Them's The Breaks

I haven't posted in a couple days. Things got busy and I've wondered about other kinds of writing I want to do. Posting daily takes work — though I don't want to oversell it since I can gin up a post in half an hour — and there are times it leaves me without the energy to write something longer. And then there are the streaks and the break.

Streaks sometimes work. They keep me going when I want to quit. A long streak gets me over my inertia.

But streaks can get in my way and become more important than the thing I'm really trying to do. That was how daily blogging had begun to feel. I was churning out mediocre posts that weren't making me happy and got in the way of other writing. I took a break so I might come back with a better idea of how to proceed.

I've kept my Morning Pages streak. People confuse the blog with those. There are posts that come from the morning's pages, but not often. Morning Pages are less about writing than about daily practice like meditation or prayer. I find balance through them. Without them the last five years of my job would have been unbearable. Morning Pages teach me who I am. That streak is easy to maintain. Every time I consider breaking it, I reconsider and keep going. The daily-ness feels necessary and good. It doesn't get in the way.

I'll try to keep publishing a newsletter each week. It's a great way to keep up with people, understand audience, and have fun.

Here are my guiding questions for streaks:

  • Is it making me happy?
  • Is it making me a better person?
  • Is it making me a better writer?
  • Would a break improve things?

It has been a good break. I'm back today, happy, better, and ready to see what happens next.

Those questions are a good guide to most anything. Go figure.

Prayer & Writing

I don't want to complain too much. Talking about my job and how ill-suited to it I have become is worth only a certain number of pixels and I've exceeded that number. I'm sure I'll go deeper into the red on that, but here I want to talk about falling behind, feeling rushed, and the accompanying feelings for writing. Some call this writer's block, but it's something else entirely.

In the few moments I've had for writing the last three days not much has happened. I've been tired, rushed, and doubtful about any of my ideas. This isn't writer's block. I just lacked faith and didn't have time to let writing take me back into the land of believing.

These things happen.

Though I haven't written a blog post every day, each morning I wake early and write three Morning Pages by hand. No one will ever see those pages. I wrote them for myself and just to be writing.

Morning Pages are one way to keep in the habit of writing and that daily practice builds faith. I imagine it like prayer for the doubtful and am reminded of this Thomas Merton prayer:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I replace God with writing and think of Morning Pages as a kind of prayer. I fall behind in publishing the blog and assembling pieces for submission, but I return to the daily practice of the pen, the pages, and the act of writing. "I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire" and trust that I will, someday and in some way I may not yet understand, find a lasting rhythm that carries me through my days.

Given that I began this day, as I have every day for almost five years, filling Morning Pages, maybe I already have.

Letter Of Recommendation: Scooping Cat Litter

My daughter has been too busy to some household duties. She's a good kid so I pick up the slack largely without complaint. After all, I was doing these things before she was born and for most of the time she was an infant. (I made her change the motor oil at fourteen months). It's no big deal to take these things on and so each morningI have been scooping the litter box. It has turned out to be at least as good for me as it is for the cats.

Maybe you think scooping cat litter isn't your cup of tea. It's kind of gross to think about. The smell isn't great. Is the litter radioactive or carcinogenic? I still recommend going to the litter box early each morning, sitting on a stool, and scooping the litter with a small smile. Scooping the litter turns may not be the way to joy, but it is surely one way toward contentment.

I scoop litter after morning meditation. That has helped make it a practice rather than a task. It really does seem like raking a Zen garden. I sit on the stool, sift for treasures, drop them into a bag, add clean litter, and drop the bag in the garbage can. I'm in no hurry. There's no reward. Aside from this essay, no one would ever know I'm doing this. (Well, the cats might notice, especially the black and white one who likes to watch.)

Scooping litter is performing maintenance which makes the world go round. Doing the practice every morning means the box rarely smells that bad. The practice is quiet, clear, and done in solitude. I'm not exactly mindful but it is the kind of meditative act in which I'm not thinking to conclusions or to get anywhere. I am simply there, on the stool, scooping the litter, being at peace.

I've had similar experiences doing dishes and laundry but there is something special about the litter box. I think it's that the litter falls like sand through the sieve of the scoop like sand passing through an hourglass. It feels timeless.

This morning, after I had finished scooping but before I stood up from the stool, I closed my eyes and felt myself bow to the clean litter box, to the bag of dirty litter, to the scoop hung back on the wall, and to this daily practice of maintenance in solitude. I hadn't intended that bow, but it felt right and good.

The black and white cat was watching. She stood still, her entire being the very definition of composure. When I moved to the garbage can to drop the bag of dirty litter, she remained still and her eyes did not follow me. It wasn't until I went up and rang a scoop of dry food into the cats' metal bowls that she ran pell-mell upstairs as if I was a monk striking a bell signaling the end of meditation and the beginning of a new day.

Practice Makes Better

I'm an irregular meditation student. Years ago two pros came to my school to meditate with my students and me. That was good. I took a six-week meditation class that ended in a half-day silent retreat. That was very good. But I haven't maintained a regular practice. I've written Morning Pages every single morning since July 5, 2014, but have yet to string together ten straight days of meditation even for five minutes a day.

In the last two weeks I've come back to meditation. After Morning Pages I set a timer and sit for five minutes. This morning I returned after a couple days away. Thoughts came to me, mostly plans or things I feel obligated to consider right away. I work to gently set them aside saying, You can wait. The thoughts are like my children when they were young wanting immediate attention as I was occupied. I asked my girls to wait, rarely more than a few seconds, then gave them my attention. They've grown up just fine. Perhaps my mind can grow in the same way.

After today's brief meditation I wrote:

To care for the mind is to care for the whole self.
To care for the body is to care for the mind and thus the whole self.
To care for others is to care for the self and the whole world.

Sitting meditation for five minutes this morning has enlightened me that tiny bit. It's like sunlight after the Winter Solstice coming sooner and lasting just a little longer. Change comes slowly and is sometimes difficult to notice.

I don't promise I'll keep up with the meditation. I know I haven't yet decided this thing. I'll have decided if it becomes as automatic as my Morning Pages. This note is just a reminder to myself that I feel better having sat for five minutes. It's a reminder that I need these ways to feel better in order to make my way forward and through to where I'm still not sure.