that is joined to the soul of stone;
Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless,
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music….”
I had one of these thoughts yesterday when I rediscovered the road of my dreams.
It was hidden in a forest of trees, just a side road, one of the many we passed in the car on the way home from a day at the beach.
The girls had run and we’d flown kites and played in the sand and it was warm and wonderful. And when we left, I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I wasn’t looking for that road―I didn’t even remember it was in my head until I saw it, and I can’t recall now why it had become the road of my dreams. But it did at some point, and very clearly. And though I’ve lost the specifics, the feeling it left is powerful.
I must have been very young.
We passed it so quickly, and as I looked and remembered, the feeling washed over me in that rush of memory’s silent tidal wave and I could no more help it than I could help the feeling of calm listening to the sea. I sat watching the highway we were on, trying to remember where this feeling originated, but the farther the side road slipped behind us, the more I knew it was gone.
It wasn’t especially sad. I was happy to have been reminded of this, even if it was mostly gone now. And for some reason, it brought to mind the challenge I face and have now grown accustomed to every morning. When I sit down to write, even when I want to, part of me doesn’t. Even when I begin well and I’m enjoying it, that other part is wishing it was over, waiting to begin what I think of as my “real business of living.” And when I don’t want to write, which is most the time, I still want to. Part of me wishes desperately I wanted to, and it’s like there are two of me, split right down the center.
“What I want to do, I don’t do. What I don’t want to do, I do.”
Is this always the way it is? Or is it just me?
And then I think, is this split personality, this double-mindedness healthy?
The road is stretching out, cars passing, and something tells me I’m not the only one. I’ve known so many writers working desperately to finish books who haven’t yet. And so many more who don’t seem to try very hard who are finishing new books all the time. The ones who try hard and get stuck suffer more than the ones who don’t try so hard and seem to have several other things going while writing. For the finishers it seems like finishing a big chore or a business deal, and not to demean it too much, but with so many things going at once, their devotion seems inarguably less single-minded.
Could single-mindedness be a handicap?
The mossy green forest streams by and I remember how I’ve just talked about balancing input and output for a coaching class. Yes, that’s right. I must have some imbalance happening. My habit is to get too intense, too focused. And that narrows my scope to the point where I’m insufficiently tuned into the rest of life, the input. I need to ease into this memory of the glade, let the calm serenity envelope me in the still coolness that would hold me if I let it.
The overgrown trees could just as easily choke out any light as create a perfect tunnel calling me into a nearly forgotten childhood memory. I have no idea where or when I saw it, but the impression transcends that and speaks of comfort beyond any other. It’s an invitation to adventure, a home greater than my own. It isn’t the glade itself so much as what it represents. But the desire for it is so strong I know if I took that road, it’d be nothing as wonderful as my dream.
With the shock of cold water, the insight connects: this is why I don’t write.
When I’m writing, the words are never as good as my dream of them. And when I don’t write, the longing to get out my thoughts eats me alive.
Isn’t the unexplored place required for truly great work?
If it were too easy to write, I might not push for greater words. I could be satisfied with a formula that people and publishers enjoyed, the replication of a previously-trod path. It could be such a welcoming, wide space.
But it wouldn’t be the glade. It’d be a smooth, paved road without the same adventure of discovery. Too familiar.
I’d soon long for the freedom of that foreign way.
Wishing I “took the path less traveled by…”
Commitment was needed to even find a way to what I could call my writing. But to recall the glade and give it my attention when no one else but me can sense it? That’s a different commitment. My family might think I’m crazy for pursuing this, if all they can see is the costs, the sacrifices and my absence.
Maybe it is foolish to take the unfamiliar path. All the commitment it requires, what advantage could it really hold?
I’ve committed to the work, to suffering, to pursuing slowness, but I’ve needed this commitment to freedom as well, this understanding that surpasses commitment. I sense a need to accept the anguish of letting go the easy way, the familiar road, to take the road less traveled.
I know I resist in part because this isn’t comfortable. It makes even me a stranger to myself. But rediscovering a truer path once again, that’s a journey that never gets old.
