Finding Peace in the Smallness

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There’s an inspirational quote that has made the rounds in my social media networks:

“You are bigger than what is making you anxious.”

The statement is painted in vibrant red and orange stencils against aged brick facades and emblazoned across oversized coffee mugs in chic metallic script. It is an uplifting statement, designed to help those of us plagued with daily stress and anxiety to rise above the seemingly trivial triggers that undermine peace.

But there’s an adjacent philosophy that makes this all a bit tricky.

Women in particular are constantly being urged to take up space, to pull up a seat at the table, to speak loudly and unabashedly, and to make no apologies. Aggressively squash the imposter syndrome, and where you have very real knowledge gaps, fake it ‘til you make it. LIVE LARGE.

Undoubtedly, employing these mantras are necessary to revolt against the social conditioning that has pushed so many of us to shrink away from the spotlight, to be talked over, passed over, and marginalized. 

But then, here I am, seemingly an outlier of these social norms. I assert myself. I take up space. I speak up. I cozy up to “the table.” I make the tough calls. And I’m anxious, sad, angry, and stressed precisely because of the boisterous assets that are propelling me forward.

“Your bigness is what is making you anxious” is what my cover image should say. Forget the cheeky brick wall stencils – instead, Banksy should spray paint a woman with a big mouth and sleep-deprived blood shot eyes, painfully stretched across three chairs at the proverbial table.

In the words of the young people: It me.

And I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. The anxiety runs deep, coursing through every vein of my practical, middle America suburban existence. The stakes feel tremendously high, and every decision I make – from what to order from Uber Eats to what my 3-year strategic plan looks like at work – weighs on my shoulders in equal proportion.

Yes, I’m a 21st century Rosie the Riveter, the portrait of modern femininity (ordered off Etsy from the #Empowerment category, packaged in a shiplap frame). Maneuvering middle management. Navigating the pressures of breadwinning. Mothering a pre-adolescent daughter who wears “Girl Power” buttons on her jacket and just started wearing deodorant – Dove deodorant, which, incidentally, is the leading consumer packaged goods brand in fourth-wave feminist marketing spend.

“You can’t know everything,” I explained to her little angelic type-A face after getting a tire patched up at a local auto parts store. That’s what I said to the condescending little twerp behind the counter after he asked me some stupidly specific question about my vehicle that he, as a subject matter expert on automobile parts, should absolutely know but instead chose to attempt to knock me down a few pegs for not knowing the answer.

“I can’t know everything, okay?” I lobbed back at him. “Look it up.”

But despite that momentary surge of defiance, I’m routinely beating myself up for not immediately landing on The Answer to Everything in every facet of my life. In my preoccupation with stomping out my imposter syndrome and faking it ‘til I make it, I’m incapable of asking for help or accepting support or admitting failure. And to support these deficiencies, I’ve built a personal “brand” of wisecracking self-deprecation. Though I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s mostly just repressed anxiety masquerading as self-assurance.

It’s a mode of self-preservation.

And sometimes, it hurts.

When Anthony Bourdain died, a tidal wave of quotes surged through the 24-hour news cycle, Instagram and Twitter, and celebrity tributes. (We sure love our inspirational quotes, don’t we?) One quote in particular jumped out from my newsfeed and to this day, I can’t shake its resonance in my own life:

“The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.

Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity.

Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

Such calmness these words have brought to me. In a world where you’re being pushed to be big, you need the strength to accept how very small you actually are.

Smallness can be a comfort, alleviating the pressure to have all the answers and halting the grind on all cylinders. And, most importantly, smallness frees up space for others to sidle up next to you – whether at “the table,” at the bar on a lonely Sunday afternoon, or in your bed during a sleepless night – where the demons can be unrelenting until a familiar arm pulls you towards a heart that recognizes your own.

Her Pleasure Peaks at 10/9 CT

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Blood pulses through her veins, filling each and every one of her extremities with intoxicating warmth, as if every strip of sinew is dripping in thick molasses. Her muscles alternate between tension and relaxation as she’s enveloped in mind-numbing desire, almost to the point of seeing stars. She bites her lower lip and lets out a deep moan. Her spirit grabs onto this exhalation, finally escaping the chokehold of her body and freely dancing along the sparkling, infinite freeway of existential exploration.  

This is absolute pleasure.

This is self-actualization.

This is an ultra-plush microfiber blanket she found on clearance in the Nate Berkus Décor endcap at Target, and now it’s covering her body as she eats Triscuits on the couch, watching low-def Everybody Loves Raymond reruns on TV Land after a 10-hour work day and a 45-minute bedtime routine with the kids, who for some reason can never remember that they have to brush their teeth and put on pajamas literally every single night even though she’s been doing the exact routine with them for over ten years, which is also the same routine every other human being does before bed across seven continents – well probably just six, since she’s not sure climate researchers in Antarctica ritualistically change into PJs and floss every night like the rest of us do…well, maybe they do, because there’s probably comfort in consistency when you spend the rest of your day using data analytics to predict the planet’s inevitable demise, as well as fleeing from ravenous polar bears.

Ooohhhh yeah, baby. It doesn’t get any better than this. 

