I’ve been sick this week, which isn’t exactly surprising since I just got back from the Rainforest Retreat, which means airplanes and airports and hanging out late with writers who are sick and sleeping not especially well in the strange cabin bed and working my butt off.
I’m not seriously sick, I just have a cold, and so I’ve almost been enjoying watching how everything slows down. Because I don’t have a lot of energy, my life as a result gets pared down to its essentials: putting on clothes, feeding myself and the dog, taking the dog out, drinking ridiculous amounts of fluids. And then, you know, trying to put at least a few words down through the fog of illness.
And now of course I’m sitting down to write this blog post, and my main thought is, how do I make being sick compelling? And I probably can’t, of course, because the overriding experiences of being sick are those of physical misery (throat that burns every time you swallow, limbs that ache and feel strangely heavy, tightness at the temples) and tedium (because you’re really too tired to do much of anything), and neither of those are particularly interesting. Being sick sometimes feels like the spaces between when all the good stuff might happen.
But the spaces between do give me time to reflect on the good stuff. So I’m going to tell you a story. It is about a tipping point. Unlike being sick, tipping points do tend to be compelling because they represent that moment when everything our unconscious minds have been working on coalesces and comes out into the open. And then we, story-loving creatures that we are, turn that into a narrative of the tipping point.
The time: About a month ago, a Sunday evening. The place: My living room, the same chair I’m sitting in now, in fact. It’s an awful-looking chair, I’m told, but I don’t even see it when I look at it anymore. I just know it’s comfortable.
I’d spent a few hours earlier in the evening working on tax-related stuff, and now I’m making a hard phone call. Also, I’m irritated. And I have hurt feelings. Nala lies at my feet.
So I’m sitting there trying to have this conversation, and honestly, this is not a real conversation I’m having. I mean, there are words coming out of both of our mouths, but I’m certainly not being myself, nor have I ever been myself with this particular person (a reality that has been troubling me), and I have no idea who I’m actually talking to. It’s all mirrors and masks and a maze made of brick and a series of painfully careful steps leading to this moment.
And I’m engaged in some waste-of-my-time chain of thought, and then all of sudden, I interrupt it. It is so abrupt that before I have time to think about it, I blurt the interruption out loud: “This is not my problem.”
Not my most tactful moment, but that sentence continues to resonate in my mind. This is not my problem. And most of my other emotions fall away, and I’m left with a sense of profound relief. Because this is not my problem, and that means I don’t have to do a thing about it.
And I didn’t. I let it go. I was grinning like a maniac for several days, and the next day I sat down and wrote “What I Really Did Last Summer.” Because now I could see that what had kept me from writing it before was, in fact, not my problem either. I could see that all that careful footwork had gotten me precisely nowhere except all tied up in knots and estranged from authenticity. And why? For something that wasn’t even my problem in the first place.
I’ve spent much of the past month noticing what else is not my problem. It’s an interesting exercise. It doesn’t remove all the hurt or disappointment from life, but it does remove a lot of stress. It turns out there are many things I thought were my problems that really aren’t. So many situations I don’t have to fix, so many people I don’t have to charm or make feel better. Which means I have a lot more energy to throw at the things that actually are my problems, like making my current novel as awesome as possible or getting myself to Rainforest and back or hydrating obsessively to get rid of this cold.
And now that I’m sick and everything has slowed down, I can sit back and appreciate this feeling of having fewer problems, of letting other people do what they’re going to do while I take care of myself.
I could get used to this feeling. It feels like happiness.