For now, for one hour and three minutes now, it is still Hallowe'en night for a lot of friends and I've been enjoying the array of costumes showing up on my Facebook feed. But for me, tomorrow is the real big day. It's the first day of November, the descent into winter's darkness and all the festivities, resolutions, and bookends of beginnings and endings that accompany it.
I am a Scorpio, and I celebrate my 51st birthday on November 9. This year, I'll celebrate it in New York City, partly in conjunction with the Universal Zulu Nation's celebration of its 40th anniversary. I am grateful for this birthday, partly because it -- unlike last year's big 5-0 -- is not a milestone. It's simply another birthday, and a marking of another year of enjoyment of this life and this planet. But it is a milestone in some other ways. For the first time in a decade, I am weighing in at my ideal body weight. For the first time in my adult life, perhaps, I am feeling a sense of balance in all of the areas of life that matter to me most.
I went to work today dressed as a runner. That meant that despite rain that poured down all day, I had to run. It was a pleasure to log the miles, and to enjoy a dinner of homemade seafood gumbo, quinoa and beans, and cornbread afterwards. It was a pleasure, too, to spend the day of costumery and charade grading papers, working on a video project, and getting my Nanowrimo project set up for launch tomorrow.
This November will mean more than one challenge. Besides belting out 50,000 words (I'm actually hoping for 60,000 or more), I am scheduled to wear a different piece of clothing every day of the month, participate in a one-month plank challenge, repeat my wall sits challenge, log 100 miles of walking and running, and finish typing the longhand version of my father's life story. When my head starts to visualize the work, my eyes start to blur and I gasp. But when my heart works with it, I just feel vibrancy and excitement. All of these challenges are truly challenges where the real reward is not an end product as much as it is a dedication to process. And, process, I've discovered over the past year, is a synonym for practice. Practice yields results.
Behind the heart-pumping excitement of the month-to-come has been some feeling over the past five days of utter exhaustion. Work has felt like work. Chores have felt like chores. Life has felt somewhat lifeless as I've indulged a little more than I like to in candy, sugary sodas, and not-so-wholesome eat out food. Even with nine hours of sleep last night, I woke up feeling tired and moody.
I searched out the source of my malaise and located it in my writing. It hadn't been happening. I hadn't felt inspired. I was chugging out words, but I wasn't liking the words. I was figuratively wadding up the electronic documents of words and tossing them into my laptop's trash icon. Because writing constitutes much of both my life and my job, it was easy to see how its lack of flow was creating an analogous clog in my life.
In the spirit of trying to snap out of it, I looked at two activities that have become metaphors for life: running and raising food. I realized that both of these activities are processes and that I treat each one a little differently.
Each run is about a certain distance. Three miles, four miles, seven miles. I decide the distance on the basis of how much time I think I have and how my body happens to be feeling on a given day. But when I start running, time goes out the window. Everything else is put on hold until I've logged the miles. I am very gentle and kind to myself: if I start running and feel sluggish, I allow myself to slow down to a walk. If things are going well and I'm in one of my dancy-prancy moods, I'll loosen up and pick up the pace. I run with my iPhone most of the time, mainly to log the miles and to check in on how I'm doing, time-wise. But it's never the clock that ends the practice session for the day. It's the distance.
Raising food, by contrast, is a practice that I measure not in tasks completed but in hours spent. I start my gardening sessions (or, more recently, my root-veggie storing, pepper-drying, or bean-shelling sessions) with a list of desirable things I'd like to get done on my to-do list. But raising food is an endless and always evolving process. It can be like never leaving the office, if one allowed it to be seen in such a way. So I usually approach the process in terms of time that's available for me to give to the garden for the day. As with running, once I venture out into the garden, everything else is on hold until I've put in my time. Also similar is the kindness and gentleness I bestow unto the self. If it's colder out than I thought, I will drop everything to run back inside for a jacket or an extra shirt. If I feel thirsty, I will stop to take a sip of coffee or water. And, if I develop a case of the sniffles because an allergen is lurking, I'll take a few seconds out to get a tissue. I see all of these activities as meeting basic human needs; I don't see them as wasteful distractions or disruptions of my time. A successful day in the garden is not everything crossed off the to-do list. A successful day is two hours, three hours, or forty-five minutes -- completion of whatever block of time I promised myself to spend.
Often, I have thought of running as a metaphor for writing. If I can complete a marathon -- with the self-discipline and diligence to train -- surely I can write a book. Steps run on pavement have equaled words penned or typed in this logic. What I realized this morning is that perhaps the metaphor only works part way. That a successful day in terms of mileage might not always be success measured in verbiage.
A couple of years ago, I created a video for a teaching and learning workshop as part of a Wabash Center Fellowship of which I was fortunate to be a part. The video was represent some facet of "Why I Teach." I used a hip-hop song and a series of photos of our first year of gardening to showcase gardening as a metaphor for teaching, equating the planning of a class and the writing of a syllabus to the ordering of seeds and planting; the planting, initial growth, and harvest to the unfolding of the class; and the final rest after the season ends and snow returns to the submitting of grades and the wind-down. It struck me today that perhaps this metaphor of food-raising might be apt for writing, too. One can commit to a list of intentions, but creative processes do not always find fruition in a designated number of words or even on a day's to-do list. Perhaps a successful writing day is showing up to write and being gentle and kind to one's self in order that one can write.
In the end, I am not sure if I reached conclusions, beyond the fact that being kind and gentle to one's self might be more beneficial than anything else. And, so as November opens, I look forward to challenges -- and to enjoying the processes and not allowing a fear of failure to stop me in my tracks.