June 14, 2021
I’m an over-thinker and a deeply nostalgic peron. (And no, this is not a particularly fun combination.)
This can create a potent mix of midlife regrets* and “things I should have done differently”. Almost all of those thoughts are related to family life and kids because that’s what I’ve cared about most deeply for the last 25 years.
What we love most deeply is where we are most vulnerable.
My mind will loop on ways I’ve failed the people I love and then to avoid the actual and perceived losses in my life life I’ll pine for earlier, “simpler” times when I hadn’t lived long enough to accumulate a list of things I might have done differently.
Can anyone relate?
My sense of responsibility to my people and how I can best succeed in meeting those responsibilities is a driving motivator in my life. This is mostly a good thing, for my people and myself. I’m a damn good mother, partner, and daughter, and I’m a decent friend. My caring has contributed to other people’s well-being and this brings meaning and purpose to my life. On the flip side of this, my perceptions of how I’ve dropped the ball, or failed in these responsibilities and caring becomes a source of angst, worry, and regret.
I think this hamster wheel of responsibility and the “monkey mind” that accompanies it is a huge part of why I love, and need, to travel and adventure. Experiencing the wider world, and nature especially, in adventuring contexts pulls me out of the weight of my over-thinking and over-analyzing of relationships and responsibilities. It gives me a bloody break because I have to figure out other stuff, usually related to very immediate and physical concerns. Adventuring in the outdoors grounds me in my body in a way that very few other activities in my life do.
The last three summers Damien and I have been adventuring without our kids, backpacking and canoeing, and the combination of distancing ourselves from home while being in the outdoors as been deeply restorative to me. With some distance from people and situations I could see my life more clearly. I gained perspective and the mental weight I carry of all things I did or didn’t do right with my kids, with my life, lifted.
While I’m in the woods, hiking mountains, or paddling on calm water I feel like I’ve done a decent job of life and everything is going to be ok. I feel held by Mother Earth and feel an assurance in my bones that all that is needed has been provided. (Paddling in waves feels less "ok" but at least I have zero bandwidth for over-analyzing.)
For me, home is associated with a lot of emotional and relational responsibilities. In part, because that’s what makes home home. Home doesn’t just happen. Someone has to create the atmosphere of love, comfort, care and safety. Someone cultivates that. I’m that someone.
In addition to the normal emotional and relational labor of mothering and homemaking it feels like I have an overachieving sense of responsibility for my loved one’s well-being. (Hello: homeschooling.) And this amplifies the natural “burden” of homemaking up a few notches. (If you’re into the Enneagram, I think this is an expression of my Type 6 nature.)
I’m guessing this will lighten as the kids take flight away from the nest. But by design they are living their young adult years, at least this part of it, at home. An although I am not physically caring for people, I don’t routinely cook the meals or do the laundry, for example, I feel an emotional burden born of proximity. I know their struggles more intimately than I would at a distance and this knowing is a sharing. A sharing I want and welcome (and will undoubtedly miss with a keen ache when they leave) but that I also need a break from, from time to time.
Back when the kids did everything with us, adventuring was not about distancing myself from family life and responsibilities, it was about gaining perspective and broadening all of our horizons. We could see life beyond the present concerns, we could know ourselves as natural beings in need of natural spaces.
You see the world, or at least modern culture and all its attendent pre-occupations and stresses, differently after spending time immersed outdoors. Some of the things that seemed like a big deal, just aren’t. Zoomed out you see more of the whole canvas instead of the usual limited range, that tiny dot of color that is your life. A dot that I tend to obsess over with a penchant for micro-managing.
I’ve spent years looking for the perfect alchemy of rootedness/responsibility/place and freedom/adventure/experiences in my own life.
These two parts of me are not simply separate entities, living in their own spheres, but they are active responses to each other. If I get too much of one I need some of the other. At midlife its easy to look back and see that most of my life choices have been a see-sawing back and forth between the two.
I’ve been critical of myself in this (of course I have). Maybe there is an inherent problem in the back and forth, the up and down? Maybe I’m supposed to be seeking an equilibrium, some kind of balance?
I don’t know if see-saws still exist as playground equipment but I played on a lot of them in my childhood. As I recall, the point of this simple mechanical lever was not to balance the plank and hang suspended in perfect equilibrium. Sure it happened from time to time and you’d wobble and waver there, your little legs dangling, sneakered toes reaching for the ground. And then someone’s weight would shift, a playmate would come along and pull one side down and you’d be back to up and down, up and down.
The up and down was the whole point of the see-saw. The up and down was the thrill of it. It was the action. It was the fun. Remember fun?
Maybe this can be a helpful way to frame my life, my proclivities, my tendencies, (my moods!), my interests.
Going up and down, transferring weight from one side to the other, is how it’s done. It’s not a deficiency in my personality that my domestic life needs a counterweight, a release valve; and that my adventure life needs a regular return to the relationships and places where I’m rooted. When I stop and think about it, this back and forth seems both obvious and intuitive to my wiring.
I’ve learned through trial and error that too much of either is a personal recipe for anxiety and stress. But I definitely need both and they exist in response and reaction to the other. And that’s ok.
Maybe I’m not meant to make “peace” with my mind or search for an elusive equilibrium in situ. Maybe I’m meant to live into all the expressions of myself. To heed the call of the open road west, to long days in nature, extended travel, some regular physical distance from where I make “home”, surrounding myself with new sights and experiences.
Home means many things to me. It’s the place and the relationships where people are tended to and cared for. On both physical and metaphysical levels, home comes with me wherever I go because it’s a practice and perspective I carry with me. In fact, some of my deepest feelings of contentment, ease, and purpose come when making home in temporary places. A tent for a night, a boat for 3 weeks, the back of my car for a weekend.
But home is also an actual physical place where I tend some small patch of the Earth, where I’ve gathered some things, and where, for the time being, my people reside. And I need time away from this home and its relational, emotional, and physical responsibilities because that’s how I roll or rather, that’s how I see-saw.
*I chatted with a friend recently and I talked about some of my life regrets. I don’t know any regret that isn’t futile, but this one is particularly useless since there was never a point in my past where I wanted to actively choose a different path in this regard. She recommended The Midnight Library, which I’m now listening to. I’m curious to see where the story goes and how it might help me re-frame regrets.
(All the photos in this post are from adventures - near and far, with companions and solo - in the past year.)
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