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Finding balance at the Equinox

September 23, 2015

Today is the autumn equinox, when it feels as if the Earth rests for a moment on its axis, perfectly in balance before it rolls onward into the long nights of winter. The day is still and sunlit. September is rusting the heavy green trees, and the scarlet leaves are already falling from the Virginia creeper which licks up the castle wall like tongues of heatless fire., 23.9.15

Unlike the day, I have been feeling very un-balanced recently. And it’s not just the flashes of vertigo caused by a wonky head! Our boys are both at boarding school during the week now, which is focussing my thoughts on what to do with increased free time.

I never find myself bored. On top of the normal household tasks, there is more that could be done as lady of a castle than I can ever manage: I could, had I the drive, be clearing rooms, restoring pictures, making jam, cataloguing the library, researching family manuscripts, making curtains, harvesting the garden…  plus I need, as a means of maintaining sanity, to take myself off to my little studio room to paint and create on an almost daily basis.

And it is essential to make space to walk in the woods with the dogs, watching the red squirrels burying their cache of beech nuts and thrilling at the music of the migrating geese overhead. I don’t need the latest craze for classes in Mindfulness and Gratefulness. My lessons are all around me.

All the time, however, I am aware that most people are working harder than me. I’ve been very lucky that, in the past five years of health difficulties (with brain injury leading to M.E.), I have not been trying to hold down paid employment: it would have been impossible. Now, though, I’m beginning to peer over the parapet and wonder whether I dare to/ ought to take more on. One or two friends have been dropping brick-like hints that I should re-join this or that pet committee of theirs, and I’m reluctantly wondering if I should. Certainly I have been feeling better in the past two months than I did last year, thank heavens, although the pattern of effects of an auto-immune disorder like M.E. is unpredictable, making me wary of new commitments. Over-doing it one week (e.g. going out for two evenings in the week) can still lead to exhaustion the next.

But friends and acquaintances do not see the battles one fights with ‘invisible injuries’ like brain trauma or M.E./ CFS. They only see that I am not doing a job as such, and that I don’t entertain much, and that therefore I am not pulling my weight in society. And the thing is, I am beginning to wonder whether I agree with them.

This is good; it’s a sign that I’m feeling better than I have for a fair while. Thus I find myself approaching a crossroads. Notwithstanding the odd bit of voluntary work (and even committee membership – and oh, how I loathe committees, no matter how good the cause and pleasant the members), is it acceptable for an educated woman of my generation to make her home and family her whole focus? Can I justify using free time to work on my attempts at art and writing? Or would it be better for ‘society’, and indeed for my own self-esteem, if I tried to get back into the job market and earn my keep? Sorry, I’ve wrestled with this before on Dancing Beastie, I know, yet still find myself torn. Meanwhile – and more to the point – while I ponder that, do I have to take on more of those blessed committees?

Forgive me for airing these very first-world problems: I do know what a privilege it is to have a career crisis of this sort! I also know that any responses I receive from you are likely to be sensible, pithy and wise.

At the start of the year, a very wise woman told me that understanding what to do with one’s gifts and abilities is something not to be rushed. It is like a long labour, she said, taking its own time. It’s just that at my age I would really like to have figured it out by now – and while I search, or wait, or whatever I’m meant to be doing, I feel off-balance, thrown sideways by the expectations and insinuations of others.

Outside, meanwhile, as the sun sets behind the hills, the Earth on the cusp between summer and winter is perfectly balanced. It has been another beautiful day., 23.9.15-1


You might enjoy The last of summer ,

Life, art, writing: the guilty pleasure of doing what you like

or Falling down a wormhole in the kitchen: music as time travel .

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisbeth Whitney permalink
    September 24, 2015 1:03 am

    I love the little glimpses of your part of the world. Please do whatever it may be that makes you happy and whole for the moment. XXX Lisbeth in Maine, USA

  2. boyd permalink
    September 24, 2015 1:53 am

    your perceptions are homing in on why we were made for the Earth. we have damaged it so. the moments you capture help bring it back a little and i can remember again what it is that i like it here on earth. fortunately i will not survive to even the earliest end time being forecast and i am well with that. i prefer what ever brain cells to remember it as you see it

    • September 24, 2015 12:06 pm

      Well, if my little posts here help to remind you of what is so wonderful about the Earth, then I feel I am already contributing something to society. Thank you, Boyd. Look after yourself.

