small sicknesses

December has not been kind to my body: in the early part of the month, laryngitis took my voice; a week before Christmas, in grappling class, I caught an accidental elbow to the mouth that split my lip on the inside, making eating painful for days; now, I’m trying to kick a cold that’s left me running on what feels like 10% of normal energy. Today, I’ve been awake for maybe five hours.

Whenever I am sick, I feel the desire to imbue it with meaning — sickness as a metaphor for some deeper arc or turn in the narrative of my life. It’s an impulse borne out of the fact that I am able-bodied, and sickness is not my “normal.” For the most part, my body is a patch of firm ground on which to land. It is dependable. I understand: it is not this way for everyone, and it will not always be this way for me.

Rabbi Ruttenberg is one of my favorite Jewish writers; her book Surprised by God helped me to name that I, too, wanted more God in my life. I’m so happy to have found her on Twitter, where today she published a beautiful thread about gratitude for our bodies.

I think we all have media we turn to when we’re sick: the shows, the books, the albums that comfort us in the absence of a Platonic-mothering figure. I listen to Azure Ray’s Drawing Down the Moon; I watch The Princess Bride; I read Robert Hass’s “Tall Windows,” which is only a little bit about being sick, and more about courage. “The desire to sleep” he writes, “was lightbulbs dimming as a powerful appliance kicks on…What kept you awake was a feeling that everything in the world has its own size, that if you found its size among the swellings and diminishings it would be calm and shine.”

I use Azure Ray and The Princess Bride as a stop-gap when I’m sick — a way to trick my brain into sleeping with their familiarity, because like Hass I am kept awake by the sense that there is something to be found, some key understanding that would let the world “be calm and shine.” I have thoughts, and then — as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching would say — second thoughts, and third thoughts. A side effect of “normal” being a steady place to land is the self-imposed expectation I should always be doing. Sickness destabilizes; I am not able to be doing. In fact, sickness demands that I not do. And in the not doing, I sometimes find it hard to pinpoint who I am.

Sometimes, when I am sick, I tell people, “My body was telling me to take a break.” I have ascribed my sickness a meaning, and the meaning is: I work hard so I deserve a break. Where does this come from? Why do I feel this need to justify rest?

The flip answer is capitalism, which is also a true answer. But another true answer is teaching. The narrative of teachers is one of self-sacrifice, of willingness to give of oneself tirelessly because a teacher is working for a Higher Purpose. Another true answer is the story of being a woman, which glorifies multitasking and continual support of others.

Judaism has a lot to say about rest; rest can be found in the palace of Shabbat every week. Heschel writes that “[t]he Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When I read this, and when Rabbi Adar went over this in my Jewish Rituals class, I underlined it in my notebook. We do not earn rest through work. Rest is our right as living beings.

(Forgive me a longish aside? Over the holidays my uncle and my father got into a tense political conversation. My uncle resented the idea of higher taxes and “his money” being used to social services because he perceived people on welfare as “lazy.” My father argued that even if some people who receive social services are “lazy,” the good that the money does for those in need is more important. The whole conversation clarified something so distinctly for me: I believe our value as humans is not defined by our labor. We all deserve food, shelter, education, stability, healthcare. Those rights are not determined by what we contribute to the economy.)

But for those of us (ME) who define our identity through work and doing, rest is hard. I rarely keep a full Sabbath; there is simply too much I feel like needs to get done. So sickness — when rest is the only activity possible — is difficult. It means confronting unspoken and pervasive expectations I have for myself, the definitions I have of who I am.

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