How to Know When It’s Time to Refill the Well

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I spent last weekend away from my computer. I didn’t respond to the emails stacking up in my in-box. I didn’t check Facebook and like, like, like post after post. I didn’t blog or tweet or scroll.

Instead, I laid down a drop cloth on the back lawn and spray painted a bedside table white. And then I spray painted an old-fashioned metal milk jug and a crock that I’ve thought about donating to the Goodwill. I decided to keep it; I like it white.

While those dried in the May breeze, I wiped the pollen off the patio table, swept the cement free of oak tree seedlings, refilled the oriole and finch feeders, and cut the biggest bouquet of white peonies ever known to humankind. I arranged the blooms in my mother-in-law’s vase and placed it on the dining room sideboard in front of the window. Within an hour, the whole first floor of my house was filled with the scent of peony.

I played Sorry! with Rowan on the back patio while the chickadees and nut hatches flitted in the birch tree overhead. I rode my bike with Noah to Shopko to check out a dehumidifier on sale, and then took the long way home, wending through the neighborhoods, admiring the way the cottonwood leaves swished and sizzled in the wind.

In short, I did a whole lot of nothing. I puttered in my yard, which is among my favorite things to do. I rested my brain and moved my body and let my mind wander. I reminded myself that there’s more to life, a whole lot more, than social media shares and clicking “publish.”

I published my first blog post on July 27, 2009, nearly seven years ago. Since then I’ve written here regularly, two to three times a week (when I first started I wrote five days a week – egad!). I’ve also written three books, the third of which I just finished editing, and 84 columns for the Lincoln Journal Star. Now that I’ve largely finished Katharina and Martin, I’ve been asked, more than once, “So what’s next? Do you have another book in mind?”

My honest answer is, I don’t know.

“I feel like I’ve written everything I have to say,” I heard myself say to my mom recently. I’ve been wrestling with writer’s block and creative ennui. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know what book I might want to write. I don’t even know what blog post I want to write.

Amid all the questions with no answers, one thing is clear: It’s time for a break. My boys are out of school and on break, and we’re traveling more than usual this summer. Instead of making myself crazy, I’ve decided to let some of the writing go.

The good news is, I have a group of delightful, talented writers to introduce you to in June. These are people whose work I love and respect, and I am excited for you to get to know them, too, if you don’t already.

I’ll also continue my Spiritual Habits series on Tuesdays throughout the month of June.

But other than that, it’s time to refill the well – to clip fragrant bouquets from the garden; to pedal aimlessly in the shade of cottonwood trees; to walk barefoot across sun-warmed cement; to paint furniture and read mystery novels and slice strawberries and water the basil.

It’s time to remind myself that I do indeed have a life worth writing about. But in order to do that, I have to live it first.

P.S. One place I will still likely be during my sort-of writing/social media hiatus is Instagram. Are you on Instagram? I’d love to connect with you over there. 

The Spiritual Habit of Staying in Place

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Back when we were dating, Brad entrusted me with his favorite plant, a lush fichus tree named Herman (in honor of Herman Melville, because of course) before he left town for a while.

I moved Herm into my house, positioned him in a sunny spot next to the sliding glass doors and then watched as he began to drop leaves at an alarming rate. I moved him to a south-facing window. More leaves littered the carpet. I watered Herman, fed him plant food, repositioned him yet again in a less chilly spot. Still he dropped leaves.

A week after Brad left, I called him to report that I’d killed Herman in a record-setting seven days flat.

Turns out, fichus trees require stability to thrive — a lesson we would be wise to apply to ourselves as well.

When they first join the order, Benedictine monks and nuns take a vow of stability. “The vow of stability affirms sameness,” says author and Episcopal priest Elizabeth Canham, “a willingness to attend to the present moment, to the reality of this place, these people, as God’s gift to me and the setting where I live out my discipleship.”

To “affirm sameness” is radically counter-cultural in our society. We are conditioned, even encouraged, to drop one thing and move onto the next. Marriage grown stale? Divorce. Bored on the job? Update the resume. Shoes scuffed? Buy a new pair. Acquaintance irritate us on Facebook? Unfriend. We abandon with ease, enticed by the fresh and new.

We are also expected to be as productive as possible, to hustle, push ourselves to the max, and multitask like a boss. The person who resists the rat race is an anomaly and is often seen as weak, an aberration. We wonder what happened to their ambition. A lot of us – dare I say most of us — equate stability with failure, or, at the very least, stagnance.

Yet it’s clear this relentless pursuit of the perfect place, the perfect situation, the perfect job, and the perfect person often leads to the Herman the Fichus phenomenon. We feel restless, uprooted and displaced. We wither rather than thrive. Like Herm the Fichus, we begin to lose pieces of ourselves. We begin fall apart.

Stability as a spiritual habit or discipline can be practiced on both the macro and micro level. For me, practicing stability in the big picture of my life means practicing contentment in my career, my parenting, my marriage, my home and my place.

This does not come naturally to my Type A, driven personality, especially when it comes to my work. I’ve long worn productivity, achievement and success as badges of honor, so seeking contentment and self-worth in the present status quo takes intentionality.

Likewise, on a micro level, practicing the habit of stability means making a concerted effort to stay in one place and do nothing, if only for a few minutes at a time.

Last November I began the practice of sitting on a park bench for five minutes during my daily afternoon dog walks, and I’ve kept up the routine pretty regularly. Josie automatically veers off the path and toward our bench now and patiently waits while I listen to the birds and gaze at the trees. It’s become a habit for both of us, and it’s good for me to simply stay in one place, to let my thoughts settle into a low simmer.

As it turned out, much the same was true for Herm the Fichus: he simply needed to stay in one place. I finally stopped moving him around the house and let him be, convinced he was dead but too guilty to dump him into the trash bin. A few weeks passed, and that’s when I began to notice tiny buds sprouting on bare branches. Leaf by delicate leaf, Herm began to thrive, unfurling and blossoming into a lush, verdant canopy. Left in one spot, he grew strong and whole once again.

A Word about Personality and Habits

In addition to identifying the Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin (author of Better Than Before) also identifies several personality aspects (she calls them distinctions) and how they relate to habit formation. For example, she asks whether the reader is a familiarity lover or a novelty lover, a lark or a night owl, an underbuyer or an overbuyer, a marathoner, sprinter or procrastinator, etc.. Identifying which end of the spectrum you lean toward can help you discern which spiritual habits might fit best for you.

Case in point: I am a familiarity lover. I’ve eaten the exact same snack at the exact same time pretty much every day for the last four years. New experiences make me uncomfortable. I’m not adventurous, and my favorite place in the world is my own backyard. So, given what I know about myself, it makes sense that I might gravitate toward the spiritual habit of stability – I’m inclined toward stability anyway. Sitting on the same bench at the same place on my walking route at the same time every day is not a huge stretch for me. It was relatively easy to integrate that new spiritual habit into my everyday routine.

BUT, if you’re a novelty lover — if you gravitate toward new experiences — the thought of sitting on the same bench in the same park at the same time every day might sound like your idea of a ticket straight to crazy town. For novelty lovers, the spiritual habit of stability might be more challenging. Not impossible, but probably more challenging.

Read more about Rubin’s personality distinctions here.

If you missed the first two posts in my Spiritual Habits series you can catch up here:

How Our Habits Can Impact Our Spirituality {introduction}

The Spiritual Discipline of Digging Dandelions

Next week: The Spiritual Habit of Scripture Reading

 

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