Spring Cleaning


I’ve been spring cleaning.

My usual pattern is to start waking up sometime in late February. What seemed like a warm cozy shelter in December now feels stagnant, stale, cluttered and claustrophobic. Outside is still cold, gray, and snowy. It would be a perfect time to take a vacation but I never do. Instead I put my head down and trudge through my work routine until winter is officially over. As I store my winter clothing and gear, I cast a critical eye over things and clear away what no longer serves. It can feel quite ruthless but also liberating. On a rainy April afternoon I was sorting through a box of papers in the studio and came across this old sketchbook with a drawing of a Nashville warbler. I looked out the window and saw that the pussywillow catkins were in this exact state of flowering. I wondered…had I seen or heard the warblers this year? They are transient, moving through town rapidly on their way to their breeding habitat higher in the mountains. It’s possible they had come through and I didn’t notice. They are insectivores and the pussywillows are clouded with bugs when they bloom.

But this year has been different. A warm spell in mid-February brought the catkins out early. They held static while winter returned for a few weeks and then just recently progressed to the pollen stage. Then it was warm enough for the bees to emerge from the hive and the air was filled with their gentle buzzing. But I never heard or saw the warblers.

No one can say what “normal” weather is any more. Neotropical migrants like warblers must figure out the timing of their journey. If it’s too cold when they’re on the move, their food won’t have emerged and they won’t have the energy to stay warm. Maybe this year the birds are holed up somewhere south of here waiting for the right conditions.

Finding the sketchbook and thinking about warblers was one direction of wondering. The other direction of wondering was the date of the drawing. In 2011 it was not uncommon for me to pick up a sketchbook and record a moment in the garden. In 2018 I never do. What has changed? I have always been burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and northern European Protestant work ethic. Work before play. And try as I might to change my mind, art is play. So the paycheck must be earned and the laundry must be done before I go play. All work and no play make Debra a dull girl, which is what I have become. Even before I found the sketchbook, I was aware of wanting to reconnect with wonder and joy. Writing and drawing and walking are all part of that.

As I make my way through clutter and untidiness in my house, I am also spring cleaning my mind. As much as I have resisted, I have what I call the “digital attention span”. In order to engage with the human world around me, I use many of the tools that everyone else uses. It is so handy to text and email, so handy to pay my bills online. And so seductive to look things up without opening a physical dictionary or encyclopedia or map, to listen to an audiobook or read on the screen or snap a photo with the iPad. Without knowing how it happened, I find myself spending more and more of my time looking at a screen (including right now). The digital attention span speeds me up, makes me impatient, keeps me from using all my senses and my hands. It is numbing and exhausting to disconnect myself from the tangible world, and all the more disconcerting to try to reconnect.

Yet the world is right here. Physical things exist. The earth turns on its axis just as it did yesterday and will tomorrow. Spring is advancing. The white-crowned sparrows’ call is more insistent every day. The buds on the deciduous trees are a little more swollen each day. The Nashville warblers are out there somewhere, I hope. This is what I want to be attending to in spite of my knowledge of the warming planet, human hubris, folly, and cruelty. Where my attention goes, so goes my life. The necessity of a good spring cleaning is more apparent. Time to sort my thoughts about work and play, about what matters and how to spend the time I have left. Someone once told me that it’s best to live life without regrets, but it’s too late for that. The question now is to decide whether I will let them add to the clutter.

I think not. Going forward, I will draw more.

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