For a time, I fancied myself a writer in the making. I will always remember with great joy the summer I was selected to participate in one of the Collegeville writer workshops with Lauren Winner; Kate Bowler was one of the other participants in my group and since then, several others have published wonderful books. I am glad to keep pecking away at this thing of trying to put words around life and I no longer lay claim to that title.
A few weeks ago, Suleika Jaouad, who, like Kate Bowler, is an exquisite writer about life at the edge of death, put out a challenge on an Instagram page she created early in 2020 as the pandemic laid hold of us. Called the Isolation Journals, this page was intended to challenge people to push beyond everything militating against writing and creativity. Now she was issuing another challenge: a 100-day effort to engage in at least one act of creativity a day. I jumped on the bandwagon.
Before too long, I found myself pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an act of creativity. It’s easy to say photography counts. To write. Gardening? It has more to do with facilitating growth and life than the creative life of an artist or writer. Following the general parameters of a recipe to make a new kind of jam? Eh… Sitting quietly, simply observing how beautiful the roses in my garden have been this year, how quickly the phlox is growing and how my lavender is thriving on the front bed? Almost certainly not.
Each day, I have been aware of the challenge. However, I can’t say I have been faithful in actually meeting it. And in an unexpected sense, I have discovered that what I am doing is about another challenge.
It’s been Alabama hot for the last week, and night temperatures have stayed above 70 degrees F. It’s felt like pool time was here and at the same time, every day there’s been something that got in the way. Even before it’s time to start enjoying the pool, there’s a rhythm that I have to re-establish each year. The pool needs daily tending, a small set of chores that will make the pool a delight in the late afternoon for the spouseman and me.
Perhaps the hardest part of the chores involves little animals that get caught in that wide expanse of shimmering water, who hop in without thinking, or, on a couple of occasions, actually just fall in. It happens mainly at night. It used to be that my work was about using the pool skimmer to fish out little dead bodies, I always squeamish, always wincing at the horror of it. These past few days I’ve discovered if I get up early enough and head out to do my job, I can actually save most, sometimes all, the little frogs that hopped or fell in during the hours of dark and cannot get back out. It still gives me the heebee-geebies, I’m always slightly terrified one will end up jumping on me (that’s a whole different story), but I get it done.
This morning, after I’d finished my daily rescue mission, I thought back on the previous 24 hours. Yesterday morning I think I messed up around my sermon and some visitors to the church I served. It left me feeling just awful and aware life is like that; no matter how much I want to, I can’t always wrap things up nice and neat. Then, after the service, I had three commitments I needed to keep with people who are sick and with an organization that’s just asked me to serve on their board. I was getting ready to head out when my phone lit up with text messages. A person I’d had fairly regular contact with a number of years ago was in crisis and trying desperately to get in touch with me.
I moved my commitments around, excused myself from the one that couldn’t be rescheduled. Then I worked into the evening with someone who was so terribly isolated and afraid that I could see that even breathing was hard for them. I had no fixes. I had no cures. I am still concerned for them and what lies ahead. But I do have some more clarity about the 100 day challenge, as I can manage it.
At its core, at its most basic, the daily challenge is more simple and far harder for me right now. I try to show up. That means paying attention. Staying engaged. When I fall short, acknowledging that and trying to make amends. It also means knowing my limits, holding the responsibility lightly and with the indifference Ignatius of Loyola so eloquently described: we do our very best without investing in one outcome or another. These days, for me it also means getting on that elliptical of mine that I love to hate to have a good workout, at least 6 days a week. There’s more of course, but in the end, it is basically that my challenge for a 100 days (and for a lifetime) is to show up.
For the duration of the challenge, here and on Instagram, I’m going to keep trying to describe small acts of my life that include creativity, at least some of the time, but also speak to drudgery and how much of the work is plain old persistence. I am carrying the challenge more lightly, though, not beating myself up because I can’t claim to be a writer, an artist, or even a particularly creative person on any given day. Instead, I have to trust that showing up counts for something.