Self-unDiscipline.

72488-11-trapped-memoriesI’ve been thinking a lot lately about self-discipline. Mostly because I don’t have any. To clarify: A lot of people talk about procrastination. Focusing is hard. Avoiding distractions is hard. To work is to procrastinate. I understand that I am neither alone nor unique here. Except, I’m pretty sure that, when I talk about procrastination with fellow, er, sufferers, we are talking about vastly different animals. This requires a little historical elaboration, so bear with me.

Growing up, I had heaps of self-discipline. Set my mind on doing something; did it. Mostly, this meant being an academic over-achiever. (Ok, it probably helped that I also had a photographic memory but still, I had to be disciplined enough to READ stuff). But, over time, this self-discipline morphed into an entirely less constructive animal. During most of my twenties, this resulted in two things. A ridiculously flawless academic record. And anorexia.

Now, before you start thinking this post is a mental health public announcement about my Struggles with Anorexia, let me be clear: it’s not. It was awful. I got over it. What it meant, though, was that, for the better part of my twenties, I perfected the fine art of self-discipline. As it turns out, I was excellent at it. Stay up all night three or four times a week to Get Stuff Done? No problem. Throw out the calorie counter and just eat nothing at all? Done. I have never been so productive as I was during that time. Or so thin. And unhealthy. The irony about that kind of control is that, in trying to Get Better, you have to simultaneously let go of control and be tremendously controlled about not being controlled. Recovery was a bitch. But here I am. 

There were consequences, though. (You can read about these in future fun-filled posts). One is that I appear to have broken my self-discipline. Being too successful at exerting control over oneself, with horribly destructive effects, can turn a person off this whole self-discipline business. That voice in my head that commanded my every move was not a very nice one. It also had to be silenced if I stood any chance of recovering. So I pretty much switched off my superego (for those non-psych readers, this is sort of the bossy parent part of your self that tells you should be doing your homework when all you want to do is watch tele). This was actually a pretty healthy move. Being less controlled is good. Eating is good. etc.  

But, unsurprisingly, some self-discipline is necessary for Getting Stuff Done. And since mine is broken, I am pretty sure that, when we all talk about our terribly bad procrastination habits, I win. I should perhaps mention here that I also happen to have a somewhat obsessive personality. Which means that hitting the refresh button on a Facebook page where absolutely no new activity is happening for 8 consecutive hours is nothing to me. Watching just this one episode of Downton Abbey before I start working again and finding myself, a day later, with a neck that’s gone into spasm, clicking on the next season’s folder, is a pretty typical work session. And don’t even get me started on Youtube and Glee. And then, when all those avenues have been exhausted, there is the old faithful: spider solitaire.

Did I mention that I’m doing a PhD? (and by doing, I mean I am currently registered with a tertiary education institution as a PhD student). Did I mention that today is (was?) PhD day? And here I am, writing this post. That voice of discipline is there. Oh, it’s still there. But I’m being healthy, remember? So I shall continue to ignore it.

I suspect this will not end well for me.

Faith.

WoodcutSadGirl-04-bwflat600wThe Universe and I are currently not on speaking terms. Well, I’m not speaking to it. Or listening, for that matter. You could say I’m in a sulk.

I’ve written here previously about recent changes in my life and the terrifying travel-away-from-home that goes with it. I took this new job, in part, because I hoped it might force me out of my pyjamaed comfort zone to engage a little more with the world. In retrospect, expecting to show up in the world on day 1 of new job, in cute-but-professional work attire, swish off on a plane, calmly embrace the new and unfamiliar and become the vision of my future Amazing Self, may have been a bit naive. Still, tears and meltdowns notwithstanding, I was determined to break character and remain optimistic, to break familiar patterns and remain open.

Then, last weekend, something happened to one of my two cats.

My cats represent everything that is HOME to me. Pets, in the absence of children or other significant other types, can feel like your children. Only rather less demanding and messy. It’s a pretty good deal most of the time. Until something happens to disrupt that and the ground falls away from under you.

