Monday, August 24, 2015

You Are Making People Become That Customer

Recently I was given a referral code for a grocery delivery service.  It's a simple concept: you pick from a list of things available at local stores, and someone goes, gets them, and delivers them to your house or business for a fairly reasonable fee.  Ordinarily, I have plenty of time to go to the grocery store and get my food, but every so often the depression strikes and "there's no food I want in the house and I don't have the energy to go get any," becomes a convenient reason to punish myself with hunger, or we're at T minus 25 for guest arrival and realise there's neither bacon nor cream for the next morning's breakfast.  So, I tried out the service with an 'office restock' of the snacks and stuff I like to have on hand in the office for lunch general blood-sugar maintenance, plus some fresh fruit and cake for lunch.

It was super-easy and very convenient.  They had most of the things I wanted, and I can really see how on a busy week, or if you were home sick and didn't want to interact with people (I didn't have to sign for anything, so one presumes a "Please leave the bags on the porch and ring the bell; I am contagious" request would work), this would be a total godsend.  It's not something I would replace my regular shopping trips with, because I really like going to the grocery store and especially choosing my own produce, but great in a pinch.

What I didn't expect was for it to feel uncomfortably elitist.  I'm a solidly middle-class person, and even with the delivery fee this is a pretty minimal increase in the grocery budget (I did the math and it worked out to about a 6% increase in the overall cost, not including tip).  I'd put it roughly equivalent to the fiscal 'luxury' of having a pizza delivered instead of heating up a high-end frozen one.  The pizza delivery guy doesn't make me feel elitist, nor does the cookie delivery service, but grocery delivery...really did.  There was this moment of existential angst of "Do I really think I'm too busy and important to buy my own cheese and soup?"

I don't, by the way.  I'm much less busy than I was a year ago, and I'm not too important to shop, but I also acknowledge that this could be another tool in my self-care toolbox.  Some days there are not the spoons for fighting Traitor Brain to get out of bed, fighting it to get some pants on, navigating the complicated social world and overwhelming choices of grocery shopping, *and* cooking the food I bought.  If all I have to manage is "order the groceries and grab them off the porch," the likelihood of me cooking and eating the food goes way up -- especially if that grocery order can include ready-to-eat foods.

So why am I worried about being 'That Customer'?  Because the company sent me a request to rate their service.  I had one minor complaint, that the tres leches cake had tipped over on its side and leaked a little milk out into the bottom of the bag, and I had to rinse off my container of half & half.

I gave the service four stars.  In my world, four stars says, "I am quite satisfied with the service I have received, and absolutely intend to return.  You are to be commended on providing something of above-average value."

Apparently to the service in question it means, "You have failed me and I am dissatisfied."  Upon providing my (I thought very complimentary) four-star rating, I was asked to provide an explanation for why I had not given a five-star rating.  Thinking that I could help them improve, I noted "Everything was fine except please ask your delivery person to remind the baggers to keep the cake upright.  It leaks a little if it's put in sideways."

Within minutes, I had received a profound apology signed by a real person, explaining that they'd be 'following up' with my delivery driver (referenced by name), ensuring me that they'd be certain to avoid errors in the future, asking if I 'had been able to enjoy' the rest of my order, and then offering a *second* apology accompanied by a ten-dollar credit.


I am not entitled to perfection.  I am not entitled to have my every whim addressed, to be entirely and thoroughly satisfied in every retail interaction.  Sometimes things don't happen.  Sometimes a waitress forgets whether I wanted corn or flour tortillas, or a clerk has to tell me an item is out of stock.  Sometimes a customer service representative will have to tell me no.  I must, on occasion, be advised that the world does not revolve around my consumer happiness, and that walking through a world of 'pretty good' interactions is, on balance, as good as or better than I really have any reason to expect.

Combined with that earlier twinge of elitism, the sudden and effusive catering left me oddly unsettled.  As consumers, America has become a nation of people who seem to expect that the world will bend in every direction simply to ensure that the baseline of our experience is smooth and unruffled.  We wave the standard of 'the customer is always right' as some sort of holy birthright, some sacred Constitutional principle upon which the security of the nation depends.

