On Protecting Your Instrument
I’m back on the chaise. I’ve just finished with the last full week of teaching I’ll be doing until March. All summer long, I’ve wondered what this moment would feel like. I have no flights scheduled, no dates on my calendar (except for a few small weekend retreats like this one and this one) and a real swath of time stretched out before me. A magic carpet, rolled out, ready for me to step onto it with the intention of finishing a draft of my new book.
Today is the day. The fluffy white dog is lying by my feet. I’m wearing the world’s most comfortable sweatpants, a favorite yoga tee shirt, and a ratty cardigan. My hair is a mess. My glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. My house empty — husband doing errands, boy on a boat ride. Just a couple of weeks ago, a photographer was here to take my portrait for an upcoming essay. I was sitting just here, the fluffy white dog just there, and I quipped: this is exactly what my life looks like. And she responded: it looks pretty damned perfect.
Ah, yes. Here I am in my perfect life. There’s only one problem with it. Can you guess what problem might be?
Inside my head, all is chaos. Tears are backed up behind my eyes. I can barely sit still. The deepest parts of myself, unfathomable. This summer involved an unusual number of workshops, readings, or other business in Seattle, Aspen, Vermont, LA, Atlanta, Rhinebeck, Salisbury, Provincetown — with many days in New York City in between. It has been a summer in which I led meditations, lectured, dove deeply into student work. A summer in which I said yes to judging a couple of awards and fellowships that have required an insane amount of reading. A summer I have taken care of my family as best as I know how. A summer I have loved – completely loved – and yet I am here, as parts of myself feel as fragile as small birds riding wind currents, trying to find their way back to me.
In Still Writing, I quote a list of instructions for writers left by the poet Jane Kenyon:
Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
I think of this as protecting my instrument – and yours. When that instrument is out of whack – and mine is now – it is my job to go back to the simplicity of Kenyon’s list. To have patience. And above all to understand that the noisy, noisy world we live in – with its carnival of distractions and enticements – is not where we find the words. The words are stones at the bottom of the sea. We train ourselves. We expand our capacity to hold our breath underwater. And then we dive – alone, we dive. Sometimes we emerge, gasping, our hands empty. But if we dive deep for enough successive days, weeks, months, years, decades, a lifetime — we might – just might – emerge with something new, some fragile, shimmering thing no one has ever seen before.