My candle burns at both ends

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light!
Edna St. Vincent Millay ("First Fig", A Few Figs From Thistles, 1920)

A couple of weeks ago, Wess Daniels wrote about a game that he and Emily like to play of imagining what your alternative life would be. I love this kind of game.

In one of my alternative lives, I could have been much like Edna St. Vincent Millay. Of course, in this life, I’m not a brilliantly gifted poet, but in my alternate life, I would be. I read her biography, Savage Beauty, a few years ago, just as I was settling in to my role as a married mother of two and just as I was discovering this new role as a writer. It was a good glimpse of what might have been. Of a life completely dedicated to writing and sensual pleasures. You know, sex, drugs and poetry, in the early years of the 20th century. Both the glories and the sorrows of such a life.

And I was able to affirm that this was not the life I had chosen.

I have had several points of clear decisions in my life. I could have gone back to Mexico; I could have gone to Taiwan; I might have had children earlier or not at all. But I didn’t. In each case, I chose the more conventional, the more respectable path. And that was right for me.

In any case, I’ve come to a point where I feel I can’t let my candle burn at both ends tonight – I have to get up tomorrow and make breakfast and get the kids to school.

I can’t run and write in the same morning, yet.

I can’t go to FGC and PYM and Newberg and Pasadena and Quincy and the Northwest Quaker Women’s Theological Conference and the Christian Friends Conference all in the same summer.

I can’t be at the memorial meeting and the board meeting and the soccer game all in the same day.

I can’t clerk the children’s program committee, run the program and parent (effectively and lovingly) all at the same time.

On the one hand, I can’t let myself get so bogged down in cooking and carpool and laundry that I fail to be the minister I believe God is calling me to be. On the other hand, I have chosen a life that is not all ethereal and mystical. Mary Rose O’Reilly had to become an apprentice shepherd to get that balance back. I want to be a person who cleans her own bathroom, tied to the realities of life in dirty dishes, parent-teacher conferences, and tending to the needs of the bereaved in my Meeting and the people in my neighborhood who have fewer opportunities for self-development and expression than I have.

It is extremely important to me that, as a Quaker, I can be a minister and a mother. Even so, some choices have to be made.

Gregg Koskela wrote last year about wanting to be a first-rate thinker and a hands-on minister, and he held up a couple of examples from the 17th century. My comment at the time pointed out that most of these fellows (and they were all men) were not also first- rate fathers or else they had a wee little problem with alcohol, or other people’s wives, or some other stress-relieving issue, that may have been swept under the rug over time.

When I worked for a large non-profit, the communications department had a little sign about sending things to a professional print shop: “You can get it fast. You can get high quality. You can get it cheaply. Choose two.”

Likewise, I could take on many of the wonderful opportunities for service around me. But not all at the same time, or even in the same year.

Jenell Paris wrote a couple of weeks ago about how women’s giftedness is too extensive to be confined to our own households. Like her, I am proud and happy to use my gifts to benefit my family and my home. But I am also proud and happy that my sons see me using my gifts to benefit our larger community. Right now, that is pretty much limited to our monthly and quarterly meeting and their schools. But they occasionally hear stories about my work with the SF Planning Commission or in East New York. They hear me speak Spanish and French with other people and they know I didn’t learn it all in school. Sometimes, they even hear me speak in meeting for worship.

I want to be someone who is true to her word. That requires that I do not promise too much. Even though I want to help, I have to be more realistic about how much time things take and how much time I have to contribute.

So this brings me around to the question of this blog. Do I have time to write a blog? Is this one of or the best way I can structure the writing ministry I think I’m supposed to be doing? How do I balance writing here, reading and commenting elsewhere in the Quaker blogosphere, and all the other good things I want to or ought to do?

These are some of the questions I’m pondering when you don’t seen anything posted here for a week or more.

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Blogger Martin Kelley said...

As blogfather, aren't I supposed to send you a fish wrapped in newspaper at the suggestion that you might leave the blogworld?

Seriously, Friend Robin, as long as your faithful your work will feed the world. Parenthood is a ministry, being a neighbor is a ministry. I suspect you'll be staying in the Quakerosphere but don't feel you need to. Doing too much can keep us too busy to listen to the Source.
Your Friend, Martin (writing with child#2 perched on lap, surprisingly content for a moment!)

