I Don’t Know How To Rest

When I was a little kid, my parents had these friends they hung out with. We would go to their house, and the adults would sit around the fire and play guitars and drink beer, and we kids would play in the yard, and there were sing-alongs and sometimes marshmallows. It was such fun for 6-year-old me. But then Dad quit drinking, and the people with the guitars did not, and we did not go to the singalongs anymore.

As I sit here, searching my memories, those singalongs are the closest I can come to remembering an example of what I would now call relaxation in my childhood. We were poor – things like off-time were not for leisure but for fixing broken things, making extra money, or collapsing from sheer exhaustion. We did not have hobbies – we had responsibilities.

We did not watch sports. Dad built things, but things we could use. Mom cooked, but not for fun, but because we needed calories. A weekend did not go by that we were not working on one of our cars, but that was not a love of mechanics but a desire to have a working vehicle.

The end result of this sort of rearing is that while I know how to survive, I do not know how to rest.

* * *

A lot of my life right now is one on one meetings. The other day, I was trying to set up a meeting with someone, and we were comparing calendars.

“What about Tuesday,” I asked.

“No, I can’t do Tuesday. It’s my birthday.”

“Oh, Happy Birthday. Are you going on a trip somewhere?”

“Oh no,” she said. “I just don’t work on my birthday.”

I had never heard of such a thing. Not that I’m against it, per se. It was just a new concept for me.

I’ve never been one to take off work. In fact, I have a hard time sometimes not working.

The last time I was in Asheville, NC, I went with some friends to an improv show. The cast was pretty good, and I enjoyed it a lot. One of my friends said they thought I would enjoy taking improv lessons. My gut reaction was no, but I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Because I probably would be good at it, and I probably would enjoy it.

Eventually, I came to terms with that in the end, the issue is that I can’t justify it – the time or the expense. I have a problem doing things that are not useful.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with improv. It’s me. There’s something wrong with me.

In the lovely book Gilead, the Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old preacher in 1956 Kansas, leaves his 7-year-old son a diary as his inheritance. And on its final pages, he tells his son:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning. Nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

That’s all I ever wanted, really. To be brave and to be useful. I don’t really know who I am if I’m not doing something.

“But Hugh! You have hobbies! I have seen the gardens! And the wildflowers! And the woodworking!”

Yes, I manage to do useful things in my nonworking time, because I can then convince myself I am not being lazy, playing with my flowers, but rather am building a wildlife habitat, or creating a pollinator garden for endangered insects, or growing food we can eat, or furniture we can sit on.

That thing where you do a thing for sheer joy that will never be productive or remunerative or useful to anyone? Stamp collecting? Role-playing games? A friend told me he spent the whole weekend playing video games. I cannot imagine such a thing.

And if I have a surplus of spare time, I catch myself adding projects until I feel busy again. Some days I sit at my desk the whole day, from 6 AM until I go to bed at ten that night, baring meals, because I’m working on my blog or my newsletters or my regular job or planning a new flower bed or sketching out the garage project.

In my defense, I happen to like the useful things I do in my unpaid time. They are not chores. But neither are they relaxing.

At this stage of my life, I’m trying to fix that. I’m trying to learn how to relax more. To build walls between work and not-work. To create a structure that encourages relaxation and rest. I’ll probably be talking about this a lot over the next few months as I try to develop patterns and routines that take this desire into account.

I don’t know that this means we will have a singalong in my backyard one day soon. But I’m not ruling it out.

The Whole Story

Some years back, my wife and I were in the grocery store. It was our regular grocery store, and we were just going down the aisle, discussing groceries and putting things in the cart. The store was busy, but not unduly so.

A woman I had never seen before came up to us.

‘Hi, Hugh. Hi, Renee!”

I had no idea who this person was. I looked at Renee. She obviously had no idea who she was, either. Our confusion must have been evident.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Maria. I go to [large church I had spoken at the year before], and I follow you on Facebook and read your blog and newsletters.”

I’m always a little uncertain about what to do next. I thanked her for reading my stuff.

“It sounds like you had fun at the beach. And what a cute beach house! And I hope Felix [our cat] is doing OK after that scare at the vet last week!”

She was harmless. But it felt just a tad creepy. It was the first time I had really experienced what I have come to call the “knowledge differential.”

In the first lines of Walden, Thoreau said, talking about his writing in the first person: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

Like Thoreau, I only know myself well, and even that knowledge evades me at times. I write from my own experience and only feel qualified to tell my own story. The advantage to this is relative expertise on the subject matter, but a disadvantage is that our relationship – mine and yours – is asymmetrical.

You know a lot about me. You don’t know everything because I have boundaries, but my life is well documented. Frequent readers know my cats, hobbies, favorite candy bar, anxieties, hopes, and goals. There are probably 75 of you I know some amount of stuff about. For another couple of thousand of you, I know (or at least have) your email address. And that’s about it.

This asymmetrical quality sometimes makes having friends really difficult. But not as difficult as making friends.

* * *

I was in a strange town on the East Coast for a few days, and I had mentioned in my newsletter that I would be in this town and was happy to grab coffee on a given day if anyone was game. This is how I ended up across the table from Steve.

We have an hour or so, and I recognize him from his Facebook profile picture when he shows up at the coffee shop. I ask him a question or two – the sort of small talk you do when getting to know someone – and then, in response to something he says, I begin to tell him that I can relate because of this thing that happened to me.

