Please don’t ask

notebookWhen I originally started this blog over 4 years ago, I knew better than to make any commitments, even to myself, about how often I would post. I was actually on leave recovering from hip replacement surgery at the time, and I knew that as soon as I was back at work life would get far too complicated to keep up any sort of consistent publication schedule.

I would love to be the kind of person who regularly sets their alarm clock for an early wakeup, bounds out of bed, and cranks out 45 minutes of solid writing time before work every morning.

But I’m not. Maybe it’s my arthritis, but I have never been a “bound out of bed” sort of gal. Mornings are a more gradual affair for me. I need lots of  slow, “unfolding” time between when the first alarm goes off and when my feet need to hit the floor.

Nor do I manage a regular writing routine in the evenings. Some days I’m mentally done  for the day by time I leave the office and head to the bus stop. I’ve written elsewhere about the fatigue that is characteristic of many auto-immune conditions. Furthermore, I actually spend a lot of time at work writing. It may not be the writing I would do if left to my own devices, but it is writing, which means by the time I get home I’m ready for a change of activity.

I fantasize about my (still long-off) retirement years when I will be able to carve out big swaths of time to create literary masterpieces.

We’ll see about that.

Because sometimes, even when I really want to write– even when I have time when I could write, I struggle to know what I want to say.

Last year, during that long period when this blog was in hiatus, I wrote this:

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

If I am and you don’t know it,

then today I have not written for your eyes

And I will have to lie.

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

If I am not, then your inquiry twists the arrow

Lodged already in my wounded voice

And I bleed silence.

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

I can’t begin to tell you

how much more there is to writing

than the marks that land upon the page.

 

I am out searching the forest for a poem.

I am listening for story on a downtown city bus,

I am mining my own dreams for tragedies and gems.

I am testing future footholds for thin ice

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing

Even if I had an answer, today

the words have other things to do.

 

 

On breaks, not breaking

It was never my intention to take a break of nearly three weeks from writing here, but it appears that is what I have done. And although I never made a formal commitment to myself (or you) to write according to any particular schedule, I caught myself getting increasingly bothered by the fact that I wasn’t writing. Until yesterday.

I was catching up on some reading at work yesterday, and I came by chance upon two articles. Each article by itself was mildly interesting, but the juxtaposition of the two was what really fascinated me.

The first article was all about things employers can do to “remove distractions” in the workplace, and was full of what I presumed were supposed to be outrageous examples of the things employees do at work that are “unproductive.” Things like looking at Facebook, or (horror of horrors) talking to their co-workers. In one instance (and we were, I presume, supposed to be shocked by this) a group of employees had brought a pet bird into the workplace and were “wasting time” caring for it.

The second article was about mental health and reducing work place stress. One of the key strategies this article identified for having a healthy work life was, of course, taking regular breaks.

The contradiction between these two articles is nothing new. If you scan all the articles relating to human resource issues in the workplace in any given week, I predict there will always be at least one article on time wasting, and at least one article on the importance of taking breaks.

I am irked by the subtle classist undertone that that I perceive when I read these articles. Typically it is the high paying, overstressed manager/professional who is being urged to take breaks, while at the same time it is the rank-and-file employees having their access to the internet curtailed so they won’t waste company time taking the occasional five minute respite from their duties. As though somehow our differing levels of authority mean that our brains and bodies work differently. As though some of us need breaks more than others. As though some of us should have more rights than others to take those breaks in the time and manner that is most healthy for us.

People work most efficiently and effectively when they take breaks. Period. We need to take breaks, even from the things we love. I have never understood the people who don’t take all of the holiday time to which they are entitled. (Whenever people complain to me that they don’t know when they can possibly use all their vacation days, I suggest they donate their unused vacation days to me. There is, apparently, some sort of HR policy that prevents them from taking me up on this generous offer. But hey, it can’t hurt to try!)

So yeah, I took a break. And it won’t be the last. Because when it comes right down to it, breaks are what keep us from breaking.

 

 

 

 

Agley Again

 The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

— “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns

I swear I am the queen of good intentions. I know how I want to live. More vegetables; fewer donuts. More healthy meals prepared from scratch; fewer drive-by processed calories. More fitness activity; less Facebook. More focused writing; less aimless surfing. More mindful budget decisions; less impulse spending.

More time to do the things I love; less time wasted on things that don’t really add value anywhere.

And yet so often I catch myself sliding into a state of being I call “Surviving the Week.”

Surviving the Week is about having a fridge full of fresh vegetables, but not having the mental energy to assemble them into a salad, so I go to the cafeteria and spend money I don’t need to spend on a lunch entrée in which gravy is the dominant element.

Surviving the Week is about adding more paper to the “miscellaneous” pile on my desk instead of filing it away when I’m done with it.

Surviving the Week is about collapsing on the couch to watch mindless TV, even though I know I would feel better about life if I went for a walk.

Surviving the Week is about trolling old Facebook photos when I really want to be writing, because I didn’t go for that walk, which probably would have unlocked an idea and given me something to write about.

Surviving the Week is about beating myself up for not doing the things I really want to be doing, because I am distracted by things that are easy to do at the end of a tiring day.

I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.
I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.

