Last night I went to a high school graduation party for a lovely young woman who had been in a Wednesday night children’s program at the small church we both used to attend. I was the “leader” for that group of girls, fourth grade or so to sixth. I loved those girls. While she was still in my group, the church imploded. The grief was great and sent us in many directions. If I could do it over I would have stayed in better touch. Last night, there she was, nearly grown up.
Deep in the archives of this blog, there is a post I wrote at that time about helping the girls make a journal of their own by covering an old-fashioned composition book with their choice of scrapbook paper and decorating it with ribbons, stickers, beads, or whatever they liked. I thought of this last night when I saw her.
This morning, a coincidence struck me. Last month I had discovered a stack of unused composition books that were left over from that time, and so I covered one with decorative paper and have been using it since as a writing notebook. In fact, the coincidence came to me after I wrote the above two paragraphs in that very notebook.
I like to think that coincidences are signs of something big moving under the surface, some unifying cords of meaning that we are to attend to, follow, ponder, grab hold of. I like to think that our time together in that group, even as we cut paper and glued ribbons, even though the separation that followed was too long and wide and a matter of regret, planted seeds of attentiveness and faith. I’m going to pray that the lovely high school graduate never stops paying attention to her life, never stops cultivating it with great care, never stops inviting God to help her write her future.
Ann Conway writes this morning in Image Journal's "Good Letters" blog, on the practice of noticing and collecting the wealth of images around us and making something whole in the process. There's much wisdom here, not just about writing, but also about life.
Here in central Maine, the world has come down to bone. The songbirds are gone and crows, which poet Mary Oliver terms “the deep muscle of the world,” have taken over my street. The landscape seems empty; the ground, a carpet of desiccated leaves.
One longs for the blanketing stillness of snow. The world, dark at four, appears grim.
I’ve started keeping a commonplace book in the hope of seeing better.
Keep reading "Commonplacing."
Nearly two months ago I read a post on the blog Sacred Ordinary that caught my attention. The title of the post was "This Period of My Life Began on May 6." The author of this post wrote about an exercise recommended by Ira Progoff in his Intensive Journaling workshop in which you write an entry that says, "This period of my life began..." and you continue on. Dr. Progoff asserts that indeed we do know when a new period begins.
The beginning sentence or two of the post took me about a second to read. At the beginning of that second I was quite sure it was not always obvious when one's current period of life began or even that we had definable periods of life. By the end of that second, however, I was no longer a skeptic because I knew exactly, to the day, when my current period of life began. And I also suspected that I knew how this period was going to play out. After reading that post and having this realization, I was going to put a post on my blog, linking to the post on Sacred Ordinary and write with some degree of confidence that, yes, I knew the day life changed and hint ever so carefully that I could probably predict what would be the story of that period.
Well, I'm glad that post never got written because, as you can guess, the story could not be predicted. It has not played out as I had envisioned. That's not to say it's playing out in a bad way, just in a different way.
The point here isn't to be cryptic about what is or isn't the story of this period. Rather, the point–or at least the first point–is that I'm intrigued that the onset of the new period of life could be so quickly identified, despite my skepticism. I suppose it makes sense, however. A single moment of decision or a single decisive act changes everything just as a sudden gut feeling can change everything. The second point is that I should know better by now that the twists and turns of life aren't exactly predictable. It's a lesson I've learned and relearned a number of times now.
So how about you, dear readers? Can you identify when this period in your life began?
"Perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are,” wrote May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude
I’d say it a bit differently—that writing helps us become what we will become. By writing from where we are we are strengthening the ground underneath our feet, stabilizing the shifting sand, so that when we take the next step forward and then the next, our steps will be firm and the ground will not give way as we push against it in raising our foot to proceed. Also the words we write give us little clues to what is coming next, as if our hidden inside knows before we do and will offer only the slightest hint before we discover it in full for ourselves.
Another application of the quick daily list (see yesterday's post) is as a repository of observations. Making the list everyday is a reminder to watch for things that may otherwise go unnoticed. Anne Lamott says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” Evelyn Underhill said something similar, "For lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day." The poet and doctor William Carlos Williams used to carry a notepad around with him in which he listed, "Things I noticed today that I've missed until today." I've been trying to pay better attention to the details of life around me and the daily list is helping.
From Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos: “I hoped that this diary might help me to concentrate my thoughts, which will go wandering on the few occasions when I have some chance to think a little. I had thought it might become a kind of communion between God and myself, an extension of prayer, a way of easing the difficulties of verbal expression which always seem insurmountable to me, due no doubt to the twinges of pain in my inside. Instead I have been made to realize what a huge inordinate part of my life is taken up with the hundred and one little daily worries which at times I used to think I had shaken off for good. Of course Our Lord takes His share of all our troubles, even the paltriest, and scorns nothing. But why record in black and white matters which should be dismissed as fast as they happen? The worst of it is I find in these outpourings such solace that this alone should suffice to put me on my guard."
One of the challenges in keeping a journal is to preserve the details of life, without spending all one's time recording what you did and who you saw and how you felt, and therefore, never getting to the point of going deeper and processing it all. It's particularly easy to get stalled out in the "how I felt" type of entry. Lately, I've tried a strategy that seems to be working fairly well. I bought a date book that has a page for each day. There is where I make a quick list of the details of the day, not in full-sentence format, but just bulleted phrases. For example, "birds singing, snow melting, sunny." That provides mental images of the day, which I may want to remember, without taking 15 minutes to write about. Another example, a bullet of "headache" lets me record that I may not have felt my best that day, and in so doing, I feel less compelled to write a full "poor me" paragraph. Or, "checking account low again" without proceeding in angst for five minutes on the matter of personal budget shortfalls. This bulleted list takes a couple minutes and lets me record the daily details that give life texture, without exhausting my mental and writing energy before I get to the matters I really want to think and write about. This other thinking and writing is done in another paper or electronic journal, so as to keep the daily list separate from the reflections. Since it's all dated, however, it's easy to go back and piece the two together.
By day I'm a freelance medical writer. After hours I do another kind of work. Creative writing, spiritual writing, essaying. This blog arises from those after hours. I write about work/vocation, meaning, hope, imagination, faith, science, creativity/writing, books, and anything else I feel the impulse to write about. I hope these short posts provide camaraderie for your own creative and spiritual life.
My point of view in Finding Livelihood resonates with Frankl’s. Losing sight of what lies beyond the work-a-day world, in terms of unseen reality, boundless and timeless, means losing your daily spiritual hold, means finding that only the is-this-all-there-is question remains. Without drawing a line too darkly between life in a prison camp and life on the job or life at any other daily post, I think the modern worker or modern person at any stage of life can learn much from Frankl.
At the upcoming Festival of Faith and Writing in April, I’ll be leading a “Festival Circle,” which is a small group that meets a couple times during the event to focus on a specific topic. My circle is on the topic of “How to Be A Writer with A Day Job.” If you’ve read my book Finding Livelihood, you will have felt that tension on the pages.
On a busy morning of a work-crammed week of a deadline-driven month, these words from Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography are like an island of calm. Taking two minutes to read them is act of guerrilla leisure, "guerilla" referring, of course, to an unconventional approach when you have little to spare or spend. Maybe reading them will be that for you too.
Lax was a poet who lived a reclusive life on the island of Patmos, Greece. He was a dear friend of Thomas Merton. He was a former circus clown (!) and writer for The New Yorker. I’m sure never before has circus clown and writer for the The New Yorker appeared on the same resume.
More good words about Finding Livelihood went out over digital space in the last couple weeks. It's not easy for books published by small presses and written by small writers to make their way in the world, and I'm so grateful when somebody spots mine and gives it a shout-out.
Last week Salon.com ran an excerpt from a new book by Allison J. Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (Oxford University Press). The excerpt is published under the title, “Your job will never love you: Stress and anxiety in our frightening new job world.” This excerpt nails it. If you didn’t feel stressed and anxious before reading it, you will feel that way by the end.
It would take lifetimes to do all I want to do. I’m just finishing a new online class; the stack of books to read grows; the list of books and essays I dream of someday writing grows; there are so many publications to which I’d like to subscribe and have the time to read. Multiple careers still intrigue me. Life is so exciting in this way. I worry I’ll never get it all in—and I won’t. Nevertheless, it makes me happy that I think this about life.
Tuesday brought word of a new review for Finding Livelihood. Betsy Clover, program administrator, of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida, wrote a review in the center's publication: Reconsiderations: Exploring Christian Thought in the University Community.