We’ve had a week or so of sunny and hot summer weather in my area, after an unusually cool and rainy spring. I have been getting outdoors more often with my husband—rowing, biking, and walking. That sometimes leaves me with a passing thought that my blog is being neglected; but even when I am in the house, not much comes to mind to write.

On Tuesday, I sat down at the computer for a while. Instead of composing blog posts, though, I spent some time looking for photos of summer wildflowers and other natural scenes to upload to the online library for my art display. This was the one I chose for yesterday:

Wildflowers on a plateau in summer.

I’ll take that as a message from my subconscious mind—the natural world is full of beautiful places to explore, and it’s okay to get out and enjoy them while the sun is shining. There will always be plenty of time for blogging and other creative pursuits later, without need to cram them into an arbitrary schedule. Modern life has too much time pressure anyway, so there’s no reason to add more.

I recently volunteered to become the webmaster for the rowing club, which has had various people contributing to its website over the years. Without someone responsible for coordinating the content, the site ended up with outdated pages and not enough fresh material.

A blog post about our “spring break” trip to Tennessee, which had good participation and was a lot of fun for all the members involved, seemed the obvious place to start. I got some photos from one of the trip’s organizers, who often takes pictures of club events. Here’s one of me carrying the bow of a double:

Meg Evans carrying boat at Melton Lake in Tennessee

The weather was gorgeous, and although I got a bit sunburned from so much rowing (some peeling skin on the backs of my hands), it felt like a great adventure. I wrote a cheerful post about what a good time everyone had. The organizer who gave me the photos enjoyed the post so much that she sent an email to all the club’s members complimenting my writing, with a link. It’s always good to be appreciated!

Although I’ve been reading blogs fairly regularly and buying books on my Kindle for the past few years, it occurred to me that I hadn’t visited my local library in quite a long time. The library wasn’t something I thought about much anymore, in part because it’s so easy to research all kinds of topics on the Internet nowadays, instead of making a trip to the library as people once had to do.

Of course, libraries now lend electronic materials, not just paper books and magazines; but in recent years I had been buying Kindle novels from indie authors to encourage their work. When I realized how long it had been since I’d checked out anything from the library, I went to its website to sign up for electronic borrowing. Then I found that my account was no longer in the system due to inactivity.

I went to my local branch library on Monday and got a new card issued, which didn’t take long. There was quite a difference between my plain old white plastic library card, which I put in the shredder when I got home, and the colorful updated card that came with a keychain mini-card.

Library card with mini-card for keychain.

That got me thinking about what wonderful places libraries were to me as a child. My parents took me to the library regularly as a very small child, and I got my own card as soon as I learned how to write my name. Bringing home new stories to read was always great fun, as was scribbling my own “books” while imagining myself as an author with other kids happily borrowing my stories from the library.

Growing up, I took for granted that visiting the library was something I would always do. I’m still not entirely sure how I could have gone without thinking about it for so long that my card expired. When I realized what I had done, I felt kind of embarrassed, as if I had been guilty of neglecting an old friend. But thankfully, the library is a forgiving friend and is always willing to take people back.

Friday morning was unusually warm for midwinter, so my husband and I went rowing in our double scull. We had the boathouse and the river all to ourselves. When the sun came out, it felt like a pleasant early spring day. Although we weren’t rowing fast, my hands got a little blistered because my calluses go away quickly when the rowing season ends. My husband, who has tougher hands, was fine.

The blisters didn’t really bother me because we had such a good time getting outdoors in the lovely weather. Of course, it did not last long. Soon after we returned home, the temperature started to drop, and by evening we were back to ordinary winter weather.

I spent the afternoon playing a computer game with my husband and then re-reading The Princess Bride on my Kindle. Nothing came to mind that had to be done. That left me with an odd feeling, as if the mainspring on some kind of mental machinery had gotten close to winding down, like a mechanical toy or music box with a winding key. This wasn’t the same as my lack of energy before Christmas vacation—I had gotten plenty of sleep all week, and rowing had not left me physically tired.

Wind-up toy with a large key at the top.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Rather than spend any time pondering this oddity, I decided that whatever tasks might need to be done could wait a day or two. Surely I would think of them in the morning. In the meanwhile, this seemed like a good night to stay in and watch one of the movies that my husband had just bought. I went to bed afterward and slept well.

