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How We Spend Our Days

“Georgia O’Keeffe has never allowed her life to be one thing and her painting another.” –Frances O’Brien, friend of the artist, 1927

That quote, which was emblazoned on the wall at the entrance of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, speaks to how O’Keeffe integrated her personal aesthetic in all aspects of life. The exhibit drove this point home by displaying not only O’Keeffe’s artwork, but her clothing, shoes, hats, and accessories. In O’Keeffe’s world, even the everyday aspects of life were an extension of her art and her vision.

I viewed the O’Keeffe exhibit alone, on a Friday. I had the day off work, but like most writers, I rarely feel I’m not working, and in fact that morning had risen early as usual to plug away at novel revisions. But once I tore myself away from the writing desk, I relished my solo outing. I was going to spend several hours doing whatever I wanted.

What I wanted was this: to explore the O’Keefe exhibit before strolling through the rest of the museum, pausing to sit in front of Cupid and Psyche and Apollo and the Muses for a little while. Then, a quick look at the Tiffany gallery before leaving and heading to Mac’s Backs Books, where I picked up Karen Thomas Walker’s The Dreamers. Finally, a stop at Lake View Cemetery for a walk among the graves.

Writing, art, a bookstore, a new novel to read, and a quiet walk in a beautiful place––that day was restorative. It also felt familiar, an extension of the ways I’ve generally sought to make use of my alone time for years. As a teenager growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I didn’t have access to an institution like the Cleveland Museum of Art, but I did enjoy spending afternoons browsing Borders before strolling through one of my favorite parks. In college, whenever I felt stressed out, I took a long walk in the cemetery just off campus, something I repeated in graduate school, as well.

More recently, as I wandered through Lake View Cemetery, I found myself thinking of that wonderful line from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Dillard goes on to say:

What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always spend my hours in ideal ways. I watch too much TV, I waste time online, I work on projects I don’t love to bring in money. But in the grand scheme of things, I like to think that I’ve been lucky enough to create the kind of life, day by day, that suits me most. I write. I read. I connect with my friends and other writers and readers. I spend time with my spouse, I take walks and enjoy my solitude, I cook, and I let my cats remain sitting on me far beyond when I’d prefer to get up and do something else.

And I try to remember, whether I’m taking in a glorious piece of art or strolling by the lake or writing a new story, that this isn’t just one hour, one day. Like O’Keeffe, I don’t consider my art and my day-to-day routine as separate entities. They are enmeshed, entangled, a blurred and powerful pattern. They are my entire life.