  3. September 24, 2015 2:17 am

    I can identify with much of your situation. When we lived in Argyll – the first time in my life I had not been in paid employment – I had a demanding voluntary job on the Children’s Panel, was on several committees, helped run an art group and helped friends out with childcare – all on top of being a stay home parent to four young kids. It was only when emigration forced me to step down from everything that I realized how much I had been running on empty, how I was giving so much of myself that I had no reserves left for myself.

    Our current family dynamic with my husband’s long work hours and travel for work limits what I can get involved with since one of us always has to be home for the kids. That’s actually been really useful. As much as solo parenting is a drag, his weekday absence has saved me from signing up for more than I can safely manage. And it’s only now that I actually have some free time in each week that I realize how completely out of balance and off kilter my life was before and how much more sane I am when I have the opportunity to invest in myself.

    I don’t have any health concerns so I think that means you are even more justified than I am in taking that time for yourself and not finding yourself committed to things that will drain you and prevent you from doing the things that top up your reserves and make your life more balanced and meaningful. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that time for myself is not selfish because being the best, most balanced and happy version of me is beneficial to everyone else too.

    • September 24, 2015 12:13 pm

      Doing all that with four small children…no wonder you were running on empty! (It’s always easier to see someone else’s life than one’s own, isn’t it?!) Do you know, I applied to volunteer for the Children’s Panel too – but they turned me down as I couldn’t do afternoons because of collecting my children from school. Oh, the irony. But now I look back and think I was mad to have applied at all, a year after my brain injury – I think it was part of a desperate attempt to get back to normal and do something for others. I was lucky that it came to nothing as it was really far too early in my recovery to be doing it.

      I’m so glad for you that expat life is working out to be more balanced and sane for you, despite its challenges. I know that you are a creative person and I can totally see that taking time to channel that creativity is good for the soul, and therefore good for your family. I guess that’s what I really want to do. ‘Things that top up your reserves’ – that’s just it. Thanks for your reply.

      • September 24, 2015 12:28 pm

        Children’s Panel was very demanding. In a small community, the same panel members get used a lot so I was serving on every second session. I was lucky in that I did the training when I was pregnant with my oldest and my husband was given flexi leave from work to be home with the kids so that I could serve – because his employer was supportive of volunteering. No one else I served with had young children. They were all parents of adult children and retirees. It was harrowing at times and stressful and involved reading things I wish I could forget and saying things I wish I never had to say but ultimately it was really rewarding and I find I miss it.

        Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment at such length. It’s really helpful to find someone articulating the same thought processes that have been swirling around in my own mind.

  4. September 24, 2015 10:52 am

    If you don’t enjoy committees, they will sap your energy too much. If your friends are true friends, they ought to try and understand your condition – have you tried sharing the Spoons article with them? (Are you familiar with that?) As I have a medical condition which also gives me poor energy levels I understand your concerns. Be glad you have found a balance which now gives you a little bit of extra energy – celebrate this! 🙂

    Don’t be guilted into shaping your life by what other people think. If your family are happy with your contribution, great. If you don’t need to earn money, don’t fret about getting a job, unless that is what *you* want.

    You are in a blessed and fortunate position. Beware that taking on too much more all at once could wreck that. Resist things that won’t bring you joy, unless you feel strongly about that cause of helping someone. Even if you do feel strongly about a cause, is there a way you could use your talents and strengths to help? For example, instead of being on the committee, could you design posters, write literature, host fund-raising events? You can make a contribution in a non-standard way, which uses your God-given talents, rather than being forced into a mould that society thinks you ought to be in.

