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Mired in the Slough of Too-Much-To-Do

December 28, 2009

Lest you think that perfect me dances through life unaffected by sleepless nights and task-filled days, I’ll share with you a poem I wrote in the bathroom while I was teaching fulltime and pursuing a doctorate at a school located several hours up the interstate. The poem is one I often use in class and seminars. Here’s the story of its origin:

I was feeling overwhelmed, working on several papers and a presentation that were due the next week, falling behind on reading and commenting on student work, getting involved in several committees at work that had turned into serious time-suckages, failing at family and household obligations, and just generally doing less than I thought I should in just about every area of my life.

I showered and sat down on the closed toilet seat to put on my shoes. My first thought was what a mistake it had been to chose high-top Converse instead of slip-ons since getting the former on and lacing them up seemed like an insurmountable task. I thought about changing shoes, but realized that I would have to get up and that I would also have to rethink the outfit hanging there ready to don. You have to know me to know what this might mean. I have never been a throw-on-a-pair-of- jeans-and-a-t-shirt kind of gal.

I started to pick up a shoe, but it felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds. I put it down and sat there staring into space overwhelmed with exhaustion, thinking about how tired I was and how I did not know if I could keep on going. The fatigue was so deep that I couldn’t imagine putting my shoes on, standing up, getting dressed, and actually going to work and teaching class. So I did what I often do when feelings run deep. I picked up a pen (handy in the old flowerpot that holds my makeup—I am seldom far from a pen), pulled a piece of cardboard out of the trash, and began writing:

I Am Tired
by Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn, mired in the Slough of Too-Much-To-Do

I am tired.
Without excuse.
It’s not brain surgery
or picking cotton
or even one of many other things
I’ve done and done again.
And yet I almost
cannot move.
My eyelids heavy
I look through slitted eyes
into a dayfull of nothing awful yet
all taking asking needing far too much from me.
More than I have to give.

The lassitude creeps from my head, my neck,
into my shoulders and down my back, through my arms
a snaking silent stoppage
making it quite difficult to write these words
even as my muddled thoughts project them.
I am tired.
Exhausted in some fundamental way.
Used up.
Emotions worn and tattered, guilty from the knowledge that I have no right
and weary form the cheerfulness demanded
and beaten down and in
by an avalanche of words
that pile around me never melting as my own pile up inside and
never really overflow
the damming of the years the fears the tears
that pressure up until the bursting
seems inevitable
and yet they squeeze themselves together
ever more tightly packed.
And so I wonder.
What will release it all?
And I’m afraid.

I am tired
of wanting wishing knowing wondering keeping it together
scared to let it go in case
I never get me back.
I am tired.
And I am never enough for me.
In fragmentation I am lived
even as I long to discard hold on worry less about some new disaster
that isn’t but might as well be poised on edges of ruin all my life.

I am tired.

I am still sometimes tired. I still get overwhelmed by the ongoing accumulations of obligation and personal obsession. But I try to remember the day that I wrote this poem and give myself permission to do what I can and let some of the rest go. This is never easy, but it is necessary. Imperfect me confesses that getting the rest of my life is a challenge.

What are your strategies for dealing with multiple obligations and getting the rest of your life?

I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
• Thomas Carlyle

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