Friday, March 27, 2009

Writing Wake-Up Call

My alarm clock goes off these days at 5:00 am. I put on my bathrobe, make the bed, so I can't crawl back in, and I head to my office in the lower level of the house. I turn on one desk lamp, light a candle, wrap a quilt around my legs, take three deep breaths and whisper a prayer of gratitude for the night's rest and a prayer of hope for an open heart as I move through the day and then I begin to write.

Last weekend I attended a writing conference, Awakening the Soul of the Writer, at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, WI. About two minutes into the opening presentation by a former Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Ellen Kort, I wrote a note to myself, "When was my most productive time as a writer? When I was getting up at 5 and writing for two hours. Time to start doing that again." When that first thing in the morning writing time was the norm, I wrote the 11 essays that are the core of my as yet unpublished book, Tears, The Spiritual Invitations of Grief and Loss. During that period sometimes I returned to my writing later in the day, but no matter what else was on the day's schedule; no matter what else pulled me away from my desk, I already had done two hours of writing time in the quiet of the day's beginnings.

I have been to many writing conferences, workshops, and retreats over the years and have even been a presenter at a good number of them, and I am always stimulated and inspired by them, but most often the fruits have been short-lived. By the time I get home, put away the pile of books I bought at the conference book store, filed my notes, emptied my suitcase and started the laundry, the good energy and positive thoughts have dissipated. Obviously, sometimes what I experience at a conference is integrated in ways not always visible, and I in no way regret attending any of these conferences over the years, and I will attend others. This time, however, the fruit of the conference was sampled before I even got home. I set the clock in my hotel room for 5:00 and when it went off the next morning, I got up and wrote. True, the two hours were not very productive, but my goal was to re-establish a beneficial habit. Since coming home I have continued the practice every morning, and the time has been so productive that yesterday I finished revising an essay and submitted it to Presence, the journal for Spiritual Directors International.

I could berate myself for all the mornings I have not gotten up to write; all the days when no writing occurred, even when I intended to write. But giving into regrets is not writing, any more than sleeping is writing. Writing is writing. Other activities may support the writing, enhance the writing, and inspire the writing, but they are not writing. Writing is writing.

So for now I am getting up at 5:00. I have a house guest for a few days and April is full of travel and more house guests. The days and nights will be full, and I look forward to each day, but the alarm clock is still going to go off at 5. Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me, Amazing Grace, The Cloister Walk and other books, was the conference keynoter and she said, "You only need to do it today. Then when tomorrow is today, you only need to do it today." This morning I almost did not turn on the light when the alarm went off, but I told myself, "I only need to do this today." Norris also quoted G. K. Chesterton, "God says, 'Do it again,' to the sun. 'Do it again,' to the moon." God has never gotten bored with creation and the act of creating. "Ok, Nancy," I say to myself, "Do it again."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reading as Sacred Time

One of my favorite pictures from my childhood is one in which I am sitting with my mother and father and they are reading to me. I was probably three or four. Then when I became a parent, one of the best parts of the day was reading time. Once when we were on a family vacation I was reading to us in the car and when we came to the end of the sad story, my husband had to pull over to the side of the road because we were all in tears. Now there is reading time with my grandchildren. In fact, the day before our grandson was going to be born, my granddaughter and I cuddled on her bed all afternoon and read together. With each book she removed from the shelf she said, "This is my favorite." Sacred times.
Books have always been sacred objects for me. Reading time is sacred time. The places where I read are sacred, as well.
Sometimes, however, it is all overwhelming. The piles of books that await. The lists of books that call. The books about books, such as 1000 Books to Change Your Life (Time-Out Guides, Ltd.) or the article in the new issue of MentalFloss, "The 25 Most Influential Books of the Last 25 Years" suggest book after book after book to read.
In recent years I have had a harder time making a decision about what to read next. The decision seems more important these days, for fewer reading years are ahead of me than behind me. Therefore, each choice means the elimination of many, many other possibilities. There simply won't be enough life-time to read all the books I want to read. In years past if the book I was reading wasn't as good as anticipated, I would continue to read to the ending. Not finish a book? Unthinkable. I am now a "quitter." If I do not become engaged early in the reading, even if I have purchased the book, "slap" goes the cover, and I turn to the pile of books next to my reading chair in the dining room or the shelves of books in my office or the living room or our bedroom--all luring me. "Choose me. Choose me." The decision time begins all over again.

