Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Prompt 206. Shifting Expectations
& a prompt by Holly Huitt on how they can be deceiving
Last weekend, I made plans to go upstate with a few of my beloveds to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday. When I committed, I was trying to follow my own advice about having things to look forward to and planting seeds for future joy. But leading up to it, I had seven days of chemo, a bone marrow biopsy, and a spinal tap, and the morning we were supposed to leave, I woke up feeling like I’d been kicked in the kidneys by a horse. (Note to self: Never again schedule a spinal tap and bone marrow biopsy on the same day during a chemo week. Never ever.)
As I struggled to pull myself out of bed, I could hear a past version of myself saying, “You need to cancel—and wait to travel and socialize when you’re well enough.” But I know I can’t hold off on living my life until I’m “well enough,” because there may be no such time. Instead, spurred by conversations within this community, I reminded myself: true wellness is living as fully as you can within your circumstances.
So I went and allowed the weekend to be what it would be. I felt strong enough for a trip to the farmer’s market and a daily dip in the swimming pool, but also I slept a lot—in fact, I missed most meals in exchange for naps. I also brought my watercolors and a painting that’s been thwarting me for months—it’s bigger and more ambitious than earlier paintings, with all these little visions that I wasn’t sure how to bring together. When I had a fleeting bit of energy, I’d go out to the screened porch, which overlooked pastures of wildflowers and a tree-fringed pond, and pick up my brush.
As I painted, I thought about the writer Anne LaMott and the one-inch picture frame she keeps on her desk—as she explains in Bird by Bird, “It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.” Inch by inch, I started laying down swaths of color, blues and greens and aquamarines, with one burst of yellow green in the sky like the northern lights.
By the end of the weekend, I had a finished painting, which I’m calling Out of Office Reply, along with a number of sweet, joyful memories: drinking coffee over a game of Scrab-Grab, picking fresh basil from the garden, eating overripe peaches, laughing with friends as River tested the water in the pool with a one-paw paddle then submerged her snout to blow bubbles. I returned home tired but content, feeling like I’d lived as fully as I could within my circumstances.
It’s interesting to think that this only happened because I shifted my expectations of myself and of my body—and of wellness in general. Which brings me to today’s prompt from my sweet friend and Isolation Journals comrade Holly Huitt. In it, she considers the power of expectations and how they can be deceiving.
Some Items of Note—
On Sunday, August 28, from 1-2pm, we’ll be meeting at the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers. Carmen and Holly will be discussing the novelist Marilynne Robinson and the power of paying attention. You can join by clicking here!
We’ll be sending out a Dear Susu very soon. Have a question for me? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Dear Susu.”
We’re two weeks into an exciting new community offering called Threads, where we’ve gathered reading recs, talked about rest, and shared songs that inspire us to create. Friday’s thread even spawned an Isolation Journals mixtape! It’s so much fun and available to anyone with an iOS operating system on their tablet or smartphone (don’t worry—web and Android access coming soon). Get the app and join us for the next Thread!
Prompt 206. Weeding by Hollynn Huitt
The day before we left on a two-week trip, I stood looking at my garden, feeling regretful. It had never looked better. The flowers seemed to all be blooming at once, the black caps ripe, the tomatoes green but perfectly round. I preemptively mourned for the state it was sure to be in upon my return: overgrown and overwhelming.
When we got back—as soon as we drove up in fact—my fears were confirmed. The garden looked as though we had been away for years. The feet of the blueberry bushes were choked with tall grasses, bindweed had conquered the currant bush, and some yellow flowering weed had grown as tall as the asparagus, which is to say over my head. All our hard work had been undone in a matter of weeks. Where would we find the time to fix this? There was only enough time to keep things running in our lives, never enough to correct for a problem as big, as exhausting, as this.
My instinct was to avoid the garden, but my young sons, undeterred by the weeds, hopped out of the car, pulled me toward the gate and got to work foraging: picking midnight blueberries and scarlet cherry tomatoes and spiny cucumbers, wiping them across their palms before eating them through the middle. As they ate, I decided to begin weeding, though I was certain that what little I could do in the next few minutes would be negligible. I pulled the first weed and it came up effortlessly, with zero resistance. I laughed, a single surprised “ha.” What luck, to have chosen the easiest one on my first go! But the next weed was the same, then the next.
Within minutes I had a pile worthy of a wheelbarrow. I sat back on my heels, looked down the length of our garden, and felt a kind of vertigo. This task, which I had dreaded before it even happened, which had disheartened me weeks before, had been nearly effortless. There were lots of reasons why, from diligently weeding the garden for years, to the soil on that day—soft from a recent rain, crumbling from the morning’s sun—being amenable to weeding. Still the feeling remained: some of the hard things I had been worrying about might just turn out all right. Instead of hunkering down and bracing for impact, I could, just maybe, hope for the best.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about a time you dreaded something, but it turned out to be okay—maybe even easy or pleasant. Try to isolate the moment of realization. How did it feel?
For more paid subscriber benefits see—
On Seeking Joy in the Midst of Hard Things, a video replay of our Studio Visit with the brilliant Kate Bowler
Show Up and the Muse Will Too, an essay from Suleika and community discussion on staying nimble
Love in the Time of Cancer (Part 1), an installment of Dear Susu where Suleika and her mother Anne Francey discuss selfishness, surrender, & wisdom gained from experience