Something rather odd about my life right now is how much time and energy I devote to doing things that are outside the realm of my natural inclinations (and, I might add, training and talents). As someone who could happily hole up for hours and days, reading, researching, thinking, writing, completely in my own head, alone, I find myself surrounded by people almost constantly, and often in a position of leadership, influence, or decision-making. Writing is almost about absence, about sublimating the self to the work, but teaching, coaching and parenting require presence — and not only that, they require a presence. I can’t merely observe and reflect, I have to express my observations verbally, often immediately, without time to weigh my words, in response to whatever is happening in the moment. It’s like doing improv. Some people are born to express themselves in this way. I’ve had to learn it. I’m still learning it. I will never stop learning it. I was a shy child, a tongue-tied adolescent, happy in the company of a best friend rather than a crowd, and I’ve always preferred the scripted scene to the unscripted one. I wish I were a bigger personality, sometimes. I wish I liked tap-dancing in the spotlight.
But what can I say? I’ll just have to go on being myself.
One of my favourite professors in undergrad was so painfully shy that you almost had to strain to hear him. He lectured to a spot on the floor, or gazing out the window over our heads, caught up in his train of thought. Yet I remember him well, his gentleness and humanity. So maybe being a presence is inconsequential in comparison to simply showing up, simply being present, being yourself. Why yearn endlessly to be who we are not? Why not, instead, accept, embrace, trust and marvel at who we are, and how even with our limited capacities we are able, nevertheless, to do and be more than we could have imagined?
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing that is more than your own.
I’m trying to write the draft of a new novel, but I’ll be honest with you—I feel no urgency to finish it. What I feel instead is a desire to keep it hidden away, like a secret treehouse where I can go to play and think, and where I feel safe. If I do finish it, it feels like that secret treehouse will vanish. Writing a novel requires time and solitude and there aren’t many moments available to sit and write, due to other things going on in my life; there aren’t many moments when my mind can rest, when I can trust that there won’t be an interruption. So I’m mostly writing at my office on campus, on days when I teach. I write by hand. I don’t seem to care whether the pieces match up, from day to day. I keep finding bits of the story written in random notebooks, forgotten. Who knows what these add up to? The story is a cocoon.
Just because I’ve published books, doesn’t mean publishing more is in my future.*
I’m strangely at peace with this. It is easy not to publish, after all. What would be impossible would be never to write again. I think that I will always write; whether that makes me a writer isn’t my business to decide. Right now, I am someone who tries to teach others how to write. It seems like a way to respond to the insularity and parochialism of Canadian literature—to nurture new voices, to make room for new stories.
The words from an Ann Patchett essay jump into my mind: “People like to ask me whether writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”
This seems to get at the essence of something that matters to me. I don’t want to publish unless I have something to say. Maybe it takes years to gather up something worth saying. Maybe it just does. Life has to be lived, experiences accrue, layer upon layer, and with time these turn into compost. A richness is turned over to feed new growth. I’m at a point in my writing life when I’ve got the skills I need. I know how to write a sentence, how to write dialogue, even how to construct a plot. Now I wait to see whether I have something to say; something worth sharing.
I am trying to memorize a poem, but it’s slow going. My mind can’t seem to hold the sequence of these words and images, maybe because my post-concussion brain is not the powerful instrument it once was (this is something I worry about, even though I tell myself not to worry). I would like to embed this poem into my being. Once you’ve memorized a poem, it becomes a part of you, it enters your cells. Lines of poetry flow from me at odd moments of the day, like mantras.
Part One, Sonnet IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your forehead
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
For heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
-Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy (with one small word change by me, because I didn’t like the original)
Whoa—I didn’t think I’d memorized it, but without referring to the text, I typed it out here, from beginning to end. I will check it over now to make sure everything is accurate, especially the line breaks and punctuation.
Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / and sings the tune without the words, / and never stops at all. -Emily Dickinson (I haven’t memorized all of this poem … but these are the words that popped into my head as I realized that I’d memorized Rilke, above.)
Hope is the thing with feathers. Hope is the thing with feathers.
This is not a bad time, or a sad time, I want to be clear—being at peace, escaping to my cocoon of fiction. I trust that if and when the season changes, I will recognize it. For now, I give myself to the air, to what I cannot hold.
*My kids’ picture book, Jammie Day, comes out this fall; but publishing a children’s book is not the same as publishing an adult book, for many reasons, which I won’t detail here; a discussion for another time.
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
On spiritual food
I have less than 15 minutes in which to write this blog post, so necessity will determine its structure: a list. Here are a few things that have been feeding me spiritually, lately.
