Do you ever have those weeks where you feel like you started half-way behind? I could blame the Super Bowl — which I didn’t watch, but did have friends over to eat dueling chilis. I could blame the 16 miles I ran Sunday morning for race training. But it makes me feel ridiculous to acknowledge that cutting those few hours of life prep out of my life effectively knee-capped my plans for the week. But I guess I have to feel ridiculous, because it’s true.
Losing a day, an hour, an afternoon — if that was time used to put things in place to keep them rolling through the week, and that time is lost, then you find yourself in a 17-task pile-up. The laundry didn’t get done or put away, which means everyone’s down in the laundry room sorting through piles on the floor, which means there’s more laundry and/or no place to put the next loads of laundry — and pretty soon you’re in laundry apocalypse, and the only thing that’s going to save you is…the next weekend.
When your life is this precariously balanced, weekends aren’t for rest or reflection, not really. They’re for cramming in the things you had no time for during the week (whatever semblance of leisure + 17 kids’ birthday parties or sporting events if you’re a parent) then catching up or setting up or meal planning or doing enough laundry in preparation for the week to come.
My entire life feels a bit like a laundry apocalypse right now, and not just because there are, in fact, two giant hampers of clean laundry currently terrorizing me from the basement. I didn’t get my inbox under control, so I spent much of Monday trying to master it, which meant all the Monday tasks became Tuesday and Wednesday tasks.
My dog, Steve, three-sport Varsity dog athlete that he is, may or may not have torn his ACL, and there are a lot of nice things about living on an island (including a retired vet who lives here!) but trying to get into a vet who can handle this issue…that is not one of them. Then there’s my podcast, and interviews for other podcasts, and trying to coordinate the taping of those podcasts at a time when the handyman isn’t scraping moss off your roof which you really should have done last year (PNW problems), plus the other meetings and interviews pre-laundry apocalypse AHP agreed to, and one of those interviews wants to grab some footage for an Instagram Story, so better put on mascara at the very least OH AND DID YOU KNOW IT’S TAX DEADLINE TIME FOR FREELANCERS?
My partner, Charlie, had a horrible flu all week and was effectively incapacitated. I keep making the coffee maker explode (user error), and my pharmacy no longer takes my insurance (discovered in line), and the special light bulb above the stove went out (why are there so many different TYPES of light bulbs) and did I mention it’s tax season?? Late in the week, I found myself in the parking lot of urgent care, waiting for Charlie with my phone tethered to my laptop, desperately trying to modify a W-9. A two-hour trip turned into three, then four. (He’s fine, it just takes longer to go to Urgent Care when you live on an island). But my carefully laid plans for the day had sailed.
I mention all of these piling-up tasks and distractions and annoyances not because they’re particularly unique or spectacular but because the essence of them might be relatable: each task, on its own, feels imminently solvable and completable. None of these things are actually a big deal! I think I’d weirdly enjoy prepping all of the documentation for taxes if I weren’t doing it under duress! And for most of the week, I powered through, like so many of us resolve to power through. I made a detailed checklist and I check check checked it. I was in full if I can just get through this mode, just classic I can sell this life today.
My plan in that Urgent Care parking lot had been to start putting together the Sunday newsletter, all about educators’ thoughts on the ever-expanding “spirit days” at schools (holidays, but also "100 Days of School,” dress like you’re Adam Sandler, etc. etc). But I needed more time to do it right, and that reality was giving me that sourish stomach feeling I associate with general life miscalculation. I kept thinking: if I hadn’t gone skiing (something that gives me truly childish joy!) last weekend; if I hadn’t hung out with my friends on Sunday; if I hadn’t spent two hours taking care of my friends’ kids after school on Tuesday; if I hadn’t decided to train for this race (which gave me the opportunity to see that view in the photo at the top); if I had effectively evacuated my life of all familial and friendship and community commitments, then I’d have been fine.
The work would’ve been done. But I’ve already tried that whittled-down version of a life, and it’s not a life at all. It’s a burnout trap, a suffocation, a flattening of self. Sure, I’d have completed all the work, done all the tasks, finished all the laundry. But to what end? And to what future? The next weekend would come, and I’d feel some semblance of control, which I may or may not have been able to care over into the week. But achieving control is not the same as achieving happiness.
It’s corny, but I find myself returning to the wisdom of my dirtbag climber post-college now-ex-boyfriend: what you are doing in your mind is what you are doing. And what I was doing all week was freaking the fuck out. Somehow, granting myself grace on this Sunday’s newsletter has allowed me to do other things in and with my mind. To keep plans to drive to see other friends this weekend. And to acknowledge that the thing that’s making my life feel like a laundry apocalypse isn’t my life outside of work. It’s the amount and inflexibility of the work itself.
I don’t need to stop taking care of my friends’ kids, or stop running, or stop having dogs, or stop skiing in order to make this all [waves hands wildly] fall into place. I just need to be vigilant about not taking on more work than I can reconcile with the rest of my life. The work matters; the work is important; the work is wonderful. But the work is not enough.
It’s taken me years to understand that. A full life can be glorious. But when it becomes so full you’re in constant fear of collapse, you’ve got to let go or give away some of what you’re carrying. For most of us, the thing that’s easiest to jettison is the thing that’s most precious to you — because letting it go ostensibly affects you and you alone. A hobby, a personal goal, a book club, a walk, a nap, all so readily sacrificed. But those are the things that allow us to stand up straight as we carry the weight of everyday annoyances and tasks. They are the counter-balance. They are essential. We cannot mistake the ease with they can be put down with disposability.
That Spirit Days piece? Still happening. If you’re a K-12 educator, I’d still really like to hear your thoughts.
Also: I am one of thousands of past and present contributors to the New York Times who’s signed this open letter calling out anti-trans bias in the paper. Scroll down to the end to add your support.
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I lived most of my life in this state, and several years ago, something in me kind of broke -- not in the bad way, in a very good way. I just hit a point where I was like, man, I'm going to die someday, and the clouds will never look like this again. The song these birds are singing will never again have quite this rhythm. My kids will never be this age again. My spouse might die before me. My pets will die before me. These things are real and they are not forever. I am not forever.
And while I get that the above might sound sad or something to someone else, for me it was unlocking the floodgates to unalloyed joy. No guilt. I take time for myself. I let shit fail. I let other people take up the slack. Not maliciously or on purpose, but because my life has to come first. The amount of me available for work is what's left over, each day, after I've watched the sun rise and cuddled my dog and truly enjoyed the scent and savor of my food, whether food for the body or for the soul.
I was listening to a podcast this week that reviewed Rick Rubin’s new book on creativity, where he says that discipline is not a lack of freedom, but a harmonious relationship with time, and I can’t stop thinking about that. As I get older, my happiness comes from letting go, from doing fewer things well, from admitting that there is no way I’m going to do it all, so be honest with myself about what my priorities are (see also: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, a book I have recommended so often his name is in my autocorrect). This doesn’t mean I don’t do things I don’t want to; I am more active in my union than I would like, to the tune of 10-20 hours a week on top of my job, but putting that down would decrease my quality of work life substantially and I would lose a tremendous community and learning experience. So I cook and knit and read less, in order to have a harmonious relationship with time.