    Don’t rush into anything, enjoy the extra energy 🙂

    • September 24, 2015 12:27 pm

      Gosh, you’re so right. I’m running to do what others expect of me without even noticing that there is already a balance in my life. And you, living with arthritis which must be grim, will appreciate how precious a period of extra energy is. I shouldn’t be running to throw it away!

      I do know the brilliant Spoon Theory and have used it once or twice. Not everyone would take it on board though…

      Thank you so much for all your wise and thoughtful comments and suggestions. You’ve really made me stop and think. 🙂

  5. September 24, 2015 11:29 am

    My husband and I have had many discussions along the lines of what you write over the past year. It seems the world beyond the walls of our home only see value in “going out to work”. It is frustrating. I work for myself from home (evidently in society’s eye if you don’t go to an office it is a hobby), yet have cut back drastically over the past couple of years, and our family has been so much happier, relaxed and balanced. I am starting to think that there is real value in old-school traditional homemaking if a family can financially do it. It is amazing how there is always something that needs doing and rarely a chance to sit down. Without writing an epic essay, I guess I am saying I understand completely your thoughts. Interestingly, last year I decided to do some volunteering to be a “contributing member of society”, but this year the commitment didn’t work with the family’s schedule. I actually received an email a few weeks ago talking about the volunteer work “I was doing”……….the group hadn’t even noticed that I had not been there all year. After that I have been relieved of any guilt involving volunteering. I still can’t wrap my head around how the year before I was on site volunteering once a week, and this year I wasn’t present at all, and they didn’t notice. Anyways, I hope you find the balance you are looking for.

    • September 24, 2015 12:34 pm

      Oh my goodness yes, I completely agree with what you say about ‘going out to work’ and about the real value in traditional homemaking. Feminism was meant to bring us freedom of opportunity, not bind us to a new tyranny of HAVING to go out to work! Ooh, I could have a big rant about this. 😉

      That’s so funny, in an ironic sort of way, about your volunteering work going unnoticed. You must have really felt ‘why do I bother’. At least you DID do it when you were able. As long as we all do a bit, I suppose we don’t each have to do everything…!

      I’m noticing that there are several ‘stay-at-home mothers’, for want of a better term, who contribute here. Maybe we need to be a bit more out and proud about the value of what we do! Anyway, thanks so much for your comments and your support.

      • September 24, 2015 5:11 pm

        Interesting that you say we need to be a bit more out there about what we do. Canada is in the run up to a Federal Election and two of the parties are quite anti-stay-at-home-parent. I ended up writing an open letter to the two party leaders about their misconceptions and our value. If you are interested it is only a few posts back on my blog.

  6. September 24, 2015 1:31 pm

    I think the answer is stop being bothered by guilt, in various guises, and come right back to what your heart wants to do, and where it wants to go. It was a shock to my system when both the girls left home permanently. And if you’ve devoted your whole life to family, it takes a while to find your own centre again. A bit of meditation – and don’t listen to any advice! 🙂

  7. September 24, 2015 1:56 pm

    ” thrown sideways by the expectations and insinuations of others.” Please print/pen those words out and post them in the room where you paint. We are so hard on ourselves – and in that wobbling state, we let others drive.
    I know what you mean by feeling like “needing to earn your keep”, but you are far from that.
    Committees? Oh, my. How I hate those – love doing actual event/activities/hands on charity or volunteer work – but the meetings. UGH. Running away as fast as possible. Others do that better and get some sort of enjoyment out of it, so I let them. (Those meeting often seem like nothing much is accomplished but planning for another meeting)
    To each their own – as their skills and talents call.
    You already have a vital role – which many were not given and can never understand. You are a guardian – a steward – of nature’s forest and field, of castle, of heritage, of history, of beauty and of life. Not everyone has the sensibilities to see – and understand – these. Even you physical self is forcing you this direction as all other makes you suffer illness. Read your posts – feel their essence. That is the role you are being offered.
    In the past – in other civilizations – such a role would be one to aspire to. Our world is a bit out of kilter in this right now.
    Take time and let flow. Be gentle with yourself. Family is always an anchor and a priority even as the kids get older. That makes a difference, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But you are allowed more time now. What’s important will find you.
    “…don’t need the latest craze for classes in Mindfulness and Gratefulness. My lessons are all around me.”
    You’ll be fine.
    (Oh, curious you have Virginia creeper there, too. Though I don’t know why it should be a surprise. Love your description of it. Pictures?)

