Take Up Your Spade

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On a recent afternoon, I had the chance to break bread with several friends here in Nashville. (Actually, we broke chicken tenders.) The conversation was lively, but it was the lingering moments outside, after nearly everyone had left, that stirred me most.

Russ Ramsey asked me what I was writing lately, and instead of answering the question, I updated him on the latest freelance assignments I’d been given. He politely listened to my answer and then asked me again, “What have you been writing lately?” I told him about the essays and ideas I’d been planning to write as soon as I cleared my slate. Simply put, I gave him an embarrassingly short progress report.

After lunch, I went back to the Rabbit Room office and sat down with Pete Peterson to discuss some future ventures for the site. The conversation turned again to my own writing and the exact same thing happened, another gentle nudge reminding me to dig for what is meaningful. Twice in the same day, I’d had someone push me to move beyond immediate tasks for the sake of something meaningful.

Sometimes it’s a hectic schedule that keeps me from plowing the ground I truly want to cultivate. Other times, the fear of failure is to blame. Perhaps both are at work. I don’t know. What I do know is that I often desire to dig more than I actually do. That fear is what Steven Pressfield describes in The War of Art when he writes:

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

At a recent Sara Watkins show I was reminded of one of my favorite tunes. Her latest solo album, Sun Midnight Sun, came out in 2012 and it closes with the song “Take Up Your Spade.” The song (posted below with video and lyrics) is a beautiful, simple reminder to be obedient to the day before you and nothing more.

Since hearing this song again and taking part in these conversations, I can say with some level of confidence that it’s less about inspiration and overcoming fear, and more about simple obedience. It’s the daily dig, so to speak, that eventually gives way to the garden. I’m making progress and I hope I will have something real to report the next time someone asks.

“Take Up Your Spade” by Sara Watkins

Sun is up, a new day is before you
Sun is up, wake your sleepy soul
Sun is up, hold on to what is yours
Take up your spade and break ground

Shake off your shoes,
Leave yesterday behind you
Shake off your shoes,
But forget not where you’ve been
Shake off your shoes,
Forgive and be forgiven
Take up your spade and break ground

Give thanks, for all that you’ve been given
Give thanks, for who you can become
Give thanks, for each moment and every crumb
Take up your spade and break ground
Break ground, break ground, break ground

Profile photo of Matt Conner

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


19 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    That is a FANTASTIC lyric. Go, Sara. And thanks for this post, Matt. I’m in the dregs of writing my book right now and need all the encouragement I can get.

  2. Laura Peterson

    I like this, Matt. While that quote does not endear me to Steven Pressfield, the song is completely great and I’m heading over to Sara’s website post-haste. Keep digging, sir (and everyone else reading this).

  3. Scott Richardson

    The thought certainly applies to clearly creative endeavors (like writing, or music-making, or art), but interestingly enough, the article which I’m currently reading is telling me to get serious about the hard work I have to do the next three hours (beginning the not-so-fun process of migrating data from one cloud-based online learning system to another … the end result of which will be wonderful, but the process is a slog). I’m afraid to get started, which means … that is the very thing I have to do. Now. Right now. Really.

  4. April Pickle

    “It’s the daily dig, so to speak, that eventually gives way to the garden.” The side of my fridge was crying for a new quote, and it just found it.

  5. aimee

    This week I decided to write from 10 to 11pm each night (I’m a full time mama so that’s 365 hours that I could potentially write this year that I didn’t write last year!).

    I had a specific, exciting (meaningful) project in mind and the first night felt so good.

    And the second.

    On the third night the challenges of the project, the difficulties to surpass, became clear.

    That’s when watching 4 episodes of Alias for the last two nights sounded even better. (that’s 4 per night, not broken up over two, I had to continue watching to keep the “stop and go write” voice dim enough).

    There’s nothing wrong with Alias or some comfy couch movie watching, but I knew I was intentionally choosing a sedated state(wake up you sleepy soul), it was incredibly easy to not do the work and watch (not write) a story instead.

    Thanks for the post. The Lord was already speaking steadily as I ate my brownies and watched episode 20, He seems to get even louder when He speaks quietly, under the noise.

    Isn’t it good to have people in our life who will ask the question (what are you creating right now?), even if the question is asked through a blog post?

  6. Tom Murphy

    Timely. I needed this today (week, month, semester). I am in a fallow period right now myself. All the more reason I love the pastoring of Russ Ramsey…

    Thank you Matt for sharing!

  7. Zack

    Ah, thank you. I needed this as well; mostly, to know that someone else is going through it as a way to validate that something is wrong.

    I have to recommend a book that has helped me explore the fear you speak of as I see it in myself and call it what it is: When People are Big and God is Small, by Ed Welch (http://www.amazon.com/When-People-Are-Big-Small/dp/0875526004)

    It’s changed my life to realize that I have long idolized others in hopes that their opinions will help me build my own kingdom. And this as way of life has given me reason that I should give my heart to fear of failure and shame, rather than to the Lord and receive grace beyond my deserving.

    The cure is to sit at the feet of the One Who Created All as he talks about the himself and the wonderful things he’s done. If my reverence were continually spent on him, I wouldn’t have enough to spend elsewhere. I wouldn’t allow what he’s asked of me to become less important than pandering to a crowd for their opinion – of work I haven’t even done yet – as is my custom, illogical though it is.

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with your story or not, and with making a reality of your service, but it certainly has with mine.

    Grace and peace, truly…

  8. Lisa

    This is what I needed this morning – feeling discouraged about my writing that seems to go nowhere, overwhelmed by pressing volunteer commitments, weary of the continual grind. And the snow is falling again this morning outside my window …. this winter never seems to end. Your post and that song was hope and encouragement and the gentle breath of the Spirit. Thank you.

  9. James Witmer

    Wow, thank you, Matt, and thank you Scott and Zach, for reminding me that I’m not alone. For putting words (all three of you) to the exact places I spend much of my life.

    I’m grateful. Dig on!

  10. miles365

    This song, coupled with this post, reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.”

  11. JamaRowena

    So, so long since I wrote a poem… over a year. And I feel its (writing’s) absence. Going on solo retreat tomorrow… I will see what falls out. I am reminded of these words as well:

    How To Be a Poet
    BY WENDELL BERRY
    (to remind myself)

    i

    Make a place to sit down.
    Sit down. Be quiet.
    You must depend upon
    affection, reading, knowledge,
    skill—more of each
    than you have—inspiration,
    work, growing older, patience,
    for patience joins time
    to eternity. Any readers
    who like your poems,
    doubt their judgment.

    ii

    Breathe with unconditional breath
    the unconditioned air.
    Shun electric wire.
    Communicate slowly. Live
    a three-dimensioned life;
    stay away from screens.
    Stay away from anything
    that obscures the place it is in.
    There are no unsacred places;
    there are only sacred places
    and desecrated places.

    iii

    Accept what comes from silence.
    Make the best you can of it.
    Of the little words that come
    out of the silence, like prayers
    prayed back to the one who prays,
    make a poem that does not disturb
    the silence from which it came.

  12. Danielle

    Thank you for this essay. I’m more of a scientist than a writer, but the daily digging holds true in my world as well, and is a good reminder today.

    I’ve joined the National Poetry Writing Month Challenge (a poem a day during April- Napowrimo.net), and this served as inspiration for today’s poem, as well.

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