Fly Your Own Spaceship
Eight things to remember when there’s nothing you *have* to do, and a million things you *should*
1. Momentum, not shame
2. Build from the ground up
3. Get dressed
4. Count your victories
5. Use the clock
6. Have a kit
7. Restrict your partying
8. Be gentle with yourself
Yesterday, while curled up under a ridiculously fuzzy red blanket and applying for yet another job online, I had a realization:
The last eight years of my life have taught me exactly the skills I need to stay sane right now.
Not because I’m stronger or smarter or because I’m more stocked up on dry goods than everyone else (I am/ have none of these things), but because I was one of the lucky few who launched a literary career via an online article and then had to figure out how to write a book. So I had to develop, on the fly, the thing that makes 99% of people who say “I’ve always wanted to write” never write a day in their lives: the ability to fly your own spaceship.
We’re all born with a spaceship. Not a jet because there are lots of those, not a helicopter because same thing, not a hovercraft or a hot air balloon or even a Federation Starship (though that would be badass). We do not get any of these, because these come with manuals written by the people who built them and we can be taught about them by those who have expertly flown them before.
No, we get our own spaceship, totally unique and weird and with properties no other craft has. It has gifts, like music or empathy or intelligence; it has flaws, like the tendency to veer to the right all the damn time or to produce tiny explosions if the fuel we put in there isn’t right.
And we are the only ones who can fly it.
We can’t trade it out, and we can’t ask someone else to do it. And even if we could, they wouldn’t be any better than we are at it because they have their own spaceship to worry about. We can read incoming communications from people who seem to be great pilots about how they do it, but at the end of the day it’s just us, looking out over the blinky console of ourselves into the vast possibility before us.
What most of us do is, we use the gravitational fields of planets, stars and other space crap to slingshot us to destinations we think look cool, destinations that seem popular. And this is totally fine: human beings evolved to find safety in community. We look at our Space Maps (yes, we get maps, just not an operating manual) and we choose Planet Web Designer or Planet Doctor or Planet Dogsitter. We’ve always wanted to go to Planet Parenthood, so we trundle over there. We decide to give Planet Crossfit a try and become insufferable, but we get great abs. We go where others have gone before. We like fitting in. It’s how we stay safe.
But now, COVID-19 has transported us, en masse, to a vast empty blackness none of us have ever seen before. Few stars, no planets (well, maybe Planet Safeway) and way fewer black holes to bounce us from home to work to the bar and back home. We’re too far removed from our habitual gravitational fields to navigate. We can see other spaceships, but they’re super far away and, truth be told, they seem disoriented too.
Most of us would not choose this. We wouldn’t choose to be out here all alone, or with four of our closest spaceships all orbiting each other in a haze of Netflix and Cheetos dust, but here we are.
And now, we all have to learn how to fly our own spaceships.
When I was writing my book, the relative lack of accountability was the hardest part. And when I say “hardest” I don’t mean uncomfortable or lame or boring: I mean painful, depression-inducing, and frightening.
I was the one who made myself write or not, who watched Spongebob all day in my jammies or not, who was responsible for whether some things got done, or no things got done. And if my agent called and I’d made no progress, that was all on me. I had no boss, no office. And it took me years to adjust to this total lack of framework, and I don’t mind telling you that I spent most of 2014 as a bog witch with unwashed hair and a very strong attachment to my pets.
There are two negative effects of this kind of spiral. First, we don’t get much done; and second, we hate ourselves.
We underestimate how hard it is to function when we have nowhere we must be and no hard deadlines to hit, but there will be long-term consequences if we don’t get something done. We quickly slide into choice overload: I have to finish that novel, I have to learn to grow my own food, I have to be 100% present to my kids BUT WHY IS IT SO HARD TO DO ANYTHING AT ALL RIGHT NOW?!
Sound familiar, O Fellow Spaceperson?
First, you should know that your overwhelm, anxiety and general confusion are totally normal. Especially if you’re a “successful” American, you’ve been zinging from planet to black hole to star to other planet for decades now because that kind of speed is what keeps us spending, or, “Keeps the economy healthy.” So, your creeping sense of dread is NORMAL.
Second, here are eight things I learned that helped me survive. Consider this a comm from a friendly ship nearby. Take what works, as they say, and leave the rest.
1. Momentum, not shame.
One thing we all share, as spaceship owners, is that our spacecrafts have weight. We can drag it behind us; or, we can finagle our ship so it pulls us along.
Shame — “I’ll feel OK once I’ve accomplished all these things” — is weight behind us. It’s moving around with a backpack full of bricks. As we’re trying to run our lives we are also constantly trying to heal from the damage we’re doing to our psyches as we beat ourselves to a pulp. What I’m saying is — and this is scientifically proven:
Momentum, on the other hand, starts with tiny things, habit and self-compassion, and makes stuff, especially stuff you have to do alone-ish like survive the apocalypse, go much more smoothly. It’s OK that we don’t do this naturally. It’s OK that most of us use shame to force ourselves to go on, like beating an exhausted horse pulling a cart. Our culture teaches us to do this, and the fact that we’ve internalized our cultural values is a sign that we’re survivors (remember, we survive by fitting in).
But there are better ways.
Which brings me to my second point….