As a whole, the retail and service industry should tell us to fuck right the hell off with that nonsense.  That the profit on a ten-dollar lunch special isn't worth the dignity of those who cook and serve it to us, and that those who exchange goods or services for our hard-earned money are just as deserving of respect as those who pay us that hard-earned money, because we're all human beings who deserve to be treated as such.

They don't, though.  Instead, they grasp desperately at the razor-thin margin and bend before the threat of a lost customer, or even simply an angry one, sacrificing employees and often their own self-respect.  Even, sometimes, sacrificing the customers driven away by the conspicuous, screaming displays of arrogant petulance our fellow shoppers present.

I worked my years in retail, and have been hurled full-force beneath that bus more than once.  I have also seen my share of valid complaints.  However, if you respond to every complaint, valid or not, by admitting fault, blaming staff, and offering discounts, coupons, or credit to every single person who complains then what you end up with is a culture where real complaints get lost in the haze of demands for validation.

What do I want?  I want the people who have to tell me no to do so without the fear that they'll lose a job for it.  I want the friends I have who work in a service industry to feel safe in the knowledge that they will be protected from abuse.  I want any complaints I might make to be evaluated fairly and reasonably, so that real problems can be corrected and imagined problems can be ignored.

Most of all, I don't want to be coddled with indulgent platitudes and have credit thrown at me to make me go away whether I am right or wrong, or to be treated as if I am so fragile, as a customer, that anything less than perfection will shatter me.

Monday, August 3, 2015

It's The Little Moments That Last A Lifetime

Every so often, something from childhood percolates to the top of your mind and you get a valuable insight to why you are the person you have become.  One of those has been rumbling around my mind this week.

When I was in seventh grade, my best friend was a girl named Dawn.  We had sleepovers and went roller skating and did all the things you do when you are a seventh-grade girl.

One Friday night, we were over at her house after an evening of roller skating.  Because her dad was still out of town on a duty assignment, it was just us and her mother.  She and I unrolled our sleeping bags in the living room and settled down a little after midnight to exchange gossip.

It was a little while later that we noticed someone moving quietly across the front of the lawn, headed for the front door.  Nervously, we got up, holding on to one another for emotional support, and walked over to the front door.

There, clearly outlined against the frosted glass, was the shape of a man.

She screamed.  I screamed.  Her mother came out of the bedroom screaming.  The dog howled and barked.  And the door...opened.  Her father walked in through it, looking both annoyed and confused.  He'd come back early from his assignment, unaware that we were sleeping in the living room, and was trying to come in quietly so as not to wake the household.

He asked us why we were screaming, and we said, "We didn't know it was you.  We thought you were an axe murderer."  What followed then was one of the more interesting conversations of my young adulthood, in which he explained that of all the choices available to us, screaming was exactly the wrong one.  Almost anything else we could have done would have been better.  Calling the police.  Waking Dawn's mother.  Hiding someplace safe.  Getting out the back door.  Fighting back.  He took us around the house and showed us all the different options we had for weapons, and all the best places to hide and hit someone over the head with a saucepan.

His lesson, though a little intense for 2am, was this:  when you're faced with trouble, panic is always an option, but it's rarely a good one, and there are any number of others ranging from 'seek help' to 'get away' to 'fight back'.  If you can keep your head, you can usually do something productive.

If I recall correctly, that was my last panicked freakout on record.  I have been terrified, I have been scared, I have been overwhelmed by a situation far outside my expectations, but outside of a few startled 'someone jumps out and yells boo at me' situations, I don't remember having a single "screaming paralysis of fear" moment since.  And even in those startled moments, I've always been inclined to punch first and freak out after.

Time passed and as Army Brats do, Dawn and I moved on and lost contact.  Eventually, that night fell out of my medium-term memory, but the lesson remained: you have so much else you can do that is not panic, that is not giving in to fear.  There are always options for response and reaction.

I doubt Dawn's dad has ever, again, thought of that night or the conversation.  Probably to him it was just another in the long line of lessons raising a daughter entailed, just one at which a friend happened to be present.  But when I think of all the times that keeping a clear head and putting the fear reaction in a box to deal with later has helped me, a small part of me wishes I could find some way to tell him just how far his words have taken me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Un-Scheduled to Within an Inch of My Life

A lot of articles and conversations have been wafting through my life lately like this one, Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol, and each time I tell myself I'm going to talk about my experience with this destructive mentality, and then I don't.  So now I am.

