Boundaries

It’s pouring, I tell y’all. Pouring! A tempest. A typhoon. A piney-woods tidal wave with impressive lightning bolts and thunder which both crashes and growls. Something’s angered the gods and boy howdy they’re letting us know. The ducks are loving it but the donkeys, not so much.

I’ve microwaved a cup of coffee from yesterday’s unfinished pot (a brew practice for which I’ve been heavily criticized by many folks but hey, you do what you do) and have turned off all the lights so I can watch the lightning like fireworks. This is one of those storms you see in movies. I half expect a terrifying figure in either a trench coat or tattered, victorian dress to appear out beyond the garden—a spooky someone here to collect my soul or something.

It’s 6:30ish in the morning and although I remain on the couch with my trembling dogs and my mismatched jammies, I have this urge in my gut to hop up, open my laptop, and begin the work day. When I say urge, I mean serious urge that’s not just a mental feeling, but also a physical one. On the other hand, this is one of those moments: a perfect storm, a flashing, gray room and sweet dogs who equate my closeness with their safety. This contrast of feelings: the obligation to begin work right away and the allowance of myself to have a moment of peace is puzzling. I feel both guilty and silly. Also stressed, confused, self-conscious, and pressured. In no time, there’s a storm inside me rivaling the one out there.

I close my eyes, let out a long breath, and relax my shoulders. Boundaries dear girl, I tell myself, Boundaries. 

Here’s what I mean by boundaries (to name a few):

  1. If you’re working from home, please remember that you’re working from home, not living at work. It is crucial that you set business/operating hours. 
  2. Set routines (even small ones) and abide by them. Maybe that’s just doing a 20-minute stretch followed by day old coffee in the morning before you open your phone and inevitably be flooded with notifications and saddened by the news. Those things can wait, I promise.
  3. Set boundaries in relationships. You are not responsible for anyone’s happiness no matter how much someone might be trying to convince you as such. You can be a good friend, partner, listener, advocate, supporter, and champion for people but you are not responsible for their feelings. Ever. Full stop.
  4. Holly Whitaker said it best: “Know what you can f*ck with.” This has been a game-changing practice for me. When you know what works and what doesn’t work for you, you can set boundaries to both respect yourself and the expectations of others. Let me give you an example: I have anxiety & OCD which is heavily connected to my hard-wired impulse to be a people-pleaser. As such, I’ve spent so much time doing things and making choices based on what I thought would make others happy. Eventually, I found myself in an empty shell devoid of any knowledge about what I want. Then my anxiety would spiral and my compulsive rituals would intensify. So. Take the time to what you can f*ck with. That’ll help you find a good base from which you can build solid boundaries (and maybe help with your mental health).

    (Quick pit stop: I have an ask. Please stop saying things like, “oh, that’s my OCD kicking in” when you’re talking about wanting things to be tidy, organized, or look right. OCD doesn’t “kick in.” OCD just is. It always is. Also, anxiety is not a mood nor is it just being worrisome. It’s often far bigger and far uglier than that. You can’t just “not worry” or “chill out.” It’s insulting to simplify mental health like this and I’d ask that you please be mindful about throwing around these terms in jest)
  1. Finally, set some self love boundaries. This includes, but is not limited to: 
    1. Keeping your internal dialogue in check. How are you making your own self feel?
    2. Feeling no guilt when indulging yourself in your guilty pleasures. (For me, that’s binging The Great British Baking Show on Netflix while eating too much of my own badass bread bakes).
    3. Don’t sacrifice your own comfort for someone else’s.
    4. If there are people or relationships in your life that make you feel small, worthless, self-conscious, and/or sub-par, draw a line. There is never, ever an acceptable reason to berate, belittle, harass, or abuse someone. In order to draw that line and feel confident in removing those people from your life, you must realize that you deserve that line. You do. I promise.

I have many, many more thoughts on boundaries which continue to change as I continue to explore and understand them. It’s why I go off on soap-boxes about the toxicity of false-positivity and the absurdity of unreachable expectations society puts on us (especially as women). And if you’d like, I’d be happy to share more of those thoughts as I learn to put them into words.

For now, I look at the clock again. 7:00am. My workday from home begins at 8am (no sooner) and until then, my phone will stay plugged into the charger, on silent, in the bedroom so I can watch a storm, protect my dogs, and sip my shitty coffee. 