I don’t want to be Surviving the Week. I want to be living mindfully, creatively, healthfully. And sometimes I do. But other times, like Robbie Burns’ wee Mousie, my best-laid schemes do “gang agley,” and I find myself  slipping into survival mode.`

Often that means I have simply overloaded my circuits by taking on too much. The irony is, that the things I take on that leave me feeling tapped out are typically things I want and like to do.

Like staying up way too late to write this blog post.

Momentum

The remains of the mental muck I was lamely trudging through on Friday night were still clinging to me when I left for work this morning. Even though I wrestled my weekend into some order with my trusty list. Even though I slept late (a rare event) and woke to the smell of fresh cinnamon buns my daughter had made for breakfast. Even though I made a real point of taking it easy on Sunday and actually went to bed at a decent hour.

Sometimes I just lose momentum.

If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to explain the kind of fatigue that comes with certain forms of chronic illness. In my case, it comes in a package with rheumatoid arthritis. But fatigue is a feature of all sorts of chronic conditions–other forms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, MS, depression.

Everyone gets tired, right? But fatigue is different from tired. Tired is an event. Tired is “I didn’t sleep well last night so I’d better have a nap.”  Tired is “Wow that was quite a workout; I’ll sleep well tonight. “Tired is “I’ve been on my feet too long and I’ve got to sit down for a few minutes.”

Fatigue doesn’t go away if you sit down for a few minutes. Fatigue is waking up from the nap without much more energy than you had before. Fatigue is looking at the dishes on the kitchen counter, knowing that it would take 5 minutes tops to wash them, and not having the energy to do it. Fatigue is staring blankly into a fridge full of fresh ingredients and opting to microwave a frozen dinner to eat on the sofa. Fatigue is staring blankly at the screen and realizing that even stringing together a few coherent sentences is Just Too Much Effort.

Sometimes fatigue is a corollary of chronic pain. Because let me tell you there is nothing quite so exhausting as chronic pain. But even when my joints are not flaring and I am not experiencing significant pain, the fatigue can still wash over me and rob me of my momentum.

It has taken me most of my life to realize that, ironically, the more exercise I get, the less likely I am to be overcome with fatigue. In the weeks following my hip replacement surgery, when I was exercising religiously and walking every day, I had all kinds of energy. I’m still walking when I can, but the reality is that my work involves a lot of sitting. After being back for just two months, I can already feel the reduction in physical activity taking its toll. In spite of my best intentions to the contrary, it’s hard to maintain the momentum of healthy living when there are so many other priorities crowding in and demanding attention.

After my sluggish weekend, I was relieved to find that at some point mid-morning I got my stride back. By mid afternoon I was on a productive roll, and things that looked like huge and daunting tasks on Friday and throughout the weekend were finally getting knocked off my to-do list with ease.

When the fatigue subsides, it’s easy to forget about it. Easy to assume that the momentum will last. Easy to fall into the bad habits that leave me dragging like a old clock that hasn’t been wound. My calendar at work this week is a marathon. I know better, but I let it happen all the same.

The list

This doesn't work so well since it snowed...
This doesn’t work so well since it snowed…

I have Friday Brain tonight. I’m in that head space where my thoughts are a messy jumble of all the things I didn’t get done this week and all the things I want/need to achieve this weekend. I am tired past the point of productivity, but because there is so much to do I keep thinking I should be doing it.  But I don’t do it.

When I was young my parents used the expression “too tired to go to bed” to describe that point in the day when you really ought to just pack it in for the evening, but simply can’t muster the effort it would require to hoist yourself up off the couch and down the hall to your bedroom.

I know what I need to do when I get this way. I need to make a list. I need to usher the swirling flock of thoughts out of my mind and corral them on a note pad by my bed where they will patiently await my attention at a time when I am more fit to focus.

I have been a list maker for a long time. Lists are my defence against chaos. I have a work to-do-list and a home to-do-list. When I get especially busy the two are apt to cross over and merge. That’s partly why my brain is so addled tonight– the work list is spilling over into the weekend– but I already HAD a weekend list. I’m not sure where the overflow valve for THAT is going to come from.

But here’s the thing. It all gets done. Except the things that don’t, but I have learned over the years that the things that don’t get done likely weren’t that important in the first place. There are lots of reasons to cross things off a list. Sure, you can cross off the things you’ve done. Heck, when I start a new list I often include at least one item I’ve already finished, just so I can have the pleasure of crossing something off right away! I’m a big believer in giving myself rewards for good behaviour.

It has taken me a lot longer to learn that you can also cross something off a list when you haven’t done it– because you have decided you don’t need to do it after all.  Maybe someone else needs to do it. Or maybe it simply doesn’t need doing, period.

It has also taken me a long time, too long really, to prioritize the list around the things that matter most to me. To be mindful not to let all the “shoulds” crowd out the “wants” and “needs.” I have been trying for years to adjust my priorities so that writing was not just something I squeezed in when everything else was finished. Because “everything else” is never finished. There will always be laundry and dishes and one more piece of work correspondence to catch up on. And I’ve found it’s much easier to “squeeze in” a load of laundry than some focused creative time.

For now, I’m going to crawl into bed and make the list that will clear my busy head so I can rest. The list will start with this item:

WRITE BLOG POST

First things first.