Writing is a practice that requires presence. Presence is something that has felt exceedingly fragile to me in the past year. During this time, I’ve ached to write. Story ideas have swum around in my head. Yet, I’ve lacked the presence to sit with them and turn them into words.
Everywhere I travel, I carry with me a small notebook. Whether or not these notebooks have lined or blank pages has never really mattered, as I’ve always considered them my place to be messy. In them, I can scribble down myriad thoughts that pop in and out of my mind. I can give myself permission to put my nagging perfectionism aside and simply capture these thoughts, these moments, before they fall like forgotten autumn leaves and I’m left grasping for something I neglected to be present with when I had the chance. I used to fill up one of these relatively large notebooks every five to six months. The one I carry with me now is very small, a mere five- by three-inch scratchpad that can fit into a pocket. I’m not even halfway through it, and I’ve been carrying it around with me now for a little over two years.
When I quit my day job about two months ago to pursue writing full-time, the dreamer in me saw a road ahead paved with endless words and inspiration. The realist in me knew that I might be exactly where I am right now, sitting with my laptop, drinking a beer, and forcing myself to write by writing about my inability to write.
This simple act makes my chest feel tight because I know that I plan to put these words on my long-neglected blog, Rough Outlines, where they may (or may not) be read. I’m going to do so without agonizing over each word, without trying to make sure each bit of syntax is just right. Because that rigidness, that repeated act of not writing simply for the joy of it, is part of what brought me here, to this pint of porter and this attempt to get the words flowing from my fingertips again.
The day after I quit my job in public policy and research, which I had poured myself into for the last roughly eight years, I boarded a plane to Sedona, Arizona to meet my mother and an intimate group of other women in the desert for an art retreat. For the next nine or so days, a headache raged in my skull as my body released the stress of my previous work. For the bulk of my time in Sedona, I leaned on my old (and very flawed) coping mechanism for this type of pain—I did my best to push it aside and continue with the tasks ahead.
Our creativity queen, Kat Kirby, empowered us to put our inner critics aside, as well, and dive into a variety of luscious mediums—liquid acrylics, collaging, stamping, printing, beading. And, that is exactly what I did. Choosing to at last recognize the ignored creative soul within me, I spent hours poring over my art journal. I would work well into the night and into our “break” time, enjoying the paint and glue building up on my hands, the moments when particular colors or themes would come together in just the right way, as well as the experiences where my artistic plans would go awry and I’d make lemonade of them.
But, despite the rush of joy I had manically crafting my “perfect” art journal, I couldn’t escape the thud, thud, thud ravaging my mind.
Late that week, I had an ayurvedic massage. When the masseuse told me how she had felt stress within me and how that stress was all trying to travel up and out of my body, but was getting trapped at my head, I had to bite my tongue and fight the lump in my throat to stop from breaking into tears. I didn’t want either of us to have to see my pain. What an inconvenience that would have been.
By the end of the art retreat, I had created a journal that meant everything to me, that was soaked in my creative spirit, hopes, and dreams. Kat explained to us that we’d be sharing our work that evening, that she was hoping we could share a little about how we felt when we got there and how we felt now.
With my project complete, I gave myself permission to leave the studio and try to focus on the pain in my head. The thing was, I knew how to get rid of it, it was just that the process to do so was inconvenient. I needed to sit with it. I needed to let it take over, acknowledge it, and source where it was coming from. Only when I would take the time to turn toward it would it subside.
I walked around the manicured grounds of the retreat center and found a little nook tucked back near a waterfall and thick bushes of rosemary. I sat down on a heavy piece of red rock and took a deep breath in and a deep breath out. How did I feel when I got here? I asked myself.
The rosemary bushes were alive with the buzzing of bees. For a moment, I let go of my busy mind and I watched the bees hard at work. It reminded me of a stanza from a Kahlil Gibran poem, “On Work”:
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with
distaste, it is better that you should leave your work
and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of
those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a
bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of grapes, your
grudge distills a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the
singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the
day and the voices of the night.
My eyes filled with tears, blurring the bees, the rosemary, and the waterfall into an impressionist desert landscape. It felt like such an honor to watch these bees working with joy, doing something I’d somehow forgotten how to do along the way. I wanted to soak up their alms, to learn from what they had to share. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt when I had first arrived at the art retreat because I didn’t even know how I felt then. I was so burnt out that I had lost complete connection with my own body and mind. I had arrived numb and in survival mode. I wasn’t present with anything.
My eyes filled with tears again as I attempted to share this with the other women in the art retreat during our “gallery” showing. This time, I tried to accept the tears as the beginning of coming home to myself. I wanted to turn back toward the pain so I could find a way through it all, and, indeed, I was finally feeling the lifting of my multi-day headache.
Since leaving my day job to pursue writing full-time—during which I’ve done, well, some writing—I’ve learned that burnout isn’t just some buzzword millennials like to throw around. Burnout is a real and deep and crippling valley to find oneself in, and the only way out is to acknowledge that it is present, to be present with it. This is harder to do than it may seem in a society that prides itself on perfection, productivity, and “performance goals.”
A few weeks ago, I found myself in the bathroom of the Blount County Library. I was at the library for the inaugural Cormac McCarthy Literary Festival, and the beaded necklace I had worn that day had unraveled and scattered across the floor. I was organizing the beads I’d collected off the bathroom floor when a girl walked into the bathroom. She had to be around 10 or 12 years old, and immediately began chatting with me next to the sinks and soap.
It was clear that this girl had not come into the bathroom to go to the bathroom. As she would soon explain, she came to the bathroom to get away from her “mee-maw” and little sister.
“Sometimes I just need some space,” she told me. She also told me how embarrassing it must have been to have my beads scatter across the floor, to which I had to smile.
Two years ago, I would have scribbled all about this encounter into the little notebook I carry around with me to capture these little life moments for later stories. That day, I didn’t. I wasn’t present then, with myself, or with the girl who was looking for connection in a different slice of the world. But, a few weeks later, I finally did, and it was (hopefully) the beginning of something forgotten.
I scribbled this story into my notebook while walking along the Little Pigeon River in my new “hometown.” The air was crisp, the sky blue, and my mind and heart were present. I was open to the stories that surround us every day if we show up to bear them witness. After I scribbled her story down, I realized there were about a dozen other moments from that very moment that I needed to capture. It’s amazing what’s right in front of you, if you’re present.
So, these 1,600 or so words, really, are just to tell you, dear reader, that writing takes presence, as do most of the things worth doing in a life. It’s ok to give yourself permission to be present, even if that means you don’t appear very productive in the meantime. And, when all else fail, try writing about not being able to write.