The Pactice of First Things First by Miriam Sagan

I’ve been enjoying following Mussar, the Jewish spiritual practice of working on one’s character and ethics. I’ve got a little book that gives daily assignments, with a new trait to focus on each week. This week has been surprisingly pleasant so far, given that the seemingly bland topic is “order” with the directive “first things first.” I tend to be fairly orderly, if messy in spots, so the idea of putting one thing in order a day wasn’t so exciting.
Turns out, it has been helpful, soothing even. Like all artists and writers I’ve had to learn to structure my days with a mix of paid work, creative work, hustling, family, social life, and domestic concerns. Right now I’ve also got volunteer work and a garden, an archeology class, and some travel. So—what is first? Turns out, that question itself is calming. And the answer not that obvious. Sometimes I fix something I’ve truly neglected, or deal with something that makes me anxious (on-going trapping of skunks beneath the house or Taxation and Revenue.)
I like to start the day with writing, pulling some suminagashi, and a bit of mild exercise or housework. To my shock, now that I’m retired from community college I’m getting up before 7 am. I’ve get less fatigue and less chronic pain—and somehow a better relationship to time. But I don’t want to purely define myself as creative. So sometimes that first thing is rushing off to do something else.
Monks in a monastery follow a strict daily routine. My first husband Robert—a Zen monk—used to say: if you don’t know what to do, follow the schedule. I’ve never wanted to be a monk, but I value a routine based on my intentions, not the world’s. When Donald Trump was elected I made a big list of what I wanted to do. This included marches and protests, working with immigrants, philanthropy, and interestingly—deepening Jewish spirituality and community. I didn’t want to ask myself every five minutes: can I live in this country? What should I do? Am I in danger? What is my approach? I felt that would be too destabilizing, so I set a course.
And I’ve kept to it. This doesn’t mean I won’t change as circumstances change. It just means I have a way to get through the day. I credit my understanding of this to my struggles with becoming a writer. It took me almost a decade (my twenties) to figure out how to function as a writer and as a person. Again, I’ll change as needed, but the outline is there. And I don’t want to change with each turn of the wind.
So, as each day brings new outrages and worries on the societal front, I put first things first.