So I have this other blog about my newbie Buddhist practice. In a recent post I wrote about motherhood and creativity, so I wanted to share that post here as well. Please share your thoughts.
Last month I attended “Mothers’ Plunge” in Boston, a one-day retreat for mothers led by Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold (two invaluable books about showing up for motherhood in your entirety — relevant for any mother, no Buddhist label required).
As the retreat was drawing to a close, Karen made time for a short Q&A session. My arm shot up. Yes, I did have a burning question. I explained that I understand the concept of paying attention to that which requires attention, of focusing on the matter at hand rather than fretting about stuff that isn’t within arm’s reach. I get that. But with so many people in my life and responsibilities to tend to, I could easily just turn from one urgent matter to the other and fill nearly every waking moment of every day without ever finding/making time for my own stuff, like finishing one of my manuscripts. Do I need to just make peace with that? Do I need to stop clinging to this idea (ideal?) of “being” a writer — for now?
Karen suggested that — despite my protests — it really does get easier, and that at some point the opportunity to write would present itself. Have faith. Write in bits and pieces. Make hay when the sun shines, even if it doesn’t seem like it shines very often. (My cheesy phrasing, not hers.) Let go. Trust. Everything in its own time.
I wanted Karen to have the answer, and I suspected that she did, if I could surrender to it. But I felt enormous resistance bubble up inside me. No. I will never be able to do what I really want to do without making a painful sacrifice somewhere else. My oldest child is nearly 20, my youngest child is only 2, and while the demands of motherhood change over time, the totality of five children and a freelance career is often overwhelming. I don’t want to wait until I’m 60 before I can count on a little “me” time — time to breathe, time to be creative, just time.
During the drive home, I started mulling all of this over — and over. I’ve devoted much of my life to the topic of motherhood and creativity, trying to figure out how to be a mother and an artist without completely messing up one or the other or both. I’m writing a book on the subject, for which have interviewed dozens of creative mothers, extracting commonly successful strategies. I have a blog — this blog — devoted to the community of creative mothers. I know firsthand how the need to be creative coupled with the seemingly inescapable roadblocks of motherhood can lead a woman to tears in the frozen food aisle. I get it. Is the answer really just letting it all go and accepting that the time for creativity will come when it’s time for creativity?
Under the tension of my growing resistance, somewhere along Route 3 a long-held knot popped open, untangling itself into clarity. I realized that when I decided to practice meditation on a regular basis, I started getting up every morning at 5:30 instead of 5:50 to sit for 20 minutes. It wasn’t a big deal. It was important to me, and I wanted to do it, so I made it happen. Sure, there are some mornings when I’m just too tired to get up or my youngest child wakes up exceptionally early and my sitting time is abandoned. But in general, it works. Why then, during all my years of complaining about not having time to write, didn’t I get up 20 minutes earlier to eke out a paragraph or two? There may have been a few early morning or late night attempts over the years, but the strategy never seemed sustainable. Admittedly, a “set” schedule isn’t feasible when you have a newborn or during some other major transition, but my littlest guy has been sleeping fairly predictably for at least a year now.
I realized that I’d fallen into the trap of my own “story.” I write for a living, but writing and editing for hire isn’t enough. I want very much to complete my own personal writing projects. But. (To borrow a Karen-ism.) Do I really want that? Was writing something that I wanted to do so desperately during all those years, or something that I thought I should want to do? Perhaps spending time on my personal writing projects was something I rarely made a regular commitment to because it’s hard, and not always gratifying, and maybe there were a lot of other things — like cleaning the kitchen grout with a Q-Tip — that seemed more important at the time.
It’s hard to make time for shoulds. The shoulds weigh us down and transform everyday life into a bone-wearying Sisyphus impersonation. Meanwhile, the things that we really want to do? We usually do them. A bit of compromise might be required, but if you are totally keyed up to write a haiku today, chances are, you will find 10 minutes to scribble down the draft floating around in your head. Conversely, if you think you should write a haiku today, you might discover that item #37 on your to-do list is so important that there’s simply no way that you can get to the notepad to pen a few lines. Just 10 minutes? Not a chance.
Maybe I wrapped myself up in a coat of creative deprivation just so that I would have something to hide behind. Maybe it really was as uncomplicated as my husband’s response to my martyring complaints, which he offered with a shrug of the shoulders: “If you want to write, write.” This used to infuriate me, but now I see the truth there — as annoying as that is to admit. No, I am not able to run off for six hours of solitary writing time. But. Even 20 minutes of writing time yields 20 minutes’ worth of words that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I know this from personal experience; I have 200 viable pages in my nonfiction manuscript and nearly as many in my most recent novel. These words were amassed in fits and starts rather in predictable, extended writing stints. (Note to self: Try to avoid forgetting all the things that you worked so hard to figure out.)
On my drive home from the retreat, I couldn’t sort out how this construct of beleaguered, suffering writer-mother had sustained me, or why I had bought into it so hard, but I did know that many things I had accepted as inescapable truths were suddenly swathed in question marks. Time to start all over again, with beginner’s mind.