Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Prompt 203. On the Value of Rest
An announcement & a prompt on our varied emotional palette
I’m writing to you from a little island off the coast of New York. I’m on vacation with my husband Jon, one we began planning months ago—another seed for future joy, or in this case, much needed rest.
It’s a funny thing, though—rest. Even though we’ve both been in desperate need of it, we’ve always felt uncomfortable when we take time off, a bit unmoored, even listless. This week, I found myself having to actively resist setting goals. I’d check my phone and see that I took 4,000 steps, then my mind jumped forward to, “Tomorrow I’ll shoot for 5,000, and maybe by the time I leave here, I can start training for a half marathon.” (Potential next memoir title: Never Not Getting Ahead of Myself.)
For many of us, especially those who live in cultures that laud hyper-productivity, we feel like we have to earn our rest. The irony is, there’s always more work, always something else to chase, to prove. It becomes a kind of trap: essentially, you can never do enough. I have glorified work for as long as I can remember, and at this point, my self-worth is not just wrapped up in the work, but in my ability to keep working no matter the circumstance. More than a decade ago, as I prepared for my first bone marrow transplant, I was more worried and anxious about potentially missing a deadline than I was about the extremely risky treatment I was undergoing. When I relapsed in November, one of my immediate thoughts was, “But what about all my plans? What about my work?” I used to recount these kinds of anecdotes with pride, but as I write this, I feel self-conscious about what it says about me and my priorities. This fixation feels like something that needs to be attended to. And perhaps, in this, I’m not alone.
I suspect that true rest is akin to being truly present, where your whirring mind stills, where you’re not racing ahead to whatever is next. There are certainly many great human teachers on this subject, but for me, the best examples I’ve had are dogs—which brings me to River, my gorgeous new pup. She arrived just before we came to the beach, and already she’s such a source of solace, exhibiting the most uncomplicated joy and playful exuberance—but also stillness and peace. On the very first day we were here, I was sitting in a lounge chair on the deck of our beach bungalow, gazing out at the ocean. I noticed her suddenly perk up, and sit up, then hold completely still. I followed her gaze, and there, only yards away from us, was a giant deer. River did not bark or even get to her feet, and for the next few minutes, we sat there, watching the deer amble along, grazing on the reedy grasses in the dunes, unperturbed and oh so zen.
For more than two years now—two years and 101 days to be exact—I haven’t taken a break from this first daily, then weekly newsletter. Not on holidays, not when I was sick. The work has been an anchor for me, and this beloved community—such a buoy. But on the heels of this most recent 100-day project, and as I prepare to resume chemotherapy, I’ve decided to take a longer break, to lie fallow for a few weeks, to rest. It’s such an important part of the creative process, and I’m excited to return in August refreshed and renewed, with new opportunities for inspiration and connection for our community. I will be keeping up with my daily journaling, and I hope you will too. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, I’ve included some favorite evergreen prompts at the bottom of this newsletter.
And now for today—I’m resharing our prompt from two years ago, which marked the end of our first community 100-day project. It’s called “All the Colors,” and when I read it again, it felt eerily familiar—and somehow even more relevant now than it did then. These things come back for a reason: because we have to be reminded. Our sweet little human brains have to learn things again and again.
One last thing I’d like to say—not a day has passed since I started this newsletter that I don’t feel overwhelmed with gratitude for this community. In the words of my beloved Jon: I love you, even if I don’t know you.
Powering down the laptop and plunging into the surf,
P.S. I hope you had a chance to peruse the email we sent out to celebrate our 100-day project. It contained 20 tiny beautiful creations and lessons learned, and it’s so moving—not to be missed. As community member Mary McKnight said in the comments, “It was/is a museum experience for me… a collective of inspiration.”
P.P.S. Our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers, is today from 1-2 pm ET. It’s going to be a special 100-day project celebration—hope you can make it!
Prompt 203. All the Colors by Suleika Jaouad
Truth be told, I didn’t finish my first 100-day project back in 2011. By the time we reached the end, I was very, very sick. The standard treatment I’d been prescribed had failed, and I was undergoing a brutal experimental regimen and being hospitalized about every two weeks. I was actually too sick to feel disappointed. Instead, what I felt was a more general sense of despair—that every effort I made to be productive, every plan I had for moving forward had been interrupted. The ongoingness of it was so defeating. It was as if I had lost sight of the horizon, and I couldn’t will myself forward.
About a year later, I found myself at another Day 100: having made it through that many days post-transplant. It’s an important milestone, one that determines the success of your transplant and your likelihood of long term survival. To celebrate, there was a rooftop party organized by my friends—lively 24-year-olds, drinking, dancing and laughing. But what very few of them knew was that, only a few weeks earlier, my doctors told me I had a high risk of relapse and were recommending another year of chemo. I spent the party profoundly disoriented. I was surrounded by the people I loved, all celebrating me—yet I was devastated by the thought of ongoing treatment, and I felt so alone. I could barely wrap my head around the contradictions.
I look back on those times and I see depths I couldn’t then. I see that my first 100-day project was not a failure—in fact, the writing I did became the foundation upon which I built my New York Times column.
I see that my experience at the Day 100 party was an early rite of passage, teaching me about contradictions and uncertainty, and how that’s part of this experience of being human.
Day 100 for me has come to symbolize so much. The first project. The post-transplant milestone. The culmination of my road trip, when I returned to New York City after traversing 15,000 miles around the United States. And now we’ve reached this Day 100 together. It feels both triumphant and contains the complex truth that we rarely get to move on from the hard things. As much as we wish we could leave them behind, could find some separation, they’re a part of us, and we have to move forward with them.
Yesterday I was on a call with some extraordinary friends who began volunteering their time to this project at the very beginning. As we reflected on our lives and the world at large, what kept coming up were the contradictions and the uncertainties. Lindsay said it seemed like we just realized we’re all running a marathon and are only at mile eight. Carmen said she felt directionless and untethered. Kate said that, for the first time in many years, she couldn’t find the words for what she was feeling, and she thinks of all these conflicting emotions as experiencing “all the colors”—from fury to peace, from exhaustion to exuberance.
“Maybe one day, I’ll have the luxury of experiencing and focusing on only one,” she said, “but right now, I’m a Jackson Pollock, splattered with every color and hue. And that’s just how it is. And that's okay.”
Your prompt for the week:
Reflect on all the colors that make up your emotional palette—from the brightest neons to the drabbest grays. Examine the different hues and shades that occur each morning, midday, afternoon, and evening. Write about how they’re playing out on a canvas, how they work together to make each day a painting of its own.
For some rest & relaxation, see—
We Made It!, a celebration of our 100-day project in 20 tiny beautiful creations and lessons learned
On Matters of Life and Death with Marie Howe, an excerpt from our Studio Visit where she considers the value of lying fallow
A guided breathwork session with our friend Taylor Somerville