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Mulebone & Sassafras

Why Rest May Mean Getting the Hell Away from Everybody

People say extraordinarily strange things to me. Sometimes cruel and crazy things. So much so that I often feel like a magnet for unsolicited criticism. Frankly, I am a late bloomer. Here I am at sixty-one trying to still become a writer. Why? The short answer is because I want to. I must admit, however, that I am often distracted by my inability to manage my own self care, to take care of my mind, body and heart, so I can let the creative me emerge. I am often distracted by folks trying to put me in my place or keep me in a place or just make me aware that I would be better off sitting down somewhere. To be fair, nothing anyone says to me could ever be more critical than what I say to myself. However, I am learning to silence that voice of ridicule in my head, that voice that my life coach calls, "my saboteur." Making that naysayer shut up is the first step to peace. And guilt-free rest. And completing writing projects. But what about those voices outside my head? What do I do about all the folks who want to tell me about myself, adding to my self doubt and self consciousness?

I had just completed my PhD and was feeling pretty sassy about it. I was at a church social, and it was a very lively time. I was wearing this plaid pants suit, and though I had put on a little weight after my third child was born, I thought I was looking pretty good. In fairly quick succession three different women sought me out and made three very pointed statements that let me know I need not think too much of myself or my accomplishments. The first was an elderly woman whom I had known all of my life. She spotted me when she walked through the door and walked toward me with great determination. I was sure she was going to congratulate me on finishing my degree. Instead, she looked me up and down and said, "My God! You have gotten so fat!" then walked off.

Shortly after she walked up, another woman whom I had also known forever came up to me and said, "How does it feel that your daughter is prettier than you?"

"It feels fine, " I said. "You always want your children to be more than you are."

"Hmmph," she said. "I was just wondering."

And then a third woman--again, a woman I had known all my life-- walked up and said, "Oh, my goodness. You are here in church? Not you!" I was perplexed. I guess she saw my expression and said, "Have I wounded you?" Then she laughed and walked off. What the hell? Was this a message from the university or something malevolent? What was up?

More recently, I had taken some students to see the inauguration of Montgomery, Alabama's new black mayor. We had great seats. The moment felt monumental. An old student of my walked by where we were standing. Usually, I am glad to see this student. Not one of my stars, he graduated more "thank you, Lordy" than cum laude, but he was usually pleasant. I thought he was coming by to say a word of encouragement to my students. Instead he kept walking, and as he passed me he said, "Good morning, Grandma!"

I was stunned. Not only because I felt enormously disrespected--I had been his professor. He did not really know me personally--but also because he would have never said that to one of his male professors. I felt targeted as a woman. Why would he feel the need to denigrate me? To put me down as opposed to saying a word of encouragement to my students? He kept walking as I muttered, "My name is Dr Trimble," to his back and a few other words that I probably should not have said.

I was talking to a friend of mine, and in the midst of our discussion about, among other things, funding possibilities she said, "I can't apply to that grant because I am not a woman of color. Where are all the grants for white women running non-profits?" Again, I was just slapped into silence. I wanted to say, I should have said, "That would probably be about 99% of all the grant money available. I don't understand why every grant has to be for your demographic. Why would you begrudge me my few pennies?" But before I could say anything, she self corrected and said, "I know, I know." If you know, I thought, why say such a thing? Or why imply at other times that BIPOC publications are only because people made it "easier" for BIPOC people to publish out of sympathy or hipness.

Just yesterday, my assistant and I were chatting with a student. He said, "I sure hope I'm like y'all when I get old because Black don't crack for real!" We all laughed. And then I thought about it. What if it does crack? Does that make me someone less than? I have little control over my genetics or what my skin does or how old I look or when my hair goes gray. And what if all those things happen? Aren't I still me? Why do I have to worry about not looking my age when time catches up with us all? What is so terrible about growing older? Does older equate to useless? Unattractive? Worthlessness? More pressure. More criticism. I'm old. So what? What does that mean? The only alternative to being old is being dead, and I would not like to be dead anytime soon, thank you. I'll take the cracking.

My husband and daughter have declared that I do not take care of myself well enough, if at all. I work too much. I do not exercise. I don't go to the salon--nail or hair--enough. And the list goes on. I know they are right. I know they pick me apart for my own good. My husband doesn't want me to die and leave him in this world to fend for himself. My daughter needs me to go on living so, as she says, "Daddy doesn't fall apart." I get that their concern is out of love. But love can be overwhelming. Love can feel like criticism and pressure and daggers. Love can raise my blood pressure and stress level. Love can be a saboteur.

Women, women of color in particular, sometimes have to fight battles we can't win and shouldn't even have to fight on every front--from church members, friends, students, even family. We have to be multitaskers, nurturers, and we have to look like we just stepped out of a magazine or a make up commercial doing it. That's not going to happen. But that constant battling of others' opinions and our own voices of reproach can take a toll. A few weeks ago I was headed for what felt like to me a deep depression. I had so much work to do, but I just couldn't do anything. I had no energy, no drive, no motivation. All I could see ahead of me were very long, work-filled days that were growing longer and more work-filled the longer I remained inactive. I was talking about my depression to a friend of mine and he said, "You aren't depressed. You're depleted." It was like a bomb of recognition exploded in my head.

That was exactly the word--depleted. I was teaching seven classes, again, behind on three writing projects, working on various organizational commitments, bombarded with last minute requests at work, promoting a new book, and no one would hear me when I said, "No, I can't do that." And I had said "no" a few times. But nobody thinks that "no" is for them. They think that you can do one more thing. But I couldn't do one more thing. Everybody was dissatisfied with me, and I kept trying to please, knowing very well I would never be able to please. Now I was almost immobilized. And that was a problem too. The thing that saved me was my writing group. When I told them that I just couldn't produce any new work for our session, instead of trying to "fix" me or wring one more thing out of me, all of them--and I mean ALL of them--said, "We love you. We care about you. You don't have to do anything. Just come on the Zoom and be you. We don't want anything from you." It was an amazing moment for me. A moment of healing and balm. And then one of my group members suggested the book Rest is Resistance, and another group member sent it to me. And now I am reading it, and learning how to rest, to resist, and to care for myself, by myself.

I'm thinking of going on a retreat, not at a writing conference, not a vacation where I have to do stuff, but just a retreat for rest. That retreat may be in my own living room or backyard, alone, just me and the silence of peace. Maybe a birdsong or two. And I may hang a sign on the back of my chair--Comment Free Zone. And I ain't gonna feel guilty. Not one damn bit.


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