Iona Cottage

Last night I had a dream. The dream was set some 25 or so years from now: in it I am on the verge of being an elderly man, walking with a cane but otherwise alert and healthy. I was thinner than I am now (hooray!) with a shock of purely white hair. The dream begins with a car coming up a driveway to a small cottage; outside of the cottage is a sign that simply says “Iona Cottage.”

A young woman gets out of the car and goes to the front door; she is a reporter. I’m the one who answers the door, for Iona Cottage is my studio. I welcome her and invite her in to the central room of the cottage, which is a combination kitchen, living room and sitting area. On either side of the main room are two smaller rooms, which could function as bedrooms, but I have them set up with one as my library and the other as my studio. The entire cottage is deeply silent, peaceful, and serene; contentment practically seems to hang in the air. Brilliant sunlight streams through the windows; outside it is a gloriously luminous day. In the kitchen a nice aroma of cooking beans is wafting from a crockpot. “If you’d like, you can stay for lunch,” I say affably to the young reporter. “These days I cook my own lunch; my wife Fran is continually amazed. I never was much of a cook!” I say with a chuckle. Although nothing as much is said, I know in the dream that the cottage is behind the house where Fran and I live.

After a little bit more small talk I invite the woman to follow me out the sliding glass door to the porch on the rear of the cottage. It looks out over a beautiful garden, with a goldfish pond and a fountain. We walk over to a couple of benches and sit down. The reporter begins to compliment me on how well my latest book is doing. “I know, who would have thought that I would have a bestseller at my age,” I say with a smile. “And all this money! At this point in my life, when I don’t need it.” I look at my interviewer with a wicked smile. “I’m too old to chase after women, and I never was much into drugs or alcohol.” We both laugh at my silliness, but then I get a bit reminiscent. “And you know, it all began with my big book on Christian mysticism.”

And that’s when I woke up.

I told Fran about the dream, and we shared a sense of amusement not only at my elderly sense of humor but also at how unlikely it would be that I would ever have such a grand place to work. We both have very modest aspirations about our future; we think that cohousing or at most a small house is where we would eventually hope to live as we move into our retirement years. But I don’t think this dream was really about having a charming little cottage or a wonderful studio or fancy garden or even a bestseller when I’m in my 70s. It’s a dream about today. I believe in prophecy, but I also recognize that prophecy is rarely about the future; when the word of God comes to us, it encounters us here and now, and demands a response here and now. Now I don’t know if my dream about Iona Cottage is prophetic or not; perhaps instead of being a word from God, it is merely a word from my deep unconscious. But even that is worth paying attention to. Iona Cottage is a place where, by being true to my vocation, I can find contentment, peace, and joy. If such things as “success” or “wealth” follow, that’s just icing on the cake. Good fortune emerges from living a life of gratitude and serenity — not the other way around.

The punchline, of course, is that “it all starts” with the book I’m writing now. I think that’s my prophetic word, reminding me that throughout my career as a Pagan writer, I succumbed to too many distractions: needing to prove myself as a writer, accepting unrealistic deadlines because I saw my writing more as an income stream than an artistic calling, and just plain worrying too much about such things as sales figures and reviews. I was externally, rather than internally, driven. A large part of that was the fundamental mistake I had made in being a Neopagan: in choosing to worship the god within, I had essentially sentenced myself to the hell of a world where I was responsible for everything, and if anything went wrong in my life, it was always, only, my fault. You know the metaphysical drill: “you create your own reality.” It’s the narcissistic dark side of magical religion, and I fell into it hard and bad. That, as much as anything else, is what led to my crisis of faith in which I was available to hear anew Christ’s joyful and graceful call.

I returned to Christ and gave up being a Pagan and a Pagan writer. I spent my first three years as a Catholic writing nothing more than this blog (and even with the blog, I took some time off here and there). But now I have a new book contract, I’m working on reissuing my first two books, and all in all it feels like my vocation as a writer has been reborn. Not my career as a writer: but my vocation, my calling. Now, my dream is a bit of a cautionary tale, for it hints at what one part of me thinks (the part that is always tempted to see writing as a career path): that to be successful, I should reach a point in my life where I have material things to show for it: a beautiful studio, a lovely garden, an external environment of peace and quiet. That’s the part of me that is tempted, even now, to turn my writing into some sort of Pelagian exercise where I, and only I, am responsible for my “success” (whatever that is). But I’ve given into that temptation before, and I know it’s a dead end: even if I had a bestseller, it would only be a moment in the sun, and with the very next book I’d be back to trying to prove myself yet again.

