Him: We have to ask ourselves at a certain point in life if the goal isn’t how far we can push the threshold but actually how little we can do to create health.
Me: [Blank stare] Doc, this goes against my entire life philosophy.
Him: [Chuckles] Maybe that’s why you’re here.
The missing part of my exchange with an orthopedic surgeon is why I was at the sports medicine clinic to begin with –acute hamstring tendonitis– but it could apply to anything. It wasn’t the first time I had received similar advice, words that describe the tremulous battlefront of my life: if X is good, isn’t 3X better?
Sometimes solicited, other times offered in a nickel’s worth of free counsel from medical professionals and mediums alike, people often encourage me to back off a bit. They are surprised at how much I can accomplish while at the same time asking if I might consider lifting my foot from the gas pedal, at least on downhill slopes. Given my level of obstinance at the time, I might listen, but not in a way that prevents the same advice from finding its way to me through another channel.
No rest leads to a head cold. A cold gives rise to pneumonia. A few extra minutes in the sun leads to a burn. Exercising six days a week, including evening swim on Tuesdays, creates thrumming-red tendons. Like my one-time fascination with Candy Crush Saga, I admit I have a problem. (I’m on level 92 now, in case you’re wondering, but my drive has withered.)
My awareness of this pattern began in my early twenties when an astrologer read my natal chart. We sat in her stuffy, low-ceilinged adobe office in Phoenix as she worked the astral circumstances of my birth like a complicated math problem. Finally, Mary Ann said, “You seem pretty conventional until I take this into account,” noting a particular planetary placement in the first house. “You like to surprise people, especially if it means upending their safe perception of you.” I shrugged, smiling. Who, me? Then she pointed to another sector and said, “And you go too far, and you do too much.” No one has said it better.
I’ve spent the decades since trying to comprehend why I’m driven to leverage every ounce of energy at my disposal. As the first person in my family to attend college, a lot was expected of me. Or maybe my innate desire to meet these expectations simply landed in the right body; I was genetically programmed to seek out and push at the edges. Inborn or conditioned, this habit has led to trouble on occasion, leaving me gravely ill, over-extended and stressed out. It’s also helped me create a nice life. Who’s to say that driving for the threshold isn’t a valid approach to existence when tempered with a measure of reason and –dare I say– a dash of restraint? That last part takes a surprising amount of will and perspective.
Who isn’t too busy or high-achieving these days? Our world rewards hard drivers and weekend warriors. Those of us caught up in the high-speed matrix see no other way to exist. We have forgotten uttering the words, “I’m bored” as children, which wasn’t so much a complaint, but a secret delight in doing nothing. As an adult, each Friday night, I write a list of all the things I’m going to do that weekend, and each Sunday night, I write my list for the week ahead. What would I do without these guiding documents — sit around and… be? I feel guilty, lazy and flabby just considering it.
In the space of two weeks in 2006, I sold my house, finalized a divorce, moved into a new place and started a new job. When life confers this much change on a person, what else is there to do but ride the wave? Abounding chaos buffered me through the storm of change, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Perhaps this is why Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” irritates me. Can’t she fast-forward through her divorce like the rest of us working women whom she claims to envy for our hyper-scheduled lives? (We’re so lucky to have nine-hour workdays, houses to clean ourselves and errands to run! How quaint.) What bugs is the indulgent manner –the slow-moving progression– with which she has afforded herself in approaching a major life event. Who has that kind of time, to stop and think, let alone feel? And what does it say about the life I’ve created that I would begrudge her that?
If I look hard enough at my own choices, I see that powering through relationships, or particularly, powering through their ending, is my coping mechanism. It’s a popular one, too: you break up with someone and find yourself with too much free time (is there really such a thing?), so you adopt new hobbies like yoga or guitar lessons. Over time, those habits remain, stacking atop each other. Last year, my bus driver confided that she began driving for Metro after a devastating break-up. In spite of her full-time job at Boeing, she had too much time in the mornings and evenings to think of her lost love, so she began picking up shifts. That was 20 years ago. She doesn’t drive for the money, per se, but to occupy every one of her waking moments, even today. She’s still single.
I could try to make some of my over-doing seem more reasonable by explaining that my abundant exercise has less to do with weight management than staving off the inheritance of my mother’s cancer. The cloud of terminal illness hanging over me means that I need little encouragement to go to the gym at 5:30 in the morning. When people commend me for what seems like a daunting feat, I smile and shrug the same way I did with my astrologer, resisting offers of a high-five. If cancer was nipping at your heels, and you sat at a desk for nine hours a day, you’d get your ass on the treadmill, too. The problem is, I’m overusing my hamstrings –for everything, actually– and I’m not letting them rest. I’m not letting any part of myself rest.
Still, in spite of everyone’s encouragement to relax and recuperate, there is limited time to do what we want. Slowing down, pausing, recharging — are these even options when our lives are finite? How many years –healthy years– do we have to explore the world? My mother died at 45; you never know. The angel on one shoulder argues with the devil on the other: what is the quality of my experiences when I rush from one thing to the next, prizing productivity without questioning what it feels like? Am I even there if I simply speed through every event? I think of Sandro, the tractor driver in Civita, who looked at me with horror as I swilled rather than enjoyed a cappuccino on my last day in town. He held up both hands and implored me to slow down: “Piano, piano! Tutto a posto!”
