When staying means going

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Maybe it was my religious upbringing, but I’ve always been alive to the idea of voices speaking to us behind the curtain of the ordinary world. Not audible voices, but stirrings, like strings being plucked deep inside the self, themes that emerge from the common stuff of life and repeat until our conscious minds can grab hold of them. Lately I’ve felt like the small universe I inhabit has decided to bring me in on a conversation it’s been holding for a long time - about presence and communion and love and beauty and trust. Everywhere I go these days I feel this invitation to enter in. It comes in dreams, books, music, conversation, news articles, daydreams, even in the moments I steal to sit on the front porch and watch the birds. There’s a melody to it, (something like Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, maybe?) smoke and tenderness, a hint that something good lies ahead if I want to join in.

I was lying on the grass on a recent Sunday afternoon, watching the brand new leaves of the maple tree filter out the sun, soaking in the first real warmth of the year. The cedars along the driveway were rubbing their needles together in the breeze, shush-shush-shush, and I could feel the invitation come again, rolling deep through me, like it was coming up from the earth itself. If there had been any real words, they would have been something like this:

Stay. Stay in the quiet. Stay right here.

Lying there, listening, I thought about what it means to stay present to what the world is saying, the knowledge of the ground under our feet, the trees, the creatures. What it means to be present to people and relationships, to our own selves. What it means to be present to Spirit and Love, to really hear and understand and follow. And I understood that it would take an expansion of my thinking and a whole lot of yes to things that other people would perceive as a no, but it was going to be worth it.

There’s a line in Fellowship of the Ring, where Bilbo describes his life (which is deeply tangled in the pull of the Ring) to Gandalf:

Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can't be right. I need a change, or something.

I know I feel this away. Pulled in so many directions, I can only just stretch myself to cover the surface, so inundated with noise that I can’t hear the whispering of Spirit and earth even if I long for it. It’s not in my power to quiet the whole world - but I can quiet myself, and my part in it. I want to live deep, attentive to the community and work I’ve been given. For that reason, I’m slowly eliminating my social media accounts. (I’ll share more about deleting Facebook and Instagram soon.) I’ll focus on my fiction work, maintain this blog, and offer a monthly newsletter to those who wish for a little more. One location, slow writing, space in which I can engage in the real truths and work of my life. A going that is really a staying put, a no that is actually a YES.

Note: I hope you like the new space. I’ve tried to keep it a restful place, easy to navigate and simple in design. You might notice that I’ve disabled the comments. After 13 years of blogging, I know that the comment box can be a busy, distracting place for both me and the reader. If you have something to share or a question to ask, please always feel free to email me directly. I’ll be glad to hear from you. Thank you for coming here. Thank you for subscribing.

much love,

tonia

getting out of my own way

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These are the things that have kept me from writing as much as I should so far this week:

  1. hormone headache/fog
  2. obsessive reading of Don Quixote so I can finish it (!)
  3. sudden worry that I am not educated enough to write anything
  4. googling writing programs/workshops/classes
  5. reading the comments and testimonials of above and worrying even more that I don't know what I'm doing
  6. staring at rain
  7. making four hundred cups of tea
  8. making lists of things I should write and submit to journals/magazines when I get better at self-discipline and writing
  9. worrying about how much I should be posting online and how to find time to create interesting content
  10. googling "how important is an author's social media presence or should you just lock yourself in an internet-free room and write the whole novel?"

It didn't occur to me until yesterday that most of what I am doing is self-sabotaging. Most of that stuff felt really important when I was doing it. But no amount of classes and credentials, social media posts, or cups of tea is going to write this novel. I'm fascinated by how often I get in my own way without realizing it. Novels get written by people who sit down and write. So as hard as it is, I'm packing up the worry and settling down. I can worry about all these things again after "The End."

I'll leave you with this gem from the marvelous Seamus Heaney.

"Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm...the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.” ”

Seamus Heaney

xo
tonia

you just need something to eat

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Last night I had a dream. I was driving down the country highway that leads to tiny town.  Suddenly I realized the windows were toofogged to see out of, and on top of that, I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  I couldn’t see the road, the signs, the intersections,or anything at all.  I began topanic.  Then, in that strange way ofdreams, I woke up on the side of the road, parked at a red light in the city.  Somehow, despite my blindness, I had drivenmyself 30 miles and arrived in a traffic jam. And I still didn’t have my glasses. Terrified, I found my phone and dialed my husband, explained where I wasand what had happened.   Cars werehonking, I had to drive, but I was nearly blind.  What was I supposed to do??

“Don’t worry,” he said in a calm voice.  “You just need something to eat.”

