Exploring Rest & Recovery
This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
I keep trying to give my recent poems the same title. Rest Awhile* has offered itself three times in the past year, for very different poems. Unadorned Rest showed up three times in the last month. When a title seems to fit all over the place, it is not in fact a title. It’s a message.
A friend told me today I am her patron saint of walking. I love this, and also, I’m feeling distinctly un-saintlike lately. The type of walking that’s earned me this identity is passionate, exploratory, semi-aventurous, regular, and done at some length. I’ve still got the “regular” part down, but currently the rest of it’s out to lunch. Along with my ability to feel, or enjoy, most things.
I went for a hike the other morning in a favorite landscape. After climbing perhaps a thousand feet (slowly, my main speed these days) — through pine and lupine and springtime grasses starting to go gold, through my new, strange bubble of inertia and indifference — I finally had something like a feeling: a distant, but distinct desire to join my being with the prairie, to rest inside it.
So I sat down in the middle of the narrow trail. I placed my hands on the hard, cracked soil. I ignored all my training to use this moment: to compose a poem, to compose my body in space, to compose the memory I would take away from “the experience.”
I went to earth. I sank my hands in the soil. I grounded. There’s a reason we have all of these cliches.
Skin-time, my aunt calls this, when she’s talking about a baby and their parent. A deeply restful, deeply needful, deeply vulnerable state.
I rested a long time on that prairie soil. I know it was rest because it had no agenda, and I wasn’t trying to bang one together in a hurry. I felt present, and I felt that as enough.
I know it wasn’t enough rest, though, because getting back up was bleak. A pure act of obeying the training that both serves and stifles me. I had to do it, in the sense that I could not sit on that hillside long enough to effect some kind of recovery, without also encountering the need to eat, find shelter, go back to the money factory so I can pay my rent.
Every so often, we know we need to “take the day off.” We have learned to talk about “disconnecting for the weekend,” and taking the occasional “mental health day.” I’d like to suggest that the day, and even the weekend, is the incorrect unit of measurement to talk about any serious undertaking.
Like, for example, rest. Like recovery. You can’t grate yourself year after year against personal, national, and planet-level crises — climatic, political, medical, economic — and then “take the day off” and expect to emerge anything like rested.
This is the message my own art is unsubtly offering right now. My body is offering it too — can we say that the body and the art are separate? — because my intellect has been offering it for years, and I’ve been responding with “yes, you’re right!” and a thoughtful shift or two, and also without actually resting.
Actually resting would involve… I don’t even know how to answer that invitation. I can just touch the edges of some answers, and they’re radical in ways I’m not ready to fully look upon, let alone embrace. They open up a yawning gulf directly in front of my exhausted feet.
Possibly what I’m lacking is courage to look straight at them. They’re big, and unmapped. But to paraphrase Christina Tran, if I so much as glance at them sideways, I see them staring back at me, straight on. They know: if you want to change your life, you have to change your life.
Ok. So that’s out there. This is a long-term undertaking, and I’m gathering the courage to look into its eyes and befriend it. Meantime, is there any hope for some rest in the day to day?
This is where I can think usefully in a direction that might be more broadly helpful. What is rest, if it’s more than just “taking the day off?” What does it feel like? Until I can recognize it, I can’t invite more of it into my life, and disinvite more of what actively works against it.
From my own experience, I want to offer two characteristics of rest that are helping me sort out these questions, slowly.
Rest is about focus.
A partial list of things that aren’t restful: going for a walk while also answering email; checking my various text and chat apps on mobile while also working from my laptop; having multiple tabs open in my browser.
I’m not saying these things are necessarily bad, I’m saying they’re asking my brain to task-switch continually, which prohibits focus.
Rest is about focus, about presence. Rest is being able to hear myself think. It’s having the mental and temporal space to follow a thought or idea for as long as I want to, and to put that idea down and pick it back up again, usefully, at some leisure.
It’s not necessarily not-working — the activity itself is perhaps less important to restfulness than how I go about it. Ursula LeGuin puts it like this: “How you play is what you win.”
I can “take a day off” from multi-tasking, or from the internet (which encourages multi-tasking), but the kind of rest I need is the sort that accumulates from living a life that encourages focus most of the time.
Every so often, I might take a day or an hour off from that focused being. Maybe there is some really urgent shit going down, and I also need to take a walk. So this time, the mobile comes along. This is fine.
