What have you done for me lately?

“Stop Assuming I’m Lazy—I Have a Chronic Illness.” That’s the headline on an article I read last night by Esmé Weijun Wang, a writer with persistent Lyme disease. It’s not readers who assume Wang is lazy. It’s Wang herself.

Despite “fevers, moderate to severe nausea, weakness, fatigue, and a cornucopia of other symptoms,” Wang manages to work part-time and even travel on business occasionally. Yet even as she lies in bed, too sick to sit up, she fears “that I’m secretly slothful and am using chronic illness to disguise the sick rot of laziness within myself.”

Right now, Wang tells herself, her work is taking care of herself. But “I continue to live in a society that praises the art of getting things done over all else—including wellness and rest—and these are values I can’t seem to shake.”

The blank screen
Tyranny of the blank screen: why aren’t you writing?

It’s a thoughtful and well-written piece that resonated deeply when I read it. I, too, am trying to recover from a chronic illness similar to Lyme disease. (My doctor, a Lyme specialist, thinks I have Bartonella, a tick-borne infection that I probably acquired when I had Lyme four years ago. But the science in this area is so poorly understood that he can’t be sure.) I, too, question whether I could be accomplishing more, whether I’m using illness as a cover for my laziness. I, too, struggle with what I have called the false god of productivity. These obvious parallels are the reason my daughter sent me the article.

 

After reading it, I was curious to see more of Wang’s writing, so I looked at her website. It’s beautifully designed: dynamic and inviting, artistic and a little funky but still highly professional. It also gives the impression—at least to me—of a highly productive person, and one who knows how to sell herself and her work. And that triggered my anxieties.

Wang is much sicker than I am, and yet she’s producing all this work. And she knows how to market herself. That aspect of my possible future work life intimidates me no end.

This morning, I fought my way awake from a dream in which I couldn’t do anything right. I was trying to communicate with my husband in the dream, but the sounds stuck in my throat, emerging as croaks and rasps. I couldn’t tell him what was wrong.

My anxiety about productivity is not limited to writing, of course. It extends to household projects, routine chores—the whole to-do list. And the writing anxieties are not just about paid work. They can arise even when I’m working on this blog, a labor of love.

When I started The Mary Oliver Challenge—the life project and the blog named for it—I wrote: “I am determined not to let this blog become a ‘should.’” It’s been a year, and I have kept that promise to myself. When I feel like writing, I do. Otherwise, I don’t.

As a result, most of the posts on this blog have come to me in bursts: they start writing themselves in my head, and when I sit down to channel them, a lot of the work does itself.

The process is much more difficult when I start a post and then don’t come back to it for a while. Fresh ideas are more appetizing than the ones that have been lurking in the back of the fridge, like leftovers that I “should” eat but don’t really want to. Why didn’t I finish the old draft while it was fresh? Probably I hit a hard spot, and probably it will still be hard when I return to the draft.

In the past year, I have been working on developing a yoga practice that is my own, in class but also at home. My illness is teaching me the practice of listening to my body in a much subtler and more constant way than ever before. My morning prayer practice, a foundation of my day for the past 15 years, is evolving as well.

These practices help me connect to myself and to the universe. But they do take practice, and often I resist them because I’m afraid. I might not be able to get in the zone, and then my practice will be pro forma—a failure in my eyes. Paradoxically, I also fear that I will connect too deeply and get swept away in a flood of emotion, washing up on who knows what uncharted shore.

Writing, too, is a disciplined practice for those who get the most out of it. After 30 years of writing assignments on deadline, I am delighted to rediscover the spontaneous love of writing for its own sake. But if I write only when I have the overwhelming urge, a lot of good ideas will never make it from my head to the page. To get more out of my writing, I need to make it a practice.

This morning I listened, as I did last week, to Rabbi Yael Levy’s online meditation on the weekly Torah reading. She recounts the story of the 12 people Moses sends to scout out the promised land. Two of the scouts come back with a positive message: the land is good, and the Israelites can enter it and settle there, as God has assured them. But the other 10 are frightened: the inhabitants are giants, they say. They will squash us like grasshoppers. Their fear is contagious; the Israelites are paralyzed, remaining in the wilderness for 40 years.

Fear is natural, Rabbi Levy notes. But we don’t have to let it control us. We can be like the two who saw the possibilities rather than the majority who saw only the obstacles.

In the past three weeks I’ve started two blog posts that remain “pending,” even as I write this one instead. Esmé Wang’s article and my anxiety dream were fresh this morning. Reviving the stale, unfinished drafts—navigating past my fear—will have to wait for another day. But I will return to them, and it won’t take 40 years. That’s a promise.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

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