My feet and hands, a little rough and scarred with the miles, are evidence of my wonky pursuits.
Being pampered doesn’t often rank as a way to spend time, but last summer I tagged along with a friend to a salon so we could soak our feet, have the skin on our heels scrubbed with a cheese grater, get our nails painted. Above the sound of the motorized massage chair and the bubbles in the foot bath, we chatted, catching up while flipping through smutty magazines. On a stool below me, a very small woman set to work on my feet, clucking about the dead toenails and calluses (thank you, running). Ill at ease with the perch on my vibrating throne, I tried to engage her in conversation, made difficult by my general discomfort in salons, and also by the language barrier.
When I asked her about her day, she smiled and shook her head and pointed to the bottle of polish I’d picked. “Empty,” she said, and then went to find another.
After that, I gave myself over to the experience of having my lower legs rubbed with exfoliating scrub and the pedicurist’s deft hands loosening up a tight calf muscle.
Next to us in the bank of chairs sat another woman, older by twenty years or so, who greeted us when we arrived and then sat reading a magazine while her feet were worked over. Her long, white hair was tied back in a loose ponytail.
A half hour later, we all sat around the drying table together, cotton wedged between our toes, our flip flops on. It was June. The kids were about to be out of school, a busy time for families. My friend and I were lamenting our long list of things to accomplish before summer officially began.
At a lull in our conversation, the white-haired woman leaned toward us and said, “I used to talk the same way.”
We assumed she was referring to our kavetching about kids, summer, or the eighty-seven end-of-year projects and parties.
“But one day,” she went on, “this wonderful friend of mine said to me, ‘Why do you do that?’”
In the pause that followed, I filled in the blanks for what she meant by that. Why did we make ourselves so busy? Why did we bitch about our kids in public? Why were we talking about Hollywood stars as if we knew them?
She leaned down and disentangled the cotton from her purple toes, then sat back up. “Think about it this way,” she said, “there is what you need to do, and there is what you want to do. But should? This is a word you can take out of your vocabulary.”
“It sounds good,” my friend said, “but I have a big-ass list of things I should do today. I definitely don’t want to do them.”
“Yeah,” I chimed in. “I don’t know if I could break up with should. I mean, what would I complain about?”
I considered her perspective, doubting its merit. My life was full of what I should be doing instead of getting a pedicure. Like playing hooky, escaping from the shoulds was part of the thrill. In truth, the weight of my obligations felt heavy. I’d been thinking for months about how to disconnect gracefully from several commitments, which involved going head to head with my guilt-lined Lutheran upbringing. It’s an ugly, ongoing skirmish. Also, I was kind of pissed. I mean, I went to the shop with my friend to relax and not feel shitty, and here was this woman life-coaching me. Who did she think she was anyway?
The white-haired woman nodded. She reached into her purse and took out her wallet. “Those are probably things you need to do. Go to work, clean the house, pick up your kids, make dinner. Right?”
“But I should do them,” my friend said.
Gathering her things together, the woman shook her head. “Try it, girls. It’s very freeing. Now I think of the world in a totally different way. Before, I spent a lot of my time fulfilling the obligation of should. It takes practice not to, because we’ve all been at this kind of thinking for, well, our whole lives.” She paid the gal who’d worked up her feet, waved a goodbye to us, and left the shop.
My friend and I sat looking at each other for a moment. “I bet she cruises the nail shop circuit,” she said. “She’s like a salon prophet or something.”
“Or full of shit,” I said. “And also clearly has no relentlessly hungry kids to feed. Probably gets her toilets cleaned by someone else.”
After we left the shop, I filed this encounter away, chocking the white-haired woman’s advice up to a world view of someone who didn’t pressure herself too much. The bored rich. A woman who read a lot of self-help stuff and hired out for every last thing.
Except I didn’t really believe that. I kind of liked her calm, self-assured way of being, and also that she hadn’t dyed her hair or cut it super short to tame the wire out of it. She seemed like someone I might be friends with. We’d only had a few minutes’ exchange with her, but her words worm-holed within me all summer and into fall. I couldn’t say should without thinking of her, without pausing to reframe my sentiment and edit out the shoulds.
Lately, John and I have been talking with Owen about choosing a college, about what he’d like to do in the world. Our advice to him has always been to seek a path of joy and fulfillment, as well as one that will make him a living. Every time we have this conversation with Owen, though, I can’t help but think to myself about the similar, parallel path of partnering need and want.
At the risk of seeming like a white-haired lady groupie, it occurs to me that fulfillment comes when want and need intersect in a singular pursuit or practice, and that this is a rare, precious thing.
Of course, it’s hard to hit the right groove all the time. The dailyness of life isn’t all rainbow brilliant, shot full of light and unicorns and feel-goodery and self-worth. My kids make me crazy. The state of the world is scary. Fully in touch with my inner bitch, I’m not nearly as patient, loving or kind as I aim to be.
But living with purpose serves me well most of the time. I need and want to raise thinking, compassionate kids in the world. I need and want to write. I need and want to garden, to know how to do things for myself, to be a good friend, to travel and know the world, to go outside and teach kids how to do the same. There’s little room for should in any of these passions.
I haven’t quite been able to get to the same level of bliss about cleaning, driving or laundry, but it could come for me someday.
Meanwhile, in this season of thanks, I’ll sit down to the table with my family, enjoy a meal we’ve all pitched in to prepare, and know as certainly as I know anything that I both need and want to be spending my time this way.