Wednesday was a long day, all tension and tight corners. I walked against the wind wearing a thin coat, teeth chattering and knees knocking as the temperature dropped. I slammed into the wall of others’ inefficiency, jaw absently clenching as simple jobs stretched into grueling ordeals. I ran errands and painstakingly clicked off items on my checklist and, like it had a schedule to keep, the 4 p.m. Wednesday headache came to build its home in my right temple, banging around happily with its hammer and running its power saw and possibly herding a flock of angry pigeons wearing tap-dancing shoes across my frontal lobe.
I’m told that such a headache — religiously punctual about its time of arrival — is caused by stress, and how the brain releases tension all at once rather than incrementally. I’ve tried to combat the problem, armed with a toolset of breathing techniques and muscle relaxation tips from my dad.
And yet these all-useful tools are surprisingly difficult to practice. I sit down to begin — comfortable position, focus on timing my inhale, exhale — and five minutes later find myself across the apartment, folding laundry. Try again, but everything I need to do comes rushing to my mind and to my hands — checking emails, watering plants, slicing green peppers into stripes.
When I get home from work I begin to bake a tray of scones. They have to be kneaded by hand. It’s hard to think about inefficiency and stress and headaches while flour and butter wend their way into the crevices of my skin, clinging to the lines across my palms, trying to gain grip in my cuticles.
Busy work, time-filling unnecessary effort, cuts across my nerves like a pocketknife sawing at guitar strings until they snap. It’s the sort of flaw that only bothers you in others; I don’t seem to notice my own doubled efforts. When I have a project and a deadline I turn into a computer, goal-focused, analytical and fully compartmentalized. Human things — sore muscles, headaches, small talk — seem more like barriers to overcome than parts of being, you know, human.
Which brings me to my kitchen counter, grains of sugar pinched between my fingers and the Oh Hellos playing quietly across the room. It’s a grounding practice, fully integrating.
I’ve been reading a theology cookbook — I can’t think of another way to describe it — written by an author intent on enjoying the good things life has to offer, because they were crafted for us. Rich meals, glass running over, nothing half-tasted. My scones go into the oven; I forget to check the clock.
In Paradise Lost, Milton’s retelling of the first days of humanity, it’s efficiency that leads to the Fall of Adam and Eve: Eve suggests they work separately in the garden, so they’ll get more done and won’t distract each other. When she’s alone, the serpent offers her the fruit. It’s just a story, mind; Milton isn’t truth. But I think about it sometimes.
(The professor who taught me Paradise Lost now teaches a class on leisure. If there’s a better way of matching your actions to your words, I don’t know it.)
Waiting for my scones is a perfect time to practice breathing, I think; I’m distracted by the construction party in my brain. (Someone in there must have a nail gun, I think.) My to-do list for the day is nearly done, but not quite; I can do a few of these from home, while I wait for my scones. I get up to wash dishes, restart the music that has fallen silent, wipe up the spilled flour on the counter, organize the files spread out across the kitchen table.
My dad tells me that chipmunks hibernate above the frost line, blood pressure dropping just low enough that keeps sluggishly flowing through the subzero temperatures, keeping it alive through the winter months. They are such frantic creatures, all summer long; it’s hard to imagine them motionless, frosty and nearly dead, living longer than they would aboveground.
I remember my scones and race for the oven; they emerge slightly toastier than expected, but none the worse for wear. I breathe in the aroma that fills the kitchen, breathe out. Breathe in again. I have a list of things to do tonight, tomorrow morning, and a new one for the next day.
I turn out the lights as the heat kicks on, burrowing under my cold covers and closing my eyes, headache still hammering, muscles still strained, and enjoy the feeling of being almost asleep.