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Learning to take time to relax and breathe

Betty Firth
Posted 8/4/21

A month ago I retired from the position of program coordinator at the Ely Folk School, and I am just beginning to figure out how to use my time and energy differently. I am still involved in …

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Learning to take time to relax and breathe

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A month ago I retired from the position of program coordinator at the Ely Folk School, and I am just beginning to figure out how to use my time and energy differently. I am still involved in teaching, doing acupressure, and providing respite services, so I’m not in any kind of a free-fall, devoid of work. However, my days are freer of scheduled commitments and administrative details and stress, so my mind has had more room to roam about possibilities.
Since I am a curious and imaginative generalist, this is fascinating and dangerous territory, because possibilities are endless. Interesting new options or the resurgence of previous interests beckon seductively: try this art form, take that class, join this group, go visit out-of-town friends, renew neglected friendships here, jump in with some political action, swim and do yoga, take a trip, and on and on. Imagining any or all of those things takes nano-seconds mentally, where anything is possible and there’s no reality check about the time and energy required. It’s so easy to get overcommitted, forgetting that among my many intentions is taking the time to breathe, read, write, meditate, and water the flowers with mindful attention, appreciating each new leaf and blossom. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in a schedule of enticing things, which are all good, but leave me drained, wondering why I’m short of time to relax and breathe or focus on that writing I meant to do. My extroverted self says, “Go for it, do it all!” but I have to honor my introverted self who is saying, “Whadda ya’ tryin’ to do, kill me?”
I’ve had some in-depth conversations with several people in the last couple weeks about the choices we make as individuals and within groups. (And how delicious that has been, to have the luxury of open, relaxed time, not worrying about the next thing I have to do, accomplish, complete, arrange. I sometimes feel an internal impulse, a knee-jerk moment of nagging anxiety saying, “OK, get going, what’s next, are you running late?” and I have to say to myself, “Relax! This is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.”
There has been much said on talk shows and with friends about choices made and lessons learned during COVID. Some people were very disciplined and dug into that project they’d been wanting to do. Most people I heard about weren’t and didn’t, saying that they had lots of good intentions, were surprised they didn’t accomplish much at all, but also felt just fine about it, guilt-free. Many discovered that they really liked a simpler schedule, fewer commitments, more time at home, and more quiet time. Some I know took advantage of being mask-free by spending lots of time out of doors skiing, hiking, canoeing, biking, and kayaking. Others struggled, finding it very difficult to be isolated without the interaction and stimulation of co-workers, friends, and outside activities.
I worked throughout COVID, so I didn’t lose my schedule, but I know that some people who were untethered from their work routines found it disorienting, even when they were enjoying it. “What do I do next?” We are creatures of habit underneath it all, and the structure of our days can give us a sense of belonging and centeredness.
Last fall I took a Folk School class on intentional journaling with a focus on planning retirement, which emphasized getting clear on what you want, your dreams, your goals, and documenting your action steps along the way rather than just letting things happen to you. I found myself resisting doing that additional writing, planning, list-making and scheduling, when my days were already very work-ordered with daily to-do lists, yearning to be able to just go with the flow. Maybe I’ll try that dreams and goals journal again, to provide some accountability to myself for my intentions and actions, for I don’t want the days to evaporate into months and years, leaving me wondering where the time went.
A friend of mine is visiting this week with her husband. She lived in my duplex in the 80’s while pursuing her master’s degree in chemistry at the U of M. She helped me out with my home-based business, and sometimes we just had silly fun together. I played background music on my autoharp while she read organic chemistry texts into a tape recorder to assist students with visual and reading impairments. She threw on a coat over her pajamas to go with me to deliver my tax return before midnight into the waiting hands of the postal workers on the street outside the Minneapolis downtown post office. We indulged in Haagen-Dazs ice cream, and she read favorite poems aloud from Emily Dickinson as I drove.
Susie was and is a quirky, creative, sensitive, deeply caring person. She was creative on all levels: in the lab, figuring out alternatives setting up experiments when the right equipment went missing, and at home, creating a quilt top without a pattern in one morning from fabric she had collected over time. She started cutting when she thought she had enough fabric pieces to do it. When I brought up the concept of right brain and left brain functions, she said that was a lot of hooey. I said to her, “You’re so balanced with abilities from both sides of your brain, you just can’t see it.”
She’s now a professor at Ole Miss, still loving science and teaching, an extremely dedicated educator and mentor to many students. She usually didn’t take much time to nurture herself, so she decided to take some art classes, doing abstract painting and later expanding with other materials and techniques. She sent me some small samples, saying, “I don’t think this makes sense to anyone else. It doesn’t always make sense to me, but I love doing it. The rest of the world falls away when I’m painting.” She brought photos of the work she’s been doing recently that blew me away: beautiful, intriguing, complex, abstract compositions. Some are muted earth tones, some are bursting with color, and the small images lined up in a rectangle on her phone looked like an incredible, unique quilt.
She embodies the essence of creative adventure, pushing the limits of paper and paint and her own mind, without prefabricated expectations, keeping at it even when she felt silly. It has been a joy to see her artwork and to reconnect with this dear sister-from-another-mother who often sees, feels, and reacts to the world as I do and “gets me” as I do her. I will be sad to see her go, but I know our spirits will remain close, and her bold art explorations will continue to inspire me in my artwork and other life choices. Too many years pass between our visits, but she’s only 1,145 miles and 45 gallons of gas away, so I better jot down an intention in my journal for a winter trip to the south!

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