One year ago, if you asked me how I had been, the answer was a sort of helpless, "Oh, you know, SO BUSY.  I am made of busy.  I am doing All The Things."  It took a lot of things, multiple articles highlighting that the glorification of busy is part of a system that was eating so many people alive, before I really started to ask myself important questions.

Important questions like, "What, exactly, are my own goals?" or "What is it that I would do if I ever stopped taking on others' priorities as my own?" or "So, what am I afraid I'll have to deal with if I ever sit still?"

My life is very full.  I work, I volunteer, I have a few creative gigs and hobbies, I am in a relationship, I'm part of a closely-knit community, I serve as a priestess, and I'm working on my own personal development, plus managing episodic depression and occasional bouts of anemia.  I also moved last year and my company underwent a transition of ownership.

I used to take a great deal of pride in that list, because the eyes of anyone who heard it got very round, and they said, "Wow, you ARE busy."  There was a sort of self-satisfaction in knowing that I lived under a schedule that others considered crushing and impressive.  I joked about being 'scheduled to within an inch of my life,' but the truth is that I wasn't really joking.  I was at the very edge of what I could reasonably live.

The primary problem, of course, lies in that episodic depression and occasional anemia.  Because there were occasionally days where I looked at the catalogue of obligations I'd built myself, and I...couldn't (I should probably also mention the migraines here, most common in January and February when dry air and pressure changes are particularly vicious).  I had to stop, to hide, to take a full day to recover from the basics of my life.  Of course, everyone tells you, when you need to take three to five 'mental health' days a year, that you're perfectly entitled to them, that you have 'every right' to the time.

But what if I didn't need it?  What if I started structuring a life I never needed to take time from, because it was ordered in a way that included time off, relaxation, and recovery time as normal facets of human existence?

I had this moment where a friend asked if I wanted to have coffee or dinner or something, and my calendar was literally full, something scheduled every single day, for weeks.  That was a trigger; the night I found myself weeping into the laundry at 2am because I couldn't sleep until I had washed the sheets and made the bed but I hadn't gotten home until almost midnight was another.  I started working towards balance, towards the notion that relaxation didn't have to represent 'hiding from' my life, that it could be an integral part.  I started to consider that maybe it might be reasonable to be able to do interesting things at the last minute.  I started offloading small tasks and obligations to people I could trust with them.

If you had told me that stepping back from a life of obligation would increase the time I had to spend managing it, I'd never have believed it.  But it's true.  Anything I dropped without a clear transition plan, without figuring out who would take it on, came back upon me with a vengeance, unpredictably and in crisis.  So I exhausted myself, carving out bits and pieces of time in hopes that it would create space for that transition.

Gradually, slowly, it worked.  I found that in spaces where I have taken leadership roles, I could comfortably delegate to trusted team members.  I found that in spaces where leadership was lacking, I could advise and suggest rather than doing the work and owning the process.  Some of it has to do with the change in work, from 'ten vacation days and five sick days a year' to 'twenty undifferentiated PTO days, plus three floating holidays to use as desired.'

I've had to let a lot go.  I've had to trust.  I've had to set boundaries.  It's been hard, because my natural tendency, when someone says, "We need this done," is to say "Of course, I can help with that.  I'll just take on that responsibility."  Rather than simply refuse all requests, which is its own trap, I've been forcing myself to stop and consider which things are good uses of my time, which things will feed me.  I am looking at trips as real plans, and not as someday hopes for 'years when the anemia and the festivals leave me enough time.'

About six months ago, I turned the corner that was "The process of transitioning things out of my life no longer occupies more space than the things I have transitioned out of my life," which is to say I started to develop occasional free time.  It's been amazing.

The hardest thing is that there are SO MANY OPTIONS for filling that time, for busying back up, for a show and a party and a movie and a dinner and a coffee every single week.  There are more hobbies I'd love to take up, and more events I'd love to see, but for now, at least, I'm stopping to take a breath and center myself at home, and establish what a healthy boundary set of my own time really looks like in the long term, rather than create another cycle of busy-and-purge down the road.

