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Emails to my Therapist

The Go-To Guilt Reflex (After A Week In Poland)

Dear Nicholas, Bob and I got home late Tuesday afternoon from a long-planned long-delayed trip and now, as I write, it’s Friday and I still haven’t gotten back to work. I feel like a terrible slacker. My reliable guilt reflex has kicked in. And the guilt itself feels terribly self-indulgent when refugees are on the run from war in Ukraine, into the very city we visited.

Neighboring Poland has taken in 3.2 million Ukrainian refugees, more than any other country.

The trip was quite an event for us, visiting far-flung relatives, third try after two covid cancellations. They live in Kraków, Poland, neighbor to the Ukraine, and we had hoped for quite a while to meet the new baby there, second step-grandchild for me. Well, we finally met the little guy when he’s already doing a bit of walking and talking. A long delay, but we got there.

Peaceful morning on the Vistula in Kraków.

An excellent trip, though I came down with a slight bug (not covid) my second day in the city. It didn’t interfere with anything, but got a lot worse six days later when we started home. I find that timing a bit suspicious.

Now on my third day at home, I feel well enough that I ought to be back in action, doing the writing and editing that I have too greatly allowed to define me. As I’m self-employed, this over-emphasis on work has given me useful self-discipline. However, I ought to be willing to give myself sick leave, even a few hours more than strictly necessary, even when terrible events are happening in the world. Also, a lot of my sister seventy-somethings are retired, so how is it I feel so guilty about missing a day of work?

A stop for hot chocolate on Market Square

Attempts At Answering My Own Question

Because I fear I’ll never go back to my work again?

Because I feel I’m wasting valuable time that I can never get back?

Because life is short and getting shorter?

Because I’m far too identified with my work and fear that if I neglect it there won’t be enough left of me?

Because writing is how I make my best contribution?

Because coming back to the book-in-progress is always a slightly tricky re-entry process, trying to pick up where I left off?

Or is it because I’m safe and comfortable and could be doing more to help Ukrainians?

Where I Left Off

A few days before leaving for Kraków, I finished the first draft of a book in progress for many, many years. That was a big deal. I also know that the last two chapters need a lot more attention before I start at the beginning on the second draft. I don’t feel like doing it yet.

I do have a cough that could clear a covid-fearing room. But I feel good enough now that I was able to get myself yesterday to the Bojangles drive-through.  A person who can do that can surely reread and mess with a troubled last chapter.

This book is a really really big deal to me: a biography of an artist/mystic that has become something of a memoir of my own writing/religious experience as well. And last chapters are important, for sure. But I mustn’t let that slow me down.

Oh, So What?

On the other hand, what difference does a day or three make? (And one might ask, what difference does a book or three make? But I’m not capable of thinking that way.) I do know I’ll get to it pretty soon, in part to throw off the guilt about not getting to it.

Market Square

What Would Be Nice…

I’d like to be able to keep going at a good clip without the motivator of the big moving wall of guilt pushing me. That would be nice. I’m not sure how one does that.

Kraków, BTW…

During our visit, we had hot chocolate on the wide main square that has been a busy spot since the thirteenth century. We ate dinner on a boat docked in view of the castle (older than the market square) on the river that runs smooth and wide through the city. It’s a beautiful old city of walkers and bike riders that feels peaceful and festive, though so close to the war in Ukraine; more than 150,000 Ukrainian refugees have poured into Kraków. Our relatives there have housed a few recent arrivals.

Once in my travel writing days, I was visiting a small beach town in the north of Israel when that country was at war with Lebanon. I could see Israeli troops heading to Lebanon on the road behind the hotel and at the same time helicopters bringing back the wounded over the ocean on the other side. A young man in dusty combat uniform had just come off the front to make a phone call at a pay phone in the lobby. The contrast was hard to take in. The same kind of disparity was occurring less visibly in seemingly serene Kraków. How many people in the foot traffic on the streets had come from Kyiv or Mariupol?

Not on the Run From War

Poland spring

My small personal wrestle with guilt is, of course, a laughably small problem compared to leaving a home that’s under attack to travel a dangerous route to another country. On the other hand, here I am safe and comfortable at home. You’d think I’d be able, under such easy circumstances, to get a few things done. Right?

But this stall will end, I know it will, it always has. At least by tapping this out, I’ve proved to myself I can still type.






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  • Kenju
    May 13, 2022 at 7:01 pm Reply

    It sounds like a wonderful trip; even if it was with a virus and so close to war-torn Ukraine. I’m glad you finally got to go. The writing can wait a few days! Rest up first.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 13, 2022 at 8:09 pm Reply

      It was a wonderful trip, Kenju. And I’ll see if I can follow your wonderful advice.

  • John Cheek
    May 13, 2022 at 8:06 pm Reply

    Lee and I were in Krakow in 2010 under very different circumstances. I was singing a concert with their philharmonic, the first Wagner heard there since before WW2. Only about a mile away was Oskar Shindler’s factory right near the Jewish Ghetto where he rescued so many Jews from deportation to Aushwitz which we also visited, a horror I will never forget. But we very much enjoyed the city with its gracious architecture, pedestrian zones, cafes and that great Hot Chocolate. It must have been so moving to see the refugees

    • Peggy Payne
      May 13, 2022 at 8:16 pm Reply

      Quite an impressive and historic occasion for your visit, John! Gracious is the right word for the feel of the city. And I too visited Auschwitz long ago. I now know all I ever want to know about the Holocaust. The day I was there was overcast and gray, almost dark by late afternoon, and the road away from there passed factories with tall stacks spewing out smoke. It felt hellish.

