A few hours of one’s own; to potter
Overall, I like what I do for my day job— some parts more than others. I think I started down this road (Japanese literature/ Japanese studies) because I enjoyed reading and finding out new things. I still do, of course, and there’s nothing like that moment when a bunch of texts and ideas and observations, separate in time, space, and genre, meet and complete each other in my head. I love the high I get from the magic of different jigsaw puzzle pieces somehow fitting (OK, sometimes there will be a tiny-winy bit of *force* fitting them too…) together into an image like no one’s ever seen before. This, I’ll never get enough of. Something similar happens when I teach too — with even more pieces, some of them really irregular. The product can be very unexpected and even somewhat misshapen, but it’s fun to get there nonetheless.
The problem is that somewhere along this road, something was taken away, or I gave it up — too easily! I still read and write a lot, but very often out of some sort of obligation, and against some sort of deadline. I can honestly not remember the last time I picked up a book and read it *just for fun*! Do I enjoy the books I force-read? Of course I do — some of them immensely. But I no longer find the time to read out out of choice, with no ulterior motive. I used to be able to do this at least during the summer and/ or winter break, when I’d travel back home and take time off my job (well, kinda…) for a week or two. When I couldn’t do it last year and the year before that because of the pandemic, even though I still had a summer/ winter holiday, it somehow wasn’t the same, and I just allowed myself to be dragged into deadline-type of reading and writing instead of reading just for myself.
It’s now been 30 months that I’ve basically been working non-stop. Sure, I’ve managed to take a day or two off here and there (post-vaccine enforced breaks were a treat, in spite of the fever and painful joints!) but I suppose it’s not enough. I am burned out, depressed, with mood swings. I can’t always find the energy to leave the house or even properly talk to my husband. I try to function (teach my classes, advise my students), but then I throw tantrums like a 2 year old: all of them have ridiculous reasons when I think back, but in the moment they seem huge and insurmountable.
So I talked to a therapist. Only a handful of times, but it helped. Sure, she tried to get me to do a bunch of weird things, like write down one happy thought a day — not possible, wtf is “happy”?; or give myself pep-talks in the mirror (?) — too self-conscious, and also unsure of the efficacy. Some of the advice is too new-agey (?) for me, but I must admit that most of the substance is sound, and the principles, if not the implementation strategies, have been helpful. I actually took her advice and kept a “good thing/bad thing” daily journal for a while, but gave it up, along with the “smiley face/angry face” calendar, because I could never find the proper stickers to summarise my “roller-coaster days,” or faithfully express my “dead inside” days, and choosing from the available choices meant one more uncomfortable compromise I was reluctant to make.
What I did do, and continue to do, following her advice, is actively try to carve out some time for myself everyday, a couple of hours here and there where I do something that is completely unconnected to my job — time to potter, i.e., “occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way,” as the dictionary definition would have it. I started with knitting, but it allowed my mind to wander too much, and I’d end up thinking about my job while my hands made some long and colourful scarf; yoga works most of the time, but not always, I suppose because I’m not committed enough and the monkey brain takes over while I’m trying to breathe and stretch and whatnot. What actually works? For pottering around, unsurprisingly, pottery is best (do the words have a common root??) It’s manual work, but I can’t do it while thinking of something else, I need to focus everything on my fingertips: how they move, how much force they apply and where. This is soothing as well as grounding; the atelier is calm and the clay is cool; it is the right softness, too.
And thus, with pottery I’ve been able to get back 3 hours a week! If I add the 4 weekly hours of yoga and 1 of Italian, that’s 8 hours of my own! Then, there’s playing with acrylic colours 2–3 hours a month, and writing here, another 4 or 5. It’s not a lot, but at least these 10 hours every week I can be something other than my job, which is surprisingly refreshing (who knew I’d end up being that reasonably smart middle-aged woman, who nevertheless lacks the imagination to see herself as anything outside her day job as an academic…)