Delete. Trash. Empty the bin. Swish. In just two days, I’d written and tossed over 2,000 words, not one of them seemingly worth keeping. Every sentence I strung together sucked, or sounded too much like someone else’s work, or wanted too badly to be perfect. Normally, I'd cut myself a break. But I’d just spent a week visiting with my family, and had only two days to work before a Balinese holiday forced me to take time off again. To compensate, I was squeezing time out of every corner. My internal schedule was off-kilter, made worse by knowing that the writer's cycle of pitching, producing and publishing shouldn't be interrupted too often.
In an effort to more efficiently end the mental angst, I decided to take a walk on the beach. Surely some hot Balinese sunshine would dry out the stickiness in my head. I went down to the seashore, towards my favorite spot marked by the sign “Border of Holy Area.” But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t look up from my thoughts. I kept thinking that I just needed to think a little harder, read a little more, or listen to one more podcast to push my brain into action.
By the time I came home and sat down at my desk, I was in the full on throes of writer’s block, that paralyzing sensation of having lost all sense of one’s individuality, voice, and creativity. I could barely compose an email. I hopped from this thought to that thought. I chased a (somewhat cathartic) mental thread about how the media’s recent celebration of childless women is making life worse for mothers. An hour later, I backtracked into the corner of “but who cares?” and started over.
When I’m not creatively stuck, my writing thoughts flow from inwards out. When I’m at my best, this feels like a fine-tuned gentle propulsion mechanism. But on this day, I felt as though the engine was flooded, that I’d let in too much from the outside world. I assumed this was because I’d been spending so much time on social media and with other people. I’d exceeded my introvert’s limit and now had to pump some of the noisy water back out.
I spent all day trying, with varying levels of success. One minute, I forced myself to stare at a tree or cloud to focus. In another, I snapped at my children in frustration. I ate half-chewed spaghetti wondering if maybe I could turn that into an article (how eating my children’s unappetizing leftover food helped me lose weight). Then I berated myself for coming up with such a desperate idea.
Dusk started to fall. My son Avik smacked my daughter Manika’s lip and I felt it was time to acknowledge that my writing day had come to an end. Productive or not, I had to close up shop and return to the nightly kid routine. I was not happy about this, but then again find me a mother who loves putting kids to bed and I’ll find you a unicorn. So at first, I fully resented the friction of bath time, clothes changing, and bum wiping.
But then a funny thing started to happen. As I continued moving through the mindless motions, my mind started to wander off. It started to release. While Avik stuck his legs into his shorts, I looked out the window. I noticed how the pink and orange ribbons in the sky made it feel as though the sun was wrapping Bali up like a present for the moon.
I heard chanting rise up from the temple near my house. The sound of ceremonial music is soothing in most instances, but when swept over Balinese rice fields, the notes come to life and become a spirit of their own. In this case, the songs were also an offering to the Gods in preparation for Nyepi, a Balinese day of silence reserved for self-reflection. This Saturday, people will stay home and abstain from using lights, starting fires, working, traveling or enjoying entertainment. After the day I’d had, a mandated day of rest felt welcome, not so much for the silence part (which will be torture with children), but because I could feel the appeal of soaking in soul-stillness.
Nightfall came and I sat down with Avik to read. We reread books we’d already absorbed before - a silly tale about creepy carrots, another about an invisible boy. Normally I found the repetition boring. But at that moment, I felt calmed by reading something familiar together, going along with the mindless enjoyment one gets from traveling through a story that is known.
Afterwards, he and Manika went about getting ready for bed. They brushed their teeth, undid their room curtains, picked their stuffed friends for the night and set up their pillows. They both lay down and then it was time for me to start our final step in the going to sleep process. Every evening, I hug each kid for five minutes (a timed amount to maintain fairness). My children have an alternating schedule of who goes first each night. This was Avik’s night so I lay down on the bed next to him.
Putting the first child to sleep is always the symbolic end to my day and it was as if the ritual signaled something final to my mind, something no amount of mental intent could do on its own all day. The act of laying my arm over my son’s side and closing my eyes forced my mind to completely relax. My breathing slowed. I felt the smallness of Avik’s tiny being in comparison to how larger-than-life he seemed when awake. My awareness shifted back to the present, and as I waited for the clock to tick down, I felt a sensation similar to when I say the Lord’s Prayer or chant Om after a yoga class, a feeling of easy appreciation born out of effort and habit.
By the time both kids fell asleep, I was calm. I closed their room door and went outside to the balcony. The evening’s chanting was still ongoing, rising above the crickets and rush of bats’ wings. I came to realize that the scatter-brained energy I’d felt all day was due less to too much extroverted energy and more to the fact that I’d set aside my routines during my previous week with visitors. While variations always give us a chance to learn and grow, our rituals are also very necessary. Whether they are spiritual or menial, they make our bodies busy so our minds can let go. Rituals are essential to the imagination, for it is in that space of time when we are doing something but thinking nothing that our creative energy grows.