I got out of my car (dream-world, remember), went into a store and got some food and ate it.  And he was right.  Suddenly, I was not scared.  I could think.  I could see!  And I drove myself home

We laughed when I told him about the dream later that day,but I’m always astounded at the psyche’s ability to reveal its own truth.  Even though I wasn’t recognizing it yet, I’min a time of change, pushing into new personal territory. Of course I’m alittle anxious, stressed, and scared.  Leaveit to my practical husband to know what will help.

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Recently, Anna Lovind wrote about the myth of the “fearless” artist.  The (masculine-dominant) idea that we should harness fear and ride it like a bull into our own creative genius.  What if, she suggests, instead of shaming ourselves into action, we recognize the message in the fear and tend to the need beneath it?  I love this insight.  What if we mothered our selves, recognized that sometimes all we need is an apple and a nap to give us the strength we need to face the next task?  

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that values nurturing except in lip service and product advertisement (“You deserve a break today!").   Taking the time to nurture the self (or anyone) almost always registers to us as weakness and time-wasting because our world demands visible productivity, clock-watching, schedule-keeping, busyness, and monetary reward.  We have to decide to do this on our own and recognize it as an integral part of our creative and intellectual process.

People who succeed at their goals are the people who find the way through.  But that doesn’t mean we have to push and shove and wreck ourselves.   We can still get there with intention and gentleness and maybe, at the end, we'll have kept both our dreams and our wholeness. 

I know I’ve got a long drive ahead through unknown territory, so I’m going to put my effort where my mouth is and sleep an extra half hour. Eat something from the earth.  Show up on the yoga mat. Stretch. Get outside. Back off the wine and drink more water. Turn off the internet. Wear thick socks. Stay warm. Breathe. You?

it might help to be simple

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The last couple of days I've given myself the outrageous pleasure of skipping the "usual order of things" and spending the first hour or two of the morning wrapped in a blanket, feet up, little electric fire going, tea in hand, reading. The rest of the house occupants are off to work or university so the house is deliciously quiet and still. This morning I was skimming through William Stafford's books on writing. I like his lack of pretentiousness. Ditch the need to seem intellectual, he says (in not so many words.) Just write out of your own place, out of your own expertise. I long ago decided that was the only way forward for me, I haven't any pedigree or experience that would enable me to write otherwise. My stories are mainly set in the Northwest, about the kind of people I grew up with, working class people. Some of them are curious and complicated, some of them stubborn, vicious, or unreasonably good. They're just ordinary people with ordinary encounters. You don't need to be an academic, or a diplomat, a scientist, or an artist to encounter betrayal, desire, failure, limits, freedom or forgiveness. All of these are readily mined from ordinary lives. But the world is a kind of grasping, upward thrusting place, and so I sometimes need to remind myself that I have stories worth sharing, that just because my place and my expertise lack a certain amount of cachet, it is still my own, and worth speaking from.

One of my Franciscan directives this year is "simplicity," and I've been thinking how much that word should really be tied to "humility." After all, it's often pride that drives us to own more, achieve more, do more. There's a certain lack of hubris required to be content with the old shoes, the good-enough house, the job title that sparks no one's interest. Saying no - to purchases/commitments/experiences/titles - requires a deep contentment and assurance that you are right where you need to be.

"It might help to be simple, and to listen," says Stafford in his marvelously spare way.

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Today I have come to the coffee shop to write. Sometimes I need to shake myself awake, watch the people come in and out, hear snippets of real life conversations. Beside me a group of men are discussing tools - power saw, screwdriver, wrench - in absorbed detail. Behind me, a women's group is discovering self-comforting revelations in their well-used bibles. Strohl's Great Dramatic Sonata is playing in my headphones, but I am not interested in drowning everything out. I am training myself to be hardier, to write in a multitude of environments, under different kinds of pressure. More than that, I have come to watch and learn, for it is people who teach me to write, who teach me the tricks of conversation and mood, the gestures and tics that give characters life.

Novelist Elena Ferrante tells us that a writer's talent

...acts like a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.

Elena Ferrante

I love this image, for in my mind I see a morning river, a single boat, the casting of a glistening net over the rocking waves, the grateful gathering in of whatever has come along.

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"You must revise your life," Stafford told aspiring poets (a take on Rilke's line), and I can feel this with some urgency. It's been a couple of years since I finished my first novel. It hasn't found a publisher yet, but I am not discouraged about that. The longer I write, the more I realize how many novels I will need to write before I come anywhere near to mastery. I want to strip my days down to only what is necessary for this growing, this maturing; take off the layers so I can get right down to the art. Lately, that urgency has been accompanied by the shimmer of fear. There are walled off places within myself, there are things to know about myself that I have yet to uncover.

