A couple of weeks ago, I sprained my neck while washing my hair.
Of all the injuries I could think of that would prevent me from completing my lengthy, daily to-do list, “accidentally wrenching my neck out of whack while completing an extremely mundane task” was not really on my radar. If I had to be laid up, I think I would have preferred to be stricken by a more romantic or heroic malady. As it was, I found myself stuck in bed or on the couch with a hot water bottle slapped against my spine, trying to get my muscles relaxed enough to feed my baby.
(My husband was a trouper. The baby is fine, and fed, and flourishing. Worry not.)
And now I am better, but I took a little break from writing in the days that followed.
Some of the reasoning behind this decision came from having just finished a thirty-day writing challenge. Some of it came from trying to actually allow myself to rest, which requires asking help of other people, and does not come easily for me.
And some of it came from realizing that I need to let my words take a beat sometimes; to sit for a moment in the quiet; to ponder, and to wait.
I won’t lie to you. During that enforced rest time when I could barely turn my head or lift my arms, my mind kept turning that sprain over and over and over in an almost frantic desire to make sense of what had just happened and to figure out how I could spin it into something to write about.
(Yes, the fact that I am now writing about that occurrence does strike me as funny.)
After a couple of days, I did write a short think-piece on rest, and how we have to depend on other people for rest (linked above). But since then, I’ve held back and let my thoughts spin without sharing them just yet. Because I think I need some practice in that department.
We are coming to the end of a year-and-a-bit that has seen great upheaval and change and uncertainty and tragedy. We could all stand to take a beat and wait to reflect before we plunge further ahead. COVID-19 has changed all of us, even in very small ways — even those who swore it doesn’t exist. I can look back on isolated events over the course of 2020 and 2021 and say that I think this thing affected me thusly, and that thing was the catalyst for such-and-such. But it’s all still so recent and so fresh. Maybe I haven’t let it sit long enough to truly understand what I need to learn from a hard time.
Writing, for many of us, is cathartic. I often have a hard time processing how I feel until I write about what’s on my mind. And this isn’t a bad thing — I think the harnessing of words to make sense of a messy world is a beautiful and good and useful procedure. There are certainly times, as I often must remind myself, that private writing is much better than public musing to “work through” more personal problems (and this is why I keep a journal). And there are times when sharing your now-ordered thoughts with others may help them to make sense of their own situation; solidarity, and sympathy, and all that. Feeling less alone. Feeling seen. Feeling hope.
Hope, for Emily Dickinson, may have been a thing with feathers, but I do not like birds — hope, for me, is a thread that I would like to see running through everything I write. Not every story will have a happy ending, but for me a good story must have at least an undercurrent that leads the reader to hope. And whether I write for all or write for one, I look for, and try to grasp hold of, a thread of hope.
But sometimes I am so eager to find a lesson in what just happened to me — whether an injury, an argument, a disappointed hope, or a pandemic — that I race right into a conclusion, slap my musings together, and say I’m good.
Finding hope through difficulty is good. But I wonder if I am doing myself a disservice in so quickly trying to identify the silver lining, tell myself I have learned from this, and write something mildly witty and self-deprecatingly preachy.
Maybe I need to let my words mellow.
As a child, I often got in trouble for speaking hastily, either with unki nd words or out of turn. Who am I kidding — as an adult I find myself in trouble from time to time for speaking hastily, too. The quick retort is rarely the wisest choice, though it usually feels pretty darn good in the moment. But relying on a quick retort or a fast turnaround or a speedy sound bite has the potential to crash and burn pretty quickly — and to falsely inflate a sense of responsibility to comment on everything. “The world will keep spinning without your hot take,” Joy Clarkson said recently. “Getting your article published isn’t an emergency,” Aimée Gramblin wisely (and gently) chides.
Even if I don’t like to think of my personal essays as a “hot take,” it’s a good reminder that the world will keep spinning without my pontification. Or yours, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still a big fan of the personal essay, the here’s-what-happened-to-me anecdote, the lessons-learned recapping.
But I’m beginning to learn that they can take a beat. If a real life lesson is to emerge from something that happened to me, then it’s going to be here for a good long time. I won’t lose it if I fail to instantly (and wordily) muse on it. Patience and hope, as Jane Austen put it, are intertwined and at times synonymous.
It’s probably going to take me a while to fully understand, and comfortably sit with, the knowledge that the world doesn’t need my words right away. It will be a slow process. It will require patience.
But I think that’s kind of the point.