I don’t know what’s down that path. But yesterday I vowed to find out, come what may. And when I find it, the darkening path rediscovered, its use will be unmistakable. All I need is the commitment to an unbridled respect for freedom.
“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.”
There’s purpose beyond committing to what’s purposeful, what’s “respectable.” Sometimes rejecting time-honored practices and established roads is necessary. For its only in freedom we rediscover unestablished paths that no one has ever seen.
The freedom to take an unexplored path establishes the vital space for a full life.
And like any artist, a writer requires both commitment to his duty and to freedom, both paths are needed.
It’s never been an either/or proposition. It’s both/and:
Get your chores done. And go explore.
Take the way unexplored. And come back to the main thoroughfare.
Honor your heritage. And follow the wild goose.
Follow both paths and live!
Many people believe we are living in one of the most stressful times in history. The stress isn’t about being eaten by dinosaurs or how we’ll escape the marauding Vikings. People are now eaten by schedules and crushing poverty.
A friend of mine said recently the modern family is living life at an abusive pace.
And writing takes such a long time.
I listened to Berry’s Port William stories again and thought how long it takes to get as good as he is, the observations and control he has developed, to be able to capture what he does:
“Afterward they watched him from the windows, for his fury had left an influence. The house was filled with a quiet that seemed to remember with sorrow the quiet that had been in it before Thad had come.”
Such a patient listening. How does one achieve this?
Not yet sharp enough to realize I’ve just passed one.
“Whatever the circumstances may be, that Holy Innocent Eternal Child must be in contact with His Father….I have to see that the Son of God is manifested in my mortal flesh” (My Utmost, Aug. 8, 9)
I leave the book open and peruse the plants growing on the deck from the pots we’ve lined up, the deck that needs cleaning and sealing before the rain returns. The Son of God, born in my mortal flesh, has been my new reality for almost 3 years now. It was there before, but not in any true way, any decided and humble way. And now, now that I feel his love and choose to respond to it by rising to it and being with him, is he getting the chance to manifest himself in me? Or am I still perpetually moving too quickly on to the next thing?
There are beans and tomatoes, zinnias and pumpkins, and none of them are hurrying.
If there is no room in my life for this essential listening, how can I expect to ever write the things that can hardly be felt, let alone spoken?
And then the obvious hidden spark drops into my head: He is in those plants over there I’m moving so quickly by. Some would argue that’s pantheism. But God save us if we can’t see that he must hold all things together, every atom and fiber of this creation bears his miraculous fusing. And the difference between seeing him and seeing a plant is everything.
He’s in those berries as he’s in me. And my eyes are not so much choosing to see as they are choosing not to continue in blindness.
Let me not forget or become too lazy to know when I am seeing you, or too fearful to know what my own spirit tells me of you.
God, calm me. Still my life and let me listen. Show me your life in me and lead me to the ever stiller communion with you.
And let me share what you would have me share.
“I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” –G.K. Chesterton
(on my small, slow faith…)
Sometimes I feel like a wisp of wind next to the overwhelming breeze of others’ faith.
The day started out well. I had a good idea to let go of all expectation and my usual comparisons, and spend my morning just receiving what might come just by being still and open rather than my usual too-aggressive planning and attacking of “the list.”
It seemed purposeful not to be quite so purposeful that way.
I turned on Freedom and settled into writing for an hour on this and that (and yes, even on the novel). But then the morning began passing. And I did write, but mostly spent the time rereading and catching up to where I was in my last writing because it’d been a while since I’d written that and I couldn’t quite find the line of it, let alone the cadence. And there was none really, so I was getting frustrated and trying to revise paragraph after paragraph and soon there were a bunch of jumbled thoughts over 8 pages and not much new written and the hour was up.
It was time to go to work.
I got up for more coffee, trying to put it behind me. There’s always tomorrow. It’s not about progress. Just enjoy the process and keep going slow. You’ll remember it more quickly tomorrow.
But as I tried to move on, it just wasn’t working.
