striking a balance

Everywhere I look, people are excited about fall. They want sweaters and gray skies and Halloween, I guess, for some reason. Meanwhile, I'm the curmudgeonly millennial who would be happy with 80 degrees year-round. I'm a freeze baby. Poor circulation or whatever. If you've been to my house, you've probably seen me with my electric blanket on, even in the heat of summer.

But I do love fall. Cool, crisp air. Vibrant leaves. The delightfully pervasive smell of apple cinnamon. The past month has wreaked havoc on my sinuses, but that hasn't stopped me from lighting candles. My laptop screen is split in half: one side, the Google doc with a draft of this blog post; the other side, another Google doc, this one with a D&D game. A candle sits to the right of my screen, subtle and homey and just barely penetrating my stuffy nose.

This is my last fall in school. My last period of back-to-school frenzy, which is equal parts nostalgia and depression. I never want to go back. But there's a certain kind of excitement in it, like stepping into a darkened theater in December 2015, knowing that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably going to change your life. A new adventure! Experiences untold!! I'll never have that again, not unless I go for my Ph.D., which isn't something I want to think about right now.

(So, people say, smiling like they know something I don't. Are you going for your Ph.D.?

Maybe someday! Which is to say, NOT RIGHT NOW.)

Next year at this time, I'll have my M.A. in Community Care. If I'm lucky, I might even have a literary agent. But first I have to graduate. First I have to finish my book.

I was going to have a rough draft by the end of August. That was my plan. I had four whole months off school, with nothing but a trip to Anaheim, California to distract me.

In my defense, I got close. I wrote five chapters in four months, give or take a few scenes. I've been working on this book for a decade. The current draft clocks in at 22 chapters, so if you do the math that's, like, what, two chapters a year? One and a half? Something like that. Anyway, point being, summer 2019 was one of unprecedented growth.

I started a job. My very first adult job, with paid time off. I now identify as a part-time employee, which is weird in a good way. I drove halfway across the country to attend this year's Cure SMA conference. I met co-workers, dyed my hair pink, and toted a toddler around Target like the single mom I am in my heart. I bought a bridesmaid dress and attended a baby shower. My oldest cousin on my mom's side gave birth to her first kid. I'm in the thick of adulthood, which is what happens when you're 24 years old.

Everything happens so much.

I wanted to finish my book. But then life happened, and I realized I couldn't juggle a new job and a manuscript without losing my mind. So I stopped trying. I even added two new chapters, which I'd been avoiding because two additional chapters meant throwing my entire timetable out the window. I'm still writing; I'm just not racing against the clock to meet an arbitrary due date.

I let go. And it's probably the best thing I could've done.

I sleep until 10 a.m. Any earlier than that and my body throws a tantrum. I get ready for the day, avoiding mirrors so I can forget, if briefly, that my skin is the worst it's ever been.

In true freelance fashion, I've waffled between pajamas and clothes. There are all sorts of studies about working from home and the importance of, like, making yourself presentable, not because you're going to see anyone but because it makes you feel good about yourself. I tried—somewhat chaotically—to wear clothes but eventually invested in actual, genuine pajama sets, with lace and colorful patterns and bows on the pockets. Next spring I'm getting myself a lace nightgown, half to fulfill a childhood dream and half for the aesthetic.

I get to work around noon and, depending on the day, clock out after two to three hours. If it's a day of medical appointments, I study in the waiting room, scrolling through my PDF on family therapy. If it's a day with nothing planned, I go to the library with my laptop and electric blanket. I gave coffee shops the old college try, but I don't like fighting actual paying customers over the few outlets available. Besides, there's something to be said for being surrounded by books.

It's a balancing act. Can I fit an hour of work before my appointment? Can I reply to a discussion post for school on the way to the library? My goal is to be done by 6:30 p.m. Depending on the day, I'll watch an episode of Merlin or listen to Critical Role while scrolling through Pinterest. If I'm really into a book, I'll crawl into bed and read.

I pop three melatonin around 11:30 and am asleep by midnight.

Weekends are better. Sometimes I play D&D. Sometimes I go to antique festivals and buy too many picture frames. Sometimes I go to my parents' vacation home in Wisconsin and write blog posts. If I'm lucky, I'll go to a creamery 20 miles out of town and buy three different kinds of specialty cheese.

If I'm really lucky, I'll go to a Jonas Brothers concert with my best friends and stay up way too late for a Monday night. But that's the thing about luck.

It chooses you. Not the other way around.

I work, study, eat pasta, play D&D. I think, not for the first time, that life isn't actually that bad once you start an antidepressant. I go to the library and Target, and once Saturday rolls around, I stare at my manuscript for a good 15 minutes before I buckle down and write.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work by Cal Newport is a book I actually tried to review on Goodreads. I keep coming back to it, and not because it's fall and productivity is in the air.

I don't have time to write anymore. Not really. Not unless I want to stress myself out, and I abandoned the image of the suffering artist years ago. But deep work is important. Creativity is part of me. I am genuinely the happiest when I am lost in a story, whether it's D&D or Star Wars or a column I'm really feeling. So I stuck with Deep Work and applied most—some?—of the concepts to my everyday life.

I could sit myself down every evening and churn out a few hundred words. I could! But I would be suffering the entire time, and what's the point of that, really? (I always come back to the bio of a Twitter account I've been following for a while: "speculative optimism for radical joy against the end of times." Does it spark joy? Does it?!) So I trudged my way through Deep Work, marked it as #read on Goodreads, and stopped writing every day.

Deep Work is worth the read, but if, like me, you are constantly juggling too many library rentals, I'd suggest looking up a summary. Some parts will be relevant to your life. Others won't. I took what I needed from the book—the permission to let go of a schedule that was no longer serving me—and promptly forgot everything else.

I don't want to write during the week. Not right now. So I don't. It sounds simplistic, and maybe it is, but I can't verbalize how freeing it's been. My weekends are less busy, so I carve out several hours of uninterrupted writing time. I log out of Messenger. I silence my phone. I push my brain to its limit because apparently that's how you sharpen the mind or whatever. I try to finish the scene I'm working on—and then I stop.

I blow out my candle, back up my manuscript, and go back to living life.

I've struck a balance. Which is weird! I'm not known for balance, but I guess that's what happens when you're 24 years old. Things just happen. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that, after two decades of hard work, things fall into place. If you're dedicated to seeking everyday instances of whimsy, you might just see it as something close to magic.

Is it just me, Nick Jonas sings in "Cool," or am I just having a good year?