I Am a Rock, I Am An Island:
Spending Time with Myself and Not (Always) Feeling Pathetic About It
On this chilly March night in Iowa City, I find myself in the unexpected position of sitting under a pine tree outside my friend Matt’s* apartment complex; I have my laptop out, and I am making intermittent screeching noises to discourage a large opossum from returning to what I can only assume is his nightly roost. Do opossums roost? Now that I’ve typed that it doesn’t seem right, but, at any rate, I’m pretty sure this is his house I’m leaning against. It is also quite a brisk night— thirty-eight degrees and dropping, and I am beginning to regret that I’ve foregone my winter coat tonight in favor of my Taylor Swift sweatshirt and a cute-but-thermally-ineffectual scarf. My fingers are already numb and, guys, I fear my butt is next. Is it just me or is butt-cold the most difficult to recover from? Maybe this phenomenon is unique to my physiology, but, I swear, even once I’m inside, hours will go by before my rear end defrosts.
At this juncture you may be tempted to inquire why don’t I just go inside Matt’s apartment… excellent question. As it happens, I fully intended to let myself into his apartment with the key Matt had made just for me! But, alas, I have neglected to bring this magical door-opening-device on my voyage from St. Louis to Iowa City. So here I sit, waiting for Matt to return from the party I just left. Are questions proliferating as I type? Why don’t I just get in my car, drive the five minutes back to the party and get Matt’s key? I will admit that mine is far from an unsolvable problem, but I’m feeling by now that I have planted a flag in this proverbial mountaintop by which I am obliged to stand.
It is from this unconventional circumstance that I wish to launch a brief treatise on the benefits of “me-time.” This phrase, in my experience, most often invokes images of scented candles, bubble baths, and a recommitment to one’s daily journaling practice. This is all great stuff, but somewhat superficial in the grand scheme. The grand scheme, I’ve found, involves a lot more work of the intrapersonal/introspective variety. Work that never feels terribly urgent, but, annoyingly enough, is actually at the root of a bunch of good stuff like happiness and contentment and whatnot. This is a roundabout way of saying that me-time sometimes involved freezing your ass off while sitting under a pine tree and fending off an unfriendly opossum.
I should back up to explain briefly about the party I just left. It was a St. Patrick’s Day party hosted by one of Matt’s buddies from grad school. And let me tell you, when twenty-something PhD candidates in Anthropology get together to celebrate the death day of Ireland’s foremost saint, it is a barn-burner. By which I of course mean the party mostly consisted of sipping Guinness while sitting on hand-me-down furniture and talking very intensely about the sleeping patterns of chimpanzees (anthropology students have an odd approach to small talk). Despite being somewhat boxed out of conversation by my lack of knowledge re: the anatomical differences between wild and domesticated foxes, this was a nice get-together. People were friendly, and a long friendship with Matt has given me an appreciation for highly-specific anthropological factoids.
But less than an hour had gone by and I was starting to feel the cheek-ache of someone who has been sporting a fake smile for too long. I was tuning people out when they were saying interesting things and brushing off questions they posed of me with kind intent. A possible explanation of this behavior is certainly that I’m just inconsiderate and no good at parties, but I have a gentler theory to explain my— and possibly your— sub-standard party chit-chat: I happen to believe that your energy is finite and precious, and that at every turn there will be someone demanding it from you. Not necessarily in the nefarious/vampiric sense, but even well-intentioned grad students can wind up pulling the plug on your already depleted reservoir of energy with polite inquiries about your taste in movies.
I happen to believe that your energy is finite and precious, and that at every turn there will be someone demanding it from you.
So I left. Matt was, understandably, a touch miffed—he had just mixed himself a drink, and was heading outside to check out his classmates’ attempt to start a fire “the cool way,” (the meaning of which I was never particularly clear on, but seemed to involve a plank of wood, a bow drill, and a lot of shouting).
Honestly I’m still sorting through my motivations for leaving, but my working theory is that when it comes to self-care, it’s not necessarily about picking the important moments to choose me-time, it’s about picking the manageable moments to choose “not-you time.” I could, without a doubt, have stayed at that party tonight for another hour until Matt was ready to leave. Hell, if I needed to, I could have probably closed the place down with a spirited game of charades. But I had a car, and at the time I certainly thought I had a key to Matt’s place. This was an okay moment to bail out—not the height of politeness, perhaps, but not rude. I made sure to say goodbye to the host. I had eaten crackers and made small talk. I was done.
…my working theory is that when it comes to self-care, it’s not necessarily about picking the important moments to choose me-time, it’s about picking the manageable moments to choose “not-you time.”
So we return to the pine tree, and if you’ll forgive the non sequitur, I have a quick update for you on the opossum situation: One of Matt’s neighbors, who may or may not be a distant relative of the old bird-feeding lady from Mary Poppins, just stepped onto his back porch and threw an entire loaf of bread out into the shared garden area where I am currently perched, presumably as a gesture of generosity towards my opossum friend and his ilk, but possibly because this guy is just incredibly indecisive about his commitment to a gluten-free diet.
MAN IN GROCERY STORE: One loaf of bread couldn’t hurt, right?
MAN AFTER RETURNING HOME WITH GROCERIES: I must rid myself of this insidious, gluten-y curse! *dramatically throws 24 individual slices of bread out his back door with barely contained self-disgust*
This unexpected bread incident has emboldened my opossum companion, whose glowy little eyes I can now see approaching me through the row of hedges to my right. Just want to keep you apprised. Back to what I was saying:
Consider, if you will, that sneakily elated feeling you often get when your plans for the evening are cancelled. I’m going to put forth a hypothesis about the source of that joy: you would rather hang out with number-one, the woman on top, the big cheese, the main event—that’s you! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in no small part because I’m at a place in my life which can look (and occasionally feel) a bit lonely. I am really the only one of my close high school friends who is still living and working in my home town. My college friends are scattered around the country. I work with great people, but for the most part they are married with kids, and by necessity are more invested in tending to their families than binging West Wing with me on a Friday night. So my pulling the rip cord on an amiable social occasion like tonight was an odd move, right?
What I know to be true is this: you can’t have a functional relationship with anybody else until you learn how to be with you.
What I know to be true is this: you can’t have a functional relationship with anybody else until you learn how to be with you. And you sell yourself short if you consider yourself to be anything less than a deviously complicated, delightful knot of rampaging emotional nonsense—a tangle of conflicting, hyperbolic opinions, 90’s cartoon theme lyrics and no small amount of Cheeto dust. So time with you is a must, because otherwise you will remain a mystery to the one person who needs to know you the most. Schedule that time, respect the schedule, show up and listen with great attention and affection. There will be nights when you would literally rather be attacked by a rabid animal than make small talk at a party. And that is a-okay. It might even make you a little bit brave.
*Matt’s name isn’t Matt, but that really couldn’t matter less. It’s not that I think this post paints “Matt” in an unflattering light or anything— Not-Matt happens to be one of my all-time favorite people. But in the name of good taste and covering all one’s bases, I have disguised his identity with a pseudonym. All other facts in this story are 100% accurate, including and especially the parts about my butt.
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