99 words for ‘tired’

The Inuit have 99 words for snow: one of those facts that seem dependable but fall apart when subjected to closer scrutiny (aka a Google search). This yields references to the Kate Bush album, 50 Words for Snow, as well as to numerous websites either debunking the notion or saying that the Saami people actually have 300. And some debunking that notion.

The (non)fact seems dependable because it makes sense. We should have ample vocabulary for something that we are very familiar with.

For me, fatigue is a lot like snow (except that I live with it all year round). It’s not just one single state, but a whole range of them, whose variations and gradations I – and I suspect, many others – know intimately. I’m fascinated with tiredness. The first sentence of my novel reads, “Rebecca is, above all else, tired.” (What happens when a story begins with someone who is tired? Where can she go from there? My heroine gets more tired in the course of the story though I’m considering giving her a blow to the head just to keep her in bed for a week.)

My grandmother coined the phrase ‘streetcar tired’ and I love her for it. She used it to distinguish between the kind of tiredness I felt at 35, from the kind she felt at 85.

‘Streetcar tired’ denotes a condition particular to people who are middle aged. It’s the way you feel riding a streetcar when you’ve got a day full of errands, an armful of packages, and a thousand people depending on you.

About five years ago while riding a bus I saw an elderly but spry lady offer her seat to a younger one. A very Toronto kind of struggle ensued, which resulted in the elder keeping her seat. She put up a good fight though. One of the arguments I heard was: “Yes, but you’re tired. I can see it.” She was right.

The past few months since the launch of Outside the Box have made me more tired than I’ve ever felt before in my life. Not as a care-giver, not as a student, not in my most demanding jobs. It’s taken me completely by surprise.

Yesterday – or was it a few weeks ago? – I attended a marvelous workshop called Feldenkrais Facial given by Susan Free. She worked with the jaw, the eyes, the neck and – because it’s Feldenkrais – everything else at the same time. When I lay down on the mat and closed my eyes, not trying to do anything, even sleep, it felt as if the floor were coming up to meet me. Of course, that wasn’t true. Instead I was at last yielding my weight to gravity after keeping up up up for who knows how long.

I silently dubbed the experience ‘nervous system tired’, as various twitches and twinges in my face and neck told me how much work I’d been doing to put my best face forward, and how all that extra work was leaving me a brittle mess.

Another kind of tiredness took me by surprise at the beginning of November. It was a Friday, and I’d spent the week making phone calls and sending out emails trying to tell people about my book, trying to set up readings, trying to take disappointments lightly and not get too excited about expressions of interest. As dusk fell that afternoon I stopped what I was doing, went downstairs and sat at the window. I felt empty, an emptiness that dwarfed any heartbreak I’d ever experienced.

I thought of my grandmother. In my first memories of her, she was about the age I am now. A recent widow, she lived upstairs from us, and I used to sit in her apartment while she “waited for twilight,” with the ubiquitous drink of whiskey at her elbow. As I learned from her papers, she had been spending her days trying to salvage her declining career in freelance writing and broadcasting, a career which had demanded she perform, produce, publish, and hustle from the age of eleven.

She was ravenous for attention, in a way that put a premature end to my childhood and drained the energies of everyone around her. That November Friday, I understood my grandmother in a new way. Did she feel this empty trying to sell her work and — let’s face it – herself to potential clients?

If I hadn’t been fifty-two years old before having to deal with this challenge, if I hadn’t been married to the strongest man I’ve ever met, if I didn’t make a regular practice of lying on the floor noticing every twitch and tingle and all that goes into them, I would believe what I needed was a drink. And more attention.

How to interpret this? Is it just a matter of separating the self from the book? My self needed attention at the end of the week, instead of my work. Or does the activity of asking for attention, paradoxically drain something deep within? I’m still figuring that one out.

A week later, just after Remembrance Day, another kind of tiredness caught me off guard. Walking along Queen Street after ten days of offering a poem of Mona’s to two hundred community newspapers for publication, and setting up a reading in Mona’s old stomping ground of Forest Hill, I felt – yes, tired of course I was tired – but it had a kind of lightness to it. My closest experience was having done a walkathon when I was twelve. That night, I felt as if I were being whisked off to sleep.

The poem was not “This Was My Brother.” It was another one, written after the war, called “Prayer at Queen and Yonge.” Though ignored by many newspapers it still made it into The Algoma News, The London Free Press, and Here and Now on CBC.

The Mona I remembered as a child had become known for one poem and one poem only. She never complained about it, but I must have sensed she was unhappy, as I sensed so much. The weekend of Remembrance Day, I discharged the responsibility of telling the world who else Mona had been. This was so not healthy: that I was given it, that I took it on. But I had done my job. Now I was – I let myself be – tired.

I also realized, struggling, hormone-tired, up the hill through the Bain co op yesterday that there are a few kinds of tiredness I used to feel, but no longer do.

The tiredness of anger which is turned inside.
The tiredness of boredom.
The tiredness of unrealized dreams.

I like it better this way.

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2 Responses to 99 words for ‘tired’

  1. Terri Favro says:

    I always thought ‘streetcar tired’ was such a great Toronto expression — anyone who has ever ridden the 501 King car during rush hour knows exactly what Mona meant. She’d be proud of your hustle!

  2. Beautiful post, Maria! I love the idea of 99 words for tired — I too remember feeling a great deal of “tired of boredom” in my Missouri years, which felt so much more debilitating than any sort of positive tiredness. It was almost like aching tiredness or something…

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