You can fight back from injury, full of that feeling of the fire in you to fight back against the pain–pain in your body, in your life, in your past over all the chances you weren’t given–and still end up hopeless.
I sit on the deck in the setting sun, pushing back against the self-pity that traps the weak who feel imprisoned by something in life they think they didn’t deserve.
The sad truth is I hurt my ankle in Oct last year. And you might not think a sprained ankle would matter so much. People have lost legs, lost eyes, lost sons. I lost running in the morning and walking without a hobble for a few months–and I even knew it’d be a danger to my equilibrium, my motivation and sense of purpose, not to mention my balance. And it was all that, in more ways than one.
I’d even vowed to keep working out. But time passed and it wasn’t healing, by 6 months later, I’d lost all momentum. My energy, my routine, my stamina, even my motivation–to stay in shape, and to write my book–it all fell flat. And certainly that wasn’t the only reason, but I even faltered at work. All my hope of improving and getting stronger was gone, and everything I used to rely on to empower my writing. Poof!
It sounds ridiculous, I know, to let my physical life influence my mental and emotional, let alone the spiritual aspect. And to let it derail my writing? But it did. Apparently, I’m a big ball of fragile interconnected threads and you pull one and it all gets tangled. I don’t want to believe that’s, but it’s true.
And as I sat watching the light change and listening to the robins call their families home for the night, I felt obligated to believe I could master this though I didn’t know if it was really possible.
I deny the truth and believe I can let some things slide and it won’t affect me. Then, when it inevitably does, I get frustrated and force things, and then get angry when I inevitably slack off, which creates a cycle of dissatisfaction. I know the ease of getting into bad habits, and I’ve begun to resent the taskmaster me.
Even before the ankle, it wasn’t proper responsibility.
Yes, something has to change. I watch the sunset. First it’s orange, then pink and finally purple, and I think again how amazing God is, though I don’t see any sign that says “made by God.”
As with so many things, the mystery makes it even more beautiful.
I sit on the deck watching it through the high trees. Photographers call it “framing” when the central object is seen through something in the foreground creating a frame around it. An object’s natural beauty is heightened through obstruction.
As Wendell Berry said, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Or as Chesterton said, “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.” I’ve had to learn slowly it’s the pain that obstructs and constrains life that makes it meaningful.
And responsibilities are what make freedom possible.
Maybe the key is what Viktor Frankl talks about in Man’s Search for Meaning–the good tensionbetween freedom and responsibility.
The sunset is over so quickly. I hear Ellie playing violin down in the practice room. Every time she comes to the beautiful minor chord in the song, I wish it could last longer, but it never does. Maybe tension also has to continually resolve for it to be beautiful.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson said. “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.” The low sun slants through the clouds and sends its color through the trees and I’m thinking of light bending and rainbows caused by refraction, and how music delights by bending the limits of a song’s established structure.
The devil is opposed to balance and would love to deflate the tension and take me out. But he can’t. It isn’t his call. It’s mine. I’ve been given all authority through Christ.
And if this storytelling life isn’t all about balancing tension and resolve, then I don’t know what it’s about. Don’t I know the freedom that comes in responsibility? When do injured ankles change the truth? With a little pain God brings relief. With a little darkness eventually he brings light. He ordains the contrasts of life to make it rich and meaningful.
To imagine the bland pain-free existence I think I’d prefer…. No injuries to remind me what it means to feel good and strong and healthy. What if instead of complaining next time I’m thrown off by life’s minor chords, I instead partner with God in his process of bringing both good and bad, and believe it’s not so bad when he’s in charge of it?
What else do we have to do to enjoy all of life but to let him be in charge of it all? Like Job, simply to decide to follow him no matter what.
And even now, paying attention to him, I might get out in front of the momentary darkness and feel the light already coming again. …
You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. – Anne Lamott
I suppose this is my song for today…
So we chose the house 4 years ago largely for its amazing backyard. I envisioned writing retreats where we’d sit out on the deck and talk shop, then zip-line down to the tea house for cheese and wine.
There’s a great winding path the previous owners created that includes many features along the way. Currently, the features are mole holes and an overgrown flagstone waterfall plastered with leaves and ivy vines.
But the stones are there.