So on Sunday, the pieces I was holding somewhat tenuously together broke apart. Which is when I started getting pretty pissed off with the Universe. By virtue of having any sort of conversation at all with the Universe, I don’t believe in the randomness of events. So while I was trying to climb out of the onesie from within which I’ve been watching the world for the past 36 years, it seemed as though the Universe was throwing everything it could at me that would send me hurtling back into it.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in this somewhere. But lessons are futile when you’ve gone into batten-down-the-hatches-and-stock-up-on-baked-beans mode. It is not lost on me that having to close up my doors and windows to keep my recuperating cat inside is a glaring metaphor for the lockdown I appear to have gone into. The world out there seems darker and more dangerous than it did before. I am having trouble imagining how I am ever going to let my cats venture out there again (how did I ever do it before? it feels terribly reckless now); equally, I wonder how I will ever be able to let them go, or go away from them, and remain intact.

Apparently this kind of thing is normal following a trauma. Running low on toilet paper and canned goods, I was forced to make a trip to the shops this weekend. And I found myself watching people with renewed awe. Mothers who let go of their children’s hands. Who let their adolescents go off with friends. Couples who parted ways to shop more efficiently and meet back in the fresh produce aisle. Men who dropped their families off and went to play golf. All sorts of people walking around as if everything in their worlds would continue to stand upright. How do they not melt into a puddle of terror at all the possible ways that things could go wrong? (and I’m not even talking about stray asteroids or the zombie apocalypse).

The answer I came up with, the one that makes the most sense to me right now, is faith. Not the religion-spirituality-higher-power kind of faith. But the trusting-that-when-you-go-out-into-the-world-everything-is-likely-to-be-okay kind of faith. It’s a faith so easily taken for granted. It’s also a faith I don’t have a whole lot of. And when you have so little of this faith, you tend to balance it out with fear. And you batten down the hatches to close everything in. After all, hiding away from the world offers a terribly enticing illusion of safety.

There is no moral of the story here. No particular enlightenment or happy ending. But the glimmer of hope is this: living faithlessly and fearfully thus, is living small. It’s living under the covers, knitted into your skin, walking carefully between the white lines. And frankly, it’s getting a little tiresome.

I think it might be time to live bigger. I’m going to try out this faith thing for a while. I hope the Universe plays along.

Travel.

downloadYesterday, I had a small meltdown in an airport toilet. Which is sort of the end of this story, as well as the middle. And the beginning, obviously. It’s a story about travel, literal and metaphorical. It’s also a story about neuroticism and change (there’s that word again). And about attachment.

I have never liked or appreciated the life is a journey metaphor. Perhaps because I don’t much like journeys. I like destinations. Checking-off-the-to-do-list end points. Getting It Done. This applies, in general, to everything I do in life. My PhD must be finished by the END OF TODAY or not at all. My car journey from point A to point B must happen in the shortest amount of time with the smallest amount of detours (and by detours I mean anything and anyone who gets in my way on the road). Dream boards or life lists don’t work out too well for me. They represent daily guarantees of failure. Find a husband! Get published! Run a marathon! Be a professional dancer! Tricky, when one expects to accomplish these things by the end of any given day.

As I said, I like destinations. Not so good at journeys.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I deeply dislike literal travel. Being a nice combination of neurotic, obsessive compulsive and competitive, with an overactive imagination and just the right amount of grandiosity to imagine that the whole world is focused on tripping me up, leaving my home to travel more than 15km away is somewhat excruciating. For starters, before I leave the house, my OCD and overactive imagination kick in. The handy thing about being convinced you are going to die when you travel outside of a certain radius is that your house is left in exemplary condition. The reasons are twofold: a) so your friends and family can walk in and start sorting out your neatly packed, logically filed belongings without the trauma of mess, and b) so that the CSI team can easily map out your life to figure out the events that led up to your death (also, so that the cameras filming CSI do not misrepresent your life to the world as disorderly – oh the shame!).

Did I mention grandiose?

