My last five years were all about French literature and cathedrals. It was about incense twirling around my chandeliers and shallow coups of absinthe. It was about wading through the bayous of New Orleans and listening to the hushed words of psychics. It was about hidden speakeasies and vampire novels and alligator eyes blinking above the swamp.
It was about finding my career, studying my art, practicing my craft. It was about going to grad school—studying the Virgin Mary. It was about finding religion, then letting it fall away. It was about writing and feeling and delving into darker places, exploring the depths of my psyche and the innermost sanctum of my soul.
And the art that came out of that life was a gothic novel.
Now, all of that feels like it is devolving into this new phase, this next five years, which I can already feel is all about freedom, palm leaves, the gentle chanting of Buddhist monks, skin warmed by a waning sun, wooden canoes floating down tropical rivers, and hair that’s loosened from life’s worries.
It’s about writing and traveling. It’s about drinking coconut milk fresh from the shell and enjoying everything this life has to offer. It’s about dipping my toes in the ocean and touching my fingers to blooming bouquets of coral. It’s about abundance and happiness and bliss and peace.
And I hope the art that will come out of this life is a utopian novel.
I’m creating that life now, getting into character for my next book, and that starts with designing my life to be even more beautiful, more utopian. First by removing the things from my life that are not that, and then by adding some things that are.
The crux came last winter.
Amidst a grueling work schedule, my husband and I rented our house out on Airbnb for two months so we could spend January in Costa Rica and February in Tahoe—hers and his workations.
We should have noticed the signs—that we were too overworked to handle anything else. Our jobs were at max capacity, both of us were rapidly approaching burnout, and I was also launching a new event in Utah, participating in the Substack Fellowship program and, though I stopped writing my newsletter, was still sending weekly novel chapters. Still, we thought the change of scenery might do us some good so we set ourselves in the middle of the jungle to work and adventure.
Unfortunately, the jungle wasn’t safe. Several violent crimes took place while we were there which caused the police to shut down the local taxi service. We couldn’t get anywhere unless we were walking, which wasn’t safe—meanwhile, stitches I’d had on my finger months prior became infected, requiring an urgent care visit and antibiotics, ceasing to get better for the entirety of our trip (probably because of the stress).
When my husband’s sister told us she and her family were moving to Salt Lake City in January instead of March we were thrilled, but we also didn’t know where to go. We cancelled our Tahoe plans so we could welcome them home, but our home was rented out, it was the middle of winter, and all we had were bags full of tropical things.
For the next month, we stayed at a friend’s house, who graciously allowed us to rent it out while she was away, and convinced our Airbnb guests to let us grab all of our winter things. We sat at our desks and worked all day long. We tried to get everything done and had long talks about how we couldn’t. We started job searching, which only added more to our very full plates.
Though I can look back on this time and say that we still had a wonderful time, we were also incredibly stressed out. We emerged from the winter knowing we couldn’t keep going like this and that we needed to remove some things from our lives to bring it back into balance.
The removing was thorough. Over the summer, I had an honest talk with my boss which resulted in us hiring two more people, greatly alleviating the overwork I had been experiencing and bringing my day job, which I love again, back into balance. My husband had a similar discussion with his company—they also hired two new employees. We stopped job searching and I gave up a founding role in Cryptopia, the event I had been working on, which was going to require too much of my time and thus wasn’t aligned with the beautiful life I have planned for myself.
Meanwhile, I finished serializing my gothic novel, I finished designing the print version. I finished recording all the podcasts I agreed to and writing all the articles I pitched. In fact, I ceased all marketing activities for a while. My full send summer became a full send year and I’ve reached a natural resting point where, for the foreseeable future, all I plan to do is work at a peaceful pace and write my newsletter for the pleasure of it.
In addition, I removed negative language from my life by deleting social media accounts. I said no to almost every request for my time and cleaned out my calendar of existing meetings that weren’t aligned with where I was going. Simultaneously, I deep cleaned my house of all the dust, emptied the attic and basement of things we haven’t used, and donated so many things to charity. I xeriscaped my lawn and completed house projects that have been lingering for some time. I stopped traveling for a minute.
