I've always had a love affair with "and." It's my favorite conjunction, one that conjures visions of abundance and layers of experience. When given a choice between good things, my impulse is to scramble and finagle however possible to avoid choosing and instead embrace both. I'll throw myself towards an "and" even if this means a lack of time (as in simultaneous hobbies, jobs, and activities), money (as in going to school to get a Master's in English and another in English education), and sanity (as in "Hey, Shannon, want to start a web magazine while we're both already momming full-time? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!").
Whenever possible, I don't choose one or the other; I choose both. I want to live a big life, and I work hard to do it. Shoot, my Smartner and I have even collected ampersands ever since we were in college. We are "and" people.
A copy of this piece is hanging above our marriage bed as I type.
Image Source: Hindsvik Vintage, which apparently no longer exists? Too bad. They made cool ampersands.
Historically, living within the realm of "and" has worked well for me. I've accomplished a lot, encountered wonderful things, made excellent friends, and generally reveled in all the rich experiences granted by living an "and" life. It's been good. Sometimes challenging, sometimes complicated, and generally always worth it.
Lately, however, that balance has tipped away from pleasurable plenty and toward onerous overwork. Perhaps it's because I'm getting older, and definitely it's because I have to consider the needs and limitations of my little people who hold my hands as I hurtle through our days. Regardless of the cause, "and" is becoming harder and harder to justify. "And" is starting to hurt us.
Because, at some point, an endless litany of "and" becomes a forced march based on quantity rather than a meaningful exploration of quality. This impulse to always add more is what led to our frantic sprint through the Christmas holiday that left 3/4 of my family sick enough that 100% of our celebrations were either attended by 0 - 3 of us, or rescheduled entirely. Editing nothing from our list of experiences and disregarding realistic expectations is what led to the Great Santa Visit Meltdown of 2016, in which my younger Smartling clearly expressed her desire NOT to see Santa. Keeping our eyes on the "and" prize, we ignored her to instead check the "Santa Visit" box off of our list, and we broke her heart.* In the name of seeking to build an abundant holiday, we broke our bodies and our little one's trust in us.
This is a lesson I keep having to learn, not just during the holidays, but always: That adding joy upon joy upon joy leads only to sadness. It's important to recognize limits and realities when designing an ambitious life. It's important to acknowledge reality when dreaming of the Good Stuff.
Enter Yes, and.
"Yes, and" is the cardinal practical philosophy of improvisational comedy, in which performers absolutely accept the contributions of others to the premise of the collaborative narrative before adding to it. If a comedy troupe is enmeshed in a story line about aggressive space tomatoes, a performer cannot suddenly deny the reality of those aggressive space tomatoes, turning them, say, into emotionally needy clown noses. To say no to the premise of the performance betrays all performers who have agreed with it so far and breaks the suspension of disbelief for the audience. Saying no to the piece ruins it, whereas saying yes to it before embellishing it enriches it. "Yes, and" requires that all performers must first say yes to the shared theatrical reality before adding their "and."
Just like an improviser (And, really, what requires improvisation more than parenting?), I need to recognize my reality before adding to it. I am a person with limits. (Shocking, I know. But true!) I have needs. I have weak points that require support to grow stronger. So do my children. So does my partner. So do my relationships and work habits. Adding on to the weight each of those must bear with unceasing demands for more, More, MORE is hurting everything. What I need more of this year is acceptance. I need to embrace more of the "yes" before adding more of the "and."
This acceptance is not a denial of growth by any means. Acceptance does not mean stasis. I still maintain lofty goals for myself, my work, and my family this year. With "yes," though, they're rooted in reality - in the earthbound "likely" and "probably," not in the lofty "possible." There are still "ands" aplenty. But, rather than being stacked one upon another in an interminable tower of tasks, they're each anchored at one side by an acknowledging "yes" that allows for the flexibility of a redirecting pivot when necessary.
Yes, I want to take action toward making my life better. But taking actions without a clear understanding of the realities of that life doesn't make it better; it makes it harder. Sometimes it makes life worse. I'd rather see my realities for what they are (as painful as that can be), accept them, and then seek to grow beyond them than bash my head against "and" after "and" after "and," and then wonder why my head hurts.
So, here's to "yes, and!" Here's to 2017! And here's to you, Smarties! Happy New Year!
*For real, people. If your kid doesn't want to see Santa, don't make them. The crying baby photos might be funny because, shoot, the baby won't remember the visit. But the crying 4 year old photos are just cruel. She knew we were physically forcing her into an act of stranger-contact that she did not want, and the look of betrayal, sadness, and fear on her face is terrible. We did a terrible thing. I will never stop feeling sorry for that.