“It’s important to stay busy.” That’s what I said to my 24-year-old daughter the other day, and as the words were leaving my mouth, a wave of sadness swept through me – as though I was giving her very old, very crusty survival tips – pretty much my lifetime prescription for how to stay on the right side of things – how to stave off sadness and loneliness – how to respond to feeling small or adjust yourself when you have no idea what you’re doing, when it appears that the rest of the world is having a lovely time and you are back in your house on a Friday night surrounded by silence.
“Stay busy,” I warned.
Marie Howe, the beautiful poet, once told me in a class to never use clichés, but what is another way to say “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water?” Maybe if I said it in French it would sound more exotic. Because getting busy, being busy, putting one foot in front of the other, making sure you’ve got your list and you know what your priorities are has really served me all these years, and it’s not a bad thing at all. I make shit. I’m a mother of a manifestor. Give me a shovel and I’ll dig. Definitely more of a do-er than a be-er. There’s a huge identity around it, can you feel it? Much pride.
But still, this wave of sadness I felt as I spoke to my daughter – my daughter who has recently been through heart break, my daughter who doesn’t love her job or the city she lives in, my daughter who needs to make some real friends and figure out what she wants to do with her life. “Stay busy,” while correct in some ways – I mean – the girl probably needs a list and a plan if she’s going to wrangle her way into something new – was also a cover for something else, something I hadn’t necessarily been good at facing in my life, and she knew it, I could see it in her face as she listened to me, the way she cocked her head and said nothing.
I mean to model something for her, but as I’ve watched her in these last few months I see that she’s modeling for me. She cries a fair amount these days, and then she goes to work, and works hard, and comes home and sometimes there’s more crying, and the next day she gets up and does it again. I knew I taught my girls to buck up, but I didn’t teach them how to be sad, and she’s doing a brilliant job at it. I see that. I’m watching.
As I write this I realize someone might comment something like, “I’m sorry she’s sad and they would be missing the whole point of this piece. I’d much rather someone say, “awesome, she’s getting to know sadness, lucky her.” Because as I watch my girl, her beauty only increases with her tenderness, how when we’re talking on the phone I can hear the catch in her voice, the breath she takes before the tears come. My girl is becoming whole – that’s what I see. There will be more sadness in her life, and she’ll remember this time and that she came through it. She was there for it. She didn’t Netflix her way through the whole thing.
As for my own response to sadness and slushy feelings in general – like when my marriage was hard, or someone broke up with me or things were rocky with my work – I’ve generally worked even harder. Stayed super busy. Made an intense commitment to exercise. I shopped. Drank. Did drugs. Not all at the same time, mind you, but over the years all of these things to some degree. My friend Lisa Jones said about me once that I was always wanting to tweak the moment, make things feel better than they were. So I survived, yay me.
But what about that wave of sadness that hit me when I was instructing my pup? Maybe if I can just stay with it an extra beat or two before I get up to see what’s in the refrigerator or whether someone likes my latest Instagram post I could grow a little here.
I could really go to town strategizing how to heal this tendency to stay busy so as to avoid what else is moving through me – but I’ve decided to keep it simple. I’ve decided to take a little break with my work – this is called Burying the Lead, by the way. But my friend Ellen suggested I take a sabbatical in the fall, and when she said it I exhaled deeply. That next week I told my class, and Ana, my student, said, “The Radical Sabbatical,” which was funny and true. It’s a chance for me to get a little more quiet – be less busy – see what arises from the great blah blah – what Gary, our old therapist used to call the here and now. I don’t know if sadness will arise when I sit with more space. Maybe it’ll be confusion or lethargy – who knows? All I do know is that there’s a reason why my adult life has been defined by work, why I’ve put it ahead of friendships and sometimes family, why I cling to business and productivity.
Sadness – and the whole river of feelings that moves beneath the day to day me – has been one patient mother, her hands folded neatly in her lap, waiting for me to get a little older, a little more tired of heaving myself up that hill every day. I can almost see her out of the corner of my eye as the blur of my life starts slowing down. She got my attention. She’s on her way.