We all have gifts. Some are quite obvious, and some are hidden. In this feature of The Bright Side Blog, we investigate the secret talents of those around us.
Tara M is a 39-year-old woman whose not-secret talent is music. She is an amazing fiddle player, and she teaches fiddle lessons. Tara is married to Joe, and they have two sons, whom Tara home-schools.
As I start to chat with Tara, it becomes clear to me how alike we are in some ways. We are both mothers and musicians, but there is something else: Tara has dealt with serious anxiety for much of her life, and like my own anxiety, it’s tied to the feeling of being out of control. To be unprepared; to be late. Worse: to feel like you’ve missed things that you could have enjoyed, and now they are gone.
Those of us with anxiety find different ways to deal with it, many of them home-grown, hard-fought solutions, found through repeated experimentation. So it shouldn’t surprise me that Tara says that she thinks that her secret talent might be organizing her time and her life in order to keep anxiety at bay.
Of course, there is a line that you must walk. It can be just as unpleasant–and more dangerous–to try to over-control your life. “I had an eating disorder as a teenager,” Tara tells me, speaking the words quite easily. “That would be an example of trying to take control over an area. Looking back on that, I’m like–’Definitely not a healthy or sustainable choice!’ It’s all connected, though–to anxiety.”
So what is her solution? There are two parts to Tara’s system. “There’s the uber-organized how do I keep track of everything,” and then there is what Tara calls “the white space stuff.” I know what she means. Free time to most people might sound like a reward at the end of the day, a perfect way to spend an afternoon. But to some of us, it’s an anxiety-inducing leap off of a cliff into un-organized emptiness. For me, white space is a mix of the warring thoughts I should be enjoying myself and I should be accomplishing something.
Tara tells me, “I need a lot of white space, a lot of margin. [But] that is also really scary when you have anxiety. It’s very healthy for all people, but it’s also very scary.” She has tried different ways to move through white space. “Meditation is not actually something that works well for me. I pursued it for a long time and really wanted to make it work. But I can’t be left up to my own devices like that. It just ramps up my anxiety.” Like me, Tara keeps a list of ways to spend her free time, things she knows will keep her balanced. “Knitting is good for me instead of meditation because I’m actually doing something. Learning and reciting poetry to myself is really good because it’s occupying myself with something beautiful, [and] it’s something that my brain can grab onto but it’s totally separate from me.” She also makes sure to read, both fiction and non-fiction.
It helps Tara to begin her day early in the morning, “because then I can take more time with stuff. It took me a really long time to figure this out, and it doesn’t work even half the time, but when I can get myself to go to sleep at the proper time so that I have the morning time, I’m so much happier with the morning time than anything I would have been happy with in the evening. I’m not at my best in the evening anyway, so [I try to] get myself to to think of it as ‘the free time’s coming after you do this little sleep thing!’”
So what does Tara’s system look like? It’s a surprisingly beautiful one: a bracelet.
It starts with a calendar. “It does not work for me personally to do any sort of calendar things on my phone because I have to physically write things down in order for them to connect to my brain,” Tara says. “I have a calendar that I have to make myself because no calendar necessarily works for me.”
The colors on this calendar are not random, they are linked to the bracelet. “Yellow is house stuff, teal is kid/home school stuff, and green is work stuff,” to name a few; they also include orange for family time, purple for personal things, and blue for sleep.
Tara turns the bracelet as the day goes by, and the color on top reminds her of where her focus should be. For example, on homeschooling her sons: “I don’t really have a model for the way that we pursue education, but I know that being really present with them is really, really important.” In parenting, “there’s the keeping them alive part and then there’s the actually being aware of what’s going on with them. This is where the bracelet comes in handy a lot. So if I’m up here washing the dishes, it’s really easy to get lost in that sort of task, because they’re fine and they’re quiet but then the whole day passes, and you think, ‘Wait! What are they thinking about?’ And when I’m down physically in the same space as them, the amount of times they interact with me [are numerous]–because I’m there. And if I wasn’t physically in the room, all of those opportunities would pass me by.”
It all sounds wonderful. So does the system always work? “There’s times when my complicity with it is vastly different than other times,” Tara admits. “I have weak times of my life where I’m consciously not following my rules and I just feel like crap at the end of the day. I’m happier managing it than when I’m not. I think the fact that [the system is] necessary for me is a demonstration of a lack of balance. I think there are lots of people who don’t need this many crutches to get through a day.”
I inform her that I would not call it a crutch. Perhaps a sword. Tara counters with calling it “a tool.” I ask her to whom she would recommend this tool, and she laughs, saying that first, her system isn’t finished and never will be–it must evolve with her. Then she tells me, as she has many times during the interview, that she feels like she’s a “quirky” person, and so doesn’t know who else would need such a system. “Like Joe, for instance–never in a million years, or the kids–it’s enough for me to just know what makes me work.” (I have to remind her, of course, that I have my own system of organizing my life, without which I would be a nervous wreck. So perhaps we’re both quirky.) Tara adds that she is an introvert, and that her system works well for her in that way, because it gives her ways to recover from draining activities, even ones she enjoys, like gigs.
There are parts that she does recommend to everyone looking to be more organized: a couple of apps that help organize her time. One is Habitica, which her whole family uses. It’s a task list styled as an RPG (role playing game). She also likes the app Forest, which helps people keep focus by muting their phone notifications. If you ask the phone to give you 25 minutes of peace, and then you actually leave your phone alone for 25 minutes, the Forest company will plant a tree.
As we wrap up the interview, Tara tells me of a favorite white space activity that she has discovered: morning and evening prayers. Her favorite prayer speaks to why this system works for her–because it keeps her healthy. And if we are not healthy, we are not able to help improve the health of those we love. So I will close this article with a Celtic Benediction by John Philip Newel:
O Sun behind all suns, O Soul within all souls, grant me the grace of the dawn’s glory, grant me the strength of the sun’s rays, that I may be well in my own soul and part of the world’s healing this day; that I may be well in my own soul and part of the world’s healing this day. Amen.