    • September 27, 2015 11:02 pm

      What beautifully expressed thoughts, and how kind you are. Thank you. I have read and re-read what you say here. Very struck by your observation about letting others drive: that chimes with several dreams I’ve had recently! I definitely need to work on that.

      You and I are clearly of one mind re. committees. Thank goodness there are some people out there who enjoy them, so that the rest of us don’t have to join too many!

      The rest of what you say is very generous and very striking. Much food for thought. And I’ll share a photo of that Virginia creeper soon. 🙂

  8. cath permalink
    September 24, 2015 4:00 pm

    There is so much I could respond to in your personal essay that I need to make a selection. The single most important thing: thankfully you have been feeling a bit better lately.

    Immediate response: Please don’t. Not the paid job, not the committees, not the self doubt. You have been feeling better for two months, cherish that, enjoy it as much as you can and nourish it by things and activities that make your heart sing.

    Empathy: friends and acquintances usually see you when you are feeling better or are prentending to be so. They don’t see you when your chronic illness is at it’s worst. They don’t see you struggling through the day. The well meant remarks and the (less well meant) insinuations are the painful part of having a chronic illness. How much you will try to explain, ‘they’ won’t really understand what it is like. I wish it was different but it isn’t.

    Meaning and self worth. These are connected to who you are, not what you do. Who you are (as am I) is a person with a chronic illness yet you are (and so am I) so much more than that.

    The voice of Self. It’s important to be aware of the voices outside. You may examine them, investigate if/when they are true to you, yet they shouldn’t have power over the still small voice inside.

    • September 27, 2015 11:06 pm

      Cath, thank you so much for this long and heartfelt reply. Again, you have given me a good deal to think about, all of it constructive and helpful. I appreciate it very much.

  9. Toffeeapple permalink
    September 24, 2015 6:23 pm

    Your first commitment should be to yourself and your family, if you start doing too much, your health will be undermined and you will have to start from scratch again. You family will doubtless be happier to have you whole.

    As for committees – don’t start me off! xx

    • September 27, 2015 11:11 pm

      Oh dear, yes, you are probably right. Though I don’t really think of myself as an ‘ill’ person (and consider myself lucky and healthy compared to many) it is certainly true that overdoing it knocks my health back with a thump. It can be maddening – though also a lesson in humility!

      Another anti-committee member – hey, maybe we should form an anti-committee committee! 😉

  10. September 24, 2015 9:48 pm

    ‘Can I justify using free time to work on my attempts at art and writing?’

    Yes! Use that time. Use it to slowly build something. Something where you can be self-employed and that will work around your health issues.

    ‘ how I loathe committees’ – sounds as if you’re friends are pressurising you. They might have benign reason for this – maybe they really think you have a valuable contribution to make and would enjoy your company there, but it might blind them to the fact that it’s not what you need right now. It might be what they want, but not what you need.

    I obviously don’t know your friends, but their behaviour could be coming from a different place. I might be totally wrong about this, but I’m working on past experience and what I’ve seen in other people. It may/may not apply to your situation.

    You know, sometimes people can get quite resentful and jealous, even of friends. Sometimes that jealously, to others, seems totally irrational (like being jealous of someone who has had a serious health problems), but that doesn’t matter. In their minds, you have something they want, something they think you shouldn’t have and rational thinking doesn’t come into it.

    If they work hard in stressful jobs, then seeing someone who doesn’t have that makes them feel bad. It’s strange but I’ve seen it quite a few times before. Sometimes they want to to pull the people down around them to feel what they are feeling. If they see someone who looks as if they’re in a ‘better’ position, it almost seems unfair to them and they get resentful about it and they’ll try to find ways to change that in order to make themselves feel better about the bleaker aspects of their lives.

