Last weekend, Paul and I went maple sugaring here in Minnesota. Well, we went to an event sponsored by the Parks Department that promised we would learn how to identify sugar maples, tap them to collect sap, and turn the sap into delicious syrup. I imagined hiking through the woods and tapping trees like a hearty winter woman… maybe coming home with some fresh maple syrup.
Instead, we stood in a group of thirty other people, surrounding one single tree, while the naturalist demonstrated how to tap it. The sap oozed out at the rate of one drop every other second. It turns out the process of making syrup is a slow one. You might collect sap for a week then spend another full day boiling it. It takes about 86 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
So it was not much of a hands-on experience, but it was a beautiful day to be outside. Bright sun, blue skies, and a cool breeze that carried the promise of spring. For the first time all winter, I was able to go coat-less, hat-less, and glove-less, and it was a glorious feeling. After the maple sugar demonstration, Paul and I took a walk around the nature preserve.
Cardinals and finches sang in the bare tree branches as we explored the paths. We stopped at a pond, still iced over, and Paul heaved several large rocks onto it, hoping to break the ice. (This is something most males seem to enjoy.) The rocks plunked down on top of the pond and sat there, mocking him. Despite the sun and the warm temperatures, the water was still frozen solid.
Recently I started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a book about reclaiming your creativity or getting “unblocked,” which I don’t feel is my problem right now, but it does provide a lot of all-around interesting advice, exercises, and ideas to ponder.
One of Cameron’s suggestions is the “morning pages,” which are three longhand, stream-of-consciousness pages written every morning, no matter what. She says there is no wrong way to do them and they are not meant to be “art” or even “writing.” They are a way of getting all the junk out of your head. They are a way of exploring what’s in your head. They are a way of making writing a daily practice whether you feel like it or not. “It may be useful,” Cameron says, “to think of the morning pages as meditation.”
That appealed to me because I have trouble with “regular” meditation. Twice a week Paul and I sit quietly on the floor for sixteen minutes and try to focus on our breath, and I find it really difficult and boring. I’m always looking for other ways to meditate. And Cameron makes big, exciting claims about the morning pages. They will change your life, she says. They will give you insight about yourself and your place in the world: “It is impossible to write morning pages for any extended period of time without coming into contact with an unexpected inner power.”
Well, that all sounded awesome to me. So I started doing morning pages last week. I was ready to gain insight and dive deep into my inner power. Day 1, I started writing, and immediately wondered if I was doing it right. I had to remind myself that there’s no wrong way to do morning pages. But certainly, I thought, some ways are more efficient than others. I wanted to get to the sweet insight as quickly as possible. I was ready to break through the ice and explore my own depths. Instead, my hand hurt from writing and I ended up writing about that.
I suppose I can’t expect the morning pages to work miracles so fast. Just like I can’t expect to tap a tree and have a bottle of maple syrup thirty minutes later. It takes 86 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Perhaps it will take 86 days of morning pages before I start to notice anything. Or 86 drafts of a novel before it reaches its full potential. Sometimes a lot of effort boils down into one small, but sweet, final product.
We think when we start doing something good for ourselves — morning pages, exercise, eating better — we’ll feel or see the change right away. But just because the sun is out doesn’t mean the ice is gone. You might write for years before you see results. Throwing rocks won’t help. It’s the warmth over time that melts the ice.
On our walk last weekend, Paul and I ended up at a lake where trumpeter swans are known to nest. But of course, the lake was still frozen over. No place for the swans to swim… not yet. But we’ll check back in a week or two. And I’ll keep doing my morning pages with the rising sun. Perhaps, in time, the ice will melt and I’ll slip below the surface to my own inner depths. I’ll boil down the sap and finally taste the sweet syrup of my insight.