What feeds us

A paycheck, of course. It is what literally feeds us. In a poem about my grandfather that I wrote after his death, I said that he “worked to eat to work,” and isn’t that true of all of us, really, when you drill down into the essence of why we work?

There is nothing wrong in that. There is much that is right, and it doesn’t mean that food is the only thing we might gain from our work. But what if the work eats us, too? What if we can’t get the balance right, between eating for ourselves and feeding the mechanisms that allow us to eat?

When our schools shut down in March, I felt an immediate easing in my life. There was more give in my day. I no longer had to pack lunches. I spent less time on laundry and other clothing tasks. My commute is short (moving closer to work is a strategy I employed in my perpetual quest to make life more manageable), but working from home gave me back a half-hour every work day. When I needed a break from my computer screen, I could get up from my desk and throw in a load of laundry or unload the dishwasher. My weekends were no longer filled with a litany of small chores. I had more time in the place in which I feel most comfortable, and more hours free from interaction with others, which always depletes me, even if I treasure the interaction.

It all felt so much more healthy.

Good thing, because as we settled more fully into “distance learning,” work became even more stressful than it had been. By June, despite the easing of some stressors, I felt jangly all the time, a wire stretched tight and constantly thrumming.

It has taken weeks to return to any kind of calm, but my body has finally stopped humming. I have had nights with 8 or more hours of sleep (not continuous hours, but total hours). I’ve been migraine-free for more than a week. I’m no longer taking hours-long afternoon naps, and my brain has released most of its (bad 80s) ear worms.

I am quiet, on the inside as well as the outside.

Joy has returned to work, the kind that fills my waking hours now: Pulling weeds, cooking food, painting the house trim, washing laundry, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, doing taxes, going to medical and dental appointments, catching up on life chores I can’t seem to get done during the school year. This week I cut flowers and put them in a vase because beauty is starting to matter to me again. A day full of this kind of labor creates the right kind of fatigue.

I’m feeling like myself again, the self I think of as my true one.

In response to a recent post here, Kate said,

I am 100% a grasshopper. I work (obviously) but I mostly do what I love (or at least love the finished project) and always make sure to pack in lots of play and rest because 1) play is fun and 2) I need lots of rest. I admire the ant (I married one) but whenever I try to be one, I get angry, burnt out, or sick.

And it was a revelation.

Somehow, Kate’s words dislodged something in me. Maybe because they have come on the heels of all that has been revealed through the pandemic, but it’s that one little word she used: need.

What if rest is not a want, but a need?

I, too, get angry, burnt out, or sick without enough rest–which means, every year for the past 30, starting in late September and lasting through mid-June, I am often angry and/or sick and/or burnt out. This has long felt like a character flaw, or–if not that, exactly–something I should be able to do something about.

Maybe it was the messaging I received from the German side of my family, or the example set by the Norwegian farming branch. Maybe it was being so close to my grandparents, children of immigrants who came of age during the Depression and weathered WWII as young adults. I grew up understanding that life was not supposed to be easy, and that the way to get through it well was to work hard and do good and be the best you could be at whatever you did.

There is nothing wrong in that, either, but my decades-long struggle to be OK during the school year has felt like a personal failing. I have tried everything I can think of–changing schools, changing levels, leaving the classroom and changing my role. I have tried changing how I do my work, in multiple ways over the years. I’ve tried implementing a variety of schedules and routines and boundaries for work and chores and sleep and even play. A personal trainer. Therapy. Downsizing and simplifying.

Every summer I regain my health and vow that things will be different when school starts. Every fall I return to insomnia and migraine and anxiety and fatigue within weeks. By November it feels normal–it is my normal–and I forget, in real ways, that it can be any other way–until break comes round again and I remember: Oh, this is what it feels like to be rested.

