What to Do with Too Much to Do

What do you do with too much to do? 

I remember carrying that question around in my head for quite a while before, one day, a classmate of mine asked our professor how to find her own voice in the writing assignments we did for class. By way of an answer, the professor asked another question:

“What do you enjoy reading?” After a pause, the professor continued: “Find the voices you love, spend time with them, and they can tell you a lot about what your own voice might become.”

I hadn’t been wondering how to find my voice. All the same, the professor’s response (another question) seemed to speak to my own unasked question of what to do with all that I had to do. The names of plenty of people popped into my head: writers I’d enjoyed over the years as well as people or things that I’d found energizing. I knew I didn’t feel that way about our classes. Interesting as I’d found it to work with our class topics and readings, the efforts of school drained me. No wonder going back to school while working full time had left me feeling weary. It meant less time with what I loved.

Bodhisattva the cat

I think a friend must have heard the weariness in my voice. Leading up to the Christmas holiday, she sent a care package in the mail. I opened the package and stared inside, stunned. She’d sent things that only someone who’d known me as a child would have thought to send: pastels, pastel pencils, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, charcoal pencils, sketching and drawing pencils. I spread it all out on the kitchen table, where I sat with a little black cat named Bodhisattva (or “Bo”) on my lap. I hadn’t thought about drawing in years. Really, I didn’t have time to start thinking about it then, either, but I took time. I pulled some sketch pencils over beside me and started filling a sheet of paper.

What do you do with too much to do? 

What if we asked, instead: what do you do that you enjoy doing? What suggestions do those things seem to offer?

I remember the year I discovered pastels in elementary school. Mrs. T arrived as the new art teacher, and I fell in love with the broken pastel sticks that she kept in shoe boxes in her classroom closet. On the days those shoe boxes came out, I’d press the chalky colors into soft paper, making pictures of horses and dogs and interesting faces. At the end of class, we’d shake our extra pastel dust into trash cans before setting the pictures with hairspray. I’d take those pictures home to show my parents and, come the weekend, to share with my grandmother.

We regarded my grandmother as “the artist” of the family. She’d taken an oil painting class after she and my grandfather retired, and her years of painting blossomed from that. Her pictures won ribbons at fairs and sold at festivals. She painted things she found interesting, like old barns set back from the road and the lilacs and marigolds in her yard. Sometimes when I’d visit, after I’d show her my pastel pictures, I’d ask her to teach me something about drawing or oil painting. We’d sit down together at a table with her supplies.

Granny’s lilacs

As a young person, I remember feeling bad for my grandmother that she had to wait until retirement before finding something she ended up loving so much. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the lateness of her discovery. My grandmother had raised a family. She’d done crafts at home and told “felt board” stories for Sunday school classes. She and my grandfather had spent years working and saving. Her oil painting may not have spanned her entire adult life, but it did meet her just in time to shape a new phase of it. As her world changed with the beginning of retirement, it seems to me that she spent time with something she loved and let it show her what her life might yet become.

What do you enjoy? What do you love? I wonder what those things might be showing you just now about your own life.

The winter that my friend’s care package arrived, I didn’t quite know what was up with my life. I decided, though, to take some time with those art supplies and see what I could do with them. Homework received much less attention. I sketched a few evenings a week, finding photographs of friends and colleagues whose faces I tried to draw while Bo the cat sat on my lap. It took a frustrating while before the faces in my sketch pad looked human, let alone female or male, but eventually they started suggesting particular people. 

Sometimes, finding a way to capture a face showed me that face I thought I knew in an entirely different way. One night, as I tried to draw a colleague’s nose just right, I suddenly realized that he must have broken it. Surprised, I sat back and put the pencil down. I’d looked up into his face all this time and never once noticed that sign of an old injury. I saw it in the photo clear as day now, though, with the sharp angle that the bridge of his nose took just between the eyes. I stared at his photo, wondering what else I hadn’t seen. 

Odd as it may sound, I relished the way those sketching evenings felt like a pause with what I loved: the cat on my lap, the people whose faces I drew, the memories of my grandmother filtering back over time. Those evenings didn’t lead me to the beginning of a new artistic career. That wasn’t the point. Those evenings did give me some helpful perspective as I made decisions about which things I wanted to keep in my life and which ones I could bring myself to let go of. Taking time with what we love can tell us a lot about what our lives might yet become.

Bodhisattva in the sun

One sunny Saturday, I finally set aside the sketch pencils and charcoal that I’d been working with and unwrapped the set of pastels my friend had sent. Bo warmed herself in the window ledge with her little face turned up to the sun, and I’d noticed with amazement how many colors showed up in that black fur. I took a picture of her and sat down with it, picking up the brand-new pastels, ready to see what they could do. Working on this pastel portrait of Bo, I realized I hadn’t done a pastel portrait in over 30 years. I hadn’t done a self-portrait in all that time, either. I wondered:

“What would I see now if looked at my own face?”

I made a mental note to take a selfie for my next project.

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