I’ve been thinking about what it looks like, the edge of overwhelmed. Does it look like a forest, when the trees get thicker and thicker, and there you are among them, in the darkness? Or does it look like the edge of a cliff, where you look down and see rocks below? I’ve decided that it looks like both.
When I was in college, I worked as a counselor in a summer camp for gifted children. One weekend, between two of the sessions, a group of counselors went for a hike in the mountains. In Virginia, the mountains are covered with forest. We climbed and climbed through the trees, until we were high up. They were oaks and beeches and pines, mostly — tall forest trees, so we could only see the path in front of us, covered with fallen leaves and pine needles. And then we came out of the trees, to a place where large rocks jutted out of the mountainside — that had been our destination. Below, we could see the slope of the mountain falling away, like a green skirt made of more forest, with a road winding through it. In the distance were more mountains.
Below us was a cliff — if we had fallen off, we would have fallen into air. And that, I think, is what the edge of overwhelmed feels like. It’s not actually dangerous. You can sit comfortably on the rocks, looking out at the view. But you can’t go any further.
I write this because I’ve been to the edge of overwhelmed many times in my life — who hasn’t? Who with children, who with a job that involves responsibility for other people, who with an ordinary human life in which we must try to manage so much? But I’ve been feeling it especially in the last few weeks. Part of it is workload — the university semester has started, and I have so much to do. I’m already behind because it’s taken a while simply to figure out how to teach my classes during this strange semester. I’m using technology more than ever before: Blackboard, Digication, Zoom. The technology has been integrated, so that it works together, except . . . when it doesn’t. And since I have fifty-four undergraduates, the technology fails on a weekly basis for at least some of us. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I teach from home on Zoom. Sometimes students have problems with WiFi. Sometimes they have problems uploading assignments to Blackboard. Sometimes Digication crashes and isn’t available at all. Mondays I teach in the classroom, to half my class in the room and half online, and that has its own problems. In the classroom, we are masked and socially distanced. Mostly, I lecture — it’s too hard to do the close, collaborative work I’m used to. So it’s a new way of teaching for me . . . And my daughter, who is in high school, is also in a hybrid program — half remote, half in the classroom. It’s a difficult year to be a junior, just starting her college entrance exams.
But there’s something else as well. In the past, when I’ve felt almost overwhelmed, it’s been partly workload, and partly people. When my daughter was very young, it was sometimes overwhelming to care for just one child. I remember going to high school myself and feeling overwhelmed by the crush of people in the halls, the constant interactions in the classroom. When I was a lawyer, the demands of the partners could be overwhelming — as well as the need to act and think and even dress in a way that fit into the corporate law culture. Sometimes, as a writer attending conventions, I could be overwhelmed at the end of the day simply by all the people I had talked to — writers, readers, editors. They were lovely people, but after a day of professional conversations with even lovely people, I would be exhausted.
Part of it is being an introvert, I suppose. Being with people sometimes drains my batteries. Often, I need to recharge alone.
And now, we are with people but not with them — we are interacting with them constantly online. In some ways it’s easier, in some it’s more difficult. Sometimes I feel as though energy is flowing from me into my laptop screen, like a constant stream of particles — but particles of soul. And reaching people through the laptop screen takes more of that soul than if they were physically present. By the end of a day teaching on Zoom, I am drained.
The problem with the edge of overwhelmed is that you feel sick and tired and as though you just can’t anymore. In the past, I’ve gotten to a place where I couldn’t even talk anymore, where I couldn’t face another person, another obligation. I just needed to lie down somewhere dark and sleep or read or think. I’m not there, at that edge — but it’s been very difficult lately to do any of my own work or keep up with friends. There is always another obligation — and sometimes I’m not even keeping up with those! It’s life as a process of triage, figuring out what absolutely needs to be done. It’s life as a to-do list.
Of course I don’t want to get to the edge of the cliff, the place where you look down and there is nothing but air under you. The place where you simply have to stop. So I’m trying to find some sort of balance. I think the antidote to that sense of being overwhelmed is joy. So I’m trying to find all the joys I can, whether it’s a bowl of ice cream or a walk in the rose garden or ordering tulip bulbs for spring. Or stealing an hour to read a book, really read, going deeply. Or talking to a friend. Or writing a poem.
We are all going through such a difficult time, and I don’t have much wisdom to give, because I’m trying to deal with it myself. All I can say is, when you get to the edge of overwhelmed, stop. You can’t go on — there is no on to go, without losing yourself. Sit on the rocks. Look around, admire the view if you can. The world is still lovely. Have a bowl of ice cream.
(The image is Interior with Young Woman from Behind by Vilhelm Hammershøi.)