Afternoon Pause

It’s a typical late-Texas summer on an early, weekday afternoon where leaves hang completely still from the treetops. The chickens have dug small holes outside of their coop in which to rest (the dirt beneath the surface being much cooler than anywhere else they may find) while the ducks drift gently in their pond with their heads tucked into their feathers. Little naps. Flapping bugs hop through the grass—pops of glittery movement in an otherwise motionless yard.

I’ve been sitting on the floor for some time gazing aimlessly out the window with gratitude for a working a/c in my house. I keep wondering if the ducks will wake or if the chickens will grab a skipping bug as it passes. I wonder if the donkeys will emerge from the barn but even they’ve foregone grazing under this afternoon sun and opted, instead, for the shade and coolness of their stalls. I suppose even I’ve been frozen for a while—perhaps time on this afternoon has simply paused.

I take a long, slow breath and as I exhale, I lay back and place my hands over my heart. I stare at the ceiling fan above and try to focus on one blade and follow it around and around, but I keep losing track. I can feel the beat of my heart in my hands. It’s wonky. It’s always wonky in heat like this. So I breathe deeper and more slowly, hoping that will calm her down. Ba dum, ba dum, baaaa dum dum. Ba dum, ba dum, baaa dum di dum dum. 

I‘ve learned to take advantage of quiet, still moments like these in an effort to find the same kind of calmness within my brain and being by trying to visualize various things depending on what I need or what’s going on. I’ve described some of these images before—things like purposefully pushing boulders down mountains in an effort to establish new grooves in the thought process. Streams of light that swirl into my body as I inhale and carry out the dark as I exhale. Muscles relaxing and releasing over the bones that support them, even the tiny ones around my eyes and ears. Lately I’ve been walking down a long hallway, slamming doors of busy thoughts as I pass while focusing on the dark end which I can’t quite make out yet. 

But anxiety is several doors pouring open at once, their insides tumbling and scattering all over the floor. Before you can even think about receiving the satisfaction of slamming the door shut, you must shuffle all the pieces back into their places, careful that you’re picking up the right stuff and not accidentally mixing up this door’s thoughts with the contents from the door across the hall that just spilled open, too. And when you’ve finally, meticulously stacked all the screaming thoughts back into their boxes and arranged them just so, two more doors with even louder and more fragile thoughts burst open. 

It’s then that I lay down in the growing pile of crashing thoughts and chatter and close my eyes into an even smaller, darker hallway with smaller, more finicky doors—a sort of inception of my own coping mechanisms. 

Over and over I do this until the darkness swallows me.

Dizzy, I open my eyes quickly. The room is bright with afternoon sun. The ceiling fan spins around and around and again, I try and find one blade, but can’t. I take in a deep breath and stand as I exhale. The ducks are splashing in the pond. The chickens are pecking through the grass. The donkeys are out in the pasture, heads down and tails flicking. 

As I wander back to my office, I wonder how many versions of me might still be laying in piles of thoughts with their eyes closed? I wonder if there even exists a hallway that can be silenced? Or maybe that’s not the point? 

Thoughts for the next pause, I suppose. For now, the afternoon is alive once more and so too is my need to return to it, spilled contents and all.

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Softness

I’m sitting in my spot—the one in the far, left nook of the couch by the window that looks out towards the donkey’s barn and pasture—as my coffee cools and the night is swelling into its final, heavy moments before the prick of dawn. I spent the fifteen or so minutes before this trying to meditate without much success. Meditation for me looks more like a whack-a-mole game of trying to silence my internal dialogue. Relax your face, I tell myself. Soften your shoulders. I don’t know how I’m going to respond to that angry email I’ve let sit in my inbox for a day. I guess it was my mistake that got me there, but it was a mistake nonetheless. And I owned it. But the world seems so unforgiving these days.

Relax your throat. Deep belly breath. Notice the crickets outside. Mistakes are supposed to help us grow. We are supposed to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities so that every day, we can do just that much better. But that email. The failure. The broken glass on the floor with me standing over it. In many ways, I’ve always been clumsy. 

Soften your eyebrows. Unclench your jaw. Imagine your breath is a jellyfish gently propelling itself through darkness. I’m sorry, I’ll say, I misunderstood. Because I truly did. I thumbed through my notes which I remember jotting down with what I later learned was incorrect information. My cheeks get hot and red when I realize I’m wrong and a giant hole opens up around my heart which swallows it into a pit of shame. 

