Gratitude gets a lot of play in happiness and mindfulness circles. However, it doesn’t necessarily get its due in discussions of writing, productivity, and creativity.
It’s end of semester time around here, which means that everyone is feeling pretty spent. Colleagues are sick of each other, teachers feel like they are dragging their students across the finish line, and whatever weird emotional baggage the holidays bring up is coming home to roost. Add to this dwindling daylight and an exhausting election cycle and corresponding aftermath and have just mixed up a strange brew guaranteed to interfere with productivity necessary for and (dare I say) the joy that can accompany creative work.
This feels true in my own life as the end of the semester also corresponds with the endings of a couple writing projects that have felt very streetttccchhhedd out. What I refer to as the end of semester “I don’t wannas” are cropping up not just in relation to exam grading and lingering service tasks, but in my writing life as well. It’s particularly bad timing for me to be finishing writing projects at the end of semester because I hate the “cleaning up” part of the writing process, and in the case of the article and book I’m finishing at the moment, there have been many rounds of Hoovering and Windexing already.
So, how to break out of the funk?
Here’s one idea: saying thank you. Many creative pieces offer an official spot for doing this, whether in an acknowledgments section or a dedication. But even if your particular work or creative project doesn’t offer an official area for offering up gratitude, it’s still possible to draft a little list of people to send emails, cards, or even flowers when your work is done.
In what has been a bit of a bleak season, reviewing the acknowledgments section of my book fills me with a bit of a warm glow that extends to the project itself. I get to reminisce about the wonderful independent theater (Nashville’s Belcourt) where I first saw the films I’m writing about. I think about how cool it was to meet director Kelly Reichardt and meet her sweet dog. And, most happily, I am reminded of my friendship with my coauthor Nicole Seymour and how lucky I have been to write with her.
Now, does this mean that I’m going to love chasing down last citations for the manuscript? No. But it does mean that I’m interrupting my negative thought pattern with a reminder of the love and support that has gone into the project so far, and that’s just enough to make me shake of feelings of resentment and to return those feelings of care in kind.
Just a little glow of gratitude at a dark time of year.
At eight months pregnant, the mind starts to play tricks. It can convince you, for example, that you might suddenly do things and enjoy activities you’ve never done before. That is, in addition to the major new thing that is parenthood.
For example, crafting. I don’t craft. Frankly, I don’t like other people’s crafts. The shallow materialist in me loves the store-bought and shiny. Crafts just look so, well, homemade.
But while eight months pregnant I spied a beautiful mobile in a high-end boutique that was priced at some obscene number. That costs a week of daycare, I thought, and it’s just yarn!
Enter the pom poms.
In a fit of optimism and willful ignoring of my own tendencies and preferences, I went to the craft store, purchased several skeins of yarn, two pom pom makers, and something called an embroidery hoop. I would make my baby a mobile. It would be great. An heirloom! Something with a mother’s touch to be cherished by her daughter.
By the time the baby arrived, and with the help of visiting parents, I had crafted half the number of pom poms necessary for the mobile. I had hopelessly knotted one of the skeins of yarn, and there were little bits of fluff everywhere. Oh, and while my mother-in-law’s pom poms emerged cute little colorful balls, mine were sad, thin things—little multicolored hamsters of despair.
And so, after the baby came, I cleaned the supplies away into a plastic bag, placed the bag on a high shelf in the closet, and there it has remained. My baby is now 11 months old and totally uninterested in mobiles.
But there has been pom pom creep.
While the material object that is my depressing, unfinished mobile remain packed high in the closet, it’s been enjoying a second life on my to do list.
Like many type-Aish people, I sit down and plan my week on Sundays. I look at what’s ahead in the next week and what wasn’t completed from last week and make a new list.
And those damn pom poms have been migrating from week to week, never completed, never touched, but lurking at the bottom of my list, infecting the next week’s chores with a sense of failure, a sense of impossibility.
Because I know I’m never going to do it. Unlike things related to my job or to my health or the health of my family, the pom poms are not important. Also, unlike reminder items on my to do list such as “buy Christmas gifts,” or “email Mikaela about going to movies,” or even “get haircut,” the to-do item “finish mobile” isn’t fun or tempting for me. Which means that I’ve been lightly but regularly beating myself up with a thing I don’t really want to do week after week as I migrate this task from to-do list to to-do list.
“Finish mobile” is a pretty frivolous task, as far as things go, but I suspect we all have versions of these lurkers on our to-do lists. I see them as the foul offspring of some blend of American work ethic plus fantasy life. What if I were this kind of person?, I ask myself. What if I were the kind of mother who made things for her children? And then, Practical Polly that I am, I immediately imagine this hypothetical person’s chores and assign them to myself. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not that kind of mother. And that’s okay, but I need to take her chores off my list!
I think the hypothetical selves in our lives can be lovely, allowing us to explore possibilities, to test out ideas--What if I were the kind of person who ran marathons? What if I were the kind of person who volunteered regularly? What if I were the kind of person who organized weekly trivia nights? Etc.--but as we look at these dream lives, it’s worthwhile remembering that they needn’t burden our current existences with guilt for undone chores. If it’s freeing, cross those motherf*ng pom poms off your list!
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Tenure, She Wrote