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.