All of this created s p a c e.
And in that space I found one last thing I needed to remove: anxiety.
It started at the beginning of the year as a function of overwork, overextension—but once all of that was gone I was left with the remnant: an overstimulated mind with a blank space it could fill with downward spiraling thoughts.
My anxiety tends to do that. It starts with a brief thought, then follows it to its bitter end. When my mind is healthy, these thoughts would become nothing more, but when anxiety is present, they catch. By the time I notice where my mind has gone, I’ve followed it over the edge.
Often, my anxiety applies these tricks to my health. It pretends to be a heart attack, a brain tumor, a blood clot. As soon as I catch on, it moves to a new body part. It has become predictable in this game and I can now spot my anxiety by this pattern. “Wait, weren’t you a brain tumor last week? And now you’re a heart attack? Nice try, I see you anxiety!”
Recently my anxiety jumped to my husband, seeing in every ailment a sign of cancer, reinforced in my mind by his family history of pancreatic cancer. When he confided that he wondered if he would die at 40, as his uncle did, I spent an entire evening contemplating a life without him. Though logic attempted to intervene, soothing me with the knowledge that I had no proof of this calamity and thus did not need to be making plans for a life without him, I could not be pulled back from the abyss until morning.
What started in my mind has now seeped into my body. I start holding my breath throughout the day, which becomes migraines and dizzy spells. I tighten my muscles and clench my jaw throughout the day, which becomes leg and muscle pain. Stress has spiked my body with cortisol, messing with my hormones. When I recently had bloodwork done the results were laughable: I had too much carbon dioxide and too little sodium. Tl;DR: I’ve been holding my breath and not drinking water.
To get a handle on it I decided to work on my body and mind simultaneously. For my body, I scheduled an appointment with an integrative physician and started keeping a health journal so I could walk her through all the things. I signed up for Utah’s 5 for Life—which scans for heart disease, breast cancer, cervical cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer, and bone density all in one day. My husband scheduled a doctor appointment, a gastro appointment, and a colonoscopy.
Our bodies well cared for, now it was time to take care of our minds. I signed up for a yoga pass and spent a month walking to class everyday after work. I practiced relaxing my muscles, loosening my jaw. I started putting my legs up the wall before bed and setting a timer for five minutes just to breathe deeply. I used my favorite meditation: imagining that I’m laying in a bed of wildflowers, the wind blowing them gently against my skin as I sink into the earth.
I started to feel at peace again, slowly, for at least an hour or two a day. Now I’m trying to extend that to the rest of my day. To feel that peace not just hourly, but daily, then as a natural extension of my life. I know this can be achieved with mindfulness and to me that means having positive thoughts about the present moment on a regular basis. I’m working on it.
To help this process along, I changed my media diet. I started watching Ted Lasso again so I could fill my head with “BELIEVE” energy. I started listening to the High School Musical soundtracks (one, two, and three) which are just next level happy songs about following your dreams. I started listening to Local Valley when I walk and Dreamland while I stretch, breathing deeply and imagining I’m in a magical forest.
A long time ago, when I was recovering from PTSD, depression, and anxiety, I learned a meditation that has since become part of my repertoire. It involves imagining a pile of black and white stones before you. Wearing an apron with huge pockets, you watch your thoughts and put a black stone in your pocket when you have a negative thought, and a white stone in your pocket when you have a positive thought. When I first tried this exercise at 20, I had an apron full of black stones. Over time, the goal is to wind up with all white ones.
My apron has been full of white stones for the greater part of my twenties and thirties, with minor lapses during the winter when, affected by the cold and darkness, I usually require a tune-up. But the stress of the past year shifted that balance, throwing a hefty pile of black stones into the mix. Now, every day I start with a new apron and I practice thinking beautiful thoughts throughout the day, adding white stones to my pocket as I go. When I stretch during my lunch break, I think about how good it feels to move. When I walk to yoga I think about how beautiful it is outside, how lucky I am to be alive.