2. Build from the ground up.
Suddenly our to-do lists are practically limitless, and if you’re chronically anxious like me, that translates into paralysis, which percolates right into self-loathing, doing nothing, and eating all the things, leading to more shame. No fun.
So start your day by doing something small — the same thing every day — that requires little to no mental energy to make yourself do, but that you’ll be proud of yourself for having done. Enjoy a tiny victory, first thing.
When I was first struggling to produce readable work I started with making my bed, but now, my tiny thing is my “750”: 750 words of utter drivel on this site. I just write whatever comes to mind, and if it’s ever hacked I’m in real trouble because it’s just a journal, and we all write the ickiest stuff in those things. But the point is that I cross a finish line, and that sets me up with fuzzy feelings at the beginning of my day instead of OH GOD I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO TODAY I CANNOT POSSIBLY DO ANY OF IT. And if I don’t do my 750, guess what? I try again tomorrow. No big.
It doesn’t have to be writing, of course. For you it might be feeding the cat, or even brushing your teeth.
Or, at the very least….
3. Get dressed.
Pajamas. Sweatpants. Old t-shirts. They seem like a luxury, but when you have nowhere to be, they become Shame Suits. Remember shame? We have enough to worry about without that asshole coming around. Go home, shame, we’re tryna make new lives.
You have to dress like you’re going to see people. If you don’t look nice for yourself, you’re telling yourself that “just you” are not worth cleaning up for. Yes you are, and if you feel like you’re not then you should really at least put on jeans. Trust me on this: starting from the ground up means getting dressed. And if that’s all you can do, then good on you.
4. Count your victories.
I’ve always struggled with depression, so while I was writing my book I learned to congratulate myself on what I had done, rather than berating myself for what I hadn’t because I noticed what I’m telling you: momentum works way better than shame. Most of my early entries looked like this:
- Did dishes
- Did hair
- Went for a walk, even though I didn’t want to
- Yay me!
By Arbitrary American Productivity Standards that’s pretty basic.
But I was learning how to fly my spaceship.
Turns out, my spaceship just dies when I try to fuel it with constant psychological beatings. So instead, I made lists of the things I was proud of myself for. Every. Single. Night.
Here’s how you do this: get a notebook. Put it by your bed. Make this list before you go to sleep. The end.
When I was in a particularly bad headspace, feeling useless and unproductive and I WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING etc., I would go back and look at how many times I had gotten through the day, even when it was hard. How many victories I had already racked up. How many days I had managed to function, even when I wasn’t sure how.
Momentum. Not shame.
5. Use the clock.
It takes energy to decide to do things. Take the “deciding” out by picking a time to do something, and then when it’s That Time, Do the Thing. Just like going to work or picking up your kids, when it’s time you don’t have to ask yourself whether you want to do it; you just do.
For me, my butt is in my chair at my desk at 10am. Doesn’t matter if I’m writing, often I do just cause I’m like, “FINE,” but I use my big office clock to get me there. When it bongs 10 times I have my coffee and I’m at my desk, no exceptions. Just GETTING there is enough to make myself proud, which sets the momentum in motion for the day. Maybe your thing is being out of bed by 10. Maybe it’s eating dinner at 8. Whatever it is, let the momentum of time do some of the work for you.
6. Have a kit.
This is a bit more apocalypse-related than my usual skill set, but Holly Whitaker says this too: compile a literal document of things that make you laugh. Your emotional self needs care just like your physical body, and there’s no shame in knowing when you need triage, especially during a global pandemic.
Even the process of finding these things is helpful, so when you’re too sad to get out of bed, do this on your phone. Some of my favorites include these hatchlings, these festive spiders and this duckling.
7. Restrict your partying.
Remember when I said I was a bog witch for all of 2014? What I meant was that I was hung over. For like… years.
I know, not having to get up for work can SEEM like a great opportunity to party whenever you want. But there’s a reason so many writers succumb to alcoholism: getting fucked up every night is fun, until it isn’t. Being drunk on a Tuesday night opens the door to shame on Wednesday morning, and remember, we don’t need that right now. Cultural mores may be arbitrary, but they’re part of how we understand ourselves as human beings.
Do like you used to: if you’re going to get stupid, get stupid on weekends. Trust me on this, I’m a recovering bog witch.
8. Be gentle with yourself.
Learning to fly your spaceship during normal times is hard enough. But I can’t help thinking that as a society, there wasn’t much more we could take.
We’re learning what the ludicrously unequal distribution of wealth looks like when most of us can no longer work. We’re learning just how behind the United States is in terms of infrastructure and healthcare, and what it actually looks like when you elect someone out of spite and then that someone is utterly incapable of leading the country through crisis. Productivity and looking good on the outside, coupled with near-total social disconnection, wasn’t going to sustain us much longer. We’ve known this for years, but we didn’t know how to address it. Well, now we must.
Be gentle with yourself, as we’re all scared. You do NOT need to write that novel or learn to make homemade ravioli or do yoga at home unless those things bring you joy. What if this is a cosmic chance for us all to heal, an excuse for all of us to stop and go, “Do I actually like my life?”
Go gently. Talk kindly to yourself. Remember that you’re not alone: we are all afraid and sad and probably lonely.
But soon, you will know exactly what you need, exactly how to fly. And we will all, as a planet, end up someplace totally new.