“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light.”

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

In high school I carried around those hardback anthologies of poetry in my backpack to read during downtime. You know those anthologies? Not quite the tome and canon that is Norton, but the “best loved of American literature” kind that fit well in the hand and serve well in moments panged by first crushes and missed romance. I must have read the above poem dozens of times.

I burn my candle at both ends all too often, and I take accountability for that now, even though I used to put that burden on my children and/or circumstances when I was unhealthy and not the master of my own mind. Even two years into my lifestyle of caring for myself responsibly, I still struggle with proper sleeping habits. I gamble fast and loose quite often, banking on the children not waking up or on falling asleep right away when I do bed down. I do not like to sleep, not really, that’s part of the problem.

Every once in awhile, though, I short myself too much. Events collide, and I lose the gamble. My rebellion catches up with me. After a couple of weeks, actually, of burning the candle, last night my children both woke up. Eric needed help with water; Katie seemed to wake up rather randomly at about 3:30 and never did go back to sleep.  Since she kept needing me, I never went back to sleep either. Sleep deficit: one million. I heard the first birds chirp.

Oh, I was in a grouchy mood. I hadn’t felt so grouchy and irritable in, oh, about forever. I knew I had a six mile run scheduled for this morning. Coach-husband tried the, “Well, you don’t have to do six; you can do less if you feel bad” consolation.

“Yes, I do!!” And I am sure the verb here would be “snapped.”

Exhausted, I put on my running shoes. Yesterday I ran five miles in the morning, took the kids for an hour of walking and park time in between their gymnastics classes, came home after art class and did intervals on the track, and then came home and took my children swimming. The intervals were insanely fast, for me. It was 880, walk a lap, 440, walk a lap, 220, walk half a lap, 220 for a total of a broken mile at a 5:53 pace. PRs for me on all those distances, and the first time to break 6:00 even though it was not an unbroken distance. Great news yesterday; killer today.

Usually within the first few strides of a run I feel all my cares lifting, but not today. Today I was so out of sorts I wanted to break down into tears and wallow a bit. I was angry and sad that I had barely slept and felt so bad. But whose fault was that, really? I was irritated that my routine was all off kilter, and then depressed that I felt at odds with life. In that first mile when none of that yuck would shake off, I could tell that it would take every bit of willpower and effort to overcome myself this morning and to get back in touch with reality.

Reality? No matter how bad a day I think I am having, it’s not bad at all. Not even a little bit. I don’t have to watch my children starving to death or dying from treatable, vaccinatable diseases. I do not have to fear for my life every day. I do not have to be afraid to educate my daughter. I have freedom of thought and speech and expression. I have way too many luxuries. I am not currently evacuated from my home like those in peril from the nine fires south of us. I have an extensive family network of love and encouragement. These are the things I remember before I am even tempted to complain like a petulant, uninformed child. I also remember this: every moment I have a choice about what to write next. (Or I think I have a choice, which amounts to the same thing).

Every moment, a choice.

First choice: no matter how bad I feel, follow my health routine. A long time ago, I would have martyred myself instead of womanning up. I was up for the children, I would have said. I deserve/have earned a comforting breakfast full of sugar and fat. And I would certainly not have dreamed of exercising after such an exhausting night. I didn’t exercise anyway, but my tiredness would have been a reason up my sleeve not to start. So, first choice: get those running shoes on, woman. No matter what poor choice you made about going to bed last night, you don’t get to keep backsliding. Get out that door. Get control back over yourself; don’t keep yielding it up.

Every moment, a choice. What memories do I want to make today?

I was pondering this question on my run to nearly no avail when I saw a man unassumingly picking up trash since so many trashcans had blown over in yesterday’s wind. He was just walking along, making the world more beautiful. I thanked him and ran on my way, but the image stayed with me. There is always good if we look for it, always something to hang on to, always a good person whose example can help pull us out of ourselves and back into a desire to be of service. He was reminding me to serve my bigger ideals today, but it would be another couple of hours before I let the significance of his actions become part of me.

Second choice: wallow or remember the bigger picture? Well, I wallowed decently for the last several miles and took an especially brutal route on purpose because I was so irritated. Horrible hills, horrible average pace for me, horrible grouch. Really stuck it to myself, huh? Wah! Wah! But there has to be a fixed point to the wallowing. A gal has to know when to cut that business off. Sometimes we have help to do it, but other times we have to make it happen on our own.

Fortunately, I had help today:

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I was sitting in Bill’s office kind of bumming out after my run when suddenly my little Eric appeared, having just woken up. I don’t know how he perceived anything amiss, but he crawled right up into my lap and gave me the biggest, most lingering hug I think he has ever given me. Somehow, he just knew this day was not totally my day so far. He had been asleep, so I don’t know how he would have known… He is such an affectionate, perceptive, big-hearted little guy. Then he cuddled on my lap for a long time, just letting me read some news and snuggling with love. I told him I was tired but would try to play; instead, he tucked me with his blanket into the fort in the living room and played nearby while I tried closing my eyes for a bit. He’s my sweet boy, that’s for sure.

Third choice: let the day continue to drift, or proceed as planned? The day will pass whether I am tired or not, so it might as well be fun, right? By now some of my grouchiness was lifting. How could it not after Eric’s hug?

We did weights and a yoga class streamed from Runner’s World, made granola, and tackled the laundry.

Then we got out.

Because sometimes a change of scene really helps.

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We have a choice about what to write next. Grouchy or goofy? I dug in my heels and made my choice. I will be tired regardless: I might as well be as positive as possible in writing our family narrative.

So we walked down to the corner. In 92 degrees, yessir.

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And on the way back? The public lawn had sprinklers on. Let’s run in them!, I exclaimed to the kids. They looked at me wide-eyed. In our clothes? Yes, in our clothes. Why not? I am sure we looked slightly loony-toons to drivers passing by, but who cares? We were making a memory. A deliberate memory, to be the stand-out memory of the day.

They marveled at it all the way home. I guess I need to get their clothes wet more often. It was just the right amount of novelty, though. I woke up feeling like I was having a bad day, I said, but we have a choice about what to remember about this day. I am not going to remember that I was tired today, and you are not going to remember that, either…but you will remember that today we had lunch together and then ran in the public sprinklers together on the way home. 

There are choices, always choices. Even the cheerful get grouchy; even the most optimistic wrestle with themselves. I think the key, though, is to remember that we’re writing our story every moment. What do we want that story to be? What role are we hoping to play in the story of those around us? Will we be so focused on our own irritations that we wallow, or will we make the effort to be of service to humanity through helpfulness and productivity despite how we temporarily feel? Are our ideals big enough to contain both the good and bad aspects of our human nature; can we get ourselves make better choices for our actions without fear of punishment or promise of reward (other than the reward of doing good for the sake of doing good)? If there is nothing to stop a bad mood other than the realization that a sour mood gets in the way of creating good ripples in the universe, what will we do to pull ourselves out of it?

The day is almost done. I was not at my best and did not do half of what I hoped to do with the kiddos today, but I also didn’t screw this one up, either. And sometimes, that can be good enough. Do no harm. Look for the good. Celebrate what is going right.

Tomorrow is a new day.

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