When Self-Care Means Not Apologizing

Flickr CC Tara Hunt

Flickr CC Tara Hunt

Some days the apartment looks all cute and vacuumed but on other days I suggest we buy a few more packs of socks and underwear so we don’t have to do laundry. (When it comes to the art of organization, Lorelai Gilmore is pretty much my spirit animal.)

My organizational inspiration comes in waves. Sometimes the state of the apartment reflects how we’ve been feeling. Everything is in its right place because that’s how life is feeling, too. Sometimes it’s evidence that we’ve been busy or sick. And there just wasn’t enough energy  for putting away the clothes that’s currently piled up on the dryer. Sometimes it says we chose going on a date, spending time together, over doing the dishes.  When we’re laughing and talking and breathing in a beautiful, relaxing moment together, the dishes can wait. And sometimes it shows that we just didn’t get around to it.

As the female person in this relationship, I know that the state of my apartment indicates to people my mad (or nonexistent) housekeeping skills. I know people would never think “Kelsey and Ian are fantastic housekeepers” if things are all neat and shiny. Nope. So it only really, as far as our society is concerned, says something about me. And that causes me anxiety, as if the organizational state of my apartment is somehow a direct reflection on personhood and my ability to adult correctly.

But it’s not. (I’m going to need you to remind me of this regularly.)

Recently I was thinking about how we needed to figure out how to be more organized. “Maybe we need to buy one of those home organization books,” I thought. Books. The home organization genres has become a cottage industry. Why? Well, apparently Lorelai Gilmore and I are not the only ones who have yet to master the ancient technique of staying up on the laundry. Perhaps there are a lot of us who never really “figure out” this organization thing.

And you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to freak out and hide all the clutter and dirty dishes when a friend comes over. Maybe I don’t need to feel ashamed or even embarrassed. Maybe sometimes it’s good to see how people really live, not just what things look like once I’ve grabbed that wad of clutter sitting on the kitchen table and hid it in the spare bedroom. Maybe seeing the messy bits of people’s lives makes our hidden parts feel more welcomed. Maybe it helps us know we’re not alone.

Julia Child gave me the best advice of anyone when it comes to cleaning (even though it didn’t specifically relate to cleaning). In her book My Life in France, she retells an incident where she made some godawful eggs when a friend was coming over for lunch:

I made sure not to apologize for it. This is a rule of mine.

I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts with self-deprecations such as “Oh, I don’t know how to cook …,” or “Poor little me …,” or “This is may taste awful …,” it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admission only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings)  … Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed — eh bien, tant pis! (p. 77)

I’m trying to learn to say “whatever” and  “oh well” right along with Julia as a radical act of self-care. I’m trying to stop automatically spitting out, “Please excuse the mess.” My apartment looks lived in. It doesn’t look perfect. And that’s nothing to apologize for.

There’s something that’s been freeing about not apologizing for the state of my apartment; not offering quick explanations or excuses. Just saying: Welcome. This is where I live. It’s my home. And it looks a lot more like a home than an add in a magazine. And I’m okay with that. Or at least I’m starting to become more okay with it.

A Sunflower for Gilbert (Or, that Time I went to Hungary)

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Honestly, I’m not sure we were supposed to be up there in the first place. Or even out of bed for that matter because the school, in order aid in the celibacy of the students, had a strict curfew. But there was something about quietly sneaking through a dark castle with towering ceilings and great windows that felt, to use an Anne word, romantic.

We weren’t kindred spirits to begin with. It’s not that we ever fought, but common ground seemed to be in scarce supply.

I’d only graduated from high school a matter of weeks before. Only spoke English. And was living and traveling on my own for the very first time.

Hermina, on the other hand, had grown up in Serbia, but after attending a university in Hungary had decided to call it home. She was very well traveled and spoke multiple languages fluently.

And we were roommates.

My ex-denomination had a bible college in a tiny rural town in Hungary. During the summer the old Hungarian castle — yes, it was a castle — served as a conference center for pastors and missionaries throughout Europe. And in 2005 Hermina and I found ourselves living together for three and a half months as we volunteered during conference season doing dishes, making beds, working in the coffee shop, and enjoying our one day a week off work.

As an “on fire” Evangelical youth I’d gone to Hungary with the goal of aiding those who were sharing the Gospel. However, what I actually ended up doing was converting someone to the Gospel of Saint Anne of Green Gables, patron saint of romantics and misfits everywhere.

One of the American staff members at the college owned all of the Anne films on VHS and Hermina, to my horror, had never even heard of Anne. So we located an old TV in a finished section of the attic that was used during the day as a classroom for the teachers’ children.

