Monday, February 19, 2007

On Not Writing (Peter)

February 2007

Last week in Quaker meeting, I was thinking about what I would do if I won $100,000,000 in the lottery. Yeah, I know it sounds like wool gathering, but I came up with one real insight. After all the good causes I'd support, like AFSC and battered women's shelters and St. Gregory's Abbey and Linden Hill School, and after all the friends for whom I'd set up trust funds, then I got to what I'd want for myself. I'd buy oil paints (because I've always thought it would be fun to learn to paint) and I'd set aside time and space for writing.

And I thought some about the novel I started writing a decade ago. It’s about 80% finished, and it’s good, but every time I pick it up again I find myself starting at the beginning, trying to “comb it out” for its entire length, and I’ve got to stop that. I’ve got to put down the first half of the novel and call it DONE and start with those still-unwritten transitional chapters in the middle.

But a week has gone by, and I haven’t actually written anything. Or at least nothing more creative than some lesson plans and a list of things-to-do.

I had some idea yesterday of sitting down to the computer when I first got up and being productive—either doing a bunch of grading or digging down into some writing. But instead I opened up my web page software and set up a template for a thumbnails page and then spent pretty much the whole rest of the day cropping and resizing photos of my miniatures for a new gallery page on my web site. Oh, and I updated my comic book inventory, and I ordered a few more minis on line. And I made love with Cat. That’s always worthwhile. But I didn’t write. I didn’t write any fiction, I didn’t journal, I didn’t write letters, and even that would have been writing, would have been creative and literate in a way that resizing photos all day just wasn’t. I mean, the web stuff is creative too, in its own way, but it’s like potato chips for the mind. Salty crunchy goodness, but ultimately not all that satisfying.

I had an idea yesterday, while walking the dogs, of setting up two timers next to my computer. One of them would time me while I write at the computer—any kind of writing—and the other would time me while I do anything else at the computer—primarily web stuff. And I would set a strict policy of 50% of my seat time to be spent writing. (Though thinking about it now, lesson planning would have to be its own category, not subject to either timer.)

Feeling the River (Peter)

November 2006

Cat pointed out something the other day: While I am the one who often expresses a wish for more social life, she is the one who usually makes it happen. Now there are a couple of reasons for that. One, as she correctly observed, is that she is sometimes a naysayer. She’s very often too tired, too sick, too stressed-out, too busy with grading to go out on the town and enjoy herself, so I’ve learned to let her be the one to make plans for the both of us because if I do, they won’t happen. But the other reason has to do with me, and my own creeping sluggishness. I get into a social rut, I get out of the habit of intimacy (like getting out of the habit of writing) and then I forget how to do it and how to enjoy it. We had Thanksgiving dinner this year at the meetinghouse, and it was very nice. There were about a hundred people there, and it was fun chatting with David and Will and Laura. But it was me that decided not to stay for the singing after dinner, because I was a little bored and talking felt a little strained and I wanted to go home and watch Doctor Who alone with Cat.

So what’s wrong with me? It’s like lying down on the ground for a nap and waking up to find that vines and tree roots have grown over my body. What happened to my signature style of intimacy?

Cat was talking yesterday about “the river” as one of her images of God. There was one spring in Randolph, Vermont when the river through the center of town was especially swollen with runoff from melting snow, and she could walk out to the middle of the bridge and put her hands on the railing and feel through her hands and through the soles of her feet the whole bridge vibrating with the rush of water flowing under it. She says that at Quaker meeting, often it’s like she can do the same thing—put out her hands and touch the railing and feel the power of the river of joy that runs under the whole universe.

I’ve got my own river image, but it’s not as nice. For me, it’s like the river runs mostly underground, through great subterranean tunnels of stone, and I can’t see or feel it at all most of the time. But the underground river is the source of all life, and people’s lives grow up around those places where the tunnels break the surface, where the river roars through channels cut in deep gorges. But you can’t swim in a river like that. So instead we build bridges across the gorge, and build our houses on those bridges. And life, day-to-day, is mostly about engineering that bridge to keep is safe and secure. The more I focus on that, the smoother my life runs, but focusing on the bridge takes me out of touch with the river below. The water is what really creates and sustains the whole enterprise, but I don’t feel it. What I feel is the joists that hold up the bridge. I’m only really aware of the river when all the rickety structures I’ve built over it fall down, or threaten to.

In times of crisis, the magick is there when I need it. The Gods are there when I need them. But day-to-day? I can go really deep at a Pagan gathering. That night that my silver athame ended up in the ford under the full moon, I mean holy crap! And at New England Yearly Meeting too, really deep. But today? And last week and next week?

And I do need that awareness day-to-day. Another thing Cat said yesterday: The proper life of a Quaker is not to save the world; it is to be close to God. And, damn, how do I keep from forgetting that? I mean, the words are easy. I could carve the words in stone, leave sticky notes for myself all over the house, have them tattooed to my forehead, but how do I keep from losing their meaning and substance in all of the day-to-day?

