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Moving on

I look at the day ahead of me and think, what’s new here?  Haven’t I done this laundry, these dishes, this vacuuming; haven’t I made these beds already?  And in the week ahead, haven’t I already taught this class, graded these essays, written this exam?  And how many times do I have to go to the same meeting and listen to the same people say pretty much the same things they said last time?

“I think 85% of my life is spent on maintenance,” I tell my friend Lenore.  She laughs and nods in agreement.  She thinks it’s probably closer to 90%, maybe more.  When can you make any progress?

In 1991, I first read Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay, “Maintenance.”  It has stayed with me all these years.  “I’d like to say a word, just a short one,” she writes, “for the background hum of lesser, unexpected maintenances that can devour a day or days – or a life, if one is not careful.”  I look at my life these past few months and I realize that it has been devoured.  I have been lost in daily maintenance.  The frightening part is that while I’ve been utterly consumed with chores every single day, I cannot, at this very moment, name any of my accomplishments.  I’ve been too busy doing them to notice them.   “I am reminded of Buddhism whenever I undertake one of these invisible tasks,” Nye writes, “one acts, without any thought of reward or foolish notion of glory.” I find it helpful to think about such everyday service — acts of domestic, familial, and professional maintenance — as something to celebrate.  In her essay, housekeeping and upkeep, those duties she calls “the motions of preface” – these things aren’t drudgery, not in the least.  Nye wonders,

6943077858_28a7eedb4d_hPerhaps all cleaning products should be labeled with an additional warning, as some natural-soap companies have taken to philosophizing right above the price tag.  Bottles of guitar polish might read: “If you polish this guitar, it will not play any better.  People who close their eyes to listen to your song will not see the gleaming wood.  But you may feel more intimate with the instrument you are holding.”

Last night I was awakened by a panic filled nightmare at the realization that I haven’t written anything for myself in more than a month.  Not a scribbled note, never a thought to be developed, no list of ideas to explore later.  I have no ideas to be explored later because I’ve given away all the mental the space that properly belongs to my imagination.  I have been avoiding this blog, rushing past my own homepage (now there’s a metaphor for you) to hide from its accusatory name. Kathywrites: oh, really?  I think, Does she now?  And what exactly does Kathy write?  Reports and memos, apparently; comments on student papers, endless amounts of email, grocery lists.  Lately, Kathywrites only to keep on top of her day job.  My nightmare’s panic woke me up to ask me – is that all there is?

Enough of these “motions of preface” — I think it’s time for me to become more intimate with the instrument I am holding, to turn back to the blank page.


4 thoughts on “Moving on

  1. Holly Shreve Gilbert

    16 Apr on 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Gifted again by your writing, this one really resonates. So happy to find this piece on my FB wall this morning as I was, yes, engaged in daily maintenance of responding to email, checking enrollments and on and on. The key for me is framing. Will this be an hour (or longer) spent in drudgery or accomplishing small, good things?

    • Kathy Pfeiffer

      16 Apr on 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Thank you Holly. Of course we both realize that the things that count as drudgery (even checking enrollments) are tasks that make a real and resonant difference in students lives ….. and yet, I worry about the value of what I have to offer students (or anyone for that matter) if I don’t take care of my own creative self. It’s that old airline safety precaution: secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

  2. Amy Ryntz

    16 Apr on 2014 at 9:56 pm

    As a high school teacher, I am confident in saying that neither my employer nor students appear concerned about my own creative self. Additionally, it is hard to carve out rejuvenating time for myself when I live in fear of the next pay cut. Maintenance. Isn’t that the truth. It is how I spent my winter and spring breaks. Sigh.

  3. Suzanne

    16 Apr on 2014 at 10:16 pm

    You have such a lovely way of describing the things that aren’t but should be. Here you’ve given away your mental space, and Kathy doesn’t write because of it. You don’t mention being the only female in the household, I find it interesting and vexing. How does one parcel out the division of labor when the labor is already being done? Your voice is always in there sure and true.

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