When I was growing up, I noticed that I was more tired than most people. On my first camp-out, when I was six years old or so, all of the other campers in my tent got up with my counselors to see the sun rise. Only I continued to sleep. When they returned and I woke up, they told me about the beautiful colors in the sky, wanting to make me regret that I had slept. I was sorry to have missed the lovely sunset, but I did not regret sleeping.
I was so tired as I was growing that while my peers watched Saturday morning cartoons, I slept. The only cartoons I watched were "Scooby Doo" and "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" because they came on later in the morning. In high school, I had mono, but not from the kissing virus (alas), just from wearing myself out.
I felt that fatigue was my fate. I connected with the poetry of fatigue, like Tennyson's "Marianna" ("She said, I am weary. I am weary" though thankfully never with the next line, "I would that I were dead.") I recognized Frost's weariness at the end of "Stopping by Woods," when his narrator said "I have miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep." (It was the repetition of the line with which I identified: Frost's narrator and I were on the treadmill of exhaustion.) And I loved Roethke's "I wake to sleep and take my waking slow." Yes. That is how I lived my life.
I believed in the Puritan Work Ethic, not because I had reflected on it and come to believe that idle hands do the devil's work, but because for it was a universal truth that one should stay as busy as possible and work as hard as possible. The first time it occurred to me that this was a cultural value and not a universal law was on a summer adventure in rural Michoacan, Mexico, after my second year of teaching.
I was on a volunteer project with an organization called Amigos de las Americas, and it was our goal to help as many people as possible build latrines at their homes. Only I really thought of it as "I am building latrines for poor people." My fellow volunteer Juan, who was born and grew up in Salinas, California, but whose parents were from Mexico and spoke Spanish in the home, helped me understand that the people we were there to help had values of their own, lives and beliefs worth respecting, and the project was a mutual one, not a charitable one.
Sometimes I would be digging deep into hard soil and young men would sit around and watch me work. "Something is wrong here," I thought to myself as I continued to dig and they continued to watch. I thought I had something to teach them about hard work, but for sure they had something to teach me about sitting around and watching. (Ann will tell you that I learned this lesson well.)
At a retreat at the end of the summer, my fellow volunteers from various pueblos in rural Michoacan gathered and reflected on what we had learned. I quoted from Simon and Garfunkel:
Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.
I continued to move too fast in my world back in the states, but I remembered often the lesson of slowing down that I had glimpsed but not learned in the Michoacan jungle.
When I was married the first time, my husband (yes, husband. It was a long time ago) often called me by the nickname "Weary Mary." It's not that I was lazy or inactive: I loved to hike and bike, and I worked hard at my teaching job, often taking on extra responsibilities like coaching and chairing committees. I was just so tired.
I could not understand why I was so darn tired all the time. My weariness affected my self-image, my sense of what I could do and be in the world, my studies and my play. I struggled to overcome my exhaustion as I expected more of myself than was healthy.
On Sept. 11, 2001, when planes crashed into the twin towers in NYC , I took solace in Pablo Neruda's poem, "Keeping Quiet," which read in part:
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Also, throughout my 12 years of teaching in public schools, I promised myself that my public school students would receive from me the same kind of attention and education that my private school students had, though in a private school I taught four classes a day of around 15 students each and in public schools I taught five classes a day of up to 41 students. Therefore, I worked late each night and worked both weekend days, though by the end I took at least a half day off on the weekends. I helped start three new schools. I took leadership positions. I worked for a national education organization. I was always exhausted.
I knew this overwork was not healthy. I posted Lao Tzu's quotation, "One must know when to stop," on my classroom wall, and a young teacher read it aloud and asked me accusingly, "Do you?" The question was rhetorical. Beside my desk, I posted Thomas Merton's caution about overwork:
I knew that I was overworking, but I did not stop. Perhaps this overworking was an addiction. Perhaps this overworking was a reaction to some place in me that knew my time in this world was limited. Perhaps it was connected to an ego that believed that every moment I had was needed in order to do work that I thought only I could or would do.
My brain tumor was finally diagnosed when I was 43 (diagnosis took a long time, though when they found the tumor it was probably 43, too), and I finally had an explanation for so many physical oddities throughout my life: fainting, trembling with weakness, struggling athletically on my left side, weariness….
My brain tumor diagnosis, though upsetting in some ways, made me feel sane, like there was a reason, after all, for the way I had felt all my life. I was not lazy. I was not crazy. I was not a malingerer. I was sick.
I struggled with my lack of energy after neurosurgery, and I began to struggle even more after radiation for my second brain tumor. I was sleeping 14 hours at night and napping three hours in the afternoons. My allopathic doctors told me that there was nothing they could do to address my fatigue, so I searched for a naturopath and found an excellent one in Dr. Eileen Stretch.
Instead of dismissing concerns that she couldn't explain, Dr. Stretch labelled fatigue and an odd vertigo as "rare and peculiar." She loved seeking to solve the mysteries of my rare and peculiar symptoms. And I loved it that she took my concerns to heart.
After a couple of years of taking many supplements, I started taking "SamE," a supplement that is in a powder like Kool Aid and tastes bitter like lemon rind. When I experimented with taking two packets a day, I began needing less sleep and feeling more awake during my waking hours. Then some blessed medical researcher souls developed a genetic test, a simple blood test, that confirmed my body's need for SamE, and I started taking three packets a day.
Now I sleep 10-12 hours at night and nap from 45 minutes to two hours, getting maybe 13 hours of sleep in a day instead of 17 hours. Sometimes, I don't even take a nap. I continue to take rest seriously and to limit the commitments I make, being sure to leave time for yoga and meditation and a nap if I need it. I am less weary and more alive.
Being sick has humbled me, teaching me that the world could survive and lots of good things could happen without me. It has taught me that I am no good to anyone if I am not good to myself. It has taught me to prioritize how to spend my time, limited as it is in my days and in my life.
In this humility, I am learning to trust the world beyond my efforts. But still, like Jacob, I wrestle with my angel. I am a student again, and I love what I am learning so much…I love being a student so much…that I am tempted again to overdo it. There is so much in the world that is interesting, and there is so much to learn. There is so much to give.
So I have not so much slowed down because I have become wiser as I have slowed down because I must. I still want control, which I suppose is at the heart of overwork. Though I feel that I have been a good sport about my brain tumors, their treatments, and my disabilities, I do not want another one. I have learned so much from my two tumors, and in many ways my life has been enriched by them, but if I were in control, I would not have another. (I have my next MRI a week from Tuesday, and these semi-annual MRI's make me think a lot about the possibilities of a new tumor, so if I were to have control, I would like to have it now.)
Friday I had a test about how well I have learned my lesson of unflattering my days. I went to an introduction to doing a master's thesis for my program. The thesis is not required, but it seemed like something to check out: I could pursue a question of my own in some depth, and have guidance in that pursuit. As I listened to all of the requirements, however, I realized that although the project might be great fun, I do not want to invest my limited time and energy in this way. I am learning that I need to make choices.
I will continue to learn and to love my life, and I will continue to do what I do well, so I will limit what I will do. Perhaps I am learning. And perhaps I needed these tumors to teach me, though by that I do not mean that some intellectual force planted the tumors in me. I don't think of God or God's place in my life in that way. And, to repeat, I do not want another.
Perhaps by slowing down and giving myself space for breath and poetry, I am learning about grace. I do feel great grace in my life now, since my tumors, in a way that I did not before my tumors. In this way, though I would not have chosen them, my tumors have brought me grace, as Ann and I pray together each night before dinner, "Oh God, Remind me that all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude."