From The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2015
As I write these words, I am stretched out on a chaise lounge in my small office in my house in Connecticut. I purchased the chaise because I had stopped working well at my desk. That was four years ago. The chaise has been good to me. In fact, I wrote most of my last book, Still Writing, on the chaise—within sight of the stale desk—and was so grateful to it that, when it came time to discuss book jackets with my publisher, I enthusiastically suggested that artwork depicting a chaise adorn the cover. (This turned out to be a terrible idea. The chaise covers, rejected before printing, made the book look like it was about psychoanalysis.)
But the chaise is now slowly losing its magic, just as the desk did years ago. I have been in denial about it, but I’ve begun to feel it happening. That mysterious juju—the magic allowed by the superstitious sense, shared by just about every writer I know, that something will help us, that it is possible to help us, that we are not, in fact, desperately, hopelessly, beyond help—that juju is leaking from the chaise as if it were a punctured raft at sea.
The painful truth is that our talismans have a shelf life. We cart them home with us from our travels, or extract them from the dusty attics of our ancestors, accompanied by the compelling fantasy that they will make real and tangible, make available, make possible this line of words that we summon from thin air each time we sit down to work.
A walk from my chaise over to the desk where I don’t write reveals the following sad assortment: three rose quartz crystals from various meditation retreats; a bowl of smooth gray wishing stones from a favorite beach in Italy; an oxidized brass heart from Peru, sent by a young writer as a thank-you; a Buddha head from God-knows-where; a random sea shell. These all once meant something to me. Alone in my small room, they were portals, entryways to the world out there. I have never—through the writing of eight books—had a desk that faced a window with a view. But these amulets were my view. I wouldn’t dream of discarding them. They are like the names of dead people I won’t delete from my address book: sacred artifacts.
Here is what works for me. Like most things that work, it requires actual work. My office connects to my bedroom via a bathroom. At some point during a writing day—most often the point at which my head feels like it’s about to explode—I walk through that bathroom and into my bedroom. I strike a match and light a fire in the small fireplace. I put on some music that’s queued up to go—one of a series of playlists—and as, perhaps, Patti Smith’s cover of “When Doves Cry” fills the room, I unroll my tattered green yoga mat.
On my fireplace mantle, I keep a neat row of seven small brown spray bottles filled with essential oils, each corresponding to one of the chakras: grounding, nourishing, intention, emotion, expression, insight, wisdom. I spray a mist from the first bottle and step to the front of the mat. This may well be the first moment in my day I become aware of my feet. They seem to grow roots into the earth.Grounding. As I move through my practice, I become aware of my body—my interior—and the stories housed inside of me. Emotion. I twist into a reverse triangle and a bit of language unleashes itself. Insight. I stand on my head and solve a problem that has been plaguing me for weeks. The title for my most recent memoir—in fact the wholly unwelcome idea for the project itself—came to me while standing in tree pose. Most of the time when I’m writing, I feel like one giant bobble head, but as I move through the poses that have become second nature, my mind—that monkey swinging from branch to branch—settles down.
When I was a little girl, I used to watch my father each morning as he set about his morning prayers. He was a religious Jew, and his devotion began with a physical act. He enveloped himself in his tallis, a prayer shawl, then removed his tefillin, small black boxes—phylacteries— from a blue velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread. He would attach the first boxto his left bicep, winding it around seven times with a long leather strap. Then he would attach the second box to the middle of his forehead. Thus prepared, he would begin to pray. The ritual itself—I came to understand as a grown woman—was the gateway. It made the prayer possible, especially, I would imagine, during days when my father simply didn’t feel like praying.
In fifteen years of practicing yoga, I have never reached the point of unrolling my yoga mat only to give up, say, Forget it, and roll it back up again. Once I’ve begun the process by lighting the fire, an inexorable momentum carries me. I keep going until an hour has passed. By the end, I am filled with a quiet, spacious sense of possibility that comes to me in no other way. “How I am harassed by the strife and jar and uncertainty without. This morning the inside of my head feels cool and smooth instead of strained and turbulent,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary.
Strained and turbulent is my usual state of mind. And there are plenty of days when I forget to unroll my mat. It’s right there—only twenty paces from where I sit, struggling—but if I were someone who simply did what I knew was good for me, I probably would never have become a writer. I am driven by what the choreographer Martha Graham once called “a queer divine dissatisfaction.” That dissatisfaction dances each day with its remedy. I teeter and fall. I become self-conscious or overly ambitious. I lose my way. I regain my balance. I discover flexibility where I thought I had none. Just as in a yoga pose.
A cool and smooth mind, such as Woolf’s that day, is attainable for me only through the body. When I am able to take my yoga practice off the mat and return to my desk (or chaise) and write from some activated space—from the solar plexus, say, or the heart, or the hips—I have some hope of making something happen on the page. The words arise from a place of wordlessness. This would have made no sense to me as a younger writer. I hunched over my desk, my jaw clenched, teeth gritted, shoulders up around my ears. I grasped for language, for ideas, searching instead of waiting to be found.
There are many times I wish for a less solitary ritual. The writing life is, after all, solitary enough. When I lived in the city, I used to roll up my mat and take myself to crowded yoga classes where I felt buoyed and energized by the presence of others. This was great for my mood—but sadly, not so good for my work. Walking home from yoga class in Brooklyn on a beautiful day, I would find myself—cheerful, engaged with the rest of humanity—stopping for coffee. I would linger at a sidewalk café, drift into a store and try on a pretty dress, or impulsively call a friend. Before I knew it, I had squandered the day.
By moving to the country well over a decade ago—the nearest yoga class nearly an hour away—I was forced to find ways to design my own practice. I had to learn to unroll my own mat, to be powered entirely by my own drive and desire. And though I wasn’t conscious of it, I’m sure I was deeply impacted by those years of watching my father become enlivened by the rituals of his morning prayer. There was the simplicity of the custom, and the progression of small steps leading to the place where he was invariably transported. And so: the fireplace, the playlists, the small brown bottles of scented oil. It never fails me. I can only fail myself by abandoning what I know to be true. “Begin again,” the Buddhists say. When caught up in our own thoughts, when stuck—mired in the small, the petty, the wasteful—we can always simply begin again. Yoga has taught me this. Each time I press my palms together over my heart in namaste, coming back to center at the end of each pose or sequence, I am offering myself the opportunity to begin again. Lost? Begin again. Sad? Begin again. Caught up in the past? Daydreaming about the future? Begin again and again. The writing life is painstakingly slow. We toil invisibly, tearing our hair out, steam escaping from our ears, our hearts frozen in fear, our poor small selves so full of the tension of what we hope to express and the impossibility of ever getting it exactly right. It’s just about unbearable, which is why we look to our totems to help us along the way. But perhaps the wisdom we crave isn’t to be found inside those objects we imbue with magic and meaning. Perhaps—just perhaps—to quote Woolf once more, “We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”