Be An Ant (or Personifying Persistence)

be an ant 3 leaf cuttersIn 2001, my corporate job and I parted ways.

Don’t you like how I said that? Actually, I got fired. Which stung a little. But the truth was that both of us – my corporate job and me – were not happy. It was just as well that we broke up.

My dream was to teach the mindful movement of Nia. I wanted to help people – big rooms full of sweaty smiling people – get happier and healthier. Back then I had only a couple of classes in the evenings. So in between learning Nia routines and teaching twice a week, I worked with my husband, Frank, renovating old houses.

Here’s what I know about renovating old houses: nothing.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I know that it’s messy, dirty work and that there are power tools involved. I know that Frank takes houses so heinously ugly that I can barely look at them and makes them into homes I pine for. That’s what I know. Not much of a resume, I grant you. But I was sleeping with the owner, so he took me on to do unskilled labor and make lunches that I brought to the site in the kids’ little red wagon.

One of the first things Frank taught me when we were working together was “be an ant.” He would get us started on a project – move all this lumber from here to there, say, or scrape this linoleum off of the kitchen floor, or unload this gravel from the back of the truck – and I would kind of wilt, wide-eyed at the prospect. “Be an ant,” he’d say. “Little by little. Just do what’s right in front of you. Take one more board, scrape this square foot, shovel this shovelful. Don’t look at the whole thing. It will just make you lose heart and energy. Just be an ant and do it one little bit at a time.”

Be an ant. It was simply amazing what we could accomplish with this one little instruction.

Stinky, disgusting rooms were transformed into lovely spaces. Falling down porches or odd concrete platforms became inviting places to sit and relax. Wildly overgrown yards became welcoming, landscaped gardens. All just by being an ant.

One thing about this approach: one of the ants has to have a vision. In this case, it was Frank. He could see clearly the house that was waiting to be uncovered under all the filth, decay, and strange decorating decisions. (Green floral paper and mirrors on the dining room walls? An outdoor hose bib in the stairwell? How do these things happen?) All I could manage was to put my head down and scrape the next square of lino, but Frank? Frank knew what we were creating and every day we took one more step toward that. Frank was our visionary ant.

The principle of being an ant is as true in our bodies and our lives as it is in renovating houses. But we have to be visionary ants. First, imagine what you want to do, create, feel, be and then take a step toward that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small step that you take. It doesn’t matter if all you do is write about where you want to be in your journal – or on the back of your grocery list. It doesn’t even matter if it’s the wrong step or one you retrace later as long as it is an honest step toward what you want. What matters is taking a step consistently, persistently, every day.

Whatever you want to do — eat more healthfully, get stronger and more flexible, create a new career, travel around the world, whatever it is – be an ant. Do what’s in front of you. Take one step in the direction you want to go.

These days, I don’t work with Frank anymore. I teach more classes now and I’m writing both blog and book. I never really got the hang of the power tools or carpentry and keeping the site organized and bringing lunch in the wagon only got me so far.

But I think of Frank’s lesson to “be an ant” every day. Whether I’m weeding the front garden or creating a new routine or writing an essay, I often look at the whole project and my heart sinks. It’s so much to do! How will I do it all? I’m not sure what the steps in the middle and end will be. What about when I get to things I don’t know how to do? Looking at the whole thing can be a spirit killer, let me tell you.

Then I take a breath and say to myself, “Be an ant. Be an ant. Be an ant.”

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11 comments
  1. joy said:

    EXACTLY what I needed to hear today (and everyday… is there a way to get this particular post redelivered everyday to my inbox, lol). My favorite line – and crucial piece – “One thing about this approach: one of the ants has to have a vision.” I’m definitely a “tire meets the road” ant. I look forward to hearing more about how to “see” the artistry under/in/behind the overwhelming decay. 😉 Love you tons and see you SOON! big hugs

    • Right on, Joy. They are two very different and essential skills. Often, we are better at one than the other, which encourages us to spend time doing the thing that comes less naturally to us. See you soon!!

  2. Blue said:

    I love this post, Susan! I really believe in persistence but I haven’t heard it put in the way you wrote it today. Be an ant. Yes. I remember when I went back to studying classical guitar after an 11 year hiatus from reading music and studying seriously. For over a decade, I created my own songs and did other things. When I came back to classical guitar, I was overwhelmed. My teacher at the time taught me a great lesson on how to break up the work into smaller bits. I had a 4 page Bach piece I wanted to learn. Not one line was the same –each line was like reinventing the wheel and it was so discouraging. What she did was make me a schedule. She got out my Bach score and wrote on it:

    Monday you work on line 1.
    Tuesday: lines 2-3
    Wednesday: line 4
    and so on so that by the end of the week, I slowly learned the whole piece. It was a great lesson that I did not have to try to memorize the whole thing too soon. One line a day I could handle. That is my being an ant story. Thanks! Blue

    • Great story, Blue! This is it exactly. Little by little, as Frank says. Well done! xo

  3. Madeline said:

    Love this, Susan. I love all of your posts – so thoughtful and full of wisdom. I really miss coming to your Nia classes. My shoulder isn’t allowing me to do the faster repetitive movements right now. When I try to come back it gets flared up and I’m trying to listen to the body more than I’ve ever been able to . . . slow stretching and strengthening is the mantra for now.. . . quite ant-like and difficult to appreciate the slow progress – but it’s there and thanks for reinforcing a lesson I really really need to absorb. I’ll be back! Best, Madeline

    • Thank you Madeline, I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the posts and that you are taking the time to heal. Whenever you’re ready to come back, you do know of course, that you can do the arm movements any way that works for you — slower, smaller, not at all being just three possibilities. It’s all about you listening to you. Which it sounds like you’re doing. Well done, ant, well done!

  4. This is so helpful, Susan, thanks. “Be an ant.” I can do that. I’m also always on the lookout for other ants, because Lord knows, what ants can do together is amazing (carry Fritos from picnic blankets, etc). Thanks for being the visionary ant with this post!

    • right on, Whitney. Watching leaf cutter ants in Costa Rica was hypnotic in the sheer volume of work those guys could do together. And yet each one of them was just doing a little — well, carrying eleven times their body weight isn’t little exactly, but you know what I mean. 🙂

  5. I have nothing interesting to say, only that I love this : )

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