I drive a car with automatic transmission that makes the appropriate decision about what gear I should be in as I round a curve on an icy road. The car has something called paddle shifters that will override that decision to some extent. I have not used them. I learned to drive stick shift in Ireland when I was out of college on the "grande tour" - only mine was less grande and more tour. I took lessons from a very attractive Irish "lad" so that I could save money by renting a stick shift car and so I could learn to make turns on the "wrong" side of the road. I "drove stick" from time to time after that trip, but most of my life has been "on automatic". Make of that whatever metaphor you like.
But as I sit here staring at the computer screen, I realize that I have spent an inordinate amount of time switching back and forth between the email program, the internet search engine and H's book that I have been editing. Occasionally I get up to add wood to the wood stove or to snack on something - empty calories indeed.
I am having trouble with emptiness and trouble switching gears. I finished grading my students' work ten days ago. Since then, I cleaned out the supply closet, fixed the knitting conundrum that I have been dealing with, cleaned the litter box and did the storm windows - and most of that took part of one day. I also walked 5.5 miles yesterday and will head out shortly - before dark - for another walk. Tonight I have a scheduled talk with a colleague. I have filled a contractor's bag with shredded paper - the product of my mother's tax records, and financial statements, some of which date to 1988. There remains a box to do.
I planted the garlic I bought a few weeks ago, and the tubers I pulled up in search of the hole that was allowing some small critter into the wall of the bedroom where it wakes us with its skittering at night. I put manure on 4 of the 5 garden beds and need to mulch them and get cardboard down on the weed whacked bishop's weed that lines the east side of the property across the street. That will need to get covered with mulch. But it is chilly inside the house and I have all the lights on, because the grey sky makes it look like dusk instead of being just past midday. I don't want to do anything other than sit by the stove with a book or take a walk to further compete with myself on my tiny fitbit.
What I really want though is to be back to my writing. I seem to have forgotten how. I don't know which document to open or where to start with the book manuscript I have been working on for a decade. I usually pick it up again at page 1 since that seems obvious, but the result is that I am stuck on what has been edited a hundred times, and by the time I get to the meat of the ideas, the areas where I can make useful progress, something else gets in the way, and the project languishes until the next time I try to find a thread unraveled from the fabric, a place to begin. I have an assortment of files, and an assortment of folders, all of which made sense when I was working on them more actively. That was then.
Now it is easier to address the calendar and contact list fixes. It is easier to plan a meeting with colleagues. It is like the yellow footprints on the floor that we used to use to learn to do the cha cha. Tell me where to step and I am on it as they say. But there are no yellow footprints for the writing. Unless you are doing it and there is that thread left unfinished. Unless it is recent enough to require a finished thought or narrative or persona.
There have been reams of paper covered with writing about the devastation of the multi-tasked life. But I am finding that I have been devastated by a to-do life.... one which is laden with the Scyllas of preparing for the seasons' changes and the sultry whispers of Charybdis in the form of organizer demons that call to me to set up a meeting, follow up on a commitment to find someone to talk about the new health insurance plans, edit some copy on our web site. There are the siren calls of novels and magazines and books not yet opened that draw me deeper into this distractable head when there is only one path I should be following.
The writer Ann LaMott once wrote something about writer's block. She said something about it not being about being too full, but rather about being empty. There's that word again. I suspect what I need is to turn away for a time, do something I haven't done before. Venice was good for finding my voice, but that's a bit more of a financial commitment than I can make right now. And this isn't really about writer's block. You know when you are about to shift gears from a stop, to enter the two way street, and you aren't sure which is the wrong side of the road? There is that hesitation, long enough that someone comes into sight, and you have to wait again for the traffic to clear. I am trying to get to the point where I know the shift well enough to make the turn in a natural rhythm. I am trying to get to the point where I don't grind the gears when I pull away from that stop.