Monk Mode: A Brief Introduction

"This work costs something in soul," Phyllis said in her kitchen while Caren brewed a homemade remedy for me.  And I was so glad that she said it, because I don't know a better way to say it and sometimes not having proper words for something makes me question whether it's really true or just my imagination.

For so long I've held that common assumption that I only needed time--more time--to do the many things on my list of longings.  I salivated at the thought of this fall, at the idea of my children both in school all day.  I made plans (outrageous plans) about how I was going to continue my informal education, what I would create and collaborate on.   And then fall came, and three workshops or retreats in three months.  I was either resting up for a trip, away for it, or recovering from it on the flip side.  I was wrapping up some writing and doing some stories on stage here and there, but mostly in between I've been sick or just plain weary.  For so long I've been operating as if time were the only cost of the work that I do, and that more time would naturally equal more productivity.

But I was forgetting about the energetic cost of the things on my list.  Creating something from nothing, being really present, and doing soul work are extraordinary expenditures.  Unlike my previous assumptions led me to believe, these are not 9-5 ventures, and I am not a machine.  Or at least this is what I tell my Protestant work ethic every day of my blessed life.

I made it through my commitments this year, but toward the end I could feel myself scraping the bottom of the 2010 barrel, reaching out and borrowing some future inner resources that I am now working to replenish.

So what does one do when there's been such a large expenditure of soul?  All I know to do is to go into monastic mode to replenish the deep places, to heal my body, to reunite all my parts and pieces here in the present moment.  Here are some of the key components of this kind of work for me:

Repetitive work, the kind which is never over.  In our culture we have a common disdain for the kind of work that never ends or feels undone as soon as it is complete, like dish washing, laundry, cooking and cleaning.  These are often tasks that get delegated, as we give our attention to "important work", by which we mean that which feeds our illusions of progress.  There's no fantasy of forward motion in making the bed when we know it will be undone again within hours.

But this is the very kind of work that many people feel is sacred in nature, precisely because it is never finished.  Because the point of the work isn't advancement.  I confess I have my own contempt for these things--the exhaustible work of keeping an apartment with young children tidy and the time that taking a shower steals away from important progress in I Don't Even Know What.  So this is the work I'm sinking into now, because it honors my humanity to care for my body and it honors my family to have a beautiful retreat from the cold months and dark days.  I sink into this work as a confession that my assessment of what is and is not important is often skewed beyond measure.  And I sink into it as an act of faith that sometimes it's more about what the work is accomplishing in me.

A return to the simplicity of traveling light.  I create space in the studio, in our living spaces, in our closets by pulling out the things which are no longer serving us and finding new homes for them.  I'm thankful for the times in which our possessions come to us, and I hope they have many lives beyond the one here with us.  In their absence there is space, and I don't just mean space for new possessions to take their place, but the tangible physical spaces that are necessary to birth new possibilities and new creations.

I bring this traveling light to my schedule, too, keeping it as sparse as possible and enjoying the freedom of spontaneous dinners and drop-in visits from neighbors.  We think that it makes our time feel honored or important to earmark and appoint every minute of the day, but it makes me feel like I am holding gold in my palms when I have a chunk of time (be it hours or a day or a week or a season) in which I can deeply listen in the moment for what I need and do it, or to participate as a partner in time's gradual unfolding instead of play-acting inside my usual illusion that I am somehow my time's own master.

Deep surrender.  (Words that could make anyone stop reading right now.)  There's a lot of letting go: of being publicly seen, of knowing the answer, of having some tangible justification to show for my existence.  Instead of trying to come to anyone else's rescue or aid, I lay down under the covering of my own need to be saved.  I let myself really experience my need for things like love and comfort, friendship and solitude, and I try to remember how to receive.

Cookies arrive in the mail, friends trek into the city to see me, a huge bunch of sunflowers arrives for my kitchen table--and I welcome them all with a bowed head and an open heart.

There is probably more that I could say, but closets and hand-wash laundry are calling my name.  So instead I will say, Peace be with you, and together we will honor the day.

It's Okay to Be Quiet

It's okay to be quiet.  You don't need to give the full report just yet, you may not need to give it at all.  Reporting requires understanding, and sometimes you just need to follow the path and see where it leads before you know where you are.