I do not delude myself that this is anything other than a landing on my life's staircase.  At each turning, I cull obligation and replace it with passion, in hopes that someday my life will be full only of things that feed and nourish me, of things that all actively contribute to me being my best self.

I love you all.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Little Things Matter to Big People

Dear Fitness Center:

When we joined your gym a few months ago, my partner mentioned that he'd been a member previously.  He was asked, "Why did you quit last time?"  I understand the purpose of this question, to try and help someone tailor their experience differently in a way that retains customers.  The answer, as it is for many people who join gyms and quit them, was a complex muddle of "It cost more in time and money than I was willing/able to spend to get the benefits I wanted."

But if I ever have to answer that question, here's what I'll say:

It's your towels.

Not specifically the towels themselves, you see, but what they represent in the context of your gym and how you manage it.

The best time for me to work out is at lunch, which means I drive over, hit the elliptical for 20-25 minutes, shower, and drive back to work for the afternoon.  This is, for me, a workout routine I can establish as a habit, meaning that regular activity 3-5 times a week becomes a set part of my life.  All the studies I've read say that, whatever my size, that is an improvement and a positive thing over spending the same lunch hour working, or sitting at my desk and reading.

But here we find...the towels.  I am not particularly body-shy.  I have used communal showers for almost two decades now, so being unclothed around a bunch of other women in the locker room isn't really a thing with me.  But I'd like to wrap a towel around me as I walk from the shower to the locker, in part because it's a bit chilly in there, and in part because that seems to be the standard of behaviour everyone else is engaging in, and I'd like to respect others' comfort levels.

The towel won't wrap, though.  Each time I work out, each time I shower, I attempt to squish my body into one of your towels, unable to even convince it to tuck neatly around my chest, and it simply gapes below.  My hips and stomach are completely exposed, in all their rounded glory, as I scurry to my locker, trying to juggle my workout clothes and shoes and my glasses and my conditioner, and keep the towel from falling off.  I have yet to succeed; every day or two I hold my head up defiantly as that inadequate towel pools around my feet.  I can't go back to work unshowered, and packing a towel for my own use adds a load of laundry each week to an already-full domestic schedule, so I face the towel every day, and it demoralizes me, removing some of that endorphin high from my workout.

I look around at all the pictures you have, of people enjoying their workouts, happily swimming and biking and practicing yoga, and every last one of those people is thin.  Not just an average-weight person, but a deliberately thin one, one who fits in the towel with ease.  There are no pictures of happy fat people working out in your gym, not anywhere.  I have never, in fact, worked out in a gym where there were pictures of happy healthy fat people, despite the fact that I know a lot of happy healthy fat people who enjoy working out.

When I came in for my 'free consultation', I explained "I am trying to rebuild healthy habits, so what I plan to do is get in the habit of coming in, just to hit the elliptical, or the treadmill or the stairmaster, several times a week.  I have about 25 minutes.  Eventually I will want to put together a weights routine that I can switch out with that, even though I know it'll have to be limited."  The trainer explained patiently that 25 minutes of weight lifting just wasn't even worth doing, and if I wasn't willing to commit to more time than that, then probably I should just stick to the elliptical, because that would have to be enough and it was 'better than nothing'.  I was pushed and pushed and pushed to weigh myself and lay out a 'goal weight' and a 'target weight loss rate' no matter how many times I said it wasn't about getting skinny.

All of this, over and together, tells me that the story you're selling is this one:  thin people go to the gym.  Thin, happy people are people who work out.  People who work out are thin, happy people.  There is no space for the fat fit.  They do not exist, they do not belong here, this is a place where inadequate people come and they get thin, because thin is how you win when you commit to fitness as a lifestyle.

I will never be thin.  Even at my 'goal weight', five or ten pounds above where my face starts to look a little uncanny-angular, I am a 36DDD.  As for the bottom half of my body, this train is an express to Callipygia and it is equipped with a full caboose.  There is no changing that, and I do not want there to be.