I tend to assemble a "Book Buffet," meaning I read several books at the same time. Well, not at the same time, but you know what I mean! Currently, in my morning meditation time I read the day's meditation in The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo plus a chapter each in Loving-Kindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzburg and A New Christianity For a New World, Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born by John Shelby Spong. With this kind of material how easy it would be to just stay in bed and read all day.

Last night I finished reading American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, the novel based on the lives of Laura and George W. Bush, an engrossing read. Because I always read before turning out the light, I needed to select a new book. I have a library book waiting for me, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, one of the New York Times best books of 2008, but I decided instead to take one of my "dip" books to bed with me. "Dip" books are ones in which I can read a chapter or selection out of order or as I feel inclined. My current "dip"books are Let There Be Night, Testimony on Behalf of the Dark edited by Paul Bogard, A Jury of Her Peers, American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter, and Small Wonder, Essays by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver won.

In addition, I usually have both a novel and a nonfiction book going at the same time, and I am at a point of decision in the nonfiction world, too. Will it be SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life, A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck (Maybe this will help me with the book selection process.), The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes by Peter Matthiessen in preparation for doing some volunteer work with the International Crane Foundation or Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi? Stay Tuned. Before I begin to write, including a post for this blog, I read a bit in one of my writing books. Today I read a few pages of Old Friend from Far Away, The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg.

Is this true for you? I am more inclined to read favorite books again than I was when I was younger. I seem to have given into the knowledge that I will never taste all the books that interest and appeal to me, so why not settle in with an old favorite? Also, I no longer feel compelled to read a book because someone in my life recommends it. Tell me about it, please, and why you loved it and share your enthusiasm. I love book talk, but it may or may not appear in my Book Buffet. Oh, and one last observation about reading in the sacred sixties, I am reading more and watching less television. True, often HGTV draws me in or watching a movie appeals, but more and more the book in hand as well as the one in the bush wins. I am sure you know what I will be doing next. Enjoying sacred time with a book.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Moving into Silence

Lately, I've noticed a tendency in myself to be silent. I notice the times when in the past I would have lifted my voice, cast my vote, begged to disagree, affirmed, explained, expounded, taken center stage and maybe even pounded the table or waved a fist, at least metaphorically. I've noticed a decrease in the times I've felt a need to make myself and my opinion and my experience known. There have been fewer times I've said, "Oh, I read that, too." or "I saw that movie, and I think...." or "I've been there. Did you see...?" I focus less on when it is my turn to speak, to prove my worth, to make myself visible, to teach and direct.

Instead, I move into silence.

I wonder if this is a sign of age, a new stage of age. My father, age 85, for the last year or so has stated softly, but firmly that he prefers more and more to be home. He is content for the most part to be alone in his routine. He is not bored or depressed, but his needs for interaction, for society, for external stimulation are less. I've always valued winter as a time of hibernation, and I see that cave time becoming a priority for my father. He seems to be slowing down the rhythm of his days and his body and moving into a more prolonged hibernation. I see those signs in myself as well.

In the past I've said I want my crone years, whatever time period that represents, to be about expanding, about opening even more, and yet, here I am becoming still, a statue in the park, an ice sculpture in a grey, below zero day, a presence in the corner of the room. No, I'm not asleep nor even dozing, but I am still, silent. I am opening and expanding in silent ways. So little feels truly light enough or deep enough to need my voice. I am turning over that job to someone else and allowing myself to finally integrate the words I have been saying, but not always practicing. The outloud words are giving way to the silent spaces. The voice identified as mine is lowering itself into a deeper register.

However, I have no wish to be one of those old people who suddenly clears her throat and makes a pronouncement. "She doesn't speak often, but when she does, you better pay attention," says a grandchild or younger friend or a person in the back row.

No, I just know it is time to be silent, to not get in the way of what it is I am to know and to be.