Dear friends and family,
The new decade, the new year, the imminence of a big birthday ending in zero, the shocking realization that the little boys I toted around on my hip are now giants!—all of these things have brought me to a place of gratitude and some amazement. They have also caused me to examine, to borrow a few words from the Book of Common Prayer, the things I have left undone—not in the sense of “sins” of omission, but rather the things I thought I would have accomplished by now and just haven’t.
Foremost of these is writing regularly, both for publication and personal satisfaction. I thought I would have been a “real” writer by now. But several years of off-and-on (more off than on) journaling, and half-hearted freewriting have left me with a pile unfinished, neglected stories and essays. The arrival of a shiny new year, a round number and all, prompted me to take action and actually finish some of the projects I’ve started.
I decided that in order to do this, I needed to take on a daily discipline that would force me to write. I also needed to defeat, or at least write my way around, my harsh inner editor, so to speak. I could blame my lack of initiative to write on the busy-ness of life, but most often, the truth is I didn’t want to write badly, so I just didn’t write. So, I’ve hogtied my inner perfectionist and stuffed her in the utility room, behind the cat litter box and HVAC equipment. Ha!
But what to do for a daily practice, a commitment that would help me become a better writer and serve as a springboard for new projects? I remembered my sister Jeannie once telling me about a writing course she took in college, in which the students were required to write a poem a day for a month. I seized upon this as a way to practice writing every day, like journaling, but with more structure. I decided to start by writing a poem a day, for the month of January. It could be a terrible poem; a homely, unpolished poem; an unoriginal poem. But I just had to write one every day.
I ran the idea by my dear friend Jennifer Anderson, a gifted writer whose work I admire. She was encouraging, as she always is, and told me via email that she thought the exercise would be a great one, and had I seen Julie & Julia? I should write a poem a day for a year, taking it on as a transformative discipline, and blog about it! I thought, wow. That sounds really hard. But it would be good for me. The blog would require accountability on my part, and even if I had only one reader following my progress (Hi Dad!) or maybe two (hey Mom!), I would have to do what I said I would.
Jennifer’s final note on the poem-a-day discipline helped me make up my mind:
“Hi Sarah--Can you imagine if you did that and had 365 poems--or pages--after a year? I can't advise you about blogging, though. Imagine if you did it and hated the pressure or the lack of privacy? But I am captivated by your idea of transformative disciplines! Love, Jen”
I decided I really wanted those 365 poems—or pages—and the pressure and lack of privacy are probably what I need to get them. So here I am.
One more thing: beside using this daily poetry discipline as a warm-up for other writing projects, I’m hoping that it gives me a way to pay closer attention to my life, to heighten my awareness that every day—even the ones in which not much seems to happen—is a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and therefore, valuable.
I picked up Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs—which really isn’t just for men. I was particularly moved by his essays on fatherhood. In his chapter “The Memory Hole,” he talks about all the drawings and art projects his four children bring home from school, and how they are so numerous that he and his wife don’t know what to do with them, other than throw them away. He goes on to say, “The truth is that in every way, I am squandering the treasure of my life. It’s not that I don’t take enough pictures, though I don’t, or that I don’t keep a diary, though iCal and my monthly Visa bill are the closest I come to a thoughtful prose record of events. Every day is like a kid’s drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.”
I have balled up and thrown away so many days. Too often I have failed to see the poetry in the rhythms of my life; the beauty in the “rich, complicated days” as well as the “stray gray marks.” Chabon’s essay made me wish for a meaningful way to document these days, a way to recognize and receive the time I’ve been given with more awareness and appreciation. How is it that I failed to write something on the day I married David? The days on which Schuyler and Willem were born? Or even the day I spent two hours combing through the boys’ hair, seeking and destroying lice and nits, when there was an outbreak at school? I realize that even the most mundane days in which I’m cleaning up explosions in the microwave, repeatedly driving across town to retrieve forgotten lunch money or P.E. clothes, replacing small broken parts of things that I probably don’t need in the first place, nagging my kids about leaving enough room on the math homework page to show their work-—even each of those days is an absolute miracle: there is a start and a finish, a sunrise and a sunset, and in between are the people and places I love the most.
After considering Chabon’s words, I turned to a favorite devotional, a compilation of writings by Frederick Buechner. In a meditation titled, “Life Itself is Grace,” he says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
Beyond a writing exercise, I hope that my poem-a-day practice teaches me to listen to my life. To frame my days instead of balling them up and throwing them away. And to remember that all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.