This post is part of a new weekly series I’m exploring, in which I share unpolished personal writing, without any goal other than to nurture my own creativity + get out of my own relentlessly self-editing way. Thank you for reading and for giving me space to share myself more deeply with you!
My in-laws got me a New York Times crossword puzzle book for Christmas. My reaction when I opened it was definitely a little womp-womp. After all, puzzle books are up there with slippers on the sad trombone scale of gifts. But just like a cozy pair of slippers, it’s ended up being the most-used of all the gifts I received last holiday. I spent the weekend of New Year’s Eve wallowing delightedly in acrosses, downs, and fond memories of hours spent doing the crossword with my dad when I was young. How wonderful it felt to be back at it after so long!
Crosswords have always hit a sweet spot in my personality, requiring as they do a penchant for words, a vast repository of useless knowledge, and an ability to tune out important things in order to focus intensely on whatever trivial problem lies in front of you. A bonus of the book I received for Christmas was that the puzzles are arranged in order of easiest to hardest (Monday to Friday, in NYT parlance), making it possible to work methodically through the pages as skills improve. Ever seduced by the lure of an arbitrary self-improvement project, I decided to put myself through “crossword puzzle bootcamp”. I’d do all the Monday grids, level-up to the Tuesdays, and by the time I got to the Fridays I’d barely have noticed how challenging they’d become. In other words, I planned the puzzler’s equivalent of a couch-to-10k running program.
Like any new endeavor, crossword bootcamp started out swimmingly. I plowed through the Mondays and attacked the Tuesdays with gusto. I generally wake up an hour earlier than Ivan, and for the first week of the new year, I used that alone-time to brew my coffee, settle into a chair with the cats, and put myself through my puzzle paces. By the time the weekend rolled around I was completing the Tuesday grids quickly and without reverting to the solutions at the back of the book for assistance. I’d be a puzzle pro in no time, I’d announce to Ivan each day when he shuffled out of the bedroom wiping sleep from his eyes. We’d have to get me a new practice volume soon, one at the expert level!
Then, on Monday the 8th, I sat down to my first Wednesday puzzle.
1-Across: Sounds from pounds. Huh. Pounds, like, hitting someone? Like weight? No idea. Okay. Moving on.
5-Across: Place for a massage. Spa? Parlor? Salon? Nope, none of ‘em fit. Maybe let’s try some down clues to get things rolling?
1-Down: Contemplative sort. Four letters. Okay, contemplative means thoughtful. Any insights there? Thinker? Think…er? Just saying thinker over and over won’t make it fit, Sage. Keep going.
14-Down: Lionel track layout, maybe. Holy jeez. This puzzle is dumb! I mean, who or what is Lionel? How the hell am I supposed to know that? What is wrong with me?! This is bullshit.
And so it went. For the entirety of last week. The jump from Monday to Tuesday puzzles had been minuscule, a barely perceptible hop up the steps to crossword puzzle greatness. The gap between Tuesday and Wednesday, however, may as well have been as wide as the Mississippi, because no single leap was going to get me to the other side. I’d stare for an hour at the page only to throw the book down in frustration, not a single clue having been answered. My eraser wore down to a nub, the pages grew grey and thin where I’d repeatedly rubbed out incorrect guesses. Not a single puzzle was completed without a desperate flip to the back for many of the answers. I wasn’t running puzzle 10k’s, I was fording the thick, murky waters of a raging crossword river—emphasis on raging, given the steady stream of un-crossword-like words that flowed from my mouth each morning.
My puzzle plan wasn’t the only thing that went awry last week. All seven days found me stuck in an emotional mud of my own making. Whereas I’d soared through first chunk of January—meeting my exercise goals, doing my daily meditative breathing exercises, prepping my healthy meals in advance, and striking a manageable balance between getting back into the swing of work but also ending my computer time by 5pm—during the second week I felt fragmented and unfocused. Emails were ignored, meetings canceled. My healthy menu was abandoned for a dinner of steak frites and petit fours at a party. It certainly didn’t help that my previous workout zeal had resulted in a tweaked muscle that laid me up in bed, and it definitely didn’t help that I railed against each new injustice in fits of temper that had the cats abandoning me for the calm of Ivan’s lap. The bright, invigorating energy of early January gave way to a paralysis that stretched from 1-Across to 55-Down and right into my everyday life.
Stepping back and viewing last week from a distance, I can see that I was in the thick of what Brene Brown calls “Day 2”. As she describes it, “Day two, or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you’re ‘in the dark’—the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.” Day 2 is a state we’re all familiar with, and it’s my primary stumbling block in meeting any goal I’ve ever set for myself.
Because getting started is easy, isn’t it? Set the goal. Identify the actions required to achieve it. Dive in feet first and start jogging along, high on a fresh sense of purpose and on the novelty of new, improved behaviors. Then BAM. Day 2. Everything that was shiny and easy at the outset feels hard now in the brown sludge of maintenance mode. The promised result of all this work seems impossibly distant. Stagnation, even a backslide occurs. So does anger that enacting change doesn’t feel fun or exciting anymore, but instead feels like a slog.
I don’t really have a pat, convenient wrap-up here. I’m still working through those Wednesday crosswords. I finished one this morning and only had to look up three answers—progress, to be sure—but then I started a new one and immediately got stuck again. I guess the victory, for now, is that I haven’t tossed the book altogether. I keep it in my tote bag, carry it with me for spare moments between emails and meetings, invite the cats back into my arms while I noodle over clues. More broadly speaking, my back is feeling (mostly) better, and I’m looking to the week ahead with my intentions set for salads, spin classes, and a 5pm wrap to each work day. And I’m giving myself permission to kinda sorta be okay with my anger over the fact that Change. Is. Hard. Because yes, a positive attitude is important, but so is accepting negative emotions so that we can move through them.
So there. I’m in the muck. I’m trudging forward. I’m pissed that meeting my goals is almost never quick or easy. I’m trying to be okay with that. And I’m curious to know: What’s a 6-letter word for ‘Hay spreader’?