THE PATHS OF OUR devotions are visible, worn into steps of churches, across the wooden thresholds of our homes, and through the grass around the yard.
My grandmother ground a path between her front door and the barn. For more than twenty years, she passed back and forth each morning before dawn and again at dusk, a pilgrimage to milk the fifty cows she kept, and which, I believe, kept her, too.
My own devotion over the years has been to writing, poetry mostly, but also lyrics and music, personal essays, and memoir. The letters along the middle row of my computer’s keyboard, a, s, d, f, also t, i, and o on the top row, are worn off from my fingers touching them. They are letter-less keys. Funny enough, when I look at the keys, I can’t recall which letter I’m hitting but my fingers remember. Each letter has become a muscle, repeatedly exercised.
It’s this gentle, repetitive wearing that wears us, too, like the shape of feet molded into a pair of shoes or gloves that retain the fingers’ bend, or the muscles of our legs from walking the contours of our environment. The daily excursions we make 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, trudging the cold, through the snow, the days of her bending in the rain toward the ceaseless work awaiting her.
I wonder if she contemplated giving up, forgetting the cows that depended upon her, whose warm exhales filled the barn with steam on winter mornings, and anticipated my grandmother coming with a bucket of warm water and a washcloth to clean their cold teats, and draw from them, with her hands, the weight of their milk.
Or was it otherwise? Did she rise to her work, unburdened by either dependency or responsibility, but with the lightness of devotion: continuing what she loved; living as she wanted to live?
Perhaps she was fully present while creaking open the milking parlor door, to the sound of running water in the double steel sink. Perhaps, over time, she even began to breathe in rhythm with the beasts. Perhaps her work, her whole life, was a single, endless prayer.
I never heard her complain. The bills, the neighbors, the state of the modern world, to be certain. But never about her service to the animals and plants, with which she spoke only about the gifts they gave: the blooms, the milk, the look in their eyes. She never took a day off; not for Christmas, not when she was sick, or when she’d stayed up too late, never.
There must have been days she didn’t feel like milking all those cows, cleaning their stalls, carting the silage when it was so cold the water froze in the pail. Yet she did it.
And I think of her example. Whenever I don’t feel like writing, when I’m too tired, or it’s difficult to move words, am haunted by impatience and doubt, or the seeming unimportance of writing at all, I think of her walking to the barn regardless of the weather, regardless of whether it’s something she wanted to do. And I write because I have known for a long time one simple, unchanging reality: writing is how I want to spend my life.
Annie Dillard once wrote, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And this spending is an exchange which both pays and extracts something from us: physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Writing is what I do, and finding time is not negotiable. When I have free hours, I spend them making things out of language. Even when I’m not in the act of writing, I’m thinking about experiences as if I’m going to write about them. It 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.
When I wasn’t writing, I wanted to be writing. Before my grandmother became a dairy farmer, all she did was think of being a dairy farmer. Eventually she dropped everything else: her painting, her violin, even her husband—anything that took time from her passion.
For many decades, writing was frustrating. I wrote in fits and starts, I was insecure. I often felt defeated by what I tried to write. I expected it to be more, something tremendous that would lead to publication, awards, accolades.
It has taken a long time for me to realize that what I was seeking was a feeling, not a result. And only the doing gives me this feeling; the act of writing enables the feeling and is its own reward. The work, like my grandmother milking her cows, is a prayer, a meditation that brings joy.
Eventually, and inevitably, we become the shape of our work. The process is gradual yet without end. And although our society promises quick fixes and easy payoffs: five guaranteed ways to find happiness, six surefire pick-up lines to attract Mr. or Mrs. Right, losing 20 pounds without exercising, etc., it requires actual work. It’s work to make actual changes, and change ourselves into whatever we hope and need to be.
I came to realize my writing, indeed my life, had little real strength without devotion. Only when I began to bring my intention and attention to an act—a commitment to write daily—did I experience the creative life I’d always imagined.
This, I believe, has universal application. What are we devoting ourselves to daily? Is this worth our devotion? What else could we surrender ourselves to? How do we measure what we give and what it contributes to and extracts from your life? And finally, is this a good exchange?
Each morning, I light a stick of incense and place it in a bowl before I begin my daily practice. The moment I strike the match, I become present, drawn into my sacred space. This gesture of becoming mindful and quieting myself in order to write has trained my body and mind. Muscle memory: the act of lighting a match initiates a shift to focus, and somehow, I’m able to at once lose and find myself.
The other day I realized there are dozens of burned down sticks protruding from the bowl. Each stub represents a day I came, sat, and wrote. I didn’t always write a lot. I didn’t always write well. But I came and I wrote, regardless. Just as the groove my grandmother wore in the ground was evidence of her coming and going, the incense and the worn bare keys of my computer offer evidence of how I’ve spent my life. And, I understand: this is how a life is made: one tiny 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 take, and how we do it—mindful, present, joyful, with intention, in prayer, with love, as a gift—makes a life. It makes life purposeful, and worth living. Otherwise, it’s simply spent.
Justen Ahren is a poet, writing coach, as well as the founder and director of Noepe Martha’s Vineyard Center for Literary Arts. He served as the Poet Laureate of West Tisbury, MA from 2012-2014 and his first collection of poetry, A Strange Catechism was published in 2013.