There's a living sculpture on my bookshelf — I say living because it's been growing slowly over time, changing steadily in shape and distribution. Composed of gleaming pearls and diamonds, it sits in my line of sight whenever I write at my desk.
Each jewel represents a failure.
When I decided to send my work to literary journals for consideration, fears of failure plagued me. Indeed, before sending my first electronic submission, I hovered my cursor over the submit button for almost an hour before finally summoning the courage to click it.
After all, I'd heard a lot about the industry — I knew the odds of publication were incredibly low. And it felt almost unendurable to put my whole heart into a written piece only to have it rejected — only to fail.
When I sought the guidance of writing coach Ann Kroeker, she encouraged me to reframe my approach. Why not treat those rejections as milestones instead? she asked. She suggested various ways to do this, including hammering a nail into a board for each declined piece — something that would feel visceral and satisfying.
After some thought, I went to the local hobby store and purchased a large glass fishbowl and several bags of plastic jewels. I decided I’d put one “diamond” or “pearl” into that bowl each time I received a rejection letter.
Of course, the rejections still stung, but each little gem also became visual evidence of my growing body of work, sharpened skills, and new cognitive pathways. Each symbolized a step toward becoming a writer.
During my periodic visits to India as a child, the multitude of holidays and festivals bemused me. Some holidays marked the change of seasons or the solstices; others observed the times of harvest or planting; still others related to religious and spiritual practices. It seemed there was something to commemorate almost daily.
When I thought of the relatively small number of holidays on the U.S. calendar, the continuous stream of Indian celebrations seemed impracticable to me. When does the work get done? I wondered.
I see now that I missed the point. Within this culture, almost every day is assigned its own particular rituals and songs, foods and sweets, and is welcomed with reverence, energy, and excitement. As a result, it is impossible for a person to reach the end of a day without having consciously experienced and celebrated it.
And as I looked more closely, I realized that this attentiveness extends beyond the day itself and into the minutes — and minutiae — within that day. Indeed, almost every aspect of daily life is governed by its own mantra. At the moment of waking and stepping on the ground, words of apology honor the Earth. At each meal, words of gratitude honor the entire process of feeding one's body and soul. Just before studying, words of partnership honor the relationship between teacher and student. And there are hundreds of other mantras, for the hundred other moments within one's day.
Philosophically, even the very seconds receive attention. Per the ancient meditation practices, each moment of life has profound importance and consequence. When a person empties her mind of thoughts during meditation, she also becomes completely aware of, receptive to, and accepting of each steady beat of existence.
While my Western-educated self has generally measured the meaningfulness of life in terms of achievement, I now see that my Indian background offers a supplementary — and perhaps alternative — measuring stick. By pausing and recognizing the value within my days, minutes, and seconds, it becomes impossible to allow life to slip by unnoticed. Instead, my moments accumulate, one jewel at a time, into a life rich with meaning.
But is it truly possible to live modern life in this manner? I can't imagine myself bringing such attention to every minute, much less every second of my day — except perhaps as a goal of a short meditation session.
Nevertheless, I do believe that I can follow this cultural example by bringing more attention to certain aspects of my life — especially those I typically disregard.
Noted conflict resolution specialist Priya Parker writes and speaks about elevating one of the usual components of our lives — social gatherings — in a manner that infuses them with intention and significance. In her well-known TED Talk, she mentions a particular baby shower — the type of event that causes many people to cringe with anticipated boredom — that was deliberately crafted to transmit advice and personal stories.
A few weeks after viewing that TED Talk, I was surprised to receive a clothing catalog featuring an interview with Parker.
In a clothing catalog? I thought.
Then, I looked more closely. This particular catalog of M. M. LaFleur, a women's work clothing company, was dedicated to conflict resolution, and contained interviews encouraging women to manage conflict productively, without avoidance or fear. Per Parker's TED Talk recommendations, this catalog had elevated a vehicle for clothing sales into a vehicle for inspiration and learning.
I wondered whether I could make similarly conscious shifts within my own life. During a recent family reunion, I challenged each member to commit to speaking individually with all forty people present during the course of the weekend and to learning something substantial about each of their lives.
And when I felt unnerved about a public presentation of some rather personal work at a writers' organization, I tried to rethink my approach the event. I realized that I could make my reading an act of gratitude toward that organization, which had provided resources and support when I started my writing journey.
Not only did these shifts increase my ease and joy on these occasions, they also, as intended, elevated the meaning of my experiences. Our reunion felt less like a meet-up and more like a forum for connection and rootedness for me and my kids. And my poetry presentation felt far less like a performance or evaluation of my work, and far more like an intentional gesture of appreciation and thanks.
Of course, such shifts are not easy for me to make. For example, as many of my friends know, I've been struggling to reexamine the act of cooking for my family, elevating it from one of drudgery to one of caretaking, nurturing, and love. While I still don't chop and peel and stir and scrub in a particularly joyful manner, the mere act of paying attention is improving my attitude. (A little.)
And one reframing challenge I have yet to tackle is my sheer dread of small talk. Can I transform it into an act of connection? Can I engage more deeply with another human being while still respecting the casualness of the gathering? (I'll keep you posted.)
As I attempt these various shifts, as difficult as they are, I do have faith in the larger impact of this attention to the minutes, this elevation of moments, this continuous quest for meaning. I believe they will create an upward spiral over time.
A piece attributed to Ganga White is pinned above my desk and captures the nature and trajectory of this quest for a richer and deeper experience of life:
"What if religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?
What if the temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water — the rivers, lakes, and oceans?"
As I attempt to make my practices and words and places sacred, I hope to make the largest shift of all: the one from human animal to human being.
As I mentioned, somewhere along the line, my plastic pearls and diamonds stopped representing my failures and instead began to symbolize my steps toward becoming a writer. And these jewels have continued to become more luminous with meaning.
Nowadays, one jewel might represent my greater resilience. Another might represent my increasing tolerance for my own vulnerability. Another, my ability to hear my inner voice more clearly. And another, a budding connection to the source of all things.
And as the days unfold, this sculpture on my desk — this accumulation of my moments and shifts and lessons on this human journey — continues to grow and gleam with color and light.