Today is Presidents’ Day, a holiday that means little to me because I work from home on Mondays, and that work goes on whether there is a holiday or not. Pets still need to be fed, dishes still need to be washed and put away, and papers still need to be graded. There are no Monday holidays when your work itself knows no holiday.


Last week, one of my students noticed I was wearing a pink dress for Valentine’s Day, and I admitted it was intentional. I also mentioned that since I don’t have time in the morning to stand in front of my closet and decide the day’s outfit, I plan what I’m going to wear for the week on Sunday, based on the forecast’s best guess at the weather. At that, my student asked with genuine astonishment, “But what if one morning you feel lazy, and you’d planned to wear something cute?” And I realized in an instant that my student and I were coming at the conversation from different planets.

When I say I plan my outfits in advance, you must understand this: every day, I wear the same basic uniform. I have a closet full of colorful patterned skirts that pair with solid-colored, long-sleeve T-shirts, and I have a handful of drapey dresses that are themselves like long knit shirts. Either T-shirt and skirt or drapey dress can be worn with tights and ankle boots; add a necklace and earrings, and that’s the closest to a “cute outfit” I get.


There is no “dressing down” on lazy days because I’m not all that “dressed up” to begin with: if I’m teaching, it’s either a dress or a T-shirt and skirt, and if I’m not teaching, it’s a T-shirt and jeans (if I’m going out) or a T-shirt and yoga pants (if I’m staying in). At the end of any given teaching day, the first thing I do when I get home is switch from skirt to stretchy pants–a split-second switch from one uniform to another.

This is in contrast to a stylish student who wears makeup and heels and a cute outfit when she’s feeling ambitious vs. sweats, no makeup, and a T-shirt when she’s not. There is a significant difference in primp and prep time between her dress and casual outfits, and there is virtually no difference with mine.

Santa's lap

But there’s more. I don’t have “lazy days”; these simply aren’t possible for me. When you live with diabetic cats, you can’t ever sleep without an alarm; you might have earlier or later wake-up times depending on your work schedule, but there always has to be a schedule. And when you live in a house with a husband, two dogs, and eight cats, you can’t ever take a “lazy day” off from housework. Weekdays or weekends, holidays or ordinary time, lazy days or no: every day there are tasks to do that can’t be postponed, pushed off, or avoided. Like a dairy farmer, I simply have to be home at the scheduled times to tend the livestock.

This is something I can’t really explain to a student because our life situations are so different. As an undergrad and even graduate student, I would have had no real concept of “no days off” because my responsibilities were the kind I could (and did) procrastinate. Parents with small children can understand the responsibilities that come from tending a houseful of creatures, but most folks without kids can’t. It’s just a different reality, like an earthling trying to understand life on Mars.

The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

First forsythia

J and I left Houston on Sunday just as the bluebonnets were beginning to bloom…and this morning, I noticed the first forsythia flowers in Newton, blooming three weeks ahead of schedule. And just like that, my spring break is over and I’m back in Keene, not-quite-ready to face another full week after not-quite catching up with the work I’d planned to accomplish.


In other words, time flies when you’re on break presumably being productive. Every year, I look forward to spring break thinking I’ll be able to use the time I’m not teaching face-to-face classes to catch up with other tasks…and every year, the end of break arrives before I’m completely caught up. “How was your break,” both students and colleagues will ask by way of making small talk, and “too short” is my standard reply. I had hoped to spend this past week catching up online paper-grading, draft commenting, class-related reading, and other teaching tasks; instead, I’m no more caught up today than I was a week ago even though I spend much of last week working.

What surprises me about this scenario isn’t the fact that once again I find myself on a nonstop treadmill called “catching up”; it’s that I somehow fooled myself into thinking (again) that catching up was actually possible. Last spring, I reminded myself that “being caught up is as elusive as the rainbow’s end,” and years before that, I realized you can never pick all the apples a full harvest offers. When you teach at two different colleges, you’re never really on break anywhere: there’s always something on your to-do list, and on any typical day, your to-list consists of the various tasks you’d intended to do yesterday.

Forsythia buds

Time, it turns out, is still flying, and the items on my to-do list still adamantly refuse to do themselves. At the same time, time has taught me that the tasks on my to-do list aren’t going anywhere, so the catch-up I’d envisioned for last week can be accomplished this week, and the next, and the next after that. Time, it turns out, never stops flying, and the treadmill called “work” and “catching up” never run themselves out until semester’s end, when everything necessarily comes to a stop. In the meantime, I need to remind myself time and again that a teacher’s work, like a mother’s, is never done.

Snow, slats, and shadows

We’ve reached that point of the semester when keeping up with work feels a bit like trotting on a treadmill running several steps faster than my usual stride. I’ve given up hope of catching up, so all I hope for is not to fall too far behind.

Courthouse with snow

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a busy one. Yesterday morning, after Tuesday night’s snow, I shoveled my driveway when I’d normally meditate, replacing one sort of repetitive, mindless activity for another. It felt good to be moving, and it felt good to see my car and driveway emerge from a half-foot of fresh snow, one shovelful at a time. Now that I’ve settled into the stride of yet another busy semester, the repetitive tasks of paper-reading and class prep are almost soothing as snow-shoveling in their monotony: just like this, each week greets the next, and no sooner do I dig out from one to-do list than I find myself facing another.

Winter Street in winter

There’s a certain, albeit circular, sense of accomplishment that comes when you surrender to the task at hand, no matter how boring. Shoveling snow, walking the dog, grading papers: none of these tasks is particularly interesting, but each is essential. No sooner do you cross off one of these tasks Today, you have to do it Tomorrow. But when you come inside after shoveling the driveway, walking the dog, or teaching another full day of classes, you have a sense of contentment knowing you did what needed to be done, and now it’s time to relax. Coming home from a full day’s teaching, or a good long dog-walk, or another stint of snow-shoveling feels like a good kind of tired, like when a basketball team gives every ounce of energy on the court and then walks off to the showers knowing they left it all on the court. It doesn’t matter if you won or lost, and it doesn’t matter if tomorrow you have to play the same damn game all over again. What matters is that for whatever span of time you ran on your own metaphorical treadmill, you gave all your attention and energy to every blessed step.