Today’s guest post comes to us from Cathy Warner, poet, pastor, and home renovator on the shores of Washington’s Puget Sound. We live in an age of constant temptation to see our value as writers and people in terms of likes, shares, and followers. Cathy reminds us of the richness of the work itself, of our relationships, and the rhythms of our everyday lives. Poet Al Zolynas concluded “The Zen of Housework” with this affirmation: “Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane!” Amen.
Sixteen years ago I joined a writing group led by well-known poet Ellen Bass. I was relatively new to creative writing, having taken two classes at my local community college. Ellen lived and taught nearby, so I enrolled for a summer.
I shared, with the other unpublished writers in the group, a fierce desire to see my words in print, to have my writing validated by an audience, however amorphous. Blogs were a novelty then, and self-publication meant photocopies and emails inflicted upon close friends and family. It wasn’t enough to satisfy our ambitions.
Ellen, who gave readings and led workshops around the country, sympathized with us, but warned against measuring our self-worth by external standards. She talked about accolades from readers, her ego growing plump while on tour…and all of it being meaningless on the return home, where she was immediately and unceremoniously reminded to take the trash out.
She fumed as she rolled the cart to the street. Didn’t her family know who she was? The acclaimed poet subject to the daily demands of domesticity?
We laughed along with her, but the message was clear: writing itself is meaningful, and relationships matter. Any measure of adulation—the stranger who smiles and asks for an autograph while gushing about your brilliance—is ephemeral and hollow.
I may have laughed, yet I didn’t want to take her word for it, to experience the wind-whipped reed of fame vicariously. I’d taken up writing at thirty-seven because I felt God nudging me to use a gift I’d set aside while raising young children. No more light under a bushel.
I kept on writing and revising. My short fiction began appearing in literary journals, and my prayers and sermons in church. A few years later I became a pastor. I developed a regional audience: a Faith column in the local weekly paper; my poems and prayers were shared by denominational leaders at annual gatherings of 2,000 clergy and laity. Scores of people, upon reading my name badge, recognized me from bylines in their church newsletters and worship bulletins.
As I came home from conferences, I felt the high of following the call to write, and of receiving praise. The temptation of celebrity mixed with authentic gratitude when someone had been touched by my work.
Then I remembered Ellen’s wisdom. So I would set down my suitcase, hug my husband and children, then head straight to the cats’ litter box (with three cats, it could always use cleaning). I sank to my knees in the laundry room, sifting and scooping away dirty litter.
This chore became re-entry ritual, the surrender of my public identity and return to domestic life. This drudgery, my prayer of thanksgiving: for the words that found their way to me and through me to the hearts of others; for my family and faith, both rooting me in love, encouraging me to grow and flourish.
Cathy Warner is the author of the poetry collection Burnt Offerings (eLectio 2014). She holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University. A writer, editor, and home renovator, she lives in Puget Sound, Washington. Find her at cathywarner.com.