So… to the extent that I can remain centered on the idea that writing is a calling rather than a livelihood, then I give myself the gift of being at peace with it, regardless of whatever comes of it. After all, I don’t have much control over anything beyond what I input into my word processor. Sure, that’s the heart of writing, and that’s why it is my name that gets printed on the books. But as soon as the writing’s done, publishing and marketing kick in, and those endeavors are all about collaboration: my many business partners get involved, and they share with me the responsibility for how beautiful the book looks, how well it sells, etc. etc. This means that instead of me being in charge, it makes far more sense to assume that God’s the one in charge: even though that means I must sacrifice my ambition on the altar of faith.

Iona Cottage is a little reminder to me that, regardless of how successful (or not) my books may be in a dollars kind of way, I am always at liberty to be present to the love of God in my life and to be nourished by the deep contentment and joyful peace that can come only through seeking, knowing and loving God and trying to obey God’s will. Ironically, the more faithful I am to my relationship with God, the better my writing will be — even if I am breaking all “the rules” of publishing by not obsessing over such things as marketing plans and building a platform (i.e., fan base). Put another way, when I go to my “Iona Cottage” within me, I can find an internal environment of peace and quiet, that doesn’t rely on the trappings of success but only on the love of God.

This is a vulnerable post for me to write and publish. It seems inappropriate for a spiritual writer to admit to such things as ambition or, worse yet, how my ambition has derailed my own spiritual center, at least in the past. But maybe by being honest about this, I am giving myself permission to live differently from here on out. This is my prayer: that my writing will always be grounded in the joy of God. For that matter: you who are reading this, if you are engaged in your own creative pursuit, take a word of advice from someone who has been there: when you create something, do it for the love of creating, and then worry about the business aspect of it. Sure, if you want to be a professional artist, you have to recognize that your art is a business. But as a Pagan writer, I went so far into thinking of it as a business that I lost sight of the artistry. Instead of keeping my writing grounded in the Spirit, I kept it grounded in my ambition. And I know my writing suffered as a result of it, which of course is a major part of why I wasn’t as successful as I hoped I would be (which led to further obsessing on the business side of writing: the classic vicious circle). So please: don’t make the same mistake. But if you do — then look for your own Iona Cottage, your own place of peace and serenity where creativity (and faith) come first.

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  1. Hi, you might be intersted for your orientation to consider the award winner documentary “Voices of Cohousing. Building villages in the city”. It was done for cohousing groups in formation and for existing cohousings to organise info evening. It is 37 min. + 22 min. extra and it deals with some of the most important topics people should know before moving to a cohousing. Info and trailer:
    Have a good day!

  2. Thank you, Carl! I know only too well how vulnerable that must have felt – I spent most of the 80s (my 30s…) totally preoccupied and driven with “being a poet”, and all the stuff that goes with it, readings, editing, Arts Council grants, judging competitions, all that. It wasn’t until a huge crisis in my own personal life that I was able, with Jan’s help, to see that for what it was. Took me years even to contemplate writing anything again!

  3. To echo MikeF, “Thank you, Carl!” This post is profound and touching. I understand why you may have felt vulnerable writing it – but that feeling may have been rooted in the part of you who, like you mentioned, looks at writing as a career rather than a calling (and looks at this blog as strictly a way to market your writing). That you’re willing to show your vulnerability and humanity makes me respect you even more than before. It’s a level of authenticity few (if any?) “career” writers are willing to ascend to – taking off the “expert” hat and donning the “human” one.

