The morning my husband, dog, and I left for our two-day drive to Florida, I got a parking ticket. My husband’s car was parked in our one-car driveway, loaded up for the trip. My car was parked where I’ve parked it since we moved to this house three years ago: out front, mostly off the street thanks to a 3-4 foot wide swath of bare dirt worn into our yard by the previous owners parking there for 20+ years.
At first I thought the ticket, which I might not have noticed before we left if I hadn’t needed to get my sunglasses from the car, was because of the 1 inch of snow that fell overnight. Usually the borough sends out warnings when they want us to move for the snow plows, but this snow surprised us all.
When I saw that the ticket was for parking in a no-parking zone, my breath caught on a long and shocked fuuuuck. I remembered the note at the end of the previous borough “e-update” that said a no-parking area for the south side of E. Crestview had been approved. Not knowing north from south, I assumed they meant the opposite side of the street, where no one parks anyway and where there’s no space to pull off the road part-way. I also assumed they’d tell us when the law went into effect instead of sneakily posting one small no-parking sign at the end of the street where I can barely see it and then immediately assigning cops to hand out tickets.
For more context, our street makes up one side of a little-used horseshoe in a quiet residential area. No one drives on our street unless they live here, are visiting someone who lives here, or are picking up the garbage and recycling.
Anyway, I saw the ticket, and I pitched a fit. It started as anger and some cop-directed insults voiced to my husband, but as we got in his car to leave, all of my excitement about the trip was burned away by growing rage.
I was angry. I mean, really, really angry. It’s a new level of anger for me, one I discovered with marriage and stepchildren (more on that interesting phenomenon some other time), and it feels shockingly powerful every time. I got angry before, sometimes very angry. But lately anger comes hot, with no sense of appropriate gradation, always grossly out of proportion to its trigger.
The thing is, in the weeks leading up to our Florida trip, I’d felt the most centered I’ve felt in a long time. Meditation, yoga, a renewed commitment to writing—all had led to what felt like a sea-change in my approach to life. I could see the difference in my attitude leading up to the trip. I wasn’t nearly as obsessed with packing, cleaning, and list-making as usual. I found it easier to catch the anxiety, to breathe and let it go.
So the anger at the ticket broke my heart. It seemed to negate all that I thought I’d learned, how much I thought I’d improved.
Maybe that’s partly why I indulged the anger, why I let it rip through me and have its way, why I didn’t frantically try to mitigate it, as I usually do.
Maybe that’s partly why I let my imagination do terrible things to that asshole cop. Terrible things involving a sledgehammer and his face, terrible images of his bones breaking, his skin smashing into his hair, his teeth knocked out of his skull, his eyes bowls of bloody pulp. Maybe that’s why I let myself imagine taking an AK-47 into the next Board of Supervisors meeting and slaughtering the lot.
If you imagine the sin, you have committed the sin. Thoughts are more powerful than actions. If you end poisonous thoughts to others, you poison yourself. I know, I know, I know. But knowledge didn’t stop me.
I felt lethal in those moments, recklessly shoving down the fear: what if my imagination makes these things manifest? What if the cop gets a piercing headache tonight? What if the supervisors all die in freak accidents? Is this what the terrorists feel like, the men and boys with guns who go into churches, schools, post offices, mosques?
I have never touched and would never want to touch an AK-47. I stayed awake many nights after watching Game of Thrones episodes, crying, sending healing, and writing new endings for all of the women tortured by Prince Joffrey and Ramsey. I rarely kill bugs.
I have never hit anyone in anger, I have never called anyone a bad name, I have never cursed at anyone. I have never said to another person, I am angry with you. I have tried so hard to be good, to not make anyone feel bad, to not be an inconvenience. I have tried to protect the people around me from my feelings.
Yes, I’m the cliché. I’m Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes. I’m the repressed housewife, the goody two-shoes, the teacher’s pet who hates authority even as she yearns to please.
Alarmingly, I didn’t feel guilty about letting my rage-machine churn out its gloriously bloody destruction. I felt powerful. I felt like a bad person who had no interest in being pulled back to the Light. The next morning, I felt shame to have made such an emotional display of myself—but not guilt. Instead, I spent the first hour of that day’s drive emailing a polite but pointed dissension to the Board and texting our neighbors (all of whom agreed with me—“didn’t they even look at our street?” and “that’s local government for you,” etc.).
In Florida, the weight of that ticket hung over me. Just pay the ticket and get it out of your mind, I told myself. But the online payment process didn’t work. The error message kept saying the ticket hadn’t been processed yet. Lazy cop, I thought.
Finally, on Wednesday, five days after getting the ticket, I called the office and explained my unsuccessful attempts at payment. A friendly woman listened and then said, “Sometimes the officers don’t fill out the ticket properly, and that makes it invalid. Looks like that’s what happened with yours. Don’t worry about it. Just rip it up.”
I hung up feeling like I had entered an alternate universe. The real universe certainly wouldn’t let me off the hook after I’d so indulged my rage. It would certainly make me pay for my brutal thought-murders of relatively innocent people. And yet here I was not only forgiven, it seemed, but generously, extravagantly forgiven, forgiven with gifts. How was that fair?
