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.

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She Let Herself Go

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I was recently at a bar for a work function, eating pot stickers and talking to a colleague about synergy and alignment and economies of scale or whatever, when I overheard a conversation at the table behind me. There was a man in his mid-40s sitting on one side of the booth across from three young women, all of whom were hovering around 23. He was dressed like a mix between Steve from “Blues Clues,” a part-time club promoter, and a fax machine technician. He spoke in a nasally and grossly self-assured voice.

“Here’s the thing, women let themselves go at 35.”

Why these three women were hanging on to Mr. Xerox’s every word remains a mystery. At any rate, they giggled at this declaration. They giggled because when you’re 23, 35 seems distant and irrelevant.

Now, to be fair, there is a pretty big difference between 23 and 35. When I was 23, everything in my wardrobe was made of polyester and I had a cardboard box full of tiny “travel sized” bottles of Jim Beam under my kitchen sink, which I reserved for chugging on the subway at room temperature on the way to concerts sponsored by Red Bull. Sure, I was skinnier and dewier and could bend over and tie my shoes while wearing low rise jeans, but I also bought Sum 41 tickets. On purpose.

Therefore, nothing warranted the ageist, sexist disparagement this guy was sputtering between bites of jalapeno poppers. I, of course, wanted to wallop him. It was a futile, emotional reaction, but it’s hard to keep a level head when you’re being subjected to the human equivalent of a refurbished Motorola Razr.

I happen to be 35. And I can say with confidence that I most certainly have not let myself go, at least not in the way he meant it.

That said, here is what I have let go of:

  • Suppressing my snorts when I laugh at something extremely funny. I will let those suckers rip any time, any place.

  • Pretending at parties that I actually know the rules to football. I have watched so many football games and I still have a barely cursory understanding of what’s going on, except that we celebrate 10-yard increments. But don’t worry, you can still invite me to your playoff parties. Like a woman powering through a lukewarm one-night stand, I can expertly fake my way though all the right moments if needed.
  • Attempting to walk in any heels higher than 3.25” or with a diameter of less than an inch. Life’s too short to wobble around like a top-heavy baby colt. Give me a pair of block heel loafers and I will out-dance you at a wedding, out-walk you on a pub crawl, and out-run you during the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
  • Mastering the art of dicing tomatoes and onions. I like homemade salsa as much as the next person, but when it’s time to chop delicate produce, my hands turn into hammy hulk fists and I have the fine motor skills of a fat baby.
  • Learning how to change a tire. I get that it’s supposed to be a “Life Skills 101” type thing, but if you thought I was bad at handling a beefsteak tomato, wait until you see me with a scissor jack.
  • The impulse to deflect compliments. Yes, this is a fabulous blouse, and the fact that I bought it at TJ Maxx and it has no lining and the armpit seam is being held together by a series of conspicuously placed safety pins is not information that needs to be shared right now.
  • Lying about my weight on my license. I used to lament over how bad my license photo was until one day, my youngest looked at it and said “But mommy, that’s how you look.” To his point, we all know what I look like and it’s definitely not 5’8, 140 lbs. If I ever get kidnapped and forced to openly participate in some sort of religious cult, I want the authorities to be looking for the correct full-figured girl blinking twice for help.

“Letting go” has made me happier, and if I wasn’t stuffing my 35-year-old lady face with ½ priced apps, I may have turned around and told him so.

(That’s the other thing I’m learning to let go of. Bar fights.)

Besides, in another 12 years, those three women will be where I am today – happily snorting their way to the top in a wrinkle-resistant, all-season herringbone blazer, with nary a thread of polyester blend in sight.