    It might not be obvious – it can be quite subtle feelings that are guiding their behaviour. They have a chance of getting you to do what they want because they can see there if some sort of conflict in you, some sort of guilt that you’re not doing more, whatever that is. It’s sad really.

    ‘don’t entertain much’ – I hope no one has hinted or said anything like this to you because it comes across as shallow. I can understand someone missing you, missing the talks and the catch-ups, but entertaining??

    Illness, like traumatic events, can be very isolating. Unfortunately many people won’t understand it until they experience it themselves.

    • September 27, 2015 11:22 pm

      Thank you very much for this long and thoughtful reply, and for your encouragement of my creative streak. It really helps!

      I think you have a good point about people’s motivations. Most of the folk I know in this area are good people and well-meaning. Sometimes, however, we are hardly conscious of the complex motivations working on our own behaviour. I must look at myself as much as others in considering this. Your comments give me much to ponder…

  11. Denise permalink
    September 24, 2015 11:47 pm

    Such an important discussion here Kate. I’m glad you brought it up. I think there is an expectation now that whatever we’re doing we could surely do more. Life all around us is speeding up. But I think it’s wise to resist living at the speed of contemporary society. Rather we should live at the speed which nourishes our soul. For it is only then that we have gifts to offer the world.

    “We are not supposed to miss this moment. We were not destined to go barreling through life half-numb, unaware of our senses and surroundings, deaf and blind to the magical qualities of the moment.” Brendon Burchard – The Motivation Manifesto

    Other people will always have an agenda for our lives. What we must do is say no more often to those activities, committees and reclaim our own agenda for our life. I decided to spend a year without being on a board or a committee. Now that the year is up and I’ve seen how much more free time I have and how much happier I am, I’m giving it another year. While I seem to be a good, responsible, productive board member, I really don’t enjoy it at all. When Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?” it wasn’t be a board member. So I am learning to respect who I am instead of trying to be who others wish me to be.

    Self-esteem is important and only you can answer how you’re doing there. But life is not stagnant. There is only a short time for you to create memories and influence your boys. Outside work will always be there. I for one do not accept that creating a home and family life is insignificant. Plus you do more than that! Just look at all this discussion not to mention all your creativity and nature awareness. Maybe it’s time to consider writing that book? Maybe you need a list of your activities and then figure out what it would cost to hire someone to do those things. Remember our worth isn’t in the money we bring in but in who we choose to be, in our character.

    I can so relate to the wish to have figured out what we’re suppose to be doing with our life. It seems to be a state I keep returning to. I’m there again, saying now what? Elizabeth Gilbert says she cringes when she hears, “Follow your passion”. ” What if you don’t know?” She says, ” Just follow your curiosity and it will lead you”.

    “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels – that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place – that’s what seperates a mundane existance from a more enchanted one”. Elizabeth Gilbert – Big Magic

    • September 27, 2015 11:36 pm

      Goodness, Denise, it’s amazing how much of what you say resonates with what I’ve been thinking/ doing/ reading. I came across Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ only the day before you wrote this! And you did made me laugh with your comment that ‘when Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?” it wasn’t be a board member.’ YES! 😀

      Since head injury I have had to slow down. My pace of life is dramatically at odds with that of my city friends, which causes difficulty sometimes, but it suits me. I do sometimes have a wry smile when I read the latest article on the importance of slowing down, switching off, taking that class in mindfulness etc. …when I think that that’s how I’ve been living (unfashionably but happily) for several years.

      Thank you for your good suggestions about looking over what I do already and working with that. Intriguing ideas there… And by the way, while you too try to figure out what to do next with your life, it’s pretty clear to me (even from here) that you have already done some wonderful things with your love of nature and community, and your respect for indigenous cultures and history and conservation. Maybe the journey is more important than the destination? xx

      • Denise permalink
        October 3, 2015 5:39 am

        It’s interesting, when the native village was built we had a grand opening celebration. I knew there would be a lot of microphones and video cameras in my face so I decided I’d better have something ready to say. I said something like, “While today we are pausing to celebrate this milestone, the journey is the reward”. So when you said, “Maybe the journey is more important than the destination”, I suddenly remembered a younger me saying the same thing. Slightly un-nerving. Thank you for your kind words about what I have done. Funny how it’s hard to see ourselves clearly sometimes till someone holds up a mirror.