When I woke up, there was no doubt something had changed. In the mental space where the imaginary wind-up machinery had been, there was only silence. After a minute or two, I realized what had happened—my internal to-do generator had shut down. You know, the one that switches itself on sometime in the teenage years, or perhaps even sooner, and chugs along continuously forever.

How could this be? I’d had vacations for a week or two before—plenty of them, in fact—but the to-do list never had spontaneously evaporated like this. Was it even possible for a modern-day adult to function without having a long list of tasks automatically load itself into the brain at boot-up?

Most likely, it would come back sometime later in the morning, I decided. Kind of like a brief power outage. No reason to worry. So I got my breakfast and opened my Kindle to the page where I’d left off yesterday. There was certainly nothing wrong with a nice relaxing morning while on vacation.

Afternoon came and I still didn’t have anything in mind to do. That was when I began seriously wondering what the heck was going on. Maybe I was coming down with some strange new disease. I hadn’t noticed any changes in my health this week, though, so I didn’t rate that as likely. As far as I could tell, I was generally healthy—about the same as always, but for the mysterious disappearance of the to-do list.

Meanwhile, my husband was sitting at the computer writing programs, which he likes to do when he’s on vacation to keep his skills sharp. Ordinarily when he does this, I’ll spend some time writing stories and blog posts, or maybe work on some other creative project. When that thought came to mind, it left me worrying—what if the disappearing to-do list might be a variation on the dreaded Writer’s Block? What if all my creative energy had drained away, too?

That, at least, could be tested. I got a notepad and pen, sat down on the couch, and started writing the first draft of this blog entry. I didn’t have any problems getting my thoughts organized on the page, which was a relief. Once I took a break when I wasn’t sure how to end a sentence, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. Apparently, my brain is still functioning much the same as before, except that the day is almost over and I still haven’t seen hide nor hair of the vanishing to-dos. Maybe they decided to take a vacation too.

Over the weekend I sat down and began writing a few times, but never finished any of it. The weather was sunny, warm, and beautiful, and getting outdoors seemed much more appealing.

The rowing club had a canoe race on Saturday against some members of the canoe club across the river. My husband got in the canoe, but I opted to watch from the shore, which turned out to be a wise decision when the canoe overturned in the middle of the river. No harm done to anything but the rowers’ pride, but I was glad to have stayed dry.

Then I got “Margaritaville” stuck in my head for most of Sunday, which was apparently my subconscious mind’s snarky answer to whatever thoughts I had about being more diligent with my writing.

When I went to bed, I tried to reboot my brain and get ready for a more creative week by listening to ocean sounds on my clock radio and trying to visualize an insightful younger self with a helpful life lesson to ponder. But instead, all that came to mind was an image of Fannie, my 119-year-old future self, sitting in a lively beachfront bar that looked like something out of Star Wars and smiling at me while holding up—yeah, you guessed it—a margarita.

At least there was no Jabba the Hutt anywhere to be seen, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for small mercies. I don’t know the reason I’ve been goofy all season, but I know it’s nobody’s fault. Or maybe, well, it could be my fault…

I got outdoors a lot over the long weekend—rowing and bicycling, and the hot weather was just right for the swimming pool. My daughter and her husband came down from Cleveland to visit. Their Labradoodle puppy still hasn’t quite figured out how to walk up the pool steps, but at least he has discovered that he can stand on the bottom step and leap out of the pool.

There wasn’t really much time for blogging, which was okay until an annoying self-critical part of my subconscious began to draw unfavorable comparisons to my creative output in the past. Maybe you’ve lost your mojo, it suggested nastily. You haven’t written much in months. What happened to the days when stories just popped into your head all the time, no matter how busy you were?

At first I tried to dismiss the voice, but then I started wondering—did I really have that much more creative energy in the past? Maybe this was just selective memory playing tricks on me, highlighting times when my younger self bubbled over with new stories, while skipping over the mundane stuff. How would I know?

Then it occurred to me that an imaginary visit with one of my younger selves might help me find an answer to that question. I decided to call her Butterfly because there was a time, many years ago, when I pictured one as my animal spirit guide, carefree and flitting easily from one place to another.

I tried to construct a mental image of this younger self sitting comfortably with a pen and notepad in hand, busily scribbling away. She had her own ideas about that, however. The comfy chair stayed empty; and when Butterfly finally showed up in my mindspace, she was pedaling cheerfully along on a three-speed bike from the 1970s, with her bell-bottom jeans rolled up so they wouldn’t catch and rip on the chain.

