With all the talk of slavery during the Passover Seder, I realized: I am a slave to my to-do list. My personal Pharaoh is my drive to get things done.
The insight came after subtle but lingering chest pains and pressure as well as difficulty getting a deep breath led me to re-evaluate – well, everything.
I was familiar with the feeling of pressure in the chest during periods of tight deadlines at work. But this feeling didn’t let up when I got home. It didn’t disappear when the work pace eased.
After a stress test indicated there might be a problem, I took a cardiologist-recommended week off from work. “Toridi hiluh,” shift to a lower gear, he’d advised when I explained how busy I was with work and other projects. I took him seriously and canceled ever regular activity on my calendar for a solid month. No more weekly writing date, choir practice, therapy appointment, exercise class, ballroom dance lesson with Bob, swimming, coop duty or Balkan dancing. I didn’t work on distributing my film or fundraising for a favorite project. I wouldn’t even make a date to meet a friend. The only thing I couldn’t bring myself to cancel was my weekly visit, through Amcha, to a Holocaust survivor/resistance fighter – a unique nonagenarian who has become a cherished friend.
During my week off from everything, I succeeded, for the first time in decades, to ignore my list and that pile of papers that needs handling in the corner of my kitchen. I didn’t have to actively resist; in the face of my determination to relax, and my fear of what would happen if I didn’t, the list and pile simply didn’t call to me. I read, napped, watched episodes on the computer, enjoyed the garden, spent time in nature, talked to friends.
It took only a few days for my symptoms to disappear.
But in the shower Sunday morning before my first day back at work, there it was again: that odd, disturbing feeling of not being able to breathe deeply enough.
A test revealed there was enough oxygen in my blood and a chest X-ray ruled out lung problems. My doctor and I agreed: The symptoms were stress-related.
I decided to put aside my anti-New Age prejudice and listen to my body. This is what I heard:
You are 63. It’s time to carefully examine how you spend your time and decide: What do you really want to be doing in the time remaining?
The question had hit me when I turned 60. Trying to discover the answer was one of the reasons I went back into therapy. But I had reached no conclusions and made no changes. My symptoms spoke loud and clear: Enough! It’s time to make some changes.
My life is good, tfu tfu tfu, Full of things I wanted: a family, meaningful work, good friends, a life in Israel, enough space for a vegetable garden. It’s not about wanting more. It’s about not letting the rest of life slip by without taking the time to seriously evaluate how I’m spending the time left until my race is run.
Little by little, insights came. At a Non-Violent Communication weekend at EcoME (I thought long and hard but I really wanted to go), I understood the bottom line criteria for deciding how to spend my time: I need to do the things that bring me joy. And at a women’s Re-evaluation Counseling evening, another asimon dropped: The thing that brings me the most joy is creating. The Muse gets shy when my days are busy and planned. She needs time and space to make her appearance.
I’m still in the process of deciding how to re-organize my life so I can do more of the things that bring me joy: writing essays (hence this blog); working with children; communing with nature; making music. I’m trying to find a way to work fewer hours, but I see that won’t be enough. During hol hamo’ed, the intermediate days of Passover, I, like most of Israel, had an entire week off, but I still felt the need to accomplish, the drive to be productive. I referred to my to-do list daily.
On the last day of hol hamo’ed, I talked to my friend Sherri about my dilemma.
Too bad I didn’t talk to her sooner. “You’re not supposed to do anything on hol hamo’ed,” she told me. “You’re just supposed to relax and enjoy yourself.”
If only I could be more like Sherri. “I’m not a to-do person,” she said. “I’m a not-to-do person. I think, What can I get away with not doing?”
(Ironically, what she does do is big: she writes books. She helps terror victims work through their trauma.)
The subtle chest pains and breathing issues are back, though lighter. Clearly I have more work to do to free myself from the bondage of doing. To escape the narrow confines of busy-ness. To give myself a break.