I lost the race before the start / … I need a place to lay my head.Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors
In his song “A Place to Lay My Head,” Holcomb likens life to a race — a race that he’s lost before he’s even begun.
Well if that isn’t demoralizing, I don’t know what is. Having run track in high school, I remember how nervous I would get before my race. The mile was my main event, and I would always try to size up my competition ahead of time (who doesn’t?). There was always someone who looked beatable. As a narcissistic teenager, I wouldn’t have run track at all unless I knew I would beat people. In other words, I wouldn’t attempt things at all unless I knew I’d be good at them. Looking back I do wonder about all the fun things I missed out on because I was so narcissinsecure. At the end of the day, running track was a choice I made (because I knew I’d be good at it). Running the mile was a choice I made (because I knew I’d be good at it).
If you think life is a choice, you’ve actually lost the race before you’ve begun.
So when life feels like a race, and it feels like we’ve lost before the start, how do we cope? As a teenager in an actual race, I would have probably quit. But I don’t think we get to quit life. Maybe Buster wanted to quit army. But instead he gritted his teeth, played the claw game, and came home to Mother with “awards from Army”: a stuffed seal and gorilla for marksmanship and sand racing, respectively. Now that’s really something.
It comes down to control, or lack thereof. If we haven’t even begun the race and we’ve already lost, we have no control over achieving “success.” What’s the point of racing if you can’t win? There’s a reason this is a paradox. (How can you lose if you haven’t even raced? And yet somehow we all know this feeling well. It’s frightening.)
Sidenote: I am writing this post at home. With my 7-year-old’s music playing. Currently, it’s “Mario Kart Metal,” spewing out gems like “if you’re not first, you’re last … just when you think you’re safe, here comes THE RED SHELL … show them that you’re good enough and summon STAR POWER!” Thanks, firstborn, for adding this important and necessary element to the race metaphor.
Living in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, it feels a little like we’ve lost the race. Maybe there was a chance of winning, but we didn’t stumble to the starting line in time. From an article published, fittingly, on the ides of March, The New York Times columnist David Leonhardt quotes William Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist:
“We just twiddled our thumbs as the coronavirus waltzed in.”
Leonhardt later quotes Trump:
“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
So now (in our homes, away from all other potentially-contagious humans), we’re figuring out how to live life in a new way. (My dad’s voice comes barreling through my skull: “It’s new, it’s different — I DON’T LIKE IT!”) It can be difficult to change, especially when you’ve found a routine that works for you. We’ve lost the race before we’ve begun because … we don’t know what the course is.
While it can be fun to try new things (not drugs, kids), it can also be exhausting. I am very, very thankful that I have a fenced backyard where my boys like to play. I cannot imagine being cooped up inside with three littles. That’s not a “new” thing in life I want to try.
I think Holcomb realizes early in the song that he is exhausted:
I need a place to lay my head
That might be what we most need sometimes. A place to lay our heads. A place to rest. And this COVID-19 pandemic might be a chance to do just that, whether we want to or not. When we’re frustrated (maybe even angry) at the slow response our country has taken against the virus, when we’re feeling a loss of control, when we’re just plain exhausted — we might simply need a place to lay our head, physically and emotionally. Some tips:
- Sleep. Our bodies need it. With it, we think clearer, we heal faster, we feel better. (Quick book recommendation: Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker.) Maybe this quarantine period might be a chance for you to establish better sleeping habits — habits that you can take with you long after this crisis is over. It feels good to sleep, so let yourself! Make it a priority, and probably every other element of your life will be improved. Buster recognizes the importance of sleep when he bemoans, “We’re just blowing through nap time.” Maybe we should take naps seriously, too.
- Read. Or read about reading (i.e., my blog posts). This post has some book recommendations.
- Embrace blank space. There is a reason the phrase “the glorification of busy” exists. Let’s take this opportunity to change it. It’s not healthy to be busy busy busy all the time. Slow down. Have white space on your calendar. Take a deep breath and be OK with emptiness. Allow yourself space to think. Ponder the mysteries of life. Contemplate your purpose. Make a cup of coffee and philosophize. As En Vogue says, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”
While those clearly provide rest, sometimes there’s a bit of front-end effort, and that’s OK, too. Provide for yourself a place to lay your head. Just as you have to first get a bed frame, a mattress, sheets, a blanket, and a pillow to be able to sleep well, so too in life there are things you can do to enable rest:
- Write. Turn the proverbial faucet on, and see what happens. Try to write only for yourself — not for Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. When we force pen to paper, weird things happen. Try it! See what you learn about yourself and, subsequently, what you learn about being a better person.
- Cook. Reconnect with real food and your kitchen. Think about some favorite meals and foods you had growing up. Recreate them. Contact family members to ask about recipes. Start baking bread. Find joy in making food for yourself and your family.
- Exercise. Get outside if you can and go for a walk or a run or a bike ride. Or find some workout videos on your streaming service.
Do to not do. Write to rest your mind afterward. Cook to feel full (80% full, to be exact) and lazy (in a healthy, satiated way) afterward. Exercise to sleep better when you actually lay your head down on the pillow for the night.
And if you’re curious about some specific things I and my husband do as a front-end effort to rest well, here’s our “to-do-to-not-do” list:
- Declutter and clean the desk. A bit tedious, but absolutely refreshing when finished.
- Clean out the purse and backpack.
- Pick a room and “death clean” it. We’re currently working on the guest bedroom, which had become a bit of a storage room. Death cleaning is morbid, considering the circumstances, but now might just be the perfect time to do it.
- Make the bed.
- Put the kiddos to work, but also make them rest. Chores and naps — you really can have both! And if yours are too old for naps, some mandatory quiet reading time is great, too. I do not feel the need to entertain them.
- Read through my cook books. And then decide to donate or keep, based on how much I’ve used them. Or maybe I’ll finally use them, you know, to cook.
- Unearth the package of dry beans lurking in the back of my cupboard and cook those beans! I found a bag of pinto beans last night, soaked them overnight, got them going first thing this morning in the slow cooker with a bunch of chopped onion and garlic and jalapeños and Italian seasoning (no salt yet — beans don’t cook well if you add the salt at the beginning), cooked them on high all day, and had a delicious bean (and cornbread and sauerkraut) dinner.
- Get some homies together for a virtual book/poetry/essay/article/short story club. I “met” with some fun (and intelligent!) people last night to discuss poetry. (I was basically in heaven. EXCEPT WHEN SOMEONE DIDN’T LOVE E.E. CUMMINGS AS MUCH AS I DO AND THEN I DIED A LITTLE INSIDE.)
- And for goodness’s sake, go get The Goldfinch from Redbox with the gift card a student got me for Christmas and then come come and wash my hands and Lysol-wipe the DVD case and make some popcorn with nutritional yeast and salt sprinkled on top and escape the world for a few hours!! (If this sounds fun to you, and if you drink alcohol, maybe enjoy a giant juice box with your movie. Buster loves it! It was his first taste of alcohol since nursing, after all.)
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.John 16:33
*Full credit for the title of this post goes directly to my husband.