Honoring My Inner Sloth by Joanne Guidoccio
For too many years, I subscribed to the busy bee myth: Complete all given tasks and start on tomorrow’s To-Do List. That was my modus operandi for the first fifty years of my life. Or, more precisely, the first forty-nine years, seven months, and seven days.
All that changed with a diagnosis that came out of nowhere: Inflammatory Breast Cancer, Stage IIIB. To be truthful, my body had tried to communicate with me many years before the diagnosis. Persistent colds and bouts of bronchitis. Slow-healing bruises. Bone-crushing fatigue. Determined to soldier on without taking advantage of sick days or lazy weekends, I chose to ignore those whispers. But I knew all about them from the Oprah shows.
To this day, I get goosebumps when I recall those words of wisdom from television’s favorite teacher: “If you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder. It’s like getting thumped inside the head like my grandmother used to do…You don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head. You don’t pay attention to that; the whole brick wall falls down.”
While I was in the thick of it with family and workplace stress, I didn’t realize—or chose not to realize—that those whispers were about to break a sound barrier.
The first week after the diagnosis, I spent most of it marking tests and assignments. It didn’t feel right asking the substitute teacher to complete all the marking. After all, I had given the assessments on my watch. I did catch some eye-rolling and head shakes from friends and colleagues but chose to ignore them.
Once the “school” business was completed, I started to organize my cancer. Each day, I created To-Do lists filled with tasks such as buying at-leisure clothes, cleaning cupboards and closets, arranging for a weekly cleaning lady, researching on the Internet, and updating school binders for the following year. All of this while I went for scans and ultrasounds. More eye rolls and incredulous looks that I ignored.
Chemotherapy threw the first punch. I couldn’t eat or keep food down for most of the six months. In the third week of each cycle, waves of fatigue assaulted me. Surgery and radiation threw more punches during those sixteen months I spent at home.
I had to regroup and figure out a new way to navigate the twists and turns of the uncertain road that lay ahead. I was open and willing to try anything and everything: Affirmations. Visualizations. Yoga. Meditation. New Age practices. Whenever friends and colleagues offered to help, I would respond: “I’d appreciate your prayers and positive thoughts.” I even called up a miracle worker in the province of Quebec and asked her to include me in her prayers.
I experimented with what I had once dismissed as slothful activities. Sleeping in an extra hour or two, reading an entire novel in one sitting, watching back-to-back movies, listening to my favorite oldie-goldies, and having hour-long telephone conversations.
When I returned to the classroom, cancer-free and rested, I thought I had a handle on self-care. Two months into the second semester, the whispers chose to bypass all the intermediate steps and roar with a diagnosis of severe hypothyroidism.
I cut back to a part-time schedule and, two years later, took advantage of early retirement at age fifty-three. In retirement, I practice what I like to call “strategic slothfulness.”
Each month, I treat myself to at least one “sloth” day. If I go to bed exhausted or wake up feeling like my body could use a long nap, I know that it’s time to clear the decks. I won’t cancel medical appointments; everything else is fair game.
What do I do on those days?
As little as possible.
I start by taking the landline off the hook and silencing all notifications on my cellphone. I may watch back-to-back talk shows, read a complete novel, browse through photo albums and scrapbooks, order my favorite take-out food for lunch and dinner, or lounge on the balcony. If I decide to take a nap, I limit myself to twenty minutes. According to the experts, this is long enough to obtain the benefits without dipping into the deep stages of sleep.
During more extended “sloth” periods, I participate in my favorite guilty pleasure: binge-watching. I’m addicted to the British series--Downton Abbey, The Crown, Victoria—and also enjoy limited series such as Big Little Lies and The Undoing.
After a day of idleness, I feel re-energized and ready to face the world again. In fact, many of the sparks that ignited my novels and other creative endeavors occurred right after a “sloth” day.
It would be a stretch to say I have abandoned those left-brain habits that served me well for many decades. Instead, I allow them to take a passenger seat, sometimes even a back seat, in my life.
I’m contemplating adding more “sloth” days to the month. My inspiration: In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village (Buddhist community near Bordeaux, France), one day a week is designated as a lazy day where people greet each other by asking, “How lazy are you today?”