Whack-a-mole. Whack, whack whack. So I abandoned my not-so-quiet spot on the floor, made myself some coffee, and settled into my couch nook.

I take a sip of my coffee which is mostly cool now. My brother makes fun of me for preferring room-temperature coffee. I don’t like hot coffee and I don’t much like cold coffee either. Hit me with that middle ground. This makes me smile because my brother never pokes fun with harshness, only silliness. He’s appalled at my coffee preferences and habits (because I also do this thing where I’ll make a whole pot of coffee, only drink one, cool cup form it, and spend the next three days pouring my morning coffee from the same full pot I brewed days ago instead of making fresh coffee). But he never makes me feel bad for it. He just laughs about it which in turn, makes me laugh. Actually, his recognition of my (albeit strange) brewing practices makes me feel seen.

Dawn will break any moment. To me, the anticipation is exciting every single morning. Sip. Breathe.

I recently finished watching the Amazon Prime series, “Good Omens,” which is based off the novel written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s a fantastic read (and wonderful listen if you’re an Audible subscriber) and I’m happy to have found that the television series is just as remarkable as the book. They did a phenomenal job adapting the story for the screen. I highly recommend.

I bring this up because there’s a moment in the television series where the angel, Aziraphale, sighs and says, “I’m soft.”

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Since finishing the series, I think about this moment often. 

I’m soft, he said. I’m soft. 

My chest still feels hollow and empty as my shame is berating my heart somewhere else that I can’t see, but boy can I feel. I absolutely loathe making mistakes. I hate letting others down, of course, but I also know that a misstep means the beast of self-consciousness is fed. I close my eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. 

“I’m soft,” he said. And he said it with a sigh. With a release. With a surrender. 

Softness. 

Softness, I think, is porous. My big donkey, Bunny, keeps relapsing with what’s called “white line disease” because her hooves are soft and porous. It’s been raining nearly non-stop for months which hasn’t allowed her desert-evolved-hooves to dry out and bacteria thrives there. Only in dry, open, and clean air can white line disease start to heal. The hooves need to harden and in hardness is protection. 

Maybe I’m soft. Maybe that’s why the monsters of doubt, anxiety, and depression thrive in my being like bacteria. My face feels so hot. I hate screwing up. How could I be so careless?

I take another sip of my cool coffee. The blackness outside has shifted into navy blue. Ron Swanson, my rooster, perches on the fence and crows—a deafening break of silence. 

I’m soft, I realize. I’m soft. 

I picture Aziraphale’s face and try, too, to surrender to the idea. I let go of the tension in my face, my shoulders, even in the muscles between my ribs. I let out an audible sigh. Ron Swanson crows again. 

But softness is what allowed Aziraphale to become sympathetic to the human race and even, I think, fall in love with them. Softness is how Aziraphale was able to connect with and find a partner in the demon Crowley, ultimately saving the world through their camaraderie. Softness allowed them to see one another. 

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Softness is why my brother making fun of my coffee habits doesn’t hurt my feelings. He sees me as a person with unique traits and I receive the comments as being seen as an individual. Softness is our ability to see one another as humans with strengths and weaknesses. With talents and flaws. With complex histories and room for growth. Softness connects us, it doesn’t block us out. Heck, softness is why I got into donkey rescue in the first place—because those long ears and thoughtful eyes passed through the netted walls of my soft heart and found a home in there and I never, ever, wanted to see another donkey suffer.

To be soft is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable, in my opinion, is to be brave. Knocking down the calloused walls knowing that the rawness behind it might be seen or judged by others takes strength. To recognize, admit, and own missteps with the intention of improving moving forward is something that as imperfect beings, we should all be trying to do. No one is perfect, so bust down that wall that you’ve built around the insecurity of not being perfect all the time—it’s not doing you any good.

I learned quickly as a novice gardener that the soil must be tilled, soft, and porous in order for plants to find strong rooting, ultimately allowing them to grow larger and hopefully, bear more fruit. So maybe if we till ourselves, allowing the surface to soften from time to time, we’ll experience growth in ways we hadn’t previously imagined. We’ll see each other as individuals with complex pasts and beautiful minds—that in our collective imperfection is infinite possibility for growth and connection. 

I’m soft. 

I’m soft.

I’m soft and for the first time all morning, I don’t have to remind myself to relax. Let flow, the feelings that rise. There is so much to learn and so much room to grow.

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