9/14/2006 9:36 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Robin, you write in part:

I want to be someone who is true to her word. That requires that I do not promise too much. Even though I want to help, I have to be more realistic about how much time things take and how much time I have to contribute.

Amen, sister!

I can't even begin to write about what I have "promised" to tend to.

At the same time, I have a fFriend who lives into the belief that if she is faithful and discerns well, God will give her all that is needed: time, energy, sleep!...

And sometimes it isn't realistic, but that might be because I can't see how the Way will open from my earth-bound vantage point... but I trust that God will open the Way for me, if I am faithful.

My life is changed because I have stopped asking, "What else can I do with my time?" and I have started asking "How might I be of service?"

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

9/14/2006 10:21 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Oh my dear Friends, I didn't mean to imply that I might be leaving the blog world. More like making excuses for not posting more often.

This blog HAS been a good way to structure my writing. I want it to continue. The Openings and Leadings that have come through the blogosphere have been life-changing, life-giving even. They aren't over yet.

But if I want to do this, if I believe that God is more fully present when I write, or rather that I am more fully aware, I have to make time for it, to discipline myself around it. I can't be on every committee someone wants me to serve on. I have to find ways to involve my children in the housework - and so far, that's going pretty well. And of course, I have the world's greatest husband and housemate. I'm not alone in any of this.

Today, I just have to name for myself the fact that I can't do everything at the same time. However, I did actually write this and go for a walk/run on the same day. It was on the walking portion that the poem came to me. Maybe I'll someday be a good enough runner that I'll be able to think and run at the same time. Maybe not. But that's another blog post.

Today there was also time to pick up both my kids from school and make the cookies for Saturday's memorial meeting and meatloaf for dinner tonight. But I didn't get a shower yet. You win some, you lose some. You know?

9/14/2006 10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mmmmfff --- what's that, dear? *munch munch munch* Sorry, I couldn't hear you, because I was chewing one of your cookies while I was throwing in a load of laundry and putting dishes in the dishwasher....

Thanks for watching the kids while I went to the board of trustees meeting the other night. Enjoy your own board meeting! I'm sure the kids will enjoy the birthday party, the memorial meeting, and the soccer game.

Oh, were you ever able to post to your blog today? :)

-- Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

9/14/2006 11:23 PM  
Blogger kathy said...

Robin, You ask many of the same questions I and my friends at your place in life have asked and will continue to ask, I think, for a long time. Finding the right balance is hard - maybe because the apex keeps moving, I don't know.

You must listen to the spirit and do what is before you each day to do but a as friend of mine said, "Don't do every good thing that comes along and miss the best thing." Martin is right, family, neighbors and friends are a ministry. If that means you don't always post what you write, so be it.

I don't post most of what I write because until the kids leave for college, it will remain gibberish in my journal. :)

9/15/2006 9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez - the epic battle for centeredness wages on, in these times our attention is so easily compromised by the multiple desires of our hearts. Robin, your post reflects my own wanderings as of late. I have felt "lost" in many ways.

Our conversations, as Quakers, as people who are committed to silence, simplicity and centeredness, must continue to revolve around finding God in these times.

What practices can we do that help us hear God and hear others, while sharing and giving ideas the way we have come to love (at least for us bloggers)?

What can we do to cultivate a life of listening, patience and love amidst all this? I trust we'll struggle to find it, but that if we keep looking we will help each other find that place.

9/15/2006 1:22 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Sullivan said...


i have to say that this is a lot of what i have been thinking about lately with haveing to apply for college. i have an idea on what i want to major but the schools don't fit my personality. i also want to take a year off to look more into Qyuakerism and explore yearly meetings.

In high school the last two weeks i have been seeing a lot of refelection on what happened this summer and how my spiritual life is folding into everything i have to say. We have been looking at poems or songs everyday and so far i have been able to connect my spiritual life to at least one poem a week. (maybe i will post last weeks journal or this weeks.)

i hope that you can continue to find time to blog because it is a nice way to see how you are growing spirtually.


9/15/2006 3:14 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you everyone for your continued expressions of understanding. This is one of the things that I love about my blog - it's read by people who understand - and it has enlarged my circle of people who care.

Kathy, one of my favorite books - which I actually bought at the same time as the Millay biography - is called, My Monastery is a Minivan by Denise Roy. It is a collection of short essays. As she says in the introduction, this book is easy to read in the bathroom. That's because much of it was written in the bathroom, which was the room in the house in which she was least likely to be interrupted. Marta read it too.