Throughout my life, since high school, I have regularly struggled with extreme sleepiness. I have endured painful meetings in which I felt tortured by the need to keep my eyes open and my literal inability to do so, despite being on full display to the others at the table. I have fallen asleep standing up. I have fallen asleep while reading bedtime stories aloud to my children. I have fallen asleep during sex. My children came to accept that we usually could not make the full trip to their grandparents’ house without me pulling over to take a quick nap in a fast food restaurant parking lot because I couldn’t risk falling asleep at the wheel.

“Do you think I have narcolepsy?” I asked my therapist once.

He snorted. “No, I think you’re chronically sleep-deprived.” (He really did snort. I suspect my obtuseness about some issues really tried his patience.)

We, as a society, are so full of judgment about sleep. We associate daytime sleeping with laziness, boredom, sloth. Unless a person is ill, we seem to assume that a person who needs sleep in the middle of the day is a person who is not managing their life well.


What if some of us need more rest than others? What if–as is the case with so many other things–our needs for rest change as we age? That’s a stupid rhetorical question. Of course our needs for rest are different at different ages. We accept and accommodate this in babies and teens; why do we not do so for adults? And why do we not accept that different people have different levels of need for rest?

But let’s go further: Why do we assume the problem is within the individual, rather than, perhaps, an individual’s circumstances? What if the problem is not individual, but societal, rooted in the ways we organize our work and time? Why do we not see the chronic sleep deprivation of so many of us (1 in 3 Americans) as a public health issue, a systems question, and an equity issue?

Rest, of course, consists of more than sleep.

I have attempted schedules in which I go to bed with plenty of time for adequate sleep, but there is then little time for anything but work, necessary chores, and sleep. No time for reading, music, creative play, relationship nurturing–the things that make life most worth living. No time to just be. What if Kate is right, and these things are not wants, but needs?

Of course we can live like this. I have for decades. Many, many people in the world live with far less rest than I have. But can we be well?

These might seem like frivolous or tone deaf questions to be asking in the midst of a pandemic, when living is no longer a given for anyone, even the most privileged of us. Perhaps, though, this is the best time to be asking them.

As I contemplate a return to in-person school in the fall, and read articles in which transmission (which will mean death for some) is a given and something “schools will need to prepare for”–because returning to in-person school without resources for adequate safety measures is increasingly being framed as an intractable necessity rather than as a choice our society is making–I am seeing more clearly all the ways in which what I’m going to be required to do is just an extension of what’s been required for all of my life.

And I can’t tell you, today, what my response to that will be–because the bottom line is that I work to eat–but I can tell you this: I am utterly sick of it and from it, both literally and metaphorically. I have zero interest in being a martyr or a hero, nor do I have plans to be either. If I get sick from work and die from it, it will be tragic, not heroic. And the tragedy will not be the loss of my life, but that the loss was preventable.

We all get what we pay for in a capitalistic society. Hope everyone will remember that as we send our kids back to school this fall.

10 thoughts on “What feeds us

  1. Skye Leslie says:

    Hi Rita:

    Boy, do I understand what your write is about.

    In the early days of raising children, running a home, working part time and under the thumb of an extremely aggressive and more so demanding husband – all the while with a mandate to be a perfect mother, wife, keeper of the home, provider of transportation, member of many kid oriented and other associations, while caring for my precious mother whose health was always on the line – I questioned, all of the time, why I was ALWAYS SO FREAKIN’ TIRED. Additionally, I too, also dealt with bi-weekly or monthly ocular migraines which could take me under for two to three days at a time. Further, insomnia has been a constant companion since early in my marriage. Ice this cake with the fact that I’m such a serious introvert and though, as you, I love interactions with the people I adore and find interest in – enough of this kind of engagement can be too much and I find myself emotionally depleted.

    Gradually, as I started paying attention to the life I was leading and, in particular, the parts which were utterly unsustainable and with baby steps I began to learn that the word “no” is, indeed, a complete sentence “No, I can’t care for your three children while you’re in Hawaii.” “No, I’m not having the entire football team over for dinner with 30 minutes notice.” “No, I can’t join one more committee for the school – I’m already on 3.” It remains one of my more courageous steps forward – this learning to say no.

