Here are things that happened over the last three weeks:
- I turned in the 74,000-word manuscript of the Detroit anthology to the publisher
- I went on a homemade 4.5 day reading/writing retreat in Charlevoix, Michigan (up at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula: that's Lake Michigan frozen over in the above photo), which included good food and an epic incident involving snow, vehicles, strangers, and being trapped for six hours
- Through Literary Detroit, I helped host the debut of our new Motor Signal Reading Series, and an unusual book event involving anonymous family secrets and art (and we are hosting Bill Ayers tomorrow evening!)
- I talked about why Americans don't read (barely any) translated literature on Wisconsin Public Radio
- I had a happy weekend visiting family in my hometown, St. Joseph
- I wrote, revised, and went through the rigorous fact-checking process on a 5,000-word article about Houston that comes out next week
- I reviewed Hannah Arendt's last interview for Waxwing
- I wrote about the epic newsroom drama in Cleveland, and about how journalists are and are not benefiting from a push for government transparency in Wisconsin
- I talked about why Obamacare is awesome for freelancers
- I taught poetry and drew pictures with high schoolers two mornings a week through the InsideOut writing residency program (weather permitting!)
Here are things that did not happen over the last three weeks:
- Sufficient exercise
- Balanced eating (which is not to say that there weren't great meals in there, especially up in Charlevoix)
- Sufficient sleep
- A great deal of friend time
- Regular cleaning of my apartment
- I had been making a ritual out of reading for at least 20 minutes, first thing each morning, as a sort of meditation practice. I completely lapsed on that.
The things on the "not done" list are only palatable to me if they are temporary conditions, not a practice. I'm proud of the work done over the last few weeks, but it felt breathless and out of joint.
You know that Charlevoix retreat? It only happened because we were intentional about it. We planned ahead. We got to joyfully look forward to it for months. While there, we kept ourselves offline. And it was a perfect trip — I experienced those days as a proper de-icing. My itch to get things done relaxed, and I basically did nothing that anyone expected or needed me to do; only things I felt like doing. (Mostly reading, as it turned out.)
Over dinner just before Charlevoix, a friend shared an exercise that she went through (in a much more involved way) on a facilitated retreat. It basically goes like this:
Step 1: What is a strength of yours?
(I picked that I'm not afraid to work hard.)
Step 2: What is a pitfall of your strength? That is, what happens if you have too much of it?
(I get too busy, and I don't leave time to care for myself or for the other meaningful parts of my life that are not work. I mis-value things: if time isn't spent "productively," I fret that I am wasting it.)
Step 3: Given your pitfall, what is your challenge? That is, what is an action to take to keep you calibrated right, so that you're acting from your strength, and not your pitfall?
(I can intentionally create space for things that are not "productive" but have meaning and delight for me. I can catch myself trying to strain, say, a lazy afternoon with a friend into something that is "useful," or when I try to problem-solve things that are not a problem I need to solve. Basically, I can learn to be attentive, to slow down, to pivot more easily into other ways of being. I can work less.)
Step 4: Who is your trigger person? Or, what is your allergy persona? That is, what is the persona that drives you mad? This is your shadow self. You know you got it when just thinking about this person/persona starts working you up! (No naming names here, but my trigger persona is people who have time and resources — but no will or passion. People who have a lack of curiosity about the world: I just do not understand that. People who opt out. Lazy people. People who say they will do things and don't follow through. People who can't be counted on. People who skirt the edges. People afraid of effort, or snobbish about what kind of "work" is worth their time. In my experience, it is the same persona who has all these traits! And it reveals a lot about my shadow self — the side of me that I repress, that I'm afraid of, that I'd be horrified to be known as.)
I was really struck by this exercise, because it crystallized the fluidity of our strengths and pitfalls … and it gave me a stern look at how my irritation at my shadow self/trigger persona (Step 4) has me overcompensating, leading me straight into my pitfall (Step 2.) Once that was revealed, I started seeing it everywhere.
Our Charlevoix retreat was a way of creating space that intervenes on those old well-worn emotional patterns. I was starved for it, and am seriously and happily considering making my annual writing retreat into a twice-a-year ritual, or maybe even a seasonal one. The somewhat spontaneous decision to travel three hours each way to visit family this weekend was part of that same instinct to disrupt the habits that incline me to spend my time "accomplishing things."
But that's still not enough. I am alive every day, and I want to learn how the "creating space" model can get outside the vacation set-up.
I've been in the weeds, and I've gotten a lot done. I'm proud of it — especially this anthology. But I'm ready to experiment with more ways of measuring worth than in output. I will try. It is hard for me to not work hard — constantly — because I fear that I will go hungry if I don't accept every possible assignment, and because I fear I will disappoint people, and because I've grown very accustomed to conflating my worth as a person with the worth of my work. I was a good student in school, and this came to seem like a moral good, you know? And I want to be a good person.
It's tiring, though. And while my ability to work hard is indeed a strength, it is not my only one, even though it's the one that gets all my attention and trust. Vulnerable as it feels to let go of concrete markers of value of usefulness, I'm ready to pay more attention to my shadow persona instead — the side that says no, that lays down, that wanders, that takes great joy in not working — to see what power she has. Writing isn't the only way to get through the weeds that choke up the days, after all. What if I relax through them instead? What if I skip rope through them, or do nothing through them? What if I just laugh?