9 min read

An ode to taking a break

An ode to taking a break
Lincoln Park at sunset.

A few thoughts after a long pause.

“This is real. Your eyes reading this text, your hands, your breath, the time of day, the place where you are reading this—these things are real. I’m real too. I am not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force; I’m lumpy and porous, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next. I hear, see, and smell things in a world where others also hear, see, and smell me. And it takes a break to remember that: a break to do nothing, to just listen, to remember in the deepest sense what, when, and where we are.”~Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing

A week after a mob stormed the Capitol, someone asked me what I needed.

It was hardly the first time I’ve been asked this and yet, just like when people asked me that same question after my parents died, I still didn’t have an answer at the ready. (It is no small thing that I have people who do take the time to ask me this question in earnest; I am grateful for their care.) What I did have was a list of things that I could say I was doing, a little performance piece that would sound like I was doing the right stuff. As an only child, I worked hard and learned quickly how to sound like I had my shit together.

And so those old instincts, like a startup routine buried someone deep in my own programming, flash into motion any time someone checks in with me. Off I’ll go, spitting out plans to mitigate stress and hardship. Most of them sound like using new tricks and tools to break old habits. I’m using this new app for mindfulness, finally; reading this cookbook for its wisdom and the goodness is showing in the soup I made; I’m leaving my phone far out of reach when I go to bed. It’s going to be okay because this is the plan.

They are good choices, smart routines. But their recitation alone is not a solution—it’s a song and dance I learned from my mom to put others at ease.

Sometimes it seemed like Mom lived her life to make sure Dad and I were happy before she was. Somehow, she carved out her own space for exercise and her friends, but always, it was dutifully tied to putting dinner on the table at a somewhat regular time, making sure Dad and I were happy with what we needed. And, though we complained about her chronic lateness and her superpower to never hear her cellphone when we actually wanted to reach her, she was damn good at fitting her routines into the interstitial spaces between providing care for her students, her husband, and her son.

But she paid a price, I think. She struggled to sit still. Always.

When I was still in elementary school, Mom took up a weekday routine that she called “relaxatating”. She’d shut the door to her office, creak backwards in the worn out recliner, and close her eyes, visualizing some far off beach where she could walk the foamy edges of the waves and hunt for shells. She’d set out to do this for twenty minutes or so. Occasionally she’d doze off, emerging groggy forty-five minutes later and determined to get cooking, or take me to piano.

At that age, I had a hard time falling asleep. Even after reading, face buried in Redwall or the Time Warp Trio for an hour, I’d stay hyper long after lights out. My parents would take turns attempting to calm me down. Once or twice a month, migraines would also keep me wide awake and tossing the sheets, wailing for comfort. Whether it was latent kinetic energy coursing through me or a headache pounding away at my skull, when it was her turn to help, Mom started using her relaxatating method on me. She ask me where I wanted to go—some snowy trail or a beach like the ones we saw visiting my grandparents in Florida—and calmly describe it to me as I closed my eyes.

And it worked.

Somewhere down the line she fell out of the habit. Maybe it was the demands of her work. By the time I was in high school or college, her one job had her bouncing in between at least three different schools in Westfield. When I left for college, she’d settled at one program for students with all manner of emotional-behavioral struggles; but the days were much more taxing.

She cared about her work, deeply—almost as much as she loved those rides that grew longer and longer as she settled into the saddle on her road bike. But when I cast backwards into my memory, searching for moments of rest in her life outside those few years she maintained her relaxatating routine, the hook comes back empty.

Or maybe it was because she fell in love cycling and relished the group with which she pedaled. Especially after her best friend Susan died, Mom filled her free time with training rides—aggressive hill climbs through Conway and long rambles that seemed to range almost to the southern border of Vermont and back. (In reality it was just Montague, but before I’d been to the Book Mill myself, it seemed like another state.)

Mom knew she couldn’t stay seated for more than thirty or forty minutes, too. Intimately. She’d never be caught wandering off in book during daylight hours. She’d flutter around the house for an hour before being able to start something. She’d apologize endlessly for always speaking up to read me a new factoid from the travel section of the Sunday Times, even when Dad and I both wore the same furrowed that said, “Please, I’m focusing here and you know it.” Her weekends were packed—this ride, that hike; these errands, those to-dos; each event jammed so that she’d be rushing home to get ready to go back out with Dad and me to catch a movie.

So it made sense to me that in 2018 while on a meditation retreat led by a family friend  in Italy, she’d fallen right out of her chair during her first group sit. After Dad died, Mom’s anxiety seemed to grip her tightly—the close friend she never wanted who followed her everywhere.

That’s how I saw it—or maybe how I needed to see it before her diagnosis was clear that fall. Off in Italy, in a moment of deep introspection, she’d come face-to-face with whatever it was that kept her on the go. She was an intuitive and intelligent person, so I told myself that she wasn’t hiding from an unknown; she was running from a familiar.

Creutzfeld-Jakob disease took Mom so fast that she never had time to tell me what she saw during that sit, what she encountered that sapped her balance. I heard this story months later from a friend on the trip, someone who was in the room and who’d tried to comfort her while others got help.

