Once upon a time, I was a single, childless, 27-year old teacher who lived alone with only a dog and eleventy-billion hours of free time to do whatever I wanted. I’d go to the gym every day. For hours! I’d go out with friends. At night! I’d get ready, grab my purse, put the dog in the house and then walk out the door, without even a thought about when I’d come home or what I’d face when I got there. The dog would sleep—no sitter required. Just bowls of food and water on the floor. It was glorious and gluttonous, and if free time were money, I’d have been richer than Warren Buffett.
Fast forward twenty years. That free time has vanished, and I sometimes wonder if any of it was real. I still teach for 6 ½ hours a day. But the time surrounding work has been partitioned and assigned, tasks and people moving in and staking their claim, like urban sprawl, until all the wide-open minutes of my day are gone.
Oprah tells me I need to find balance. (Which is easy when you’re a mega-millionaire and can pay people to do things for you.) Twenty years ago, I could easily balance work and play. Because balancing two things is simple. But how do you balance more than that? Three things? Four? Eight? Twelve? Work, exercise, writing, friends, parenting, sleep, relaxation and don’t forget clean eating – groceries! – and oh, your work inbox is exploding, your kid has a mysterious rash, and your dog is overdue for his rabies shot. You’re forced to set balance (and yourself) on the back burner because who has the time?
But then your phone rings. It’s your doctor, saying you have cancer, and everything else goes silent. In 2015, balance became the tool that might save my life. I needed to decide what was important, and what I had to cut loose.
The first to go was work. I took a leave of absence to go through treatment, and that time was a gift. It allowed me to step out of the chaos of my life and look at everything, to see how the pieces fit together, and to cut what didn’t serve me. I re-prioritized, putting myself and my health at the top of the list instead of at the bottom. I did the obvious things—cleaned up my diet, drank more water, exercised—but I also made the decision to create some hard and fast boundaries—for people who cause me stress, for work, and for my writing, which I realized had seeped into every spare crack and corner.
I’ve always been an early riser, and as a single mom who works full time, my writing blocks are limited. I wake up at 4:00 and write until 6:00, Monday-Friday, year-round. Before my diagnosis, I’d also try to write during lunch, in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends. I was doing some kind of work, all the time. After diagnosis, that had to stop. These days, I still wake up at 4:00 to write, because it’s the best time of day for me. But when that time is over, I walk away. I transition into the mental space of my day job, where I focus just on the children in my classroom, which is such a joy now that I don’t feel pulled in two different directions all the time. And after school, I close the door on that, and focus on my children. I make time to exercise, to talk to my kids about school or the books they’re reading. I see friends on the weekends. I go to bed early. I seek out moments of silence amid the drama and the stress of daily life, reminding myself that whatever’s happening there doesn’t define me. I’m separate.
The amazing thing…I still get a lot of writing done. I was able to re-write THE ONES WE CHOOSE three times in three months last fall during Pitch Wars, and again at the beginning of 2017 as my agent and I got ready to go on submission. Turns out, balance requires boundaries, but it doesn’t make us less productive. It requires us to say no—to ourselves and sometimes to people we love. But it’s a healthier space for me. And even though I still have occasional ten-hour writing days to meet a deadline, it’s rare and short-lived.
I still think fondly of my life twenty years ago, when I existed in a world designed by me, for me. And I think ahead to a time when I’ll get that back. After my kids are grown, after I retire from teaching, I’ll once again have endless hours to do whatever I want. But I learned the hard way that I won’t get there if I don’t take care of myself now. I’m not perfect at it. There are still days I get sucked in, and then kick myself for letting it happen. But then I pick myself up and move forward, remembering the advice of an old friend who helped me through my treatment: You’re not going to be perfect at this. You live in the real world, after all. But find the space between yourself and the chaos. Even just a split second there can reset everything.