Life at the limit
My grandmother was intense. A tall Danish orphan and mother of thirteen, her eyes were always wide with ideas and her body afire with action. I remember staying with her at her manufactured home in Junction City, Oregon one weekend and just standing in the middle of the living room as I watched her do dishes, bring my grandpa coffee, organize the bookshelf, make me a bath, assemble a sandwich, zipping around me as if I were a piece of furniture. My grandpa said, “Nina, sit with me”, as he lingered far too long on a page of the newspaper in his recliner. She sat, and not two seconds later, stood up, to finish the corner of a puzzle and show me a beautiful flower at the neighbor’s house. A year before she died at age 97, she still walked a mile a day and led an aerobics class. To be in her presence, even at nearly a century old, was to be in the eye of a tornado.
My mother is the same. When I was a child, she was up early, preparing breakfast and for her one hour commute to teach at the edge of the Columbia River, just past Portland traffic. Evenings were dinner, grading, and prep. Weekends were a flurry of chores, epic errands of landscaping and home improvement, brunch feasts, dancing to blues and jazz, gardening, planning, plotting, and more. When she retired from teaching after decades, she applied that same limitless appetite for tasks to running an Airbnb out of her basement. She was a Superhost in months, serving Intel visitors seeking a quiet retreat from corporate housing in her wooded townhouse at the edge of Portland’s suburbs.
Growing up with these two women should have been tiring. I think for my bother and and father, who approach life a bit more leisurely, it probably was. But for me, it was inspiration. I saw their energy in myself, a boiling steam engine just waiting for a destination, and saw how they organized their lives around tasks and plans and jobs and chores and errand and goals and missions and wanted my own ventures. I mimicked my mother’s paper planner in middle school, putting my attention toward school, and as a teen, toward programming. In college, I set my ambitions toward discovery and leadership, letting my task list grow and glow with even bigger ideas. And in pursuing academia, I gave myself gleefully to the daily work of reading, writing, observing, analyzing, networking, teaching, listening, and speaking. By the time I reached full Professor last year, my to do list stretched five years into the future and spanned more than five thousand tasks.
While I mirrored my mother and grandmothers’ endless diligence with indulgence, there were times when it seemed unhealthy. Friends would ask whether I was too busy. Mentors would tell me to take a vacation and say no more often. Partners would hint at a toxic workload. Colleagues would remark about the mysteries of my productivity. I took each hint seriously, drawing boundaries around my work time, planning vacations, and keeping my weekends clear. Most months, I still only work 45 hours a week. But it feels like damming a river, holding the waters back to my batteries with hydroelectricity.
But my freed evenings, weekends, and vacations are anything but tranquil. I find myself starting side projects, organizing my room, upgrading my house, starting a software project, finding a community, happily doing all of the house chores, and writing for fun. I remember laying on the beach in Hawaii with my wife one winter, and while she quietly relished a sunburn and napped, I lay on my back writing furiously in a notebook about a new idea I was obsessed with. Creating space for rest from work only made space for more joyful labor.
The closest I came to stillness was the first time I meditated. My ex and I were at a Unitarian Universalist sermon in Corvallis, trying to find community as we braced ourselves for young parenthood. The pastor had given us a seemingly simple task: quiet our minds for five minutes. I remember embracing the challenging and thinking “Keep going Amy, you’re doing great, you’re not thinking about anything!” My mind was not empty, but it was focused deeply on being empty. That was the first time I saw the source of my propulsion: another me inside, an Amy cheering me on, coaching me, watching me work, and nudging me to do more, better. She is every teacher, every parent, every mentor, speaking in one voice, keeping me on task, the kind of supervisor everyone wishes they had.
This does not seem sustainable. It does not feel like stress, but if it is, I have a heart attack coming. On the other hand, I share blood with the only other two people I’ve known that have such endless energy and one lived to 97, the other is living a long healthy retirement. And I love it all; every task, every project, every goal, and can’t wait to take on more. Is it possible that I can just keep doing without consequence, especially after two years of pandemic, gender transition, and major surgery?
This Spring quarter, which starts this week, seems like a test to find out. My commitments will keep me busy at work for 10–12 hours a day, far beyond my normal work/life boundaries of 8–9 hours. I expect weekend work too. I will be teaching two classes (one of them with 200 students and 8 TAs), directing an undergraduate program, launching a masters program, running a lab with two postdocs, four doctoral students, and dozens of undergraduates, leading an K-12 education advocacy group, finishing a book, starting a book, writing a grant, editing an academic journal, traveling to four conferences and meetings, planning a workshop in Germany, engineering a book publishing platform for fun, and probably writing more blog posts when I’m bored.
And then, suddenly, I will be on sabbatical in June. It seems like what I’ll need most after 12 weeks of life at the limit is rest and recovery, to heal whatever wounds I incur while occupied, numbed by adrenaline. But if my past and the women in my life are any hint, by June I will be just as restless as ever. For now, the only question is whether I should feel guilty about that, forcing myself to be still, or just accept that busyness is just my way of being.
There are many ways of being. If you read this and feel imposter syndrome (e.g., “Is this what it takes to be a professor?”), remember that there are so many ways that people engage work — and all of them are valid, necessary, and needed, especially in academia, which thrives on neurodiversity. This is just me trying to sort out whether my particular way, which really feels more nature than nurture, is sustainable and healthy. I’m still not sure…