My 'ideal body' is measured in my functionality.  At my peak of fitness, I can't tell you my waist size, but I can tell you that I can hike 8 desert miles with ease, and manage Hill Country hikes with hundreds of feet of change in elevation.  I can run five back-to-back 20-hour active days without exhaustion.  I can lift, carry, and push almost anything I'm likely to need to.  My long-term goal is a solo overnight 20 or 30 mile hike.  But when I explain to people at your gym these functional goals I have, I hear "Ok, so at what weight do you think you'd be able to do all that?"

So, I get that this is a gym and selling fitness is your job.  I get that your job is easiest when I'm satisfied with easy metrics like weight and body fat percentage, and when I'm willing to simply do what I'm told, make getting to the gym on your terms a priority in my life, and live out a 'success story' for your ads.  Joe Sixpack who lost 60 pounds and umpty inches makes a much better photo op than the woman who hauls her size fourteen fluffy ass up 15 miles of Big Bend trails.

And I get that you're telling the story larger culture taught you:  There is no room in fitness for fat people.  A fat person in the gym can't possibly be working on any goal beyond self-erasure.  I cannot possibly have a workout goal that includes expanding anything about myself, not even my capacity for physical endurance, because expanse should be my enemy.

I also get that you can't change that larger culture.  That asking a business to change its entire philosophy when most of us can't even find pants in our size or doctors who'll consider non-weight-related causes is not so realistic.  You can't change how the world views me, you can't change the American perception of fitness to include the fact that it is a thing personally defined, by each and every one of us, that it is a constantly-changing idea based on the capacity of the body you inhabit, not a cookie-cutter image of fat-free triathletes smiling past their water bottles.

You can't singlehandedly end shaming and misinformation about weight, you can't singlehandedly make people understand that the entire idea of 'extreme diet and workout program to get to the right size' is a path to failure every single time because it can never be sustainable, you cannot completely revolutionize the world so that fat people feel welcome, so that we feel we have a right to exist in this world.

But you know what you can do?

Get bigger towels.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Keeping Austin Weird

It will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I have loved Austin, Texas since I was about nine years old.  When I was in middle school and we would come to Austin for back-to-school or holiday shopping, it always seemed like this magical place.  My sister graduated high school and went to UT, and her stories of the crazy happenings in her dorm, and the places she took us to visit when we came, all reinforced my belief that Austin is magic, that somehow everything is possible.

Eventually, my life brought me here, and the last ten years have been incredible.  It really is all I had hoped.

But...a lot of people seem tremendously invested in an Austin That Was.  The Austin of Slacker, the Austin of the 70s, the Austin of ten/fifteen/thirty years ago, the days 'when it was still cool'.

They say 'Keep Austin Weird' and damn, people do try.  They wear funny hats and they take pictures of the funny things they see and so many of them strive for something special, something different, something 'Austin Weird.'  Everyone seems to have a perception of what 'Austin Weird' is, and for many people I know, it's past tense.  They say to me, "Oh, ten years?  Then you missed all the good stuff."

This city was never the weird, bright, bold, beautiful place it is simply because its residents saw everyone else wearing stripes and wore plaid on purpose to be different.  What's made this place great and beautiful isn't the fact that people are deliberately seeking out the untrodden path.  It's that we have not crushed those who choose it, and the key to 'preserving Austin' lies in that.

So when I hear how 'Keep Austin Weird' is a pale shadow of itself, how it's all ruined now, how this place and that place have closed and we've lost so much of what made Austin Austin, I just want to stop and shout this at the top of my lungs:

Stop.  Stop that.  Stop it right now.  What makes this city an incredible place, what makes it weird and unique and lovely, isn't that we have collected and preserved a quirky heritage, in cultural amber, a time capsule of that most perfect moment you remember, that glorious summer sun just before you hit the water in Barton Springs, that exquisite taco you once got on South Congress, that night that started with a crazy live show and ended up with you and your favorite band climbing to the top of Mt. Bonnell to watch the sun come up.  Stop loving a collection of moments you believe will never come again.

What's hurting this city the most is the perception that somehow its best and most beautiful days have passed, that it's better to sit and remember those moments than it is to go out and find the people who are making them now.  Things can never be what they were, and if you waste your energy lamenting what's gone you will miss the beauty right in front of you.  Every night of the week, people are singing and dancing and performing and cooking, and they are making amazing things they want to share with you.

