Perspective

This story begins with working on the Leaning Tower of Ignored Filing that sits on the corner of my desk. (The oldest things I’ve found in it only go back a couple of years, so it hasn’t been ignored for that long, by my usual standards.) Amid the process of organizing papers into file drawers, I found a folder labeled “Calendar – 2006.”

I’ll readily admit that my filing is sprinkled with some odd things. Not all of them really matter, but at some point I thought they did, or stuck them in a folder just in case. But “Calendar – 2006” struck me as a strange one. I use calendars to see what’s coming up, not what’s already happened, so I don’t keep old ones. As soon as I set eyes on this one, though, I remembered it. I knew why it still deserves a place in my file drawers.

It is a tiny wall calendar, about six inches square. The pictures are scenes from Quebec, which means it came from my very good friend who lives there. Across the days of 2006 there are handwritten notes, things like “20 minutes,” “1 hr,” “walked around festival.” Not every day is marked, but a lot of them are.

In 2006 I decided that I was going to walk regularly for exercise, and I used this little calendar to track my progress. It’s not just a calendar to me, it’s a record of success, of an intention well-kept. It represents a time when I proved that I could set myself a healthy goal and carry through.

At some point I let my walking habit lapse, and ever since, the idea that I should resume walking regularly has lurked in the back of my mind. I knew it was good for me both physically and mentally — I find walking time to be great thinking time. I finally got serious about walking again on July 31, 2011. I know it was July 31 because that’s the day I stepped off my treadmill and recorded the date, time, distance, and estimated calories burned on a notepad. I know that tracking is an important tool for making change happen, and I still make a note of the stats every time I use my treadmill.

I kept on walking through August, then through the fall, then straight on into this year. It’s not a perfect record, there are gaps where I didn’t follow through with my intention to walk. I’ve always gone back to the treadmill, but those missed days niggled. I knew there were blocks of time not represented at all on my notepad and I felt bad about them. Missed days are a sign of wobbling intentions. I didn’t want to stop walking, but those missed days started to feel like advance markers of impending failure. Worry started to mean more missed days, and then more worry.

Right into the midst of my anxiety appeared a folder named “Calendar – 2006.” I flipped through the pages of my old calendar and read my notes, looked over the record of my progress, and put the calendar back in my files. The next day I whistled up Microsoft Word and told it to print out a basic calendar, each month on a single page, starting with August 2011 and reaching to the end of this year. I fetched my walking-stats notepad and a Sharpie marker, sat down with my new calendar pages, and started marking in X’s. Every day on which I had taken a walk got a big red X. When I was done I spread them out so I could see them all at once.

Those worrying missed days fade in significance when they are bracketed by big red X marks. The eye goes automatically to the days when I won, the days on which I carried through with my goal. For the first time I got a real sense for the scope of my “impending failure.” Days marked with an X far outnumber the days unmarked. The longest stretch of X-marks-the-spot days is over two weeks. The longest stretch of blanks is only four days.

I know one of the broken things about my brain is that it always seeks out what’s wrong, what’s failed, what’s faulty. It finds the places where I have messed up and gnaws on them obsessively, filling me up with anxiety and sapping my ability to make good choices. I can’t let my brain get away with it. My stats-tracking notepad is useful and I’m still recording data on it. But it’s not visual enough. It doesn’t force me to look at the scale of my success. I need to put my successes in front of my eyes over and over again, or I forget about them. I need to fight back against the brokenness that only remembers what went wrong, magnifying that wrongness out of all proportion until I am afraid I can never succeed, a fear which makes itself true by keeping me from ever trying.

I printed my calendar a couple of weeks ago, and that day marks an instant change in my walking habit. The first half of March was really shaky, non-walking days actually outnumbering walking days. The last half is near solid X’s. Those calendar pages are now taped to a wall where I can see them from my treadmill, all the old months full of red marks, and the new month waiting to be filled up with them. Every day now when I start to walk, I look over at those calendar pages, at the record of my success. I find the current day and mentally X it off, in advance of marking it with my Sharpie, and I feel good about choosing to get on the treadmill for another day. I have done such a good job of keeping this habit going, all the way since last summer, and there’s no way I’m giving up on it now.

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