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.

Unfinished business

I began working on the stone path along side our house last year, but I’d been thinking about it for much longer than that. Our house is in the woods, which, while lovely, makes it difficult to grow grass, particularly since I refuse to use any chemicals that could be unhealthy for the dogs, or our well water, or for the trout stream at the bottom of our hill. Consequently, in an area with splendid green lawns that would put a golf course to shame, we have weeds and mud. We also have three large dogs whose ramblings, scramblings, and various activities discourage thriving plants.

Winter, when the snow has fallen, is a reprieve, but in the transitional periods, when there’s rain and mud, I fight a tedious battle with muddy dogs, floors, bedding, and walls. It’s not my preference, really, but it’s that or squalor, and I want to keep the dogs.

People wonder why I love winter.

In any case, fed up, I finally bestirred myself last year to build a stone path around the house where the worst of the mud is. My decision to start had nothing to do with the approaching deadline for the completion of my novel, or my writer’s block, or the peculiar urges for home projects that come upon me when I should be writing. I watched to see where the dogs had made their path, and went to the quarry to order stone.

My plans were for a rustic path—not a pristine suburban one, but a casual, old fashioned meandering of stone that wrapped around the house and met our patio in back.

The stones were local limestone: large, flat, heavy, and uneven, and cutting out the soil to make them lie flat was painstaking work. 

Drenched in insect repellent, and armed with podcasts about the Constitution and Chapter a Day broadcasts of my own book, I sat on the ground like a child with my triangular digging tool, and hacked away at the clay soil, lifting each stone again and again to make sure the ground underneath accommodated its shape. I found I could lay only about four or five a day before my energy gave out. But gradually the path wound its erratic way down the side of the house from the kitchen patio, and began to curve around to meet the patio at the back. 

I have a personal flaw that kicks in from time to time, which is a compulsion to complete something past exhaustion. I’m not completely sure of the factors that go into creating these personal storms, but when they come together, I am driven by them, occasionally to my detriment. They are more frenzy than conscientiousness.

I was in one of these fevers when I carried and began to maneuver a particularly large and heavy slab of rock. It was almost three feet long and a foot and half wide, and it was heavy. I wrestled it into my grasp and carried it the thirty feet or so to where I was working. I had already created a roughly cut space for it in the soil, and planned to place it, then cut around it to make it fit. I plunked it down, only a few inches from where it was supposed to go, did my work, and then, with all my strength, lifted up the edge to drag it into place. Somehow, when I dropped it, I missed the right spot. It fell onto the stone nearby, with my thumb in between.

That was last July. I still dream of the splendid vanilla frozen custard on a waffle cone I bought myself as consolation on the way home from the emergency room with a broken thumb. This is September. The path is unfinished, the remaining stone is still stacked at the edge of the driveway and beginning to grow moss. Another winter looms, and another muddy spring. I’ve been reluctant to break another finger–or worse–but I realize that I have to get the blasted thing finished. It’s a pandemic. I have time. I tell myself if I put down just one stone a day, I can be finished before the snow falls. But I know that the hassle of getting ready to do the job and of cleaning up afterward means that I will feel compelled to do more than one. I have promised myself that this week I will start. 

Did I mention I’ve begun a new novel?

Hefner’s Frozen Custard is almost worth a trip to the emergency room

What Writers Do When They Should Be Writing. A List

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  1. Decide to take dogs for walk.
  2. Look for sunglasses in purse.
  3. Go outside to see if sunglasses are on porch.
  4. Talk to neighbors for two hours over fence.
  5. Look for sunglasses on bedside table.
  6. Pick up t-shirt on bedroom floor.
  7. Notice box of new beach towels in guest room.
  8. Put away  new beach towels.
  9. Look for sunglasses in car.
  10. Make grocery list.
  11. Recharge computer.
  12. Check e-mail. Nothing from anyone.
  13. Look for sunglasses in tote bag.
  14. Wonder if sunglasses are still at bookstore from last night.
  15. Call bookstore.
  16. Wonder if sunglasses are at restaurant from last night.
  17. Call restaurant.
  18. Look for sunglasses in car again, focusing under seats.
  19. Talk to friend on phone.
  20. Look at plot map. Notice holes in plot.
  21. Ponder death.
  22. Empty purse on floor looking for sunglasses. Find emptied bottle of zinc tablets in bottom.
  23. Clean out purse. Pick off lint from zinc tablets. Return to bottle.
  24. Accidentally call book store from last week. Chat with proprietor.
  25. Decide to write blog post.
  26. Look for sunglasses in car again, focusing on trunk.
  27. Stare at blog screen.
  28. Send irritable e-mail to online company who keep sending surveys that flash at you when you’re trying to think.
  29. Look for sunglasses in tote bag again.
  30. Find two day old NY Times in tote bag.
  31. Do crossword puzzle in NY Times.
  32. Walk path from car to door, hoping to find sunglasses in grass.
  33. Rub tummy of Dog One.
  34. Stare at blog screen.
  35. Rub tummy of Dog Two.
  36. Look for sunglasses in different tote bag. Find sunglasses.
  37. Resolve to carry fewer tote bags.
  38. Don’t write a single thing all morning.
  39. Decide it’s too hot to take dogs for walk. Swimming would be better.
  40. Look for sunglasses.