Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
It's on My List
By Roxanne Fequiere
You know what they say about leading horses to water. I first encountered Erin Falconer’s How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything So They Can Achieve Anything while wandering the bookstore in search of another author’s work. I took a photo of the cover but kept moving; I had four other titles already in hand, and I couldn’t foresee a sliver of time in my future in which I could possibly squeeze another one in.
The premise seemed compelling, though, and weeks later, when someone name-checked the book in conversation, I took it as a sign that I had to go back and pick it up. When the student is ready the teacher will appear and all that.
The vast majority of my life up until this point has been in service of doing All The Things—and in exemplary fashion, at that. This has resulted in a severely truncated sleep schedule, permanently racing thoughts, and many, many productivity methods and hacks. In college, I figured out that if I locked myself in the bathroom, it would be just chilly and uncomfortable enough to get my work done a little bit quicker. I’ve tried life coaching. I have a dedicated Pomodoro Technique timer, graph paper for goal tracking pinned to a bulletin board, and a whiteboard with the week’s to-dos scribbled down in color-coded ink.
I want to meet deadlines and pay my bills on time, sure, but I also want to achieve inbox zero. I want my home to look worthy of a photo spread at all times. I want to be an attentive partner. I want to be a better friend. I want to whittle my body down to peak performance shape. I want to figure out how to actually use LinkedIn to my advantage. I want to write books. I want to launch businesses. I want to travel the world. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, “I haven’t done everything, but it’s on my list.”
Falconer posits that this is a problem that afflicts women in particular, and at least when examining my own trajectory, her theory rings true. Growing up, my parents stressed the importance of excellence, but between my two older brothers and myself, it seems only I got the memo. No shade—I believe that both my brothers are brilliant, but while I was shedding tears over getting a 99 on a test, they were bringing home whatever grades they could muster and shrugging off whatever my parents had to say about it.
Exhibit B: When I open up to my partner about my misgivings about becoming a parent, unpacking years’ worth of cultural expectations and the concerns I have about defying or reinforcing them, he looks at me with love, compassion, and a touch of puzzlement. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the things that I’m talking about, but I’ve spent a large portion of my life trying to wrap my head around a concept that he will likely begin grappling with only after there’s an actual pregnancy to consider.
There are times—and by this, I mean almost always—when it feels like women are building their lives like a Jenga tower, hemming and hawing over our next step, always destabilizing something or other in order to level up; meanwhile, men are simply given a second set of blocks. I was excited to dive into Falconer’s plan for abandoning this unsustainably wobbly approach to life, but also short on time, frankly. I’d waded into one of those calendar stretches where you find yourself so immovably packed in on all sides that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I mentioned this dilemma to my editor. “Maybe that’s your story,” she suggested. “Being so busy that you couldn’t finish a book about how to get things done.”
“Oh, I’m gonna finish it,” I insisted. “There’s no way I’m about to admit defeat.”
And yet, every time I cracked the book open, a voice in my head yelled back at the text. Mindfulness? I have to turn in branding copy, pull clothing for a photoshoot, be at my babysitting appointment by 6:30 and respond to at least three urgent emails tonight—I’m having enough trouble being mindful of that. To Falconer’s credit, she knows her audience very well: “Okay, before you get mad at me for adding one more thing to your to-do list, hang on,” she writes, expertly defusing my inner temper tantrum. “This isn’t another meeting to add to your calendar, it’s a life-changing ninja move that’s going to make everything you do better. And of course it’s going to put you in closer touch with your own beliefs and opinions.”
Well, that sounded nice, but when I retreated to my bedroom to attempt a breathing exercise, I heard planes overhead and stray cats below. An ambulance siren wailed. I breathed in and thought about the intake of oxygen, a competitive research slideshow I needed to locate, a friend’s upcoming birthday. I exhaled and thought about releasing that breath, how long it had been since I called my mother, how many Red Bulls I had left in the fridge.
“This sounds like a stressful reading experience,” my therapist said when I filled her in, three days past deadline. “You’re feeling guilt and anxiety over both what’s in the text and also over the assignment attached to it. Maybe you should write about that and move on.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I can finish it, though. I’ve got less than a hundred pages left.”
Back in my room, I gritted my teeth and got back into it. “What are the tasks that make you feel the most stretched?” the book asked. Oh my God, seriously? All of them, I thought. All of them. All. Of. Them. How about that? I was spiraling, and the worst part was that the book had nothing to do with it. I was a parched and stubborn horse.
“If your editor already suggested you write about the experience of not finishing the book, why don’t you just do that?” my partner asked, four days past deadline.
“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: I will not admit defeat,” I replied. “Look! I have, like, sixty pages left! I just need to send in these tagline options first, and then respond to a few emails, then I want to look up flight options for June and July.”
“You can’t grind all day,” the book said. I BEG TO DIFFER, I shot back.
Not long afterward, I fell asleep with the book open on my chest. The next morning, five days past deadline, I admitted defeat.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.