I am not very big on New Year’s resolutions, but as 2017 gave way to 2018, I felt something changing in me, organically. I started December on a high note, taking a quick (36 hours) solo trip to Los Angeles, spending my first-ever night away from Owl. I saw old friends and new ones, met some of my favorite authors at a bookstore I’ve been longing to visit, got a massage, walked barefoot in the Pacific, sketched, drove around the city listening to opera, and discovered a figure skating anime that I’m still obsessed with.
Back in the Bay Area, I discovered a perfect new coworking space that meets my needs very well (except for its limited morning hours), so I can stop being jittery and overstimulated while journaling in cafes.
Then, about a week later, I wound up in something of a depression (with bonus anxiety!), just in time for my birthday — this has happened every year for the past few — and that lingered for weeks (as has a cold I developed about a week later). Then it was the holidays, Erik had a week off of work, and we got to spend a lot of time with each other and with our families (and with more old friends), without having to devote as much time as usual to child-caring and homekeeping. We were all taking turns being sick, but it was as restful as it could possibly have been.
New Year’s Eve came around and I was briefly, acutely sick with some sort of food poisoning that didn’t strike anyone else in my family even though we’d all eaten the same meal; it was over by midnight and I couldn’t help but see it as auspicious: I had thought I would ring in the new year on the toilet, but instead I’d purged the toxins.
And now 2018 is just under two weeks old, and I have had more “me” time than I have sometimes gotten in a month. I read a blog post that changed the way I think about meal planning, so now I’m actually cooking instead of us relying on takeout, and that makes everything better. I’ve gone to two dance classes and that has felt amazing. I got a haircut and had a wonderful conversation with my great stylist. Owl started — oh my god, this is incredible — sleeping for eight-hour stretches for the first time since she was maybe three months old, and we’ve night weaned her so I don’t have to wake up anymore being pawed at. And I went on a two-night retreat with more than a dozen other creative and accomplished women. We wrote, collaged, drew, made washi paper, walked, talked, read, got massages, napped, and explored the grounds of the lovely retreat center — sometimes as a group, but more often “alone together” in very quiet conversation or in silence, exchanging only smiles and good energy.
About 24 hours into the retreat, I was eating dinner in silence alongside a few others in the center’s library, and I had the sudden realization that this glorious trust and peace and wonder I had been experiencing must be what Owl enjoys every day, because I make her life that way. I prepare her yummy meals, make a comfortable bed, create a home that feels safe and inviting, teach her new things. I provide her with books and art materials and places to explore, and the permission to do as she likes with all of this. There are restrictions of course, but my philosophy has always been that children have so little say over their own lives, they ought to have as much autonomy as possible within the parameters we force on them. It is a philosophy that has worked well for us.
And there I was at the retreat, getting to experience the flip side of this: my own expansive, delicious, long-overdue freedom, with basic needs taken care of by others, and so much unstructured time to do with as I wished. As a parent, especially as a nursing mother, I’ve had my own version of not being in control over my life, of being always at the mercy of someone else’s demands. I’ve written before about forgetting what it’s like to spend time alone or simply to be, as a person, without the appendage of a dependent child. The retreat was something else entirely. Many of my fellow retreatants said it felt like kindergarten for grown-ups, and there was very much that sense of play, of play within a sacred framework of safety and care. I moved freely around the center, whenever I wanted, with the explicit assurance that I had access to anything I wanted (anything that was off-limits was clearly marked). I played the piano in the chapel (there was a sign on it telling when quiet hours were); I meditated in the prayer room; I got up first thing in the morning to go down into the art basement and try out a papermaking idea (layering brown and white in a circle shape, like a quarter moon). I made more visual art than I have made in months. It was hard not to.
There’s an idea in certain child development circles of a “yes” space: a place within the home where very young children (babies, toddlers… and I suppose older kids, too, when the time comes) may have complete free rein. From the parents’ perspective, it’s a totally childproofed area where you can let the kids do whatever they want, because they’ll be safe; from the child’s view, it is a place where no one is going to tell them “no” or take away something they want to investigate.
I had been dragging my feet on setting up our own “yes” space in our apartment (not the space pictured above!), because it’s small and baby gates are annoying, but during that second dinner at the retreat, I had the profound realization that I was in the middle of a truly “yes” space — and it was so, so good. It wasn’t just a place to be safe and entertained; it was a place where I felt like I could do anything. It actually changed the way I thought, the way I moved, my mood, just everything. It made me realize how timid and restrained I am in my daily life, compared to the person I was in this space of permission and freedom. Moreover, it also showed me how much I overwork and override my instincts and inclinations. For months I’ve been thinking rather defensively about sleep — I dislike sleeping, even when I’m extremely tired — and wondering how I could force myself to do more of it, but while lounging in in the hermitage on the retreat grounds, I suddenly realized that rest, just like activity, comes in endless flavors. It isn’t some kind of miserable punishment that means not getting to do things; it is an intriguing, uncharted territory of its own. In other words, there is as much to explore within not-doing as in doing. I needed this insight.
Perhaps because the retreat falls at the beginning of the year, we also had discussions around productivity, creating useful habits, and bullet journaling, and so, to my pleasure, “re-entry” hasn’t felt as jarring as I expected, but has felt more like an extension of something we touched on in our precious “yes” time. When I set up a sleep tracker in my bullet journal the other day, or when I designed a bedtime ritual that would help me not waste hours before bed every night on the internet, I was referencing conversations I’d had at the retreat, and that helped me hold onto the emotional feeling of the retreat as well. I want to carry that forward with me throughout the year. I want to make this a year of feeling that sense of “yes” — even when, sometimes, it means saying no, I’m going to do less or do nothing.