Beware the barrenness of a busy life. Socrates

I’ve been on a to-do list bender since I returned from Montana at the end of July.  I awoke this morning on a ladder putting up Halloween decorations with a pounding busy-ness hangover. It takes me a moment to remember the month and then the giant spider in my hands places me in the outside ring of the holiday eddy.

This is progress. I usually come to, lying on my stomach, under a pine tree at the Christmas Tree Farm with a saw in my hand.  In other words, at the bottom of the eddy without an air tank.

Two months have passed in a blur of one college send-off, three different schools and schedules, and two teams with alternating practices and weekend competitions. Stuffed in the cracks, like crumbling mortar in a brick wall, have been work hours, the pets, the yard and house chores, meals (so many meals), teen/pre-teen wrangling, a car accident, and marathon training.

A to-do list is a familiar drug for me.  I convinced myself that I had detoxed in Montana and kicked the habit.  However Busy-ness was patiently waiting for me in Austin for its favorite season of school beginnings, non-stop holidays, and five family members’ birthdays.  It lulls me back into dependency.  Busy-ness starts out congratulatory and pats me on the back for a job well done. The rush seems manageable.  I say yes to a couple more commitments.  Of course I can handle it. Look how much I’m accomplishing.

The point of no return is all too familiar. I stop reading my email, the text notifier makes me wince and the kitchen is never clean.  I start to cover my tracks with later nights or getting up early to get a head start. Sleep is the first essential to go, then showering. There are numerous projects lying anemic and unfinished around the house.  I stop seeing friends and other adults except for my husband and the parents at gymnastics meets.

The exhaustion is subtle at first and then I find myself looking off into middle distance in a trance.  I’m pretty sure that’s how giraffes sleep.

I tell myself that everyone is doing it.  I-Am-So-Busy is the modern battle cry, the ubiquitous background noise that we all accept for normal.  Who am I to slow down? Busy-ness hooks me with the real needs of the people and community around me, but then on the down low, heaps on a whole lot of shoulds.  It’s the shoulds that keep me writing a longer to-do list.  We all have our register of shoulds and they’re usually accompanied by guilt and fear.

There was a time before my weakness for Busy-ness.  When I was in my early twenties I considered myself rather spontaneous, maybe even a bit reckless with my time. Then came marriage and Leo.  I loved the constant motion of parenting. Matthew and I approached this new project with tremendous gusto.  Eli was born five years later and I still had my to-do list under control.  It wasn’t until our twins arrived, two years after Eli, that the needs and shoulds spiked and Busy-ness had me by the throat.

At almost fifty I can honestly say that I do not want to be busy anymore.  I don’t find any glory in it like my younger, want-to-do-everything-right, self.  My friend Shelly looked at me the other morning and announced that women in their fifties are dangerous because they don’t care what people think anymore.

For me, that’s the key to getting clean and sober from my addiction to checking off another task.  At forty-nine-and-a-half, I’m beginning to understand what she means. It’s not that women in their fifties don’t care, they just don’t let other people’s reactions define them anymore.

I am at the start of my recovery process.  Busy-ness is my siren and will always be waiting on the rocks.  It will take the form of compelling volunteer opportunities, sparkly projects and creative extra-curriculars for the kids.  I will need to be vigilant, especially in this vulnerable season.  I can go back to sleep, anesthetized by the shoulds, as easily as I came to this morning on the ladder.

Perhaps getting older will make the shoulds less compelling and the needs more manageable.  I know it will be liberating if I’m able to maintain the shift, like crossing off ten things on my to-do list permanently.  For now I will finish the Halloween decorations because I want to, not because I should.

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is what are we busy about? Henry David Thoreau


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