Thou Shalt Not Overwork

Deep in the wintry parts of our minds, we are hardy stock and know there is no such thing as work-free transformation. We know that we will have to burn to the ground in one way or another, and then sit right in the ashes of who we once thought we were and go on from there. ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

When I ignored my own needs and abandoned myself to make another person happy, my power vanished. ~ Martha O’Brien, Standing in My Power

Q: Imagine looking back ten years from now. What will have brought you fulfillment?

A: I will have been happily married and had children who are also my friends. My poems will have found their way out into the world. I will have traveled widely. I will have been a good daughter, sister, friend. I will have become more learned Jewishly. I will have spent plenty of time feeling the sun on my face, smelling tulips, walking in the leaves, running in the snow. I will have a sexual experience with another woman. ~ Me, May 7, 2001, from my first homework assignment as a coaching client

Greg emailed me that first quote late last night with a “holy shit!” He found it on website of a life coach named Martha O’Brien, whose words resonated with me as she writes about her “phony” Pleaser: “Pleasing is not the same as caring for another. If we ignore our own needs to please another person, we disconnect from caring for ourselves which is vital before we can truly care for another.”

My identity has been so wrapped up with being a wife, a mama, a “good daughter, sister, friend,” that I haven’t had much practice caring fully for myself. It feels like a huge pendulum swing and as usual, I am impatient, wanting to leap ahead to the time when… when I have achieved some new balance, when I feel “grounded, confident, radiant, choice-ful, and blessed” (from another “vision” exercise, this one in 2003).

Last night, I went with my friend Flip for a bite to eat followed by cross-country skiing at Sleepy Hollow in Huntington. The snow glittered; the woods were peaceful and perfectly wintry. What if that “wintry part” of my mind–where the hard work of transformation takes place–is like that, all sparkling and clear?

I came home and received that quote from Greg, then I sat and wrote a little:

I’m just in it, this place. Questioning myself, realizing that I have to wake up again and a-fucking-gain. Life goes on. Things settle back down, old habits die hard.

Tonight, there were three little candles flickering just through the little window in the sauna, and I gazed at them for a long time, seeing Greg, Aviva, and Pearl. Missing us all together.

I’m banging around myself here, wondering if this is really growth. And realizing I have such ridiculous expectations of myself. Never a rest. Never a break from waking up.

The power. The ashes. Sometimes I think I am still stuck. Like I just moved my stuckness across town and now I’m paying rent for it.

Later, I had my recurring dream about houses. This one was a little different, in that it wasn’t me discovering some new part of my own house. Instead, the house belonged to a Scandinavian woman around my mother’s age. She was showing me and someone else around the house. The kitchen was beautiful, as was the whole downstairs in fact. But she was complaining about the rugs in the living room in such a way that I imagined some god-awful stained wall-to-wall, when actually it turned out she had two simple throw rugs covering a gorgeous wood floor. I kicked at one of them, folding it over with my foot, and suggested that she just get rid of them and let the floors be bare. Later, her teenaged son bounded down the stairs by the front door. A special fondue area showcased a gorgeous view of the mountains. I said goodbye and crossed East Ave. to the field there, thinking to myself, “If I lived there, I would run every single morning through this field.”

If, then…
My life will start when…

I need to allow myself to relax. To let the energy flow into my limbs, the light and warmth of my own being spread deliciously throughout my whole body.  This is all tied to this feeling that I’m still holding myself in, all jammed in there somehow right around my solar plexus, where the craniosacral practitioner I saw on my birthday said she saw the most spectacular light swirling around.

No, I did not just move my stuckness across town. No, being a good __________ is not a true form of caring for others. No, it is not easy unlearning ways of living it took decades to develop, perfect even. No, there is no such thing as work-free transformation.

On the other hand:

I fell in love with this poster at first sight months ago at that little downstairs boutique on Church Street, Bella. (In fact, I fell in love with pretty much everything at Papaya, Inc.) I almost bought it, but I couldn’t quite see it hanging in my shared cubicle at Jvillage so I let it go. I’m not surprised that it turned back up tonight to reveal its true meaning–which has nothing, it turns out, to do with my day job.

Even in the midst of profound no-such-thing-as-work-free transformation, thou shalt not overwork. Thou shalt give thyself permission to rest, to relax, to just be in thy life. To let it be. To bang around the empty rooms of that inner house, the one you sought after for so long, and experience the empty closets, the open space you said you couldn’t get enough of but that your mind wants to stuff with old habits and your mouth wants to stuff with brownies.

Tonight, after a non-stop day at work, Greg and I spent an hour with a financial coach who may help us figure out next steps around money. Then he dropped me off in the parking lot next to my car. We sat and talked for a while. He read me something so beautiful from his journal, something about his own practice paying off, the miracle of retrieving himself from the “black fingers”–of depression, despair, agonizing stories–and experiencing the sparkling snow and his own ability to care for himself.

“I am okay,” he said through tears. “I miss you like hell, but I am okay.”

Maybe this would help me “unhook” from him, he suggested, after all the years I cared for him and he didn’t have to fully care for himself.

I cried. We finished making plans around girl-time for the weekend and then said goodbye. I came home and without even thinking, started running a hot bath while I was on the phone briefly with one of my sisters. When we hung up, I slipped in. Rested, meditated in that nearly scalding water. Got out after a while, lowered all the shades, rolled out my mat, and did yoga. Naked.

3 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not Overwork

  1. veneratedcoconut says:

    J, overworking is bad on all sides. I did a meditation retreat this weekend with a teacher I know well, and he was totally burned out. He literally said, “I’m really busy, but if you need help, ask. I *have* to help you.” He seemed put upon. He’d overextended himself by teaching the retreat, hasn’t had a day off all month, and pushes himself because he wants to help people. But is he? When I see this, I say to myself, “If this is where a lifetime of meditation gets me, is it really any different from where I am?” Not taking care of yourself first always has repercussions! Glad you are writing about it. xoA


  2. skippyjonjones says:

    Yet another great post, dear Jena.

    I often think back to a post you wrote long ago about trying too hard. I find myself in that category a lot, unfortunately.

    I appreciate your clarification between caring and helping. Just this past week, I’ve realized the HUGE difference between serving and helping. We’re here to serve (self and others). It takes on such a different feel when I view it that way…and get off the helping train.

    Right now, especially in deep mid-winter, I need a lot of downtime and restorative practices. Here’s to more warm baths, naps, nourishing rituals, and yoga! :)



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