Yesterday I put on my running shoes after a month off and hit the trail. I cried as I ran. After a month off, a summer less active than I hoped it would be, I had to face my failure as a runner, and all my other failures—there are so many, and they are so variegated and glorious with their floaty trains and bangles—seemed caught up as well in my faltering ankles, my thick body, my huffing and puffing lungs. Everything I just wrote about running, I could write about sitting here trying to write this blog post. I’m here. It’s September. I’m wearing my writing shoes at the moment and my failures and faults are once again in attendence. It was not my plan to disappear from this blogspace for the month of August. It was “a happen,” in the phrasing of Lavinia Dickinson. Summer is tough for me, with the kids at home, with the lack of routine. This year was no exception and August, filled to overflowing with all good and bounteous gifts (family, travel, parties, more family, family again) saw me sinking into my all-too-familiar summer cycles of lethargy, depression, desperation, numbness, alcohol and anger. It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly why summer is so hard for me…especially when in our cultural imagination it’s all about swimming pools and beaches and ice cream and barbecue and fireworks and fireflies and all good things. And I do love those things…except maybe for swimming pools. But reading late last night I came across this quote from Joseph Campbell. I have some issues with Campbell, but this rings true:
You must have a place to which you can go, in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not know what you owe anyone or what anyone owes you. You must have a place you can go to where you do not know what your work is or who you work for, where you do not know who you are married to or who your children are. –as quoted by David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea
It’s a pretty extreme statement. And in our rule-bound and fearful society, it can sound like he’s advocating solipsism and license. Forget who we’re married to? Forget our responsibilities? Heh heh, wink wink. We know what THAT leads to. I don’t think he’s advocating in that direction at all. Rather, as Whyte goes on to say,
To find the roots of our responsibilities, we must go to the roots of our abilities, a journey into a core sense of ourselves…
This is a challenge to us all. Campbell sounds to me like he is advocating for the state some creative types refer to as “the flow.” Entering fully the state of active creative agency, where we forget ourselves in the larger and more intimate work at hand. Such journeying takes space, time, freedom from even our own most dear conceptions of ourselves. We must slip temporarily free of who we are in the daylight, in order that we remain authentic to that inner small light and whisper. And there’s the crux of my exhaustion. So often in summer, I lose myself amid all my outward facing public selves and roles. In mid-August, at a rather desperate moment, I turned around and faced the roots of my own abilities. Don’t think it is easy to hit rock bottom, turn around and say, Okay, again, who am I and what am I supposed to be doing…and risk the answer.
The answer came. Listen to thistle. Plant an oak tree. Clear the stream.Who knows what that means… To find out, I promised myself five handwritten pages a day. No matter the content, so long as I find the edge, face the shadows, and write. As Julia Cameron puts it, I promised to take care of the quantity, and for the time being, left the question of quality unanswered. Today finds me in the midst of the third week of this. It’s terrifying and deeply life-giving. Each day I press right up to the blank white page and say to myself and the universe at large, Forget what you know. Ignore what you’ve been told. Where is the edge today? Some days I describe the view. Some days I steer away quickly to avoid crashing against the rocks. Some days I leap. But something happened that gives me faith in the process, in the daily work of it (if not in myself). After a week, on day 8 (about 35 pages in, if you’re counting), I sat down and in one fell swoop wrote a story that serves as heart and spine. It took two hours. It took eight days. It took seven years. And now I sit here on Day 16, and though I’m not sobbing I could be because I’ve been away from this blogrhythm and blogspace for a month, because I’ve lost track of another part of myself I have to try to find again. Because this space is noisier than I remembered and I wonder how much real work gets done in here, and how much is just noise and sparks flying and not a lot of real generative heat and light. And I admit I do not yet know how to balance my own larger projects, bubbling away in the soup of their cauldron, with the blogwork, which is so much more immediate, more outwardly focused. Stanley Kunitz said, before you can write the poem, you must invent the self that will write the poem. My self and the work I am embarking on are in a wombstate. We need protecting. We need the room to grow, to shift, to dream ourselves into strange new appearances and echoes that only darkness and privacy provide. But to come back into this space is also important because here is community. Here is accountability. Here are ideas, discussion, laughter. Even if it is a little loud at first. You all are really noisy today. So after I post this, I’m going back out to the trail again. It isn’t easy to get back into a groove, with the running or the writing. But what’s a month off now and again, in a lifetime?