One day in early August, our babysitter arrived at the usual time, and as I was handing Lila to her, along with Lila’s tofu, wild rice and cheese, she said, “I hope Tom told you I have to leave at 3:30 today. Doctor’s appointment. I told him last week.”
Suffice it to say Tom had not told me, nor did he remember being told even when I pressed him on it. As I had two clients after 3:30, I had to scramble to switch them. Though it all worked out, I felt like a victim of my own mess of systems—the unsynchronized palm pilot, the colorful calendar on my computer, the scrawled To Do list which my sister inadvertently took with her to the Adirondacks, and the non-existent family calendar we keep meaning to create. And the results of my disorganization are manifold—the kitchen floor covered with bits of tofu, wild rice and cheese; the dirty diapers in mid-cycle in the washing machine; my not yet unpacked suitcase from last weekend’s gigs; the manuscripts to all three of my current book projects in my office (not to mention penultimate printouts which may or may not be in boxes in the attic); the DVD of the HBO Drama Big Love half-played in my computer; the leggy runners keeping my roses from blooming. But at least I finished Harry Potter.
I’m only kind of kidding. That day, I did something I almost never do: I lay in bed after lunch and read 200 pages of a novel. The day was sunny and too hot even in the shade, but my bedroom was cool and I had a mason jar full of water and a gripping story to dwell within. I laughed and cried and cheered and felt when I had finished that there was no better way I could have spent my time.
For me, this is progress. Some of my dear friends have pointed out that I am something of a workaholic. “It’s your Capricorn rising,” say my astrology pals. “You can’t bear to let people down.”
While this is true, it’s not the whole story. Fear of disappointing people is not the motor that drives me to work. I like to work because my work is mesmerizing, compelling and rewarding. Right now I am making little movies of my band to put on YouTube. I am touring our new CD Sister Holler. I am editing The Big Idea to release as a serial, and I am writing songs to go with it. I get to coach fascinating people, people whose calls I look forward to taking. And I get to participate in writing groups in my own living room. What’s not to love?
But as I’ve said before, the problem with loving your work (be careful what you wish for) is that if you wade too deeply into it, you risk being pulled out by one of the strongest undertows known to man—the undertow of success. As my astrology pal recognized, one of the pitfalls of success is that it says, “See how important you are? All these people are waiting for you to do the next successful thing. They need you! They are counting on you!” And while this sometimes might appear true—people might even write you letters and tell you just this—it’s really not. You are somewhat replaceable. I say “somewhat” because I also believe that each of us is a unique channel and all that Martha Graham blah blah blah that I’m constantly quoting.* __The other pitfall is the way in which the best, most delicious, fun “work” takes you away from your feelings, from any kind of pain you might be in and might need to address. When I am feeling restless, irritable and discontented in any way, my favorite diversion is to start planning how I am going to fill up my time with useful and productive Things To Do.
But ultimately, when it comes down to a choice between your work and what for lack of a better word I will call your equanimity, I would hope to chose equanimity every time. By equanimity, I mean that sense of rightness within yourself. That sense of balance. I know I have it when I pass my reflection in the mirror and have the thought, “She looks like a nice person. I trust her.” I know I have it when I don’t feel like I’m on speed. I might be full of energy and able to handle the diapers, the manuscripts and my daily jog, but the energy seems to be coming from deep within; not the fleeting caffeinated high I often settle for.
And if you live with people you love, equanimity is about sharing the best parts of yourself with them, and not hoping they will settle for the half-asleep remnants of what is left of you when you spend your day racing from one flaming bush to the next. It’s about getting down on the carpet or the lawn and playing with your child. It’s about asking your partner how his or her day was and really listening for the follow up. It’s about looking those people in the eye and holding contact.
And most importantly, it’s about giving yourself—your dear, worn, imperfect, trying-her-best self– a break; a break that won’t break you, like going on a shopping spree you can’t afford, or eating a tray full of spice cake. Rather, it’s about pretending for a second that you are the absolutely, uniquely, perfect mother for you; and given that, what would be the kindest, most helpful thing you could do with your time? Perhaps paying attention to your food as you eat a nutritious lunch. Perhaps going for a slow walk by the river. Perhaps riding your bike to an art museum. Perhaps browsing in a book store. Maybe it’s actually tackling that closet full of clothes that don’t fit and packing them off to Good Will. For me, yesterday, it was letting the tofu and cheese remain on the floor for a few hours while I finished a fun novel with my feet up while Lila was downstairs playing with a babysitter.
Even writing those words, I feel a twinge of guilt. The army of “I shoulds!” comes marching out of my ears and I expect thousands of “good” mothers and fiscally responsible householders to condemn me for my sloth and extravagance. Also, I expect that all of you reading this are wondering how I, self-proclaimed time management guru, could possibly schedule such an activity during the peak productivity hours of the day. (I have a lot to say about so called peak productivity hours, but I’ll save that for later.) What I’ll say now is that in the simple act of writing what I have just written, I no longer feel like the victim of my mess of time management systems, but rather the conqueror. For I see that I’ve achieved exactly what all those systems hope to promote, and that is a happy balanced life. Who ever said dirty diapers have no place in a happy balanced life? Who ever said a happy balanced life never left a residue of cheese on a kitchen’s wood floor? These artifacts are ample evidence of the life we are all craving, because they are proof that we are living fully, richly, messily, creatively. My daughter has a big bucket of blocks which are, most of the time, not encased in their bucket but dumped out all over the floor. What purpose do the blocks serve? They are not the kind of blocks that make building meant to last for more than five minutes. From a certain perspective, one could imagine their purpose is to cover the carpet. But I see Lila playing with the blocks. She loves to dump them on the floor, yes, but she also loves to put them back one by one, singing her “Put It Back” song which goes, “Ba—Ba,” to the tune of “Sol-Do.” She also loves to pick one block out and cradle it to her chest and carry it with her all over the house, leaving it finally in some incongruous place like my desk or the toilet. This is part of what she needs to do to learn how the world works. Life is inherently messy.
Because I took a long delicious break in the middle of the day yesterday to enjoy Harry Potter, I was cheerful and present today. I felt spoiled, as though I’d gotten a massage. I felt like someone whose job it was to take care of me exquisitely succeeded. Who knows? Tonight I might even unpack my suitcase.
*FYI, the Martha Graham quote: _”There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”-Martha Graham