On the body
I’ve succumbed to winter and the universal gloom. It’s brought me a frozen shoulder and a virus – corona, nora, a combination of the two, who knows? In the grip of it my head and thoughts felt metallic, closing my eyes making my vision stutter, like a frame freezing and reloading. Everything felt sharp-edged and dark; comfort impossible to find.
The virus brought with it a fever. I lay in bed, listening to the radio, to detail after detail of the world’s endings. I thought of the people who knew they wouldn’t get better, who were ill and frightened, who were on their own, also unable to find comfort. I thought with gratitude of the way that Glen had wrapped his body around mine to warm me when the fever stole away my heat in the 4am dark.
When it comes, the pain in my shoulder pulses with an urgency that makes thought impossible. I can’t lift my arm higher than 45 degrees, tie my hair, drive, dress easily or sleep for more than a few hours at a time. I’m having to learn inertia and dependency, to feel the vulnerability of my body. Used to hurtling through life, tasks, days, experiences, my inability is teaching me to inhabit my body, far more than before, to be careful of it, mindful. My momentum is ebbing.
In Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s incantatory reportage from the frontline of her life and losses, she says, ‘Ill health, which is another way of describing what it can cost to maintain momentum, overtakes us when we can imagine no reason to expect it.’ I hadn’t expected it, but I wondered if I’d summoned it. I’d been dreaming of a gap, knowing that only illness could sway me from habitual, compulsive ‘doing’. A gap would let me write and think, read and listen. In the grip of illness I’d regretted this longing, but as it subsided I glimpsed the space to go where ideas took me, to begin drawing these ideas together.
Life demands momentum of us, productivity, dissonance. In Exhausted: An A to Z for the weary, Anna Katharina Schaffner explores, through a series of essays, our shared cultural assumptions around work, exhaustion and productivity. She suggests that burnout, an idea resonating with many, for all manner of reasons, is both cultural and individual. For generations we’ve been vexed by its causes, finding answers in everything from planetary misalignment to the overwhelming speed of technological progress.
For me there’s something in there between the personal and the cultural – the chiding inner critic and late capitalism’s hard wiring to produce and consume. In the chapter B is for Burnout, Shaffner quotes American writer and journalist Anne Helen Peterson: ‘The burnout condition is more than just an addiction to work. It’s an alienation from the self, and from desire. If you subtract your ability to work, who are you? Is there a self left to excavate? Do you know what you like and don’t like when there’s no one there to watch, and no exhaustion to force you to choose the path of least resistance? Do you know how to move without always moving forward?’
The morning after the fever broke I went up to the hens. The air was blue with ice, the water thick and unbreakable. On the horizon a chink of yellow light, pink-streaked. The hens came down the ramp from their coop, chattering, alert with busyness to the possibilities of the new day, of the frozen earth unscratched. I stood at my make-shift bird table, crumbling bread, sprinkling sunflower seed onto the hoared plank, feeling the vibration of the trees as the birds gathered. I felt joy, and relief, a moment of comfort, flickering in the stillness.