On Top of the World

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After refrigerating the smoothie I’d just made and grabbing a cup of coffee, I head up to the rooftop deck. I sit on the turquoise rocking chair, angle my face towards the morning sun, and (as closely as my scrawny, furless frame allows) approximate a viscacha.

Beneath my eyelids, the sunlight flickers from orange to blue. Sometimes I listen to the chirping of birds; sometimes to the trucks broadcasting their presence with earsplitting claxons, which reverberate for a full 30 seconds before of giving way to a coda of howling dogs. As I soak up the sun, Ben fetches croissants from our local bakery. After my 10 minutes of sun-worship, the croissants have arrived, the smoothie¹ has cooled, and I’ve shed enough layers of sleepiness and distraction to be present at this feast of a breakfast.

Now the philosopher’s workday can begin. I usually start with writing, progress through doing math² and end with reading: hardest through easiest (at least on the willpower scale); exciting through restful.

I work 4-4.5 hours per day.

I feel embarrassed, even guilty, telling you this. As if I were committing a sin against the 11th commandment: Thou shalt work a 40-hour week.

I swear: I tried working longer and found it useless. I was just shuffling papers around for the extra hours. At the best of times, I’d ride a wave of frantic excitement for a day and wake up in wordless exhaustion the next morning. I swear: I’m a good, diligent philosopher for those four hours. I don’t check Facebook. I don’t even open my inbox until I’d written 750 words³ — and even then, only if I need to send something work-related. And I use the time left in the day to paint and to blog and to translate poetry — and I swear that’s work too.

Hear the defensiveness? I can’t shake the guilt: forgive me, Market, for I have sinned.

There’s a spot waiting for me in the circle of hell reserved for lazy philosophers. When I land there, at least I’ll get to meet Bertrand Russell.

Around 2:30, I’m back out on the roof, doing yoga.⁴ There’s such joy to being out under the sky and inside my body. Sometimes wisps of clouds zoom by almost within arm’s reach, gone before I move to the next pose.

Afterwards, it’s like a second morning. The last hour of work flies by in a joyful flash, and then it’s time for all the other projects — if I want them.

Wrenches in the Works

Three weeks after we arrive in Dakar, something inside me shifts. It’s Thursday morning. As I sit down to meditate, I’m swimming against the current. It’s subtle, but unmistakable. Several times, I find myself underwater, with no recollection of how I got there. Thoughts tug at me, glamorous troublemakers grabbing me by the hand, whisking me out of school before I can protest.

Two hours later, I’m muttering things I don’t believe. Scraps of old, sad poems. Rusted, sharp-edged flotsam coming in agitated waves. I duck and smile to myself: this is progress. I’ve learned to spot the signs. I used to wake up in the great sad emptiness — now I hear the whispers that lure me there. I think of the way John Green’s latest protagonist, Aza, describes these things.

There’s an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that’s been rumbling around inside me ever since I first read it, and part of it goes: ‘Blown from the dark hill hither to my door/ Three flakes, then four/ Arrive, then many more.’ You can count the first three flakes, and the fourth. Then language fails, and you have to settle in and try to survive the blizzard.

That sounds like giving up, and I don’t believe it. I’ve learned to see the snowflakes; I can prevent the blizzard.

I take half of Friday off. I read, sit in the sun, try to be good. On Saturday, we go rock-climbing on seaside cliffs, gorgeous swirls of sandstone. We make friends. I feel wonderful, brimming with delighted fear.

Then the blizzard comes. Maybe.

I spend all of Sunday blogging. There’s an urgency to it that’s equal parts glorious and unsettling. I feel driven, compelled, like there’s only one safe place left and it’s writing. Like I can dig a burrow out of words and disappear inside. Hide from myself.

Or — like it’s the only raft left on which to swim ashore. Back to myself.

It’s both, you know?

I wake from my writing to furious hunger. It’s 9 pm.

When it comes to food, I’m no older than three: I cry if I miss my mealtime by more than half an hour. I’m a three-year-old about many things, it turns out. Less than 9 hours of sleep makes me cranky and weepy. Too much time in company and I throw tantrums. Too little — and I bawl my eyes out.

I sprint towards the fridge and grab a potion to prevent me from striking out at the first bystander: a can of lentils. I wolf down half of it before I notice they don’t smell quite right.

The stomach problems which ensue the next morning aren’t quite as bad as I’d feared — but they come with a slight fever which knocks me off my feet and keeps me in bed for most of Monday.

Tuesday is my nemesis. Depression and food poisoning have swapped clothes. I can’t tell them apart; I don’t kow which weapons to use. I feel weak, very weak. But will this weakness grow with work — or with rest? Am I sad because my stomach hurts, or does my stomach hurt because I’m sad?

At some point lying in bed shades from rest to procrastination to despair. At some point I stop wishing I could be working and start hating myself for not working. At some point I definitely don’t have food poisoning anymore. At some point I am scrolling through the tenth page of a blog on elementary school art.

At some point, there is only snow.

On Wednesday, I don’t deserve to come back into the sunlight. I don’t deserve smoothies, croissants, or hard work. I wasted an evening in a sad place, so I don’t deserve to be the joyful person who makes things on the rooftop all day.

Coffee in hand, I climb up the stairs to the rooftop deck. It’s as easy as that; it’s the hardest thing I’d done all month.

[1] Kale, bananas, orange juice, yogurt, and ginger.

[2] I work on mathematical beauty, so I need to stock up on examples.

[3] No, not polished prose. Includes brainstorming, outlining, writing “help I’m stuck,” etc.

[4] Mostly Yoga With Adriene. Yes, I drink kale smoothies, meditate, and do yoga each day. Yes, I’m embarrassed. No, I shouldn’t be. Yes, my life is much, much better with these things.

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Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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