Decade N° 5: A Not-so-Average Blog on Middle Age
The anniversary of a traumatic event on Thanksgiving Day supplies an opportunity for gratitude and a life check-in.
By Carrie McConkey
Two years ago on Thanksgiving Eve I hurriedly scooped sweet potato casserole into a Pyrex dish and slid it onto the refrigerator shelf. The reason for my rush: I couldn’t remain standing for much longer. I’d had a productive workday wrapping up loose ends before the holiday, but suddenly my body felt too heavy to move and I was dizzy with nausea. I never had the chance to try the sweet potatoes or any other homemade dish on Thanksgiving Day. Instead, I went to the emergency room for a ruptured appendix.
For the next two and a half months, I fought through physical complications from the surgery stemming from my barely-manageable-as-it-was Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and battled the panicked emotions of a workaholic who is unable to work. But ten weeks of being still — in body and mind — taught me how to live a better life. I vowed to hold an annual check-in on my top three lessons during my Thanksgiving celebration each year.
1. Put Your Big Rocks First — and Learn What They Are
I firmly believe in the analogy of rocks, pebbles, and sand in a jar. If the jar is your day, place the large rocks — your core priorities such as faith, relationships, and wellness — into it first. Follow with the pebbles — the essential tasks and duties of the day to keep you on track and limit stress. Last, pour in the sand, which represents the dozens of little things that consume your time but may or may not be necessary.
For most of my life, not only did I struggle with getting the rocks, pebbles, and sand in the right order, but I’d been assigning the wrong meaning to them. All three were always related to my career. My big goals: the rocks. My daily tasks to move me toward those goals: the pebbles. And the sand? Everything else that my co-workers, clients, and company needed throughout my workdays (and evenings). My personal health? My relationships? My hobbies, home, and time to rest? I didn’t have a category — much less a place — for those in my work-addled life.
While I recovered from the appendectomy I ate meals from a tray on our couch; I was in too much pain to sit upright in my kitchen chair. I turned on Amazon Prime Video to distract myself. I found a movie (not by accident, I’m certain) that became my touchstone for what the rocks, pebbles, and sand really mean. The Twelve Days of Christmas Eve with Molly Shannon and Steven Weber takes all of the best elements from the classic films Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol. The movie follows the journey of Calvin, a successful businessman focused on everything but his loved ones who has to re-live one disastrous Christmas Eve after another until he faces the truth about his work-centric lifestyle. As I watched the movie I cried throughout. I didn’t weep because of the sentimental story, but from the shame that my mindset was so close to Calvin’s. I watched the movie a second time on my Appendixaversary last year. It’s time to watch it again.
2. Realize Your Limits
I’m an experienced public speaker, called upon to educate and entertain groups of all sizes and backgrounds. I’d even been hired as a professional speaker by Monster.com to give presentations to wide-eyed high school freshmen about success in school and how to think ahead toward college. When I started my image consulting business in 2016 I immediately had a full roster of speaking engagements — I presented at corporate retreats, church events and coffee clubs; women’s groups, non-profit luncheons and in college classes.
I was thankful for the exposure for my business, and it meant the world to me when an audience member would approach me later to say my words had made a difference. But I had a big problem: I suffered from honest-to-goodness stage fright.
I left the very fun and flexible job with Monster.com because I would become sick before each presentation. I’d try to hide my urgency as I searched for the school restroom, preparing for a Dumb and Dumber-like toilet scene and desperately hoping I wouldn’t run into one of the students I’d be standing in front of just minutes later. After every presentation I was emotionally exhausted and physically weak.
And still I said yes to opportunities in front of a microphone. On one memorable occasion, I was asked to speak on behalf of Maryville College staff at the Inauguration of the school’s 11th President. Despite being overprepared and having memorized my speech, as I chatted with my work mates I was hiding a full-blown state of panic. Robes fluttering on my academic regalia, I tried to surreptitiously make it to the cramped “Family Restroom”. When I finally approached the podium to speak, I hoped no one would notice that one of my elongated sleeves was damp from a dip in the toilet.
During my recovery from appendicitis I had a finite amount of energy. My usual wake-up time was out the window; it was an arduous commitment to be showered and dressed by 11:00 am. In choosing what limited tasks to undertake each day, I realized the importance of monitoring my energy and determining my limits. The activities I chose had to have meaning, and if they sapped my strength they needed to at least leave me with a satisfied feeling. I never felt that with public speaking. I’m now saying “no” to invitations to be in the spotlight, realizing that just because I’m capable of something doesn’t mean I have to do it.
3. Trust Your Expertise
I’m an anxious person, and a big part of my problem lies in doubting my own abilities. When I’m working on a project I fret that I haven’t done enough research, haven’t solicited advice from the right number of people (and the right people in general), and haven’t had enough education or instruction in the area to successfully complete the undertaking.
A few months after the appendectomy I began practicing “Morning Pages”, three daily pages of handwritten, raw thoughts recommended by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. I followed Cameron’s advice and waited nine weeks before reading through my entries, and discovered how much worry about underperformance plagued me on a daily basis. I kept writing, and kept reviewing, discovering time after time that a few pages after the misgivings and apprehension there was always a positive outcome.
On my yearly post-appendectomy review I try to remind myself of what I do know. I have spent half a century on this earth, although it doesn’t feel like it. That’s a long time to figure things out, and even if I haven’t mastered every type of industry and job within it, chances are I’ve known someone who has.
My last entry in my Morning Pages was on Sunday, October 4th of this year. I didn’t even finish one page… after a single sentence, I just stopped writing. I no longer needed to document my misguided fears, but was ready to move forward and celebrate my strengths.
As I complete my second year sans appendix, I’m still striving to learn what my big rocks are, realize my limits, and trust my expertise. It’s taking time, and my progress has not always been linear. But I’m thankful that I have my Appendixaversary to give me an extra helping of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. And this year, I’ll take an extra helping of sweet potato casserole, too.