A month ago, I took a trip. I’m super duper extra #blessed to come from a family who loves to travel. They aren’t really the types to voluntarily take a long road trip or bop somewhere for a weekend—they like a Big Trip. I grew up with stories like that one time, in 1984, when my grandparents took their three kids and spouses to still-Apartheid South Africa. My father fell extremely ill, so the rest of the family decided to go on safari and leave him and my mother back at the hotel—which sounds fine enough, except that the hotel was really a collection of tents outdoors. Evidently, the wild baboon population had learned to pillage the campsite for food as soon as the tourists left, and so, as the rest of the family watched giraffes graze on acacia trees and lions drink from the watering hole and the beauty of nature unfold before their eyes, my mother sat quivering back at camp, hoping to avoid being torn limb from limb by wild apes. My dad, useless and feverish inside the tent, missed the whole thing. This is just how the Kanters unwind as a group.
So several years ago, my dad got it in his mind that The Next Big Trip would be a relaxing little mid-winter jaunt down to the continent of Antarctica. You know the one, at the bottom of the planet? Where people do not generally go because it’s very hard to get to and very cold and there are no beaches? That’s the one. That’s where I went. It was fucking unreal.
In case you’re curious, here are the basic strokes: we all flew to Santiago, Chile, where we were for a couple of days. Then we flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the southernmost city in the world, and then boarded a ship called Orion. The ship is basically a co-production of National Geographic and a tourism company called Linblad Expeditions, designed to hold about 100 passengers and 60 crew members. They call it an “expedition cruise,” which is essentially their way of describing a situation in which you’re exploring, kind of, while also being very comfortable and having all your needs constantly met. Once boarded and safety-briefed, you begin to sail—a term, I learned, that does not actually require the use of sails to be accurate. You sail for about two days, much of it through an area where the Atlantic and the Pacific collide to form a notoriously rough area of ocean called Drake Passage. A lot of people get seasick. I did not, because I’m better than everyone else.
Once near the Antarctic Peninsula, the waters calm and everything looks insane. Like, am-I-on-a-different-planet-level-insane. Cool blue water and icebergs and crisp allergen-free air and the occasional sea bird trailing the ship. This is where the expedition part of the cruise comes in, because weather changes rapidly and ice conditions are constantly in flux, so the captain and expedition leaders are constantly forming and re-forming an itinerary until the sail back to Ushuaia. While in/around the peninsula, they aim to get you off the boat twice a day for about 3 hours each time (these are the expeditions), and the rest of the time is taken up by eating, sleeping, attending lectures, enjoying the ship’s bar, and sailing to the next place. Sometimes you encounter whales along the way.
Truth be told, I almost never want to hear about other peoples vacations, and this is not a travel blog, so I feel inclined to stop talking about it now. I got to go do an amazing thing. I feel really lucky about it. I wasn’t allowed to touch the animals. I was allowed to touch the ice. I learned a lot, and I love my family.
Altogether, we were away for three weeks. Which went quickly, but still seemed like an insane amount of time to be, like, a grown-up but not responsible for anything. To detach from normal life and experience something so”¦unlike normal life. So even though it was more physically/mentally involved than, say, 3 weeks on a beach, it did give me some time to just”¦pause. And think. And take stock.
Get ready, I have a lot of feelings.
I am not a person who naturally does that. I’m more of a busy-body, going about life with an urgency and focus reserved only for whatever is calling out the loudest for attention. Of course, the quieter things don’t just disappear. More often, they fester and grow somewhere just outside my line of sight, lurking off in the periphery.
Maybe this is why taking breaks usually feels stressful for me: it means pausing whatever is currently holding my attention, stepping back, and surveying the bigger picture. It means looking at that stuff in the periphery. Confronting the stuff that’s been flying under the radar. To me, that’s fucking terrifying. Overwhelming. It makes me feel absolutely horrible.
I’m not actually convinced that it needs to be this way, or that it will be forever, but it has for a while. And I’m not just trying to whine—it’s just me, telling you, that I’m recognizing a problem, which in turn effects this blog, and I’m working on it. And maybe some of this rings true for you, too, and maybe we can work on it together.
