What Really Happened in Holland
This is one of those newsletters.
By the time it’s found it’s way to your inbox I’ll be thick into a vulnerability hangover, wondering if I should have sent it at all.
But honesty seems to give me power. And the most useful things I have to share start with embarrassment. So here we go.
Last month I went on a trip to Holland, a rare and resplendent couple weeks to visit my partner Ian’s extended family and lap up some writing time. There were big group dinners and long bike rides through little villages and pancakes and kids and many, many of people. And then everyone went home, and I hauled up alone in an adorable little town.
I had everything I could want —a little desk, a cobblestone street, the ocean a short train ride away. I’d done my research and had a notebook full of things to check out. There was an art gallery of Dutch masters only two blocks away. There were old churches and city gates. I imagined a mix of writing and adventuring, every day with it’s own little excursion.
You know what happened?
I got really, really obsessed with watching “Modern Family” on Netflix.
What the hell? I was so confused. Every day at some point, sometimes more than once, I changed into leggings, got under the covers, and hit play. I watched an entire season in a week. That’s 24 episodes.
And yup, I just heard it — the sound of all your respect for me leaving the room. It whooshed like a subway car.
I struggled to respect myself in those moments. Of course I still did some of the things I planned to do. (My pride requires me to tell you that.) But it was way, way less than I imagined, and I was never out long before the dialogue started up.
“Covers would be nice right now.”
“Look around! Can you believe these streets?”
“I wonder what Cam and Mitch are up to.”
“You only have 3 more days, you need to take this in!”
The gallery two blocks away pulsed at the edge of my attention. I did Google image searches. I told myself I’d enjoy it once I got there. I walked past it. But I just really, really didn’t want to walk in.
On my second-last day, I woke up feeling lost. Sometimes when I can’t find the pulse of a day, I’ll look for a symbol. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to pull a tarot card.
I got the “Strength” card. A fearless looking lion. Power and mastery. (See the pic up there.) This is it, I thought. This is the day when I transcend my baser needs, scratch things off my list, and go see those paintings. I filled my backpack with layers and snacks and strode out.
I walked along the canal. The wind was intense and I kept having to stop and put on scarves and jackets. I kept walking. I told myself, “This is good. This feels right.”
Then the anxiety started to bloom, sudden and everywhere. The ground felt uneven. I did what I’ve learned do when this happens— I stopped moving, sat down, pulled in a couple long breaths.
I looked out at the canal and down at my hands. It was a beautiful day. People were walking by. I breathed deep, counting it out. Then I asked myself, calling every fiber of my wisdom into the question: What do I need right now? The answer was quick.
I need to go home, get under the covers, and watch Modern Family on Netflix.
And that’s what I did.
As a writing coach, I often feel I’m supposed to have certain things figured out. People look at me like that sometimes. Very occasionally I almost do. I did write a crap-load of words in Holland. I filled a whole journal. I moved my novel to a new level. It felt astoundingly good. I started to write you a newsletter about the tools that fueled that productivity (small goals, a timer, lists) but it was wildly boring. And this part, the part about giving myself a break and not fighting myself over it, that’s what actually opened the door.
In that moment by the canal I learned the simplest lesson. It’s a lesson I need to keep re-learning — that it’s okay to want what I want.
I wanted a break.
I wanted to be small and invisible and not accountable to anything.
I wanted to be okay with that.
I also wanted to be a little bit dumb for a while, and to trust the dumb. Maybe I wasn’t procrastinating. Maybe I was actually feeding something that badly wanted to be fed.
And maybe that’s what I the lion-hearted strength for — to surrender and trust the dumb.
I can tell you now, several weeks later, that no one cared at all whether I saw any Dutch Masterpieces. No one was even going to ask.