“Busy” is one of those words with a thousand thousand definitions—many of them are very much tied to individual personalities, many others to cultures, some to sub-groups (the unwritten requirement among the money-moving classes of large cities that every person be “slammed” always struck me as both self-aggrandizing and weirdly violent). In my little corner of the world—Academia—busy can mean many things, and many of my colleagues are busy in ways one might term “slammed” between what-did-you-publish-last-week, how-many-committees-can-you-sit-on-before-your-brain-explodes-that’s-barely-enough-btw, grading, having families, in some cases commuting from long distances (Maine to DE, NYC to DE). And, outside of departments of Engineering, sometimes Chemistry, and schools of Business, the simple fact is that, even though they’re a damn sight better than public school teachers salaries, the salaries of most professors are not adequate to the sort of lifestyle a person who has invested 4-12 years beyond a B.A. is perfectly reasonable to want or even expect.
But, to be personal, which is, after all, what Miriam’s question was, and to get off my pet hobby-horse about the corporatization of Academia, I have always been busy. This is partially because I have a lot of interests and a fair number of abilities in a fair number of areas. So, in high school, I made most of my own clothes, wrote poetry, forgot to do my homework, read a lot, helped raise my 15-years-younger baby sister because my mother came down with MS after having her, hung out with my group of artsy friends (none of whom forgot their homework), did all sorts of fiber arts, and was involved in several clubs and activities at various points. Since I agree with the theory that high school pretty much is the map of your life, that’s kind of how my adult life has been, with changes in the map, but not the pattern, at least until recently. There has usually also been some sort of non-drug drug that ate up weird amounts of my time—Tetris, Mahjong, Pinterest (I have 60+ boards), Words with Friends, and lately My Singing Monsters, which I started playing so my then-10-year-old grandson would have something to talk to me about. He’s moved on, and I’m still playing. Oh, and 40 years of being a 4-committee Church Lady in an attempt to please a grandfather who has been dead my whole adult life. I’m getting over that one.
This past year, the transition to zoom-teaching, the list of external gross tensions and terrors I don’t need to go through for any of you—it kind of fried my circuits. The pandemic arrived just as I was beginning to work through the twin traumas of breast cancer (I’m fine) and my mother’s death, so I was already not entirely “together.” But I chugged along, dropping a couple of my department service gigs because circumstances made them impossible, but making several hundred masks and shipping them around the country to friends and communities in need, and managing to half-ass my way through dealing with techie-teaching. Then, in December, my husband fell backwards down the stairs (we don’t have many specifics on the fall because the only actual witness was a traumatized 4-year-old) and broke a rib, concussed himself, broke open the skin on his head (what you have heard about how headwounds bleed is true), and, most importantly, tore both quad tendons. People tear one, but both is highly unusual. So he had surgery on the morning of Christmas Eve (I was able to see him before and after surgery, but not otherwise), was moved to rehab on new Year’s Eve (I was able to wave at him as the transport team wheeled him in), and came home 10 days later with his legs immobilized. Because Covid, we did not have visiting nurses beyond his first week home, though we did have both PT and OT come to the house for the duration. So I taught my regular load and did full-time nursing/caregiving and wallowed a bit in self-pity, though mostly I avoided grading and played My Singing Monsters. I did write, but I didn’t finish the pile of half-done masks or crochet while watching TV. And my husband is a monument to grit and genetics. This is notable because he’s 77 and at that age that sort of injury can take you out. Not him. He’s working on stamina at this point, but he walks, he drives (PT has tests for this), he goes up and down stairs. He taught one of his classes, which was good, and dropped his big one (amusingly a history of plagues). So he’s astoundingly okay, and I am bloody fried, though mostly emotionally, and it’s taking me way longer to get things done than I like. Part of this is because I am sleeping a lot, which is obviously good, and feels like a thing I am DOING, so part of my current busy-ness, not outside of it. I am too busy. I want to retire so I can be differently busy—making art and hanging with the grandkids instead of grading papers and planning classes—but I made a sort of contract around my complicated professorial status that has me stuck teaching for another 6 years to build up some TIAA (I used to be an adjunct, but not for the past 4 years. My clear job for the summer is to get unfried.
This is where the notion of busy becomes interesting. Getting unfried involves a weird mix of doing not-much (reading lots of Urban Fantasy novels), working through lists of stuff around the house that is making me crazy, and getting my maker-self back in gear so I feel like me. All while spending time going to the pool with the grands and re-learning to have a social life. That’s busy for right now, and an okay kind of busy. Almost a nice kind, except that the summer is slithering out from under me and everything takes more time than I think it should, so I have to make peace with the fact that there is stuff I just won’t get to. And my husband of 44 years and I have to get back to the normal balance of our relationship without being able to do things like take long walks or go to museums—things where we normally feel in sync. This has involved me having to shift gears from full-time fret and care and him having to not hurry back to normal so fast he scares me. It’s a whole other kind of busy.
So I would say that emotionally, I am VERY busy. Work-wise, I am medium+ busy. Writing wise I am pleasantly busy. Family-wise I am normally busy. And all of it is operating around a core of decreasing trauma-exhaustion-fret. Seamus’s injury and recovery did add a kind of special sauce to the stew of busy-and-pandemic-whatever, but we’re hardly alone in that. So even my special circumstances aren’t that special. I do think it would be good if Americans could unhook themselves from the idea that busy is some kind of virtue in itself. Maybe then we’d understand that having to two parents having to work 3 badly paying jobs each in order to sustain a family is some sort of mark of being what Eliza Doolittles’s father called the “deserving poor.” But that’s another essay—one Barbara Ehrenreich has already written.
Devon Miller-Duggan, Associate Professor of Creative Writing Department of English University of Delaware most recent book: The Slow Salute, Lithic Press