I must tell you that a week into September, I was scheduling my days hour by hour. Which was an absolute thrill. Until it wasn’t. By Wednesday of that week feeling off-kilter and a bit resentful of all my commitments. And by Thursday, I wanted to just stay in bed. When next Monday arrived and the week’s schedule looked the same (only with some added extra parenting duties due to Kiddo’s broken wrist), I wanted to cry.
How had I wound up in this situation? I cast about for something to blame–a boss, a demanding work environment, Mercury in retrograde–but came up empty-handed. I had only myself to blame for my schedule and for my overwhelm. But I also know that I had only myself to figure out a solution, both for my immediate sanity and for establishing longer-term balance.
Immediately, I identified a couple of commitments I felt that I could renegotiate or simply back out of. These were the ones that felt like a lump in my stomach every time I thought of them, the ones that felt most life-draining as I considered them. I did the awkward work of contacting colleagues and letting them know that I needed to back out. “I’ve overcommitted myself,” I repeated in each conversation. And every time I said it, the words felt less humiliating. Especially when my colleagues responded with words of affirmation: “I’m glad you felt like you could tell me,” they said. “I respect your decision,” they said. “We’ll gladly work with you when it’s a good time for you.”
It wasn’t until I heard their gracious responses that I uncovered two motivations I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. First, because my business is new, just under a year old, I began to operate under the assumption that I had to say, “Yes” to every opportunity that came my way, that if I didn’t say, “Yes,” that I’d somehow do harm to my potential for work going forward. It was a scarcity mindset–that there were only so many opportunities that would come my way to do the meaningful work I enjoy with people I am excited to work with. It wasn’t until I actually said, “No,” or “Not now,” that I discovered that opportunities didn’t just disappear or pass me by. Instead, they opened up avenues for conversation, for discernment, for adaptation that I had not anticipated. Perhaps, I thought, my work could actually fit the contours of my life, instead of me constantly trying to fit the contours of my work. (See why this is a confession?)
And from this first uncovering, another followed–that I simply wasn’t used to people saying, “Yes” to projects, ideas, plans, or opportunities to work with me. In ten years of church ministry, there were so few unequivocal “Yeses” to the work I proposed, asked for, introduced, and longed for that I became more accustomed to caveats and detours than to being able to simply move down a vocational path. There are a lot of reasons for this, some that are within my control and many that are not, and yet, I had never internalized this. And from ministry, I moved, rather quickly, into pandemic parenting, an arena so full of resistance, limitations, challenges, and disappointments that I cannot begin to describe it here.
As these realizations came upon me, so did the fall season. In the mornings, I could sit on my back deck to do my journalling, and each day I saw the tips of the maples begin to spill their colors down, red and orange cascading down each leaf and branch, like the slow drip of their sap in the spring. Goldenrod and snakeroot burst into bloom and nodded at me from a breeze that carried the scent of the turning season on it. And I yearned to be a part of it.
This, I remembered, this is what I tipped my life upside-down for–to be a part of the world, to be present to the change of the seasons, to the lessons it had to teach. I felt the urge to lay on the ground, to walk through the woods, to listen to the late season cricket chorus and to learn lessons of release. Because release is what fall teaches us, right?
As I let go of obligations, I slipped outside more often. Went walking without thinking of it as my daily exercise, went hiking without agenda. I listened for the message of release, but it’s not what I heard.
On an evening walk with JT (my spouse) and Popcorn (my dog), I ambled along sniffing the air when I suddenly spied something round and orange sitting in the middle of the road. Without my glasses, I couldn’t be sure of what I was seeing, but as I approached, I handed off the leash to JT and scurried forward. I plucked the perfect drupe from the ground, the hardened blossom in four parts, like an elegant hat. The season’s first persimmon. I yelped and skipped, then danced a circle. The dog was confused, but JT wasn’t. I couldn’t even wait to get it home, I popped the softly ripe fruit into my mouth whole and spit seeds all the way home.
The next week, I had enough time for a hike. Enjoying the slant of light through the trees, the clarity it brought to the contrast between leaves and sky, I noticed a dead tree had fallen and taken down one still green. And as I inspected the wreckage, I spotted an unassuming green pod dangling five feet or so above my head.
Imagine a monarch chrysalis, the way it delicately trembles in the breeze, the particular green of it, both camouflage and captivating. And then imagine trying to sketch that chrysalis with your non-dominant hand and then trying to match the color only with a 12-pack of colored pencils. If what you imagine is significantly larger and lumpier, with the green mottled with a little yellow and brown, then you’ve perfectly pictured a pawpaw, perhaps the most delicious fruit native to Missouri.
I’d only ever tasted one before, and had never found one in the wild. And here, a storm had brought one into arm’s reach. I jumped and batted at the fruit for a few minutes (again, bewildering the dog) before I cradled the fruit in my hand, then stowed it in the pocket of my hoodie. With my eye attuned now for the shape of the bark, leaf, and fruit of the pawpaw, I scanned for more. By the end of my hike, I held three more in my pocket and one in my stomach, having been unable to resist a treat on the trail.
As the next week began, the canopy of my days felt more open, balance returning. And I anticipated my time outdoors even more keenly. It was only this week, as I gathered a glut of persimmons from a neighbor’s lawn, that it occurred to me that the lesson of fall, of my life right now wasn’t one of release at all. But was one of abundance, of cultivating an availability to it. Of orienting myself toward it.
From now to the end of this year, I won’t be undertaking as many projects as I had planned for at the beginning of the month. In a quick chat with a dear friend, we joked about our eyes being too big for our spirits, how projects and the “Yeses” can have us hustling to add more and more to the plate of our days until we become paralyzed by the sheer enormity of stuff to do. “If only there were some kind of warning alarm for that, like a dashboard meter.” I laughed and responded, “I think that’s what the soul is for. It’s the only thing we can’t automate.”
Yesterday, I had enough time to have a long conversation with a friend and to take my daughter to volunteer at the eco farm we love. I still scrambled a bit to get some work done, to tidy up the kitchen, to respond to emails. But at the end of the day, it was the conversation and the time with my kid that made the day feel worthwhile. That made the day feel abundant. If I can add days like that up to make an abundant life, then I think I might be getting things close to right.