Benjamin had a small notebook near his bed that was labeled “things that will help.” Each page had one or two words on it, and you could tell he wrote it just for himself. It said things like: “hot water, Brian Wilson, loud rock music, and on my favorite page it says: “smell some aromatherapy stuff (you know, hippie crap).” I look at it often and mostly laugh because his humor is baked into the small pages. Sometimes my throat closes with the loss of him. I wished his list had helped him enough and built him a boat to get to shore, and that my Otis had known his wit. But Benjamin’s system of little helpers spurred me long ago to make mine clear and audible, so I wouldn’t get lost at sea.
For a writer my house is unusually clean and organized. It’s part of how I order myself, and it helps me to feel less messy and sad inside. A few years ago, I came across a “cleaning calendar” idea, which cycles through the week, month and even year with daily chores. It is perfect for 2 types of people. Those who never clean and therefore need motivation to keep themselves in realm of feeling civilized, and those who clean too much as a metaphorical form of scrubbing their own heart. It’s a system that lets me off the hook once my chore is done, and disciplines me to get to the work of writing, play, teaching and parenting. It is a way I have learned to wrestle down the beast and put her in a corner with some calming tea.
There are so many ways to talk about life while you are actually missing the living part. I tend to walk around in circles of unproductive chaos until I have a good system in place to keep me accountable. I read a lot of meditation books before I actually started to meditate regularly. I believe in the value of study and preparing the ground for learning with conscious tools, but eventually you have to practice something in your body and find your own way through exploration and investigation. There comes a point when a bite size system that works for you must be slotted in, otherwise you are perpetually peering over the wall awaiting your turn.
There is a piece of all of us that longs to be rhythmic and metered. I love a good plan with some routines in place so I don’t float around in space, waiting for inspiration to arrive. If you have children, you can count on that they are watching and keeping an internal journal of their findings. I see Otis fall in love with his pretend food each morning after breakfast, and I also see him watching me find mine in the form of writing and yoga. As a parent, there are so many ways I could do better and be more patient and consistent. I am certain the amount of bribes I have made to correct toddler behavior is adding up to a list that reaches the heavens, and my tolerance for tantrums is low and needs guidance. And, why do all three-year old’s refuse to put on their shoes when everyone else is waiting for them? Why is this the piece that comes unglued every single time? But regardless of these parts of parenting where I do not shine or even feel mediocre, I make sure he sees me practice something soulful and artful every day. These small moments and systems build legacy. We pass down rituals that have worked for us, and ways we have found to hurt less and love more.
“The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture…the yearning and swelling heart…
These became part of that child who went forth every day...”
I started to write this book when Otis was just after one. He was wide open with so many needs at once and my days were all him when I wasn’t teaching yoga. I knew I was pregnant with this book but I couldn’t find time to write it down. At his bedtime I was thoroughly wrung out and ready for a hot bath and a crime show. I couldn’t write clearly or offer much at night, and the day started again at 6:30 with his chirping. I had to figure it out, but there seemed to be no creative time for me. 5 am became the only option I could see to birth the book, so I announced the system to myself and Matt and made it happen. I set the alarm for 4:50, made coffee, and sat down at my desk at 5. Out of those little mornings the labor and delivery began.
I love Mary Oliver, and I have nursed myself to back to peace on her words many times in my life. Her words below on the creative process are achingly romantic and I envied her one-pointed focus both then and now. However, unless I wanted to be put away for child neglect I had to become more systemized with my writing time.
“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.” M.O.
What she says doesn’t really work for me now, though maybe it will someday long after children are grown and I am an old woman. My dear friend calls her Saint Mary, and I agree she deserves that title. But in this particular way, I do not have the luxury to subscribe. Right now, the system of that early morning window will have to be enough. Maybe someday there will be more air and light in my writing days, but for now I have to pack it in when I can.
During the days I scribble ideas down on index cards and keep them in a blue box littered with gold paint droplets on my desk. In the mornings, I decode the scribbles and try to make something out of my prompts, racing with the toddler clock and counting on Otis to continue sleeping. Sometimes I use the ninety minutes to type with urgency, pumping the words out like life blood that knows where to go in the body. Other mornings I stare at the page and wonder about my self-worth, what I am cooking for supper, and if I should get a new moisturizer. But the time feels holy nonetheless, and important even if the result is only deep breath and rereading yesterday. Anne Lamott calls it “gathering wool.”
My husband came home one day with a board book called “All About Punk Rock” and gave it to Otis. It’s a very simple explanation of punk rock and how it came to be, with colorful illustrations of common bands, clothing and attitudes. The last page says: “If you have learned anything about punk rock, you know that a board book about punk rock is not very punk rock.”
I felt this way for a little while about systems and rituals. That they might be railing against the idea of a creative life and a landscape of freedom and expansion. I have worried that Mary Oliver was right in that if I didn’t completely abandon the ordinary for the extraordinary, I didn’t belong to the writing somehow. But before I had little systems of rhythm and regular blue boxes to check, I was only free in theory. I talked a lot about artistry but rarely got to my desk. I think there was a part of me that felt like the roaming romance would die in the arms of calendar and timings. Once I gave myself some little daily systems, I got stronger. And those patterns built little grooves in my body and I started to crave them because I was thriving. It didn’t take long for my 5 am call to my desk to be a longing to get back home. Our bodies and our art want to thrive and they are looking for material in which to do so. It’s just like eating clean food. Over time, it’s what the body prefers and we stop thinking about Cheetos. Sometimes. Unless, of course, you have a southern mama who stocks her pantry with such and you binge once a month or so. But as mama says, everything belongs in moderation.
My little book of “things that will help” includes but is not limited to: 4:50 am writing, great coffee, Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke and old gospel on vinyl, homemade Indian food, new socks, long walks with my husband discussing very ordinary things, hot water, and real fires. And a looonnnggg pigeon pose.
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