It wasn’t fair. I felt warmed and cared for—and even still, a strange absence of guilt. I felt sorry for my reaction but no rush of love or forgiveness for the officer or the board of supervisors. I hoped they hadn’t been hurt but couldn’t make myself care too much.
Maybe, the universe seemed to suggest, anger is okay. Maybe I could get angry again sometime. Maybe part of “letting the anger flow through me” is letting it engage my imagination, letting it engage my physical response, letting it explode my emotions.
That’s probably not true.
But what I want to learn from this (is that the Universe laughing at me for thinking I have to turn everything into a lesson?) is how to live more freely: to speak, act, think, and feel in ways that don’t leave me bottled up with repressed anger. I want to be able to break rules (just the dumb ones) and not feel ashamed when I get caught. I want to be brave enough to say to someone who has upset me, “I’m feeling angry with you right now.” I want to be able to look them in the eye when I say it.
Just a note of closure: my husband and I and one of our neighbors took our arguments, including visual aids, to the Board meeting. The Board, about 10 older white men, heard our case, sympathized, acknowledged they might have made a mistake, and promised to reconsider. I no longer care too much about the outcome; I park on the other side, and even though I look wistfully at my old parking space (so obviously the logical place to park!), I let it go. Maybe grass will grow there again.
Woke up again today with a feeling of urgency, worried that I’m still not getting up early enough, worried I’m moving too slowly, frittering away good writing time on tasks that could wait until later, worried that I’m worrying so much—the usual tiresome slog.
The Bhagavad Gita, 2:49, says, “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” Yep.
Krishna goes on to use the words “selfish” “vain” “ego,” making the BG sound WAY too much like the Bible for my comfort level. But verse 49 captures the point and is a timely reminder that all of this commitment urgency I’ve been feeling is engendered, primarily, by attachment to outcome.
I am feverishly, ferociously attached to outcome. That’s what being good is all about – reward. Be a good girl so your parents won’t get upset with you; be a good girl so your teachers will like you; be a good girl so God will think you’re extra-special.
That drive to be good is a barbed, ingrown thorn in my brain; I’m so used to it that it only hurts when I try to remove it—and who knows what it might damage on its way out?
It’s always a good idea to start with awareness and trust that behavioral change will follow. So, what outcomes drive me? Here’s a list of what I want and expect from…
Meditation: peace, calm, wisdom, enhanced psychic ability, physical healing, spiritual growth, better relationships, greater social ease, strong back (from sitting up straight)
Yoga: strength and flexibility, the excitement of being able to do difficult poses, the admiration of others, a sense superiority/difference from the average person, a beautifully lithe and fit body, the mental and emotional empowerment that physical power can bring, groundedness, calm, release of physical, emotional, and mental tension
Writing: evidence for myself and others that I’m smart and creative, connection with readers, a better understanding of myself, cheap therapy (overcoming anxiety by expressing it over and over and over again, in different ways), feeling good enough, feeling as good as other writers, helping others who face similar doubts/questions/struggles, helping readers see the world in a new way
Singing: the admiration of others, greater confidence in myself, ability to use my voice powerfully and expressively, the pleasure and satisfaction of witnessing my own improvement
From all of these things together? I want and expect to feel the daily relief and calm of doing what feels right. I want and expect to like myself more.
Krishna and maybe Buddhists, too, wouldn’t distinguish good from bad, intrinsic from extrinsic motivation—all motivation is attachment-driven. Desiring peace is just as selfish as desiring admiration.
Both of these things will probably come as natural consequences of what I’m doing, but if I’m doing things out of desire for outcome, any reward will be compromised. What I thought would be enough will no longer feel like enough. A little bit of peace will pale in comparison to a lot of peace (and woe to any who would dare to compromise that peace!). Admiration from a few will seem trivial—I’ll want to attract thousands!
Also, what happens when the rewards I expect and want don’t appear? A sense of abject failure, a desire to give up, a deep and active rage toward the uncooperative Universe that’s not playing by the rules.
The main problem with giving up attachment is that it’s easy to say ,‘what’s the point, then?’. If I’m not going to get anything from my pursuits, why bother at all? Is life, as my husband says, just about finding ways to pass time? Is life, as my mother says, about being happy? Is life, as the Bible says, about building a relationship with God?
Even if all three of things are true, I’m still left with the question of what to do. What will make me happiest? What will make me the most spiritual? What will pass the most time? Which leads me right back to caring about outcomes, oh vicious loop.
Let’s just say that I want to press forward—focusing on meditation, yoga, writing, and singing. If I look at these things as ways to pass time, to enjoy that time, and, in that contentment, feel a deeper connection to God/the Universe, what would that look like, in practice?
I can conceptualize the question but not the answer. The brain-thorn grips; it touches on nerves that trigger the self-doubt and self-disgust that led me to make commitments in the first place. It touches on nerves that tell me I can’t be trusted to do anything—much less do it well—without being driven by outcome. It tells me that detaching from outcome is impossible anyway, that it will just lead me back into the mild depression I’ve let rule me for so many years. It’s better to be fearful and urgent than depressed and lethargic, right?