Find them.  Accept the creativity and the gift of their passion with you, and support them in that pursuit however you can.  When your friend says, "I'm thinking of this kind of crazy thing I want to do," say, "How can I help you do that?" instead of "Are you really sure that's a good idea?"

It starts with supporting local businesses, but it doesn't stop there.  We must understand the importance of supporting local PASSION, and do it.  This city is still a place where people who want to make things, all kinds of things, from software code to beer to music to pottery, can find a community that will honor what it means for them to put that piece of themselves out into the world.  Bluntly put, give them money, if you can afford to do it, because if passion will pay, then it spreads out beyond itself to inspire others and it supports a culture where people are encouraged to believe in their dreams.

Not everyone has the means or the courage to follow a dream.  Some folks have responsibilities or obligations, or they're just not ready to leap.  Some folks' passions lie closer to home.  But when we encounter someone who does, who has said, "against all the odds, I am gonna try to find a way to share this thing that I love," then the best thing we can do, to make the world a better place and really keep it weird, is to stop worrying about if it's the next big thing or if it's better or worse than the world that lives in memory and just revel in it.

It can be hard to face someone else's passion.  It's easier to reach for what's familiar, and that's where the influx of new people in the last twenty years (including me) has created some conflict, because how do we tell whether a newcomer is bringing a passion to life or reestablishing the comfort zone left behind in another city?

There really isn't much way to do that objectively, so make a practice of seeking out, in every aspect of your experience, the people who are doing the things that bring them joy, that make them sing, that really feed their souls.

So I say to you, who mourn that Lost Better Austin (and really anyone else), that I have a challenge for you.  This year, in 2015, make it your active mission to seek out and support those who are doing the things that make them come alive.  And before the end of the year, if you're not already doing the thing that feeds your deepest heart, I challenge you to take one single step, no matter how small, along the path that leads to it.

I love you all.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How Much Does a Spoon Cost?

A friend asked a question in her own space about how people manage their spoons (if you're not familiar with 'spoon theory' when dealing with chronic illness or other conditions, please read this).  As I started to answer it, I realised two things: how much the answer has changed since I acknowledged the combination of chronic depression and anemia that saps my energy, and how much difference money makes.

Ten years ago, a skipped lunch on Monday would set off a declining spiral of energy and options, putting me in the position by midweek of trying to find a way to eat with an empty bank account because I just could not get the energy together to fix a lunch either the night before or in the morning.  I was working jobs with no paid leave where every time infraction was documented and enough of them would mean being fired, so something as simple as "I couldn't afford to get gas until my paycheck had cleared, so now it's 7:51 and I'm at the gas station eight minutes from work hoping the two gallons I can throw in here now will be sufficient, and also not mean I clock in late," was a serious source of anxiety, complete with "If I managed my life better I wouldn't be here right now.  I am such a fucking loser."

Today, if I eat out every single day in a week, I make a mental note to go to the HEB over the weekend, seriously, and at least get some canned soup or something, because I can't afford to do that permanently.  The difference between "I can't afford to eat out every day" and "I can't afford to eat today" is profound.  The lack of crisis, the lack of urgency, not having that feeling of despair when you fail at feeding yourself, completely alters how I approach my condition.  I allow myself much more leeway, much more weakness now, and sometimes just the moment when I can be gentle enough with myself to say "I can't walk four blocks from the free parking to the restaurant where we are meeting.  I will pay to park in the garage downstairs," is enough to renew part of a spoon I'd spent trying to manage my emotional wellbeing.

I'm not rich, not by any means.  But I am no longer living paycheck to paycheck, and have enough for any reasonable emergency expense (car repair, insurance deductible) in savings.  What this means is that often, in the *short term* I can prioritize self-care over saving money, and then at another point I can prioritize saving money over self-care, when I have an extra spoon or two, so that the pressures of balancing my life are spread over a greater area.  High energy day?  Obviously a grocery 'buy the stuff on sale' run, followed by prepping some freezer meals for the future.  Or clearing expired food out of the pantry and replacing my fast-and-easy crock pot staples.  No worrying about whether there's money in the bank for the groceries, so I can take advantage of the moment.