We didn’t have a lot of time for movie watching, so it took us a while to get through the films. But every night that we could, after the Hungarian castle was asleep and the lights were off, we’d tiptoe through lonely rooms that in their previous lives may have held grand balls but now, only a few hours before, hand been bustling with conference guests.

We’d climb several flights of spiral staircases with wrought iron handrails. And then, when we got to the top floor, would open a small door that looked like a closet but was  another set of stairs leading to the attic. Once there, we’d sit on the rug in front of the TV since the furniture in the children’s classroom was all on the small side. Hermina would lay on her stomach, taking in every moment, as I sat there feeling proud of my new convert.

The Canadian films were very foreign to Hermina. And some aspects about the historical context and word usage required a little translating.

“Why does Anne have such a strange last name?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Of Green Gables — What kind of last name is that?”

“‘Of Green Gables’ is more of a title,” I explained. “It’d be like if I called you ‘Hermina of Serbia.'”

But one thing translated just fine: Gilbert Blythe. We may have been different when it came to age, education, and the section of the globe we called home but we both couldn’t help falling in love just a little with that steadfast Canadian. We fell in love with the idea of a romantic someone encouragings us in the pursuit of our dreams rather than standing in the way. The idea of being loved for both our mind and our daydreams. And the idea of being loved because of, not just in spite of, our quirks and faults and even the beauty we couldn’t see (like carrot red hair).

He wasn’t some rugged bad boy tamed by the love of a woman. Or a two-dimensional Prince Charming. Gilbert was the character, the man, who showed us what it meant to be cherished.

I loved watching Hermina react to the story that was by this time very familiar to me. It made it feel new again. She was annoyed with Gilbert when he had the nerve to call Anne carrots and pull her braid (and appropriately shocked and proud when Anne responded by cracking a school slate on his head). And then when Gilbert started to grow up and his admiration and love for Anne became increasingly obvious and endearing, she lamented Anne’s long-held grudge. She’d routinely ask, “Is she ever going to like him?” And I’d just laugh but wouldn’t say a word.

Hungary will always remind me of Anne and Gilbert, not just because I had the chance to share their story with Hermina but because Hungary would’ve suited them so well.

Anne would’ve loved spending a summer in that castle; she would’ve imagined the love affairs that had transpired there, and the ghosts that couldn’t bear to leave. She would’ve loved strolling through the little town past a small Catholic church with an overgrown, forgotten cemetery; the petite cottages that lined the street and were practically overrun with flower gardens; and the bright orange sunsets.

She would’ve loved the summer storms that seemed to roll in out of nowhere, and how the lightning would be so close that during the night it’d light up the entire castle like something out of an old horror film and how the windows with their old locks would sometimes blow open during an especially hard gust. She would’ve loved Budapest: the architecture, the vastness of the city, and the romantic but not-so-blue Danube.

Anne would’ve loved my favorite part of Hungary, too. She would’ve loved the fields of yellow as far as the eye could see, so bright it hurt my eyes. When Hermina and I’d drive in to Budapest I’d point out the window like a little kid who’d just spotted the gates to Disneyland for the first time. Look at that! It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. “Kelsey, they’re just sunflower fields,” Hermina would laugh. But there will never be such a thing as just sunflower fields. And Anne would’ve understood that.

And Gilbert would’ve loved how happy Hungary and the sunflowers made his Anne girl.

Like so many fans of the books and movies I’m heartbroken about Jonathan Crombie’s death (the actor who played Gilbert). But he will always live on in the movies and my memory as the one and only Gilbert Blythe. I’d leave a sunflower at his grave if I could. My memories of sunflowers and Hungary and late nights spent watching Anne finally, slowly, fall for Gilbert are all so closely tied together that no other flower would seem appropriate. But this will have to do, instead.

Wishing you fields of sunflowers, Gilbert.

The Scary Act of Welcome

lightstock_12486_xsmall_user_3645479“You’re my sister’s friend, right?” said the sales clerk at the mall. We’d met before. But as usual he didn’t recall, so he introduced himself again (introduction number: three). He wasn’t exactly the brightest cellphone screen at the Verizon store, and he probably would’ve made a great Now Kids, This is Why You Shouldn’t Do Drugs example for DARE. He reminded me of a shaggy 20-something puppy, lovable and pitiful all rolled into one.

“You know my sister from … church?” he asked. I was attending a Presbyterian church at the time — PC (USA), for those of you who know or care. I loved a lot of things about the denomination, still do, but had never felt fully at home, fully comfortable at the church. It’s not that no one ever attempted to welcome me. The older members of the congregation were warm and sweet and would try to greet me regularly with, “Good morning, Shannon!” (Differentiating me from my eight-years-younger, shorter, much-skinnier sister was never one of their strong suits. I think it took a while before they even realized there were two of us.)