Cycling. Cycling at a leisurely pace, on safe trails, through the beauty of our Canadian spring. Biking home from campus, the thought comes like a refrain: this is exactly what I’ve always dreamed of, teaching at a university, being able to bike to and from work, taking life at a pace that does not sap it of its natural rhythms.
Church. I’ve been drawn to church this calendar year. I grew up in the Mennonite church, attended a variety of different churches, in different settings, and despite long lapses and absences, feel at home there, at home in the hymns, the passages of scripture (like poetry, my daughter whispered to me recently), and in the community. My mind and spirit are fed in the Sunday services. It helps to have found a church that appeals to me as someone who seeks and questions, rather than someone who yearns for answers and prescriptions.
Poetry. I can’t say enough about how poetry is feeding me right now. I’m teaching the poetry unit in my creative writing class, and everything about it feels fresh and alive. I’m alert to the necessity of poetry, how it moves toward meaning and mystery in a way no other art form can, quite, except maybe for song.
Music. Playing it, singing it, listening to it. On Saturday, driving home from an event in Chatham (a presentation at a library), I kept myself awake by singing along to opera. Harder than it sounds (or maybe not!). Only possible when alone in a vehicle (as I’m sure my children would assure you).
Friends. Every human connection sparks something in me — gratitude, appreciation, comfort, hope. I am blessed with friendships that are old and have weathered much, and by newer more fragile friendships too. I am aware of a web of connections that opens around me and my family, supporting us.
Dogs. Our dogs, these two formerly homeless animals that we adopted almost five years ago, who took at least three years to settle in and trust us, bless us daily with their in-the-moment animal presence.
This list could go on and on. But I’m about to get on my bike and cycle to campus (in the rain!) to work in my quiet office before teaching this afternoon. And I’m hungry. (Literally and figuratively.)
The deeper I get into this current phase in my life — call it middle age, maybe — the closer I come to an understanding of what it means to be at peace with all these elements and circumstances within a life that cannot be changed. So much that envelopes me right now can’t be shifted. Some things are consequences of choices I’ve made and responsibilities willingly adopted. But others are like the weather — unpredictable and impossible to alter by will or imagination or self-deception.
If it’s raining, it’s raining. You can bring an umbrella and wear rain boots, and that will help, but you can’t by prayer or wishful thinking or desire alter the fact that it is raining. Sometimes you didn’t know it would be raining and you don’t even have an umbrella. This happens too. So life is often about rolling with what’s coming at you — the unexpected — and often it’s the hard kind of unexpected, not the exciting kind.
People you love will suffer, do suffer — and you will suffer when someone you love is hurt or sick or struggling, especially when you feel responsibility of care. There isn’t a solution to this. You can’t not love just because you will suffer too, in loving others in their suffering. Love is love. You have to accept that you can’t fix everything. You have to know what makes you feel comforted, what brings you peace and hope and even joy, and you have to do those things as often as you can. And you have to be prepared to change course quickly, to let the shape of your expected day be shifted by what is happening before you. Resistance in this regard is worse than futile — it will become resentment so fast.
If you can do this, even at the end of a challenging rainy day, you may find yourself saying, This was a good day. Because it was.
Six small, important takeaways from my winter creativity course…
- Set a timer to get started. Give yourself tasks that can be completed in a set amount of time (7 minutes or 12 minutes or 30 minutes); or, give yourself a set amount of time in which to get started, then reassess when the timer goes (you will almost always want to add more time to the clock). Getting started is the hardest part. And you have to get started over and over, so you’d better figure out a way to trick yourself into beginning anew, repeatedly.
2. Don’t worry about making mistakes. In some of my favourite drawings, I made a big mistake early on but completed the drawing anyway. The mistake became an important part of the drawing, often creating depth that perfection couldn’t have; and making the mistake unconsciously freed me as I completed the work.
3. Mix it up. Even if your larger project is all text, and your expertise is writing, take time to draw if you’re feeling cramped or blocked. (Or sing or dance, etc.) Do/make/create something completely different, seemingly unrelated to what you’re working on. Remind yourself how fun it is just to make something.
4. Do the work even when you’re not feeling inspired. This goes back to item number one: just get started. You have an infinite capacity to surprise yourself.
5. Create routines that support your creativity. Perhaps more importantly, create routines that support your own mental health. Get outside. Meditate. Make time for friends. Volunteer. Help others. Share your enthusiasms. And when it’s time to do the work, do it. Don’t procrastinate. See item number one: set that timer and make something.
6. You can’t know what you’re making while you’re making it. “A writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, knows absolutely nothing.” (to paraphrase Donald Barthelme) Remember this and be comforted, take heart. Your job is not to know what you’re making, or to explain what you’re doing, your job is to make something. See item number one.