I was riding next to her in the same workout clothes I wore on Sunday in the park, on my Made-in-the-USA fifteen-speed Huffy bicycle from 1994. It still works just fine, as does my husband’s matching bike. (Over the weekend he upgraded both bikes with nice modern carbon-fiber water bottle holders, which, needless to say, is the only bit of carbon fiber to be found anywhere on them—but, at least now they’re not 100% ancient.)

Photo of Meg Evans on an old Huffy bicycle

“Hello,” I said to my younger self, as we rode slowly along a quiet, shaded path in the park. The fast-paced real world seemed very far away.

“Hi,” replied Butterfly in a distracted tone, just before stopping her bike in the grass beside the path and exclaiming, “Ooh, look at the pretty flowers!”

I stopped next to her, and yes, the flowers were pretty—wild roses and honeysuckle all tangled together like a bright, living curtain that swayed gently in the breeze.

“If I had my phone with me,” I said, talking more to myself than to my companion, “and this was a real place, I’d take a picture of these flowers for a blog post.”

Butterfly turned to face me, frowning slightly, as if she thought I’d said something very peculiar indeed. She inquired, “Don’t you ever do anything just to do it?”

Now it was my turn to feel perplexed. “Well, of course I do. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors this spring. But lately I’ve been feeling like I haven’t had as much creative energy as usual—so, I thought I’d ask you about that. How do you manage distractions and stay creative?”

“Manage distractions?” she repeated blankly, as if I’d been speaking in a foreign language. Then, apparently losing interest in the flowers, she hopped back on her bike and pedaled briskly away, leaving me to catch up with her.

Wondering what I’d said to confuse her, I tried rephrasing the question. “I meant, how do you stay creative when you have a lot of things happening that distract you?”

“Well, usually they’re all different things, aren’t they?” Slowing down for a moment as we rode through a bumpy spot of dried mud, Butterfly raised her left hand in a vague gesture that seemed to include trees, grass, a squirrel, and some cottonwood fluff drifting softly to the ground. “And creativity has to do with fitting a lot of different things together in ways that make sense in the story, right? So, distractions should never be a problem, in themselves. If they aren’t naturally coming together into stories that make sense, then maybe the question to ask is: What other random thoughts have been wandering into the picture?”

After we rounded a curve, a straight, level pathway stretched before us, cool and pleasant in the shade of the overhanging trees. All I could hear was the chirping of the birds and the humming of our wheels.

“You know,” I said finally, “that way of looking at it does kind of make some sense.”

Butterfly, whose attention now seemed to be focused mainly on a woodchuck munching clover on the other side of the path, didn’t answer; but I thought I saw a little smile forming as she glanced away from me.

I’ve found myself running low on creative energy during the dark winter months, especially this year. Blog posts and stories don’t come to mind as easily; or, if they do, I haven’t felt motivated to actually write them. Although I know that this is not at all uncommon, it still goes in the category of frustrating stuff that leaves me feeling stuck and pointlessly ruminating on what went wrong.

So I decided to look at it as an opportunity to apply my New Year’s resolution of gratitude for the not-fun lessons. I asked myself: What is good about these days when I don’t feel like writing? First of all there’s the Internet and blogging in general, allowing me to read and comment on others’ posts and feel a sense of connection, regardless of whether I post a blog entry myself on a particular day. Next up on the gratitude list is simply that my blog exists and has been around for a while (its five-year anniversary is coming up next month). Whether or not I feel like writing, the site is always there, giving me a platform to build on.

Another good thing is that even though the winter days are cloudy and dark, they haven’t been particularly cold this year. Birds were chirping merrily outside my front door on Sunday morning. When I stepped outside, I saw little green shoots of crocuses and hyacinths already coming up. Although that likely won’t be good for the flowers if it turns much colder, it makes my garden look more cheerful, anyway.

Green shoots of spring bulbs coming up in January.

I felt a bit more energetic today, just enough to turn that list into a blog post. The moral of the story—to the extent there is one—is that even when we’re feeling stuck, there are always bright little spots of new growth coming up somewhere. We just have to look around and find them!

