My next book’s a work-in-progress…just like moi.
Temps notwithstanding, spring really has sprung. At least that’s what I’m attributing my cleaning jag too. Clearing out the “junk drawer” of one of my filing cabinets, I’ve come across quite a few treasures: copies of the first NEA Arts magazines I wrote by myself, an interview I did with a food historian for American Spirit, a mini-collection of music poems that must have been the hand-out at a now-forgotten workshop, Maureen Seaton’s reading list from the very first poetry workshop I ever took, the essay I wrote to get into grad school, a profile in the MFA newsletter from my first year in the writing program.
I’ve just finished reading a stack of e-mails I’d printed out from when I was on sick leave from work with pneumonia from December 2005-April 2006. I’m both tickled and alarmed by the fact that even as I sent my boss updates on my clearly deteriorating condition, I continued to also give her updates on all of the work I intended to do while I was on sick leave.. Here’s a sample, from January 2 (which I think was a day or two before I was admitted to Adventist Hospital for a week).
“I’m going to the doctor tomorrow afternoon. my lungs are still full of crap and even walking to the front porch to get my mail makes me out of breath. I’m thinking I won’t be back at work until monday, but I’ll see what the doctor says. Unless the doctor forbids me from leaving bed the rest of the week, I’ll plan to get as much work done at home as possible….”
Did I mention that at this point I’d been diagnosed with walking pneumonia?
I carry around this idea in my head of myself as a slacker. But then I read e-mails like that, or I think back at how frantic I was to get as much work done as possible leading up to my fibroids surgery, and I realize that that particular story I tell about myself isn’t exactly accurate. I mean in one e-mail I tell a colleague I have pneumonia, but “I’m going to try and stop by on Thursday and pick up some newsletter stuff [to work on].”
I feel guilty about time off. I remind myself often that we have an allotment of sick days for a reason. That my lungs are still damaged from my 2006 illness and no one expects me to trudge into work on 100-degree days. No one’s surprised when allergy season comes along and I have to take time off because my asthma’s acting up. I know the whole spiel about taking time off to take care of ourselves so that we don’t end up with something worse. And still, I feel guilty.
I come from a long line of women who can’t sit still. They are always sweeping something or cooking something or washing something. Even when they’re sick or exhausted, chores have to be done. Their lives seem to revolve around action, not thinking. If you’re not actively doing something, then you’re wasting time.
I live a life of the mind. I’m thinking about poems, about PR campaigns and interviews for work, about what I want to tackle next in my ongoing practice of self-improvement. I may look passive, but mentally, emotionally, I’m hard at work. I’ll cook, clean, and wash as much as I need to so I don’t live in a total pit, but I’d rather read a book or watch a good TV show, whatever gets me to a thinking place. Still, though I intellectually know I’m doing something, my DNA keeps telling me something else.
And because I’m already carrying around this guilt that I don’t do enough, when it becomes imperative that I not do anything due to illness, the guilt intensifies. Sigh. While I have learned that I need to relax and take days off and enjoy them, I’m still working on not having to spend those days shushing the chorus of “I shoulds” yelling in my brain.
And now as I’m easing back into full-time work, I have to keep reminding myself that I should, in fact, be “easing” back into it. Sure my outside incision has healed well, but there’s still numerous incisions inside of me that are aggravated every time I bend over, or take a walk, or go up a flight of stairs. I have to remind myself to check in: How do I feel? Am I in pain? Am I tired? I still have another week at home telecommuting. And I’ve promised myself that once I’m commuting to work again, if I’m overly tired at the end of the day, I’ll work out an arrangement for a few weeks so I can continue to telecommute a few days a week until my strength’s back and riding the Metro doesn’t make my insides ache any more. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t feel guilty about it.
Piglet and I decided to take a selfie.
As the French writer Colette entered her elder years she was crippled with chronic arthritis. She often spoke of writing from her raft—her bed and the moveable bed tray/table where she kept all her necessities. Of this table, she wrote in The Blue Lantern:
“Including the all-purpose knife with its scorpion handle, the bunch of fountain-pens and various knick-knacks of no particular use, I have assembled on its back a fair number of good and willing servants.
All round me a litter of papers; but a litter belied by its appearance, with more often than not, to add to the confusion, a boiled chestnut, a half-eaten apple, and for the last month a seed-pod…”
Next to the blue-and-white couch where I have slept since coming home from the hospital I have my own necessities and knick-knacks laid out on the gold metal-and-mirror coffee table. Fallen in love with at Pier One Imports, the table’s actually in three parts; the middle and left section stay fairly stable, while the right section creeps up and retreats depending on how close I want my coffee cup.
At the far end are the tax papers that I have to figure out how to scan so I can send them to my friend J for her tax return magic. The middle section has the apparatus for the breathing exercises I’ve long ceased to do faithfully, Thomas Lux’s New and Selected Poems (the second volume of poetry I’m trying to read cover to cover this year), the antique gold embroidered purse that usually hangs around for decorative purposes and its accompanying glass paperweight. There are the remotes of course—for the TV and the Roku box, and also the tissue box my mother insisted we bring home from the hospital since they were going to throw it out. There’s also mail I’ve yet to look at—the Phillips Collection membership mgazine and something else or the other I should read. And my journal, of course, which I’ve managed to write in near every morning except the Saturday after surgery when thanks to morphine my writing was cramped and illegible, trailing off not only in the middle of sentences but also in the middle of words. And there’s also the 2013 yearly journal where I’m tracking the books I’m reading during my convalescence, the poems I’m writing, the little achievements.
There are also the pages I tore out of the latest House Beautiful and have yet to file in the “some day” files, the two “diamonded” bobby pins I wore in my hair the other day to pretend that I’d combed it, Smith’s Rosebud Salve (one of four or five tins and tubes scattered in various places throughout the apartment), thank you cards, a list of people to thank, and the stamps that Eleanor brought me today. (She also brought me a delicious spinach and cheese quiche.)
Somewhere there’s also the first section of my poem “written in between the lines of” Marina Abramovic’s manifesto. My attempt at the second section was depressingly awful, so that particular writing tablet’s been tossed under the table. There’s also a pile of articles—including an old New Yorker profile on George Clooney titled “Somebody Has to Be In Control” that I may re-read some day. And of course there’s the last pen I actually like writing with. I seem to have used up the ink in all of the rest of them. (When did I become so picky about pens?)
Though I expect to brave my bed come Tuesday (I’ve been sleeping on the couch since I came home as it made it easier to sleep all the way or partially sitting up, which was easier on my incision), I expect to return to my blue-and-white, mirror and metal raft for the rest of my convalescence, for where else can I snuggle with Piglet (a get-well gift from a high school friend) and be mindful of his dictum: “Doing Nothing Sometimes Takes All Day.”