Trying to Recover

I’m still trying to recover from this academic year.

It’s been the hardest academic year I’ve had since the one in which I finished my doctoral dissertation (when I went to see a therapist every Thursday, like clockwork). The strange thing is, I’m not sure why it’s been so hard — this time, there’s no particular reason, no single thing that has made the year difficult. It’s just been the workload. Somehow, I’ve felt like a machine, producing producing producing, always for other people. Producing lesson plans, assignment sheets, comments on finished work. Even the work I love to do, whether writing a paper about fairy-tale heroines or a book on girl monsters, has often felt like a chore, something I needed to complete. There has been very little joy this year.

I should not complain, because I’m incredibly lucky. I have a job I mostly love and that gives me a lot of freedom. I have a lovely apartment in a city I like living in. I’m healthy, and when I’m not, I have healthcare. I have a book coming out, which is of course a dream come true. I have a smart, creative, wonderful daughter. I’m deeply, truly grateful for all those things.

At the same time, there is an underlying problem. I can see it when I look at my files: this year, I’ve written one very short story and eight poems. Granted, I’ve been writing the sequel to my first book, and at the moment that’s 200K words long. When I sent it to my editor, months late and much longer than it was supposed to be, my only comment was, “Is this actually two books?” But this is a year in which I’ve written very little for the sheer joy of it, simply because I wanted to. (I love that second book, but I’m not naturally a writer who goes to that length — my comfort zone for a novel is 80K to 120K words.) And perhaps most importantly, I’ve been consistently, persistently tired. I never get enough sleep — that’s partly a function of having so much to do that I keep pushing myself, staying up late and getting up early, and partly being so anxious about all the deadlines and obligations that I don’t sleep well.

Not getting enough sleep is the worst. It’s the thing that throws everything else off. Last night I didn’t mean to stay up until 4 a.m. finishing some work, and yet there I was, yet again. I was awake by 8:30 this morning. I don’t care what CEO boasts about getting four hours of sleep a night — it’s not enough, not for me, not anyone, and yet all year I’ve been getting by on four to six hours a night. No wonder I feel sick . . .

So I need to recover. The question is, how? Get more sleep, obviously, but that’s also a symptom of deeper problems. Eat well, exercise. I’m actively working on those. Above my desk, tacked to my corkboard, I have inspirational quotations, because that’s who I am, inspirational-quotation-girl. Well, some of them are admonitory, there to remind me of things I tend to forget. Among them is a picture I drew of a pyramid with three levels. The bottom level is sleep, the next one up is diet and exercise in equal measure, and the top of the pyramid, the peaky hat, is joy. You need the things in the bottom two layers, but you need joy as well: it filters down from that top layer and affects whether you can keep up with the things we assume are more basic. I, too, tend to assume that joy is a sort of extra, something you can get once you fulfill the duties (sleep, diet, exercise). But that’s wrong. if you attend to the joy, it makes everything else easier.

(The pendant to the side was given to me by a graduate student of mine whose book is coming out this year. I’m so proud of her!)

So, where to find joy? Or how to create it? I think different people find or create joy differently. For me, it comes easily as long as I have time to do things that are of no use at all. That have no monetary value, that are not attempts to learn anything, gain anything, accomplish anything of value. That are just messing around. Writing this blog post gives me joy. (Blog posts have been pretty sparse lately, as you may have noticed.) Walking around in a garden or park gives me joy. Reading purely for pleasure. Watching movies in which people in a small English village murder each other. (That sounds gruesome, but a good murder mystery makes me intensely happy.) Learning about things when I don’t have to (like poisons or bird species). Anything that does not involve duty or obligation or deadlines. In other words, I’m one of the people for whom joy is easy — I just need to get out of my own way.

So recovery is going to take more than getting a bit of sleep. It’s going to take me thinking about what sort of work I take on. I do need to take on a lot of work: I have a job, and a job on top of that, and then there’s the writing. None of that works without my doing a lot. But somehow, I have to carve out spaces for myself. I have to not get overwhelmed with the amount I need to do. I have to fit in time for goofing off, because that goofing is actually healthy. It’s joyful.

