New leaves

I rarely write my journal pages first thing in the morning: there are too many other things to do. On teaching days, I get up, immediately start my kitchen chores, give Bobbi her breakfast, shower and dress, then give Bobbi her insulin right before I head off to campus. On days when I work from home, I sleep later, give Bobbi her breakfast and insulin first thing, and then do my kitchen chores. In either case, “kitchen chores” and “tend diabetic cat” come before “sit down and write,” and I’ve made peace with that. This is the shape of my life these days, and a daily writing practice needs to conform itself to any shape.

Spring green

On mornings when I’m working from home and J has a morning meeting, however, we get up hours earlier than usual, and I meditate then write in my journal before setting foot in the kitchen. When I write my journal pages first thing, I either focus on whatever I did, read, or thought the previous day–a narrative debrief–or I rehearse in writing the tasks of the coming day. When I write my journal pages first thing, in other words, I often don’t have much to say because the day is young: the house is quiet, the neighbors are still asleep, and my notebook and desk feel like the center of a dormant universe.

Honeysuckle leaves

Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way had a big influence on my life at a time when I was stuck in nearly every way, insists that morning pages be written first thing in the morning, before anything else. (I picture Cameron waking alone in bed, wearing a peignoir and swaddled in satin sheets, her journal on a nearby nightstand so she can scribble pages before her feet touch the floor.) But even before I had a diabetic cat and kitchen chores to tend to, Cameron’s approach never seemed entirely practical: dogs’ bladders take precedent over journal pages, and when I lived at the Zen Center, morning practice came first. Anyone with pets, a spouse, children, or a meditation practice might understandably struggle with Cameron’s insistence that writing in one’s journal take priority over everything else.

Spring leaves

Fortunately, before I’d ever heard of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I’d already read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s only rule about journal pages is that you keep your hand moving. Goldberg doesn’t care whether you write your journal pages in the morning, noon, or night; she simply urges you to write them quickly and with no mind to mistakes. For years, I shared Goldberg’s fondness for writing in cafes: my first consideration in choosing a new purse was the question “Will my notebook fit inside?” Nowadays, my journal lives at home and I only occasionally write elsewhere, but I long ago internalized Natalie Goldberg’s insistence to write not just early, but often.

Leafing

The beauty of journal pages is that they are, indeed, your own: various practitioners have their own rules and admonitions, but those basically boil down to “just do it.” This morning when I wrote my journal pages, the neighborhood was alive with a predawn chorus: cardinal, titmouse, crow, chickadee, robin, junco, goldfinch, nuthatch, house sparrow, and an occasional emphatic turkey. At one point, the other birds quieted while a white-throated sparrow whistled his clear, simple song: an avian aria I associate with distant alpine environments, too secretive for suburbs. These songs entered my ear then flowed out as ink onto the page: a secret stream of solitude to start the day.

Moleskine

Given my geographically bipolar existence, I have not one but two morning routines: one for my weekdays in New Hampshire, and the other for my weekends in Massachusetts. The one thing that both of my routines have in common, though, is the paired ritual of walking and writing.

Buddha with roses

During my weekdays in Keene, I go to bed around 11:00 and wake around 5:00: a hold-over from my early-rising Zen Center days. On a good day in Keene, I do bows and then meditate first thing upon awakening; on busy days, I might tend to last-minute teaching tasks instead. When I meditate in Keene, my mat and cushion face a drafty window, so I sit with a folded blanket on my lap, both my legs and my mudra warm under the cover of fleece. After sitting, I get dressed, having bathed the night before; after dressing, I take Reggie for a walk. Only after walking do I settle to the business of breakfast: plain Jane oatmeal followed by morning pages at my kitchen table.

I call them “morning pages” even though they don’t follow Julia Cameron’s insistence that one’s journal pages be written first thing in the morning. Although I typically write my morning pages early, on busy days I might not get around to writing them until evening, and I almost never write them first thing. How exactly does Julia Cameron expect me to write, I wonder, on mornings when I haven’t yet walked? And so with all due respect to Julia Cameron, I’ve settled into my own morning routine: first I Wake, then I Walk, then I Write. JC and her disciples are free to practice in their own way, and I’ve settled upon mine.

Madonna with blinds

During my long weekends in Massachusetts, my morning routine is significantly different, but both the walking and the writing remain the same. In Newton, J and I keep west coast hours by going to bed around midnight and waking up at 9:00. While J tends to the previous night’s dishes, I walk Reggie then return to my morning pages, written in bed with J’s yellow lab lounging beside me while Reggie snoozes on the floor. Only after I’ve filled anywhere between two and four Moleskine pages with random scribble do I turn on my laptop to check email, online classes, and blogs. During my long, homebody weekends in Massachusetts, I shower right before lunch, and after lunch I sit with the dogs, my Zen Center fastidiousness about the proper time and place for meditation replaced with the mundane practicality of life in the outside world.

What I find noteworthy here isn’t the fact that my morning routine in Keene differs so dramatically from my morning routine in Newton; instead, what interests me is the fact I’ve established an almost religious ritual in each place. Through trial and error, I’ve come to realize I live and die by my morning routine, and it doesn’t much matter if I’m following my Keene routine or my Newton one: either one works in its appropriate time and place. After years of grappling with my own morning woulds, I’ve boiled things down to the bare essentials: meditation whenever I can get it, and walking and writing before much anything else. Having begun the day with the things I need, I can move onto the things I’d like.

This is my several-days-late contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Morning Routine. The roses in the second photo are my after-Valentine’s Day windfall: a bit of Buddha bounty.