When my girlfriend and I broke up, I faced a basement stuffed with boxes. Decades old birthday cards from my parents, college blue books, shirts last worn in 1988, and for some reason, three menorahs. My mental paradigm has always been one of scarcity. I’ve feared that if I let go of my past, the future would offer me nothing with which to replace it. Certainly I’d hung onto the relationship long after I outgrew it, and it wasn’t the first time. In the basement, I thought about my new studio apartment. Unsullied and expectant, it waited just a few blocks away. Did I really want to waste precious space with useless piles of possessions?
My girlfriend watched me fill garbage bags. “God, who are you?” she said.
My behavior may have been out of character, but I knew exactly who I was. Stacking books to donate, I didn’t respond, but I thought:
Someone who no longer believes she’s a burden because you say so.
Someone who can let go of things she no longer needs.
Someone who apparently really likes menorahs.
I’ve come to think of my newfound ability to discard what doesn’t serve me as a mental paradigm shift. I’m choosing to believe in abundance. My neural paths are well-trodden though, so like most important choices, I’ll have to make this one again and again. Not just at New Year’s, but all year long.
Here’s a list of other ways I’ve resolved to evolve.
When I asked my ex to join dinners with friends or accompany me to a play, she’d say, “Well, if you’re going out, I’ll use the opportunity to spend time alone.” Initially, I tried to explain to her that if she had taken that attitude on our first date…there wouldn’t have been one, but eventually my self-esteem took a hit. I’m not blaming her for my fear that no one really wanted to spend time with me, but if you’re already afraid of, say, wolverines, and one starts following you around snarling at you, it’s not going to make you less fearful.
Toward the end of our relationship, I remember hesitating to invite an acquaintance to coffee. The idea of reaching out implied desire, which implied need which, if unreciprocated, implied a power imbalance (the wolverine gnashed its teeth). But so what? I suddenly thought. The worst that happens is this chick says no. I can handle that. So I asked, and then the wolverine bit off my hand and I’ve been alone in my hovel ever since. Just kidding: She said yes. And so did other friends and okCupid prospects, including the one I’ve been seeing for months.
Don’t keep score.
A friend recently volunteered that if my significant other didn’t give me a Christmas present, I should worry. First of all, do I look like someone who needs to be TOLD to worry? Second, I’m not giving to receive, I’m giving because I want to. This is new. In previous relationships, I kept track of compliments and good deeds. I even noted who initiated sex. If I found myself initiating more, I withdrew. Obviously a relationship requires balance, but the fact is, sometimes you’ll give more and receive less. If I’m trying to tally each small kindness, not only am I focused on the minutiae to the detriment of the bigger picture, but I’m probably doing the math wrong. Because I’m a girl and girls are stupid. Just kidding. That was the wolverine talking.
Don’t scoff at self-care.
My mom always asks me what I can do to nurture myself (possibly because after 30-some years she’d like me to stop asking her to do it for me.). “Nurture.” The very word galls me. Show me a woman, neck deep in bubble bath, candles lining the tub and a glass of red wine in her hand and I’ll show you my naked ass. Because I’m mooning you. As a statement of knee-jerk dismissal. Lately though, I’ve been thinking that my aversion to votive candles might have more to do with feeling undeserving than with anti-capitalist feminism or whatever I usually shout through my megaphone outside of The Body Shop. I’m not saying I have to go all women’s magazine-generic, rather; I can identify what I personally find soothing. So white Christmas lights, singing along to “What I Did For Love,” waffle knit pajama bottoms, and yogi Kava tea it is.
Ask for what I need.
Three weeks ago I got hit with the kind of cold about which they write epic poems. Really boring epic poems. Involving lots of mucus. On my worst day, I found myself slogging across my neighborhood in a snowstorm in search of provisions. When I got home I realized I’d forgotten cold medicine. Now, a close friend lives about two blocks from me, but instead of texting her, I pulled on my boots—the ones that make me look like several shaggy dogs are making violent love to my calves, and plunged back into the night. A week later, I happened to mention how sick I’d been.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” my friend asked.
“I wanted to prove I could take care of myself.”
“Now you have,” she said. “Next time, you call me.”
Give friends the benefit of the doubt.
Back when my ex and I were breaking up, one friend was going through a divorce, two were moving, two others were in the midst of break-ups, yet another was in that murky post-grad school “What do I do next?” area, and another was trying to manage two young kids while her partner worked 80 plus hour weeks. Needless to say, no one showed up on my doorstep with a fruit basket. Though part of me—the red-faced, tantrum-throwing part who never stopped wearing footie pajamas—sulked. The rest of me—I picture that part looking like across between Joan Jett and Anthony Hopkins—realized that my friends had their own lives. Even so, most did their best to provide emotional support. And those who didn’t? There’ll be other chances. No matter what my sulky three-year-old self wants to believe.
In the past, if a “Call me, I’m freaking out because Whole Foods ran out of soy seasonal eggnog” text pinged on my phone, I felt compelled to spring immediately into action. But just as I’m learning to accept the fact that my friends can’t always take care of me, I’m realizing I can’t always rescue them. Here’s what I do now: I ask myself what I’m comfortable providing and then I offer it. Sometimes that’s just an expression of sympathy: “I know just how you feel. I still can’t talk about the time they discontinued my favorite soy yogurt flavor,” sometimes it’s an offer to help, “My co-worker just bragged about having a whole case of eggnog. You bring the lock pick, I’ll drive the getaway car.” Either way, I make sure to check in with myself about how willing I am to go to prison over a non-dairy beverage.
Know that it’s rarely about me.
Crazy, right? But really. My girlfriend doesn’t text me back? Likely her phone died. That demented woman screams at me on the subway? Maybe five minutes ago she found out her car was being repossessed. Some guy punches me while I’m in line to see New Direction? That one’s probably deserved. But other than that, why assume someone is reacting to you? To paraphrase Walt Whitman, “We’re vast. We contain multitudes. I like having sex with burly dock workers.” What I mean is, we all have whole worlds inside of us. Half the time we’re responding to something internal. Before you take offense, check in. But not with subway lady. Better to let that one go.
Practice tolerating discomfort.
Somehow for me, each moment extends endlessly in every direction like a vast ocean, and I’m in this shabby rowboat in the very center. But at least I’m not dramatic about it. When you experience your emotional reality as infinite and unfathomable, you’re apt to be pretty intolerant of negative feelings. For years I ran from them, but like so many things in my life, that’s begun to change. Now when I feel disappointed, for example, and my brain spins out a story about how this is the first of numberless disappointments, a harbinger of a future devoid of hope, I actually say to myself, “Hey, you didn’t get what you wanted. And that feels bad. It’s OK to feel it.” This works surprisingly well. Especially when I want a seat to myself on the bus.
Trust my intuition.
A few months before my ex and I broke up, I found a word doc in a folder on my desktop In it, I’d listed each issue which over time, combined to weaken and ultimately destroy our relationship. I’d created the file after a month of dating. In other words, I knew going in the sort of problems we’d face, but I overrode my qualms. It’s not that I regret spending six years with my ex—I learned invaluable lessons (many having to do with car maintenance), however; if I hadn’t overridden my gut instincts, I might have learned what I needed to more quickly. Plus I don’t even own a car.
Don’t fear the future.
Or the Reaper. Or the Blue Oyster Cult. But really. I read a quote recently that said, “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want.” If that’s true, I thought, I’ve spent the last two decades in prayer. Pretty odd behavior for an agnostic. Well, going forward, I’ll try to focus on the present. I’ve got better things to do than worry. You know, like put the wolverine on Ebay.