Unfamiliar Territory

Not all those who wander are lost.”
 J.R.R. Tolkien


Today did not go as planned.

My husband did not get away from work early, which left me alone to trek my son about 45 minutes away to Arcadia for a party.

The party, I soon discovered, was not the typical one hour kids party but in fact was an all afternoon affair, which left me to rearrange my schedule.

My son, who had spent the whole drive saying, “Don’t just drop me off, OK?  Don’t leave me,” saw his new favorite friend and quickly changed his tune to “See you later, Mom,” with a look that plainly said, ‘Get lost,’ which suddenly left me with more than four hours on my hands and rather far from home.

If this party had been closer to home, I would not have blinked an eye.  I would have had more than four hours worth of chores and errands and busy work to fill the time.  Instead I was stuck, out of cellphone range of family, no where near any store on my to-do list, without even any small handwork project to complete or medical journal to study.  Stuck, far out of my comfort zone.  I immediately wished I had someone, even just a dog someone, with me.  The first thing that popped into my head was the thought, “I don’t do well alone.”

Why would I think that?  I have been since birth an extreme introvert.  Being around people tends to sap my energy, leaving me exhausted.  I prefer quietness and stillness.  As a child I loved nothing more than curl up in a corner or climb up in a tree with a good book and not move until I had finished it. Now I’m almost never alone.  I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down to read for fun during daylight hours.  Why?

I think the reason must lie somewhere past my genes.  In my case I think that environment has trumped biology.  I was born to be an introvert, but I was raised to be a caregiver.  Very early in my life I surrendered to the idea that I was put on the planet to serve others and therefore my natural desire for solitude was a real problem.

These days I pretty much go from one scenario to another all day long just taking care of people.  Morning rounds at the hospital, then straight to the clinic to answer messages.  ’Work is over’ means heading to my grandma’s house to do a few chores, running errands for my mom. Pick up time at school and then home for supper, dishes, laundry, general clean-up, bathtime, bedtime.  Repeat.

So, to be more specific, it’s not that I don’t do well alone, it’s that I don’t do well without someone to care for.  I have a tendency to only care for myself as a consequence of caring for others.  I won’t stop for a drink until my husband gets thirsty.  I won’t rest until my son needs a break.  I only eat when there is someone else to cook for.  If there’s no one to put to bed, then I don’t sleep. Sometimes my husband goes for a drive alone ‘just because he feels like it.”  I haven’t felt myself worthy of such a luxury since my teenage years.  A moment spent on myself has always felt like a moment stolen from someone more needy.  How extreme can such thinking go?  Every morning my husband locks himself into the bathroom for fifteen to twenty minutes of private time and no one disturbs him.  I, however, can’t recall the last time I peed without an entourage of a little boy and one or two dogs all begging for my eyes and ears and for me to hurry up and feed them.  I know that my behavior and attitude contributes to this level of neediness.  The same boy and dogs reportedly sit quietly and calmly by the door waiting for my husband on mornings I am not home. No banging on the door, no barging in, no whining.  The only difference I can see is that my husband believes that those minutes rightfully belong to him and the little ones respect him.  I need to believe that I am worthy of a few minutes of self-care.

So today, I accidentally and unexpectedly made a start.  I decided to settle in to unfamiliar territory and give some time with myself a chance.  I left my son at the party.  I bought myself a sandwich at a roadside shop.  I paid $7 to drive into Lake Arcadia’s park.  I found a rocky little shelf jutting out into the water, and I sat with myself for four hours.

I had been to this lake before. I drove my grandparents there once to look for eagles.  Several times I helped my parents set up their camper.  I’ve taken my son there yearly to go swimming, but I had never just gone to the lake by myself with no plan or purpose.  This was clearly different.  The lake seemed different, but probably it was just that I was different because the company I was keeping was so different.  I had some moments of restlessness.  Moments of needing to feel productive and wishing for a watercolor set or book or a crochet hook, something to busy myself with.  But those moments were fleeting.  Mostly I was just still inside and out.  I sat so still a family of geese brought their little ones right near my feet and a mockingbird landed on a branch just above me and chattered away.

I sat still until my napkin got caught in the blustery Oklahoma wind and danced down the shore finally lodging on a wet rock.  I got up to retrieve it and noticed all the bits of trash that others had left behind.  I found myself walking along the water’s edge filling my sack with trash and thinking that someone really needed to clean up around this place.  Old habits die hard.  I kept moving until my sack was full and then I paused.  I could see more trash along my path.  I knew there were more empty sacks in my car.  It was very tempting to try to fill more, but today I decided to stop at just the one.

My next step was back to the seat next to myself.  A small step towards balancing caring for the world and caring for myself.

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