Monday, July 8, 2013

not so vile a sin as self-neglecting

I re-emerge, readers! I have been reading long books and surviving summer.

On the reading front:

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey. It is just marvelous, as (with one exception) I have found Carey's work to be. Based loosely on de Tocqueville's travels in and writings about America, it's about two men, one the son of French aristocrats and the other an older Englishman who has had to live by his wits for decades, and their journeys in Europe and America. It's so, so well written and fun and touching and incredibly intelligent, and everyone should read it. (Don't read My Life As a Fake. That's the one exception in my experience of Carey's books.)

The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer. Full disclosure: I did not finish this book. I figured I should read it, since it's so famous and important and I did read Shot in the Heart a while back, so I've got the Gary Gilmore background. But I did not know just how huge the Mailer is, and though for two weeks I tried my best, and skipped the chapters which are Gilmore's letters to his girlfriend, because "in Gary Gilmore's nasty racist violent head" is not a place I care to spend any time, when the library loan expired I still had thirty percent of the book to go, because I simply couldn't read it for sustained periods of time. The hatred that this man felt, and the poverty and hopelessness of his community, ground me down. I'm sure that Mailer intended as much, and that's why he goes into so much detail, but after the sixth instance of a woman who got married at fifteen and had four kids by the time she was twenty, I was pretty much exhausted. So I let that last thirty percent go. I do know how it ends, after all.

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates. What a bizarre, intriguing, Lovecraftian mess. I'd never read any Oates before and so didn't know what to expect, but it wasn't this. Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair are just two of the many actual historical figures who populate the story of a "cursed" family in 1905 Princeton, New Jersey. There are vampires and ghosts and alternate universes and a lot of socialism and everything but the socialism is clearly a metaphor for a fear of blackness and miscegenation, which is very Lovecraftian. This book was frustratingly structureless and meandering, and yet I always wanted to know what happened next. I think I may check out more of her stuff.

 On the surviving-summer front:

Berowne and the dogs and I spent several days at our friends' beach house this past week. It had the stressors of being away from my house and surrounded by people, but was also quite charming. I got nastily sunburned the first day, and there were crazy amounts of bugs, but Darcy got to swim in the ocean and we ate lots of delicious grilled food and chatted with many nice people, and it was a good time.

After being around a bunch of adults on vacation, however, I have many thoughts percolating about my belief that the emphasis on work and career creates an excuse for certain behavior: as if we're all supposed to be working sixteen-hour-days, six-day-weeks, for fifty-one weeks a year, and so it's considered normal to cram a year's worth of sleep and substances and childishness into that one week we allow ourselves off, instead of practicing any sort of work-life balance on a daily basis. I find this really sad and unhealthy. I know my lack of ambition is the opposite of admirable for most people - I have yet to tell anyone I don't check my work e-mail from home and get a reaction other than shock, scorn, or a combination of the two - but it's not out of laziness. I was barely out of my first year of sobriety when I moved from one department at my workplace to my current one, and almost immediately it was made clear to me that in this department the way to be respected and get ahead was to work twelve-hour days and check work e-mail at two in the morning, and I made the decision not to do that. It was a considered and deliberate decision. (I am also lazy, but that is irrelevant in this situation.)

And I feel guilty about it. Not in the sense that I am letting people down by not being ambitious (though I probably am), but in the sense of unacknowledged privilege. I feel like I should apologize over and over for having the luxury of a good work-life balance, and never mention that balance without also mentioning how lucky I am and that I know not everyone is. But if I apologize for that balance I'm apologizing for setting boundaries, and no one should have to do that.

I have given myself permission to have that balance. That's not easy, either to do or to justify. I find that people often assume I must be very unimportant at my workplace, or I would never have been allowed to behave thus. As if that permission can only be granted by someone else after they judge your value or lack thereof. I took mine; I wasn't given it. 

There are, of course, people who thrive on a career-centered life. I hate implying that I have made the Right Choice and you haven't. But I also hate the idea, which clings naturally to an emphasis on career, that self-care is lazy and that it's someone else's job to force you into brief spates of it: your boss' job, or your doctor's, or your friends'. That you're not allowed to take a break until you have paid money to rent a house, or traveled to a beach property, and someone has shoved a beer into your hand. The concept is frequently that you can't practice self-care at home, because your home is just an extension of your workplace, the laptop always open. I know people who have to be brought to a place with no wi-fi if you are to have a hope of actually seeing them during their "vacation". 

Sobriety is a trump card in terms of self-care no longer being optional, and unless you are currently an active addict I don't recommend recovery as a form of priority determination, but it does mean I've been doing this for a while. It's like someone who has to take daily medication to be safe. Every day, to be safe, I have to think about myself as a person, a body, a mind, and a spirit. For eight hours a day I am my job title, because I am working and my workplace deserves my attention and energy. But the other hours I am myself. I have to be, because I have to accept her. And so I need to take the time to feel strong and healthy in my body, to quiet my mind or feed it with books, to adore my dogs. Yes, this is all, technically, selfish. I am thinking about myself, and frequently only myself, during my evenings and my weekends. They are sacred and precious hours, and they are necessary. 

I'm not even sure where I'm going with this. Part of being an adult is finding what works for you, and no one else should tell you what to do. If you genuinely love long days at work, and evenings planning the next day, and are genuinely, sufficiently refreshed by one week of concentrated chaos with your friends, then that is awesome. Do what you love. But I'm taking this space to admit to my self-care, as if it were shameful, because part of me believes it is. And I'm quite sure I am not the only person out there who believes that. 

It feels important to admit to this. To say: I believe I have a right to leave work when I'm due to leave, because I want to run in the woods. To say: I deserve my sleep tonight, so that tomorrow I can sit with my coffee at dawn. To say: a book and my couch and my dogs: this is my form of prayer. And that is okay. I do not have to be always repenting and earning and atoning. Neither do you.  


  1. JCO is weird because with a lot of her books it's like they were written by a completely different author--there is NO continuity at all.

  2. A-fucking-men. I have never understood the "live to work" thing -- and yeah, people have also called me lazy, but it's like that 'Nobody has written on their tombstone they wished they'd spent more days at the office' cliche. If we don't live life, at least a little, then why are we here?

    Executioner's Song is a hard slog -- if you're interested in the story, I recommend Mikal Gilmore's (Gary's brother) memoir 'Shot in the Heart' instead, if you haven't read it. It's shorter, much better, and is written with just searing empathy.