But the real difference is in *choice*.  Normal people, people who don't have to manage their energy and abilities carefully, have a constant choice of "Shall I do it myself or pay to have it done?"  They have only one immutable variable: can I afford it?  And, depending on where you are on the socioeconomic level, "can I afford it?" isn't a restriction that comes into play on every decision.  Whether or not you can do it yourself is a matter of free time and skill set, and you have some control over those.

A chronic condition that saps your energy or makes your daily activities painful adds a second limiting variable, one with fairly immutable boundaries, and it adds it to *every decision* from "Do I wear pants or a skirt today?" to "Do I pay $100 more for the ground-floor apartment with reserved parking spaces close by?".  The body will not do what the body will not do, and the more you limit one variable, the more you need of the other to balance a decent quality of life.  If you've got five bucks and unlimited spoons, you can make a pretty decent steak dinner and clean up after it.  If you've got 100 bucks and two spoons, you can have a nice steak dinner delivered to your house and throw away the plastic ware.  If you've got five bucks and two spoons, you bean and cheese fast food tacos or make a peanut butter sandwich, and either of those puts you short of resources on one side or another.

For too many years, I had to operate on a razor-thin margin of both spoons and money, so that a shortage of one cascaded to a shortage of both, derailing my entire life if I wasn't lucky.  The stress of that, plus my inability to afford the things I needed to be eating, exacerbated the depression significantly.  Now I'm in a place where I can build safety nets for the harder days, in the form of a freezer full of reasonably healthy ready to cook food, the ability to schedule buying gas and running errands when I have the energy for them instead of waiting to get paid, being able to pay people for things I'd otherwise have to do myself, like moving. 

How did I get to a place where I can afford to 'buy a spoon forward'?  

I could spin this tale of self-sufficiency, how I budgeted carefully and spent wisely, how I was willing to do without nice things while I maintained my single-minded focus on digging out of my hole.  And I did those things.  I also had a lucky few years where I was able to build up a little reserve of money and security because I didn't have to dip into my meagre savings to cover an unscheduled day off or unplanned expense.  But the most important thing was other people.

Friends made sure I ate when I was feeling low, buying the food for me if they had to.  Family helped me financially when the reality of figuring out how to manage all the things was too daunting.  People helped me figure out time management in a way that wasn't "Make a schedule and stick to it."  I was gifted my first crock pot (I have since bought a second one to replace it when it broke, because Energy Badger can put a roast in to feed Anemia Badger for several subsequent days) and a cookbook with 'fast and easy' recipes as well as 'prep ahead and freeze' ones.  Almost all the things I needed to turn my own efforts from 'treading water' to 'gaining ground' were gifts and kindnesses from others.

My employer provides me with the twin blessings of health insurance and sick days (without demanding a doctor's note or explanation!) and a couple of years ago I took the risk and told my boss, "Hey, in addition to the anemia I keep having infusions for, I've suffered for almost 30 years with chronic depression.  So I am struggling, but I wanted to let you know that I'm doing my best, I really am, right now."  It was a huge risk, in an at-will employment state, and I advise anyone considering it to be cautious, but it turns out I work for a pretty decent and compassionate human being, who never questions the fact that I don't look sick every single time I come back from a sick day.

My partner has been a huge help.  Just having someone who doesn't consider it a terrible imposition to pick up the slack on housework you can't do is a tremendous difference, the difference between 'to clean up I must put the plate in the dishwasher and turn it on and I think I can manage that' vs. 'to clean up I must unload the dishwasher I haven't had the energy to unload any other night this week, load it, run the first load, unload it, start filling it again, and hand-wash the pots and pans so I will sit on the sofa and cry instead.'

This is not a how-to for people who have to carefully manage spoons and money, who are living on that razor's edge, because it's incredibly cruel of me to suggest that the answer for them is "get a better job, a partner with the time and money and inclination to support you, and supportive friends and family." 

