"Without a daily embodiment in practice, lofty ideals tend to succumb to self-interest."--Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Wherever You Go, There You Are
The promises we make to ourselves are often the ones we don't take that seriously. We think we're being serious when we say we're going to not eat anything after 8:30PM, but the very day we say it, somehow a bowl of chips and salsa appears in front of us, and what can we do?
I've been taking these pricey writing classes in downtown Boston on and off for a few years now. My husband has supported me going because he figures I'd meet people, make some writer friends who I could invite over for wine tastings and lively dinner parties. He also thought taking classes would get me to write everyday, to develop the regular practice we had talked about so many times over glasses of wine, when we'd engage in that kind of dream talking, resolution-making that's cute when you're 19 but kind of pathetic by the time you're 38.
Since taking these writing classes I've written maybe a dozen poems and essays and submitted exactly two.
Not to say that I don't enjoy the classes or like the people I've met there. I love how there's such a range of backgrounds, occupations, and experience levels in almost every class I've taken. In one personal essay class I was in last Fall, there was a cancer surgeon, someone who worked in Geriatric medicine, a school teacher, an aspiring yoga instructor, and an architect. It was a unique experience for me to be among such a group and I loved hearing their writing--the funny, unusual, painfully honest and incredibly moving stories my classmates wrote about and shared with us. We only saw each other once a week for four hours but that didn't cool the intimacy of the essays we read to each other week after week. It was all very inspiring--while I was in class.
As for my own writing at home between classes, I'd often wait until the last minute to do the assignments--just as I did in high school and college. It's a terrible habit that I got away with when I was in school but is doing me no favors now. How many famous writers, from Hemingway to Emily Dickinson to T.C. Boyle, talk about having and keeping a regular writing practice?
Mike eventually caught on to my lack of practice and just recently made a deal with me (we love making deals--we are master negotiators, but only with each other.) If I submitted one essay in July and one essay in August to be published somewhere, he would be OK with me spending $450 on another ten-week writing class. He warned me that it wouldn't count if I did both essays on the eve of August 31.
I failed to submit anything by the first deadline. I thought he might overlook this and agree to let me take the class anyway. I needed the extra motivation, I was having a hard time deciding what to revise and submit. In turn, he told me he felt bad saying no, but a deal's a deal. Even I had no argument for that.
On the other hand, I have lots of useless, avoidance practices I engage in everyday:
- Waking up at 4AM and eating a bowl of Kashi cereal before going to sleep on the couch and fitfully sleeping for another two hours
- Organizing my coupon folder so there's never any expired coupons that I might accidentally try to use and thus be embarrassed in front of the teenage clerk at Shaw's
- Walking the dog twice a day (more of a mandatory practice, but hey I do it)
- Logging on to my favorite discount clothing websites to look at the designer bags I still can't afford
- Taking daily inventory of my toiletry products to see if I'm low on eye clarifying cream, volumizing spray, or Q-tips
But as far as practices that would actually do me some real good--like meditation, yoga, writing, exercising, dog obedience training...then I'm all, who has time for that?
I bore myself when I hear my excuses for why I waste an $87 a month gym membership that I roped myself into for a year and can't get out of unless I move or die. Or when I talk to others about wanting to take up yoga again, I just need some new yoga pants, or that I'm going to submit an article but I'm just so busy right now. All around me I see regular gym-goers of all ages (you can tell by their arms) and young mothers of five who, postpartum, have written three books and who faithfully update their blog every morning. They somehow found time, why can't I?
Everyone has the same amount of time in a day--it's how you choose to spend those 24 hours that matters. Having a practice that you care about, that truly reflects your values, or as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, "is my job on the planet with a capital J", is what makes for a good life. Everything else is just noise.