The year of possibilities
And a year of internal questioning. Plus, scrubbing pots is a great way to process your feelings.
My mom always starts her year off with a written list of goals. I usually end mine by tackling some kind of massively ambitious cleaning project. I think about how each of these tasks embodies our different approaches for clarity and order. While she leaves the ashes of the past behind, I lean into the catharsis of sifting through it, sometimes quite literally. Often, this manifests itself in the form of a physical task, like taking apart entire closets or drawers and putting all of its contents back after a ruthless culling and deliberation of each item.
The last 2 years I scrubbed pots. I’m not referring to your typical everyday dishwashing chore, but an arduous process of mixing together a thick concoction of vinegar, salt, and baking soda which I slather on like a paste to the charred bottoms and sides and leave on overnight. The next morning, I get to work. I take an oyster knife and peel away at the softened burnt bottoms, chipping away layer after layer, the evidence of years of meals cooked daily over gas flames. I take whole lemon halves and rub its acidic juices right onto the steel to break down anything left that’s stubborn. Then I take steel wool and scrub away at the parts I can’t scrape off. Depending on the pot, it can take up to 2 hours to make one look almost new. The Christmas my dad died, I cleaned 10.
“Isn’t this just a distraction?” a colleague asked me. I immediately nodded that maybe it was, but after taking another beat to think about it, I concluded that it wasn’t, because scrubbing those pots allowed me to be present in the moment in a way I usually can’t otherwise. That Christmas break, I spent hours upon days scrubbing quietly alone, the circular movements physically intensifying and lessening in synchrony with all the stages of grief. I can’t explain exactly why this feels good, but it does. To feel the burning of muscles after 4 days of scrubbing, the aching of shoulders from hunching over a sink. It was a way of physically connecting during that numb stage of grief.
“I’m not cleaning, I’m processing!” I would call out whenever a family member would come up during this ritual cleaning marathon and ask if I was okay. I didn’t even think it was possible to get those pots that we’ve had forever clean, but one day I absentmindedly stabbed the bottom of a black-stained pot in frustration with a knife. Flecks of hard soot flaked off. And so, an obsession with transforming these pots that we’ve owned for 20+ years, from cookware discolored by years of use to ones that sat gleaming on our kitchen shelves, was born.
But this past Christmas, I didn’t scrub any pots. I didn’t have it in me to spend hours restoring a scorched 8 quart Calphalon pot that I found buried in the back of a cabinet that I had set aside gleefully just for this time. I mean, it’s a pretty punishing way to spend the holiday week to begin with—even I can acknowledge that, and this year it felt more like a chore than a coping method. It must have meant something. For the first time in awhile, I'm entering January without any clear ideas of where I’ll land. I didn't end 2022 the way I had entered it and the possibilities of a very different 2023 are both freeing and terrifying.
I like knowing that I’m starting off my year with control over my time. But it’s a feeling that treads precariously along the edge of anxiety. I know that any number of mental triggers can tip the balancing act to one side or the other. I discuss with my younger kid that the process of figuring out who you are, of knowing what you want to do with your life, can be a continuous puzzle. God is it ever a life-long process. It doesn’t end once you get a job or hit some magical age. We may know this, but teenagers don’t really understand this yet and it’s humbling to tell my kid that yes, even at this age I’m still trying to figure out what I want out of life. I feel her anxiety about the enormity of it all. I validate it and make sure she doesn’t lose herself into an abyss of uncertainty, but also try to show her that the unknown is what makes life exciting too. Let life happen to you! If we plan every aspect of our lives into oblivion, where is the space that allows joy in?
There is this thing that can happen when you’re working a 9-5 job. It feels a bit like you’re on auto-pilot. The structured days in the safety of its predictable rhythm can also lull you into a complacency of sameness. It’s why some people freelance. It’s a cycle with no end. But sometimes, you really need this. I needed the psychological safety of a full time job the last few years (also, health insurance!) and the built-in community that comes along with it. But each time I dip into these cycles of full-time employment from freelance, I feel like I lose a little of myself. It’s a lot of time and mental energy being consumed by other people’s businesses and dreams; it’s rewarding and there are lots of gains, but it’s a different kind of fulfillment and it’s a trade off that is sometimes necessary. I realized very recently when I sort of woke up from the ennui that I was in, that I missed making things. Not work products like prototypes, strategy docs, or design system components, but making things that were mine.
The real test will be the next few months. After spending about 6 weeks completely work-free, I’m taking a sabbatical from my sabbatical and starting some contract work (I don’t live in a fantasy and I still have real bills to pay). But it’s not full time work and it has a finite end point of hours billed. That is an intentional parameter that we have built in. As we had our first meeting last week and got zoomed back into acronyms and corporate speak, it was kind of comical how fast we forgot that former life. It wasn’t even that long ago. Maybe that’s the key though. A subtle, but powerful difference of subverting personas and separating who we are from what we do. We are not our jobs. It’s really easy to forget this.
What I have learned in the past few years is that the work ethic and resilience that I have worn like a proud badge may have benefited others, but it failed me. How can we design a life were we can grow personally as well as professionally? How can we listen to, but also respect our internal questioning? So many of us are chasing after the elusive economy of time. Often, it takes breaking things apart and examining what we’ve unturned in order to move forward. Because there is only one thing that we know with certainty—money can’t buy back time.
In keeping with the spirit of domestic chores, here are 3 household items I have bought that I love:
Cookit Knife Block - I wanted to replace our 30 year old wooden knife block. I was so curious about this minimal design and skeptical that it could hold as much as it claims? But it does! We’ve jammed about a dozen knives into this thing, even a cleaver knife. Plus it’s only $20 bucks.
Bee's Wrap - I’ve been really mindful about waste, and not just about plastic bags, wraps, and tin foil. I hate to even store leftovers in a container, only to transfer it into a bowl or a plate to heat up—it just creates more dishes to wash. These wraps do the trick and so far, have held up through many uses and washes.
Tubshroom - I swear I have gone through nearly every type of drain management system out there, buying all sorts of contraptions to prevent our sinks and tubs from getting clogged with hair. But they don’t work…except these! These work! I have the all stainless steel models.
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Ah, health insurance. We all need it; some people can’t afford it. Many of us stay at our jobs in order to keep it. I’m sure there will be more rambling about health insurance in future posts.
"the process of figuring out who you are, of knowing what you want to do with your life, can be a continuous puzzle" .....soon to be 65 year old here, affirming that this is the TRUTH! Meanwhile, there are all those cast iron pans in my cupboard waiting for me to clean them of 30 years of "seasoning". These kinds of chores resonate with me as "processing".
‘I’m not cleaning; I’m processing’ so true about this! and family member asking if I was ok ☺️ it happened to me last Christmas when shifting everything out from the closet and wiping it clean and putting things back again. It does feel light and bright after the process.