All is Still

It is extreme early morning, and I have risen to sit in my chair by the fire. It is not a place for lounging, but for writing, because I discovered a while ago that I need the fire, and the view, and the companionable lickings and scratchings of the dogs to feel most at ease, and best able to write. But lately, it is not a productive place. My computer glares its ugly light at me, probably contributing to the addled state of my brain.

I am becalmed, unmoored, directionless, my rudder stayed. 
No words come.

Writing for me is normally a joyful process. The words spin a music in my head, and I record them. I know from experience that showing up to this place at this time is the only way to prod myself to create. But now, nothing is working.

I have written advice to other writers. “Just show up,” I wrote. “Write anything,” I wrote. “The muse will appear,” I wrote. But so far, my own advice has been useless.

My usual methods of procrastination are well known to me and to my husband. I paint a room. I organize my office. I cook. But these methods of avoidance are now habits, and a day spent in routine housework seems like a good day. But it’s not.

My brain feels addled, shallow, inadequate, like the gushing rain from the gutter that doesn’t nourish the ground, but spills over, ripping out plants, washing away the soil. Four books I want to write spin annoyingly around on the fringes of my thoughts, skipping away, avoiding my grasp. Is it the usual process? Or has something gone terribly wrong?

I try to pray. I try to meditate. I struggle to read. But always there is this random, unsatisfying, disjointed flutter of thoughts. No ribbon of continuity, just jagged lightning strikes of nothing very much. My brain flickers from thing to thing without any process. 

I am not particularly interested in conversation. What used to be daily calls to friends have sputtered into sporadic text messages, without context, or any continuity. Lightning strikes brought to relationships.

In this pandemic, time is a limitless illusion, and therefore time does not seem precious. Long-term projects I could be doing: exercising, playing the piano, training the dog, painting a room, are all things I can do tomorrow.

I nap. Sometimes they are long, delicious naps, from which I usually awake with anxiety at the waste of a day. 

I plan to read today. Long, engrossed, serious reading. I need to concentrate on something else. I keep hoping that turning away from screens and to words—my own and anybody else’s—will flip the switch.

But then I think of all the unplanned, unsuspected things that feed a writer’s mind: the sudden whisp of fragrance, the overheard snippet of conversation, the glimpse of light, or the flash of bird wing. These are the food for the inner world that comes out later in the scent of a character, her thoughts, or a description of a scene. I never know when something I’ve lived will come out in my books. But what if I’m no longer really living? What feeds the writing, then?

I walked outside in the unusually warm February sunshine this morning, and the dogs, startled by this break in routine, joyfully came along. I heard birdsong, and road sounds, and the slow dripping of melting snow in the eaves. Last night in the dusk, the sky was rose pink from the departed sun, and I heard, for the first time in months, the bells ringing vespers at the seminary nearby, and the soft chirp of flying ducks. The moon, almost full, rose and cast shadows on the snow. These are all markers for me, but they are not experiences of the sort I use most. I realize how much the natural world is my backdrop, the inner voice, but not the experience. Not the story line. And this surprises me, because I always thought it was. 

In this long pandemic sojourn from the world, I have not been unhappy. I have felt calm, somnolent, and wrapped in solitude, almost like a fairy tale character set to sleep while the world passes. Cloistered, but not lonely. But in order to write, I need something more than being hidden behind a fortress wall. I know, beneath the melting snow, the bulbs have put down their roots, the trees are beginning to send their sap from their roots. I can only hope that somewhere my writing heart is stirring, too. But so far, hope is all there is.

The Island by Night

When I am on the Island, every night, before bed, the dogs and I go out for a long walk in the dark.

There is nowhere else on earth where I could walk alone, in the dark, in the woods, and feel so completely safe. It’s true I have my dogs with me, but they are even less worried than I, and frequently slip away into the trees to leave me to the sound of my own footsteps. On a cloudy night like this, it is so dark that only the melted dirt paths of this January thaw distinguish where to walk from the white snow everywhere.

