Cat on a Drawbridge
Discovering the difference between self-improvement and resolutions that matter
By Dana Bowman | December 29, 2017
Bedtime at our house runs on a rickety conveyor belt of warnings, pleadings, and weary threats from all involved. So one night when Henry tiptoed downstairs after bedtime, I did not hesitate.
“Henry. Bed. Now.”
I tend to speak like this after 8 p.m. All other verbiage has been beaten out of me by a full day of parenting.
Henry did not obey. He stood in front of me in his Lego Star Wars robe wringing his hands. I never knew a seven-year-old could master such a thing. I always thought this was for women in Renaissance paintings or adults on April 15. But there he was, all emotionally strung out and very, very tired.
“Mom? I really have to—”
I interrupted, all cold-hearted and equally tired: “Henry. Bed. Now.”
“But, Mom, I really need to—”
That’s when the wailing began. It was interspersed with something that sounded like: “But Mom, I wanna make a kitty mansion and I need to talk to you about it now or I will forget all the ideas and they are really good ideas! Can we please just build this right away—like right now, tonight?!”
Henry has a lot of ideas that don’t show up until after 8 p.m. Some are kind of nutty because his little brain is sparking out due to fatigue. His cat mansion entailed three stories and a drawbridge, so it probably fit in the nutty category. He was a boy with a vision, but alas, his mother wanted him to set his dream aside and go to bed!
“But, if I don’t build it tonight, I’ll forget to build it tomorrow!” Henry’s eyes were brimming with tears, and I nodded sympathetically and tried to hide a yawn. I suggested he write his goals down in his journal, which he tried, but he can’t spell anything, and by that point he was so tired he was having a hard time just holding his pencil. By then it was 9:15. I was reduced to speaking in single word grunts, and Henry had lost all ability to write. We were quite a pair. There was a lot of crying.
The best laid plans of cats and kids often go awry. Even after Henry painstakingly worked on his list until even further past his bedtime, his glorious plans were forgotten, buried under his bed covers the next morning. Despite my initial reaction the evening before, I was kind of disappointed. I wanted to see our fat cat Steve try to fit through the drawbridge.
This is how it is with New Year’s resolutions.
There is something so creative and inspired about writing down resolutions. I cannot help but love a new notebook and some colored felt pens on New Year’s morning, with the crisp, fresh pages waiting to be inscribed with all my glorious ideas. And so for years now I have sat with my coffee and new notebook every New Year’s Day, scribbling out my perfect year.
Then about an hour later, I start scarfing bacon bean dip and the whole thing is a wash.
My resolutions don’t work. They always seem to focus on weighty issues. I am not being metaphorical here. I mean, literally, my resolutions always seem to end up being about my weight. I skip right past any sort of virtuous planning for more time with God, more Bible study, more church, more serving. Those items might make the list somewhere near the bottom, but I always seem to circle back to my increasingly circular waistline. I try to dress this whole weight-loss goal-setting tradition with a big spiritual bow. With zeal, I write: Resolution #1: My body is a temple. I will no longer steal my children’s marshmallow Santas.
But really it starts to sound like I just want to look good in skinny jeans for Jesus.
Perhaps my weight-loss resolutions help me skirt some insecurities that I really should address. But much like Henry, I’m not even sure where to start or how to spell it. Writing down “lose twenty pounds” is easier than facing all the feelings underneath.
So perhaps I was wrong. Maybe the weight is metaphoric. I carry around a heavy weight of expectations about my yearly goal-setting. On one hand, I am reminded by God that I am wonderfully made, which, in my brain, translates to “I am practically perfect in every way.” So I write a bunch of resolutions about watching Ted Talks or making my own yogurt—and then I get tired.
And then, as I am ladling up my second helping of bacon bean dip, I decide I am a helpless lump. And since lumps don’t have the brains to make goals, but simply lump around, why even try? So I lump brainlessly over to the couch and start licking tortilla chip crumbs off my sweatshirt, and resolve never to resolve anything.
Then, of course, there are those well-meaning folks who are very healthy and cheery, who use words like, “balance,” and “baby steps,” and that means I should write resolutions that sound like this: “Don’t forget to put on your pants.”
Three days a week I take a break from momhood and teach writing to a bunch of college kids. Actually, there is not much disparity here, but it gets me out of the house. I decide to ask their opinion. “So, do you guys make resolutions? Like, you know, at the New Year?” They stare at me in silence, which is daunting, but they do this a lot so I wait. Finally one student offers a shrug and says, “Why? Resolutions are what a mom wants you to do.”
Is that my problem? Am I making all these plans because I mommed myself into it?
When I made goals that point back at me, it just gets…pointy. My plans for weight loss are like those unfortunate “Don’t Wear This” layouts in fashion magazines. The celebrity has a big black mark across her eyes to hide her identity, because she dared to go to Target in stirrup pants and a Sooners hoodie. That little black line does not do much for anonymity, and it just ends up feeling pointy and mean. I do the same thing. I point to my stomach and place the big black line of shame across it. “How could she even go out in public with such flab? This kind of belly is so out of fashion and clearly she has not learned to accessorize it at all.” And I resolve to lose the same twenty pounds that I have listed for the past three years.
I need help. In desperation, I ask my husband,
“What do you think about resolutions?”
“Resolutions? They’re nice.”
He’s watching the World Series, so this kind of response is about all I can ask for. But I press on anyway.
“Honey. We’ve been married for eleven years, and I don’t think I have ever spied you writing down any sort of resolutions.”
“That’s not true. I write them, sure.”
I made a mental note to add “marital communication” to my list of resolutions. But here’s the rub: when I want to start a new Get Healthy regimen, it is a Big Thing, and I have to Prepare. And usually that means I have to write a bunch of lists about it, with menu ideas and workout plans and new equipment to research. And then, of course, I have to wait for a Monday to start all of this, and by then I can basically Monday myself out of anything.
But Brian? He just goes and works out. He doesn’t write it down. He doesn’t plan which days he will go. There are absolutely no felt tip pens involved. He just does it, all willy nilly. And it’s very weird and annoying because he has exercised way more this year than I had even planned to.
Three years ago on New Year’s Day, I decided that Brian and I did need to come up with some resolutions for our marriage. I plunked down next to him on the couch while he cheered for his team, and I said, “What do you want for us this year?” He played along, and I wrote down his ideas, and together we compiled a top ten list for our marriage. Granted, #10 reads: Give me all your lovin’. All your hugs and kisses too, which we stole straight from ZZ Top, but it is what it is.
We tacked the handwritten list up in our office, where it remains. We have maintained it pretty well, especially #10. And I wonder. Do I manage those “resolutions” because they are tethered to someone else? If I regarded my personal goals in the same way, with all my resolutions partnered up with God and what he wants for my life, would my attempts be more successful?
This year I’ll still gather my set of twenty felt-tip markers, a new spiral notebook, and a very hot cup of coffee, and I’ll write my resolutions. I can’t help it. It’s a part of my genetic makeup to docket ideas and circle them with swirls of green and purple. But this time I will try to drop the extra weight of all my perfectionistic expectations from the list. Maybe I’ll include a few goals that are not pointed back at me, but are more connected outward to those I love. All in all, this should help make my new year much more svelte. And serene.
First on the list?
1. Research cat mansions.