When I started this blog, I honestly didn’t anticipate that it would have any kind of impact beyond my own self-expression and exploration. I certainly did not imagine that this would turn into a thing, and yet! Here I am, and here are you. People confide in me. People hire me to talk about burnout. It’s humbling and gratifying and I am so grateful for the opportunities that have come my way because of this site, this work, and the willingness of others to share their stories.
Over the summer, I had a few guest posts in the development stage, but then I had to call everything to a halt, because I had a bandwidth problem. The funny thing about being a person who presumes to advise people about burnout is that you get to take your own advice. So that’s what I did this summer. I withdrew from everything that felt peripheral in order to focus on the essential.
And the essential was this: my mother-in-law was dying, right in front of me, in our home. My wife, mother-in-law, and I were an unlikely trio, not a threesome you’d look at and think: oh, those three women live together; they are a family. In fact, out in public, I’d been previously mistaken for a social worker, because why else would I–a younger white lady–be out and about with an elderly African American lady and this other African American lady who was visually impaired? How could these people be a family? But this is what we were–we were most definitely a family.
My mother-in-law, Addie B. Merritt, died on Sept. 1, 2016, six weeks after her enrollment in in-home hospice care. She died in our home, in the hospital bed we set up in our family room, where normally we watched television, but now instead we watched her. Those of you reading who have cared for a dying loved one know what this is like. Ever since that day, a continual thought that runs through my head is something along the lines of: I didn’t know that I would ever be a person who watched someone die. And yet! Here we are.
I am the one who closed her eyes when she died. I will never ever the be the same person again, ever.
And here we are, here, too. I have slowly tiptoed back into the work of my work. I am working on The Feminist Reference Desk, which should be making its way into the world next summer. I missed my original deadline to submit the manuscript, which under normal circumstances would crush and devastate me, but one of the many lessons of this past summer is that the only thing that is actually a matter of life and death is actual life and actual death, the end, full stop.
When I’m done with the book and it’s off my desk in February, I’m going to rejuvenate this site, reaching out the those generous and brave souls who submitted stories that are still sitting in my drafts folder all these months later. I also have another burnout speaking gig in the works, the details of which are still being worked out, but it will be official soon enough and I’ll be able to share that here.
I’m going to wrap this up by sharing an excerpt of my keynote from the Kentucky Library Association Library Instruction Round Table Retreat this past July. The day after I uttered these words aloud to a room full of lovely people in Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville, a hospice nurse came to our home to evaluate Addie for admission. I stood there, making these claims into the world, trying to inhabit that present moment, while also intensely preoccupied by knowing what was coming next…well, I call myself a writer, but I don’t really have words for what that felt like.
I talked about the Wendell Berry poem “The Real Work“:
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
And my commentary included:
“The message of this poem, for me, is that the stuck places can actually be productive places, places of growth and transformation, and when the path seems hazy or obscured by weeds and I’m not sure what to do or where to go next or even how I’m supposed to feel, this is an opportunity to embrace the uncertainty and growth that this stuck place promises. In the end, a brook cannot babble if there are no stones in it. The music, the beauty, the richness of our lives cannot happen if there are no obstacles, nothing to provide friction.”
I believe that grappling with these stuck places– grief, traumas (big T and little t), brokenness, burnout, vulnerability–is maybe the hardest thing we can and will have to do. It maybe will break us in half, or in a million pieces, but we mend and re-mend, eventually, stitching ourselves back together, and maybe we’ll never be the same, but our new selves are uniquely beautiful and worthy of being in the world. I believe this to be true, and I know it to be true. It feels realer than my bones, my breath.
Because, after all, the impeded stream is the one that sings.