    Now, in retirement, I no longer “work” for my wages. Gifted to have been part of the Tier I Pension fund and social security and a bit of savings – I am able to live a life with a small footprint – yet sustainable and without the demands of my previous employment. At the time I was actually employed, I would have told you that I loved my work as a hospital administrator. And a part of that is very true. It was a challenge to find solutions for patients with ridiculously under serving health insurance or none; to make arrangements for families coming in from outside the USA for life saving surgeries; to celebrate with the neurosurgeons I worked with successful outcomes which had been performed on a breath and a prayer – especially for children. However, the cumulative effect of the down side took such a toll on me, emotionally, that when the hospital offered an “incentive” for us baby boomers to retire early because payment into our pensions was breaking them, financially; I leapt at the opportunity.

    Witnessing death, bad outcomes, financially deprived people without a clue as to how to access services which might truly help them; the culture of uber privilege among the VIPs we treated (which, by the way, how can there be a VIP patient in the first place?) . Seeing and interacting with neglected children with parents who were alcoholic or drug addicted made me want to bang my head against a wall. I could do a whole, extended riff here, on the status of health insurance companies in this country and that would not include another riff on the pharmaceutical conglomerates who make needed medication almost impossible to obtain for the under served. But I will save you my diatribe and failure to understand why universal health care poses such a threat to the American people. Medicare is socialized medical coverage. Medicaid is socialized medical coverage. Social Security is socialized provision for retirement. HUD housing is socialized provision of affordable housing. Extension of child care benefits for the working poor is socialized provision for the care of children. Food stamps/cards is socialized provision for those who can’t afford groceries. But we’re terrified of universal health care because it might be socialism. These positions against universal health care make me feel as if my hair is on fire.

    Anyway, I, as usual, digress. My job, the constant unending and often meaningless meetings, the phone which never stopped ringing, the need for consistent and continual interaction with patients, doctors and nurses in need of a STAT response to almost anything wore me down to a nub. I think I spent the first nine months of my retirement sleeping, reading, strolling around the block, cooking anything that was quick and produced the minimal amount of clean up.

    And, then slowly – I began to revive. Began a serious interest in growing houseplants. Found a self help group which aided in the restoration of my sanity. Planned meetings and interactions, one at a time, with people I enjoyed. Rode my bike. Swam. Saw my grandchildren. Eventually, because I lived in inner NE Portland – the noise, gunfire, the ludicrous and never ending traffic jams, a sense of feeling that I was being imprisoned in a small apartment in a not particularly safe neighborhood led me to consider a move. So, here, I sit in the high desert of Oregon. It’s been three lovely peaceful years. Next spring I am considering a move to the coast – just to change things up a bit.

    This meandering does have a point. Which is – a few weeks ago, a friend was sharing with me a book she’d read on the nature of our deeply embedded nervous systems. The ones we come into the world with and are not subject to much change. Not our personalities – which we can actually kind of create to meet need and circumstance. The book is “waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay” Christian. Not usually, although I would call myself a Christian, my exact cup of tea. However, I have a lot of respect for my friend and read it. The authors delineate between four or five character types. I won’t bore you with all of them. However, one of them, includes a “low-energy” type. After reading the descriptions of the low energy types (also usually introverts) – I felt like someone finally understood why I tire so easily and always have. That all those years I pushed myself to my absolute limits and was tired wasn’t a reflection on “who I am” but rather “how I am wired” and there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, recognizing it can save us much unnecessary angst. That, although I can “force” myself through activities and commitments; though I can bite the bullet and do five things in one day when one or two would have been far more comfortable; in general, I am using supplies of energy that I don’t have in the first place. There’s no condemnation about this. Just as there is no condemnation of the person who can run a marathon, prepare dinner for six and entertain company on the same day.

    We are all different in our electrical wiring. How we respond, react, take in, consider, act out, accept, move through, take responsibility for and expend our energy. I found it liberating, if the book is correct, to allow myself the grace to say – “I have low energy.”

