One Fewer Thing

There will be no post Friday, November 25.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Those three words have been my mantra this week, something my husband has reminded me of as he leaves in the morning and as we talk midafternoon.  I work from home – writing in the mornings; teaching and related tasks in the afternoon – so I have a tendency to think I can do a few loads of laundry, organize my messy desk, make soup, and still get a chapter cranked out by noon.  And the afternoons?  When did shopping for food start to take so much time?  Why does a swim seem to eat up two hours when I’m only in the pool for 45 minutes?  Will I ever get through the issues of Poets & Writers threatening to topple from the tiny table where I’ve stacked them?  And what about those yellowing NY Times Book Reviews?

My shoulders are seizing up, and I’ve written only one paragraph.

Hence the mantra.

Last week, I had an ugly, exhausting confrontation with someone I love. I won’t go into back story or details – so we’ll leave it at this:  afterwards, I felt hurt, angry, and worn out.  I spent hours sobbing and wandering the apartment, not knowing what to do.  Finally, I heated soup and ate it, still crying.  I slept nine hours, and I woke up.  Crisis over.  Things to do.

Then, that evening, I couldn’t find a parking place.  Class was starting in fifteen minutes, and I needed to pick up a sandwich, and why were there no spots here on Sacramento Street, here where I’d parked easily for weeks? Before I knew it, I was sobbing into my husband’s voice mail.  He met me at a parking garage, brought me a sandwich, and sent me into class.

The next day, I felt fine until about three, when – rushing home to pack and get ready to leave for a weekend out of town – I discovered that we were out of kibble for the cat.  The store across the street sold only Puppy Chow.  I bought a sack and fretted about how I could have let this happen.  And what about possible feline digestive enzymes that react fatally to anything meant for a dog?

Why is it that we don’t always pay attention to how upset we are until we run out of kibble or can’t find a parking spot (or, last night, a receipt), and then we implode?  I can’t do anything right!  My life is a disorganized mess!  I’m becoming a hoarder!

Last weekend – the weekend the cat ate Puppy Chow (and survived) – we drove three hours north to a hot springs retreat.  There was no Wi-Fi, no cell reception.  Guests were asked to leave electronic devices at home.  The day seemed much longer, more spacious, than a 24-hour Saturday at home spent Doing Things.  I soaked in mineral baths, ate delicious food, and had weird dreams.  We got home, Sunday night, to the same piles of papers and dirty clothing, the myriad lists, the familiar clutter.

I won’t lie and say they don’t still get to me.  But I’m trying to learn that by scaling back, by doing less, I have more – more resilience, more attention, more openness.  Not just to myself and others but to my work.  And more patience with a crisis, on the page or in my kitchen.

Many times, I’ve rushed through revisions, happily making small changes in syntax or refining imagery.  Good work, sure, and necessary.  But too often, for me, it has taken the place of the heavy lifting a story really needs.  You know, those major shifts, those periods of not knowing where the hell you’re going.  I hate them.  I want the answer to a narrative puzzle, the key to a character’s actions, and I want it Now.

On a good day of writing, I can feel a bustling energy not unlike the caffeine-fueled intentions of a To Do Today list.  But when I make myself sit with one comment for a while, not racing to strike it off the list and move onto the next, I write and think better.  And when my morning’s over, I might still have time to get to the store and go for a swim.

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