This summer I had terrible ants in my pants. It wasn’t funny anymore. But what do you do if you can’t sit still?
There was a time that I’d take holidays in small beach hotels or roaming the Mediterranean coast on a boat with a small group of friends. All there was to do was swim, lounge, eat and drink, enjoy the beauty of nature and life itself. But I don’t anymore. I can’t sit still. Do you know the feeling?
Whether it is because the pandemic has blurred the lines between on time and off time, because my smartphone gives me eternal access to things I could or should be doing, or because I am growing older, earlier this year I suddenly noticed that somewhere along the line I seemed to have lost that ability to suspend all ‘useful’ activity, and just to be. But I was craving that old sense of being off duty. This summer I was determined to spend a few weeks just doing nothing. But alas. I ended up doing the exact opposite. At the end of my holiday I was exhausted. An irresistible force met an immovable object.
We have a house in the south of Turkey, which we built 16 years ago. When the pandemic prohibited us from going there, we started renting it out to holiday makers who were able to go. I’m proud to say that I also built Turkey’s first natural swimming pool, which certainly helped attract guests. But last summer, our caretaker complained that he could hardly keep it filled with water. Clearly there was a serious leak. That is what I was going to fix this summer before I’d start lounging.
It wasn’t hard to identify the problem. My pool consists of three ponds on different levels, two filled with plants for filtering, one for swimming. The top pond had become an impenetrable oasis of reeds. These are excellent for treating water. But as I now discovered for myself, reeds also drill through the rubber liner with their arrow-like tubular roots. I had planted them despite the warnings from every website on the topic. Lesson one: sometimes being self-righteous comes at a cost.
Ah yes, and there was also an issue with the bottom pond, the swimming area, one side of which had sunk due to earthquakes. The liner ripped. That needed to be fixed too.
This pool is my pride and joy. I love working on it, improving it and making it more beautiful. So for me this was a perfect holiday job. My plan was to do the hard work for two weeks and then spend a month tweaking and enjoying the result.
I hired three men, strong as oxen. Sweat dripping from their bodies – it was the height of summer, 40 degrees in the shade – they slashed the dry, hard reeds and started digging out the roots. And the two tons of quartz sand. And the four tons of gravel. And dismantle the two metre high riverstone wall against the hill side, some of the boulders weighing 50 kilos or more. Every day of the week they were there, getting to the bottom of the reed pond so I’d be able to fix the pierced liner.
As they progressed, new complications cropped up, as twisted as the roots that had to be sieved out of the gravel by the old method of hurling shovels-full at a man-sized grate. The project kept growing and growing. After two weeks we were nowhere near finishing. After three weeks I started feeling a slight panic: what was going to happen to my relax-time? I stopped writing my book during the hottest midday hours, and upped my time at the ponds, doing whatever I could to speed up the work. This was no longer fun.
Ten days later piles of stones had risen everywhere round my once-lovely pools and I felt on the brink of collapse. Even God took a day off, goddammit, I thought. So I suggested to the men to take it easy for the coming 24 hours. ‘It’s Sunday. For sure you’ll want to take your kids to the beach,’ I said.
They looked at each other. Gravely one of them shook his head. ‘Sunday’s very busy down there. I don’t want to go near all those people and get sick.’ The others nodded. ‘Let’s keep on working,’ they decided. And so we worked. And worked. I now tried sleeping during the siesta hours, but my mind was racing all the time, so I rarely managed to doze off. I’d go for a swim in the pool that was slowly being filled, but felt the pressure to get to work again. I must relax, I told myself over and over again, stressing about the fact that I couldn’t do so.
And then it happened. One early morning I was looking at the pretty walkways being built from carefully selected riverstones by my diligent workers, the light of the rising sun filtering through the trees. The air was still cool and smelled of scented plants. The first frogs that had found their way back to the reappearing water were croaking happily.
But all of a sudden, I didn’t care anymore for the beauty we were creating. The potential future problems I had been solving, the joy that this water feature was going to bring us and our guests, all felt pointless and stupid. Focusing on all the things I didn’t do right and I hadn’t managed to achieve, like finishing my book or posting the daily lessons about leadership I was experiencing, I felt like a total failure. I wanted to walk away from the whole project.
As I was sipping my fragrant sage tea, feeling bitter inside and beyond exhaustion, I realised I had been here before. These same feelings had ultimately made me walk away from my journalistic career a decade ago. The journey of self-discovery that I embarked on as a result, now helped me recognise what was going on.
I could see how I was not giving myself credit for all that I did achieve. How I was putting the bar impossibly high for myself. How I felt I had to be in control of every minute detail and was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of details that needed to be controlled. How everything had to be done my way, or undone. How I was even thinking it would be a relief if I were dead. How I was doing all the things I see my clients doing and describe in my book as ways one typically sabotages oneself on the way to burnout. It made me feel really silly and I was preparing to start scolding myself.
But then I heard another voice in my head. I took a deep breath. I knew these were all thought patterns and strategies a much younger version of myself had come up with to cope with a difficult world. It was time for me to let go of all that anxiety and let my wiser, resourceful current self get the upper hand.
I smiled and felt a weight lift off my chest. After a while I took out my phone and started talking, recording the lessons I was remembering from this project. These I will be sharing with you in my next posts. I also invited my dear husband to go for a swim in the sea and lunch on the beach. We did this regularly for the rest of our stay, and it took the pressure off my overheated mind.
Once again I was reminded of how important it is for us who can’t sit still to practice self-care, not when your mighty task is done, but while you’re executing it. Equally important is to stop every once and a while, take in your achievements and pat yourself on the shoulder. And really, the world does not end if you miss a beat. Or two.