  12. hmunro permalink
    September 25, 2015 5:40 am

    “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that in an age that valued conformity above all else, but I think it applies beautifully to your very modern situation too.

    To echo cath’s wise comment, “Please don’t.” Please don’t buy into the mistaken notion that getting a job or joining a committee is the best way to make a contribution. Please don’t squander your precious energy on other people’s pet projects.

    Please DO spend time in the woods. Please DO your creative endeavors. Please do what makes you happy. Please, do follow your own path! Follow your bliss, and spend your energy pursuing your own passions.

    It may sound whimsical or even slightly selfish, but I think that finding your own path — and then doggedly sticking to it — is the only route a rich and fulfilling and authentic life. And when each of us grows into the best and happiest version of ourselves, everyone around us benefits as well.

    I will stop there, because I suspect you instinctively know all of this already. But I hope the kind and wise words of your many other readers will bring some reassurance that it’s OK to say, “No, thank you.”

    PS: Your opening paragraph is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in ages — so beautiful that I’ve come back to it again and again. Now THAT, my dear Kate, is truly making a contribution to society. 🙂

    • September 27, 2015 11:43 pm

      Bless you, Heather, generous and kind as always. Your comment about my writing made me beam with pleasure. 🙂

      You make such wise points here; I’ll return to read them often as I mull over what everyone has said. I’m particularly struck by your comment about living an ‘authentic’ life. While there are people struggling just to put food on the table – or even to find a place to shelter for the night – these seem luxurious questions to ponder; but I think you’re absolutely right that ‘when each of us grows into the best and happiest version of ourselves, everyone around us benefits as well.’ I hope so. I’ll do my best. xxx

  13. September 29, 2015 7:35 am

    You have the luxury of choice, so do just that. Choose what is right for you and your family. If it helps, why not imagine that you have no choice, and you have to work outside the home. What would you miss most, where would you feel thwarted, in a deep sense, in not having time or mental space for?
    We have to do the best with the situation we have. Very many women have no choice as to whether to work. But we get on with it and find the best in it. I have had to work since my children were born. Yes of course I regret not being with them more, although the time they needed me most was in the teenage years and I deliberately didn’t go for promotion so that I would be available for them in the evenings and weekends when they were at home. While I missed out on some things I have been able to help them in all sorts of ways with my knowledge of how the world of employment today works, and they’ve appreciated that. So you will miss out on some things by not working outside the home (committees!) but you will gain others, and only you can know which feels right for you. Ignore everyone else.

    • September 29, 2015 6:44 pm

      Linda, thank you for taking the trouble to write this sensible and generous advice.

      There is no doubt that working parents bring benefits to children beyond the plain fact of income. I’m thankful that I can talk with my boys about my experience of the world of job interviews, pay cheques, choosing careers and all the rest. I certainly know how fortunate I am to have choice, however; and your wise words help to clarify my muddled thoughts.

  14. September 29, 2015 12:51 pm

    Just wanted to leave an encouragement that being at home, caring for your family, pursuing art, and taking care of yourself are incredibly important jobs even if few others think so (and contributing in huge, though often unseen, ways to the good of society). I can think of nothing that will sap energy more quickly than doing things “because others think you need to.” But I also know pressure from others is very real. And, it’s healthy to wrestle with these things at times.

    • September 29, 2015 6:48 pm

      Thank you, Heather. You are so right! I know! It’s just that I need other people to tell me sometimes. In fact I need them to grab me by the lapels and tell me ve-ry slow-ly, to my face. Crazy how we can give friends better advice than we give ourselves… 😀

      So thank you for writing: it is exactly what I needed to hear. And I agree with everything you say. 🙂

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