of pure luxury, steeping myself in a scented bath and reading for hours.
Yet I’m finding (so far) that this day is neither wasted nor glamorous. I woke up rested, and with ideas lighting up my brain for a change. I did a load of laundry and some other domestic work. The Sunday crossword. A long hilly walk. Finished the Q documentary. Mario Kart. I’m writing this now. Later maybe reading, yoga, time with family.
A good day.
A little part of me is still piping up to ask: Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong?
Those questions are wrong, because today is shouldless, and however I do it is fine.
For writing long projects, outlines are key. I don’t care who tells you otherwise. People who pretend to write by the seat of their pants—they have the audacity to call themselves “pantsers”—are liars and fools.
I know this from experience. For years before I developed a robust writing habit, I tried unsuccessfully to write long projects. I always flamed out around page 4, finally having outrun my little idea. Tired, panting, peckish, I abandoned those poor little project stubs for good.
It’s only when you know where you’re going that you can get anywhere. You usually end up going somewhere entirely different than you planned, but that’s fine! If you have a map, even a completely faulty one, you are less likely to just sit down and wait for rescue. Even a bad map will get you a little further from home than that.
So this is my nugget of very helpful advice: start with an outline. Feel out what the beginning, middle, and end of your story might be. Then, braid on details from there. [Redacted] [Redacted] And there you are! You’re all done, with a masterful, complete, final, unimpeachable, beloved, groundbreaking, astonishing, mouthwatering, award-winning, enduring, delectable final product. Great work.
“Write drunk, edit sober,” is a famous quote. It is too pithy to be real. They attribute it to Hemingway. He never said it. He wrote short sentences. Those are always better. This is fun to read. Long stuff is not fun to read.
Ugh, now that I have that out of my system—let’s talk about editing.
When I’m looking at an empty page, I long for a perfect first draft. Whether I love or hate the words as they’re coming out, I know they will change. They will be rewritten. Editing will improve them. First-draft words are just temporary stand-ins for the real words that will come later. They’re not there to stay. They’re there to tie down the ephemeral ideas flitting around in the ether.
But that being the case, what in tarnation is editing? It is just writing, again. The words that were the first draft go away, and new words are written. That’s not “editing;” that’s just draft-two-ing and draft-three-ing. It’s horribly inefficient.
Better to have started with the good words in the first place, say I.
So here’s my writing tip, in case you were wondering: start with draft two, or even three. Don’t bother writing draft one; it’s usually no good.
I’m good at what-iffing the bad stuff. “What if it’s really windy on my wedding day and everyone sees my underpants?” “What if that twinge in my leg is deep vein thrombosis?” “What if I lose my job?”
There’s an illusion that what-iffing bad stuff is helpful. After all, if I’ve imagined the worst possible, then I’m prepared.
This is false. What-iffing bad stuff is mostly just a waste of time and adrenaline.
I’m trying to practice what-iffing the good stuff. It’s harder to do. And good stuff is harder to plan for.
But what if—what if I what-iffed the good stuff? Just as an experiment?
I can’t picture it. So I try harder.
Then I recoil in terror.
It would be terrible! I would just rest on my laurels and achieve nothing! I’d start believing in “manifestation” and probably forget to lock my front door! I’d be one of those terrible people who says that everything happens for a reason! I’d spend all my money on scratchers!
(That’s me what-iffing bad stuff about what-iffing good stuff.)
An alternative story: if I what-iffed the good stuff, I’d probably be a little more present. I’d be a little more open to possibility. I’d be a little more open to surprise. I’d be a little less convinced of the seductive lie that I’m in control of it all.
The thought feels like a small smile, a little breeze, the greenness of a budding tree.
A few years ago I was talking about what-iffing with some friends. Well, actually we were talking about street parking. But there I was ready to park several blocks away from our destination, because what if there’s no closer spot? There’s a spot right here! Sure, it sucks, but it might be as good as it gets!
They convinced me to keep going. We found a spot right out front.
What if you get a spot right out front?
What if something is coming for you that is so wonderful you wouldn’t even know to ask for it if a wish-granting genie descended upon you?
What if your life is about to blossom?
What if you do get chosen?
What if you choose yourself?
What if you wake up a year from now and you have a great day, and at the end of it you realize with a shock that you haven’t even thought about that thing that used to haunt you all day—that breakup, that regret, or that hatred of how your arms look?