At first, these thoughts feel like banalities, but eventually, just as the bad thoughts do, they catch—spiraling in the upward direction instead of down. On a recent paddleboard trip up the Bend River, I was practicing my positive thoughts, thinking about the moss beneath my feet and how it looked like Te Fiti, the goddess from Moana. Before I knew it, I was wondering whether New Zealand was like that, whether I would have the opportunity to see kelp that glows with bioluminescence, whether I could capture that feeling in a novel.
As anxiety loosens its grip, as I have space in my life and start to feel good living in it, I find myself with the space to start adding more beauty to my life. To add joy.
My husband and I added our big rocks first: a sailing trip to the Virgin Islands this fall, a winter spent with my sister in Hawaii. From there, I want to add some joy to my daily life. My husband and I do a lot of hikes, lake swims, and camper van trips—and I truly love all those things—but I also wondered whether there might be other things I could enjoy just for me.
I had a chance to test that. At the beginning of August, my husband had a month of work travel ahead of him and I had a month of solitude. I made a list of things I wanted to do with that time: maybe I’d go see the Lizzo concert or visit a rare book shop I discovered in Provo. Perhaps I’d attend one of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures locally.
Then, when I had the house to myself, I started singing again. I’ve been taking voice lessons since February and it has brought me so much joy, but having a month to really practice reminded me how much I love it and I started wondering if I could join a songwriting group or even a band, to have something to practice my voice lessons for, and a group of creative friends to do it with. I added that to my list.
By the third week, I was craving the ocean so I joined my husband for one of his work trips. We got in our camper van and drove to Astoria, Oregon where I walked along the white washed boardwalk, watched the barges roll past, listened to the seals squawk, and fell in love with the sea. I continued to practice thinking beautiful thoughts, and all this new joy in my life made it even easier. In fact, I started doing it naturally. I watched the fog roll in with wonder, believing it to be a magical new phase settling into my life. I felt happy. At peace. I felt inspired to write.
I’m still working on removing anxiety and adding joy, but it’s getting easier by the day. I can feel myself returning to my bubbly, happy self and all of it is creating a more beautiful life, a more imaginative mind, a more utopian existence from which I can write!
I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section. What are some of the things you are removing/adding to your lives?
Next week, paying subscribers will receive the final think tank discussion and a conclusion to the web3 chapter of my life. Then we’re meeting Oblivion.
Until then, I’ll see you in threads!
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My goodness, the way your work so hard to perfect it, your life sounds like a work of fiction... which I suppose is what you are after since you plan to write a novel about utopia....! But what is utopia? If you ask a hundred people you're likely to get a hundred answers... which is why a utopian society has always been so hard to build. If we all spend our lives bringing ourselves joy and peace, who will clean up the cat litter? I think that's the main challenge, as well as the fact that humans can't agree on the best form of government or the right way to live. Perhaps you've defined utopia in a new way, or in a personal way, in one of your previous posts (?). I think you will absolutely need to do that if you want to relieve the word of negative baggage. About things removed and/or added to my life: pretty mundane, but lately I'm trying to keep my evenings free of technology (phone, laptop, TV). I've begun to really resent the way all these gizmatrons have created dependency in my life, keeping me in a reactive mode and often affecting me negatively. What I most like to do these evenings is to read novels on my couch with or without a cocktail. I am currently reading "The Voyeur" by Moravia published in the '80s, quite psychological/sexual and interesting to me. My reading tastes have steadily been leading me into bygone decades. Moravia is totally out of fashion now which actually feels like a plus!
This whole article is so relatable and it was such a relief reading about the choices you‘ve made to introduce calm into more and more into your life. I know well how anxiety can catch. Thank you for this- I have taken bigger breaths and feel my shoulders dropping as I leave this comment. 💗