  • Stephanie Bass
    May 13, 2022 at 8:37 pm Reply

    Wow. You sure can give my friend Peggy a drubbing, from many different angles! But I can’t see that she deserves it, and I’ve read this list of her transgressions twice. I’m with Tam on this— evil did not befall the Earth because you let your novel rest for a week or two, while you absorbed with your body the realization of some of the greatest trauma to blast Europe since before we were born.
    Monday. Work on Monday.
    Garden this weekend.
    Enjoy Piedmont spring as it turns to Summer, and relax into your reliable ability to be flexible, capable, kind, generous of Spirit.
    Give Guilt the boot. Don’t host him.
    I love you and am so glad you are home safe.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 13, 2022 at 8:47 pm Reply

      Yes, Monday! And I miss you. We must get together soon!

  • Ted Harrison
    May 13, 2022 at 9:19 pm Reply

    Thank you Peggy. The mixed days feelings of “I can do nothing today” coupled with “how can I even expect more days” are the days that can wrack your brain and body. The only solution that works for me: “what will make a difference?@ And there is no answer so I do the best I can with what I’ve got. Not found in an RX pad. Keep well.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 13, 2022 at 9:24 pm Reply

      “What will make a difference?” is definitely a useful question, Ted. I like that. Thanks.

  • Gail Chesson
    May 14, 2022 at 1:31 am Reply

    You know yourself so well. Be kind and compassionate with yourself as you are with others. Congrats on getting the end of your novel in sight.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 14, 2022 at 1:32 am Reply

      You are kind and compassionate, Gail.

  • Anonymous
    May 16, 2022 at 7:22 pm Reply

    Oh Peggy (and Dr D) I am so glad you’re back home! Been thinking about you for days now and hoped to hear from you and here you are. I love your list of “why you feel guilty.” I believe there are many, many reasons for us to feel guilty; no terrible war being the first main one. The advice given to you here – rest, write on Monday, garden today – are all very sound and I agree. As Stevie Nicks said in Landslide “time makes you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older too.” Stop and smell what flowers we can while we can. Marie

    • Peggy Payne
      May 16, 2022 at 10:58 pm Reply

      Thanks, Marie. Tried gardening for about ten minutes and it made me want to lie down and take a nap. So I collapsed on the sofa and went back to writing. Thanks for your kind thoughts.

  • Angela Davis-Gardner
    May 16, 2022 at 7:26 pm Reply

    dear Peggy, the trip sounds beautiful and fascinating. I’m so glad you and Bob were finally able to get there — thanks to your persistence. I think organizing the trip was work — please give yourself a break for that reason, and for many other reasons. Give me some of your guilt! maybe it would help me finish my book. But meantime, I like Stephanie’s advice — garden, and drift, letting yourself take in all that you’ve experienced in Poland. love, Angela

    • Peggy Payne
      May 16, 2022 at 10:56 pm Reply

      Thanks for this encouragement, Angela, and your extraordinary offer to share the guilt. I don’t find it all that useful myself. But I’m doing better: fatigue, airplane, bug, and time zone looniness starting to lift. And I do hope you’re going to finish that wonderful book soon. You’re so close!

  • May 16, 2022 at 7:54 pm Reply

    I second kindness and self-compassion, Peggy. We had a great trip to visit Chuk and his growing family, and that’ll keep me happy for a good while.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 16, 2022 at 10:52 pm Reply

      I feel the aura of your happiness, Bob, which makes me happy.

  • May 16, 2022 at 8:56 pm Reply

    Just a “Hey there!” Peggy. And to Bob. I can relate to that “seventy-something”….All the best to you for that second draft. I keep plugging away with my “Goines On” vignettes – even finally polished off that sestina I started to write in December. I love constructing sestinas! They’re magic to write. The form works wonders.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 16, 2022 at 10:50 pm Reply

      Hey there to you, Morris. Thanks for your good wishes and I’m glad you’re plugging away with your vignettes.

  • May 16, 2022 at 9:48 pm Reply

    Dear Peggy,
    Your posts have inspired me to begin writing letters daily to Etty Hillesum, a WWII Jew in her 20s in the Netherlands, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.
    We can only respond when we are invited. Thank you. Rilke also is in the mix!

    • Peggy Payne
      May 16, 2022 at 10:48 pm Reply

      I know who she was, Pat. Good choice, a strong spirit. And writing this way can be so helpful, revealing and relieving.

  • Sally Estes
    May 17, 2022 at 5:48 pm Reply

    I personally know many retirees that struggle with the guilt of not being productive every day. I wish I could offer an easy solution. My best attempt at quelling the guilt is to commit to working two hours before lunch and two after lunch. Now I’m not writing a book so four hours might not suffice. It might take that long to get the creative juices flowing. Does it?

    • Peggy Payne
      May 17, 2022 at 10:00 pm Reply

      Four hours ought to quell the guilt very nicely, Sally. I didn’t know that a lot of retirees struggle with this. I suspect that getting the juices flowing varies greatly with the individual. For me, it’s usually up to twenty minutes.

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