How Do You Eat an Elephant?

There is a meme that has crossed my feed a couple of times recently that asks something like,  “are you the ‘I’m frozen and can’t do anything type of anxiety’ or the ‘I have to do everything right now type of anxiety’?”  I am very solidly in the second category. I am a total perfectionist, and I see most things, especially job-related things, as the top priority.

This year, in addition to the normal pandemic stress, my family moved to a new house, and I started a new job at a new school, teaching a brand-new state curriculum. (HELLO anxiety!) While my past experience teaching online at the college level may have given me a bit of an advantage in facing this unprecedented year, adjusting to a new school culture while properly social distancing has been awkward, and my lack of familiarity with the new curriculum and how best to make this curriculum virtually accessibly was more than a little overwhelming. I found myself repeatedly apologizing to my new colleagues for my anxiety and explaining that I was just so worried I was going to prioritize the wrong thing.

Luckily, as I slowly settled in, I began to realize that I have incredibly helpful new co-workers and an amazing administrative team that fully understands exactly what is being asked of teachers this year and is supporting us every step of the way. I also have so many hard-working students who are doing their best to succeed despite all of the adjustments they’ve had to make. But the person who has made the most difference for me this year has been our awesome support teacher, Ms. B. She has made a career out of helping students make sure their heads are securely on their shoulders, and she has also done the same for many teachers.

One day, amid one of my anxiety-ridden discussions with her, Ms. B asked me, “how do you eat an elephant?”

Obviously, the answer is “one bite at a time.” What she was really saying to me is, “yes, there is a lot to do, but as long as you are working and getting things done, you are doing the best you can do.” It was a simple, and slightly silly, reminder that I am doing the best that I can and that needs to be enough, especially for me. Since that first conversation, Ms. B has had to ask me that question once or twice more to realign my perspective, but this simple question has also started to follow me into other areas of my life.

Remember when I said that my family moved to a new house during the pandemic? Well, the perfectionist in me has had a hard time with the growing to-do list for our new house, the lack of time to tackle this list, and the budget-restricted timeline to address some of the items on the list. Some of our furniture didn’t fit nicely in the new house, so it needed to be replaced. My brown, industrial rustic décor from the old house clashed with the soft grays of the new house, so I needed to decide on a new décor theme. As excited as I was to finally have a garage, we have no storage systems yet, so it’s currently just a jumbled mass of holiday décor boxes, tools, lawn equipment, and outdoor toys.

All of these things stressed me out and made it difficult for me to settle into my new home, but nothing drove me crazier than the playroom. The playroom was the first room I unpacked and organized when we moved in because I thought, if my girls have access to their toys, then I can unpack the rest of the house in peace. It worked for a little while, but very quickly, the daily mess they made turned into a nightly battle to clean. Once I started back to work, there were many nights that I was just too tired to fight them, so the mess piled up. Before I knew it, every shelf, bin, and bucket had been unloaded onto the floor, which was no longer visible, and I couldn’t even shut the door to hide the mess because there were toys in the way.

I cursed the sheer number of toys they had but couldn’t bring myself to be that mom who brings out the trash bags. I sent pictures of the mess to my mom and begged her to stop spoiling her grandchildren because it just ended up being more things for me to yell at them to clean up. A couple of times I tried to clean it up, but I’d only get one corner cleaned and organized in the hour or two that I had set aside, and before I could find more time to work on the rest of the room, the girls would destroy what I had just done.

Last weekend, I was so frustrated with the mess I cried. I told my husband I just needed a whole weekend to shut myself up in the playroom and clean it, but that I couldn’t do that because it would mean neglecting all of the other household duties that usually get done on the weekends. And even once I did get it all cleaned, it would be a battle to get the girls to get rid of some of the toys once it was organized again. And then my husband asked, “well, why don’t we just get some boxes, start at the door, and have the girls decide if things are keep or purge?”

Suddenly, a lightbulb went off, and I heard Ms. B asking me, “how do you eat an elephant?”

The mess had become the elephant in the room that I couldn’t face. I had been so focused on how big the whole mess was, that I hadn’t been able to break it down into smaller, digestible chunks.  So that afternoon I got boxes, and both my girls helped. We worked for about an hour that day and an hour the next. A couple of nights this week I had them grab a few items out of the room and stick them in the keep or purge box. This weekend we spent some more time pulling items from the room and tossing them in the appropriate bins and boxes.

It is a slow process.  My 3-year old is easily distracted and my 8-year old struggles to get rid of toys she no longer plays with, but THEY are the ones working through the toys, not me. And once the room is cleared, we’ll go through the process again as we put each toy away in its proper place (hopefully adding a few more items to the purge pile!).

The playroom is still a giant mess, but by the end of this weekend, I had a clean closet to start storing the “keep” toys in, I was able to see parts of the floor again, and I was able to close the door to the playroom – and all of that is progress.

Even more amazing than the feeling of being able to close the playroom door was the ability to look around my new house and see what I HAVE accomplished instead of focusing on what still needs to be done. Last weekend I hung a new shower curtain in the girls’ bathroom and my husband hung some pictures. This weekend I found lamps for the entertainment center I repurposed as an entry-way table and hung the old shower curtain in the guest bathroom. Small things, but progress all the same.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the progress when the goal is so large and the process is so slow, but I am making progress, one bite at a time;

That is the best I can do, and that needs to be enough for me.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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