Saturday, July 20, 2019

On Tiredness

There are elements of being sixty-nine (seventy next March) that I welcome.  There's perspective--but the minute I write that I realize the word should be plural.  I've lived, fairly self-consciously and awarely, through a lot of history.  I remember the assassinations of Kennedy and King, the impeachment proceedings against Nixon and his resignation.  (Hell, I even remember his sweaty upper lip.)  I remember Civil Rights marches and integration, though because I went to a high school already half African American, I didn't experience it.  I also have what I think of as psychic perspective, an intimate and long-standing knowledge of the ways of my own psyche.  I know when its switch has shifted from its "I can do this!" position to its "I can't do this," and I have a pretty good sense of what to do about that.  And then there's the human condition perspective that looks at some of the things that happen to me and to the people who are around me, and I simply admit that, much as it sucks, this is part of the human condition and experience. Bill's helped me nurture that one.

One of the reasons I retired was that I feared sleeping through a class in the comfy chair in my office.  I had perfected the half hour nap:  I could look at my watch as I settled down in my Ikea chair, and decide when I'd wake up, and do just that.  But I was becoming so much more tired that I feared that some day I'd start a class discussion on, say, Lisa Moore's February, put my head down on the podium, and let my wonderful CanLit students have at it.  I thought this was because life in the academy had become so hard and we were--we are--simply overextended.  For a while after retirement, I maintained that illusion.  Or I'd remember that the year of my first sabbatical, which was also Nikka's first year at McGill, I'd work away on my scholarship or on Blue Duets all day, only to call "nap time!" to the cats at around three or four.  Nutmeg and Ariel would dutifully join me in bed and we'd have a half hour nap.  

Many days now are fine and simply require the same half hour nap, though perhaps earlier in the day.  And then there are days--too many to ignore any longer--when I'm simply tired.  Initially I flailed through these furiously, impatiently.  My cats, Lyra and Tuck now, still know to come for nap time, and often I begin my afternoon calling them and doing some reading with cats and feeling pleasantly centred:  what can be better than heavy, sleepy cats and good  books?  But once I could no longer make sense of the words of Mark Anielski's Economics of Happiness or Gilbert White's A Natural History of Selborne, I distrusted myself to wake up in the requisite half hour.  Losing half an hour from my writing day was all right--I'd just think of it as two coffee breaks--but losing a whole hour was intolerable.  So I'd set my iPad timer for thirty minutes, often struggling when it went off to be conscious enough to make a sensible decision.  I'd set it for ten minutes more.  Then five minutes more.  Sometimes I gave up on setting it at all and would awake to realize it was time to go for a workout.  The self-flagellation is difficult to describe, as is the disappointment, the discouragement.  I have plans for these years!  So wake up already!

And then I started to notice something.  (This is where perspective comes in handy.)  I was making my tired days worse by fighting them.  One day I simply looked back over the tired day--both the experiences and the accomplishments--and realized that it had actually been fine.  If I could lose the self-flagellation, maybe....?  I began to realize that tired days require mindfulness, a different kind of mindfulness, perhaps with a bit more inventiveness.  On tired days, I'm still good for three or four hours writing in the morning.  But I might read the charming Gilbert White--his Natural History of Selborne has been continuously in print since he published it in 1789--rather than economics.  I might give myself time to piece or quilt and to use the quiet of thread traveling through a quilt to listen to the birds, to the life of the neighbourhood, or to a podcast.  I might think I was too tired to garden, but I could go out and see how things were, pull a couple of weeds, water the new shrubs I've planted, try to convince the clematis to spread herself over more of her trellis, or pick some lettuce, and in my leisurely mindfulness, gardening was a balm, not a chore.  

Mindfulness, however, does nothing about the creeping bellflower that I need to dig out of my front garden before it takes over.  Nor does it take care of Trump's most recent and most terrifying assault on people of colour and on women.  It doesn't sort out Brexit or give a safe place to the children the United States government is holding in what amounts to prisons, separated from their parents--a loss that will colour their entire lives.  We are living through a time that makes us all tired--helpless, defiant, horrified as we all are.  But Hannah Arendt--even Hannah Arendt, who studied evil--tells us that we can look away when there is nothing we can do and when looking away amounts to self-defense.  We can't make a habit of it, but we can make a habit of being kinder to the people around us, a habit of asking our politicians to be better.

Still, I've found mindfulness solves a lot of things, from  how to shape a garden to patient curiosity about a friend's despair.  Doubtless Shawna Lemay could write a better celebration of mindfulness--and I mean to write soon about her wonderful book of essays, The Flower Can Always Be Changing.  And I'll tell  you about Gilbert White's endless observations about nature--a kind of mindfulness in itself.  But I have a feeling that if your puzzle is local--your state of mind, a partner's behaviour, the irate customer in front of you at the grocery story--mindfulness is a good place to start. 

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