i’ll give you something to cry about, the broken toe edition

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I had a minor meltdown on Thursday, the last full day of a socially-distanced vacation. Maybe you have a place like the place we go: a spot where you see yourself with such clarity it both inspires and frightens you. For me, that’s almost always when facing, touching and diving into the Atlantic, specifically Ogunquit (Maine) and a remote beach island off Cape Cod, which is where we spent some time this past week.

In those places, I am deeply aware of what I really want out of life and what I want to leave behind.

With so much time in a bathing suit, for example, I do what most of us do: critique and evaluate the amount of flesh I have and where. Thankfully, I’m mainly beyond the self-loathing years. I’m solidly in a place where I appreciate what my body can do (the ways in which it’s strong) and am at peace with what I’m unlikely to change about it. I’m also able to reason my way gently through how I’d like to take better care of it. I feel at the helm of that ship, at least as much as any of us can be where health is concerned.

What’s more difficult for me to address are the issues that I see when reflecting on my work and my writing life. I’m fortunate to have been working from home for the entirety of the pandemic thus far (at least as it’s impacted New York), but my tolerance for work intensity has eroded. This is more than just a response to long days and client demands. It’s deep unease about the trade-offs I’m making. I need to support my family, but the cost in time and energy is too great.

I do, especially now without a commute, have blocks of time in the morning and evening during which I could buckle down and read or write or make art. Instead, I’ve been spending those hours giving myself pep talks about facing the work day or, once I sign out, zoning out with TV and social media. The work itself demands attention to detail, creativity, reading, research, writing, etc., and for quite a long time now, I’ve had nothing left to give to my own pursuits.

It’s clearly something I need to address, and it’s not as though I was unaware of it heading into vacation. Time away to collect my thoughts simply magnified it. As it does.

Plus, I read three books in six days at the beach: Swallow the Ocean, a memoir by Laura Flynn; Devolution, a novel by Max Brooks and Writers & Lovers by Lily King. My good friend and brilliant writer Sarah Freligh pointed me to that last one, and I’m starting to believe her motivation wasn’t just recommendation of a good beach read.

Sarah leads by example when it comes to making room for writing in her life, and the first-person novel by King is about a writer who’s similarly dedicated to her craft. We see what main character Casey has lost, including her mother and a fiery romance, and also what she’s given up to be a novelist, including the more affluent (and perhaps more stable) lifestyle that would’ve been possible if she’d pursued a “career” instead of waitressing, which she keeps at because it gives her time to write.

I chose the career and the more comfortable lifestyle, and I’m not sure I’d do so another time around. The good news, of course, is that despite how it feels, it’s not an either/or. Many people work full-time and write on the side. I just have to want it badly enough. And Writers & Lovers made me thirsty for my writing life again.

And I’m grateful.

I’ll need more than gratitude to make it happen, obviously. I’ll need to change the rules I’ve been letting myself live by. Since the 9-to-5 is an immovable object right now, I’ll have to renegotiate the terms of my free time, and I’ll have to be stern with myself about that. Discipline has never been my strong suit, so I’ll channel desire instead. I’ve been reminded of why I’m so attracted to it in the first place: Like Casey, I know who I am inside it. It gives me clarity. Like the Atlantic.

Sadly, the rub of any vacation is that it comes to an end. We return to “real life.” For an anxious person like me, even just a whiff of it causes panic. And that’s where I was Thursday. The going “back to normal” thoughts were bearing down on me, and so I vented to my partner and stomped around as I tidied up the room. In doing so, I caught the pinky toe of my left foot on the leg of a chair and definitely broke it. I launched a few f-bombs, began to cry and went straight to the shower to get it out of my system before dinner.

The toe turned purple and puffy almost immediately. We treated it with ice and ibuprofen and margaritas. I wasn’t sure how much damage I’d done (or how many toes were involved), though, until the next day when the toe was an even darker shade of purple. Somehow, it wasn’t as sore. And I could tell it was just the one toe. Nothing to do but wait for it to heal.

And I have to be honest: it felt good to cry. We push through so much, even pandemics apparently. Stiff upper lip. Broad shoulders. Big girl pants. We hold it all in ’til we can’t anymore. The toe was my “can’t anymore.” In fact, except that it’s shaped more like a comma, I’d call my broken toe the exclamation point at the end of “CAN’T ANYMORE!”

But maybe a comma is better anyway as I reason my way gently through how to take better care of my writing life. Instead of throwing my hands up in despair with the exclamation, the toe comma asks for something to come next. It not only invites something to come next: it requires it.

And so something comes next.

Which means I accept more of the same from myself or I get back to it.

I hope it’s the latter. This kind of “rally cap” blog post isn’t uncommon for me. Posts like this often precede fruitful creative periods. They’re signs that I’m shaking off the dread and figuring it out.

The cost of failing to do so is just too great.

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