Wess - see this is one of the things I love about Quakers - for all the ways we're superficially different, we have so many of the same questions.

Rebecca - good luck. I'd love to at least read some of the poems. You don't have to say why they spoke to you if you don't want to. My advice on choosing a college? Don't worry too much about choosing one that perfectly fits - you will change while you are there and on every campus, you will find subcultures - some of which will fit you. And hey - nice picture!

9/15/2006 4:54 PM  
Blogger Tom and Sandy Farley said...

You have inspired us to set up a blog and see where it takes us.

Glad to hear you and family are settling in. We got a copy of Walter's note to SCMM.

Tom for T&S

9/16/2006 3:51 AM  
Blogger Heather Madrone said...

Oh Robin, this touches deeply right now. For the past 18 years, I've been parenting and homeschooling my four children (and working part-time and doing volunteer work and trying to make time for my creative work and trying to make sure that I exercise and feed my soul and stay connected to the wonderful people in my life). What a blessing it is to have so many worthwhile things to do! How difficult it is to remember that when I'm exhausted!

There's a Hindu concept of the householder path. There's a recognition that living in the world and raising a family grows us spiritually as much as the monastic path or the hermit's path. Cleaning the bathroom and cooking supper are seen as a deep spiritual service in a way that's hard for a Westerner to internalize.

It was easy to see that holding a fussy baby was a spiritual practice. It's a little less clear that reminding the kids to do their math, their piano practice, and their chores is also a spiritual practice. When it comes to filling out bureaucratic forms, I can't do it at all.

One of the gifts of the full life is having the opportunity to discern what is essential. Since we have more than we can possibly do, we are forced to decide what we won't do. As we cut away fripperies (like daily showers!), we come face-to-face with what is really essential in being human.

Anyway, I start a new full-time job tomorrow. I am excited and apprehensive, knowing that there will not be enough hours in my days. Somehow, though, I will find my way through the details to the essential.

9/16/2006 3:18 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

I'm glad everyone wrote what they did, and that you're still going to blog, because when you DO write, and when I finally get around to reading it, you speak to my condition.

My candle may be burning in the center as well.

9/18/2006 3:39 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Tom & Sandy - how cool. For anyone who doesn't know them, they are very fine storytellers and Friends from College Park Quarterly Meeting.

Heather, did we meet at Quarterly meeting in Ben Lomond this spring? This is finally dawning on me. (I was leading the interview project with the children's program.) I want to recommend to you an earlier post of mine, called Parenting as a Vocation. I think the comments include the very first one on my blog by kathy (see above).

Gregg, Martin used to refer to Beppe as his blogging doppelganger. I think you may be mine.

9/18/2006 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh, you've had so many comments on this one, I wonder whether mine adds any light... Much of what you say speaks to my condition. There is a vibrant group of young adult friends here in Philly that I have not joined in with, even though I meet their age demographic. I am often (constantly?) reminding myself that I am content with my choices of priorities -- family, monthly meeting, paid employment -- and that I can't take on more. I am determined not to take on more commitments than I do -- I already feel like I fail on the domestic front the moment our monthly meetings started up in the fall. (We take off for July & August.)

Philadelphia PA

9/21/2006 8:50 PM  
Blogger anj said...

Robin - You speak my mind and heart in this post.

9/26/2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger Kirsten said...

You can't do everything. I've come to that conclusion as well, as an artist and mother. I find that society expects mothers to do all that and more, work, mother, and volunteer in numerous worthy activities. You do have to prioritize. How much time do you really spend on a blog and does it add or detract from your life?

10/06/2006 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it not strange then that in such games I would always choose Sylvia Plath? My peers take offense to that to them it indicates I might put my head in an oven. By I disagree, I desire that clarity of poetic thought, that honesty and that insurmountable intelligence that she was.

And in any case, I argue that had I been her, with some concession for keeping some of my own temperament I may not have been inclined to take such drastic steps.

If poetry is a ministry, then I am a minister. But aren't there such wide distinctions in the quality of one's ministrations (excuse the usage)?

Speaking of decisions that affect life: I shall never be a mother.

A father, well that I can hope for in some years...

11/22/2006 7:02 AM  

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