This weekend I went to my friend Margie’s book signing. Margie worked with her niece Michelle, an illustrator, to write “What Makes you Smile as Big as the Moon?” a delightful children’s book about emotions.
The room was full of children who’d been in the book and their proud parents. Someone asked, “What was hardest about writing the book?” Michelle said, “None of it was easy! Neither of us had published a book before. We had to learn the software; I was water coloring for the first time. We really didn’t know what we were doing!”
This is great news. “None of it was easy.”
I have so many things I want to do in this life. Most immediately, I want to install bookshelves in my home office as I am daily tripping over piles of half-read novels. Then I want to publish poetry. After that, I want to make and save more money so I can fulfill travel and philanthropy dreams. I want to become a better gardener and a better listener. I want to play more than the major chords on the guitar and make a few new friends.
One route I could go with these is to enter a compulsive productivity zone. My least favorite term for this is “life hack.” Yuck. As if life is somehow against us and only by hacking into it can we make it work for us. Download more productivity apps, make more lists, use scary words like “optimize” or “maximize.”
Or, like Margie and Michelle, I can say, “I don’t really know what I’m doing! And none of it is easy.”
I don’t want to suffer under this idea that it’s supposed to be easy, or that others have just figured it out more than me. As I’m learning in the fabulous book I’m reading, Four Thousand Weeks, the definition of being human is finitude. Whenever we make a choice, we’re deciding not to do a giant batch of other things. This can be liberating!
I can’t build a bookshelf and travel to Seattle to see my niece and nephew in the same weekend. I can’t spend a lot more time writing poetry and become an open water swimmer in the same month. And if we’re doing the things most worthwhile to us, it will probably feel hard. We will probably want to wiggle out of it and distract ourselves with some online shopping or smaller tasks that can be done more easily or quickly. I’ll bet there were many mornings when Margie and Michelle didn’t feel like getting on their weekly Zoom call to keep working on their book.
But what freedom in saying to myself, “None of this is easy.” If I stop chafing against the constraints, maybe I can embrace reality as it is. I quote Jack Kornfield to myself almost every day: The unawakened mind makes war against what is. And, of course, what “is” is limits, constraints, having to choose between good things, the fantasy always crashing against the reality.
It’s hard to pursue what we care about. It’s hard focus when thousands of people are being paid to distract us, and when we want to be distracted a lot of the time. But it’s worth it. At the moment, I’m writing this reflection because I paid to be on Zoom call with 150 other people who are writing at the same time (thank you, Ann Randolph’s Unmute Yourself who I heard about from my favorite poet Ellen Bass.) That means I’m not doing a lot of other things this morning and closing off those options feels strangely good.
None of it is easy, but the best things are worth it. Thanks for the inspiration, Margie and Michelle.
P.S. Thanks to everyone who logged on for our Stolen Focus book club this week. How wonderful to learn together. Next month’s book club is Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, from which many of the thoughts in this reflection are based. May 25, 7 pm, limit 10 participants. You can sign up here.