A few weeks ago on December 31, I was scrolling through a few photos on my iPhone when that “On this Day” feature popped up. I tapped on “On This Day: December 31, 2016”—New Year’s Eve, exactly one year prior. I had taken exactly one photo, of my friend’s front door when we arrived for her New Year’s party. The wreath from Christmas was still hanging up between the panels, and underneath was a black bumper sticker with white text reading, simply, FUCK 2016. I remember walking up to that door, laughing a little, and thinking something along the lines of “amen to that.”
I also remember thinking the same thing about 2015. And maybe 2014, too, although some distance has made it more difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I know I felt that way about 2017, though—in a really big way—which quickly made me concerned that just maybe some of this feeling could be attributed to the common denominator of those years of my life: me.
2017 was a rough ride. I am so not trying to play Misery Poker here. I’m well aware that there are enormous swaths of the population who have it a whole hell of a lot worse than I do. My life is actually pretty terrific, especially through the lens of blogs and instagrams and whatnot. So let’s dispense with that, for a sec.
I can take you through it, kind of. Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. That sentence alone. What a thing to be playing out, like some sticky fog that’s in and around and over and under everything. It’s such a dark, horrible, oppressive, depressing and inescapable feeling/backdrop/preoccupation/threat. Many of you can probably relate. Some other stuff went awry, too. A big project I thought I’d be developing kind of vanished. Renovation plans I’d made for my house, derailed. Plans I’d made for bluestone cottage, still unfinished. A future opportunity that fell through at the eleventh hour. This other small job I ended up taking that turned unexpectedly large. A project we didn’t get to before the weather turned. The attempt to wean off my anti-depressants (why, Daniel, why?). I over-committed. I got distracted. My dog died. I messed up with my blog. I let people down. I still don’t have a kitchen. Anxiety won.
Avoidance and anxiety go hand in hand, I guess. At least for me they do. I’m attracted to motivational statements like “nothing will make you feel better except doing the work” because I know they’re true and I also know they are counter to how I act when I encounter anxiety. A lifetime of it (and several years of its sleepy, somehow even less fun companion, depression) taught me to avoid anxiety in order to make life more manageable. This is not unanimously a terrible strategy: if snakes make you anxious, avoiding snakes is not such a bad way to live? There are plenty of other valuable things you can spend your time dealing with than the thing that you don’t like. If you never hold a snake, does it really matter?
The strategy becomes intensely problematic when pretty much everything makes you anxious. Like little tiny things and also really big things. Hello, my name is Daniel Kanter. I have not been doing great, thank you for asking. I’m trying to be better.
Take, for instance: this past summer, I started working on a house for a couple of clients. I haven’t talked about it here. I wanted to, but client gigs are fast-paced and draining and don’t leave a lot of time for blogging—that is true. But that doesn’t mean there’s literally no time—I also wasn’t making it. After spending 8 hours a day working on a renovation, it’s difficult to then want to spend several more hours thinking about it, writing about it, editing photos of it”¦and so I didn’t. I didn’t write about anything else, either. For a few weeks this felt good.
Some handy self-deception quickly took hold. I wasn’t being a lousy blogger, I was just taking a step back from blogging. Because I’ve been blogging for 7+ years and I can take a few weeks if I want to. Nobody would notice, probably. The story I told myself was that I just wanted to focus on the work, without the distraction of a broader group actively commenting on something in progress. I told myself I didn’t want to be influenced by what I thought readers would want or expect to see (which is puzzling, because I don’t really think I am normally? this isn’t an actual concern of mine?) and just focus on doing right by the house and the clients. I told myself that blog readerships create a certain kind of pressure—whether the content-creator is aware of it or not—to keep doing the thing that’s gotten them recognition or did well on Pinterest or whatever in the past. This, I told myself, is why it can seem like a lot of bloggers show a stunning lack of diversity in their creative output, and I did not want to fall into that trap by prioritizing the constant need to be sharing whatever I was doing over just doing the best job I could at the thing that I was doing.
I’m not even saying that these thoughts/feelings/theories are incorrect. But I am recognizing them for what they mostly were: justifications. I was vastly underachieving at something that’s important to me, so I created noble-sounding reasons to avoid feeling that failure-anxiety. That doesn’t work for very long.