But this is not how I live. I live in what I’ve previously called The Scatter. I dislike it, and I try to build in as many breaks from it as possible.
This is the wrong direction of effort: pushing against what rubs me wrong, instead of aligning with what flows cleanly. Or I might imagine it as hauling a very large rock uphill, all the time.
No wonder my results are less than satisfying. Less than restful.
Rest is anti-consumption and anti-accomplishment.
A way I imagine that I am resting is to read books. The grammar of that sentence shows part of the problem: books. Reading a book — with focus, at leisure — is restful. Reading books — consuming them, perhaps recording their consumption, always thinking about the next one — is not.
Relatedly, I imagine it is restful to sit down with a glass of wine or a plate of snacks, or in front of the TV. Sometimes it is. But half the time, I’ve rushed whatever I was doing before, so I could get to the part of the day where I’m “allowed” to consume alcohol or watch TV. Now that I’m here, I’m not sure what alcohol I want, or what film I want, or if alcohol or a film really is what I want, and I don’t have time to figure any of that out because I’m so damn tired; I need to rest before it’s time to do something else.
Rest here has become another item on the to-do list, and consumption has become a shorthand way to check that item off. It’s a false flag, brought to us by an economy and social order that encourages us to think of ourselves primarily as consumers. To rest, I need to stop falling for it.
I also like to assume I am resting as long as I am doing one thing at a time. But mostly that one thing is checking something off the to-do list. Answering my emails: one thing. Applying for a residency: one thing. Proofreading the typeset manuscipt of my forthcoming book: one thing. But none of these things are restful. They’re too focused on getting something done.
And they’re too focused on a schedule: getting something done within X minutes, hours, or days. An activity is most restful when it takes the time it takes.
Recently, my family started setting aside an evening a week to build a fire, pour adult beverages, and take turns reading three different translations of Beowulf out loud. This may or may not be your personal idea of a great evening, but here’s something it objectively is: high-quality rest.
It’s focused. Nobody checks their texts; nobody cooks dinner while also trying to listen. We are not trying to fill time until the next appointment in front of a screen somewhere.
It’s anti-consumption. We got the books through our library holds system. (Which took the time it took.) Alcoholic beverages (ok, yes, we picked mead) are an adjunct pleasure, not a goal.
And it’s anti-accomplishment. The object isn’t to write an essay comparing the translations, or do a podcast about them, or even to finish. It’s literally just for fun.
Using this activity as a model is starting to teach me how to think about rest more regularly, what to look for when I go searching for it.
You know what else is restful? Creative practice. But only if what you’re doing is basically play.
Making art is focus-work, and it’s the opposite of consumption. But for most of us, it’s also goal-based, and for some of us, it brings questions of consumption (are you making a book, for example?) into the spotlight on the other side of the stage.
We love doing it, though. It can be hard to separate our work from our play, and maybe for some of us, the dream has been that we should not need to.
I’d like to argue that we do. Especially right now. As epidemiologists keep reminding us, the pandemic isn’t over just because folks are getting vaccinated. And as mental health experts keep reminding us, the social and emotional trauma is likely to be years in the unfolding.
So we need rest — we always have, but now we need it like we need to take Tylenol and lie down when our head is splitting. We need to figure out what rest is for us, and how to live it much, much more often than most of us do.
A friend was telling me yesterday about the question she’s learning to ask herself, to manage some pretty intense external circumstances: what do I need right now? As in: this moment, not existentially. She answers this in various ways: a nap; a glass of water; to call a friend instead of texting; to spend the day researching, looking forward to some undemanding tv tonight.
I like this question for so many reasons. It’s easy, at least in the asking. It forces a person to take their own self seriously. It opens the door to healing right now. It’s kind and humane, and also it takes no shit. I’m starting to ask it too, and so much of the time, my answer is something focused, something fully-present, something that’s not about consuming or accomplishing.
This, I think, is why even my poetry — sometimes a restful activity, and sometimes not, depending on how I’m pursuing or inviting it — is sending me regular reminders about the pre-eminent importance of shifting my life into a restful gear.
*The reference my brain is going for here is from the Book of Mark, 6:31: “Come away by yourselves to a desert place and rest awhile.” Desert here means deserted, not necessarily dry or cactusy.