What does it take, I wonder, to just…stop? To stop the madness of pushing buttons and swiping, clicking, scrolling from one screen to the next, taking trains, planes, and automobiles here and there and everywhere, booking that appointment up against the one before it and the one after it…instead of taking that hour to…eat? Take a walk? Stretch? Or not do anything at all except…breathe?
I never thought of myself as a multi-tasker. I left the rat race before I ever fully joined it. I moved to a place that people yearn for, but only after they’ve lived in the “real world,” building careers and relationships and families in cities and suburbs– the Montana prize at the end of it, not the beginning of it. Still, my kids make fun of me now during our Facetime calls. “Let me guess, Mom. You’re doing twenty-five thousand things at once.”
“Me? No. I am not. I’m just…you know…running my business. And writing two books. And getting ready for my next retreat. And paying my bills. And booking my Haven Writing Retreats. And getting my wood for winter. And researching the best and cheapest snow blower because I’m not going through another Montana winter without a snow blower. And…”
They roll their eyes and laugh at me from my laptop on the kitchen counter, so it’s almost like they’re here again, doing the same thing.
“Huh. Am I really that person?”
“Uh…what do you think?” my daughter says.
“You’re a chronic multi-tasker, Mom. Admit it,” my son says. “And it’s getting worse.”
“We’re worried about you,” she adds.
“Oh don’t be worried about me! I love my work. I love all of it. And now that you’ve all fledged the nest, I’m told that there’s this thing called Me Time. I think I could get used to that idea. Oh, and don’t let me forget– I made Bolognese sauce and froze it last night. For Christmas. Oh, and I need to book your flights.”
“Mom. We’re old enough to book our own flights. And are you really taking care of yourself? I mean, are you sick? You sound sick.”
“Oh, it’s just a little cold.” I’ve been holding it back, but I let out a bone rattling hack. “Sorry. What were you saying? Oh yeah. Flights. Well, I’ll pay for them. I’ll give you my credit card.”
“That cough sounds nasty. You need to take a day off. Have you even eaten today?”
“I had a smoothie this morning.” The tides have turned, I guess. I tell them that I’m fine. I’m just run down. I’ve just finished the final touches on my novel (coming out in March 2020!), and I’m working on another memoir, and have been doing non-stop consulting for my Haven Retreat alums and preparing for back to back fall retreats. And I’m going to Chicago to do events. And I have a cold. “My energy level is fine. It sounds worse than it is.”
I. Am. Lying.
The truth is, I’m sick as a dog. I got back from my last business trip, and hit the wall. I’ve been lying in bed for three days with a roll of toilet paper, (ran out of Kleenex), various and random tinctures and likely-expired remedies (my eyes are too goopy to see the fine print), Mason jars of water and Emergen-C, Tiger Balm, and something called Gypsy Cream that my friend made and which my raw nose really likes. My eyes ache so I can’t effectively look at my computer. I’m too tired to drive into town for supplies. I haven’t been this flat-out ill in years. It reminds me of being sick as a child—all set up in my parents’ bed watching The Price is Right and All My Children and General Hospital. Only there are no parents to take care of me now.
I make that thought go away and try to think light, un-pathetic things, like: Do people even watch soap operas and game shows these days?
In the last three days, I’ve tried to find out—to make myself succumb to brain mush. To let this cold be a gift of…Me Time.
I last about three minutes. All those commercials with the women in creased khakis and pressed linen button-downs, happily scouring their white bathroom floors with one errant strand of hair fallen across their line-less foreheads. Bleck. Those women don’t exist and if any woman on earth thinks they do…they are in for abject and relentless PAIN when they wake up from the dream.
I turn the TV off so quickly, so allergically, that I wonder: Was I in some sort of a motherhood dream? Have I suddenly woken up, now that the last child is gone? Because I’m in a lot of pain, and not just in my lungs. It’s in my heart. Not the one that beats. The one that wants it all back, just for one day. Those little babies climbing all over me so that there’s no time to do anything other than just blissfully be with them. The ones who are telling me now that I’m a serial multi-tasker. The ones who are worried about me.
