The office in my apartment shares a wall with a neighbour - one through which I can measure how the stock market is doing on any given day. How, you ask? Well, while the elderly couple who live on the other side are lovely...they're also heavy smokers.
There are certain clockwork rhythms built into a lifetime. In the case of my neighbours, every Wednesday at 6 pm the needle drops and their record player livens up the building with swing music. Friday is cleaning day, so their vacuum serves as a 9 am wake-up call for anyone who might be sleeping in. And whenever the stock market goes red, they double down on the cigarettes and my apartment smells like a Robin's Donuts back in the '90s.
The air conditioning is broken again and I’ve lost hope that it will ever be properly fixed. Sweltering, I throw open the windows wide for some fresh air - letting the wildfire smoke swirl in to mingle with the cigarette smoke filtering through the shared wall.
It’s hard to breathe, but somehow I manage a big sigh. Me and the land are burnt out - and my neighbours are a testament to the fact that we might not be the only ones.
Where can we find the space to take the deeper inhales needed to recharge our souls? The collective rat race is a never-ending marathon, with hurdles like health and housing insecurity threatening to sweep our feet out from underneath us. As I doggedly run to keep up, I look left and I look right - and see that we're all exhausted. But we keep going because to stumble could easily lead to a tumble, from which it is only getting more difficult to get back up.
In a way, the wildfires that have been raging this past summer (the past many summers, really) seem like a reflection of a wider burning, or burning out. Burnout, in its usual context, is the result of being under-resourced for the challenges we face at a job. Ideally, it would be addressed with a Boss / Colleague / Client so that we could receive what we need to succeed. Ideally, we would work together to build a sustainable foundation of safety and resources so that we can all thrive together.
But what about burnout outside the job? What happens when the basics of life feel unsustainable and it's less clear about where there might be support? It can all be a bit overwhelming and the answers are different for each of us.
One thing I do know is that the best way to untangle a knot is by making little actions within it. Speak up against systemic issues, vote for a world you want to live in, and take care of yourself as best you can. Even if the direct outcome might not radically change the world, all of these little acts have a way of resourcing us from the inside out - paradoxically filling our cups even as we pour our energy into them.
As I sit amidst the clouds of smoke in my office, I realize that I'm in dire need of some personal resourcing. Having learned the hard way where my edge is, I've figured out that the reliable path to getting back on stable ground is this: taking little retreats. I'm an introvert who loves people, and these hiatuses are what I need - so that when I show up for others, I can show up as my best self.
The antidote to burnout is spaciousness - a place of just being that isn’t forced by the sharp prods of the to-do list that pushes us onward. Spaciousness is where there is room to allow curiosity to flow in and pull us forward. And it scales too; from the solitude of wilderness to the white noise of a coffee shop full of strangers, taking a concerted moment to step back from the rat race for the breath of a moment.
An old friend calls this choice of stepping back an act of activism - a punk-rock middle finger to capitalism. There might be some truth to that, but more simply I see it as rest so that I can keep showing up.
It has been ten months since I last had the privilege to step outside city limits. It feels good to have my feet beneath me in a way that feels strong. Here on the ground, the air is still so I must keep moving. Mosquitoes draft behind my sweat-soaked shoulder, as happy to see me as I am the trail.
Above, however, the air swirls. As I crest one granite ridge I glimpse a single storm cloud in an otherwise blue sky: lone, dark, and looming. Dropping back into the thick forest, its steady rumbles follow my footfalls - refusing to let me forget about its presence. Yet still, it comes as a surprise - catching me under the sun with a sideways rain as I keep moving moving moving.
Finally, the rain settles overhead and I abandon soaked clothes for the cool lake - as the water above dances on the water below, I embrace inevitable wetness with the ease of summer.
Sometimes it feels like the roving storm clouds out there have a personal vendetta, following us around like untameable beasts and threatening to foil plans. But it isn't personal. There are so many things larger than us; things that can't be controlled despite our wants to. Perhaps, after learning it the hard way more than a few times, we can remember to laugh and start to hold our little ideas a little lighter.
We get soaked, the storm passes, we adjust and continue on - not upset, just wet.
Dry off. Take a moment. Breathe in, so we can breathe out.