Karen's Quest with Karen Smith
Long before I knew I was a thinker and a writer, I was thinking and writing. Oddly, I didn’t know those habits made me a writer. I thought they meant I was on a slippery slope to insanity. (I’m easily confused by the obvious.)
I figured a good move to stave off madness would be to take a mental break from thinking and writing, and my husband, of one or two years at that point, heartily agreed. So I spent the next week or so watching TV and gazing out the window while riding the city bus, instead of compulsively analyzing everything and obsessively keeping a book and pen within arm’s reach. I think I even relaxed once or twice.
My vacation from working my mind slavishly was going along smoothly; then came time for our actual vacation. My husband and I were going on a road trip to Ontario with his parents, to visit his brother and our sister-in-law. Anticipation of this trip inspired only glee for me.
Growing up with parents who take to the road like ducks take to water, I am a geek for a road trip. You can’t drive far enough or long enough for me. On a limited budget, taking the long way around town is a sweeter indulgence than retail therapy. (And it doesn’t hurt that kids are easier to drive with than shop with.)
Though not unpleasant at all, our family vacation to Ontario, taught me to check my expectations diligently. Not all road trips are equal. I began to recognize that my childhood memories of long drives being an exquisite balance of giddy laughter, soothing rhythms and feelings of safety, would never be matched. As a child, there was something profoundly comforting about being in the car with my family.
My dad’s confident driving combined with the hum of wheels on pavement, the effortless momentum and being close to everyone, had the effect of bundling up all my nervous cares and putting them to sleep. There was nothing as soothing as a car ride.
But then you grow up, and you learn that not everyone relishes the challenges of highway travel, or drive-thrus, for that matter. I also learned, when we arrived in Ontario, my brother-in-law thought I looked like “Frodo” from Lord of the Rings. (My feet are nothing to brag about, but I’m pretty sure he was referring to my hair. What a kidder!) Anyway, I guess I really needed to make note of these ‘lessons’ because, like a secret-drinker unpacking a supply of vodka, I hauled out my pens and note-book from the depths of my suitcase and that was the last self-imposed break from writing or thinking I ever took.
But that doesn’t mean I had figured anything out. I was still questioning my sanity practically as often as I wrote. And the pressure I put on myself to figure things out mounted steadily, even to this day. But I read something very recently that I related to completely, which is rare. Elizabeth Gilbert (author) shared a story on her Facebook page about feeling increasingly negative in her outlook until she realized she wasn’t exercising her creative mind, which she likened to a terrier. The less work it gets to do, the more destructive it becomes, she said. Yes! That’s just like me, I thought. My brain needs constructive things to do too, or I’m going to go off the rails.
Though I have learned to keep my mind working on things that interest me instead of diving down rabbit holes of criticism, judgment, or self-doubt. I haven’t learned to give myself a break. I’ve been working my ‘terrier’ less like a beloved pet and more like a hamster on a wheel, and if that hamster thinks it needs a break, I give it a jolt of electricity to keep it running. (I would never do that to another living creature! Why do I do it to myself?) It seems I don’t trust myself to return to doing something valuable with my mind if I give it a break. Since it’s never been my ambition to become a brutal dictator, I really need to learn a new way.
I have strong habits of treating myself very poorly but I’m starting to wonder how to shift my energy from being so oppressive and demanding to being more loving and trusting of myself. Maybe if I take myself for a relaxing drive it will come to me.
Karen Smith is on a quest for personal truth and boundless consciousness. She feels lucky to live with her family in Truemanville. Her column appears bi-weekly in the Amherst News.