I stare at the almost empty woodshed. The snow will be here before I know it. I really can’t let the snow stack up this year. And I really need to get those airplane tickets for Parent’s Weekend. And I have three business calls that I really need to take this afternoon. I’ll just push Mute when I have to cough. How hard is it to take calls in bed? They won’t know, anyway. They’ll think I’m in some sort of writerly Montana She Shack. With distressed barn wood and black and white photos of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin. Instead of balled-up toilet paper all around me, and pillows which have lost their cases in the mayhem of all this tossing and turning and coughing and blowing. And self-pity.
But this cold won’t let me lie to myself. It only lets me lie in bed. Just like my children have prescribed.
When I have the energy to move, I make bone broth and tea and slog up to bed again. I’ve lost my sense of taste. Even my lover, Earl Grey, tastes like mucus. Everything tastes like mucus. My head feels like it weighs twenty pounds. I should probably cave and take cold medicine, which I hate. But I don’t even have cold medicine in the house. I’ve always told my kids that we should feel our symptoms so that we are true to them. “We need to honor our bodies, not pretend we’re fine, when we’re not.” When did I become such a hypocrite? Was it the minute I dropped my second child off at college and came home to Empty Nest?
My kids text me later. “You okay?”
This is new.
“I’m fine,” I repeat. “I’m about to take a nap.”
And then, in the way back of my mucus-y mind, in my grandmother’s southern drawl, I hear: “Dear. I’m worried about your mother. She works too hard. She needs to take a rest.” I remember thinking as a child that, based on the sternness in my grandmother’s brow, we had a real problem on our hands: that my mother might even die from hard work. That maybe there was no medal at the end of all her achievements, even though it seemed like she was going after one. She always seemed like she was medal-worthy to me. But my grandmother’s worry felt more important than any work—even change-the-world work.
My God. Are they worried about me the way I was worried about my mother? Am I passing the baton to my kids and are they insisting that this incessant hard-work-to-the-point-of-self-violence gene needs to end?
Because, just like her, I’m always throat-high in a project. Or three. Or yes, maybe even twenty-five thousand. Always more blue blocks on my Google calendar than white ones. I heard Joan Rivers say on a talk show once something to the tune of, “When I have an empty calendar, I’ll know my life is over.” Am I like that? I wonder, watching the gutters do their job. Frankly, they look tired too.
I don’t think of myself as a workaholic. I mean, I live in Montana. I work in my pajamas a lot of the time– don’t even own a business suit. I drive a totaled truck and stop it often, on the side of the road, to take in the unabashed beauty of big sky country. I spent years playing with my kids on the floor, reading with them and singing with them and snuggling with them. Yes, I worked out of the home, but I was always just a few steps away if they needed me, and once they went to school, I worked on my career, yes, but I never missed a recital or a school program, and hardly missed a game. I was that mom.
But now that they’re gone…have I put the pedal to the floor instead of allowing myself to be in neutral for a while? And…if I’m being brutally honest…do I really want to get to know myself again, outside of my motherhood and my work? And while I’m at it…since I can no longer bury myself in my motherhood, have I now buried myself in work so that I don’t have to be in this thing called Empty Nest, the memories lurking in every surface of this home? Most of them so joyous. Some of them, so not. Am I going to be a total disaster at Me Time?
What would it take for me to actually…enjoy this Empty Nest? This Me Time. People tell me that it’s time to be selfish. I have a friend who said, just before my son left for college, “I’m going to check on you every week and see if you’re doing something just for you. Something new and different, to get to know yourself outside of your motherhood and your career.”
“I’m planning on having more time to write and publish books. And travel.”
“I don’t mean writing. Or traveling. I mean at home. Something you haven’t tried before, right where you live.”
“Like what?” I asked her, truly blank.
