Seasons of Unproductivity

I haven’t been writing.

Even as I try to type these words I’m fighting to keep my eyelids from closing. It’s Monday morning and I’m up at the time I set my alarm so it’s just me for a moment, just me and the Christmas tree and the clinking of radiant heat. I’ve already heard stirring from the recesses of our house, where Lydia wakes early, like me, and soon she’ll be out here too, making tea and breakfast for herself and talking. And then Brandon will wake, and then the boys, and then the dog will want to be on my lap and Henry will want to snuggle, and then it will be time to get dressed and ready for the workday. And then my time to write will be whisked away.

When our children were much younger and Brandon was traveling for work on the weekends, my hours of productivity began at 8 p.m. after the kids were bathed and in bed. They extended until 11 or midnight or later, sometimes, the bright overhead light tricking my mind into believing it was still daytime and okay to be processing everything, until a text message from Brandon would urge me to “go to sleep, tiny dancer,” or I’d glance up in alarm at the time and reluctantly shut down whatever work I was burrowing in.

It was easier back then to write, to escape into whatever essay project or poems I inhabited while the rest of my life swarmed around me in their own pretend worlds and Play-Doh. It was easier back then, to withdraw from loneliness into a meditation on marriage while the one I wanted to be with lifted off in airplanes on weekends.

But now it’s different. Our kids are older. Brandon is home. These people in my life demand attention; I can’t just sit in the kitchen or living room anymore and zone out the rest of the residents of our home.

I intend to write in the mornings, or read or catch up on Beautiful Things submissions, or go to yoga, so I set my alarm for 5:45 a.m. and then again for 6. I plan to do these things. And then Izzy follows me out of the bedroom, and we sit on the couch and listen to the radiator pipes clink. And then Lydia says good morning and begins opening and closing cabinet doors in the kitchen. And then Brandon wakes up and it’s “Good morning,” and “Did you see that so-and-so famous-person died,” and “Looks like it’s going to snow,” and other such normal morning words. And then it’s time – past time, usually – to go and start the day.

Look at the time, already, passing. It’s 6:30 now, and I’m only just getting to my point which is this: There is a time to be fruitful. There is a time to sow and to wait and to cultivate and water and tend and harvest.

There is also a time for fields to lie fallow.

I keep thinking that I should be writing. I should be meditating on what I see and hear around me, responding to the politics and religious debates of the day, offering up some alternate angle or thought so I can get a few more thumbs up or likes on Facebook and maybe nurture along someone else’s journey, hold out a virtual hand for a moment and say, “I know what you mean. I get you. Let’s not walk alone.” I should be doing these things.

But I’m not.

There are people in my life that are here right this minute, unzipping their backpacks and opening the refrigerator. In four years Lydia will be driving and in six she’ll be in college and then it’ll be just Elvis and Henry, and then a split second later Elvis will be out of the house too, and then it’ll be just Henry who will not want to snuggle early in the morning because he’ll be taller than me and a teenager eager to go and do the things teenagers do.

Farmers let their fields lie fallow to restore their fertility. It’s part of crop rotation – you nurture this plot of land while another rests so that when you return to it again, it’s able to produce good fruit.

There are people in my life right now. This minute. After so many years now of writing within the crevices of the day, folding words into every spare minute, I’m trying to be content with a season of unproductivity, a season where the field of words lies fallow. This season’s harvest is here, ripe for the picking. My children want to be with me, now. My husband is here most of the time. My life is full of demands I enjoy meeting.

A verse of scripture I return to often is from Ecclesiastes, “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (11:6). I have taken this verse as a daily mantra – do good work during the day at the day job and nurture your children in the evening and tend to the writing in the late hours before midnight, because any of them could succeed – don’t neglect any of them. But there is also a weekly rhythm, a long-term rhythm of work and rest set:

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove” (Exodus 23:10-11). Rest is written into the Law of Scripture. We require it – daily, weekly, every seven years – it’s absolutely necessary.

And now it is 7:08, and Henry is snuggled next to me, and my dog is on my lap, and there is no more room for words this morning, okay, it is okay, it is more than okay. These fallow fields will rest and reap a harvest again. Just not today.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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