It's much easier for me to say to friends who've asked how you can 'give someone a spoon' when a loved one is really struggling, that there is a way.  Text them, "Hey, I'm heading to the grocery store.  Can I pick you up anything while I'm there?" to save them what can be an exhausting trip.  Offer to help them with housework.  For holidays or birthdays, ask them what *services* they need (deep carpet cleaning, help washing drapes and curtains, once-a-year cleaning/organizing tasks that the daily allotment of energy just won't cover).  The next time you're going to be near where they work, call them up and ask if you can drop some lunch by the office for them, or better yet, treat them to lunch.  Maybe they had a sandwich in the fridge, but maybe you're also the week's salvation.  If you borrow their car, give it back washed and completely full of gas.  Offer to walk the dog.  Mostly, just let them know you're available to help on their terms, and demonstrate that you're not interested in judging whether or not someone 'should' be able to do a thing.

Advocate for living wage jobs, especially for those with chronic physical or mental health issues, and for paid time off and universal health insurance.  Speak out against employer policies that require a doctor's note for a sick day.  Speak out against people who treat invisible illnesses as 'all in your head' or 'made up' and suggest that people should just lose weight, get out more, stop whining, or eat better.  That argument takes energy, believe me, and I have had to make the choice between engaging someone in it and having enough energy to drive home from work.

You can't make the lupus, or the depression, or the fibromyalgia go away.  You can't fix what's wrong or give your loved one your share of the energy.  But I remember a time when I'd spent literal MONTHS staring at my disorganized books, thinking "I love my books.  I hate so much that my books are in disorder, that I can't find them when I need them, that it looks like I don't respect them.  I wish I could organise them, but I'm just so tired."  A friend came over and spent two of her precious days just going through them, ordering and organising them with me, and at the end of it, even though it was hardly a life or death difference in my life, it was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, that I didn't have to come home, every day, and feel ashamed at the reminder that I couldn't manage such an important aspect of my life.

That single gesture, over the following year, amounted to handing me hundreds of spoons, one every single day that I didn't have to spend convincing myself that tomorrow, really, I was going to do something about it but it was OK to let it go for

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Longest Night...Again

Blessed Yule, my loves.

To those holding vigil tonight, thank you.  To those who hold your vigils in a thousand different ways the year round, thank you.

Tonight we honor the idea of holding through the darkest times.  Of watching the sun go down, as the nights get longer and longer, and keeping faith that someday the night will be shorter than the one before it.  While the solstice marks the formal Longest Night, so many I know have been keeping their own vigils against fear and despair this year, independent of their place on the wheel.

'Getting better' is a long process, and one that happens by degrees.  From the bottom of the wheel, we do not magically run up the spokes from darkness into light; we embrace the slow transition from hardship to bounty, from isolation to community, from grief into celebration.  And always we know, as the year is a wheel, that even as we face our darkness knowing light will come, we must also know that the darkness will come again, and we will need those lessons we are now learning.

Tonight many people make much of "without the darkness the light cannot shine, you cannot appreciate the stars, you cannot embrace your joys."  To most people I know, darkness is most valuable when its contrast gives meaning to the light.

This is true, but for me tonight's contemplations run much more to "Learning to embrace and accept each turn of darkness as it comes to me gives me tools and lessons that help me survive the dark to come."

It's my nature and my honor to burn brightly through the darkest times; what is hard for those who do not do that to understand is that the light of your own burning means that sometimes, all you see when you look out is blackness, because you're blinded by the flame you tend.

And sometimes, when it's at its very darkest, and your flame is hard to keep going, you have a moment where you're afraid you're going to lose it all, that the light you hold will go out, and you'll be there, alone, in perfect pitch blackness.  Because, well, you know that theoretically there are other people out there, tending other fires.  But what if they're not there, what if your flame goes out and you were...the last one burning?

Coming to peace with that fear is one of the hardest things, to say "I will burn as long as I am able, and when I can no longer burn, I will embrace the darkness."

For the last ten years, when my own flame has faltered, in the dimming of my light I could make out others, holding flame to help me rekindle.  I have not yet failed in my winter burning.

But I have, several times, come to peace with the prospect of my light failing entirely, of being lost, alone and blinded, and that willingness to embrace the darkness not as a foil for the good times, but in itself, has given me a strength and an understanding I never really imagined I could have.