Saturday, 22 July 2017

Time out: the difficult but essential art of doing nothing

My doctor has told me I need a break. Doesn't that sound luxurious? I pictured lying on a sofa all day, looking out of a window at a blue sea. Perhaps people would bring me cups of tea and cake?

And for a week or so I did lie on the sofa because ironically I was exhausted from working flat out to clear my desk in order to have a rest. No one brought me tea, because no one's here during the day. I cooked dinner because I like cooking, even though I swayed as I chopped and stirred. I did a little light invoicing, sorted out my aunt's accounts, answered a few emails. Nothing demanding, but it didn't feel like I was resting.

I googled 'medical definition of rest'. The long and the short of it is that there isn't a definition of rest. It could mean complete inactivity, but rarely does. It could even mean going for a run each day.

The challenge is what to do if you're meant to be resting.

If I were well and needed a rest, I'd probably head up a mountain, or get on my bike and cycle all day. I might catch a train and wander round galleries and see new plays. I'd probably get in the car and visit far off friends. (I definitely wouldn't be here at my desk.) But I can't do any of these things because doing any of them would exhaust me: working flat out for months with a gastric infection and then Reactive Arthritis has drained me physically and mentally.

I can't even rewrite my novel (it's been sitting in first draft on my desk for months) because I don't have the energy. I have to tell myself this is ok: how come I can't do like a proper ailing artist and create great work from my sick bed? Well, maybe because I'm not a proper ailing artist: I intend to get well, to regain my energy, and then I'll write. (And did Proust and Keats run a household or earn their share of the bills? Did they have families demanding their attention? I think not. I shan't research this further because quite simply I don't want to know about someone who did all of this while really ill - it's not helpful.)

So this is what my life looks like at the moment, and I'm not complaining: I read in my hammock, watch the bees on the lavender, let the clouds scud past. I listen to podcasts. Friends come and we talk over coffee. Each day I walk a mile, extremely slowly. I have learned to identify some butterflies: the gatekeeper, the meadow brown, the ringlet and the black admiral. I have belatedly planted out my beans, sweet corn and courgettes, so late that they probably won't fruit, but each day I check them. I maintain the tomato plants in the greenhouse. I don't do my accounts, answer work emails, worry if various members of my family are ok. I am learning not to respond whenever someone asks me to do something. That's really hard but I can feel that it's the right thing to do.

Best of all, I've begun to think about my novel and how I'm going to rewrite it. I'm happy thinking about it, planning, writing notes. In the meantime I'm writing tiny things every day: a fragment overheard, the bones of a poem, the opening of a story. It feels so good, I think I'm beginning to recover. Maybe what I needed all along was to allow myself time and space to think and write? Maybe resting is essential to creativity? And both are essential to my health?

I think I've found the answer. The art of resting is to give yourself permission to rest. It's that simple.