Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

On Process – My Writing Life – Step 1: Set Out to Return

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The beginning is in the end. And the end is returning.

The idea of turning again back to the place you started from, it has a particular irreplaceable merit.

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Sheri, Ellie, Charlotte, and I set out on a walk, like every walk, from the home we’ll never stop cleaning up and repairing. We leave it behind for just a while to seek adventure and see the world that beckons beyond the front door. The familiar falls away, and our feet step down into a new place we don’t know. Our neighbors and strangers have come out following the morning downpour to wrestle their yards into their original designs, and apparently, none include knee-high weeds or crabgrass.

We walk to the Catholic graveyard because it’s a place of contrasts, beautiful and spooky, and full of very old and very recent residents. Sometimes we read the headstones, and other times we appreciate the flowers. Today, we’re just trying to get back because there’s too much to do back at home before our guests arrive.

“We need to get back,” Sheri says, and much as I want to stay, I know she’s right. “There’s much to do.”

I want to protest, to stay out and play in the glistening day. But I say, “Okay, let’s go,” because I know submitting quickly is the best way to promote happy wives, and also to continuing the play all the way home and beyond.

And oh, the older I get, the more I know that keeping the play going is pretty much the whole magic trick.

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Or maybe it’s better to say, staying in the play. That abiding is a mindset, of course, an intention of continuous practice, with just enough awareness to the conceptual world in the midst of the actual steps and tangible responsibilities. That balance is a metaphor for any meaningful relationship–it’s my marriage, my family, my writing, our house.

What you want is never what you think it is until you return to the start. Yes, of course that’s hard to understand, but why shouldn’t it be? You have to always give up something real, submit to it, and return to that initial design, to preserve what you really want.

You can’t see what you really want. And of course that makes it hard to submit.

I don’t want the fun walk in the graveyard to end. But that’s not what I really want. It’s deeper: I want the adventure to never end. And I want to do what I see as my job, my constant task as a husband and a dad and a writer–to keep the adventure going. Yet I can’t do that if I see this momentary returning as a subtraction, a quenching of adventure. I can only affirm and submit to my partner and the more important friendship we share.

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You’d think this wouldn’t be such a big deal, wouldn’t you? It’s always a bigger deal than we think.

Because it’s always about more than the surface issue. If I can remember that I don’t want to resist love but to submit to it and continue the adventure, I can respond well here. And I can connect up this inspiration to writing: we must venture out, add to our lives escape and exercise and fun and so many other needed things. But we must also return and realize that has its place, and it isn’t subtraction if we’re fully submitted to it.

Returning, too, can be adventure.

We get to the end of the road and turn around, and I see the sunlight fading through the trees, slanting off the wet limbs and reflecting the multicolored sky. The girls aren’t as resistant and have already found how beautiful the light is now ahead of us as we retrace our steps to crest the low hill and turn back. And suddenly, I’m reminded of a T.S. Eliot quote I’ve always loved, which feels in some way its been waiting until now to speak:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

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It’s from his “Four Quartets,” written after his conversion to Christianity and understanding of salvation. He continues:

“Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”

I’ve said it so often to writers I’ve coached, hoping it’d make its way from my consciousness to my lived experience, that our job is simply to follow in submission to the call of inspiration. And at the end, when we read back over, the venture will prove out what the initial design intended, and what we had forgotten to intend. We can’t see it on that first go around. And that’s as it should be.

I want to stake my life on what I’ve returned to on this walk, the surprise of it, and to have it live forever in my heart. The true adventure.

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Returning always means submission, not merely to a spouse or always specific to a person, but to an idea. Sub (under, from below, up) + mitto (to send). From sub+mitto comes “upsend,” which creates our other key definition of submit: to propose or promote a plan. Submitting also means promoting. And in spiritual terms, it means placing oneself under a sending mission.

To go out and let go. And to return to the beginning. What we intend is not what we mean to intend. We must be brought back to ourselves after we’ve submitted and gone out. Being sent is a gift that inspires and intends a return. It’s added, included in the fabric of the eternal tapestry. And we circle back and know our line has been included because we heard and went and trusted

in submission.

Someone said if things aren’t good yet, then you can know this isn’t the end. Stop. Turn around. Start back.

I take her hand and we walk home together behind the girls, the light breeze from their steps lifting their hair in expectation, and the blinding light turning it to waves of willing fire.

“If it be true that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and the artist to the ring where everything comes round again.”

– William Butler Yeats

For the higher purpose,

mick

The Writer’s Commitment to Freedom

“Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man
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…
.”

T.S. Eliot

Many thoughts you have to let go as soon as you have them. They aren’t useful. A few involve more in having them and you know you need to let them work on you to change your point of view or improve your outlook, or whatever. Yet, they’re still utilitarian mostly. But then there are others that are like eternal spaces to live in and hard as you might try, you know it will take more than you currently are to be worthy of them, and you sense you’d better not sneeze too hard or move too fast when you’re in them for fear of bursting the membrane and making them dissipate, so fragile and holy they seem.

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.

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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?

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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.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

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.

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods…”

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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!

“Religion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believelife is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are suppose to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.”
 ―Frederick Buechner

Mick