I said that, yes, I knew his sister from church. “I’ve thought about going to church,” he said organizing novelty, nerdy, sometimes off-color merchandise on the shelf. “But everyone at churches always seem so happy. I’m not happy enough to go to church.” His life wasn’t always happy. He wasn’t always happy. Maybe he wasn’t welcomed.

He probably didn’t fully believe me, but I said I got it. And I really did. I got the I’m-not-happy-or-perfect-enough-for-this-shit feeling. Growing up in modern evangelicalism, at least for me, was a lot like growing up in an air-pocket left over from the 1950’s. And the air was getting stale.

I read a book in middle school for my church small group that had an entire chapter dedicated to the importance of “cultivating a submissive spirit” while we were young so that we’d be nice little godly June Cleavers by the time we’d found ourselves husbands. And, much like the actual 1950’s, our own lives and families didn’t look anything like Leave it the Beaver and I didn’t feel anything like a junior June Cleaver. Things were messy, sometimes even scary. So we faked it. We smiled, we nodded, we looked the part. And we likely felt like we were each the only imposers, the only ones crying or screaming behind our perfectly painted faces.

Our messiness wasn’t welcomed. Or brokenness wasn’t allowed. We weren’t happy enough.

While sometimes I feel — and perhaps this is unsubstantiated — like the pressure to fake a life-is-perfect smile is exacerbated within the context of church, it certainly isn’t limited to church. I felt pretty guarded around the time I met my now-husband. I was about 23 and just starting college; life was only just beginning to recover from a tornado of crisis that’d ripped the shingles off the roof and pulled the white picked fence up by its roots. I felt scary and broken and like no one would really get the frightful, damaged parts of me that I kept out of sight. And, based on all of my experiences up to this point, this idea wasn’t unfounded. In fact, I knew if I took the risk of opening up they might even make me feel worse if they squirted some citric-drenched happy-go-lucky cliches all over my already raw little heart. I wasn’t okay. I was hurting; I was angry, the result of the hurting. But I smiled.

I’d felt guarded around the Mr. Man too as we were getting to know each other until one day when we were sitting in the school library talking, and somehow the conversation turned from midterms and teachers with unclear assignment sheets to loss, grief. He talked about his grandparents who were very dear to him, and the pain of losing them. His voice choked up as he blinked a little too much in order to keep the excess water from dripping onto his cheek.

He’d felt the tornado tear through his life. A tornado that brings destruction and loss, never munchkins nor ruby slippers. There was something hiding behind his smile, too. And knowing that allowed me to slowly demolish, brick by brick, my own walls that’d been standing steadfastly between us.

From the time we’re little kids we’ve been told by society and the tall, imagine-less ones to “Sit ups straight” and “Cross your legs” and “Don’t talk about the ant infestation in the kitchen.” And not only is letting our vulnerable selves out for a walk scary, it also seems to be considered worse than slouching. Don’t let them see. Cover it up. Smile. So there’s something about having people say “Me too!” in response to my cracks and insecurities that makes me feel welcomed, safe. “It’s okay, we’re like you. We get it. You’re welcomed. Welcome.”

Anne Lamott, who I consider to be the patron saint of the broken and messy, says: “I told [my friends] about my most vile behavior, and they said, ‘Me, too!’ I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, ‘Ditto. Yay. Welcome.'” She goes on to say, “This welcome towards myself took a big adjustment, a rebalancing of my soul. There had been so much energy thrown into performance, achievement, and disguise” (from Small Victories, pg. 22-23). We get good at disguise.

About a year ago, just a few weeks after the Mr. Man and I had gotten married, a friend and her husband came over for dinner. I was warming up I-just-cleaned-out-the-cupboards homemade soup on the stove as we talked in the kitchen. She pointed at my stove top, all black and shiny and perfectly clean. There wasn’t a single crumb on that thing. “It’s so clean!” she said. “Mine’s never clean.” I didn’t say anything; I didn’t tell her about how I’d assumed her stove top must have been clean enough to eat right off of (everyone has clean stove tops expect for me, right?), so I’d been frantically scrubbing away at the various caked-on stuff only a few minutes before they’d arrived. I’d worn makeup, too — don’t always do that. And I’d made the bed and dusted. I’d cleaned up. I’d smiled.

Maybe I should’ve told her about my frantic scrubbing; we could’ve laughed about it. Maybe I should’ve said, “Me too!” Maybe that’s how we welcome each other, and how we eventually, slowly but gradually, learn to welcome ourselves. Maybe saying “Me too!” is one of the first steps towards the self-care we all so desperately need.