What a Ruined Manicure Taught Me About Life

Life’s funny, but not always in a fit of giggles kind of way. As I sat sipping coffee on the porch in the cool of that spring morning, my life had felt the wrong kind of funny for almost a year.

First, my life had been stirred, and then vigorously shaken and the experience had left me wandering in that uncomfortable hinterland between the death of life as I knew it and the birth of something new.

I had ended up in what I, as a Life Coach, call Square One. Square One is the no-man’s-land where you dwell when life as you know it ceases to exist and you haven’t yet metamorphized into your next incarnation. Much like a caterpillar who has spun a cocoon and dissolved into bug soup before re-encoding its DNA into its new form as a butterfly, Square One is a place best described as goo.

If you’ve ever been through a major life transition perhaps you can relate.

Over the past nine months, seemingly unrelated events had changed the way I viewed myself, our country and my life and I had retreated into my own personal cocoon, turning to goo while doing the bare minimum my life required, reassuring my fragile self, and trying to trust that the goo of my life would somehow rebuild itself into an incarnation I felt comfortable inhabiting.

Thus, when I realized that I wanted to start a project, I was thrilled. It was the first hint of Square Two peeking out. This phase always follows Square One but usually arrives much slower than we desire. It is often so long in coming that it can feel like rain on drought-parched earth. It’s the phase where we start to re-imagine our life.

The project that called to me seemed easy enough. As I sat drinking my coffee, I was looking at one tiny corner of the garden that needed a good weeding. And while, after so many months of neglect, there was much that needed doing around the house and in the yard, I was looking for something manageable. And this corner fit the bill.

I was no more than ten minutes into my weeding project when my gardening gloves came off, proving themselves far too cumbersome for the exacting task of separating the groundcover from the vine-like-weeds.

An hour or so later, I sat back and contemplated my ruined manicure and my incessant internal monologue and began to giggle as I realized that I had unwittingly chosen a project that mirrored my life of the past nine months.

I first noted that this was a much more difficult task than I initially imagined. I then noticed that when pulling the things I didn’t want, I had to be careful to leave the things I did. Sometimes the two were so entwined I couldn’t get to the roots and had to settle for just taking out the part I could easily see and deal with. Other times, I was able to dig deeper and extract the root. However, I still didn’t know if I had gotten the whole thing or if there was more I couldn’t see or feel down deep underground. And throughout the process I knew that some of the weeds would grow back and it would be my responsibility to get to them quicker next time, before they overshadowed the things I wanted to keep and nurture.

In the first hour or so of weeding, my wandering stream of consciousness had covered, in no particular order: denying the actual complexity and size of the task, resisting taking on the responsibility, anger that I was the one responsible for such a thankless job, bargaining with myself about how I deserved to be rewarded for such selfless and valiant behavior, and resentment that others weren’t doing more.

Finally, my mind got around to having the conversation with itself about how it was my choice to spend time weeding the garden, how I could, at any time, make a different choice, and that I could either be the person who weeded the garden or not, as long as I was at peace with my decision. And it was those wonderings that led to a feeling of acceptance, peace and even joy in completing my weeding project.

I get how hyperbolic this sounds given I’m talking about weeding. After all, a well-weeded garden hardly counts as life changing.

But for me, on that day, weeding felt analogous to my life over the last nine months.

Untangling the weeds from the established plants I wanted to retain, reflected the incongruent feelings of loss and pride I felt as my daughter left the nest and moved over 1000 miles away to start college. It mirrored the struggles, sadness, and satisfaction I had faced as the primary caregiver for my mom as she negotiated the space between a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and death. It reflected the frustration and determination I felt when our nation elected a leader I despised. It reminded me of the complexity of saying a final goodbye to my mom and reconciling all the tangled feelings we have for the imperfect humans who parent us.

The weeding also brought to mind the apprehension and joy I felt as an imperfect parent sending my daughter out into the world. It reminded me of the periodic happiness and validation I had experienced as a caregiver for my mom, especially when I was able to focus on my ability to choose what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it and who I wanted to be in the process, instead of dwelling on the day-to-day tedium and inevitable outcome. And it reminded me of my own responsibility to step up and advocate for a world purged of sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and religious bigotry.

That one tiny corner of the garden, on that particular day, was a reminder that it’s always appropriate to giggle, even when, or perhaps especially when, you feel like goo. And that it’s sometimes the simplest of things that help us find more meaning and strength in life’s endings, transitions, and new beginnings.