Feeling like the Apostle Paul

It’s not that I haven’t tried to address the issues detailed in my late-night laundry list, I told my spiritual advisor at our second meeting.

My bookshelves literally overflow with self-help books: First Things First, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, Take Back Your Time and Stop Screaming at the Microwave! My husband and I like to joke that we’re powerless over self-help books and that our bookshelves have become unmanageable. However, I don’t need a self-help book or a therapist to tell me I should practice self-care and set better boundaries.

I know intellectually what I need to do to get my life in order: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, stay away from toxic people or environments, pay more attention to my relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating that intellectual knowledge into action. I’m usually so immersed in all the dramas of my life that I ignore problems until they become a crisis that can’t be ignored any longer. My life seems to be in crisis mode about half the time.

Periodically I grab myself up by the scruff of the neck and resolve to do better – on New Year’s Day, the first day of Lent, my birthday, the first day of spring or summer or fall, or any month in which the first day falls on a Sunday or Monday. I vow I’m going to turn over a new leaf, get my priorities straight and start doing things differently. My reform efforts may work for a week or two, or if I really buckle down, for a month. But then my life returns to the same chaotic reality that has become the new normal for me in recent years.

Sometimes it seems as if my life has been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for volunteer work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carry around constantly and jokingly call “my conscience.” I’m constantly juggling so many balls in the air, I’m convinced I have to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I won’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spend my time, I can’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever, I told my spiritual advisor. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Yep. That’s me, all right.

The good news is, I’m nowhere near the state of spiritual bankruptcy I was in 25 years ago, when the combination of psychic pain and fear for my future led me to put down the booze and start attending 12-Step meetings. Nor does my life feel quite as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service agency, caring for an aging parent and trying to have a life at the same time. My current state feels more like a case of spiritual sleepwalking alternating with existential questioning.

But I also know I need to make some changes if I want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists.


Late-night laundry list

The other night I gave up on sleeping, after tossing and turning until 2 a.m., and began journaling instead. Using the “Clutter Mountain” graphic I created earlier as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered:

My relationships. My family and friends are scattered all over the U.S., and even in a couple of other countries, so it’s hard for me to visit them as often as I’d like to. I keep in touch with many of them on Facebook, but I know that’s really no substitute for face-to-face conversations.

Our house. I’m a packrat married to another packrat. In this case, one plus one does not equal two. One packrat plus one packrat equals ten tons of rubble! (My friend Patti came up with that gem.) Clothes, dishes, books, office supplies, unopened mail, knick knacks, stacks of paper and boxes marked “miscellaneous” clutter nearly every surface, especially in the basement. When I even think about trying to sort through the whole chaotic mess, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or stick my fingers in my ears and scream at the top of my lungs until the frustration dissipates.

My schedule. Since I’ve retired, my life hasn’t slowed down much at all. In fact, retirement mostly means I’ve replaced full-time paid work with full-time work I now do for free. The support group I facilitate for adults with autism and their family members has evolved into a 501(c) 3 organization offering recreational activities and life skills training, and my “job description” has expanded accordingly. Meanwhile, people looking for volunteers at church wink, nod and say “you know how those retired people get busier than ever” as they suggest another obligation to stuff into my chock-full calendar.

My talent for procrastination. I always have some deadline hanging over me – bills to pay, tax returns due, a volunteer commitment – and a talent for putting things off until the last possible minute. This means that when little things go wrong – a computer hard drive needs replacing, the iron stops working, the refrigerator starts leaking water all over the kitchen floor – I’m so overloaded with urgent tasks that must get done immediately, I throw up my hands and scream at the offending appliance, “No!!! I can’t handle your crap right now!!!”

My writing. So much for all those articles and books I planned to write once I retired. A gazillion ideas ricochet around in my head competing to be written down first, but I can’t seem to get my thoughts organized enough to finish an article, let alone focus on one idea long enough to write a book.

Our finances. The stock market has become increasingly volatile in recent years, which makes me constantly nervous about the portion of our retirement nest egg invested there. The advisors who handle our investments tell us we’re in good shape, but ever since the Crash of 2008, I have great difficulty trusting financial institutions or advisors.

My health: I have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, on and off-again high blood sugar, hypothyroidism, periodic muscle cramps, aches and pains everywhere, and a mystery rash on my skin that no one can explain. I suspect some of my health problems don’t just stem from the fact that I’m aging, but from the fact that I need to take off a lot of weight. I keep making efforts to get on track with a healthy eating plan, but have been unable to sustain it for more than a few days or weeks at a time.

My emotional life. With all the bickering among my Facebook friends in response to our current political situation – on top of the stress resulting from too many commitments on my calendar – my resentment machine has been working overtime cranking out surly thoughts. When I’m not wallowing in resentment, I’m stewing in anxiety: Has climate change gone beyond the point of no return? … Is North Korea going to blow us all up? … Did I remember to turn the oven off before I left the house? Some days I feel like I have become a walking bundle of fears and resentments.

The outside world: When I was younger, my friends and I knew exactly what our life purpose was. We were going to change the world – nothing more and nothing less. We marched for civil rights, for environmental awareness, for peace. Now all our efforts seem like a cosmic joke. Members of Congress can’t agree on even the most trivial issues. War rages in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and God only knows where else. Each week it seems, we hear about another terrorist attack or mass shooting at a mall, a concert or even a church. The gap between the rich and poor has become a yawning chasm.

My spiritual life: I mostly like the people at my church, but am not sure I agree with parts of the theology – something I’m reluctant to share with the others in our adult Sunday School class. And on those nights when I’m lying awake at 3 a.m., the doubts and questions proliferate: How do I know Christianity is the one true religion? … Will I go to hell if I make the wrong denominational choice or agree with the wrong person’s interpretation of certain Biblical passages? … What is God’s will for my life, now that I’ve most likely lived roughly two-thirds of it already? … Who is God, anyway?

I know my life will continue to feel chaotic, and I will continue to experience both physical and spiritual angst, until I slow down, learn how to stop letting myself be pulled in 20 different directions, and make time to answer (at least for myself) some of those existential questions. And I’m beginning to think my spiritual director – whom I meet again at the end of this week – has her work cut out for her.