    I like this a lot. One of the reasons being that I have NEVER for a moment believed that we live as either God or the universe intended Never. I have never bought in, low energy or not, to the concept of running around at maximum speed to accomplish tasks that no one will ever remember or, in the end, wind up meaningless in the greater context of life. I think we are supposed to “take our time.” “Smell the roses.” “Contemplate the greater good.” “Consider the lilies of the field.” “Bask next to running rivers.” And on and on and on. Of course, all this means, in the end, forgoing acquisition, curbing spending, reuse and re-purposing, going more basic in food choices, less vacations and on and on and on.

    Work to eat? Yes. In some way, we all do. But, in my old age , I think we’ve got choices. I was well paid for the work I did in the hospital. The benefits were amazing. I had far more expendable income than I do now. I also had no time, less interest, dwindling motivation, loss of faith, chronic migraines, compromised health, ongoing insomnia, creative shut down and 2 days a week to shove in grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, errand runs, house repairs or updates, other meetings about other things, and about 6 hours to spend with my grand kids and children.

    These days, I have a little sump’n sump’n to nibble on. Mosey out to the back yard and make sure the bounty of petunias are doing well, pull a few weeds, insure the hummingbird feeders are filled; maybe mow the lawn, sweep the deck; move to the front, pull some errant weeds, water the geraniums, rake up pine cones; then inside or outside to read for an hour or more. Maybe later a load of laundry. Wash some veges for dinner. I think a lot and I pray a lot. I snuggle with my dog. I see a person or two a week. This is my energy level and I’m fine with it.

    Work to eat? Yes. But within that ethic, I suggest that there are many ways to pare down, to learn to say no, to not take ourselves so seriously that we believe our presence is required at everything – to go out in the garden for an entire afternoon with a book which can’t be put down and believe that this kind of life is not only nurturing but nutritional.

    Thanks for activating my brain.

    Love you to bits,


    • Rita says:

      Love to you, too, Skye.

      My life is summer is much as you describe yours. I don’t have large wants or needs. A few years back I met with a financial planner who asked me what I wanted to do in retirement, and I was perplexed by the question. I just want to be, mostly. Have enough food, a safe place to live, to be able to help my children should they need it.

      I have struggled with “no” all my life. Not from guilt or obligation, but more from a kind of gluttony, I suppose. There are so many things I want to do! Life is too short. I was telling my daughter just the other day that I feel like there aren’t enough years now to live all the lives I’d like to, which for me mean living in different types of places. So, it delights me to hear that you’re thinking of moving to the coast (that’s one of my fantasy lives). For you, of course, but also for me. Maybe there’s more time and opportunity than I think.

  2. Marian says:

    I’m struggling to find the words to respond to this post, Rita (for so many reasons), so the only thing I’ll say is that I wish with all my heart that the US was a kinder, gentler nation, and that it had taken a wiser response to the pandemic. (I wish this for your sake, but I also wish this for my sake.)
    Sending you a hug, Rita.

  3. TD says:

    Dear Rita, I am one that NEEDS 10-12 hours of sleep every night. And sometimes, not always, I lay down at the noon time hour when my Yorkie is wanting to take her nap!

    This sleep need of mine is embarrassing and I have had to hide it from my past employers and all relationships (other than my parents). I found jobs close to home to where I could go sleep for 30-40 minutes in an 8 hour shift. I require more sleep than most people. But most people will not relate or understand that concept.

    Friday night I wrote to you in the comment section than fell to sleep and didn’t get up until this Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. Yes, I got up to eat a snack, potty and take care of my Yorkie’s needs… but essentially I slept from Friday night until Sunday morning. This is nothing new for me. When I woke, I felt good, rested and worked on my chores all day. It’s 9:00 p.m. now and I’m in bed saying to you have a good sleep rest night!

    Perhaps you are getting to an epiphany in your life.

