On the stories we tell ourselves

Some days we could use a little positive reframing

For all my good intentions to ease into the day and embrace a positive mindset, I’m feeling increasingly stressed and bothered. Is it fair to blame the technology in our bedroom? Is it because the new routines have now eclipsed the easier, more familiar ones?  Or is it just me, and my bad mood recurring as a bad habit? 

“I really think my dad needs luggage that’s easier to handle, and definitely with wheels,” says Janyce, peeking her head through the door from the master bath. I’m sitting up in bed. I’ve propped pillows against our ornate metal headboard and I’m holding my coffee cup with two hands in front of my face, steam billowing up to my nose. We still haven’t gotten used to daylight savings time and we’re awake at 4:00 am, before our new alarm clock—the one that resembles a huge floodlight on the bedside table—has clicked on to rouse us with its subtle red aura, like a heatlamp. Eventually, the glow will slowly expand brighter and brighter until it fills the room with full spectrum daylight. Today though, it was the dog that woke us up. He sleeps on the bed now.

We’ve set things up in the room to make it easier for him, because he’s old. Over on my side of the bed, we’ve added stairs so he can walk up instead of jumping like he used to. On Janyce’s side, she’s pushed the hope chest perpendicular to the end of the bed and every night she lays out a folded bathmat on top of it and places his water bowl in the middle.

Janyce used to have many rules for proper dog behavior and care when we first brought him home to live with us. No getting on the bed, no more than a scoop and a half of kibble, no running to the food bowl until we said Okay, no coming in from outside unless all four paws have been wiped clean.

My spouse Janyce likes rules and routines. And it’s a good thing for our family that she does, because I’m not very good at either. 

“He’s an old dog, he should get what he wants,” I said when I let him up onto the bed for the first time.

“He stamped three times,” I say, while taking another sip of my coffee. Janyce is in a full Spiderman crouch at the end of the bed, balancing a small scrub brush on top of a plastic container filled with water and a bar of soap. With her free hand, she is busy shining her cellphone flashlight onto the folds of the tattered comforter.

“Treat, really?” she says. “Another one?”  

Janyce continues to speak to me without looking up. “My dad told me that he didn’t want to buy a new suitcase for only one trip. But then, he smiled—you know how my dad smiles—and he said, “unless we go on another trip next year, too.” Her attention is on the spot that she is scrubbing furiously in a circular motion. It sounds like sandpaper scratching a pine board.

The dog sprawls out fully horizontal and presses his foot into my side. I set down my coffee cup and search our king-size bed for my reading glasses and cellphone. The sun clock has reached full force and the room is finally illuminated. It’s also at the moment in its wakeup cycle when the birdsong starts. This is a lovely idea in theory, but the birdsong is really a recorded ten second audio loop and I’ve already picked up on the pattern. It’s starting to irritate me, or maybe it’s the radio program that has since turned on by itself, the NPR commentator’s voice emanating from the disc on the windowsill.

“Hey, Google,” I yell. “Shut it.” 

For all my good intentions to ease into the day and embrace a positive mindset, I’m feeling increasingly stressed and bothered. Is it fair to blame the technology in our bedroom? Is it because the new routines have now eclipsed the easier, more familiar ones?  Or is it just me, and my bad mood recurring as a bad habit?  

There is this technique in cognitive behavioral therapy called reframing. It’s a strategy a therapist uses to get you to see a situation from a slightly different perspective. You are supposed to reconsider things in a more positive light and change the story you are telling yourself. I got pretty good at it in my thirties. I was able to reframe my divorce and the story of how my “broken family” would cause irreparable harm to my kids into a new one that I now had a modern blended family and the kids had more people to love them. I changed the story of how I wasn’t good enough to get into Harvard as an undergrad into a new story that it was even better to get a master’s degree through the Extension School because I would enjoy the experience so much more, being older and taking one class at a time. And Janyce’s dad, in his 87th year, seems to be reframing his story, too, and deciding that now is the perfect time to go on a 10-day cruise to the Panama Canal with his daughters.  

So, what is the story I’m telling myself this morning as I linger lazily, annoyed at the radio, at Janyce scrubbing the spots out of our comforter with vigor, at our old dog taking up more and more of the mattress real estate? 

I’m thinking that anyone who has lived long enough to reach age 50 and beyond knows all too well that there are limitations to this particular reframing technique. Years go by and the unrealized dreams you had as a teenager start to move further and further out of reach. Parents get old. You lose friends to terminal illnesses. Your kids move away. There comes a point when it feels too hard to reframe things all the time. And on some days, life is just going to be what it is. 

I have my cellphone in my hand and I’m scrolling through Instagram. I stop on the latest post from trainwithjoan whose tagline is a jaunty “You can’t turn back the clock, but you can wind it up again!” Joan, at age 73, is surrounded by younger women in bikinis and she is looking pretty svelte herself in a black one piece. All of them are jumping for joy on a beach in Tulum.  I click the arrow and forward the post to my mother. 

Our old dog can sense my gathering ennui and he hoists himself up onto his stiff joints to give me a wet dog kiss right on the lips. This is something else that he does now.

I take the message he is sending me to mean: I’m here now, Kris. But I’ll be leaving you soon. Pay attention.

Janyce is settled in the bed now with her own coffee cup and the computer on her lap. 

“What are your plans for the day?” she asks me, scratching Treat around the ears and flipping the laptop open.  

From the bedroom window, I can see across my neighbor’s yard to the street. It’s Saturday morning and our town is waking up. Cars are streaming by. And from where I am watching, the headlamps look like they are gradually receding into the sky as it brightens ever so slightly from black to a deep navy blue. The actual sun is coming up. 

“I think I’d like to take the dog on a walk.”