My brain was obsessing. I kept thinking back to the words I couldn’t quite get to. Why couldn’t I capture them? Somehow I’d lost the entire point in the brambles. I knew what I wanted to say, or I thought I did, but it wouldn’t come. And what did I do? What I always end up doing.
I pushed. I tried to work harder at it.
I don’t have to tell you how well that worked.
The truth is, I’m embarrassed, ashamed to admit I can’t practice what I preach. I know it’s just human nature. We want to be effective. And we think we can if we just try. Maybe too often we’ve gotten lucky and it’s worked, or we think our efforts have led to progress that really just got us further down the road in a direction we didn’t need to go. I think that’s happened so often with me, I could easily get really depressed thinking too much about it.
8 pages of drivel. And nowhere further along. Can I let go and just stop focusing on progress, whatever concept I might have of that? Believe in the process of sitting, receiving and listening? Read something and not compulsively try to improve it?
This curious obsession with being useful, being a talented writer, it’s trying to make what I do the measure of who I am. It’s that simple, Mick. You’re not what you do. You’re who he made you. Quit trying to change that. He likes you. Just sit there and receive what he has for you today. Spend tomorrow’s hour just doing that, k?
Oh, help me, God! For thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve.
Forsake it not: it is thine own,
Though weak, yet longing to believe.
“I must write on the novel again.
It’s got to be finished. All it needs is my attention.”
And that was as far as I got last night before falling asleep. And in listening to That Distant Land on my run this morning, Wendell Berry’s collection of Port William short stories about the colorful folks in a small Kentucky community around the turn of the century puts me in mind of that simple fact again. The simple romance of Tol Proudfoot and Miss Minnie Quinch is so perfectly described and articulated, and his use of the poems recited by her students at the pie auction–so perfectly fitting in context and content–the situation seems more real than reality. With such a precise appreciation for human nature and country life, his insight makes you wish it really happened.
I should give a copy to Cec.
And it puts me in mind of the key: When you see it, your job is to respond. Appreciating Berry, I have only to share what I saw. Writing, creating art–any work, really–is a simple matter of responding. We think our task is to improve upon what we’ve seen or experienced, to augment reality in some way, as if we could. Being response-able, and holding that state while we resound in admiration is what allows us to absorb the inspiration and insights, and then translate and transmit them through our own filters.
Why am I constantly forgetting this?
I do know why. We get clouded up and the clarity of our response in words and fashioned images gets thwarted. Too often we think we have to be different or better or less encumbered than we are and we miss our opportunities.
“Not skilled enough.” “Not smart enough.” “Not enough time.”
Poverty of soul kills the work, not any lack in us. When I agree with the opposition, I give him my life and allegiance. And then I have the stupidity to pray for more blessing of these things without having used the abundance already in my possession.
And now that I’ve seen this, my only job is to speak what I know. And in the doing, I’ll find more ability, more skill, and more time. I know this because it’s what happens. All I need is to trust that there’s a process underway and when I show up, I progress. In the listening and slowing and awakening, the responding is inevitable. And in merely being open to life, my work is enabled.
Today, I will simply show up to receive and then share what I see. That’s enough work for one day.
“This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and lightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The moment has stayed encased in glass since I was probably 15 or 16.
I don’t even remember what caused the argument. I’ve kept the memory in the dark, cocooned since the day I saw the blind fury in my brother’s eyes. His full mighty pain slashed out and what I saw behind his mask of rage hurt more than anything. Confusion. Neither of us knew anything of dealing with explosive feelings—even of the common kind—fear, inferiority and shame.
Where had it come from? And why think of it now?
I sit here in this time warp thinking back to the family room fight I can barely remember, but I recall how terrified I was and how hot tears sprang from my eyes. Growing up, we’d had plenty of fights, but this was different, lethal. I wept for him, for his future family, what I feared would be much more suffering. I cried for the role I’d played in his history with my criticism and cruelty.
The memory has since brought me to tears again and though apologies were made and life goes on, revealing family dynamics doesn’t conceal scars.
Such history is always new. So what else is here? What use might it serve?
