Laura's note: Today's guest post is about an important question to ask that can help you be more mindful in matters big and small. Enjoy!
by Elisabeth Sharp McKetta
One of the wonderful things about mothers is the random things they keep in their house: my mother, who lives in Austin, keeps a dozen clocks all chirping different times, a collection of dog-training collars dating back to the early 90s, an entire village of Fisher Price Little People, and—vital to the story I am about to tell—a label-maker.
Several years ago when I was visiting Austin with my children (then one and four), I was bored. My kids splayed on the floor, lost in a Little People parking garage game, and I picked up my phone for the fiftieth time that morning to see if anyone had emailed me. I was killing time, and as somebody versed in Vanderkam advice, I knew better than to drain my energy doing something that, decidedly, was not either joy-giving or necessary.
In a flash, I knew what I needed: a label-maker. And I knew who would have one: my mother.
I found it on the first try in a kitchen drawer and I made a small all-caps label that read: "IS IT NECESSARY?" I stuck it on my phone. For the rest of the day that I spent with my parents and children, I left my phone alone. This reminder vastly improved my vacationing skills. If I felt tempted to micromanage my daughter when she taught her baby brother how to put on his pants, or to suggest to my mother that she feng shui her belongings, I'd stop and ask: is this necessary? And the answer was usually no.
But the sticker's real magic crystallized when I got home.
For it applied to everything: my phone-case doubles as a wallet, and seeing IS IT NECESSARY? each time I pick up my wallet is a good reminder that sometimes it is (spontaneous Indian buffet lunch with husband) and sometimes it isn't (an expensive bathing suit when I live in a wintry land-locked state). The sticker kept me honest. It was as good as a Jiminy Cricket.
While I had intended for the sticker to curb my desires to do things that I shouldn't be doing (mindless email checks, buying anything that is dry-clean only, eating sugary snacks when I should be eating almonds), I discovered many valuable things that the IS IT NECESSARY? sticker on my phone urged me TO do. I wish to look back on my life as a writer and remember that most days I wrote. So even if I'd rather take the day and do something else, is doing some writing necessary? Yes. Even if it's bad and nobody reads it but me? Yes. Yes.
And even if my kids are acting beastly and I am about to lose the plot and it's bedtime, should I still read them books? My higher self wishes to read to my children whenever they asked. So yes, again.
Because the sticker rests in a visible place, sometimes people notice it and want one. These days I travel with extras in my phone sleeve—they are fun to share. One woman who works at the Whole Foods near my house put the sticker on the steering wheel of her car. "These words helped me stop obsessing over my ex while I drove to work," she told me.
The sticker has led to many valuable conversations with strangers (necessary to me, both because I love living in a community where people talk, and also because one of my writing projects is a blog called Poetry for Strangers, and for the project to continue, it is necessary for me to meet interesting strangers so I can write them poems.) One of this year's strangers struck up conversation because she admired the peeling white sticker on my phone-wallet.
What is true—and what is so central to what Laura writes—is that joy is necessary, and doing the work to make the scaffolding for a joyful long life is necessary. It is necessary to ask the question of what is necessary. It is necessary to have some reminder, however small, tacky, or temporary, to make minute-by-minute choices that align with our values. Having to face the daily question of "IS IT NECESSARY" has become a frequent external reminder of the promises I make to myself, and a reminder to keep them.
Bio: Elisabeth Sharp McKetta teaches writing for Harvard Extension School and maintains a weekly blog called "Poetry for Strangers." Her most recent book, Energy: The Fairy Tale Life of John J. McKetta, is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. She lives in Boise with her family.
Photo: Well, is it necessary?