I’ve missed you, my lovelies! I dropped off the grid for awhile in hopes of making progress on my book. I wrote some words. I also saw some beautiful things, and visited beloved friends and family. My husband and I celebrated the 25th anniversary of our first date. I made fairy houses for my seven-year-old niece, and my four-year-old nephew told me I looked pretty.
I took deep, freeing breaths.
Yet, it hasn’t been enough. I thought that if I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, put my email on automatic reply, and took a break from obligations, that I would add thousands of words to my manuscript with ease. Nnnnnyeah–that didn’t happen. For the past few weeks, my inner dialogue has gone like this:
Me: Ok! No Facebook. No Twitter. Make the words!
Myself: I can’t.
Me: Where are the words.
Myself: Stop bugging me.
Me: I arranged everything so you could just concentrate and word.
Myself: Back off. Seriously.
Myself: PISS OFF.
Then I read Theodora Goss’s post about her burnout: “[S]ometimes I was angry about how much I was expected to do, how much people assumed I could take on. . . . Burnout is when you’re stressed for so long, that eventually you just have no reserves left.”
Burnout? My life is no longer the oil pipeline fire it was a few years ago. I researched burnout back then, and even drafted a blog post about it last year. I wrote, “Burnout is being done . . . with the effort of moving forward, of staying positive, of staying engaged. The problem is having to go to the well one more time and finding it dry.”
So yeah, I’ve been struggling with burnout for awhile. I recognized it over a year ago, and I started trimming activities and obligations. I tried to cut a bit here, get more organized and focused there, assuming that it would be enough to make room for this book and my life and everything would be fine.
And it is better. My stress level is down, to the point where I can take those deep, freeing breaths. But I’m still arguing with myself about making the words. I’m still spending too much time freaking out that things are not going according to my plan. I’m still resentful of even small disruptions, like the noise the cleaners are making in the next room as I type this. I guess I’m still feeling burned out.
My knee jerk reaction to that realization is MOAR RULZ = MOAR WORDS. Ignore the news even more, ignore all of you even more, cut every single thing that is not absolutely essential. Just art harder.
Except . . . that approach is how I got here. When my Mom died and my husband had a stroke (I hate you, 2015), my existence narrowed down to what was necessary for our physical and financial survival. “Me time” was the label I slapped on fulfilling emotional obligations to others. I evaluated every activity and every choice as a transaction. Because my ability to function physically and cognitively is limited and unpredictable, I do something today and can only cross my fingers and hope I’ll be able to do something tomorrow as well. There is enormous pressure to get my energy’s worth, so to speak.
In a blog post with the delightful title Knitting At The End Of The World, Austin Kleon writes that while Nero didn’t literally fiddle while Rome burned, “there’s the other meaning of the word fiddle: to fidget or pass time aimlessly, without really achieving anything. And yet, fiddling, in this sense, is so much a part of how artists arrive at their work: they fiddle around, they putter, they waste time.”
Seeing everything as a transaction, cutting out everything that is not essential to survival, wasting no time on fiddling–this is not how one recovers from burnout. Theodora Goss says that she’s been recovering from her burnout by taking “the Marie Kondo principle of what to keep and what to discard–does it spark joy?–and apply it to my life.” In the last four years, the only impractical thing I’ve done simply for the joy of it is learning the cello, and even then I’ve done it in my usual structured way.
Last week, though, I sat in the car and knit while my husband wandered a Civil War battlefield. I watched the trees, and took one of those deep, freeing breaths. In that moment, I remembered that my feet are on the ground, my lungs are breathing air, and I’m ok. And while I sat in the car, knitting and watching the trees, I thought of you. When I took those deep, freeing breaths, I breathed out the beginning of these words you’re reading now. I need more of those kinds of moments, so I can write.
There is no way to eliminate obligations. I can’t delegate responsibility for our physical and financial health. I also can’t push myself to the next deadline (and the next and the next) in an endless chain of necessary transactions. I can’t buckle down and overcome my burnout with organization and determination anymore than I can cure myself of ME through force of will.
What I learned this summer is that the equation is not more rules = more words. The equation is fiddling + breathing + time + love = more (and better) words.
My feet are on the ground. My lungs are breathing air. I miss you, but I made you some words.