Find Your Normal

This spring I had lunch at a pub in Harvard Square, a trendy spot that bragged about being founded in 1991. There it was, 1991, listed like it was a date in ancient history and not the year I became an adult, graduated from high school and headed off to college. You know, recent history.

But, I digress.

Despite the fact that it was a cold, wet, miserable day, I was in high spirits to be spending time with my daughter and a great friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I was so excited that when the waiter came over to ask for our drink order I gave him my classic 1,000 watt smile and asked whether they served Coke or Pepsi products. After his answer (Coke) I replied that it would be fabulous if I could get a Diet Coke. He gave me a bemused smile and asked if I would like a lime in it. A lime? Wow! I was even more enthusiastic about accepting the unexpected possibility of a lime. After he left I glanced over at my daughter and noted that she was giving me the look. “What,” I asked? She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Mom, I think you just take people by surprise. You’re a bit much and no one really knows how to deal with it.”

I shook it off the best I could, but the feeling that I wasn’t quite normal in my daughter’s eyes hung over me. It had the paralyzing weigh of a rain-drenched sweatshirt, its moisture sticking to you like you might never be dry again. In that moment all of the self-acceptance and growth I had gained through my 40’s felt flushed away. If I couldn’t be my authentic self with my own child, what did that mean for my odds with the teeming masses?

There is a human tendency to try to figure out the boundaries of normal. Sometime in childhood we recognize that there is a range of expected behaviors defined by cultural history and experiences. Kids are smart, they learn that conformance results in tangible benefits — friends, love, and appreciation. Peer pressure is nothing more than the enforcement of those boundaries through both inclusion and exclusion. In that moment my daughter was simply observing that wild enthusiasm over a drink order was well outside of that line. It wasn’t normal, not by a long shot.

And, I might have let that moment bring me down, flatted by the indignity of being called out by my flesh and blood, except that I remembered that there is one thing even stronger than the human tendency to define normal: the tendency for human teenagers to see their ancestors as square. So, I shared a look of parental camaraderie with my friend and we chatted about lighter topics: what we planned to do with the summer, memories of our college escapades, the weather. It wasn’t too many Diet Cokes later (all with a lime) that I was back to my normal over-the-top self, wishing our waiter a rousing good afternoon as we headed back into the rain.

This week, I found myself heading down to the convenience store in my building just a few minutes before closing to grab something caffeinated to help me through the day. As I took my three bottles to the register I smiled another 1,000 watt smile. With wild enthusiasm I congratulated the woman behind the counter on making it to the end of another day. She gave me a bemused glance and said, “You are entirely too energetic.” I deflated, lowered my volume and told her that although it was hard I could dial it back just a bit. “No,” she smiled, “don’t do that.”

Ok, I won’t.

Every Minute Counts

Yesterday, I downloaded a time tracking app onto my phone. Lately I’ve had this gnawing feeling that I’m wasting time, letting social media or pure distraction steal minute after minute from my life. I figured that the least I could do is collect data, move from a gnawing feeling to a factual certainty. So, I downloaded an app for my phone (and its companion Apple Watch app) and proceeded today to start to track my time. While I was setting up categories and starting and stopping the counter, my family asked me what I was doing. I explained it and my daughter laughed. “It’ll last for a couple of days and then you’ll give it up,” she snarked.

She’s probably right. (For more on why, see my past post on the topic, Habitually Bad at Habits.)

But even though this time tracking thing is unlikely to stick, the idea of understanding and holding myself accountable to using my time well intrigues me. I’m not sure why, but I tend to feel the inherent limitations of time acutely. Every night when I put my head on the pillow, I’m reminded that I’ve lost another day. Every Sunday as I rush to finish the weekend, I panic over the finiteness of a week. And every August as the kids get ready to go back to school, I mourn the loss of a Midwestern summer. As much as I try to live a life filled with opportunity and possibility, the passage of time reminds me of the inevitable limitations of life.

I’ve never been happy with limitations.

Just tonight, I stood at my sink and listened to fireworks erupting as part of our community’s annual summer fair. It struck me, listening to them in the distance, that it would have been nice to be there watching. I knew it was happening (I had been in the exact place where they were going off earlier in the day) but instead I found myself completing the unremarkable, mundane task of washing dishes. Boom, boom, boom went the once-a-year fireworks while I scrubbed crusty mac-n-cheese off a Corelle bowl. Rat-a-tat-tat they echoed as I swished soapy water in a glass. I watched the fireworks in my imagination and silently cursed myself for a missed opportunity that I would never get back.

I might have wallowed in my “wasted moment” guilt except that I remembered that earlier in the summer I had watched fireworks on the Fourth of July, hanging out on the beach with my family. And that caused me to remember the many other times when I hadn’t been washing dishes when the fireworks had gone off. I remembered going downtown as a young woman, walking hand in hand with my boyfriend (now husband) sitting by the river on a blanket. I remembered another time when we took his speedboat out on the lake and watched from the bow, careful not to fall off the waxed paint. I remembered the times, more than I can count, when we had gathered with family and friends as our kids raced around the high school football field before full dark, begging for food and drink and cheap light up toys. I even remembered sitting on a picnic table in my backyard as a child watching big-eyed with a S’more in my hand as they went off above the field behind my school.

So, I stopped beating myself up and realized that there would probably be another opportunity to see fireworks.

For me, there is a tender balance to be had in sucking the marrow out of life. Somehow we’re supposed to squeeze life hard enough to extract the great moments, but not so hard they break. Live focused on every day but recognize the value of the past and the possibility of the future. Let some things go and hold tight to others. It must be something about being middle age that makes me feel like every single decision is about finding (and holding) the right middle ground. It’s excruciating, standing on the knife edge of a well-lived life where fifteen minutes one way or another can throw off my equilibrium. But I can’t help it, that’s where my mind is now — every minute counts.

My husband just came downstairs wondering when I would be coming to bed. The time tracker on my watch shows that I’ve been writing for nearly an hour and a half and by the time I proof and hit publish in the morning these 800 or so words will have taken two hours to create. Sitting here in the dark I’m not sure whether I am proud of my progress or frustrated at my folly.

Maybe I’ll let you decide.