Ask the tough questions and then get to work

Last month, I was singleminded about getting my physical house in order, and only seven of the original 50some bulleted tasks remain. I did it. But I didn’t do it for its own sake. I took the month off from all my other obligations so I’d be set free to throw myself into my writing as I haven’t in several months.

So yesterday, I was terrified.

I’d had the build-up. Now it was time for the pay-off. And I choked. I retreated for the entire day in laundry (9 loads, no joke), groceries, bill paying, household filing, and kid wrangling. My heart thumped hard and I was as jittery as if I were about to go on stage to dance. All day. Because I had to return to normal life after my big task was over. No more complete focus on one thing; now I have to negotiate all the needs and schedules and emotions and move ahead.

I have a number of friends going through something like this, but on a far deeper level. They are past the intense period of caring for a dying loved one, which has such a purity of purpose that normal life can’t hope to compete. They’re past the all-consuming period of public grief, when family and friends gather around and cry and laugh and hold each other up. They are at normal life. Without the woman they love. They’ve got to go back to negotiating a variety of needs and schedules and emotions, all while being constantly reminded of who is missing, because she was part of normal life, too, once.

That’s hard. Way harder than my task.

But none of us can avoid it. Oh, we can. There are all kinds of ways to avoid how hard it is. Let’s use the 7 deadly sins as an organizing factor:

Lust, gluttony, and greed: throwing yourself into an other (whether person, food, drink, or thing) to distract you from what you’re feeling.
Sloth: this one can be either checking out and retreating, or becoming so busy that you flit on the surface of everthying.
Wrath: it’s easy to let everything feed your sense that the world has wronged you, especially when you have been horribly wronged; anger at yourself fits here, too.
Envy: after all, it’s so easy for all those other people (is it?).
Pride: the temptation to act as if everything is fine, that you’re handling it all, that it isn’t hard so everyone will look at you in awe and wonder.

I can check the “done it” box in each of those categories. The flitting busy-ness version of sloth, oh, just yesterday. I’ve even consciously embraced some of them as a temporary coping or reward strategy, and encouraged others to do the same — temporary being the key. They don’t work as long-term strategies.

All of which keeps bringing me back to the homily given at my friend’s funeral last week, in which we were encouraged to ask the tough questions, and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

In my anxious state, what are the tough questions?

What am I so anxious about?
Am I afraid that the work will be hard? That what I produce will suck beyond my ability to fix it? That I’ll never be published? That I’ll never validate all these years of working at my writing? That my husband’s stress as the sole breadwinner will have been in vain?
That if I decide to self-publish, nobody will buy it?
That my discipline won’t be enough?
That I’ll drop right back into the spiral of discouragement and frustration and self-recrimination I wallowed in this fall?
That I can’t untangle the lack of concrete success from my sense of self-worth?

Now I’m getting somewhere. That last one brought tears burning at the back of my eyes. What makes me worthy? Is it publishing success? Number of page views on this blog? Acclaim as a school volunteer? A clear sidewalk and driveway, even though I shovel by hand? A well-run household? Thriving children? Financial stability? Following through on my intentions? All of the above? None?

I’m a religious lady, and I know the “right answer”: I’m a child of God. That is enough. Should be enough. Also, I’m not worthy. I cannot earn what is most important: it’s all grace.

But how to get to a point where the above answers feel inspiring and freeing? The only strategy I have is to not shy away or distract myself from asking those questions. Repeatedly. And then to roll up my sleeves and get to work. To do Barbara O’Neal’s 20-minute win. To keep the momentum going. To look for places to go deeper with my characters and my writing. And myself. To trust my vision. To keep up my spiritual practices. To talk over these things with friends, family, fellow writers.

And, right now, to make dinner so we won’t have to eat at Wendy’s after my daughter’s volleyball game this afternoon (a too-regular occurrence during my son’s soccer season). I’ll do a 20-minute win while I wait in the school pick-up line later this afternoon. I hope to get back to work this evening. That’s my negotiation today. Tomorrow’s will be different. That’s normal life.

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2 thoughts on “Ask the tough questions and then get to work

  1. As one who also can’t untangle her lack of concrete success from her sense of self-worth, I’m thinking that such untangling isn’t work I can do. I think it is simply beyond me, and to the extent that untangling happens I will have experienced grace. But I do think I’m helped by maintaining some awareness of the tangle and even doing my part to loosen the tangle, which may mean simply noting it and not adding further cinching anxiety….And then rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, which today meant sending out another batch of poems.

  2. Thanks for this, Lorilyn — especially given that it was the result of one of our conversations. Way to go on the sending out!

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