He interrupted me.

“Yeah, I know that story. I read about that when it happened.”

He then asked me a bunch of questions about that thing, including some that were boundary crossing. The next 45 minutes felt like an interview. When we left to go our separate ways, he took a selfie with me that went on his Instagram, and then he told me that he was my biggest fan.

Maybe it’s my age, but I always hear that line in Kathy Bate’s voice.

* * *

It’s weird, this asymmetrical relationship we have, you and me. When I run into people I have not seen in ages, they tell me about things that happen in their life, and then they comment on my life – they mention the trip I just went on, my depression struggles, and my cats. I hesitate to mention things I have written about because I don’t want to repeat myself if they already know, and I don’t want to assume they read my stuff (how annoying is THAT guy? “As I said in chapter 9 of my latest book, …”).

And so, when I meet people for the first time, I find myself reluctant to bring up my writing. Like I want to have a person in my life who is not a consumer of my words, who only know the IRL version of me and not the curated version, who only knows what they observe and can gleen. Friends who never worry if I am going to write about them. Friends who get excited when I tell them about the big thing that happened to me and who don’t already know how the story ends.

I’m not complaining. I signed up for this gig. I enjoy writing, and I write confessionally and openly. I enjoy it. It’s changed my life. Hell, it’s saved my life.

But it’s important for you to know that the Hugh you know from here is curated. I mean, it must be, by definition. So you don’t know if we would be best friends if we met. Maybe I chew with my mouth open, and that would annoy the hell out of you. (I don’t, but it’s an example – just go with it).

And I guarantee that you don’t know the whole story.

Deserved Maintenance

Some years ago, I was talking to the person who was my spiritual director at the time. I was in the midst of unrecognized (by me, anyway) burnout, and she was encouraging me to take some time away. We had found a retreat that sounded lovely to me, but there was so much work to be done, so much need in the world, and the idea of my hitting pause on that merely because I needed time away seemed so wrong to me.

I told her that. I also told her that it seemed so self-centered, this idea of claiming time for myself, of putting my own needs first.

“I grew up surrounded by men who worked hard for very little money. It wasn’t joyful work. It was hot and sweaty, and they thought a lot more about survival than they did rejuvenation. Nobody would have recommended they take a week of retreat at a monastery. They didn’t get sabbaticals. Hell, they barely got vacation. If anybody deserved time for self-care, it was them!”

We were sitting in her sunroom, on her heavily wooded suburban lot. Her little furry dog lay on the floor at my feet, and my tea was on the coffee table, untouched and rapidly cooling. Outside, birds flitted from limb to limb as my words hung in the air.

She sat there, legs crossed, a cup of tea in her hands, elbows on the arm of the chair, chin down, staring into the cup of tea as if it contained answers. Maybe it did.

She looked up at me, took a sip of tea, and said, “You’re right. They did deserve it. And can you imagine how different their life could have been if they had gotten it?”


As I try to rebuild a life after burnout, in the midst of a pandemic, and while dealing with depression, it sometimes seems like self-care is a full-time job. I swim almost every day, which takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes. On the days I don’t swim, I walk, which takes 45 minutes. I do my morning pages, which can take from a half-hour to an hour, depending on how the words come. I have a deliberate morning routine and evening routine. I monitor my food. I try to keep boundaries up between work and not work, and I try hard to prioritize family time and time away.

And it can all feel a little self-indulgent at times. Like I’m at the center of the universe, and so if I reply to a simple, non-urgent request on Friday at 4:50 PM that I will take care of it Monday, despite that it wouldn’t take 20 minutes to do, it can feel a bit like I’m being a jerk. More than once, the person asking me for that favor has made it clear that is how they interpreted it, too.

But that’s ridiculous. If I asked if you wanted to go hiking with me on Monday, and you said you couldn’t because you had to work, I wouldn’t be offended. But that’s because it is socially acceptable to spend ⅓ of your life working on someone else’s projects in exchange for money to pay your bills to maintain your house, and not socially acceptable to say that you have promised your wife that Friday night is just for her in order to maintain your marriage.

But all of the things a human needs cannot be purchased with the money that we trade, if we are lucky, that ⅓ of our life for. We also need community and health and connection and peace of mind and rest – all things that can’t be bought with money, but instead can only be acquired by deliberate practice.

So, if we have normalized eight hours, at a minimum, a day earning the money which only takes care of a portion of our needs, what is a fair amount of time to trade for everything else? If eight hours is a reasonable time to spend getting the money, what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on maintenance? If I spend 15 minutes of my day in a morning routine that gives me clarity and focus, is that a wise investment of my time? If I trade 45 minutes of movement for lower blood pressure and healthy glucose levels, is that worth it? If 30 minutes of winding down mean that the 7 hours of sleep I get is restful and rejuvenating, shouldn’t I do it?

We make those calculations all the time, and we always bid against ourselves. But we never ask those questions about work.

People seldom miss work because they need the money. However, they often miss sleep, as if they didn’t need the rest. They eat crap food, while in a rush, often in their car, as if they didn’t need the nourishment and energy that comes from good food. They keep the eight hours of work as inviolate but willingly give up their date night with their partner, or an hour of sleep, or supper with their kids, because they are “busy”.

Your work provides the income you need to live your life – but it shouldn’t “be” your life. You deserve so much more than that.

“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” Thoreau asked us all those years ago, and today, most of us still don’t have a good answer.