How to not always be thinking

A few years ago, in a different world where we flew on planes and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other people in crowded airport bookstores, I picked up a little book called “How to Not Always Be Working” in Newark. It’s a slim treatise by the artist Marlee Grace about how many professionals today – creatives, in particular – blur the lines between their lives and their work, and need to find ways to carve out structure and space for themselves. As I recall, it cost $25, quite a lot for a volume not much bigger than those “50 Reasons I Love My Mom” gifts books on the counter. I had to buy it, though, because the title was irresistible. 

The year 2020 has brought many more of us into the fold that Grace describes. Because the pandemic vaporized so many of our everyday routines, anyone whose work takes place mostly in her head has now entered this privileged but bizarre no-man’s-land: a place where location and schedules are basically irrelevant, because your work life goes anywhere your brain goes. This is both freeing, and terrifying.

When we can build anything we like inside our heads, we can imagine, dream, and launch new projects like never before. In fact, every single project of my whole career has seemed to pop back up this year. People who, only months ago, seemed less accessible because they live in another state or country, can now be daily workmates. Projects that died because of geographic or financial constraints can now be reconfigured in a virtual world. Ideas that were in the “someday” category are now, because of this new freedom and also the gut-wrenching urgency of the world in 2020, front and center. 

The writers’ group, the volunteer corps, the reunions I’ve long pined for: I can now conjure them up on my screen. I can record a piece with my college choir and its other alumni around the world. I can watch my mother preach a sermon on a Sunday. 

I’ve run with it, spreading sunshine and positivity like a crazy person. I’ve churned out work plans and two-pagers and essays and grant proposals fundraising appeals and blog posts and sections of books, staying up late, waking up early, jolting wide awake in the middle of the night. I’ve been fueled by a relentless, anxious, wheel-spinning drive. I know it’s too much when I have a call with friends or coworkers where I am the least deflated, most chipper person on the line; I look into the weary faces gazing back at me and know that I’m cruising for another crash. We all crash, this year, again and again. How can we not? 

At the same time, how do we dare? Is there time to not always be working, right now?  Is there time to not always be thinking? Are these things we should even aspire to? Is there a way to find balance, or should we just forget about it altogether for the foreseeable future?

I sit at my desk in my the spare bedroom that is my mother’s when she is here, missing her. I look out on the hills of my neighborhood, the clouds moving quickly over them as they tend to do this high in the mountains, gray and white with little gaps of blue in the sky above. I think about the protests and roadblocks that have seized Costa Rica in recent weeks, these physical outbursts of grinding economic strain and inequality, causing violence and heartbreak and despair. I can hear my lonely seven-year-old daughter playing in the next room, making up stories about unicorns and mermaids as the countries that issued her passports are rocked by, respectively, creeping authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, brutality, depression, and waves of death; and economic near-collapse, hunger, protests, blockades, and the heartrending murders of women. 

I think about the illness and stress and income loss that has affected my small family nucleus this year, but in that same moment I contemplate green trees and flowering bushes outside my window and hear, under it all like a motor running day and night, the message that the list in my head is the list of a very fortunate person right now. This is just standard 2020 fare, lucky-as-hell edition.

I sit here and watch those clouds whisk by and wonder if I have done this whole thing wrong. Some people have rediscovered the beauty of nature, or the joy of working with their hands,or the simple connection of family. I seem to have gone in the other direction. Somehow, with all schedules and events blown away, everything has accelerated. A week passes in the blink of an eye. A weekend looks much like the week. My daughter has grown tall in this weird void, and much too wise. 

I don’t like sad or messy endings. I want so badly to tie this up with a nice red bow, to twist it towards a solution as I always do, pushed onward by that motor always running underneath. But somehow, mid-crash, it seems like something to avoid, at least for a day or two. It seems unjust to the weight in my belly and the ache in my heart. This is a moment when the clouds settle into the side of the hill; and they are heavy clouds, and sad; there is no rain today to purge us, just the waiting. It is not a day for sun.

And while it brings me great discomfort, I will try to let that be. 

I run the virtual volunteer community Costa Rica Corps and am the co-founder of the new, bilingual media organization El Colectivo 506. I also work as a freelance grantwriter, fundraiser, and communications coach, and write essays, articles and books. I live in San José with my husband and daughter. Sign up at top right to receive an essay in your inbox each Sunday morning: a chance to dominguear together (a lovely word that literally means, “to Sunday,” and describes a leisurely trip or ramble). We’ll explore a project, changemaker, community, or idea I’ve come across, or just watch the world go by. See you next Sunday!

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