“I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”
Joyce Carol Oates
"Don't force yourself," my grandmother used to say, when friends would call me to go out playing on an icy cold winter day, or teachers would urge me to compete in piano competitions."If you're not feeling up to it, you shouldn't try to do it."
Thinking back on it, this was odd advice from a woman who came of age during the Great Depression, the eldest of eight children. An unusual way of thinking for a southern farmer's daughter, who became a farmer's wife at age 17, a mother at 19. There must have been many times when she had to force herself to rise at dawn to care for the animals, to light the stove, to tend to a sick child. To bake the daily bread, harvest vegetables from the garden, and preserve them for the winter. In her youth, she was a strong, hardworking woman. And yet, she always seemed to encourage me to take the easy way, to ride life like a soft cloud, swerving neatly to avoid any potential bumps in the road.
I embraced her philosophy throughout my childhood, and even into early adulthood. With age, however, I've come to realize the necessity and value of "forcing myself." Countless times, I have grudgingly dressed in my concert attire and "utterly exhausted," dragged myself to the stage. Then, the lights go up, the performance begins, and suddenly everything changes. I'm not only energized, I'm excited, alive, fulfilled. There are mornings I open the pages of my journal, totally convinced that I have absolutely nothing to say, and as soon as the pen touches paper, words seem to bubble forth, like water suddenly released from behind a dam. Even in the most mundane of chores -if I can just push myself to attack those closets that need cleaning, or those drawers that must be sorted - there is a real sense of satisfaction in completing the project and restoring order to some small part of my material world.
It is so easy to play it safe, to allow ourselves to take the smooth road and avoid any detours that might require us to get out and push ourselves uphill. Sometimes, it's absolutely necessary to apply force in order to avoid total inertia. It's amazing how simply engaging in the activity (of writing, or playing music, working out at the gym or scrubbing the floor) can change everything.