Then the competitiveness kicks in. Must be first in line in check-in queue. Must be first through customs. Must be closest to boarding gate. Must get onto plane first. Must get off plane first. And so it goes. It is exhausting. Someone standing in a boarding queue behind me (obviously) once amicably said to me, “ah well, we’ll all get there together, won’t we?” And I thought, “What on earth does that have to do with anything?” And then, I get there. Because ‘there’ is typically anywhere not-home, I am hopelessly untethered from myself and my life. My home is what grounds me. Specifically, my cats ground me. (Did I mention neurotic?). They are my attachment to all that is safe. Away from home, I feel in constant danger of disintegrating. Every particle in my body and soul/spirit/psyche thingy has one singular purpose: Get. Home. Home has, largely, been the only destination I have ever wanted to reach.

So here’s where this story cleverly comes together. With all the change and whatnot going on in my life at the moment, I made the decision (daily decisions, really) to try and embrace new and scary things a little more. Part of this meant deciding to try and be a bit more of an optimist and believing that perhaps the world is both willing to put good things in my path and not quite willing to deliver everything I want (right now!) unto me. (I’m not sure there can be such a thing as a cynical optimist, but that’s possibly a dilemma for another post). Part of it means enjoying the, er, journey (shudder) and not being solely focused on the destination, with the journey only something to be endured.

And part of it means realising that there are some pretty amazing travelling companions along with me on this journey. The kind who will stop what they are doing on a Sunday afternoon to sit with you on WhatsApp and talk you off the ledge (and out of the toilet cubicle) and coax you, little by little (and with promises of wine), into the world out there. The kind who make you realise that perhaps, one day, you could be somewhere away from home and still feel tethered.

Change.

imagesI am afraid of a lot of things. Birds. Moths. All things that flap at me, actually. (Butterflies flutter and so don’t count). Perfect men. Eyebrow hair. Death. You know, the usual. But the thing that probably tops the list of things I fear is change. For reasons I know and reasons I don’t, change terrifies me.

So when I began asking the Universe to turn my world upside down and help me move to another city, I knew it was a big ask. To put this in perspective, I grew up in South African city X, where I lived in the same house from birth until I left home (and city X) 18 years later to move to another city (let’s call it city P: I, too, can walk on the wilder side) to start university. Eighteen years later, I am still living and working in this same city, at the very same university.

Yes. Change is hard.

Over time, this dear little city P has become smaller. Friends have moved away; others have settled into marriage and family life. Life is Consistent here; things trickle along in the same predictable ways and I have derived great comfort from this. But in recent years an unfamiliar restlessness began to creep up on me and I started daring to look at the world beyond the familiar city boundaries. City Y beckoned. And so I set my heart on moving there.

First, the Universe decided to screw with me a bit. I got offered a job, not in city Y, but in Geneva. My friends (a.k.a normal people) reacted to the news like this*. Being aversive to change and to travel outside a 10km radius of my house, I reacted to the offer like this.*  Oh, the crisis. Happily, being South African occasionally comes in handy. With the controversial recent history of my generation (read: White South Africans) leaving the country in droves, I played the proudly South African card. I couldn’t possibly leave my country, I said. I shall stay and fight the good fight, I said. At home. From my bed. And so, crisis averted, I pleaded with the Universe once again to get me to city Y.

To be fair, the Universe put in a good effort. It sent me little messages. It overwhelmed me with the beauty of this city Y. It threw amazing friends from city Y into my life. It even pointed me in the direction of a few men living there. (And let’s face it, if anything is going to get me to leave my couch, house, city, it’s probably going to be the prospect of interesting men, so few and far between in city P. Clever, this Universe). But we should never underestimate fear of change (or birds, or eyebrow hairs), or the remarkable capacity of one human being to rationalise, in quite brilliant and convincing ways, why, at this opportunity or that, it just wasn’t the Right Time.

Then, the Universe decided if it couldn’t make the destination attractive enough, it would make the departure lounge pretty unpleasant. Less of a pull and more of a push strategy, if you will. It worked. So motivated was I to alleviate my discomfort, I made a deal with the Universe. Change: bring. it. on. But, please make it the kind of change that will keep the inevitable panic attacks to a mild two to three a day. In other words: change my life, Universe. But also, don’t. Apparently, the Universe takes such requests quite literally.