God and friends and writing. For me, it seems that all three will thrive or none of them will. But so much of the focus of my life has to be on building and rebuilding that bridge, and my day-to-day gets frittered away on teaching & grading & lesson planning, on laundry & dishes, on paying bills and trying to keep up with the finances. And also on polite chit-chat with friends I won’t miss when they’re gone.

A Pagan Gathering, Part II: The Gods Whack Me Upside the Head (Peter)

October 2006

I was thinking yesterday about the really nifty confluence of magickal symbols I had available. The moon is full, the land here has always felt very alive and aware, the footpath to the campsites goes across a ford in the river, and I’m wearing my sterling silver athame at my belt. (An athame, for my non-Pagan readers, is a knife used as a magickal tool.) I was thinking about how neat it would be to take the athame and wash it in the water of the ford under the full moon here at this gathering. But I kept thinking, nah, that’s just too poetic. It all fits together too neatly to be a real leading. I’m too caught up in my own ideas about magick. Let’s just wait and listen. And then at the end of the day, when we got back to our tent, I found that at some point the athame had fallen out of its sheath. I got my flashlight and went back looking for it, muttering to myself under my breath about trying to maintain a neat campsite and keep track of all my stuff in the dark and blah, blah, blah, and…

One guess where I found the athame.

A Pagan Gathering, Part I: Finding the Path (Peter)

October 2006

OK, it really is kind of freaky to be sitting out in the woods by our tent typing on a laptop. Cat keeps teasing me: “Some people write with paper and pencil.” Yes, I answer, and some people use clay tablets.

It was a bit stressful getting here this year, but that was mostly just because we kept expecting some catastrophe, or expecting each other to get really stressed out. I kept trying to outrun the predictions of disaster I expected from Cat until I’d gained almost a whole lap and was coming up on disaster from behind.

It’s not raining. No really, get this: IT’S NOT RAINING. Chef Michael told us at lunch today that last year’s rainfall was confirmed at 15 inches in 36 hours. This year they’ve built a footbridge over part of the ford, and a “berm” (think of the concrete barriers that keep suicide bombers from driving up onto the White House lawn) to protect the buildings from the runoff from the reservoir just up the road.

We were talking in the car on the way here about what our spiritual and magickal lives were like fifteen years ago versus today. How alive and fiery it all was, back in the days when I felt like a piece of iron thrust into a blast furnace. Is it inevitable that that stage would pass? And is it a good thing or a bad thing? At least some parts of it are good. In that time of great upheaval, I became an adult and a husband and a father, and I still function as all three of those. We’re not growing as fast as we were because we’re more grown now. Cat says if we had really “arrived” where we’re meant to be, her spiritual life would be a lot more ecstatic. It’s great to be householders, to have a home and a family, but that should not mean the loss of ecstasy—of mind blowing, knock-your-socks-off magick. Quaker meeting is wonderful, but we’ll never dance naked around a bonfire with the elders of Mt. Toby.

And some of that I feel too. I envy the way Maureen has an ongoing, daily relationship with her spirit guides that I’ve very rarely been able to maintain with mine. But I also know that I can’t force that kind of fiery relationship to keep raging, and if I were to try, I’d either go stale and insincere or I’d go all rigid and fanatical. Finding the spiritual path that is mine at the moment (finding my leadings, to use the Quakerese term) can be a lot like standing with my eyes closed trying to feel the air currents on my face. And at other times it’s like getting smacked in the head by what should have been obvious. And there are some spiritual experiences that just aren’t mine. My spiritual practice is largely about simply being ready for the ones that are. The Gods come, the magick comes, when They’re needed, but not always when They’re called. And it would be wonderful to be so masterful a practitioner that I could walk with my spirit animal at my side every day, but it won’t happen. Some people, in trying, become smarmy and self-deceiving. But no, I wouldn’t go that route and now that I’m out of my adolescence I wouldn’t turn into one of those Evangelical ecstatics either. I’d be like Charles and Regina, former caretakers at Temenos (a Quaker/Buddhist retreat center near Mount Toby). A few years ago, when I told them about a visionary experience I’d just had in the fairy circle behind Pine Cabin, Regina turned to Charles and said, “You know, that’s the trouble with living in a temple. Stuff like that never happens to you because you’re always too busy sweeping the floor.”

It's been a while (Peter)

Cat and I write differently; Cat is more of a journalist while I am more of a novelist. This is part of why I haven't posted anything to the blog since the school year began. But now that I'm into my spring vacation week, I'm finally finding the time to sit down and rework a few journal entries from the past six months into blog entries.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Blogging in a Spirit of Worship

So it occurred to me the other day to describe what I'm trying to do in Quaker Pagan Reflections as "blogging in a spirit of worship." (I may get around to adding that line to the banner description--Peter says it fits his focus, too.)

I'm feeling a bit inadequate lately for how seldom I post to the blog, but I do think that this is a pretty good explanation for why that is. So often I'll have the seed of a blog entry in me as I leave meeting for worship... but by the time I get to sit down to write it, I've had to deal with an hour or more of unrelated demands on my attention. Then there's my grade book calling me, and the weekend is almost over, so I've got to get all the little last-minute chores done before school starts again on Monday morning. No problem, I think to myself, I'll finish this post up on Monday night. Well, here it is, Tuesday night, almost ten days after I started the last blog entry, and I've _just_ managed to finish it.