  4. Kate says:

    I hope your district’s leadership will prioritize your health and safety. I hope you’ll have a way to get the rest you need during this time of chaos. I hope you stay healthy. I have a whole handful of hopes for you and wish there was something more concrete I could do to help. I did email the leadership of both of my children’s schools (with a link to NYT article citing a study that shows those 10-19 spread the virus as effectively as adults) asking them to consider their reopening but so many more people in our community need/want the services that it seems unrealistic for that to be the case. I am so frustrated that for decades we have had no problem underfunding our teachers and schools and now think they should be in the front lines. It’s certainly clear that our society functions on the backs of our public education system. It doesn’t surprise me at all that you are chronically exhausted.

    I have a lot of thoughts on rest and play being treated as a luxury items in instead of the actual foundational needs they are but I’ll end here saying I really hope you can find a way to get the rest, downtime, AND paycheck you need to be happy.

    • Rita says:

      I really appreciate you writing to your school board about this—for the sake of your community’s students and staff. I just read something this morning from a teacher who, along with her 8-year-old daughter, caught C-19 in early March. Both have been seriously ill and both will likely have long-term (perhaps lifelong) impacts on their health. I wonder if the prospect of children being burdened in this way will be enough to change hearts and minds.

      As for the chronic underfunding, what I will say is this: Over the course of my career, resources (and compensation) have gone down while demands have gone up. I and my colleagues have sucked it up and sucked it up—because we believe in the power of and need for education, because we care about kids, because we love too much about the work. But this may all be the thing that goes too far for many of us. I am no longer willing to make the sacrifices being asked for (because they are so far out of reasonable bounds), and it’s igniting anger I’ve long tamped down about ALL of it.

  5. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    So the day I published the post (that you just commented on) about Ella thriving on homeschooling, she announces that she thinks she is ready to go back to public school. Thud.
    She won’t be going back. Long story. But I will be gearing her up this year in preparation for next year.
    The ebbs and flows.

    But my heart is with the teachers this year even though I can’t imagine how hard it is because I am not literally going through it, I can virtually imagine it. I don’t want any kids or teachers to be inside of a classroom this fall, quite honestly. I want you all to be in a perfect little bubble protected and safe. I want us all that way and if that is a utopia, I don’t care. I just want to fast forward to next January and hope that we are a smarter, kinder America by then.

    I wrote a tater tot post for August last week when I had five days of no pain and it was glorious because I had so much creativity. Now I am on day two of pain and it’s okay because I know I am going to have weeks like this. But I came up with an analogy of how our country has become this dysfunctional family and I read it to my husband and Anna and they looked at me and said, ‘wow. Wow. That’s so true.” We are all so messed up from the mental abuse of four years of garbage and this virus has beaten us down to the point where we are too tired to even fight.

    I am with every parent and teacher. I support every hard decision that has to be made. Because we are weary, we are tired, and we are mentally abused at this point.

    Love you, friend. My soul family.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…I Did Not Want To Love Brene BrownMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kari. I think it’s wonderful that Ella is feeling strong enough to return to school (though I remember junior high being kind of a viper pit, so…?). But as I said to Kate recently, if I had children in school and a choice, I would not send my kids to school. I don’t see how it can be safe or healthy. Everyone is worried about kids’ mental health (for good reason), but we aren’t talking much about how it will be for them to return to school that is as rigid and isolating as it will have to be. Sometimes I think it’s worse to be physically close but have to keep your distance.

      There are just no good answers right now.

      We are absolutely in an abusive relationship with our government right now. In my city, federal agents are kidnapping peaceful protestors and detaining them. Scooping them into unmarked vans. One of the “moms” protesting last night posted that she was sexually groped by one of those officers. We are not experiencing riots. We are not out of control. The only thing making me feel danger right now is our police department and the agents of the federal government.

      And I hear you on the glory of pain lifting. Isn’t it amazing, how, in some ways, you don’t even realize how much it’s been holding you down until it releases? I hope you have many more such days. This screwed up world needs your creativity and heart.

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