On writing a column
by Sunny Schlenger
“Life does not consist of either wallowing in the past or peering anxiously at the future. It is good for one to appreciate that life is now. Whatever it offers, little or much, life is now, this day — this hour. As the doctor said to the woman who complained that she didn’t like the night air: ‘Madam, during certain hours of the twenty-four, night air is the only air there is.’” ~ Charles Flandrau
The more you can value and appreciate where you are at the moment, the greater your happiness. Writing a column is a good exercise for sensitizing you to the present moment because it enables you to look life with a fresh eye. It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t write. The purpose is to find something — anything ± that piques your interest and then explore your thoughts and feelings on the subject.
Writing a column forces you to examine your life with patient curiosity. Normally, we’re doing anything but that. We bounce off of our environment like shots in a pinball game, hurtling from one bumper to another. When you slow down and deliberately take notice of your surroundings, you’re in the present moment, and being in the present moment brings things into sharper focus. It’s as though you’re on a nature expedition, but you’re using your binoculars to observe the details of your own life.
How often do we question why we do things the way we do? One way to get inside ourselves is to pretend that we’re entertaining visitors from another planet who want to better understand our way of life. Imagine that they’re looking for simple explanations of our daily routines, such as the reasoning behind our nighttime beauty rituals or who takes out the garbage and why.
It can be amazing to discover how much we do automatically, out of habit. I first became aware of this phenomenon years ago when I was living in a small apartment. Each week, I would put out a fresh set of towels in the bathroom. The closet shelf that the towels were on was very narrow so that every time I pulled out a few, the other towels would fall onto the floor. I would pick them up, refold them, stack them back on the shelf and close the door.
One day, I took a closer look at the closet and saw that the other shelves were wider than the ones the towels were on. Instead of just mindlessly picking up the dropped towels, refolding and re-storing them, I could make my life easier by putting them on one of the wider shelves where they wouldn’t be jumping out all the time.
Taking the time to examine an old routine can be very practical. But it’s also beneficial to make the time to look at everything more closely — your bookshelves, your best friend, your yellow Labrador, your front steps. And how about listening? When did you last pay attention to the sounds in your yard at night? The background vocals on an old favorite CD? The laughter of schoolchildren playing outside after lunch? The sound of leaves crunching on the pavement? And what about the smells and tastes of a summer-fresh peach or just baked pumpkin pie?
This is what you do when you write a column. You pay attention. You observe. You figure out what you think and how you feel about what you’re observing. Another benefit of writing a column is that, by definition, you’re limited to a certain number of words. So not only are you collecting your thoughts, you’re prioritizing them. The act of counting words keeps you close to your center; you have to keep peeling away layers to get to the kernel of truth before you run out of room.
Much of our day-to-day business can be done by rote. But when we’re fully engaged, active participants in moment-by-moment creation, we’re in the state linked most closely to “living” our lives. To be human, successfully, means to be totally present as much as you can. This means to be where you are, no matter where that is. When you’re eating, you’re eating. When you’re listening to your child, you’re listening to your child. When you’re playing the guitar, you’re not doing anything else with your fingers, eyes or emotions.
So try it. Block out about 45 minutes when you won’t be interrupted. Write a column on the subject of your favorite time of day. Aim for between 500 to 800 words in which you describe the sights, sounds and feel of that time period and what makes it special for you.
Have fun with this exercise! And then stop to appreciate the work of columnists everywhere who are always striving to pay closer attention to their own lives for your reading pleasure.