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The mood in the coffee shop has shifted with the noon light. The crowd has turned over, leaving a quieter mood, a flurry of tapping fingers as people settle into work. I am hungry for more than coffee, so soon I'll go home to the quiet and make my lunch, start working on the next part of my novel while the laundry spins in the washing machine tub. In this section of the story, I am trying to understand how a good person might make peace with someone who does not know how to love. It is a common problem. Sometimes I sit by the window and think of the people I know, the ways they have chosen to face that kind of thing, the ways they didn't. Just before I wrote this out, one of the women behind me said loudly, but with great tenderness,

"After all these years I am just trying to listen to him..."

I've collected this in my net, her words, her tone, and I will add it to all the other things I am just now learning to know.



a franciscan year

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I can't seem to shake off the monastics.  I'm continually drawn to their disciplined rhythms and focused intention in attempting to make an outer life that reflects their inner lives.  A couple of years ago I came across the Third Order Franciscans - an Episcopalian order that commits to live by Franciscan principles in their every day lives.  I love their aims of love and simplicity.  Looking over their Rule (guidelines for committed living) again this last month, I realized it could provide a container, of sorts, for the various threads I want to pursue in this coming year.

The last few years I've been looking for ways to integrate financial discipline with my concern for our (personal) middle-class disconnect - the distance between my pursuit of comfort and my neighbors' daily need, the condition of the planet, the growing class disparity in America, the mental and spiritual plague of consumerism, etc.  I've tried various ways of tackling this, but the Franciscans brought it all together for me:

"Saint Francis...[desired] that all barriers set up by privilege based on wealth should be overcome by love. [...] we avoid luxury and waste, and regard our possessions as being held in trust for God. Personal spending is limited to what is necessary for our health and well-being and that of our dependents. We aim to stay free from all attachment to wealth, keeping ourselves constantly aware of the poverty in the world and its claim on us. We are concerned more for the generosity that gives all, rather than the value of poverty in itself.""Acknowledging that everything belongs to God, we seek to use his gifts wisely and to be good stewards of this fragile earth, never destroying or wasting what God has made. We provide the things necessary for ourselves and our families without demanding luxuries. We seek never to forget the needs of others."

The Rule for the Third Order encompasses several areas other than just finances, but they all braid together to support and enable each other.  I think this is what I've been missing, a cohesive vision that addresses all the various aspects of how we make decisions and what motivates us.  This is a brief outline of the Rule (found here):

The Holy EucharistPenitencePersonal PrayerSelf-DenialRetreatStudySimplicity of LivingWorkObedience

I've written some guidelines for myself that fall into each of these categories (although not always exactly as they are meant for actual members of the Order).  They include praying the Divine Hours 3x daily (as able), periods of silence each day, reducing social media interaction to 1 hour/day (sounds like plenty, but it goes very fast between posting and answering comments, etc.), a no-shopping year, and regular hospitality.   I'm calling it my Franciscan year, and while I know it will be a challenge, I also feel a sense of calling and peace.

"Humility, love, and joy are the three notes which mark the lives of Tertiaries." (Third Order members)

In this context, it does not seem burdensome to keep a routine of prayer or create space for silence or refuse to buy.  It seems like opening a door and entering into the rhythm of the real world, where we work and yearn and make space for each other instead of mindlessly pursuing our own comfort and pleasure.  I'm entering the new year with a lot of peace and assurance.

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Since I know some people will have questions about what our no-shopping year will look like, I'll offer a brief outline of our plan here. Please remember, this is a journey toward integrity, not a competition about resources or stewardship.

2019 No-shopping Year.We will not shop/order/buy anything outside of the following:

  1. Regular household expenses. (I have reduced our food budget slightly but this is a broad category overall and we have talked through what we need and what we can go without.)

  2. Already scheduled home maintenance projects (this includes building a pole barn and some subsequent landscaping.)

  3. Seeds/supplies for a small garden.

  4. Replacing any necessary items that break or are lost.

  5. Gifts for others (reduced budget).

  6. Books necessary for work.

I'm sure there will be exceptions to these guidelines, because that's the way it goes in a large, busy family, but we do have a way to evaluate those needs as they arise.  Mostly it involves talking, waiting, and considering whether it complies with our commitment to simplicity.  I'm so looking forward to using what we have, making do, and learning new ways to meet needs.

As always, I love to hear your thoughts. 

I'll leave you with this version of St Francis' famous prayer for peace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agPnMxp5Occ