The temptation is to post for the sake of posting.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the frustration of unwritten entries is the real problem. It's beautiful and peaceful on my drive into work each morning--I drive past woods and fields and, most days, a stunning sunrise. It's all quite conducive to reflections, and I'll often feel writing bubbling up in me. But by the end of the day, the first time I get another chance to sit down and think thoughts of my own, let alone write, it's so often gone--or the Life has gone out of it, and it would be rote and stale even if I did get to write it down.

I've got at least three different entries knocking around inside my gourd at the moment. It's not that they're miraculous or world-changing, I suppose, but, well, I just want to get them OUT there. Before they go flat, or I find I can no longer reconnect to the spark that made them worth writing in the first place. Writing just takes so much _time_, dammit!

Who knows? If we get that big snow storm the forecast is promising for tomorrow, maybe I'll get to hatch some of these eggs.

In any case, with the occasional break for a simply-human meta-blog entry like this, I will try very hard not to begin blogging for the sake of blogging. If I lose a spark, I'll just have to wait and trust it will come back again... maybe this time when I've got a few days off?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

First Day Wobblies

As always, when I got done with Quaker meeting this morning, I was surprised at how tired I was. I remember Peter, during our courtship, once writing me one of his patented drop-dead-sincerity letters. The emotional honesty and self-reflection were (as usual for him) uncompromising, and when he got to the end of the letter he wrote, "Ugh. 10:30 AM and I'm ready to go back to bed. Emotional honesty is hard work."

Quaker meeting is hard work, too, though work of the best kind, and I typically forget, from week to week, how draining it is. Not draining in a bad way, exactly--more like in the same way a good sweatlodge is draining. You know you need to drink plenty of fluids and treat yourself tenderly for the rest of the day... let the spiritual cleansing take hold.

I don't know if all Quakers quake, but I know that I do... often, after a meeting, my knees are wobbly. Anytime I hear another Quaker mention having a similar reaction, I'm reassured. I feel quite awkward and self-conscious about the ways my response to worship seems... what's the word? The Britishism "twee" comes to mind. But I think I'm really talking about looking or acting the way I imagine someone would look or act if they were trying to seem "spiritual-er than thou." I value the depth of the worship that sometimes makes me wobbly. And I value the tenderness of heart that sometimes results in my eyes going teary. But I don't actually relish the runny nose and wobbly knees. I am also wicked self-conscious about it.

I hate to seem maudlin. And, since turning 40, never mind going Quaker, I'm afraid I leak a lot. Long distance phone commercials can make me weepy, never mind going into that place of deep communion that sometimes comes in worship. I can get myself all tied up in knots over this, so it's incredibly reassuring when down to earth, no-nonsense Quakers like Jill H, describe feeling tired after meeting.

Maybe I picked this self-consiousness up among Pagans. Not that Pagans are (as Quakers sometimes seem to me to be) dressed in neutral tones in their emotional expressions. Quite the reverse--I have seen some amazing histrionics among prima donna High Priestesses in my day. And very often, the Pagan priests and priestesses I respect most deeply are, when not Carrying deity in a ritual, the most unassuming. It's like the old riddle: Q: how can you tell the elders in a group of Pagans? A: They're the ones wearing street clothes. The flowing robes and fancy titles, and the self-important airs, are the domain of posers. And I seem to have taken in a message about avoiding the appearance of drama. Not a bad instinct, in some ways, but an unnecessary straight-jacket at times.

I remember a recent Ministry and Worship meeting when Geoff L was reading aloud from a report on ministry from a member of the meeting. Our meeting does not record gifts in ministry... but if we did, we'd certainly record hers. As Geoff read her letter out loud to us, I found that it evoked for me a very strong sense of what I experience in worship, quite often in her ministry. I found that I had to do all kinds of mental gymnastics not to go weepy over it. So there I was, blinking, looking at the light fixtures, chewing the inside of my mouth... anything to keep from tearing up.

And then Geoff paused, and you could hear the emotion in _his_ voice. And I looked up, and, wow. Everyone was feeling it, and you could see it in our eyes.

What an unimaginable relief.

And this week, we had a meeting for worship that I, at least, was very deeply moved by. And I wobbled out for fellowship, and enjoyed talking to one fFriend and another... poured myself a truly horrible cup of tea, went to pour it out... and, in a chat over soap-suds, learned that R. was feeling dizzy. No big deal. Not coming down with the flu. Just a slight case of post-meeting dizziness.

There we all are, standing around, discussing jobs and kids and tea and coffee, washing up and scheduling meetings with one another, and how many of us are still vibrating, like plucked guitar strings.

I still feel really, really wierd about it. Outward and visible signs and all. It's hard to trust the people around me to be simply matter-of-fact, neither unduly impressed nor unduly wierded-out if some of the more prosaic aftereffects of worship are visible to the naked eye.

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