She smiled. “Like…tango lessons. Like…fly-fishing. Something just for you.”
“I take a bath every night. Does that count? I can’t get enough of Modern Family and Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace) re-runs. There are stacks of books on my bedside table. Which I read hungrily. I write every morning. These are all ways of taking care of myself. Aren’t they?”
“Mmmmm. You need to do something…new.” She knows. She believed in newness so much that she left her job in Chicago and moved, solo, to Montana. I’ve never seen her so happy.
Lying here, blowing my nose and feeling so inert, so unproductive and blob-ish– I wonder if I thought that there would be a medal at the end of motherhood. Like graduation. Like people would stand up for you and clap and give you a fancy scroll that you can frame and hang on the wall to prove your hard work. And I wonder, since that doesn’t exist, if I have just succeeded in transferring all of that gumption, all of those hours that I’m no longer parenting day to day, into my career. Sure looks like it, I think, staring at the rain. And it also sure looks like my body’s not having it. At all.
And I read what I wrote last year at this time, when I was preparing for my first bout with Empty Nest. I was sick then too.
“So I give in and just allow the last seven weeks to flicker by like a home movie on my bedroom ceiling: I dropped my son off at college, came back, and two days later began my work marathon. I worked intimately with over fifty women in my five day and one day retreats and workshops. I gave them everything I possibly could give. I loved it like I loved…well, my motherhood. I always do.
But in planning my fall schedule last year, I must have been absolutely terrified of Empty Nest because from September to December, there were pretty much only blue blocks on my Google calendar. No white ones– not after 6:00 am or before 8:00 pm. And no green ones at all– the places where my motherhood used to live. I colored everything blue with Work. I don’t remember doing it. But I must have looked at those white spaces and gone Marsha Brady, filling it all in to the brim. Never a moment to stop.
And now…surprise: I’m sick. It’s such a beautiful sunny snow day. I could be out playing in it instead of lying here feeling miserable.”
Now, I breathe in and let out a long emphysema-sounding sigh. What if I use this illness to practice on? What if, just for this week, I cleared those blue blocks to white space, and didn’t fill them with anything? I mean really…nothing. Not even the Food Network. Or Netflix. Or even a bath. My retreat season is coming soon. All of the blue blocks are things that can wait, at least a week. What if I allowed myself to just lie here and watch the rain on the roof and feel my infected lungs rising and falling and let myself feel grateful for each breath that doesn’t erupt in a hack.
For one solid week…what if I didn’t write anything or read anything or do anything or try to be anything, outside of well? What if this white-spaced nothing…is the medal? The Me Time Medal. What did Winnie the Pooh say? “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” And then, after I’m over this cold…what if I keep it going—this commitment to the white blocks of nothing? Sure, there’ll be blue blocks. I like it that way and my bank account requires it too. But what if I learned to value the white just as much?
I ask us all, because I’ll just bet that you can relate: Do we have to get sick to stop? Or can we just stop for no reason other than: we know we need to. We know it’s good for us. We want to be good to ourselves. And if we are…maybe the “medal” is wellness. Happiness. Peace. We can at least try.
So for just this moment:
Just…let your chest rise and fall.
Feel your heart beating.
Let your heavy head fall back.
You don’t have to hold it up right now.
Something can hold you.
I’ll try it too. Today, all day, right after I do this writing thing that I know is good for me, but that I also know is still a way of doing not being…I’m going to let my head fall into pillows, close my eyes. Breathe. Be. And let my body heal.
Maybe tango lessons next week. Who knows.
Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats Montana 2020!
One RARE spot just opened for the Sept. 25-29 retreat…
Come join me in Montana and find your voice! Write your book! Court your muse…all under the big sky. You do not have to be a writer to come to Haven. Just a seeker…longing for community, inspiration, support, and YOUR unique form of self-expression using your love of the written word!
October 28-November 1
Go here for more info and to set up a call with Laura!