“Truth is, Melissa: seems you’re always busy.”
He was right, my almost eighty-year-old Dad, who, sober-eyed, watched me from where he sat at the foot of the bed. I scrambled on the floor, foraging through piles of clothing and gear for the three-day pioneer trek reenactment my husband and sons were slated to leave for the next morning. Crack of dawn in dungarees, Tom Sawyer hats, suspenders and hiking boots. Pulling hand carts and sleeping under a sky hung loosely over the high desert of northeastern Utah. My men were heading here:
Since arriving at my parents’ in the States on vacation, I’d been scouring Salt Lake City’s thrift shops, Army Navy outlets and bona fide pioneer-outfitting stores in between doing television, radio and print interviews for my book launch. Delay-onset jet lag. Little sleeping. Spotty eating. When did I last shower? On this continent?
My mind was shredded by the intensifying yank between hand carts and hard copy, and I was having night terrors about covered wagons and book covers. I was wound so tightly, you could have used my spine to drill a tunnel through the Rockies. My brain was doing that thing I call not worrying but whirrying.
Whiiiir-whiiiir-whiiiirrr, like the propellers of a plane left revving at top speed on an abandoned tarmac. Tight spine, whirring mental blades, fatigued physique, against the backdrop of a crammed calendar. I was always busy. Dad had nailed it.
But I defended myself to his face, and I’ll do the same here.
“That’s not even it,” I exhaled. “‘Busy’ would be alright. To be honest, Dad,” the tension was now probably visible in my neck, “I’m not ‘busy’. I am maxed out, burning out. This is modern life!” I punctuated that last phrase by smacking my open palms on a mound of pioneer-grade burlap tenting.
Sometimes I’m driven too far into the whirr. I take on more than is reasonable, more than is healthy, more than is humanly doable, and more than is needed. This escalation of responsibilities – insanely, the busier I get the more recklessly I tend to take on additional tasks, and the faster my whirry whirrs – means that not only am I left with too few resources to do normal and necessary things (sleep, eat, talk with my Dad), but the quality of things I do (sleeping, eating, talking) is altered.
Even in restful moments like sitting behind the wheel at a traffic light, waiting for my bread to toast, standing in line at a small town post office, or lying in bed waiting for slumber, I sense a low-grade agitation surging and heating my sinews.
Jittery sleeping. Gritted eating. Clenched talking.
And then someone’s four words – “seems you’re always busy”- harpoons me, the bend of that hook lodging itself squarely in my tense, multitasking torso, with its puny heart valves thunking irregularly, its lungs never quite filling for one deep, full breath. It snags my whirrying and makes me stop. Makes me sad. Very sad.
What is going on here? Why does some part of me apparently believe the myth that doing more means doing better? When did I agree to this myth? Why does any one of us agree to this? What is happening in a person and in a culture at large, when “crazy busy” is venerated, cheered on, sought out and upheld as the standard? And shows no sign of slowing?
What are the costs of frenetic hyper-productivity, of crazy busy? And please, is there a cure?
Science has long since determined that the popularized crazy busy lifestyle delivers a sound wallop to our emotional and physical wellbeing. Like armchair physicians, we coolly tick off all the ways in which accumulated stress weakens our immune system, leads to increased respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and sexual dysfunction. We draw faint lines between stress and certain cancers. We warn ourselves about the dangers of distraction – what it does to drivers, pilots, teachers, students, parents, children – and we wag a finger at multitasking, noting that it is not, in fact, more efficient or more productive, but more fragmenting to our minds and to our human relationships.
When was the last time I lay for unmeasured, luxurious swaths, next to my beloved (child or partner or, yes, my nearly eighty-year-old Dad) and just listened to him breathe?
When, for that matter, was the last time I lay for as long as I needed, and just listened – calmly, lovingly, openly – to my own breathing? Or to God’s?
Before my whirrwind month in the States came to an end – a month I’ve not been able to write about until now for all its crazy busy-ness – I made time to connect with some of my beloveds.
One evening, I wandered to the end of the upstairs hall and into my parents’ bedroom. It’s right above the basement bedroom of my childhood. There was that familiar parental smell, the shushed drag of the door over the pile carpet, the ceiling fan making the lace curtains breathe like two lungs on either side of the window to my left. The known contours of Mom’s and Dad’s shadowy forms in the receding light lay on their relegated sides of the bed. They were fully clothed, just resting there in the dusk before having to get themselves up and ready to go to sleep. The years are finally, finally showing on them. They are in need of repose. And so am I.
So, without invitation and in my street clothes, I crawled onto their bed and shimmied in between them. Lay down flat on my back. Took my Mom’s hand in my right (her trademark plush palms) and Dad’s in my left (his fingers always a bit chilly) and without much talk at all and with light disappearing along the walls and out of those lace curtains, I listened in love and reverence to them breathe.