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my colleagues and, having deleted all incriminating emails about the boss, closed my inbox for the last time. I changed my profile on Twitter, to make it really official. Next week, I will begin my new job. Now, in an evenly balanced world, that would mark the end of this post. You could all go away thinking, “Oh good! She embraced the change. She is now a regular human being. The Universe is indeed a magnanimous being.”

Well, apparently not. My new job is indeed in a different city, about an hour down the road from where I live now. One might say, then, that the Universe decided to go with the Baby Steps approach. But it neglected to work on disarming my motivation to avoid change at all costs. My previous job was a virtual one: my colleagues were all online, scattered around the world. My office was, mostly, my bed and, occasionally, an office at the aforementioned local university. And so, naturally, I negotiated with my lovely new employer to let me work virtually, in the same office(s). Not only do I not have to move to this new city, I have bargained down how often I will need to commute to this new work place (not very often) and, therefore, how much I might actually be exposed to a wonderfully new city (not very much), with potentially interesting people and experiences. So, yesterday I waved goodbye to my old colleagues online, pretended to pack my stapler and pot plant into a box, and laid out a fresh pair of pyjamas for my first day at work next week.

My life is changing. But it is also staying exactly the same. Universe: 1, Universallysingle: 0

(* Artwork from the hyperbole and a half blog of the brilliant Allie Brosh)

So.

Image

So a few years ago, following the example of a friend, I wrote a letter to the universe. It was sort of a letter and sort of a shopping list. For a man person. Yes, I know. It was back when I believed I could put in an order for one. Kind of like you believe in the tooth fairy when you’re small. (Except that the tooth fairy left money for you and stuff).

I still have a copy of it somewhere. It’s a simultaneously sweet and demanding sort of letter. Since this is a first post and we don’t know each other very well yet, I’ll spare you the details. But the points that stand out are less that he should be kind and gentle and more that he should be left handed, play guitar, have a PhD and own two labradors. With great heart wrenching sincerity and hope I wrote this letter, put it in an envelope (even) and tucked it away somewhere safe.

A couple of years later, the Universe sent this man to me.

It didn’t occur to me right away, that this was him. I’m not even sure what reminded me of the letter I had forgotten about. But when I pulled it out, my letter described this lovely man almost exactly. I say almost, because the Universe decided to be selective about my list. You might be surprised to hear that he was not left handed, he did not own any pets, could barely hum a tune, let alone play an instrument and was not in possession of a PhD.

But he was intelligent. And kind and gentle and all the other things that I’d asked for, things that counted. He got me. He found me hilarious. He accepted my off-centredness. And so, a few months later, I dumped him. (This, readers, is a story for an entirely different post on an entirely different day. Suffice to say, I tend to dump men who are absolutely perfect for me).

Skip ahead a year or two and enter Universe delivery number two. This one had a PhD and two labradors. He had more of those bits and less of the bits that counted. In other words, beneath his intelligent charm, he was a little bit of a narcissist. (Ok, he was a raging narcissist, but I’m trying to be nicer about the things I say about people, for reasons I’ll explain later). So, we ended up breaking up, too. Eventually.

I learned two things from these two experiences:

1. Future such letters should include requests to help me be open to and accepting of whatever is sent my way. It doesn’t really help to get the perfect-for-you guy if you bolt in terror from them.

and

2.  It doesn’t really matter whether he has a PhD or not. It matters if he is kind and gentle and finds me hilarious. And, most importantly, it matters that he gets me.

So. Here I am. Older and wiser (if by wiser we all understand me to mean more cynical). And my fabulous friend Danny suggested (in jest, I think) I write a blog about the requests I send out to the Universe and the ways the Universe decides to screw with me by delivering something not quite like what I requested.

Since I’m also mid-30s and still single and writing my PhD and trying to make sense of my life in general, I thought it might be a handy exercise to force myself to look for what the Universe might be sending me, every day.

Come along for the ride. It should be fun.