Not as silly a title as it sounds. Okay, it does sound silly.
I’ve reprinted an article I published nine years ago, and it still holds true today…
Today’s comments are in boldface.
RE-DO OF THE TO-DO LIST originally published October 1, 2004
I start most mornings with my schedule book (a student composition book with daily to-do list) and my journal. I try to start with my journal, because as I write, the process helps me sort through the to-do’s and establish real priority.
A to-do list is great for making sure you accomplish what you set out to do in a day, but they have a few drawbacks.
First, it gets cumbersome to constantly move unfinished tasks to the next day. It doesn’t allow you to easily set daily goals vs. weekly, or even longer-term goals. Everything seems to have the same urgency. “E-mail Tiffany about wings” (Note–this one TOTALLY baffled me today–Tiffany? Oh, she’s Teo now. Wings? Wha….?) until I read through.) seems as crucial as “mail past-due insurance premium.”
Also, no matter how much you accomplish, there’s always something you didn’t get to. So you never feel you really “finished.”
And then there’s the feeling that tomorrow, it starts all over again.
This morning I wondered if I instead I could view the day as an opportunity to fill certain “cups” of my life that need care and attention.
One cup, “family”, was easy. Jon and I had had a great morning. And I needed to make sure I spent time with my kids later after school. “Make chili with Doug and Robin” (they love to help me cook) and “movie night!” went at the top of my list. (You know you need to cook more often when you make a pot of soup one weekend and both your teenage children THANK you profusely….how embarrassing!)
Under “friends”, I made a note to e-mail my friend Tiffany to see if she could meet for wings and a beer (oh, those wings…!), our weekly Friday ritual. And to call another friend I hadn’t seen in a few weeks, to see if we could get together.
“Professional” cup next. “Clear a space so I can do card project for Katherine’s book”.
Breaking down “Clean the studio!” into a smaller step (“Clear a table”) was a good strategy. But I needed something else today. Life’s been overwhelming lately, and I just wondered if there was another way to look at all this.
I remembered the “Handmade, High Tech” conference (see the article CRAFT IN THE DIGITAL AGE from April 2004.) One of the speakers, Lynn Martin Graton, Traditional Arts Coordinator for the NH State Council on the Arts, talked about how differences in how language is used can reveal fundamental differences in culture.
She said, “If I want to say, ‘Warp the loom’ in Japanese, it actually translates to something like, ‘In order for the cloth to be woven, the loom will be warped.’ It’s a totally different way of viewing the action needed and the person who acts. The loom has its own importance, its own part to play. It’s not just about YOU, the artist.” (paraphrased greatly)
If I say “Clean my studio”, it’s a huge task that lies on me and me alone. I must accept total responsibility for doing that. There may be very American, can-do solutions: I can suck it up and do it myself. I can get friends to help (barn-raising!) I can hire someone else to do it, putting a value on my time and/or deciding how I want to spend my time. And my favorite, ‘you can accomplish anything–even eating an elephant–by taking many small bites one at a time.’ It’s how I’ve accomplished everything I have in the last five years, breaking every monumental task down into more manageable little steps.
But what if we’re in a place where even these strategies just seem too overwhelming?
What if we could speak Japanese sometimes? What if we could tap into an even softer, Zen, wholistic, mindful approach occasionally?
What if I recognize that, if I do my part, then the creative “thing” will do its part? What if I could trust that process?
I rewrote the task: “If the cards are to be made, a space must be cleared.” (Even better, “If the cards are to be made, the space will be open…”
It’s still the same action resulting in the same conclusion, but the perspective is different.
It’s still up to me to take the action that makes it happen. That table won’t clear itself! (Oh, I WISH!!) But now I have a partner in the process, so to speak.
I started with the analogy of a baby, but that got too labored (ouch! Sorry…) But like a baby, certain things have to happen in order for the baby to appear. Once started, the baby pretty much develops and grows on its own schedule, and appears in its own good time. But certain things have to happen, and a place has to be made.
Martha Graham’s famous quote, in part, acknowledges this: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”
Blocking the creative act can be as simple as not making a place for it. The creative process is a dance between you (a conduit and a source of action), and a partner (the creative force that needs to appear). The result, whether its a card project, a song, a poem, a garden, a painting or a child, comes from that dance.
Once that creative thing is in the world, it takes on a life of its own. It can be seen and experienced by others in their own unique way. Some people will be inspired by it, some will be angered. Some will be moved to tears and others will wonder what all the fuss was about. That’s why the rest of the quote goes on to say it is not the artist’s place to judge it, just to make sure it gets out into the world.
So take another look at that to-do list. Look at the ways you may have unconsciously taken on more than you need to handle with your art. Start with the small but critical step of making room for it, literally and figuratively. Then step back and see what happens!
I’m off to clear a table now. (And on that happy note, I am off to help a table to be cleared.)