And it seems to me an essential stone in the foundation of the writing process is this recognition that we are all of earth, and therefore subject to its gravity. As we hear the call to come build our wings, eventually we must accept that we’ll have to continue to show up for the building process. That’s where we gain the trust in God who rules the earth and the sky. That’s where he asks those of us who accept this journey not to become something more, but to become less, to empty so he can fill us with his new weightless grace.
I walk the old, leaf-strewn path and I believe that is happening. And as my gratitude for that grows I find the trust I need to continue showing up for the building every day.
That’s the writing life we’re all on together–that’s being on the path.
And maybe like the backyard of my dreams, it’s not the end result that will make it so worthwhile. It’s appreciating we’re all in a process, like a big old ship slowly getting there that makes the whole experience a place worth being, a story worth telling.
And maybe trusting who’s behind that process is the way to a life worth sharing….
“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….”
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.
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.
Commitment was needed to even find away 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!
“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 believe―life 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.”
This week, I've been looking for a new used car. Nothing too fancy. On top of slaving to finish the basement before the darkness of winter saps my energy, my wife has helped me realize that I need new wheels. Now that I'm driving Ellie to school, my 1990 Honda Civic wagon, beauty that she is, doesn't cut it. No airbags, no all-wheel drive, no traction control, no anti-lock brakes. I told her there's no remote start or heated seats either, but she didn't seem to mind that so much. Or the fact that I've been driving it to work all these years.
Now adding value to a house, increasing features, upgrading a car, I'm acutely aware how all this comes with a price. And there are lessons here for a spiritual writer. I can relate these things to the depth and "value" I'm striving to infuse into my life and writing.
Generally, simpler is better. Ask me how much trouble the Honda or the unfinished basement has been. None. But like with God and in writing, when it's time to develop beyond where you were, there are costs. And I think I'm getting a better sense of what those costs really look like. I believe learning to write well is like learning a musical instrument. It's also like learning to hear and follow God's leading. What we're really talking about in all these things is deepening relationship. Learning to hear. And respond. I read a great little article by a car enthusiast (which I am not, yet) that said, in essence, "You can't really love a simple car." I know what he means. Once you realize you're in a limited relationship, you have to develop it. Or sell it.
I know that once I'm finished with my basement (and my novel, for that matter) I'll appreciate it in a whole new way. So what I've had to do is evaluate the costs. We're not going crazy. Just the next step. Still, the personal costs involved in these investments are extensive.
Time– For relationships. For other involvements. A strained schedule.
Money– Reduced income from time spent on this. Reduced future income for neglecting that potential current income. Increased expenses.
Effort– Inevitable challenges. Need for increased awareness of those. Decreased mental space/sanity. Decreased productivity in other areas. Increased frustration.
Stasis– Need to find a new "normal." Find balance. Rediscover new perspective. New priorities.
Reach– Impact to reputation. Decreased ability to pursue other goals/relationships.
That's just off the top of my head, but this short list of costs shows something to me. It shows that at least on paper, the investment may not be in my best interest. Depending on the specifics, pushing for progress in any relationship–whether human or machine, living space or written word–can be perilous, as advancing into any new territory. Yet not deepening my relationship with these things, while safer, is not better. Considering the featureless Honda, it's not even safer. Come to think of it, none of these things really would be "safer" without development. They'd be simply lesser. Underperforming. Incomplete.
I know. Evaluating like this is something of a luxury–it seems I do it less and less (probably another area to develop a deeper relationship with). I don't see many Twitterers or Facebookers or even bloggers doing it much; Google brain damage is our unstoppable epidemic, after all. We have to fight to think, force quit all the applications we're running, and reboot to process where we're really headed. Otherwise we'll keep clicking the mouse, like mice clicking that loaded trap, and wind up tail up, out of time. Time is all we have. What relationships are we spending it on?
But the other thing this list shows me is that all of these relationships are interconnected. They'll end up saying something about me (and not only in my Facebook pics). My ability to reach people and form more relationships is dependent on effectively evaluating the costs and choosing only the next step that's right in front of me with the relationships at hand. If I try to skip over a couple steps or form new relationships beyond my reach, I'll find the curse rather than the blessing. God, keep me from overextending my reach!
Anyway, I hope you find some of this useful in your thoughtful time. But more importantly, make sure you break away to think about the relationships you want to deepen over the next few months. Then look at each week and decide the costs you're willing to pay to get there. Are they reasonable? Can you pay them? And what are the real costs?