On Devotion

The paths of our devotions are visible.  We wear the stone steps of churches, the wood thresholds to our homes, the grass around our yards.

brown wooden house with white and black short coated dog

My grandmother ground a path between her back door and barn where, for more than twenty years, she passed every morning before dawn and again at dusk making her pilgrimage to milk the fifty cows she kept, and which, in her devotion to them, kept her alive.

My own devotion through the years has been writing mostly, but also photography and music.  The letters along the middle row of my keyboard, the a, s, d, f, and t, i, and o along the top row, have been worn away by my fingers.  Even though I can’t name the letter-less keys looking at them, my fingers do remember.  Each letter is a muscle and a memory exercised repeatedly.

The gentle, repetitive wearing of devotion wears us, too, like our feet mold shoes, or work gloves that over time retain the bend of one’s fingers.   What we do daily, and how we do it, impacts lives. 

I think about my grandmother often, specifically about how she went about her work daily despite the weather, her age, her health.  If she thought about quitting the cows whose warm exhales filled the barn on winter mornings, putting down the buckets of warm, soapy water she lugged stall to stall washing the udders of each cow before drawing with her hands, the weight of their milk, she never mentioned it.

Her life, seemed to me, a single, endless prayer.  She loved the work she’d chosen.  Her one regret, she once told me, was that she didn’t commit to it sooner.  She frequently talked to me about the gifts of her labor.  She got money for the milk, yes, but more, her life had purpose.  

When I don’t feel like writing, or am tired, or it’s just difficult because words avoid me, when I’m haunted by doubt and impatience, or the seeming unimportance of writing about my life, and no one’s listening anyway—I think of her life, and I write because I have known for a long time this simple, unchanging truth: writing is how I want to spend my life.

Annie Dillard wrote, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  This spending is an exchange.  It pays as well as extracts something from us: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

Writing is what I do.  Taking time from it is non-negotiable.  I have always loved to make with language.  

Before my grandmother bought a farm and cows, she dreamed about being a dairy farmer.  She went to farm shows.  She subscribed to magazines about the dairy business.  Eventually she dropped her role as suburban housewife, and mother, she gave up oil painting, and violin, and everything else that distracted her from how she truly wanted to be live.

For years, honestly, for most of my life, writing was frustrating.  I wrote sporadically.  I was insecure.  I quickly felt defeated when I tried.  I gave up easily.  I guess I had expected more from my meager attempts, my halting beginnings.  I expected encouragement, praise, awards, publication.  These didn’t come for many years.  

But I realized something in the process: what I was seeking wasn’t the product, the result of writing, but the feeling writing gave me.  The doing, the act of writing, creating, was its own reward.  The work itself was the prayer that brought me joy.

Eventually, and inevitably, we become the shape of our work.  The process is gradual, and, as long as we work, without end.  Modern cultural is always promising us quick fixes, easy profits: Five Surefire Ways to a Happy Life, Six Eyeliners Guaranteed to Get the Attention of Mr. Right, Lose Weight Without Exercise.  These results, of course are superficial.  Real, permanent results come from work.  

person holding white printer paperWork is time plus energy in the direction of a goal.  To progress as a writer, to be a writer requires consistent effort.  To sustain our writing lives and live the authentic expression of our creative self, takes devotion.   

My writing, indeed my life, was weak without devotion.  Only when I began to marry my attention and intention to writing, committing myself to write daily, did I begin to experience the writing life I’d imagined for myself.

Ask yourself to what are you devoted?  Are these people, jobs, obligations worth your devotion?  To what else could you give your energy, your creativity?  How do you measure all you give to others and what you give to yourself?  What do your devotions extract from your life?  Is the cost a good exchange?

Each morning, before I begin my writing, I light a stick of incense, place it in a bowl, and sit in silence for the time it takes to burn out.  The moment I strike the match, I become present, drawn into a space made sacred by the dailiness, and mindfulness.  

The other day I saw dozens of burnt sticks protruding from the bowl.  Each stub represented a day I came, sat, and wrote.  I didn’t always write a lot.  I didn’t always write well.  Nonetheless, I showed up and wrote.  Like the path my grandmother wore to the barn, these sticks of incense, and the worn keyboard are proof of how I’ve spent my days.   

I understand life is created one decision, one determined action at a time.  Teresa of Avila, Saint Teresa as she’s known to Catholics said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

I’ve been writing daily for many years.  My devotion to writing has repaid my life with such abundance I couldn’t have dreamed it.  What we do with the lives, and how we devote ourselves to what we do—mindfully, with joy, with intention, love, as a gift—makes a life.  Devoting ourselves to what we love to do, to creating our dreams, gives life purposeful, and make life worth living.  Otherwise, it’s simply spent.


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Justen Ahren

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