The Mentalist: Reward and Routine


Getting through a national crisis might be a little crazy like a police consultant following instinct and impression or it might be orderly like completing a knitted pair of socks. Maybe it’s a little of both. I have one sock of a pair in the works, knit top down. The leg part is done, the heel flap, and the heel is turned. I also have five book-length projects I could be working on just now, at least 350k words that need work. I could be working on revising those books, or I could be painting the hallway even though there is snow on the hills behind my house. (Because the paint is zero-VOC and I have brushes and a roller ready to go.) I could scrub dust from the baseboards or the molding of the bathroom door. I could sort my books or bake sweet rolls. I still have plenty of flour, five eggs, and sis sticks of butter. I could bake something. My husband says I should be doing our taxes. And I have the time. 

I am not going anywhere anytime soon.

Instead, I want to watch season 6 of The Mentalist. While I was weaving earlier this month, I streamed the first three seasons of that show. But now I want to sit on the couch with knitting and find out how the series will end. Patrick Jane will probably survive since he’s the main character, but I am worried that in the last two seasons secondary characters might be killed off. I am particularly fond of Cho.

All this time I have not been writing because I am as capable as anyone of procrastinating and wasting time and opportunity. 

My solution is following a routine and setting up tiny goals. I read the news first thing and update my covid19 page online. Go for a walk on the beach just after dawn. Shower. Dress. Write.

Before turning on the TV, I must earn that mindless entertainment through accomplishment. I must complete this page. I must read the first draft of my self-assigned flash fiction aloud, revise it—the ending is not right—and then read it aloud again. I must gather up my knitting and pick up all the stitches for the gussets—a task requiring my particular attention. Then I may knit two inches of sock and watch. 

What I should be doing is writing. I am not avoiding writing because I do not enjoy it. I love to write; it is a deeply meaningful element of my life. I understood decades ago that if I hope to remain mentally healthy, I need to create. I gave up copper enameling when my children were small because my toddler crawled under my arm as I lifted a test tile out of a 1700° kiln. I began quilting instead. I began writing as my creative activity of choice when I recognized that I had always been a writer as much as a visual artist, publishing nonfiction throughout my twenties. 

Still, my mind moves erratically and chaotically rather than neatly in straight lines. “A neat desk is the sign of a sick mind” was my mantra. 

Except, as a visual artist I long ago came to understand that process is linear, even if that straight direction is foreign to my brain. Just as I learned to break down enameling into steps, as an English teacher I broke down assignments into steps. Some students need the work set out before them. They need an outline of process to follow in sequence to success. Other students are just like me, beginning in the middle, reaching the end, backing up to find an opening, altering the ending to fit, rearranging the middle several times, cutting and cutting and cutting. They don’t mind having the steps written out so long as they are free to ignore them.

Forcing myself to do something weird to revise (change the POV, change the verb tense, move the end to the beginning) was as useful for me as it was for my students. Linear thinkers appreciate the specific, abstract thinkers enjoy the randomness of the directive. Doing uncomfortable things is a surprisingly effective way to revitalize a work in progress. 

Knitting isn’t like that. I become like the students in my class who require sequence and control. I am not a fast or efficient knitter at the best of times. But I will follow the assignment because I know it will get me to the end of something. I will knit the gussets today, the rest of the foot tomorrow, and the toes the day after. Then I will cast on for the second sock. 

Like it or not, tomorrow I will revise my short fiction according to the strategy I always gave my students. And then I will watch another episode of The Mentalist. 

Before I turn on the television (we receive no cable or broadcast but it’s on Prime), I will have revised the first draft of my fable. It’s not good yet and probably will not be any better when I finish reading it aloud and revising today. That’s okay. It’s been fun. Tomorrow I will post the revision strategy.

The Cautious Bird

In a place people think they know and not so long ago, a small bird with a black head, a grayish back, and white flight feathers picked at the ground. By nature she was a cautious person. She was busy looking for seed and finding it. She pecked at small red ants and swallowed them too. Some might have named her genus and species. She had no such names for herself. She was Bird. Everything was simple in her world.

She did not say her name aloud or call attention to herself. Her voice was small and indistinct and no one listened to hear it but others like herself. There were many people she avoided without considering details of why. Hawk in the sky sometimes, Weasel in the thick growth of green both early and late, and Dog and Dog and Dog all about and all the time. She flew when dangerous people might have made a sound. She was also hungry and did not know the names of those people she ate. Seed and insect were merely Food. 

Ants called themselves ants, not as a name but to identify themselves in contrast to Bee and Bird and Others, by which they meant the larger black ants, not exactly enemies but To Be Avoided. 

Bees referred to themselves as We: “We there” they might say in their dance. Backward forward three turns and away. We find food over there and that way. 

The Child in the house did not know one bee from another. Did not point and say “That one there has been away and back nine times.” They all looked alike to him. Child stood at the window, waiting his turn to go outside “once the ground was dry” according to his mother. Had she looked, Mother might have admired the bird. 

Bird admired Food. She knew other birds not like herself, and she knew Other Birds like herself but not herself. They, like a stirring in the bushes or shadow from the sky, sometimes made warning. If others, bird or Bird, flew up from the ground, so did she. If they landed and searched, she did too. 

Bird was not wise but she was a fool, she used the fear of others the way Mother might use a street sign. Go. Stop. Danger. She kept her distance, flying on the instant, landing with care, and locking her tendons to close her feet on a twig while she slept. Each day and each night the same.

The people behind the glass were not Food, but also not Hawk or Weasel or Dog, and that was mostly fine. She avoided anything larger than herself, flew away even when Rabbit appeared. She could not be too careful. She did not imagine anything new or interesting. She did not predict or plan. She would make a nest three times before she died, hatch seven eggs, and outlive all but one fledgeling. The act of creation was not one she looked forward to or missed when it passed. Bird was colder in winter, warmer in summer, but seasonal change did not send her anywhere. She flew down to the ground to feed. She flew away if disturbed. She flew into hiding at night. Simple. She did what was necessary, what Other Birds did. Only that. 

By nature, Bird was cautious, and because of her care, and because Food was plentiful, and because she was busy throughout the Day and slept throughout the Dark hours, she lived a good long time. For a bird. And when she died only the Child noticed or mourned. And even he did not know her name. 

~Cautious life can be long.

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