My One Thing

I was at the playground with my kids a couple of years ago and some very toned-looking moms were talking about going to the gym. Finally I said, a bit pathetically, “How do you all manage to exercise?” I myself had not Formally Exercised since my first pregnancy. One of my friends said, “When you’re taking care of little kids all day, you can do one other thing. You can take care of the kids and you can have a clean house. Or you can take care of the kids and you can be fit. But you can’t do two other things, so you have to choose. You’re a writer – that’s your one thing.” It reframed everything for me, and I stopped feeling bad about all the stuff I wasn’t doing. I took her word for it: I could do one thing, and I’d made my choice.

Sometimes I imagine that if I had a little more time I might also clean my filthy apartment and exercise and volunteer and cook fabulous meals and read more non-fiction and study Japanese again. I imagine myself with a better haircut, better fashion sense and excellent posture, all muscly and wide awake and multi-lingual. In this alternate reality, the laundry is folded and put away, the garbage doesn’t smell bad, the children do not eat crackers in the bed, my book is a huge bestseller, and we are planning a totally affordable trip to the Galapagos islands because this perfect version of me is canny and full of know-how and found an awesome deal on the internet and oh yeah also we can afford it because of my huge bestseller.

I read somewhere that nothing actually improves a person’s long-term happiness except nearly dying and then recovering. I can see how nearly dying might shift one’s perspective on what constitutes good enough, but I also think happiness is not necessarily the point of all this living we do.

For a long time I was perpetually dissatisfied with myself and my (lack of) accomplishments. I’d compare myself to people who seemed to me to be Better At Life, and then I’d feel sort of slouchy and glum, or I’d pep-talk myself and pretend I was going to get Better At Life. Life Is Short, I told myself (because I was wildly original) – and I didn’t mean for mine to pass me by in the ordinary way. I was going to have great adventures, write brilliant books, do interesting and noble things with the precious days of my life. I did not imagine children back then. I did not imagine that I might not be all that brilliant, or even all that interesting.

I’m sort of over it – not that I don’t have goals, but the idea of actually being Better At Life. Fuck that imaginary self with her shiny hair and awesome biceps, sneering at me from her chic little flat in Paris. Fuck her folded laundry and her clear conscience and the way she’s got it all worked out. I can’t decide if this late-in-life self-acceptance is a positive thing, maybe a sign of becoming less self-obsessed, or if it signals a sad slackening of ambition – a kind of giving up. The only thing I’m sure of is that things will change again soon, and then change again. There are no do-overs; this cocktail of good luck and mistakes and hope and regret and paralyzing fear is what you get today. If you can stomach it, you’re one of the lucky ones. Life might keep opening up wider for a while, or it might slam shut, because you never know when your luck is going to run out. Not to be overly morbid, but even the best-case-scenario for a life ends with decay and death (and then more serious decay), so, you know – well, I don’t really know where I’m going with that.

I mean that I really will try to stop biting my nails, and I know it’s not healthy or useful to stay up past midnight reading and then panic about what would happen to the kids if I died, and when my friend came over the other day she took one look at the stained, ripped sofa that we still haven’t gotten around to replacing leaking its stuffing everywhere and shouted “SERIOUSLY, CATHERINE? THAT’S YOUR SOFA?” And it is, that really is our sofa, but it’s fine, that’s all I’m trying to say: I’m OK with this. I’m doing fine. I don’t know what to make for dinner but I sent my new book to my editor today because, no matter what else, making up stories and writing them down is the one thing I’ve always been sure I could do.


8 thoughts on “My One Thing

  1. Karyn Huenemann

    I SO hear you. For years I struggled with this, because I have two kids (one of whom is in her own special [undiagnosable but severe] way “special”), two dogs, two jobs, a 1927 house, and of course I was going crazy. A well-meaning but misguided friend (and her husband, and my husband) lectured me on letting it go, and my response was: “But who the hell is going to clean my house? It certainly isn’t you!” Which it wasn’t. And I need tidy.

    But I found that it doesn’t take near death to cause the awareness that “improves a person’s long-term happiness.” Just a kick in the mental butt. My kids are now 18 (and actually beginning to be HELPFUL) and 16 (and still needing mothering to a sickening degree), and I STILL struggle with only being able to do ONE THING, when I actually have at least three to do… But I have just turned 50, and that was enough of a wake-up call.

    For years I told myself… “as soon as the kids are older,” but I realize that with the Girl, if I wait until that moment, I will die old, out-of-shape, and having waited to do what I need for myself and never having got there. It’s now or never.

    You write books. You write SPECTACULAR books. And you say your house is a mess, and you feel overwhelmed, and … Yup, there it is. Reality. But I am sure you get food on the table, or make sure someone else does, and your home moves forward, and most importantly, your kids are happy. And you write spectacular books. It won’t take a near-death experience to move you forward, just time, and (yes) ignoring any criticism from those who don’t live your life and have to make your choices.

    You’re doing brilliantly; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    1. Catherine Egan Post author

      I’ll put “kick in the mental butt” on my to-do list – all the better if I don’t have to almost die to shape up! 😉 But really, I’m OK with *not* doing brilliantly – as long as I’m managing to write and the kids are all right, that’s enough. If your kids are 16 and 18, I expect life is going to change HUGELY very soon – and hopefully allow you more time and space to do the things you need & want to do.

  2. dana alison levy

    Please keep writing down words because that, my friend, is a mighty fine one thing. I always say we vote with our feet — whatever we talk about, we take action on what we cannot bear to NOT do. For some that means cleaning their kitchen. For others that means writing magnificent imaginary worlds.

  3. Erlene Bishop Killeen

    I have had the “tricked death” experience at least three times in my life and those experiences have changed me in a good way — calmer, more philosophical, more open to fun, and happier to just let go of stuff, people, and memories that I don’t really need or want. My kids are out of the house and on their own — both doing well. I am divorced so I am alone in a fabulous living space that is decorated just the way I like it and I am still working at part-time jobs that bring me satisfaction (book world and church world!) so my life is mine own and good. Still, I don’t have a fit body, a totally clean house, or a book on the way to the publisher (I wish!). We women all need to be easier on ourselves and each other! Life is good, we are getting to do whatever we really want to do and relationships are vital to each of us. A short gratitude journal is helpful and so are lots of pictures of family and friends doing terrific things or just being.
    May you find your peace and joy in all you do.


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