And the Surprising Benefits to Vacuuming and Doing Your Laundry
On my second year at university, I made a new friend at Stephanie Bolster’s poetry class named Isabel. Isabel was an exceptionally talented, young writer and I was always looking forward to reading her original, inspiring poems. One Friday afternoon, as we sat in a downtown bar, she confessed to me that she had talked to her therapist about me. I was a little taken aback by her admission. Why would there be any reason to discuss me in her therapy session? So Isabel explained. “There is this woman in my class, a mother, who is going through a hell of a time, and she’s there every class with her work prepared.” This is how, according to her, she had described me to her therapist, as some kind of an ‘ideal’ that she looked up to, and envied. “Seriously Imola, how do you do it?” she asked me.
What Isabel saw in class was true, but it wasn’t the whole picture. During the two-year period in which I was taking Stephanie Bolster’s Introduction to Poetry and Advanced Poetry classes, I was going through a separation, three moves and the renovation of a run-down apartment into a livable space by my own (amateur) hands. I was exhausted and under-slept on most days. But my classes at Concordia, although challenging, also gave me the focus I needed to pull through. And I loved Stephanie’s poetry classes! My peers wrote beautiful poetry, which I was honoured and inspired to read, even if I had to read them during my daughter’s swimming classes, or on the bus on the way to university.
“Life puts enough obstacles in my way,” I explained to her. “So I’m not going to add more obstacles. It’s either I do this degree, or I don’t. And if I have decided to do this degree, I can’t waste the limited time I have on second guessing my choice.” This is also what I told myself every time I was tempted to give up. To reach this goal, I was armed with a meticulously filled out semester-planner and my daily to-do lists. On most mornings I was up at five, studying or writing, before getting my daughters ready for school. In this already tight schedule, there was simply no time left to procrastinate.
While this quasi militant approach served me well during those challenging university years, it comes with its own set of challenges during peaceful times. Let’s face it: I have a harder time to relax. Productivity is embedded in my genes. I get it from my mother who at the age of seventy marches ahead like a furious thunder and puts a modest lightning like me to shame. Compared to her, it is easy to feel even lazy.
And this is exactly how I felt – lazy – in the past two weeks as I struggled to work on the book that I had been paid to write (guilt, guilt, and some more GUILT). This is what you’ve dreamed about, and worked so hard for, I heard that reprimanding voice in my head. Get to work, immediately! it commanded. And still, I was unable to show up to my writing. I did two loads of laundry, vacuumed the house and cooked. I wrote a short piece about my conflicting feelings about the recent Israel-Palestine conflict – something I had been doing my best to avoid, and still, something that I found easier to do than working on my book. The reason became clear only after the writing process: I was heart-broken about the situation that I knew was going to get only worse. My whole body registered this pain. Despite my daily yoga practice, meditation and exercise, my back and shoulders were aching and my glutes felt inflamed. And still, I felt guilty for not being more productive. Until – I gave up on my usual active, fiery yoga practice, and decided to treat my aching body with restorative yoga instead. I’ll just do a few easy stretches, I told myself as I melted into an extended pigeon and child pose on the floor.
But the book that I should have been working on remained open on my desktop, and I was making no progress. I’ll just quickly vacuum, I’ll research literary magazines in Italy, I’ll read another chapter of my book, I’ll review my Italian grammar, the excuses kept coming and my guilt and self-loathing reached a breaking point. It was two in the afternoon (not my sharpest hour) when I finally faced the open document with another excuse in my head: Oh well, I have only an hour left before Eliane gets home, so I won’t be doing much writing. I’ll only take some notes. ‘Notes’ meaning the thoughts that had been circulating in my head all the while I was vacuuming, doing laundry, cooking and reading (aka, procrastinating) – about the story that is my book. And with that ‘excuse’ that got me off the hook from writing something ‘literary,’ I began typing. An hour went by and then, another hour. Eliane was home and I was still typing. I had given myself the permission to write ‘only notes’ and I sketched out an entire chapter.
This Tuesday I attended Yolk magazine’s first ‘Literary Oktoberfest.’ It felt particularly healing to break free from my obsessive writing bubble and listen instead to inspiring writers’ readings, as well as seeing some familiar faces – among them Dimitri Nasrallah, my former fiction teacher at Concordia University. I thanked Dimitri for forcing me to write a short story for his class five years ago, when I was deep into working on a novel that was losing its mojo, crippled by the unrealistic expectations I had placed on it. The short story that Dimitri ‘forced’ me to write and I resented writing at first, turned into one of the most rewarding writing experiences in my twenty odd years of tackling the keyboard. A story that was born out of a simple question and took on a life of its own; a story I wrote during a long weekend, rising each morning with keen anticipation to find out what happens next, because it felt like I wasn’t the one writing it, but it was dictated to me by some mysterious entities. Dimitri told me how that ‘breakthrough story’ had an energy and confidence to it, like some of the more recent writings he had read on my website.
An ‘energy’ is tough to define, and even harder to harness. But what Dimitri, and my two-week procrastination period reminded me is that creativity comes from a state of surrender (flow), and not from a punitive state of force and control. As soon as I relaxed and accepted what is (no writing today), that mysterious energy was able to flow through me. All I needed were the magic words “I’ll only take some notes” and “I’ll just do a few easy stretches,” to unlock my creativity and heal my body. I’ll try to remember that next time I am tempted to push myself beyond what I can handle when feeling fragile. Although, I suspect that I’ll need gentle reminders along the way. In the meanwhile, I’m happy to report that my home is very clean and all the laundry is done, neatly folded and put away.