This is the work, this choosing to see beauty in pain, and its specific elements. Why should pain so often be required? Something originated there and we experienced it firsthand in flashing adrenaline, that familiar gasping, a constricting around the throat.
He hit me and though unexpected, I know I deserved it. I’ll feel it at times at the piano in passages that don’t seem to hold any particular charge. Any conflict can uncover it, even indirect. I’ll feel that surge of fear and my heart coils to flee. So many confrontations, pain’s wild claws bared, and that animal awareness mashes out peace, displacing the soft wax of calmer moments.
I feel it now, twisting its shape again of these unspoken words.
Nearly 25 years ago now, my too-hot scrutiny finally pushed the simmering too far, and cumulatively, I can profess to know this now, that I didn’t know then and couldn’t articulate, how fear snaps the senses awake, icy pellets of rain in the face, the metallic sting of electricity.
Doesn’t all beauty birth in pain? Why else would it carry its own flavor and smell?
“God’s job is not to make sick people healthy…. God’s job is to make sick people brave.” – Harold Kushner
In effort, in difficult circumstance, isn’t struggle with opposition necessary for the rare fortunate result called beauty?
And beauty doesn’t arise in all conflict, but in the fight for goodness amongst great evil. In the valiance of truth contrasted with the dark lie. In the slender stalk rising from the impossibly polluted, irrepressible through iron and concrete, through tangle of challenges, the soft red bud somehow slowly emerging through inhospitable soil.
Beauty is the life that should never have survived.
He struck and whatever went before or came after, I sucked in a breath, suddenly aware that it was just life, its challenges and terrors too impossible to be believed, in all its complexity, and how could any beauty be possible. In later years, I’d experience a panic that seemed it could nearly constrict my throat for good. And I feel the weight of this herenow perfectly balanced in the mysterious symmetry of influences between past and present.
What should I do with it and where should it go now? Should I lift my hand from the jar and let the transformation free? Would it glisten in the warming day? Could it attract attention and be appreciated for what it is, the fusion of ideal conditions, such singular form?
If only we knew the pain that went into every micron, every filament of creation… Wouldn’t our bodies burst with the beauty?
The question is ringing in my heart: how much can you bear?
The pained faces of the starving African children in Saturday morning commercials. The hard anger of so many lives without hope.Maybe the only question is what to do with it. To not grow deadened to it, yes. But what more?
I hear my older daughter reading in the other room, the younger listening. So innocent, unaware. The energy buzzing in my spine won’t forget. I can’t move on to busy work. I must use the essential lesson.
Beneath every lesser impulse, at the bottom, I want us to live. And I want to live this and feel this and share this: don’t be surprised, my soul, by opposition while fighting for birth through this long tunnel of life.
Why shouldn’t we find trouble? Searing pain? Dragons? Fire? Fearsome reflective pools revealing the myriad deaths in all our selfish desires before reaching the goal? Why wouldn’t we have to walk on the fragile skulls of the billion explorers who died in the myriad grimy alcoves?
Why wouldn’t there be thousands opposing us reaching that light?
And why should there be any light at all?
Can I ignore the bald impossibility of such ideal conditions? Can I withhold a single word of unbridled praise for this chance? Protected, suspended in just the right balance for this very experience of what he knew would best teach me the essential truth, could this be anything but another step toward the brilliant treasured world beyond?
When you’ve seen beauty arising from your pain you know it: there’s no answer but that we must be sustained every step by something so powerful, so common, so holy. Such ridiculous beauty flourishing abundant everywhere should not exist.
I cried then and I cry again now. Men learn so young how to bottle their light. But in the pressure, they learn to appreciate stark contrasts. The concentration that squeezes out all else. The darker the tunnel, the brighter the light becomes. This is the struggle I want to live.
As David prayed, “Unite my heart to fear thy name.”
Isn’t this the hope that spurs me continually on, to still seek when all other lights have flickered out?
Everywhere remain depths unplumbed. Who needs the hope our experiences have brought?
We must walk on through the dark, the pain, the inconsolable beauty. We must fight to share our discoveries. And we must venture to the places others would rather not venture, against the pain of even the strongest opposition.