What This Is Not
By Mary Oliver
This is not just surprise and pleasure.
This is not just beauty sometimes
too hot to touch.
This is not a blessing with a beginning
and a end.
This is not just a wild summer.
This is not conditional.
“Are you going to get up early again tomorrow?” Dan asked. “Yes. I have to.” I replied. I was struck by the non-dramatic tone of my voice, the way the words came out all on their own. I have to. Of course I don’t have to get up at 5:30 AM today or any day. The children have today off of school, the Monday after break, one more bonus day tacked on, and they have miraculously settled into a pattern of sleeping in. They also, even more miraculously, are now able to get up on their own, turn the TV on and rustle up some pretzel chips. And I have relished this fact, after nearly 10 years of getting up with these warm, cuddly, demanding wee ones. I’ve relished it.
I took a journal on my recent retreat that, as it turns out, I’d begun nearly exactly a year earlier. My first entry was from January 20, 2015. It included a few paragraphs on the general state of things, along with the following quote by Ann Patchett and a few words from the Big G:
“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.” –Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
“I have given you this job (Thirty-One) so you can write. I need you writing.” –The Big G
I’d add, dear Ann, that in addition to making a living (which I do indeed have to do, as no magical fairies are showing up to do it for me, a fact I’d do well to remember), I also have to make a life. And making a life looks like taking my three and two friends to the YMCA for hours full of swimming and playing. And then it looks like coming home and making chicken pot pie for dinner. It looks like staying up late to watch the premiere of Downton Abbey with my husband and then accidentally getting very inspired about Maddy’s room remodel and staying up even later (I promise you, dear reader, that at 12:15 AM this morning I wrote “Make Jackalope” on my to-do list for her room. More on this later because that may well be the best thing I’ve ever written). It looks like making grocery lists so there’s food in the house this week and meal planning and remembering that Gabe’s homework packet is due and, despite promises to myself that THIS month we wouldn’t wait until the last minute, we sure did. There’s quite a lot of life to make.
But all the Greats have told me that in order to write (and this truly, truly is the rub) you actually have to write. It’s ridiculous. And maddening. I walk around with words in my head all the time. I get super inspired and write whole essays while I’m driving to pick Graham up from preschool. The only problem is that they are etched on that always ample but unprocurable, illegible paper in my mind. And I lament that I can not, at these very moments, whip the car over into a grassy field, produce some hidden but easily accessible laptop (Nay! It should be a charmingly clicky yet reliable typewriter!) and be provided graciously by the Universe all the time one could need to gloriously tap out the words springing forth whilst the school somehow knows to shepherd Graham back into class for a bit longer because behold! His mother is WRITING.
I wish I could write when inspiration strikes. But the Greats tell me it don’t work that way, Son. They tell me that the work is done but inserting my rear end into chair and writing. Every day. Every morning. Or afternoon or evening or midnight, but it has to be morning for me right now. Ridiculously early, cold, dark morning.
My dear friend, Sara, gave me the book The War of Art for Christmas. She just drove over and stuck it in my mail box. And I read it during my time at GilChrist, the entire thing. The author, Legend of Bagger Vance writer Steven Pressfield, has this to say regarding his practice:
“I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I’ve done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of my truck in case there’s a fire and I have to run for it. I power down. It’s three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.”
So for me, for this time in my life, it means getting up at 5:30. It means making tea when I’d prefer coffee because coffee is a process and tea is fast. It means crawling down to the cold, messy, cluttered basement to hide from the people who live here. I sit in an uncomfortable chair and my “desk” is the art table, currently cleared for Madalyn’s 1000 piece puzzle. I wonder what I’m going to do when more of the puzzle is assembled. I plug in my laptop, which won’t hold a charge, into a hanging socket and the cord is pulled taught. It’s chilly. I bow my head a moment, flip through my journal or maybe the few books I managed to snag on my way down. I look for something to jump out. My brain is so tired. This is so far removed from those bursts of inspiration where the words flow freely as I drive down back roads. But I get a little tiny spark, just the faintest zip of the neurons, and I think, well, you’ll do as good as any. And although I am cold and although I am tired and although it is work and I’m not sure I’m even any good at all and although I don’t yet trust myself that I’ll keep this up, that I’ll meet myself here every morning, that I will not stand myself up, I write. My vocation is to write and so I write. I just put in the time.
I’ll crawl back upstairs now. I’ll lay on the couch since everyone is still sleeping. There will be so much more work to do today, real and hard. But for now, it is a vacation day and I have done my first work, my most important work, the work of my very heart, so now I’ll rest, thankful that for today, I am a writer.