It's okay to be quiet.  You can declare your hope in a loaf of bread you bake by hand, you can put unnecessary things on the stoop as an act of faith in future provision.  You can let the apple pie you're making invite company, and the space you're preparing for friends invite joy.

It's okay to be quiet. You can say all you really need to say with one look, with one touch.  You can express your gratitude for his love in the way you smile when you see him come into the room. You can let them know how they melt your heart in the tenderness of your kiss on their foreheads.

The words are the last thing to arrive, but the love is here all along.

Make Something

There are so many spaces and seasons and spells that we move through in creative work.  Bursts of energy and waves of fatigue, certainty and mystery, joy and sorrow, and so many more.  I stay grounded and rooted, I recharge and renew, I care for myself in a hundred different moments on a hundred different days with this mantra: make something.  I make dinner.  I make cookies or kale salad.  I make dolls out of felt or bracelets out of beads.  I make a poem or a sweater or even a really good bath.

Making something cures so many ills for me--nearly all that I can imagine.  This is one of the many reasons why art is good for us--the act of taking what we've got or what we're given and making something of it, something that was nothing just moments before, well it can be powerful.  Or comforting.  Or healing.

Art is good for you.  Today, try taking what you've got or what you're given and make something.  It could be a masterpiece disguised as a grilled cheese sandwich, a new tune you hum as you walk through your day, or a temporary spa that springs up tonight in your bathroom.  Whatever you make, bring your attention and your intention to it, infuse it with your distinct artistic flair.  Make something--it can only do you good.

Photo by Tracey Clark Shirt available for a limited time here.

When the Cameras Break

photo by Tracey Clark

Every summer, I gather for a few days with friends on the Oregon coast.  It's a refuge, really, from work and worries and woes, to revel in the simple pleasure of being together. 

I was so excited to have my panoramic camera this year, dreaming of wide ocean views, but it broke within minutes of my arrival at the shore.  Then I thought I'd switch to instant film, but that equipment, too, stopped working. I dug through my bag for back-up plans and equipment, and grabbed my digital camera for a day-long outing.  We were there five minutes when the battery died. 

I just kept trying to breathe, and to move from Plan E to Plan F to Plan G.  I ended up with a few Diana shots (with a standard shape I've never tried before), but after recharging I mostly shot with my digital camera, which is rare for me.  I also remembered to pull out my new Flip Video and play with it a bit.

I put this little project together with the digital shots and clips.  I'm hoping that it reminds me all year long that surprising (and even beautiful) things can happen when it seems like everything's going all wrong. 

Photos taken with a Canon Rebel XTi and a 50mm f1.4 Lens .  Thanks to the good people at Lomography for solving all my equipment problems when I got home.  And thanks to my friends for all the ways in which they restore my soul.

Being Home and The Recharge Program

Horizon Perfekt, Kodak Portra 400 35mm filmI had a really great trip, but I'm happy to be home.  New Hampshire pollen in June kicks my butt.  I'm still recovering from that, and finding my way back into my beloved routine.  Still trying to let all the goodness and all the love from this past week sink into my body, still wrapping my mind around everything that transpired during the gathering of such lovely souls.

Today I'm sitting up again, but my head is still mostly resting on my shoulder or my hand.  I'm hoping to have my full capacities restored sometime soon.  In the meantime, here's how I recharge and restore:

  • Vegetable curry. This is the first food I want to eat every time I come back to Brooklyn.
  • Hours and hours on the phone. It takes time to catch up, but telling the stories and hearing my friends' helps so much.
  • Watching movies in bed. I know this has been a big one for me lately, but I swear by it.
  • A good Ani song on repeat.
  • A night out at a story slam to see my friends and receive their stories. Even though I am so, so tired.
  • I think I'm even going to shower today. This is a sign of the supreme gentleness I'm feeling toward myself. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel up to washing the bug spray and dirt out of my favorite jeans.
  • Skip the running attempt. Call the doctor instead.
  • Sleep.  I have some catching up to do, which unlike some people, I swear is possible.
  • Be aware of the difference between things that can wait (unpacking) and the things that can't (seeing Kate Godin).
  • Let myself land squarely in love. Crouch there on that ground until the unsettling feeling of the leap has left my body.

I might have to come back and leave more in the comments as I think of them/do them.  I have a recharge routine that is definitely emerging, and now I'm just trying to document it for the next time I need it.  As always, I love hearing your recharge tips in the comments.