But she was present enough to tell us, when Michelle and I lived with her for two or so harrowing weeks in the fall of 2018, that something big and scary was happening—some specter bigger than her anxiety had caught her. I couldn’t imagine what it was, so I stuck to the wisdom of the patient psychiatrist who was treating her, explaining her break by trying to reconstruct what she’d been through while living alone the two years since Dad had died.

It was CJD that was devouring her rapidly—I have known that since a neurologist called me to confirm it, after the results of a spinal tap finally arrived.

And yet I still wonder what, in the absence of CJD, would have happened if she had planted her feet firmly and faced whatever kept her on the move. Once she looked it in the eye, what help would she have needed to make peace with it? If could have asked her then, in that moment, what she needed, what would she have asked me for? Would she have known how to ask for it?

The lures of self-optimization, endless entertainment, and immediate gratification action are ubiquitous. They promise productivity and constant satisfaction. Screens scream them at us. Our culture buries the performance of productivity deep in our minds—who are we if we are not making the most of every moment? We are failures, people who should be able to know more, do better, enjoy the new content. It is so easy, every promotional email and #sponsored post tells us. What are we waiting for? Start doing. Watch the next season. Make the most of this time. But above all: keep moving. Don’t stop. There’s too much to do.

For a long time, I nearly drowned in everything I could, or should, be doing—especially when I was worried, or hurting, or anxious. The least I could do was tell someone what my plan was, affirming my path always forward, forever upward.

But grief was, and is, a great educator. Since 2016, I have walked through long, meandering moments of sadness and emptiness that are far too powerful to be soothed by distractions. Moving through these moments requires an acceptance and presence of mind that can only be achieved taking full breaks and finding stillness.

Withdrawing from the torrent of information and events, especially now, requires courage. It was years that I felt staying hooked into everything—daily life, the news, my work—was the only way to keep myself on track and that falling out of the flow would doom my progress. I was addicted to staying in it and fearful of who I’d be or what I’d find if I stopped.

I had to, though. Losing both my parents before turning 31 forced me to. I had to pause long enough to find out what I needed, so that I could ask for it. The work of understanding what I needed to heal required it.

And so it is that the beginning of this year, especially here in the United States, feels so frighteningly similar. We receive an unending stream signals from news and content, all of it demanding that we make more room for inputs and sacrifice our ability to look inwards in the process.

What I needed earlier this week, what I have found a little piece of now, is a moment of pause long enough to think a rambling thought or two—to let myself speak and write and feel my anger and my exhaustion. Not to perform it. Not to say how I would make it go away and namedrop some oh-you-haven’t-heard-of-this-yet solution.

It still takes courage to get here. I had to stop everything else and leave my to-do list, not gone and not forgotten, buried in a notebook in the other room.

I don’t mean to suggest with this story that Mom never found her stillness; her struggle with anxiety is not some linear cautionary tale. When we were cleaning up the house late one night, after one of Mom’s CJD-addled episodes, Michelle found a set of nature scenes my Mom had studied in watercolor. They were stunning—I’d always known she’d favored that style of drawing and painting and we two were moved to see what Mom had come up with in her focus and calm. And I wonder now if she was able to find the same place out on her bike, somewhere between mile 62 and 89 of a century ride, where her mind would start to wander and she’d allow herself to think deeply about what she wanted and what would make her happy.

Finding this space, as I say, takes practice now in this age of obsessive over-productivity. And it takes courage to stay in it long enough to know what is is we need during hardship.

My hope is that this newsletter issue finds you in a place where you know what it is you need and with someone to ask for it, or perhaps gives you a nudge toward getting there.

To the culture

(The irony of writing this list after the above story is not lost on me.)



  • Charlie Warzel started a newsletter called Some Dogs. The first post is about Peggy, who is a damn star.
  • Soraya McDonald, culture critic for The Undefeated, wrote this week about the danger of disassociating from the violence at the Capitol.
  • Drew Magary tested the newest, dumbest, luxury PPE. (It takes batteries! You might run out of air!!!)
  • One of the first Celtics writers I followed, Paul Flannery, is also a trail runner. Running, Probably is his newsletter and community.
  • Just read Patrick Wyman’s essay Bro Culture, Fitness, Chivalry, and American Identity.
  • Rarely does The New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to one piece. Two weeks ago they did it, rightfully, for Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year, an stunningly reported journey through the US’s pandemic year.
  • Late last year, Tana French released her newest mystery, an exciting and creepy standalone mystery called The Searcher.


  • If you’re the type to enjoy fight movies, try Warrior, a pulpy period drama that follows a Chinese immigrant who kicks ass through San Francisco in 1878. (HBO Max)
  • Michelle and I just binged The Flight Attendant. (HBO Max) A note on this: I never watched The Big Bang Theory, and what a departure for Kaley Cuoco. The Flight Attendant follows her starring role as the voice of the animated series Harley Quinn.

As always, a reminder that Sunday On A Whim is a passion project. Please excuse the occasional half-baked sentence or silly typo.