The paths of our devotions are visible, worn into steps of churches, across the wooden thresholds of our homes, and through the grass around our yards.
My grandmother ground a path between the back door and the barn, where, for more than twenty years, she passed each morning before dawn and again at dusk, a pilgrimage to milk the fifty cows she kept, and which, I believe, kept her.
My own devotion over the years has been to writing, poetry mostly, but also lyrics, music and memoir. The letters along the middle row of the computer's keyboard, a, s, d, f; and t, i, and o on the top row, are worn off from my fingers touching them. These letter-less keys my fingers remember, even if I can’t name them by sight. Each letter has become a muscle, repeatedly exercised.
This gentle, repetitive wearing wears us, too. Like the shape feet mold into shoes, or gloves that retain the bend of fingers, our daily excursions have major consequences in our lives on how we wear, and how we are worn.
I often think of my grandmother going to the barn, through the cold, and snow; the days of her bending in the rain toward the ceaseless work awaiting her.
If she ever contemplated giving up, forgetting the cows which depended upon her, whose warm exhales filled the barn with vapor on winter mornings in anticipation of her coming with a bucket of warm water and a washcloth to clean their teats, and draw from them, with her hands, the weight of their milk, she never spoke of it.
She seemed to me to rise to her work, unburdened by the animals’ dependency upon her, and go about the day with the lightness of devotion, continuing to do what she loved, living as she’d chosen to live?
Perhaps she was fully present opening the milking parlor door, relishing the sound of water running in the double steel sinks. Perhaps, over time, she even began to breathe in rhythm with the cows, her work; her entire life, a single, endless prayer.
In all the years I knew her, I never heard her complain about milking. About bills, the lazy neighbors, the modern world, to be certain. But about the animals she spoke only of the gifts they gave to her: their milk, yes, but more, the companionship and the purpose they gave her life.
There must have been days when she didn't feel like milking, cleaning stalls, carting silage and buckets of water when it was so cold the water would freeze in the pail before she’d finish. Yet she never took a day off, no holidays, not even when she was sick.
When I don't feel like writing, when I'm too tired, or it’s difficult to move words, or I’m haunted by impatience and doubt—the seeming unimportance of it all--I think of her working, regardless of the weather, regardless of whether work was something she felt like doing. And I write because I have known for a long time, one simple, unchanging truth: writing is how I want to spend my life.
Annie Dillard wrote, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” This spending is an exchange. It pays and it extracts something from us: physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Writing is what I do. Taking time from it is not negotiable. I love making things out of language. Even when I'm not in the act of writing, I’m thinking about experiences I'm going to write about. I t isn't much different than my grandmother talking about how to fence the cows to keep them from getting out of the field into the corn, or how to treat when they are sick.
Before my grandmother became a dairy farmer, she thought about being a dairy farmer. Eventually she dropped her role as a suburban housewife, her oil painting, her violin playing, everything that took time from what she truly wanted to be doing: farming.
For many decades, writing frustrated me. I wrote in fits and starts. I was insecure. I often felt defeated when I tried. I expected more from my meager beginnings. I expected awards, praise, publication.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that what I was seeking along was not a result, but a feeling. And only doing gave me this feeling: the act of writing was its own reward. The work, like my grandmother milking her cows, was the prayer that brought me joy.
Eventually, and inevitably, we become the shape of our work. The process is gradual, yet without end. Although modern cultural promises quick fixes and easy payoffs: five surefire ways to find happiness, six pick-up lines guaranteed to land Mr. or Mrs. Right, lose 20 pounds without exercise, real and permanent results require actual work. It’s work to make progress, and change our selves into whatever we hope, and need to be.
I’ve come to realize my writing, and indeed my life, had little strength without devotion. When I began to marry my attention and intention to an act—the commitment to write daily—I experienced the creative life I'd always imagined.
What are you devoted to daily? Is it worth your devotion? To what else could you surrender? How do you measure all you give yourself to, and what these extract from your life? The toll. Is it a good exchange?
Each morning, before I begin my daily writing practice, I light a stick of incense, place it in a bowl, and sit there for the time it takes to burn. The moment I strike the match, I become present, drawn into space I’ve made sacred by coming to it daily, mindfully. I’ve trained my mind and body that it is time to focus on writing. Muscle memory: the act of lighting the match initiates the shift, and I’m able, at once, to lose and find myself.
The other day I realized there were dozens of burned sticks protruding from the bowl on the table. Each stub a day I came, and sat, and wrote. I didn't always write a lot. I didn't always write well. Nonetheless, I came and I wrote. And just as the path my grandmother wore in the ground was evidence of her coming and going, the incense sticks, and the keys of my computer are evidence of how I've spent my days.
I understand this is how a life is made: one determined movement at a time. Saint Teresa of Avila said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."
What we do with the time we have, and how we do it—mindfully, present, with joy, with intention, in prayer, with love, as a gift—makes a life. It makes life purposeful, and worth living. Otherwise, it's simply spent.