Moses, who still carries the echoes of lupine ancestors in his soul, likes to disappear into the woods, projecting my course, to silently stalk me, later to charge out onto the path in front of me, in an unnerving fashion. It is a delightful game for him.  Auggie, his apprentice, has begun to follow him deep among the cedar trees.

Their stealth is remarkable, and their ability to judge the intersection of vectors is proof that dogs understand geometry. Each has a red light-up collar: Moses with a slow blink, and Auggie with a fast one, so when they walk with me I can tell who is who. But when they dissolve into the woods and turn dead-on, their collars are no longer visible, and I cannot hear the sound of their padded feet, their bodies long and low, in stalking mode, until they are immediately in front of me, delighted by their prowess and by my praise. Their happiness shifts them from predators to pets, but there is an inner reality that is vital to remember.

These night walks are essential to their well-being and to mine. For them, it is a chance to reassess the activities of the local wildlife. The fox has been out since we walked this afternoon, and the raccoon and deer and possum. The turkeys are roosting in a tree somewhere near, and the deer are no doubt nearby, waiting for the dogs to go in before they come to feed. Their game with me exhilarates the dogs and empowers them.

For me, it is an expansive moment of the soul. Alone, in the dark, but utterly unafraid, I walk along almost invisible paths, listening to the lake, to the occasional cries of owls or foxes, and I feel that I am in my life.

Nowhere else on earth.

In the Prayers of a Stranger

I recently realized that my life had become rather narrow, and that music, once the central focus of my existence, had been reduced to passive listening. So, most days, now, I spend some time playing the piano badly.

It doesn’t matter that I can’t play as well as I used to when I was serious, just that I play. It is both engaging and mentally clarifying.

To assist in building this new habit, I am using an app that tactfully nudges and rewards for building habits.  The app also includes a portion I don’t generally use, an opportunity to be part of the app’s “community” of people messaging others who are working on the same things.

These kinds of things are not to my taste. Community means real people that you can see and touch. But last night I casually started glancing through this section, and along with the people needing to study for their exams, or lose weight, I came across a message from someone trying to escape an addiction to Meth. It was more than a cry for help, it was a howl of despair.

We all live in our little bubbles. We write. We sleep. We go to work. We make dinner. We try to be kind. We are people, presumably of good will. But then something happens, and the reality of real people in the anguish of suffering and surviving breaks through without warning.

Modern life expands our boundaries beyond our capacity to cope. We are not meant to bear the suffering of the whole world. We are meant to see what is before us and to act. This is why anonymous technology and non-stop news is so hollow and soul-crushing. It both puts the suffering of the world before us, and makes us powerless to attempt any help.

I doubt my message made any difference.  Disembodied words are no substitute for being present. But maybe there can be some small comfort in being in the prayers of a stranger.

 

Between Despair and Pride

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I am reading some essays by Wendell Berry in which he captures–with great simplicity and concision–the necessity of loneliness. I think that is one of the reasons I love Washington Island so much: when I say that I feel more myself there than anywhere else, I think it is because I am alone there, and lonely there.

Loneliness is frightening. And that is part of what is necessary. I mitigate my loneliness with my dogs. They are soulful and joyous companions, and I need them, because the intensity of emotion is sometimes threatening.

And I would never walk in the woods in the dark without them, even though Moses likes to pretend he is a wolf: running off to return and stalk me silently along the far edges of the path. This is his great game, and he makes me feel that I am in a Russian fairy tale.

But in this loneliness there is also a settling in to the essence of self. It’s not an exercise in ego, but an escape from it. It feels, as the non-essential is pulled away, that the course of life is running along its proper path. I am simply myself. Again and for the first time. Theodore Roethke wrote “What falls away is always, and is near.” I think this experience is what he was referring to.

All this is to say that it has been a long time since I have been to the Island for any length of time, and I need to go there. My trip was almost cancelled this week by other kinds of necessity, and the thought of not being able to go created a rising panic that started deep. I need to go there to let the world fall away. I need myself back.

Berry talks of the right place in life as being between despair and pride. They are his opposites. I am ready to know whether they are mine.