The Myth of Finding Yourself

Adulthood, Coming of Age, Party Animal

I was always a somewhat practical young woman. When the movie Hostel came out in 2005, my first reaction to the plotline of two college students backpacking through Europe and then being tortured and killed by a maniac at a transient lodge was not “Despicable! Torture porn!” It was “How entitled do you have to be to take all that time off to wander around another continent? Don’t they have loans to pay and a projected graduation date to work towards?” Backpacking anywhere was such a foreign concept to me, considering I overzealously graduated from college a semester early and jumped into the glamorous world of The Corporate Desk Job. I got a serious boyfriend right away too. We fell in love, got married and popped out my first child by 25. Four years after that, I had purchased my first house, popped out my second kid, and curated this suburban working mom identity for myself. I was hitting milestones like a detonation cord – BOOM BOOM BOOM.

pregnant

Sometime between the first and second kid, though, I began to harbor feelings of regret in having missed out on my own magical hostel story. In my version, of course, I would trade the mutilated toe plotline for, say, a photo op of me learning how to pour the perfect Guinness in Dublin, but basically the same thing. I had missed out on finding myself, I fretted. That’s what your 20s are for, everyone says. Your 20s are for making mistakes! For falling in and out of love! For jumping from job to job like that’s not a total red flag to recruiters! Well, Practical Rachel knows well enough that making mistakes leads to a paper trail, and paper trails lead to unemployment, and unemployment leads to foreclosure. How was I to find myself if I was too busy begging the Wells Fargo call center for a mortgage payment extension? It was an existential crisis.

I mean, I had eaten, prayed, and loved, but not all at the same time because who has time to for that? Maybe Julia Roberts in her Anthropologie cardigan, eating and praying and loving her way through Indonesia. I ate and prayed at the Target food court during my son’s soft pretzel-related meltdown. I loved, but only on anniversary and birthday nights after a bottle of Prosecco and before our daughter sleep walks her way into our bedroom. But doing all three at once? This was the luxury of single people who go to things like Bonnaroo and foreign film festivals. I began to have emotional, self-doubting reactions to vapid Elite Daily articles featuring pictures of blonde 22-year-old girls dancing in the rain, presumably listening to Passion Pit while discovering their calling to fashion merchandising. Talk about an identity paradox! Me, a confident Alpha Female, feeling excluded by a website that describes itself as (verbatim, I must note): “The Voice Of Generation-Y; news from your world delivered the way you want to hear it.”

Gross. Just typing that out gave me vertigo. You couldn’t be more stereotypically Millennial if you stuck Lena Dunham in an American Apparel pop-up in the middle of Coachella.

Then, one rainy Saturday morning, I sat on my couch at dawn, eating a bowl of Kix as my kids watched Cartoon Network (we do these things unironically in my house). “I should sign up for Second City classes,” I thought. I had been talking about joining the Second City writing program for nearly 10 years. Why I didn’t go chase that dream when I was childfree, I have no idea. Maybe if I had watched Hostel through another lens – “Look at those young people! Their arms are being severed by a rusty handsaw, but at least they died a slow and painful death knowing who they truly were inside!” – then maybe I would have signed up earlier.

This was it, I thought. I would finally find myself, and myself would be Amy Poehler. Or Bonnie Hunt. The heads of Second City would call me to their offices and say, “We don’t normally do this, but we see in you what we saw in Tina Fey. We’re going to fast-track you to Saturday Night Live and you’re going to bring your feminine mystique to the Weekend Update desk.” Yes, this is an actual conversation that happened in my head after I pushed “MAKE PAYMENT” button on Second City student registration site.

And now, a year later, I have found something. I found that I am not Tina Fey. I’m not Amy or Bonnie. I am Rachel. I am the same Rachel I was when I was 22, when I was 15, when I was 5. And as I started to write sketches in my classes, drawing from my varied life experiences, it dawned on me that the whole time I was worrying about finding myself, I was living out the experiences that made me who I was supposed to be all along. How could I have written a sketch about two c-suite executives on a date who can only talk dirty in corporate jargon if I never worked for The Man? How could I have written a sketch about sanctimonious cavewomen shaming one another for working in and out of the cave home if I never became a mom?

How could I have written this thought-provoking essay on how a bloody horror film framed up my life’s philosophy if I hadn’t spent 10 years of my life toiling over this crap?

I think this whole modern concept of finding yourself is a myth crafted by people trying to sell you overpriced tickets to three-day music festivals. You were already “you” even if you didn’t celebrate Oktoberfest in Germany, or if you haven’t had an absinthe-fueled one-night stand with a sexy snowman at SantaCon, or if you haven’t danced around in a culturally-appropriated tribal headpiece at an electronica festival. You’re still you if you’re perpetually swiping left on Tinder, or if you’re one half of a boring couple who is eating delivery pizza during a “Big Bang Theory” marathon instead of dry humping strangers at a nightclub. In all of these scenarios, you should be doing these things because you want to, not because you think it all feeds into some grandiose concept of being a 20- or 30-something as illustrated by a series of animated GIFs in a Buzzfeed list.

girls gif

Because, dear Millennials, when our parents held us in their laps back when we were just drooling piles of baby fat rolls, and looked deep into our round little eyes and told us that we were special snowflakes, they didn’t mean “But only if you travel to Ibiza as a house DJ, then build a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand, then buy a brownstone in Brooklyn or else you will have failed.” They really just meant you were special because there’s only one of you and they were glad you came along. That same pile of baby fat rolls is who you are today, just (hopefully) a bit more evolved. Stop chasing some romanticized identity of what you “should” be and seize the authentic moments you’re living right now, cool kid-approved or not.

Whether you want to accept it or not, the real you has been calling the shots all along. Own it and embrace it.