I’ve Missed You

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.

Me: WORD.

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.

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41 Responses to I’ve Missed You

  1. Amy says:

    We missed you too! And you made good words.

  2. Sharon Myck says:

    Thanks Jenny,

    A valuable lesson for all of us, “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.”

    As a fellow ME/CFS person, the more words for me equals less PEM and more time for enjoyable activities.

    Sometimes we need to put some of the rules aside.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Yes! I think it’s about maximizing capacity AND reward!! Spending all my capacity on things that don’t give me joy is a recipe for soul-deep unhappiness.

  3. Cecelia says:

    You’re lovely—thank you!

  4. Carolyn Lubker says:

    Nice to hear from you again!

  5. Nancy Blake says:

    Jennie…Heroine in our cause!

    When that inner voice gets going….think of the tone of your voice when you see something sweet and lovable…a baby animal, a baby person…your deep smile, that ‘awwww – aren’t you lovely’ that comes forth automatically…then at the very instant that ‘rules’ voice starts, change the tone of it to that ‘awwwwww……’

    We love you, we love the work you do, we love for you to be able just to stop and breathe…we are all saying ‘awwwww…you’re so brilliant…..’

  6. Janelle says:

    Glad you worked out what you needed.

    Hugs

  7. I am just slowly coming out of the burnout of moving, and finding that the new, more social environment comes at a price.

    Finally, the words of the second novel in my trilogy are coming, and I am starting to feel a bit like myself. But I put that huge effort into the move, and it didn’t automatically make everything ‘better.’ It just put me really, really far behind. I had doctors before – have had to start all over. A church – ditto. A singing group of SOME kind – haven’t replaced that, and it’s been over a year.

    I just have to trust that the decision was the right one for US, and that we will survive and thrive. Just not quickly.

    May you slowly find what you need.

  8. Helen Sander says:

    Jennie, you write like an angel! I am in total admiration.

  9. Deborah Leigh Irizarry says:

    I like your concept of fiddling….fiddling around.. taking time to fiddle away … is healing.

  10. Sue Ellis Dyar says:

    Thank you, Jenny.

  11. Elisabeth says:

    Jennie, I love you! ❤️ I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing in this format which has lifted me up and encouraged me in so many ways, on so many levels. You’ve been a blessing to me, and I thank you for it.

  12. ahimsa says:

    Beautiful post ❤️

    Thank you for the gift of your words.

  13. Carollynn says:

    So nice to hear from you, and with such freshness! Take whatever time you need. We want that for you.

    “Let the beauty we love be what we do; there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” — Rumi

  14. Pat says:

    WHEW, a big sigh of relief. I knew that there are writers in this DD hell who have similar problems. WELL SAID! THANK YOU.

    I left the zone on April 23, 2019, after editing a chapter I had just worked on a few days prior. I had no recollection of that day’s work. My PLAN was to start in August. Well, that’s not happening due to doctors visits and one other obligation. My computers need service. GRRR.

    There is Flow in conscious fiddling. I have been living day to day with no expectations. No words will come and I need concentrated time to keep my brain in Flow. Once I start again, I will be doing one thing excluding everything else. My dear husband will have to start cooking again and we won’t go off anywhere. I am so excited about WORDS. Aside from that, I want this book out before I turn 75.

  15. Roy S says:

    I thought you were off competing here-

    https://twitter.com/espnuk/status/1149665316571475969

    My mother died in 2016 at 89. It seems like most difficult things are harder with this curse of an illness.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Ha! I have lost count of how many people sent me that video!

      I’m sorry for your loss, Roy. Losing my mom was so much harder than I ever imagined it would be.

  16. Sam Pearce says:

    This brought me to tears of recognition. Thank you, I needed to hear these precious words today. May your fiddling bring you the joy you bring us xxxxxx

  17. Vickie says:

    This:
    “There is enormous pressure to get my energy’s worth, so to speak.”

    You enabled me to recognize a huge stressor in my life. Every day, Every minute. Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? What’s the cost of doing that little extra? It is exhausting. No one recognizes that huge mental task that i do all the time.

    Welcome back. Glad you got to sit and knit. Thank you for your words. Enjoy the rest of the summer.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      YES. I knew that I felt the pressure, but I didn’t realize how it affected by decision making. The other thing I noticed is that I feel pressure to have something to show for spending energy, i.e. a task completed or a thing made. I’ve given greater weight to having an end product than I realized. I want to prove that I did something with my energy, and “sat and thought about memoir for an hour” does not qualify. I’m trying to be more aware of that impulse now. I wonder if it comes from how guilty I feel about not being able to work, and fearing the judgment I got from people in the early years about just “sitting around.”

  18. Amy says:

    When I was writing my PhD dissertation, a friend (who’d finished her own dissertation in record time) advised me to sit down first thing every day (except Sunday) and write for three hours and then stop writing for the day even if it’s in the middle of a sentence, and then the next day do the same thing without looking back over and editing until you know what the section/chapter you’re working on is really about (because often that’s not clear until after a first draft). Her suggestion was to just write even if it’s “I don’t know what in the world this paragraph/section/chapter is about” over and over again. It was the best advice I’ve ever been given about writing. I don’t know if you have three hours and even if you only have one and you haven’t tried this approach I highly recommend it. Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is an amazing book on writing too. I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      I absolutely love Bird by Bird. I like your suggestion. I have found that I do have to write myself into what I really want to say. That means a lot of words that go unused, but I’m seeing now that those words are not wasted. I’m experimenting with writing longhand now, to see if that helps me in any way. I’m also experimenting with how I organize my day. I’ve tried writing first, before anything else, but in the past it crashed me for the rest of the day. So I’ve been practicing cello first, then writing. I’ll try switching that up, and using a time limit as you suggest. Have you tried morning pages, a la Julia Cameron? They never really helped me in my writing, but they are great for journaling.

  19. Liz says:

    Brilliant words! I missed you too, but we come back together when we can. Keep knitting and watching the trees. You were maybe at your very best in that moment.

  20. Jan says:

    Beautiful ❤️
    Thank you Jennie 😊

  21. Nancy S says:

    Jennie, you are a wordsmith and purveyor of kindness and wisdom. No matter what you write it fills a space I couldn’t reach but somehow knew was waiting there. Yesterday I was able to make it to my balcony and luxuriate in the sunshine. Sometimes that just has to be enough. Enjoy knitting and reveling in the sun!

  22. A. Friend says:

    We have all been down a long hard road. Everyone has his or her own concerns about nearly everything:
    Should I be online at all? If so, how? Shall I be anonymous in case someone questions my disability status or public exposure in advocacy?
    What exactly is this disease anyway?
    Should I totally unplug ? Then I will miss everyone!
    I am grateful for everyone who has every stood up for us in the past and those who will do so in the future. That includes you, Jenny.
    Thanks for not publishing our contact details. This world is not for the faint of heart and its only constant is change.
    I wish you joy, love, beauty, peace and above all – an interesting life.

  23. Bethany says:

    Great job Jennie. Missed you too.

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