Today is a sick day. Last night, after driving my parents to three doctor appointments (one his, two hers), lunch, and various other places from 9:00 AM until 4:30, I noticed that my stomach was sending distress signals, and that I felt exhausted and achy. Since Rob is traveling on business and Sam was at a friend’s house for an overnight, I was in charge of taking the dogs out and feeding them; other than those brief, vertical moments I was draped over the couch or the bed like some damp, flimsy sheet of cardboard.
It didn’t go away overnight, although it became less acute. I have spent the day in slow motion, doing what absolutely must be done and then returning to supine comfort. I am reading like a mad thing with a pleasure dulled only by the nagging guilt of knowing that I am Lying Around Instead of Working. I have this conversation with myself:
Me: If you get up and run around you’ll just be sick longer. It’s always true for you. Just give in, rest and you’ll be better soon and have lots of energy to catch up.
Me: I know, but everyone else is so busy, the sun is shining, I’m not earning any money lying here…I’d feel better psychologically if I got some things done.
Me: But you’d feel worse, physically. It’s just a day. Just one day. Think of all the times you didn’t give yourself the day you needed, and then you got really sick and missed days or weeks of life. Remember the bronchitis? The sciatica? Just go to bed.
And I do, alternating among periods of sleeping, reading, and searing tongues of guilt when I look at the clock and think of all the things on my list that went undone. It makes no difference to the irrational, Puritanical part of me that I haven’t really lost much time, that I was on top of things, and that most household chores take far less time than I think they will. I see the living room floor that needs vacuuming, the front porch that needs painting, my office midway through the process of cleaning and rearranging…an exhausting, insurmountable catalogue of sloth, tangible proof that I never quite get everything done. Never mind that I have been not getting several of those things done for months, and for really good reasons; when I take a day off I become obsessed with the notion that this could have been the day that I turned into some more energetic and ambitious version of myself, a person prepared to rise at dawn, run to Home Depot for paint and masking tape, spend the day at work and greet the evening with a clean house, a painted porch and an office worthy of a Zen master.
Once I have conquered the guilt, fighting every twinge with the counter-argument of aching muscles or the inability to remain awake for more than thirty minutes, a wonderful thing happens. First, I relax. I lie on my back and focus on all the tight, sore places, opening them and warming them until they ease and melt. I stare at the ceiling, I stroke the nearest cat, I let my mind travel as it will, redirecting it only when it approaches the area of what I am Not Doing. I remember things, I imagine things, and gradually I feel a welling up of pure, clean, ecstatic creative power. The juicy stuff.
I think of things I want to write about – essays about my life as a musician, or my dark days at law school, or maybe the rest of that novel I never finished. I imagine the living room re-done with warmer, funkier accents; it seems too stilted to be mine, with its dark green and dark red color scheme and Oriental rug. I picture crazy ethnic pillows, bowls of seashells. I envision re-painting the TV cabinet to look less like Grandma’s attic and more like something found in an ancient barn. I imagine hosting a “soup night” once a month to mix our eclectic roster of friends. The Soup Night idea captures me, and I picture steaming pottery bowls of butternut squash soup, crusty chunks of fresh bread, people I love, lots of candles, great background music, an incredible Love Thang in my very own house. I am re-charged, reborn, recalibrated and looking ahead with a frisson of anticipation rather than the weight of custom and duty.
It only takes a few minutes, less than an hour, for me to reach this state of positive kinetic energy. I imagine myself glowing in the dark, ready to burst as soon as I feel completely well, shower off the fatigue of illness and drink a cup of fair-trade coffee. I often experience this sort of transformation during daily meditation, when I am not meant to be thinking about anything, but find myself blossoming in the enforced stillness, chasing away ideas, memories, and insights. It’s often the only time in a day that I am not actively busy and/or barraged by sensory input both human and electronic.
I tell myself that this makes perfect sense; I am a dreamy, sensitive person desperately in need of long stretches of peace and solitude, but I am living a life of busy-ness, commitment, engagement and obligation. My best self, myreal self seizes every opportunity to climb out from beneath the barricades of guilt and “shoulds.” I am always delighted to be in the company of that self, merged with all the things that make life juicy, but I am also quick to send it scuttling back beneath the bricks and boards of Reality. I cannot, a grown woman with a job and a family, lie around all the time conjuring dreams. What if someone saw me? Would it be fair for me to lie about like a giant lox when other people are sitting at desks, or heaving bales? Why should I be free, when others are not?
If things were different, I might change my life so that I could do just that. I might give notice to everyone in my world that I needed time, space, and peace every single day so that I could do all the things I imagine. If things were different, if I lived in a movie on the Hallmark channel, folks would resist and then smack their heads, weep with recognition of my gifts, and give me a free pass. They would offer to clean my house, bathe the dogs, take Sam to the orthodontist, cook for my parents, do my job, and pay the bills. Someone would undoubtedly build me a small cottage with hollyhocks nodding at the windows so that I could be alone to create…stuff. I would say things like “you know that when I take this time for myself I have more to give to all of you. Thank you, thank you for understanding!”
I’m going back to bed now, to start the next book and probably sleep a few more hours. I do not live in a movie, I live in a life much like that of millions of other people who made choices leading to engagement, involvement, and a life firmly on the grid; when I get up tomorrow morning, healthy and rested, I will resume business as usual, making the trains run on time, keeping the whites white and fretting over the unpainted porch. Often, though not often enough, I find that I can remember some of the rich, ripe imaginings of my “down time” and bring them into my daily life. I can set aside a little cash for new pillows, and I can start clipping soup recipes and doodling guest lists. I can stop to inhale a fresh peach or tomato as I cook. To remind me of the juice that makes life worth living.