Fault Lines

It’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault.

Sometimes I believe that, sort of. But mostly that’s when things are going well, and there’s a lot less to blame myself for.

At times like this — times of backache, of fatigue, of having an idea in the morning for what to write about, but forgetting it by dinnertime — it is so hard to escape the feeling that it’s my fault. If only I went to bed earlier. If only I stopped eating before bed. If only I took better care of myself in unspecified other ways. Then my body and my brain would have a chance to heal, and I would feel better.

“You’re very ambitious,” someone said to me a few months ago. I was surprised and a little taken aback. In my mind, I’m someone who used to do a lot — but never enough, of course — and can no longer do a lot. Some days and weeks and months I can do very little.

But she’s right, there are lots of projects I want to work on. In that way, I’m driven. And the fatigue and the backache and the memory problems are not all that hold me back. There are also the fault lines: the narrow ravines and yawning chasms that I’m afraid to cross.

Fault lines like: I can’t start on one project because three or four others also call out for my attention. If I’m working on one, I’m neglecting the others. And that’s my fault.

Or: I can’t start on a project because I’m intimidated. I’ve never done it before. I don’t know what I’m doing and it might not be good enough. I might not even finish. And that’s my fault.

Earlier this year, I helped lead a team on a demanding, high-intensity project that mattered a lot. We had tight deadlines and tons of work, which needed to be thorough and thoughtful and fast. We hit it out of the ballpark. And the experience was great for me. It reconnected me with people from whom I’d been separated by the pandemic, and with an organization from which I had felt alienated. It fired up skills I hadn’t used in years. It gave me energy and optimism and enormous satisfaction.

And then I crashed. I expected it, given the demands of the work, the last weeks of which coincided with family visits and re-emerging from Covid isolation after my vaccine took effect. It was a mini-crash that lasted longer than I hoped. But after a few weeks of rest and recovery, I felt well enough to plan a visit to my sister.

The travel provoked another crash. I’ve been home for five days now and I still feel beaten down, or beaten up: tired, sore, depleted. I wake up feeling that way, and it can take hours to begin to feel human.

In fact, I think that’s the writing idea I had and forgot the other day: what do we mean when we say we don’t feel human until after the morning shower, or the first (or second or third) cup of coffee?

Here’s what I decided. Non-human animals are concerned only with their physical needs. They’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re restless. They need to breed. They need to poop. They need to avoid predators.

They don’t need to do projects. They don’t need to create or build or tend what they’ve created. Even when they’re not under direct threat, they’re in survival mode. That’s their life. And it’s not their fault.

So when I say it takes me hours in the morning to feel human, I mean that I am in survival mode. My physical needs override everything else. I need gentle stretching and yoga to ease the pain and stiffness. I need water — so much water — to ease my dryness. I need coffee to help my brain function above the reptile level. I need rest, physical rest, even though I just got out of bed.

I need, in the words of Mary Oliver, to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. And it’s not my fault.

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

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