Edit your life like a poem | Elisabeth Sharp McKetta | TEDxBoise


Translator: Salvador Pineda Guevara
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Everyone here is living a big life
and many lives in one, big, full lives such as traveler,
student, parent, partner, friend, pet owner, worker, business owner, maybe side hustler. For me, the essential lives are five: writer of poetry
and biography and fairy tales; teacher of writing to adults and fairy tales to the [inaudible]
at my kids’ at school; spouse to my best friend; mother towards two often wise
and always wacky children; and friend to many generous
and inspiring people I’ve met along the way. Each one of these lives require space
for spontaneity and growth, and each one of these lives
require sacrifice, that I am prepared to make. The story that I will tell today
is about something that happened when a single life
began to require sacrifices of time, money and energy
that I was not prepared to make. And this is the life of home dweller. Once upon a time, or a decade ago, I was a graduate student
studying fairy tales. I drove a red VW Beetle
and had a badly behaved Corgi. (Laughter) And I was falling in love
over state lines – between Texas, my childhood home, and Idaho, where I would move as an adult. After getting married and merging
my bad dog with his good Labrador, (Laughter) my husband and I moved into a small
two-bedroom starter home, and in order to have a place for me
to write and for a guest to stay, we built in its backyard a 250-square-foot
tiny house that we called the shed. It had an aqua concrete floor, a desk, a bathroom, kitchenette and a ladder that ran up a two-story
bookshelf that led to a sleeping loft. I had no official job at that point,
neither did my husband; we were both inventing as we went. I spent my days writing at the desk
with my feet on the aqua floor, and he spent his, trying
to figure out a job he could do that would allow him time
with our children when we had them and, ideally, that would
not require shoes. (Laughter) We stayed up late and dreamed up
big moonshot goals for our future, and our life felt as simple
and beautiful as a poem. Then, in a whoosh,
our poem got complicated. The baby girl was born.
We got a more sensible car. Then a baby boy and a second car. My bad dog died. We got a puppy. (Laughter) My husband and I both started businesses. I took a teaching job,
then a second teaching job. In all of this,
we outgrew our starter home and moved into a much bigger house and rented the starter home
with its backyard shed. Eventually, the new house needed siding,
and all of its machines needed repair, and the puppy kept swallowing
the baby’s socks – (Laughter) I would find them
in piles in the backyard. (Murmuring) And being a believer
in reduce, reuse, recycle, I would pick them up, wash them, and put them back in the baby’s drawer. (Laughter) Everything was hard to afford. Everything required time. Everything required multitasking. It was all still beautiful, but in a big, messy,
impossible-to-remember-details way. One of the things that I love about poems,
both reading them and writing them, is their deliberate attention to detail. The space on the page, margins, that frame the words
and ask us to really look. This is true in a little block
of a prose poem or a book-length epic or a tiny, 17-syllable Haiku. The poet must use
the most precise language possible to create a moment
and invite the reader in. A poem is small, yet has great impact. In contrast to a poem, my life at this time felt huge
and my attention scattered, and I realized the disconnect. In writing, I could edit. Writers know that editing
is much harder than writing, that what we take out matters more
than what we leave in. A writer might write four pages
in a single morning and then throw three and a half
of them away the following day to leave just what is essential. But life is bigger than writing, and in many ways, my life in this era
was beginning to feel uneditable. There were several teaching jobs now, many writing jobs, hundreds of moments of beauty
every single day, but very little space in the day
to appreciate them. My life was full,
both of the work I had chosen and of the constant shadow work
of keeping a house. Many nights, my husband and I
stayed up late to tidy the house, only to fall into bed too tired to talk. And many days, my children wanted stories, but I didn’t have the energy
or the focus to tell them. There are many books
I dreamed of writing, but found it a struggle to take any one
and make it into something. I saw that if my life
were a page with writing on it, it wouldn’t have any margins. I was afraid to edit my life because what if I edited the wrong thing? What if I missed an opportunity? What if my children missed an opportunity? What if my first choice fell through? Didn’t I need second,
third and fourth choices? I’d built a life with all the pieces
I’d ever wished for, yet I hadn’t figured out
how to distill to see the poetry in it. I spoke about this with my husband, our main house-fixer
and the caller of plumbers when one of the children
accidentally flushes a diaper. (Laughter) He felt similarly,
that our life had grown too big. We joked briefly
about how we should take turns sending one of us to live in the little
backyard shed behind our starter home so that we could have –
ironically – space! (Laughter) But it was just a joke, and we realised that this was life,
and life was complicated, and that adult life
is not like a poem at all, but more like an epic novel series (Laughter) with many, many subplots. But still, if I could not stay organized
within the walls of my home, how could I begin
to organize anything else? And if I could hardly afford
my family’s daily needs, why dream beyond them? My page was full. Why write anything else? The real risk of an unedited life
is disconnection – the feeling of being disengaged
from the life you’ve built and a sense that all its parts
are just items on an impossible list. It is an everyday claustrophobia and a grief and guilt of having abandoned
the essential things. My big house, which I loved, went from feeling like a symbol
of the success of all of my lives to a symbol of my failure. I needed to edit something out, and if I didn’t, I knew
I was going to lose these years, remember only their chaos
and none of their beauty, that I would live and miss my life. The catalyst came one night
in the spring of 2017, when the big house was a disaster. The cleaner had cancelled, the puppy had eaten
an entire doll-house family. (Laughter) The kids had gone to bed
in a stalemate over a Lego ninja, and I was lying in bed entertaining
a fantasy about jumping into a life boat and letting the whole ship
of our heavy house sink. I had been scheming,
as I often did at night, about how I would keep our family afloat – financially, house wise and joy wise – when a scenario emerged: We could go into my life boat together. We could move as a family to the shed, bringing only ourselves,