As a writer, I am tempted to despair at how long it took me to come back to writing. People far younger than me who weren’t distracted by non-writing careers have published more works than I have. (On the other hand, they tend to struggle with low income and lack of benefits, often living more frugally than I care to.) Quantity and fame are not the point, I know this; still, I feel like I’m playing catch-up, so I make up for it by working harder. With only a couple of hours in the day to write, I squeeze every creative moment I can from the ether, often borrowing against sleep. Don’t others do this with sports, dance, hiking… ikebana? Maybe not.
The hyper-organized part of me is both fed and made more hungry by my craft. I don’t just write, I keep an itemized calendar of submission dates for grants and literary magazines; I track my submissions and the pipeline of in-progress short stories, essays and poems. Any waking hour that is not spent at work, running errands, exercising or enjoying a meal with friends is spent in support of my writing life — grant applications, residency and fellowship submissions, calls for entry, this blog and, of course, writing and editing something almost every night.
In spite of this effort, much of which goes unseen, it’s hard not to compare myself to others whose success –and beautiful work– is publicly apparent. Roxane Gay, a contemporary writer, blogger, essayist and university professor, recently published An Untamed State, which she wrote in four months. She also has a memoir coming out this summer (Bad Feminist), she writes regularly for Salon and The Rumpus, and is co-editor of PANK, a literary magazine. On top of this, it’s likely that you can find new works from her each week, from book reviews and op-eds in The New York Times to an active social media presence.
I’m continually surprised at the high quality of her work, given the volume. (She admits that she doesn’t sleep much.) With role models like Roxane, whose craft seems to flourish under circumstances that might crush the creativity in others, I feel called to action. How can I justify taking a nap when Roxane (read: real writers, successful writers) would use the time to write rather than rest? Does this mean that I don’t want it as badly, am not dedicated or talented enough? Is anything I do –work, writing, relationships, travel, saving for retirement– ever enough?
When I started physical therapy two weeks ago, it was like someone turned on a magnet. Suddenly, a host of other demands came calling for my attention. After five years in the same apartment, I am moving (thank you, noisy upstairs neighbor), which comes with a long list of to-do’s. A friend urged me to consider applying for a public art project, so I added a quick-turnaround qualifications package to the mix. Leadership Tomorrow graduation and our final project deadlines are looming with our final presentation and report due next week. I received an artist grant from 4Culture for an installation that will [hopefully] come together in November. Did I mention this project involves writing 50,000 words in a month? (It’s a live performance related to National Novel Writing Month.) That means I need to prepare a novel outline, create character sketches, conduct research, find a venue — more applications, phone calls, materials research, written summaries. I’m also preparing for the week-long Tin House Writer’s Workshop in July, and writing and submitting a few essays and short fiction pieces to boot. And planning my 40th birthday party.
I could go on. My big take-away here (yet another list) is that I am embarrassed to reveal everything that I do when no one’s looking. (I could add SIFF movies, professional appointments, yoga class, a second installation project happening in 2015, full-time work… and still more…) Without realizing it, I’ve stacked my calendar for the next year; if I don’t remove my foot from the gas like my ailing body and scattered mind indicate I should, I will collapse from the load. As the doctor suggested, maybe there’s a reason I’ve found my way to physical therapy where I’m learning to start over, retraining my body, and perhaps my mind, bit by bit.
After four years away, it’s clear that I’ve lost the equanimity I established in Italy. There’s nothing like an Italian hilltown as a backdrop for reflection, rest and repose, no doubt, but there must be a way to hold onto that, at least in part, in day-to-day life. With the aid of highly ambitious friends and co-workers, I’ve convinced myself that I’ll sleep when I’m dead; yet, in exchange for my productivity, I am missing out on the rich and wonderfully detailed life that I could be enjoying rather than examining. Even when I read, a seemingly pleasurable activity, I’m secretly trying to analyze and learn from the author’s choices rather than wholly reading for entertainment. Deep down, I know that what I’m doing is not sustainable.
This brings me to my birthday resolutions. Each July, I make a list of what that I hope to accomplish in the new year, the length of which is based on my age. During the twelve months that follow, I delight in crossing off achievements one by one, reviewing the completed list the following July with pride. These lists are supposed to make me feel like I haven’t wasted my time on earth. They are also a habit that I’m going to discontinue at 40. My list will consist of a single question that I will ask no matter what I’m doing: Am I enjoying _____? Perhaps I’ll learn that it’s not so much about accomplishing many things, but engaging more deeply in the few things I do.
I will not evaluate the worth of activities based on their productivity. I will not plan for fun; I will simply have it. (If you don’t plan for it, you’ll never do it! Yes, I actually said this.) I will learn how to say no. I will not schedule activities every night of the week or back-to-back on weekends. I will not feel guilty when I blog only once a month. I will not treat my life as a master schedule whose every minute needs to be filled. I will not judge my commitment or ability to write based on the high proportion of publications that Roxane Gay, Zadie Smith or Junot Diaz rack up compared to mine.
My list of things for today is quite long. In fact, there are things I should or, rather, could be doing right now. Instead, I’ve decided that writing this post –or, more importantly, pausing to think through what it really means and practicing it– takes precedence. Not everything is going to get crossed off today, and I will learn to be okay with that. It’s a single, small choice, but a person has to start somewhere.