Lessons from my cat

I sat outside for over thirty minutes, watching my cat explore her eight-foot radius of the outdoors.

There was a laundry list of other things I could have been doing – starting this blog post being number one.

But instead, I chose to spend a half hour sitting in the sun with Olive, doing literally nothing except stare at her as she got used to her new leash and stalked the leaves blowing through the grass and scared herself by stepping on a stick that booped her in the stomach.

It was the most calmly entertaining half hour of my day. Or of my week. Heck, I’d hazard to say of my year so far.

Life is so simple for her.

I envy that.

… … …

One of Olive’s favorite pastimes is playing with pipe cleaners.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Pipe cleaners – as in the little fuzzy bendable rods that come in a plethora of colors for children’s crafting enjoyment.

I wind them around my finger into a little coil and then throw them into the other room for her to chase. Most of the time she brings them back so I can throw them again.

And yes, you also read that correctly.

My cat plays fetch. *cheesin’ emoji*

I’m pretty sure my heart exploded when I figured that out about her. *heart eyes emoji*

But naturally, I cannot always drop everything to play fetch with her, so she’s perfectly keen to play with the pipe cleaner by herself sometimes.

She’ll often bat it and chase it around the kitchen floor, until she accidentally knocks it under the pantry door. Being the determined little kitten she is, she’ll then lay on the floor and shove her paws underneath the door to retrieve the aforementioned pipe cleaner. When she successfully fishes her beloved toy out, she will promptly push it BACK under the door – on purpose, just for the challenge of getting it out again.

This is how my cat spends her free time.

Meanwhile, every waking moment of my free time consists of my mind racing with all of the things that I could, should, and really just ought to be doing right at that very minute because, unlike my cat, I have many more responsibilities on my plate beyond fishing pipe cleaners out from under doors, refrigerators, and other large items.

I think about the blog post I should be writing.

The jobs I should be looking for.

The people I should call.

The LinkedIn profile I should update.

The resume I should overhaul.

The nail polish orders I should send out.

The cleaning I should be getting around to.

The small group prep I should be doing.

The plans I should be making.

The crafting projects I should finish.

The crafting projects I should start.

The list that I should stop right now because otherwise I’ll keep going for three more pages. *laughing-with-a-bead-of-sweat emoji*

Meanwhile, once Olive gives up on retrieving her beloved pipe cleaner because she has finally pushed it too far under the door for her to reach, she promptly leaves it and goes to sleep in her favorite chair.

She had one job – and has zero qualms about not completing it.

I want to be my cat when I grow up.

… … …

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me remotely well that I’m intense, perfectionist, and put a lot – I mean, a lot – of pressure on myself to do anything and everything perfectly, all the time. Which means that I am very much not like Olive.

But for the most part, that intensity and pressure has pushed me to grow and move forward and achieve my goals. Each item on my never-ending laundry list of to-dos has been one more step on my journey towards living the life I want and making my dreams a reality. And if I ever ran into a snag, hit a bump in the road, or watched my plans crash and burn, I have always been able to think of a solution and see my way out.

My goal-oriented mind has always been racing, for as long as my conscious brain can remember, with all the things I needed to do to keep moving forward. Which is exhausting, but also extremely rewarding because of the progress I have seen myself make in my life.

But it’s also no secret to anyone who knows me remotely well that I’m currently stuck.

For the first time in my life, I’ve stopped moving forward.

And my brain has absolutely no idea how to deal with that.

… … …

I used to think that my determination and grit were what kept me moving forward in my life – I was seeing success (or, at least, signs that reinforced impending success) because I was working hard to get there.

Yes, I know – very much an American-Dream-type mentality.

But since I was constantly in motion towards achieving my dreams, I never thought too much about whether what I was doing was actually the reason for my continuous forward momentum. (I.e., I assumed a cause-effect relationship – my hard work was the cause of my success – which I never questioned.)

But then I jolted to a halt: my dreams were put on hold due to circumstances beyond my control, and nothing I did would make a difference. One year into the pandemic, the city of my dreams is still locked down tighter than anywhere else in the country, and the industry I aspire to work in is also still completely shut down, and will likely be the last field to fully reopen.

And try as I might, I can’t do anything about that – I cannot reopen theatre, New York, or theatre in New York.

Now, you might be thinking, “hey, wouldn’t this be a great time for you to perhaps stop and give yourself a break? You’ve been going nonstop for…well, your entire life?!”

At least, that’s what I tried to ask myself at the beginning of all of this.

I tried to let myself off the hook and just take a break and let go of the need to try to force myself forward in the midst of circumstances that wouldn’t allow it.

But my brain didn’t like that.

My brain doesn’t like to be ‘lazy’ – it doesn’t like to stop.

So it didn’t.

It kept going.

But for the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to think of a way out or push myself forward.

And the harder my mind worked to jump-start my life again, the deeper I sunk into my stuckness.

Naturally, this has led to a litany of insults from my inner critic about how I’m not good enough and I’m not working hard enough and blah blah BLAH blah blahhhhhhhhhhh. (I’ve already written about my inner critic at length, so we’re not going to dive into that here, but suffice to say, my mind was working completely against me, on every side.)

The more my mind races, the deeper I sink; and the deeper I sink, the more exhausted I realize this process is – the constant churning out of to-do items and pushing myself to ‘achieve’ my way out.

It’s not working.

And then I discovered something.

… … …

It was Wednesday afternoon when I had told myself I needed to write my blog post for the week – the top item on my to-do list for the day.

Before heading upstairs to work on it, I looked outside, where it was nearly sixty degrees and sunny, and then down at my cat, who was asleep on a kitchen chair.

And after a minute or two of contemplation, I decided to do something else before I started writing.

I decided to take Olive outside.

So I fastened her into the little pink harness and hooked her up to our other cat’s front yard leash, and just watched her. For over thirty minutes, I didn’t put pressure on myself to do anything; I just sat and watched my cat.

Normally, I would berate myself for being lazy or procrastinating, but in that moment, I didn’t. I just wanted to be with my kitten and enjoy the weather for a half hour.

And in doing so, something of a small miracle happened. I quieted my mind enough to quickly realize a few (profound) things:

  1. Whether or not I’m moving forward in my life is, by and large, independent from how hard I’m working and how long I can make my to-do list; I thought about the circumstances in which I still find myself right now, and how those circumstances are beyond my control.

  2. My obsession with having a never-ending to-do list has less to do with moving forward and more to do with proving to other people that I’m not lazy – I, for whatever reasons, need my parents and sisters and friends to see that I’m working hard and not freeloading.

  3. I haven’t allowed my mind to slow down long enough to consider asking for help and a fresh perspective – I don’t need to ‘figure it out’ by myself, and there’s no reason to put the pressure on myself to do that. We need other people, and I’m only hurting myself if I believe I have to be everything and do everything and plan everything completely on my own.

I sat in those new truths, while watching my baby Olive, until the sun went behind the trees and she wanted to go inside.

I’m still thinking about them, and processing them, wondering how to hold onto those truths and let myself off the hook a little bit more.

My mind went back to spinning again as soon as I walked into the house. But it’s spinning a little differently now.

A little more calmly. A little more peacefully.

Maybe I should go outside with Olive more often.

… … …

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Photo credit: me! (And Olive)