small suitcase each, and the dogs. It was midnight when I found
my husband still working in his office and I proposed the impossible. My husband looked terrified. (Laughter) I was talking in the middle of the night, not my usual hour, about abandoning ship, the ship he and I had worked so hard
to navigate and keep afloat. I told him we would live in a dwelling
that cost literally nothing. We would rent both houses
and save the money earned. We’d be portable, we’d get to close up
house easily and travel more. We could teach our children
to think less about their own wants and more about the world and its needs, all by requiring less at home. And when we needed space
from each other or the kids, we could just go
do something outside the house or go into the sleeping loft
and close the trapdoor. We could take our
partially weathered selves, our nine-year marriage
and our rosy new children, and enjoy it all properly. Then the idea clicked
and he got out his notepad. We spent the rest of the night
working out the details and plotting until dawn, and for the rest of the spring,
a taught new energy sparkled around us. If we moved to the shed,
what might be possible? When we told our friends our plan to leave the big house
and move to the tiny one, many were baffled. A few called us up to check up on us
and see if we were okay. (Laughter) And one friend asked, “Have you ever heard
of a concept called moderation?” (Laughter) But It didn’t seem like
shed dwelling would be that hard. All over the world and for hundreds
and thousands of years, families had lived in small dwellings, in less space and with
fewer luxuries than we had. In our mind, it would look
like early retirement, the way people downsize houses
in their twilight years, only we would do it with work and kids. It would also look somewhat like camping, but with hot water and flushable toilets and quite comfortable beds. We didn’t see why it wouldn’t work. But still I worried that such a move
was not fair to our children, then three and six. And doubts clouded my mind, such as
“You are not giving them all you had,” “You are taking away their toys,” “You are forcing them to leave
the house they’ve known.” So I asked them
how they would make this work. And their answers were beautiful,
concrete and creative. My children decided immediately
that our shed would be a sharing house so they could both maximize their toys, and they took their four small wooden bins and collaborated on which toys
they would both enjoy most. They also went through their clothes
and picked their first choices and made big second-choice
piles to give away. I saw them editing their own lives
and figuring out how to be generous in a way they had never been
in the big house, where they hadn’t had to work
within such boundaries. So then we had a huge yard sale and rented a storage unit for things
we thought we might want again, such as art and the bed, and found tenants for the big house. We packed supplies for our small kitchen, our favorite books and eight outfits each – this is one of the eight
that made the cut. (Laughter) We packed plastic bins in the garage
with all-season supplies, and my husband and I
began sharing an office. We added to the shed
a Murphy bunk bed for the kids and replaced the desk
with an expandable dinner table so that we could have friends
over in the winter. And then we moved. The results were immediate. It was as if we’d taken
four pages of writing and distilled it to a perfect Haiku. Overnight our conversations changed to be more about the fun of life
and less about the maintenance. We had time to talk,
time to just be in a room together, to make up games, take spontaneous
after-school adventures. We had everything we needed,
but nothing more. And we had space in our day, margins to reflect on our life
and appreciate it. Shedding our big life
inspired me to think of how I might live like a poem
in other forms too. I asked myself, “If my life were a page,
what would belong on it? And if each day were a short poem,
what would be the right words?” And I found that answers came easily
and were fairly easy to implement. There would be more making,
less management; more doing things with love today, less worrying about
doing them perfectly one day; more talking, less technology; more walking, less driving; more storytelling, less housework; more time with people in the world
and less time by myself at home. I decided I would start telling
my children stories whenever they asked. My husband and I set up
a standing Tuesday night date as well as a short weekly meeting
for household business so it wouldn’t metastasize
all over the rest of the week. We set up a dog share
for our sweet wild puppy so we could have her half the time and our retired athletic couple
would have her the other half, and it would give us
and the old Labrador a break. (Laughter) I streamlined my work so that I would teach
part time for one college, write one poem a week
and write one book a year. And I set limits on how many hours
I would work each day, and as a reminder to myself
to work economically, I made a sticker for my laptop
that asks, “Is it necessary?” (Laughter) I made it a priority to get outside more,
even just for a half-hour walk, and to see friends more often. And never once for a single day have I done all or
most of these things perfectly. But living like a poem
is what I aspire to, and I’m better for the practice. Our life still has plenty of chaos. Case in point, last week one of the children sent
a handful of blueberries through the wash, so now most of our clothes are purple. (Laughter) As we approach our second
anniversary as shed dwellers, I see more and more benefits
of writing a life small and well, of writing all of the many lives
we live small and well, leaving space for creativity
and spontaneity and joy. So in the end, my family’s move to our little shed is a story about giving up
rooms in our house in order to have more
abundant room in our hearts, and it’s an act of bending the real
to meet the ideal life by asking two questions: What do you love? And, What fills your day? When these questions share an answer,
you spend time differently. you pay attention differently, you add something to the world
that only you can add, you add your poem. Thank you. (Applause)

4 thoughts on “Edit your life like a poem | Elisabeth Sharp McKetta | TEDxBoise

  1. Absolutely love this talk! Love the analogy she draws between our overly full modern lives and the beauty of editing our lives down to be more concise like a poem, leaving room in the margins for the important things. Will reflect on this TED talk often.

  2. Thank you, Elisabeth. What a nice message! It's also nice to get to know you a little better. I've been a long time participant at your Poetry For Strangers website.

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