I’m going to be working on it. Meanwhile, I have things to do, but sometime today I’m going to start reading that book on poisons . . .

(This is me, looking tired, as I have all semester. But it’s summer, and there are roses . . .)

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13 Responses to Trying to Recover

  1. FranL says:

    I’m a teacher as well. It’s my first day of summer vacation and I’m wondering some of those same things. I think sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to relax, enjoy life, and de-stress. I think sometimes that pressure can be just as stressful as what’s upsetting us in the first place! So I’m going to just play it by ear this summer. If I have a day where I feel like I want to be productive, I’ll get something done, and not “force” myself to try to relax. And if I have a day where I want to do absolutely nothing, then that’s what I’ll do!

  2. Patricia Shaffer says:

    I am retired, so I certainly don’t have the same stressors you do. Nevertheless, I’ve been experiencing many of the same feelings. I thought I would bounce back after the prolonged dying of my father (age 96 1/2) in February, but I haven’t. I know others going through similar reactions. The one thing we all have in common is this poisonous political atmosphere, too toxic and uncertain to ignore or compartmentalize, with fresh assaults everyday. I think we are all somewhat overwhelmed and exhausted by the anxiety of our times. I wish you some relief over the summer, but fear it will be a long time before many of us recover a sense of normalcy, with life moving forward.

  3. I hope you find your own magic to getting more sleep and finding more joy in the work. My wife and I have both felt scattered and tired. To some extent, we think all the political stress has played a role in that. Maybe with you as well.

  4. moomstex says:

    The political atmosphere has sickened and debilitated many of us. I recommend turning off news sources. I also came across a magazine called Happy Living that has a lot to offer.

  5. helen says:

    Four to six hours’ sleep a night? That’s terrible, I don’t know how you can manage. And still you’ve held down two jobs, written an enormous novel and a short story AND eight poems. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong, that IS a lot and I think you should consider feeling very proud of yourself. 😉

    I hope that you enjoy the summer and the roses and have a nice rest. And that you find the joy again! It saddens me to think of a writer who brings so much pleasure to so many is herself anxious and exhausted. That seems unfair…

  6. Ellen Sandberg says:

    Yes, a good English murder mystery is quite soothing. I also love Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Australian) and Murdock Mysteries (Canadian). I think at the moment there is a undercurrent of unease. So many of my friends are feeling a bit overwhelmed and have trouble sleeping. I am also having that problem. I wish to embrace my sense of joy. I tried to force it back, but that didn’t work. I am now trying to relax and try to notice the little things–the way the light falls on a leaf, a bird whose song is hear over the traffic, the world reflected in a raindrop. And of course, books since they contain a magic. There are so many things wrong right now. So much hatred and so many lies. However, joy is not something that is weak or timid. My path to joy is through wonderment. I know you have that. Your poems, your stories, your blogs help me retain my sense of wonder.

  7. emily says:

    Somehow, we live in a world where sleeping is lazy, healthy eating is pretentious, exercising is expensive, and joy is selfish. -__-

  8. I en”joy”ed reading your post and these comments.

  9. P. Aguilera says:

    I really understand the guilt/pressure to “be productive,” as I often feel that way myself. I feel that the opportunities that I am lucky enough to have (like you, I am very grateful for the good life that I am fortunate to have) demand I waste no time and no effort in seeing them through, to the very best of my abilities. But I also know, and it is a struggle to remember this every day, that the greatest achievements require immense amounts of energy, not just physical, but also emotional. So, if I am indeed to do right by the opportunities I have, I must keep those batteries (emotional and physical) recharged, and the joy you speak of is what accomplishes that.

    Maybe that seems like it creates a situation were “recharging” becomes yet another responsibility. But for me at least, it’s more like permission to pursue that joy. One of my joys is taking tea every afternoon, with scones that I bake (because it brings me joy) at home in large batches and fine china tea cups from a collection I have gathered from thrift/antique stores & gifts over the years. While I sip my tea in the afternoon sunlight (or rain, I enjoy that too), I read Faerie Magazine, where I once read your poetry and found more joy. Thank you for creating and sharing your work, I hope you can find the same joy that you bring to others.

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