Monk Mode: A Brief Introduction

"This work costs something in soul," Phyllis said in her kitchen while Caren brewed a homemade remedy for me.  And I was so glad that she said it, because I don't know a better way to say it and sometimes not having proper words for something makes me question whether it's really true or just my imagination.

For so long I've held that common assumption that I only needed time--more time--to do the many things on my list of longings.  I salivated at the thought of this fall, at the idea of my children both in school all day.  I made plans (outrageous plans) about how I was going to continue my informal education, what I would create and collaborate on.   And then fall came, and three workshops or retreats in three months.  I was either resting up for a trip, away for it, or recovering from it on the flip side.  I was wrapping up some writing and doing some stories on stage here and there, but mostly in between I've been sick or just plain weary.  For so long I've been operating as if time were the only cost of the work that I do, and that more time would naturally equal more productivity.

But I was forgetting about the energetic cost of the things on my list.  Creating something from nothing, being really present, and doing soul work are extraordinary expenditures.  Unlike my previous assumptions led me to believe, these are not 9-5 ventures, and I am not a machine.  Or at least this is what I tell my Protestant work ethic every day of my blessed life.

I made it through my commitments this year, but toward the end I could feel myself scraping the bottom of the 2010 barrel, reaching out and borrowing some future inner resources that I am now working to replenish.

So what does one do when there's been such a large expenditure of soul?  All I know to do is to go into monastic mode to replenish the deep places, to heal my body, to reunite all my parts and pieces here in the present moment.  Here are some of the key components of this kind of work for me:

Repetitive work, the kind which is never over.  In our culture we have a common disdain for the kind of work that never ends or feels undone as soon as it is complete, like dish washing, laundry, cooking and cleaning.  These are often tasks that get delegated, as we give our attention to "important work", by which we mean that which feeds our illusions of progress.  There's no fantasy of forward motion in making the bed when we know it will be undone again within hours.

But this is the very kind of work that many people feel is sacred in nature, precisely because it is never finished.  Because the point of the work isn't advancement.  I confess I have my own contempt for these things--the exhaustible work of keeping an apartment with young children tidy and the time that taking a shower steals away from important progress in I Don't Even Know What.  So this is the work I'm sinking into now, because it honors my humanity to care for my body and it honors my family to have a beautiful retreat from the cold months and dark days.  I sink into this work as a confession that my assessment of what is and is not important is often skewed beyond measure.  And I sink into it as an act of faith that sometimes it's more about what the work is accomplishing in me.

A return to the simplicity of traveling light.  I create space in the studio, in our living spaces, in our closets by pulling out the things which are no longer serving us and finding new homes for them.  I'm thankful for the times in which our possessions come to us, and I hope they have many lives beyond the one here with us.  In their absence there is space, and I don't just mean space for new possessions to take their place, but the tangible physical spaces that are necessary to birth new possibilities and new creations.

I bring this traveling light to my schedule, too, keeping it as sparse as possible and enjoying the freedom of spontaneous dinners and drop-in visits from neighbors.  We think that it makes our time feel honored or important to earmark and appoint every minute of the day, but it makes me feel like I am holding gold in my palms when I have a chunk of time (be it hours or a day or a week or a season) in which I can deeply listen in the moment for what I need and do it, or to participate as a partner in time's gradual unfolding instead of play-acting inside my usual illusion that I am somehow my time's own master.

Deep surrender.  (Words that could make anyone stop reading right now.)  There's a lot of letting go: of being publicly seen, of knowing the answer, of having some tangible justification to show for my existence.  Instead of trying to come to anyone else's rescue or aid, I lay down under the covering of my own need to be saved.  I let myself really experience my need for things like love and comfort, friendship and solitude, and I try to remember how to receive.

Cookies arrive in the mail, friends trek into the city to see me, a huge bunch of sunflowers arrives for my kitchen table--and I welcome them all with a bowed head and an open heart.

There is probably more that I could say, but closets and hand-wash laundry are calling my name.  So instead I will say, Peace be with you, and together we will honor the day.