Some incidents left scars on my body. Once I scratched a spider bite on my left thigh, just above and to the left of the kneecap, so hard and for so long that I permanently destroyed some fundamental layer of the skin. It has no melanin. I am pale enough that for most of the year, when the skin around is also pale, it’s not noticeable. If I get a tan, the rest of my leg will brown up leaving a ragged white scrape of flesh. The sun damage still happens but leaves no trace.
But there are no physical signs of all the hands that held my head before my neck was strong enough. Adults who loved me, or who barely knew me, who held me because I was small, disproportionate, and helpless. A yearlong stream of the gentle and giving who made sure I thrived, or just that I did not die.
It’s annoying, but you can often get somewhere by asking yourself honestly why you do the self-destructive things you do. After all, even if the payoff is atrocious, we don’t tend to do things we don’t get something out of.
Procrastination: what am I getting out of it? Chasing a low-rent version of luxury, yes. And, to be honest, avoiding something I fear. I think I fear being completely free. The longer I procrastinate, the longer I have this kind of comforting monkey on my back of something I should be doing. It’s like a blanket. An itchy one, but it’s something.
Why the fear? There’s this weird sense of emptiness at the thought of being done, with nothing I “have to” or “should” do. I don’t think I’ve been done in years. There’s always something next on the agenda. It’s often as petty as a library book I need to furiously read before it’s due back, or a little project around the house that I just thought of twenty minutes ago but suddenly seems urgent.
What would it be like to have truly empty time, without that itchy blanket lulling me into a procrastination daze?
I had a glimpse of it one morning: work was strangely light (which is disturbing in the same way that a quiet toddler is disturbing). I was taking a walk. When I got back from the walk, I was going to do a bit of writing for fun and prepare for a meeting, but otherwise I anticipated a free afternoon. All my tasks were temporarily in someone else’s court.
I almost felt afraid. How strange. A huge part of me craves nothingness, silence and emptiness, but most of me puts up a huge fight and finds things to do. Anything to avoid what I’m craving. I’m the dog who fears catching the car.
I think this is part of why 3 a.m. is such a difficult time. There’s only one thing on the agenda: unconsciousness. The brain, unused to this kind of nothingness, decides to keep doing what it’s used to: racing.
The only cure is to face it. To lie down on the floor for five or twenty minutes. To stare out the window. To sit on the couch with nothing entering my eyes or ears, like those incredible people who just exist on the plane without a book or a screen or a nap to file down the time. To get my brain used to the idea of just living. To actually do nothing, not this Potemkin nothing that is the procrastination dawdle I’m so familiar with.
At least, this is the idea. I haven’t really gotten there yet. I did lie down on the floor and just rest my limbs and eyes for two minutes today between meetings and I’m calling that a start.
Last time I admitted my struggle with procrastination. I claimed it was suddenly over due to my recent adherence to a certain helpful timer. You may have greeted this announcement with skepticism, and I can’t exactly blame you. Ordinarily, it would be absurd to think that a lifelong bad habit would be fixed with just One Weird Trick.
But I didn’t tell you the whole truth. No, the real reason I know I’m permanently cured is that I did it: I arrived at the bottom of the procrastination hole.
You see, what was keeping me hypnotized recently was a rather embarrassing one-two punch of Sex and the City episodes and this game where you slide cupcakes around to merge into more and more extravagant cupcakes. You have to do this carefully because if the board gets too crowded with incompatible, non-mergeable cupcakes, you will lose. For hours I would sit watching Carrie inexplicably pine over the extremely creepy Big while I made the cupcakes swim across the screen.
Did I enjoy these pursuits? Not really! Could I stop? No!
But recently, two things happened: first, I got to the end of the series. Yes, even the movies. I did it. I know everything there is to know about those four ladies trying to find great love and great shoes in Manhattan. Can modern women have it all? Kinda!
And, I made it to the forbidden cupcake. The hardest-to-achieve one. It was amazing. I screenshotted it.
Witness the majesty:
It had taken me weeks of careful cupcake work but I did it. It turns out that the forbidden cupcake has “2017” written on it in frosting, which I think means my cupcake habit is out of date (less so than my choice of TV), but in either case I’m okay, and it’s over, because I got to the end of the cupcakes and I got to the end of Sex and the City, and finally I’m cured. I am a productive, well-rested, self-care machine. I no longer crave numbness or dawdling, and I never ever will again.