Systems Check

In case it’s not already abundantly obvious, letting go isn’t my strong suit. Case in point: this morning, while trying to figure out how best to get the news out about my upcoming paperback, I got sucked into same pretty gnarly marketing quicksand. Before long, I was flailing about in a sea of Tumblr and Instagram and Twitter. Even so, I was sure I was doing great, industrious work, ready to conquer any and all social media platforms with the fumes of enthusiasm alone. But then I noticed that my stomach was in knots. And that I was having just the most minor problem possible with breathing.

Letting go sounds so easy, but it’s actually one of the hardest things for anyone to do. We see a problem, and we armor up. We feel a need, and we chase it. Yet even if you were raised in the cold and suspicious cities of Massachusetts, where vigilance is a badge of honor and crustiness lends one an air of authority, you still need to learn to let go. Especially when the important stuff is at stake. Why? I don’t know why, pigeons. No one does.

But here’s something I do know: Every time I get all tangled up in my own leash (aka my own best efforts), the only way I can start breathing fully and easily again is if I step away from the mental chatter and do a systems check. This is not exactly an act of recognizing that I need to let go and just blithely releasing all my cares into the universe like some kind of rainbow-farting unicorn. No, it’s more like control is my red balloon, and no matter how old I get it’s going to be really hard to convince me to release it from my sweaty grip. Still, I’ve managed to cobble together a way toward letting go anyway, sort of like distracting my inner self from the red balloon by offering it some candy or brownies made special in Northern California. And because I am at the level of Letting Go for Dummies, I thought I’d share my baby steps with you in case you sometimes feel like you’re constantly playing whack-a-mole with all the things you think you should be doing with your life.

Here’s how it goes: First, I stop what I’m doing. That sounds pretty obvious, but when you’re on a runaway train to nowhere, it can be a lot harder than it sounds. Still, it can be done, even if your first and lasting efforts aren’t all that pretty. Sometimes, all I can do is manage to hurl myself off that train, or at least stop trying to drive it. But by hook or by crook, I eventually figure out how to stop long enough to check in with myself. Not in a profound, existential sense; I’m not that evolved. It’s more like how you’d check in with a kindergartener: Does anything hurt? Are you feeling OK? Have you forgotten to eat? Does it maybe look like you’re about to throw a shovel at someone’s head? Then I note the anomalies: maybe a knot in my stomach, or a tightness in my chest, or maybe my eyebrows have gone so far up my forehead that they’re threatening to merge with my hairline. I like to think of it as a personal systems check, knowing that I can only do my best work if all parts of me are on board.

Because if you’re anything like me, with a mind that has a tendency to Shanghai every activity or endeavor, I sometimes forget about the rest of me. You know, little parts like my physical and emotional well-being. The parts that hunker down and seize up when I’m trying to do what I think I should be doing, or write what I think others want to read, or live a life that would be somehow more acceptable than the one I’ve been given.

Years ago, my sister, who studied opera for many years, had the privilege of meeting the great soprano Beverly Sills. It’s hard not to watch any opera singer without feeling as though they must be expending every eye-popping physical effort they can to make that sound. But what Ms. Sills told her couldn’t be further from the truth. Singing, she said, at its best, should feel like nothing. Your body just becomes a vessel for that sound, and everything you do up until and including that point is prepare your body to fill with music and then release it.

Imagine if we did that in life, too. Or just now, in this moment, with this particular life entirely at your disposal, as it’s always been: just fill it up with music and let it go.

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