And so, the anxiety-avoidance cycle. It’s a self-sustaining system that never fails to compound. I didn’t just not blog. I pretty much pretended that I didn’t even have a blog. Like I didn’t even know what blogs were! I focused on “the work” (of playing contractor for a relatively short-term freelance project), and whenever I thought about writing a blog post, anxiety told me that I’d first have to sign into Wordpress, and then I’d be confronted with the comments I’d missed—at this point, there might be somebody asking if I was OK, or dead, or stopped blogging entirely, or accusing me of only posting because of X, Y, or Z, or even just telling me they missed my posts—and any of those things would make me feel worse. So I didn’t look. Instagram became anxiety-provoking, too. Other blogs. E-mail. Texts.
It’s almost like the longer you avoid something, the scarier it becomes. FANCY THAT.
This anxiety-avoidance-anxiety loop told me that all of you must hate me. That I had been letting everyone down, and even if/when I did write a blog post, or even post a picture to instagram, it would be met with anger and resentment for having disappeared, or something. Or something—because as much as I can try to explain the specific fears behind anxiety, it’s never just one thing or one bad outcome. It’s all of them. And then, what do you even do? Like, I can’t not post for a few months and then just come back with some whatever post about whatevers-town. It should be awesome. Creating something that you feel confident will be universally viewed as awesome by a reader that already hates you is, you guessed it, anxiety-provoking primarily because it’s probably impossible. So I kept”¦not doing it. I actually waited until a blogger friend was in town, handed them my phone, rattled off my password, and asked them to moderate months of missed comments for me. I couldn’t face it. Having given it some thought, that’s…crazy. But it’s kind of how I’ve been about stuff.
When Linus died, I knew I had to tell you. It took me a few weeks. Part of that was because I was very sad, and grieving, and not really in the headspace to sit down and write a eulogy, but another part of it was the anxiety-avoidance thing. The loop that actually had me convinced that even on that post I was likely to receive a barrage of guilt and shame for being a shitty blogger, and I couldn’t deal with it on top of mourning my dead dog. Of course, you didn’t do that.
You never have. If legitimate fears need to be backed up by evidence or past experience, this fear is not legitimate. None of my fears about blogging—or most things that make me anxious, really—are all that legitimate. But that’s not how fears born of anxiety work. They’re not rational but they are persistent. They’re exhausting.
I hate this thing—this anxiety surrounding blogging and you. It’s not just a problem with blogging—it’s a problem in other areas of my life, too, in many cases for longer than this—but blogging? That’s new. I’ve always liked blogging I think because it felt separate from the anxieties of everyday life, like a relief from it, not an addition to it. So this thing where I can’t even sign into Wordpress to check comments? It’s extremely unpleasant. And ultimately counter-productive, if the goal is to not feel like shit. Avoiding the thing that’s making me anxious is not helping. It’s making it worse.
In other words, I need to Stop That. Here and elsewhere in my life.
Reflecting on this past year, and the few preceding it, have me feeling a certain urgency to not feel this way in another 12 months. Also 9 months after that, when I’ll be 30. I don’t want to still be in this place, where anxiety still wins and everything feels like it has one or many loose ends to tie. So I’m, like, consciously trying to change my approach to things? I’m trying to take control of this situation. Make it better. It’s not just going to happen.
I want to get back to having fun—with life, with my house, with my work, and with this blog. I miss sharing. Not sharing doesn’t make me feel good; I know this now.
So since I’ve been home, I’ve been trying to get into some new shit. I started going to acupuncture. We’ll see. I made haircut appointments for myself every month for the next year. I did a huge purge of digital clutter and reclaimed 170 gigabytes of hard drive space and avoided the need for a new computer. I’ve been aggressively getting the house in order. I began posting to Instagram again. I started a book club where all we do is indulge our secret fascination with self-help books by reading self-help books (//hoping we get something out of it no lie). I’ve been cooking more of my own food (my makeshift situation would be funny if it hadn’t lasted so long and was therefore so embarrassing/upsetting) and trying to take better care of my body. I’ve been working on creating boundaries at work and trying really hard to stop comparing myself to the success of others. I’ve been making goals and outlining plans and trying to give myself some goddamn tools to succeed. And I’m writing this blog post, and that’s something.
So that’s where I’m at. They’re steps forward. I’m trying, and I’ll keep trying. It’s good to see you.
I hope your 2018 is off to a good start. I’m excited to make this one better.