Throughout August, I flew across the country to facilitate focus groups related to reforms of the criminal justice system. Each group was harrowing, reminding me with every sentence of all of the privilege I have — so many privileges, but especially of a life free of violence, a life of resources and strong communities and distance from the circumstances that create interwoven, multi-generational violence.
The groups were important, and it was good work, but they were hard. My job is to hold the space in a safe way while keeping the conversation moving, and I absorb a lot. It’s hard to keep an eye on the clock and how the share of voice has been and whether we are getting through the questions while not wanting to interrupt a person sharing the raw story of a restorative justice meeting with her son’s killers “because they were the last people to see our son alive.” Part of my job was to make it safe for everyone else to cry. It’s good work, and I’m good at it, but it’s draining — and it hits me after I’m out of the room.
I was on the road for 16 days in total, and in the middle of that, I did the Triadventure, the annual fundraiser for the volunteer project in Uganda I’m the main director of. As I wrote in a previous post, that involved helping lead the event as well as participating in some pretty significant physical activities. It was stressful.
August exhausted me, on every level. Everything I did was important, and it went well, mostly — but I was exhausted. And being a giant introvert who is becoming even more introverted as I get older, exhaustion shows up for me in impatience and snippiness. For the most part, it stays out of my work, but travel time seems to be when I feel most raw. I realized just how done I was when I got into a near altercation with a guy in the Porter lounge just before my last flight when he was watching a loud video with no headphones. With an edge in my voice, I asked him to stop. “You sure have a lovely disposition,” he snarked, then left. He was kind of an ass, but I had a moment of realization that most people weren’t as irritated by the world around them as I was feeling.
In the aftermath of that exchange, I thought about how many of my friends had asked me, when I was describing the intensity of the conversations I was leading and my frenetic schedule, “how are you taking care of yourself?” I had answered them in ways that seemed thoughtful and considered, but, I realized, inadequate.
I do many things to take care of myself that are familiar to readers of this blog. A big one, of course, is exercise. In Winnipeg, after a searing focus group at a hotel at the airport, I asked for a card to the hotel gym and ran hard for an hour before my flight. In Vancouver, I took an extra day, went for a long run around the seawall, and took time to eat crabcakes with one of my favourite people at my favourite restaurant in the world. In Halifax, I made a little microholiday out of my half day off and rented a vintage bike to get around, ran along the waterfront, ate lobster and got to see the eclipse. For my trip to Yellowknife, I went a day ahead of time because I’ve always wanted to go to the North, and I went for a deeply connecting solo hike about 25 km outside the city. In Ottawa, I stayed with my sister, hung out with my nieces and went for a good solid run along the canal.
Beyond exercise, I did the things I know how to do when I’m traveling that keep me sort of grounded. I stayed in Air BnBs in Halifax and Yellowknife, giving me an energizing sense of adventure about exploring different neighbourhoods and what it might feel like to live there, and making it easy to have simple breakfasts and lunch, feel relaxed in space that wasn’t a hotel. More importantly, I stayed in different spaces and traveled on different flights from my clients. I really like these clients, but I knew that adding dinners or cab rides where I needed to be “on” would drain me.
I also tried to travel in ways that were as comfortable as possible. Diverting tv shows and novels on my ipad, carrying healthy but yummy snacks, using up my e-upgrades for the longer flights (there’s nothing like being joyfully surprised to get a pod in business class where you can actually stretch out and sleep for three hours). Trying to get plenty of sleep, and using melatonin to help me out.
I did all the things “right” — mostly — there might have been a lot of twizzlers consumed on those flights — and I was still exhausted. I finally hit a wall last weekend. I took a four day weekend for Labour Day, and I barely left my house. I binged some TV, napped, did a jigsaw puzzle, had good friends over for dinner and breakfast, got a haircut. I did nothing physical until Monday, when I rode my bike down to the Leslie Spit and went for an easy run. And yes, I did some work, writing the report for the focus groups on Labour Day so it wasn’t hanging over my head as I dived into September.
Why am I writing about this for the fitness blog? Because I have been thinking a lot about what self-care means, when I did the “right” things and still ended up exhausted. And cranky, and resentful. And I am leading a good, full life — I don’t want to be walking through it with resentment.
As usual, September has burst through the gate like a bellowing bull, a steady stream of work I have to get on top of. I don’t have time to sit still for too long. But now I’m asking myself the same question my friends keep asking — how are you taking care of yourself? I think that means building in downtime, and looking at my calendar to deliberately leave empty time. It also means saying no.
One of the biggest privileges of the life I lead is that I get to do a lot of good, meaningful work. The fact that it’s almost all important, almost all good, can make me forget that I don’t have to do it all. I need to say no in a thoughtful way, and I need to preserve simple space in my calendar to just breathe, absorb, let things emerge. And I can’t shove my weekends full of wonderful things either.
September always feels like the new year to me, and I like to make resolutions. I think I have two right now: intentionally, thoughtfully saying no to things; and focusing on being able to do my work with real presence. My work is only as good as the me I bring to it. Physical fitness and health, time in nature, sleep — these are all a big part of that — and so is being intentional about what I choose to do.
How do you take care of yourself? And what resolutions do you have?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives, works and rides in Toronto. Mostly.