But letting that brain-thorn determine my path is a failure of imagination on my part. Can I at least imagine what it might be like to live without fear or hope of outcome? Can I imagine going about my days with lightness? Can I imagine enjoying my work for the process itself, for the moments I can find stillness and absorption in it? Can I imagine not caring about how anyone, including myself, judges the results? Can I imagine liking myself, regardless of the outcomes I produce?
I’ll keep you posted. So far, I can say that what the brain-thorn is doing most effectively is making sure I don't write about anything BUT anxiety.
We spent this past week in Florida, at my in-laws’ winter home in a golf community in Boynton Beach. We do this every year, my husband and I making the two-day drive with our dog, the kids flying with their great-aunt.
I love going to Florida. I like road trips with my husband, I love that magical shift from 20 degrees to 80 degrees (in just two days!), I love the sun and warmth and swimming and golfing and eating more junk food than usual, and I enjoy the time with family.
But I also get frustrated at having to step out of routines that are just getting started. This happens every year. Our Spring Break trip interrupts my flow just as I’m starting to recover from the interruption of the holidays. (Why does it take me so long to recover from the holidays? Too much sugar, dark and cold winter days, my February birthday that I pretend lasts a week, kids having snow days, a long visit with my Mom and sisters, etc.)
Hoping to stay connected to my “real” life during this year’s Florida trip, I packed my yoga mat, my ‘serious’ books, and my laptop. Would these things nag at me all week, or would I actually use them? I worried Florida would make me so dissatisfied with Pennsylvania that I’d slide back into my old ways of survival and escape instead of living my new, committed life.
Perhaps if I worked harder, it would be easier to fully “vacate” my routine and indulge in distractions for a week. (Okay, so I seem to be headed toward an exposition on vacation and what it means, but before that, a quick caveat: as nice as Florida is, it’s not vacation—I want to help my mother-in-law with the meals and cleaning, I still have to take care of the dog, I still have to spend most of the day maintaining relationships instead of doing my own thing.)
Anyway, Florida-with-in-laws aside, vacations feel like a disruption to a life that I’m trying to create for myself—a life that nurtures me. A typical vacation is an escape from the typical grind. But I don’t have a typical lifestyle, and I don’t want to live by working furiously, neglecting body and spirit, and then running away now and then. I want to live in a way that brings rest and work together every day, a life in which what I do is mostly what I want to do, a life from which I don’t want to escape.
Sure, part of me wants to forget about yoga, meditation, and writing. They require spending time with myself, and time with myself can feel scary and unsettled. (What if I discover, in those quiet moments, that I’m a failure, or lazy, or uninspired, or stupid?)
And sure, I want breaks now and then. I want to see different places and people sometimes.
But my atypical vacation would have to include yoga, meditation, and writing because, ultimately, these things help me remember who I am. They help me relax. They allow me to take time for myself. And isn’t that what vacation is all about?
A vacation that would feel good to me would be one in which I could abandon chores but maintain my work—and still have time for adventures. My ideal vacation would be something like this…
Doesn’t that sound perfect? It may not be my husband’s idea of a great vacation, but he’d make do.
Ideal vacations aside, I managed to feel somewhat balanced in Florida. I did yoga twice, my mat outside by the pool, and once (a brief routine) in the hotel room on the way home. I meditated twice, sitting on a chair in the bedroom; I read some poetry; and I even wrote a tiny bit, thumbing words into the “Notes” app on my phone. These things felt good. They weren’t quite enough, but they helped me quay anxiety and enjoy my family. They helped me enjoy the swimming, golfing, shopping, eating out, novel-reading, sunbathing, and napping. And I had fun watching the dog swim in the pool and walking with him on streets replete with flowers, palm trees, green green grass, and a semi-tropical breeze.
We arrived home last night, before 6 p.m. despite Daylight Saving’s Time. Feeling anxious about getting back to routine, I did the week’s grocery shopping and laundry, unpacked everything, and checked my work email. I wanted to create open space for today, space in which to feel normal again.
So here I am, 11:20 a.m., writing but feeling nervous that I still won’t have enough time, sorry that I didn’t get up earlier. This is the stress that I don’t want to feel, the stress that seems an inevitable accompaniment to work, the stress that I want a vacation from.
Maybe (obviously!) that’s the key to vacation: no stress. I could have the ideal vacation listed above and still feel stressed about whether I was doing the right thing at the right time, whether I was writing enough, whether I was having enough fun. Or…I could have a mid-March Pennsylvania, cold and windy, chance of snow every day, and feel peaceful, moving in the flow, happily doing work without rushing through it, content and assured.
So can I give myself a vacation today? Can I forgive myself for sleeping in until almost 9 a.m. after a two-day drive, a time change, and a weather change? Can I trust that I’m doing what I should be doing? Can I trust that everything I want to happen will happen in its own perfect time?
Maybe. In the meantime, I’m glad to be back (and glad that I’m glad—I’m lucky to have a life I want to be in, fully).