Back in June, it was my friend’s birthday and to her party I had offered to bring the birthday cake. Unfortunately, not only did I get the date of the party wrong (discovered by virtue of a rather awkward text asking where I was), but on the day I finally arrived, the cake itself was a horrible, cloying mess. I had followed a new recipe loosely, making a number of ingredients substitutions, which resulted in an overly sweet yet dense sponge. The greatest offence however, came in the decorations which should have resembled a lovely berry-rippled cream, but instead presented a grey, curdled nightmare. It was disgusting and I felt ashamed (later compounded by me vomiting at 4am—suspected cake poisoning which I worried had been inflicted upon others).
When I returned home that evening, crestfallen, I told the Doc of my poor performance and, despite her apparent phlegmatism, how disappointed my friend had been with her abomination of a birthday cake. He kindly reassured me with the usual comforting platitudes: I’m sure she appreciated the effort, etc etc. As for my performance, he said: “It’s all about falling forward Willow, learning from your mistakes and improving. Failure is an important part of progress.” Ever the innovation and strategy lecturer.
While objectively, I agree with the Doc, it can be difficult to identify the progress when one’s existence seems littered with clangers. The baking which followed the previous disaster was not an improvement. My Swiss roll was distressing for all concerned; a somewhat paradoxical blend of dry texture and eggy taste, a decimated Catherine wheel with splits and jam bleeding into, not to mention the curdled cream which spewed out each end. It was a catastrophe, made all the worse by the disappointment of my three-year-old who had vigorously assisted me. “I don’t like it” she said, her face looking up at me apprehensively. She seemed to be aware, if only subconsciously, of the magnitude of that failure for me (or perhaps it was the look on my face that told her) because she did an immediate volte-face and said “No, I like it!” and licked the creamy mess uncomfortably. I felt bad about that and quickly tossed the whole thing in the bin and gave her some chocolate instead.
Sometimes it feels the opposite of progress. That rather than falling forward, one is simply floundering in the quagmire, failure begetting failure. And it’s not just baking, but everything. Work seems to be on a bit of a poor run also. I have become prone to errors which then shake my confidence and make me even more prone to errors, despite believing I’m being more vigilant than usual. Doubt and anxiety begin to weave into my mind and take hold and I become untrusting of my ability to do anything adequately, including turning the iron off or locking the door.
The night is dark and full of terrors… At least that’s how it feel in my head.
However, I believe I may have stumbled upon two possible remedies for this rather debilitating worriment: more sleep and slowing down. With the possible adjunct of getting someone (i.e. a partner or grandparent) to take the kids away periodically for a couple of days.
Most people are aware of this and I am (theoretically) also, but sleep deprivation is the root of all evil. I am only just now fully grasping that concept, despite having preached it for some time. No matter what I say to myself at the beginning of the day, I am NEVER in bed by 10pm, EVER. It’s always at least midnight and then I often read until 1am. Then there are the inevitable breakages in sleep (if I even manage to sleep, which is intermittent at best), by babies crying or my inordinately frequent bathroom visits, followed by the first assault of the day at 6.30-7am. Although one learns to function as best one can in this fragmented state, compounded sleep deprivation undermines anyone’s foundations, whether practical, professional, emotional, physical or psychological. For me, cracks have been appearing for some time—my skin is tired and translucent, huge dark circles have set up camp under my bleary eyeballs, my body aches, I’m prone to histrionic meltdowns at the first whiff of criticism, I check the hob and door locks about fifteen times before leaving the house—which cause my mind to wander off task, as it manically tries to calculate how much else needs to be crammed into my limited waking hours. It is not the stuff of great progress, but rather a recipe for abject and ongoing failure.
A couple of days ago, I fell from grace entirely. Work which I’ve been performing adequately for months, seemed to suddenly be suffering and even when I thought I was concentrating, I was missing things. The Doc told me I needed to slow down. But I found that so indefensible. How can I slow down from a life that’s already so slow?
I know a woman who works as a psychotherapist. She has a caseload of 85 families of children with acute gender identity issues. It is impossible for her to invest in those patients without it spilling into her own emotional life. That to me, is a stressful existence and one within which a person needs to ensure they take the best possible care of themselves—if they can. I, on the other hand, spend my working hours trying to decide whether a full stop or semi-colon is more appropriate for a sentence, and then the rest of the time yelling at my children. Hardly world-changing stuff. And when put in context, hardly seems the sort of thing one would need to ‘slow down’ from.
And yet, that is exactly the dilemma: life is contextual. My context is confined and small so drama is often triggered by something that may seem trivial to others. Things take on entirely new levels of meaning, such as a failed cake becoming a symbol of endemic mediocrity. It can be challenging to yank oneself out of such spiralling thoughts, and sometimes the feeling can be made worse when guilt is thrown into the mix. For example, if I remind myself that people are dying every day in Syria so I shouldn’t be so dramatic about my lot, I just feel worse.
Slowing down need not necessarily mean doing less, but perhaps just demanded less of oneself. This, I’ve found, can prove far more productive than making insanely long to-do lists and trying to account for every moment of the day with a task. Slowing down for me means priotising sleep and yoga (even if only a few stretches) and only agreeing to work if I know I have the space to do it properly. It sounds obvious enough but achieving the balance is tricky, particularly the need for money with childcare demands. It also means carrying out tasks with greater awareness of the elements involved, working in a considered and methodical way rather than perpetually ‘winging it’. This applies to writing, cakes, whatever. Blocking out the anxiety and self-doubt and focusing on the practical components of the task at hand. This for me, is how one falls forward.