    I’m very excited to read this new book once it’s available. Thank you again for the inspiration…

  4. Thanks, Jerome, for your kind and gracious words. I was nervous that Pagans would read this as a slam against Paganism, which is not my intent. Sure, I talk about the “dark side” of magical religion, but I write that with the understanding that all religions have their dark side (e.g., Christianity has a dark side of judgmentalism, patriarchy, etc.). For me, the downside of Paganism led me to the place where I made mistakes — mistakes which directly led to my crisis of faith/crisis of vocation. For me, the resolution of that crisis involved becoming a Catholic, and trying to write out of that centered place. Obviously, others might resolve a similar crisis — even as Pagans — in a different way.

    And how did you ever guess I have a tendency to see my blog as a marketing tool? :-)

  5. Thanks, Carl. And very timely in my life for you to share this today. I turn 50 on the weekend…and I’ve been looking forward to that as a kind of fertile time (that is, 50 onwards) for me from God. I’ve got my own ‘Iona Cottages’ in mind, too.

    Thanks for sharing and encouragement.

    Nick (peasant)

  6. Hi Carl,

    In the Kingdom-of-God environment, vulnerability is good; it generates more respect for you than its opposite(s), even if these are handier in the business world.

    I guess it’s this tension that keeps our creativity alive and well.

    Thank you for your openness. I pray that this will be rewarded by an input of blessing and fruitfulness in your life and ministry.


  7. zoecarnate says:

    What a nuanced (and yes, vulnerable) dream and post! I hope all the most salient aspects prove to be authentic, both now and in the future!

  8. Carl! Thank you so much for this post. It really speaks to my heart. I was thinking yesterday that part of the whole writing as calling rather than writing as career view (even though I want to be published and I would dearly love to be able to make a bit of money on the side through writing) will probably involve writing for free at times. Can there be anything more subversive in this capitalist hell than writing for free?

    I think that’s why I love blogging so much. There is an intimacy here with people writing and generally not making much of a cent out of it.

    Thank you for being so open and vulnerable about your battles. It’s one I battle myself internally and so having other people talk of their experiences is only ever helpful (for both of us).

  9. PS: I’ve just begun Jungian dream analysis recently. This one would be a doozie to analyse, if you see the house as you. What a positive, and lovely, dream :)

  10. Maggi Sale. Glasgow.Scotland. says:

    Hi again Carl! Deeply glad to know that you have found your eternal and ever-present ‘Iona Cottage’ within. And very inspired to perhaps pursue publication of a book that I indeed wrote from the heart and is now collecting dust!
    If you, and/or yours, are ever inclined to walk the paths and be blown ‘awake’ on the beaches of the Blessed Isle itself, then rest assured of an overdose of Celtic Hospitality in my Glasgow flat on your way there. And then you could follow it up with a visit to my village home in Penpont amid some very restful Scottish scenery.It is yours for the asking. Aye yours. Peace and Love …Maggi.

  11. Thanks, Maggi. You’ll be hearing from me!

  12. Carl: Today I thought over a question my instructor asked me yesterday, a question many have asked me of late as I am about to graduate: what do you plan to do? I gave a blah, blah, blah answer that satisfied illusions of practicality, and therefore mediocrity. I gave this answer because I thought he would want to know how I’m going to make a living, how I’m going to be ambitious and great and make money by fitting myself into what already exists, creating myself with their approval in mind. When I say this, even though I hope that it’s not what I do or the motivating factor, I’m underscoring it as the reality for myself and to those to whom I speak it.

    Today, though, I thought that what I will now say is that I’m creating something beautiful. To me that means that I am creating something that develops the fullness of meaning and purpose, where my heart is at home, and all my actions are guided by prayer. I have glimpses of what that is in the largest sense, sometimes more clearly than others. I know it’s not fully clear because I am meant to trust in the unknown, which becomes easy when I am in the eternal present.

    Thank you for openly chiseling away at your ego self, exposing more and more your true, larger-mind self. Perhaps those who don’t act in humility will act out humiliation.

  13. judith collier says:

    Holli, your statement,”which becomes easy when I am in the eternal present” really hit a place in me. Of course, I have known this by many different ways it has been said, but this time I invisioned a straight line always leading forward in a very gentle manner, moment by moment. It’s strange how at different times in a person’s life one’s perception can continually change. I am going to practice this. judy

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