This morning, I got up with the alarm, although I didn’t want to. My watch beeped and vibrated my wrist, and I swatted the button and groaned; down at floor-level, the dog shook himself and then popped up on his hind legs to say hi. Unlike me, he loves the first moments of waking in the morning, and unlike me, he’s as cute as it gets when he emerges from his blankety burrow, stretches, shakes, and performs the most puppyish of morning rituals on the rug at the foot of the bed. Once he determines that I’m getting up, he flings himself onto the shaggy rug, alternately squirming on his back, belly up for rubbing, and scooting along on his belly in what a yoga class would call a cobra pose, or even more aptly, upward-facing dog. You might think that at six years old, he’d be getting too stiff for such acrobatics, but so far, the joy of greeting the day (and breakfast) overrides any intimations of middle-aged stiffness or grumpery; he wags wildly from the moment he hears me stir until he’s absorbed in freeing his breakfast from the treat-ball I put it into.
I try to take his joyous example, but some days, it doesn’t stick. Like today.
For the last year, since I quit my teaching job, I haven’t had to get up early, an event which, for me, has almost always required an alarm. Working from home now means no particular schedule, and it means that I can always choose to be the night-owl that I naturally am, alert until at least midnight and groggy until long after sunrise. It means no alarm-clock, which ought to make every day seem like a weekend or vacation.
But summer in central North Carolina is brutally hot and unrelentingly humid.
The consequences of sleeping late are punishing. If I don’t get out of bed until 9:00, it means anything to be done outdoors — like running or walking the dog — must be done in temperatures approaching or exceeding 90F, with humidity anywhere from 50 to 100%. Without the benefit of early-morning tree-shade, there are sunscreen and hats and sun-shirts to wrangle; there’s the dog’s paws on hot pavement to consider, as well as the real possibility — for canine and human — of overexertion and heat exhaustion.
So I’m back to setting an alarm, defying the allure of staying unconscious for as long as I can. I’m doing it because I want to. I know this. I’m the one who set the alarm in the first place. I’m the one who decided I’d rather get up and run early than face the dreadful monotony of running on a treadmill. I did this to myself.
Even so, this morning, I couldn’t be cheerful about it.
Not even the dog’s shenanigans or my partner’s attempts to tease away my grumping could jolt me out of dazedly, uncomprehendingly staring at a parade of images on my phone, as if that mechanical gesture were enough to lay claim to wakefulness.
In my head, independent of the activity before my eyes, sluggish thoughts streamed: why can’t I wake up feeling like I want to be awake? Why can’t I wake up wanting to write? Why can’t I wake up and just start on any one of the long list of things I want to do, without this glazed staring and cranky resistance? What is my problem?
There’s the undercurrent: “what’s my problem?” How easy it is to track into the well-worn groove of self-reproach.
There’s plenty of cultural “wisdom” at the ready to confront these feelings of apathy and lassitude, plenty of articles to read, lists of cheery tips and encouragement. But in all of that, there’s little that’s new or revolutionary, and when none of that seems to work, the temptation is to turn on myself with the stern eye of judgment and apply the old metrics of work ethic and virtue, against which I seem always to fall short. The Haughty Schoolmistress who helms my conscience glares down at me with distaste and administers flawed tests that nonetheless determine what she thinks I’m worth: the “if you really wanted to do it, you would be doing it” test; the “you have no business complaining about anything” test; the “what if you had real problems?” test. “Your problem is that you’re lazy,” she might snap. “Maybe if you don’t feel like writing, it’s because you don’t have anything worthwhile to say,” she proposes on occasion.
This is an old dance.
It began thirty years ago, when I was a freshman in college. Like a lot of young writers, I was given Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to read. Much of the collection of letters from German poet Rilke to a young man, Franz Kappus, who’d sought Rilke’s advice about becoming a poet, is inspiring, beautiful, almost otherworldly, like Rilke’s poetry itself. But his advice, untempered, was not exactly what I needed. Famously, in the first letter, he says,
“Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity.”
As a credulous, approval-seeking eighteen-year-old who only knew that people seemed to think she was a decent writer of such things as English papers, I took this to heart. That part of me took it as literally as you’d expect a naive young person to take the advice of an acknowledged master. Dutifully, I asked myself whether I would die if I did not write. The nascent Haughty Schoolmistress within, however, cast an already jaundiced eye on what she thought was, at best, histrionics. “Well,” she sniffed, “if not writing was going to be the death of you, you’d have been dead long before now.” Point taken. Secretly, then, when I’d barely begun trying seriously to write, I measured myself and found that I wasn’t what Rilke would call a writer. It felt damning.
In fact, later in that same letter, Rilke says this:
“ It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not” [emphasis mine].
Secretly, then, I feared that I should come clean, confess that I was not meant to be a writer, that I hadn’t passed the test. I didn’t, but the conflict between The Schoolmistress and the Unruly Self has gone unresolved ever since.
This morning, by the time my partner had cheerfully jogged my memory of how much worse it would be to walk the dog when the sun was high overhead, I was tired of wallowing in the murk of my mood and tired, too, of punishing myself for failing any number of purely invented tests.
We hooked the dog into his harness, emerged into the swampy, buggy, but astonishingly green and shaded neighborhood and walked a couple of brain-clearing miles. So what if I didn’t leap out of bed full of the energy and desire to do, well, anything? Some days are like that, I told myself. Not all days are like that. Evidence abounds that I do things. One or even several days without motivation isn’t a sign that I’m broken.
What, after all, are the right measures to take of a life? What is my job, as a human? When you come right down to it, I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to this. I’m not even sure that “taking measurements” is a good idea, despite what seems like a universal human obsession with benchmarks and paradigms.
It would be all right, in other words, just to live.
What “just living” entails varies almost infinitely, but it’s mine to determine and mine to alter, as circumstances allow. This inner voice of condemnation is what has no business calling the shots. It’s this, the nihilism from within — not the world in all its confusing and complicated richness — that I must resist.
And so, today, instead of sitting down to one of the essays about my family’s recent trip to Alaska that I’ve had in mind to write, I turned instead to look directly at the grumbling ogre that clapped a rough hand over my eyes and sandbagged me onto the couch, inert.
Some days, the only way to release the ogre’s grip is to acknowledge that it’s real and treat it with a kind of dignity. I thought first of Mary Oliver, a wonderful poet whose over-quoted lines from the poem “Wild Geese” (Dream Work, The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986) are over-quoted because they are so uncommonly brimming with compassion:
“You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Then, I opened another book of poems — William Bronk’s Living Instead (North Point Press, 1991) — to this, the last lines of a poem called “Frailty”:
“Yet the frail world goes on
unmastered, unmastering, and so do we.
Better to love us both the way we are.”
Whatever the job or ambition, whatever compels us to measure and rate and rank, there’s a vaster background to consider, a perspective that forgives us what we think of as our failings, and that’s our smallness and briefness in the scheme of things. A glimpse of my profound insignificance, rather than troubling me, liberates me beyond measure with the knowledge that my ogre-ish obduracy can’t do any real harm.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.