Two years into the position, I took my life on the road and learned to work from coffee shops, gas stations, airports and hotels. I added more clients with daily deadlines. I worked against the clock, rain or shine, banging out copy like a machine gun– rat a tat tat. Adrenaline. Fist pump. Exhaustion.
Things slowed down. I stopped moving around every few months. I got married. Most of my working hours were spent alone in a room, staring at a computer screen, twisting and turning, erasing and rewriting. I went to the gym. I ate lunch. I typed some more words. Days turned into weeks that slowly drove me crazy, making me think my city life had been kidnapped by the suburbs. I worried everything would be wash, rinse, repeat until I dissolved into a pile of words yet to be written.
As a break from the monotony, I drove four hours to visit my grandfather, who at 93, still dreamed of writing the great American novel. His first question, every visit was, “How’s the writing?” He remembered the nuances of my career in ways I’d never imagined. Projects I’d remembered as boring and repetitive, he relayed back to me as if I’d hobnobbed with Hemingway and written the screenplay for American Beauty. He praised work I’d long forgotten and all I could think about were the exciting projects I wasn’t winning, the screenplays I wasn’t selling. I dreamed away those moments together, imagining my jump from the minors to the bigs. The day I could walk in my grandfather’s door and proudly proclaim that my name would soon be splashed across movie screens and book covers.
I reveled in our talks, trying to stave off the ordinary. But as I returned more frequently, our interactions changed. I’d begun as the writer who breezed in a few times a year, shared a few good stories and basked in my grandfather’s dreams of literary fame. Instead, we were no longer commiserating about the book he’d someday write; we were talking about the life he hoped to keep living. He read everything he could find, tried every cream, every balm. He told me his story, from beginning to end, with an urgency I didn’t understand until much later.
I didn’t know we were both in training.
Last November, I stopped in for an ordinary visit. That hour turned into ten days, as my grandfather went from a doctor’s office, to a hospital and finally to a hospice. As a consultant, I didn’t have the freedom to take any time off work. Several weeks away meant the loss of two prominent clients, both of whom were in the middle of product releases. So there I was, four hours away from home, sitting in a hospital lobby, writing copy. Rat a tat tat. Adrenaline. Caffeine. Ten years of practice providing instant autopilot for a brain unable to focus on punctuation.
Back in the hospital room, I listened as the doctor told my grandfather he had two weeks to live. This to a man who told me three weeks before that he intended to live forever. When the doctor asked how he was feeling, my grandfather cracked a joke. We watched in wonder as he didn’t break.
He’d been in training for some time.
After ten days of hospitals and hospice, fast food and four-hour nights, I stopped in for one last visit, intending to only be there for a moment. Two hours later, he was gone. Like a story, his last sentences unraveled in front of me in a way I never would have expected. He never wrote the novel, never wrote anything really, but over the past ten days, he’d weaved a story, one he intended for me to tell. It begins with this lesson:
We are always in training, in life and in work.
Day in, day out. Doesn’t matter what the work is, it’s about the craft. Putting in those
Malcolm Gladwell-approved 10,000 hours. Reveling in the work that feels repetitive and rote. Rewriting copy, cleaning up punctuation, removing words, adding words. Nothing creative, yet everything gained.
Day in, day out, we think we’re marinating in a life full of meaningless tasks. Driving a friend to pick up a prescription. Taking an errant piece of mail to the right neighbor. Buying a slice of pizza. Going to the gym to work off that slice of pizza. Taking out the trash. Composting orange rinds. All of those things, adding up to something.
To disparage the tedious, is to deny the structure, the meat of what makes us capable. Those seemingly endless days of practice help us to rise above what seems impossible.
I’ve come to value the mundane, the ordinary. It means that life is calm, in the flow. While I may be on a wave that’s about to crest, I can, for the moment, close my eyes and breathe. I know I’m being prepared for something and when I get there, I will be ready.