When I was 26 and newly pregnant with my second child, I made the decision to go back to school to earn my MA in English. When I told this to people, they had a variety of opinions about it (namely, “Are you out of your mind?”), but once Charlotte was born and school was successfully underway, the question I got most often was, “How do you do it?” People wanted to know how I managed school work and class time while also raising two kids under three, running a house, etc…
They were often surprised at the answer. Because back then I had a secret weapon—a small piece of advice that someone had given me about priorities. I had gotten abundantly clear that my top two priorities were my children and my writing. And everything, (housework, meal planning, exercise, friendships, my marriage) EVERYTHING else, came second to those two priorities.
And while I was ultimately able to protect those two things, the success of my program did not come without a cost—to my health, to my mental and emotional well-being, and to my marriage.
So now, a decade later, I find myself in a similar situation. I’m working just under full-time. My book will be released in May, and I’m having ideas, the kind of ideas that sweep by when I’m listening to music in the car, or chatting with a writing friend, or spending quiet time outdoors. And though I try to snatch them out of the air as they whisk past, I’m finding that there is no time to spend with them, no space in my life for ideas to unfurl into story.
I am abundantly clear that I am not alone in this predicament. I spend enough time on social media to know how many writers spend their days at desk jobs and their nights writing their books after their children go to sleep. I also know that there are plenty of people with less choice in their lives about how to spend their time, and I am a huge proponent of carving out small chunks of quiet time for creativity in busy, noisy lives.
And while I am aware that I am blessed to have a choice about how to spend my time, my priority list has expanded over the last ten years—my marriage is healthier, and I want it to stay that way. A seizure disorder and severe anxiety have required me to add “health” to my list. And while “writing” is still certainly a top priority, I’m learning that there are responsibilities that come with publication that require time and space and creativity. So now I have five things, five priorities that come before everything else:
In order for my life to stay in balance, I have to fiercely protect these five things and set up my life in a way that allows time and space for these five things to thrive. And so, I’m making some changes.
Starting next fall, I’ll be working half as much. This decision doesn’t come without its worry or guilt—my financially responsible side constantly reminds me that there are NYT bestselling authors who still work day jobs and plug away at their books at night. That side of me argues that I am nearing forty, and “retirement fund” or “college fund” should be in this list of five things. I am not naive enough to think that my choice doesn’t come without sacrifice—but an outdated kitchen or a summer without vacation is a small price to pay for mental health, focused, energetic time to spend with my children and my husband, and white space—empty, open space where it’s quiet and still enough that I can hear the words as they whisper past.
And so, as simplistic as it may sound, I have to trust that if God wanted me to have a fully funded college account for my kids right now, that would be on my list of five things. Because you see, this list isn’t populated by some purposeful act of my rational brain. This list is what bubbles up from the still, small voice inside me that I believe is divinely inspired. And in my experience, when I trust that voice, when I allow it to make my decisions for me, I am more fully present, more abundant, more engaged, more alive, even more prosperous, then when I allow my rational brain to make decisions based on worry, fear, or guilt.
Last week, in hearing that I was making the choice to leave one part of my job, someone at work joked, “Well, what do you think—that you’re going to be on the tour circuit with Oprah?”
In retrospect, I have to laugh, because this person was reflecting back at me the kind of fear and doubt that my ego willingly brings to the table whenever I invite it to join the conversation: I’m not good enough. I’m irresponsible and flaky. My writing will never be financially lucrative. I should give up and get a full-time day job like a normal grown up.
Someone wise once told me that I would recognize my path when no one else had walked it. Un-tread paths are full of tree limbs, brambles, and roots that jut up out of the earth. They are uncomfortable and scary and sometimes lonely. But they are also the stuff of poems, of stories, of lives well-lived.
I have to trust that if I let my “5 things” be my compass, then my path, while yet untraveled, will not be unguided. And if let that still, small voice continue to guide my journey, then those five things will form riverbanks, between which my life will flow.