About five years ago, when I contributed a post to a group blog, I had a brief email conversation with its administrator on the subject of satire. Most of the blog’s entries were thoughtful, reflective essays, but a few of them had a satirical tone. I asked how often he preferred to mix those posts in with the more serious stuff. He replied that he didn’t have such a plan because satire just showed up whenever it had a mind to; it generally didn’t take well to being put on a schedule.

The following year I started this blog, which I envisioned as having a reflective tone with a focus on exploring cultural narratives. Other topics came up as well, such as writing and creativity, decluttering, and positivity. Until now, though, it hadn’t occurred to me that there are no satirical posts on this blog. I wasn’t intentionally avoiding such entries; they just didn’t come to mind, although I had written satire on occasion in the past. I briefly wondered if I’d lost my ability to write with an eye for the absurd.

Eye decorated to resemble a bird's head.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

I decided that wasn’t the case because I do have some rather fanciful posts here. Although they are not in the realm of satire, perhaps that’s because I have made more of an effort to avoid being overly judgmental in recent years. Satire necessarily involves some amount of judgment as to whatever is being satirized; and it’s all too easy to cross the line into mean-spirited snark and leave readers on the defensive, feeling that their beliefs and their culture have been unfairly attacked.

That’s not to say the genre always should be avoided. On the contrary, satire often serves a valuable function in pointing out what’s ridiculous about our cultural assumptions. But it also tends to make people uncomfortable because it holds up such an unflattering mirror. Because I wanted to create a blog where readers would always feel safe and welcomed, maybe I’ve been subconsciously steering clear of satire and other types of writing that might cause discomfort.

If so, I wouldn’t characterize that as either good or bad in itself. It’s just a reflection of where I happen to be at the moment. And who knows, maybe there will come a day when a satirical post just shows up and insists on being written, no matter what other plans I might have!

Over the weekend my husband spent a lot of time doing homeowner stuff. He cut the grass on Saturday and power-washed the deck on Sunday. It all looks good now, though we still have to wait for the wood to dry out before staining the deck, and there was some rain yesterday.

My backyard after the grass was cut and the deck power-washed. 

Meanwhile, I was lazy and sat on the couch reading a sci-fi novel, The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s about an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars when his crewmates mistakenly think he was killed in an accident, and then he has to figure out how he’s going to survive until he can be rescued.

The author is such an uber-geek that he actually wrote a program to calculate the orbital dynamics for his fictional spaceship’s paths. But readers don’t need any particular knowledge of math and science to enjoy the story because it’s written in a chatty, wisecracking style that is easy to follow. While I don’t have a hard science background myself, I do appreciate a meticulously plotted novel.

I felt some little twinges of guilt about not having done much writing myself recently. Then I thought, well, I’m just being silly. After all, I write my blog and stories for fun, and to share that fun (and cheerful positive energy) with others. There’s no money involved, and certainly no need to impose a regular production schedule on myself.

In fact, with fun as the metric, I believe it’s fair to say that the more fun I have in life generally, the more successful my blog is likely to be!

I wrote this post in draft with my favorite pen, on the first sheet of a new notepad on a cool, damp morning. That seemed appropriate after a week when I hadn’t felt at all like writing, or indeed doing much of anything on the computer.

First two sentences of handwritten draft on a lined notepad. 

Instead of trying to force the muse to get busy when she was nowhere to be found, I decided to reflect quietly on what benefits, if any, there might be in days without writing. At first the very idea that there might be something positive going on seemed a bit of a stretch; it was hard to wrap my mind around it. After all, in our culture, anyone who is audacious enough to claim the identity of “writer” is expected to scribble away daily and produce enough material to be worthy. Bursts of inspiration should appear regularly; and if not, we must go forth on a brave quest to slay the evil dragon of writer’s block.

The underlying fear seems to be that if a day goes by without feeling motivated to do any writing, many more will follow, and soon the dragon will be found gleefully gnawing on the poor failed writer’s bones. That’s a silly fear, of course—for those of us who process our experiences mainly through written words, putting down our words on paper (or the computer) is as natural as breathing. Sometimes we may get so busy with other things that we lack sufficient processing capacity, but it always gets freed up after a while.

Coming back around to my original question, then, a day without writing would be a day when the subconscious mind requires more mental CPU space to process other things; and the benefits, in general, would consist of a better understanding of whatever else is being processed. So, after meditating on it for a while, I concluded that “writer’s block” is not really an evil dragon to be feared—it’s a perfectly normal response to the human need to make sense of our experiences, in one way or another.