Thursday, December 23, 2010

Follow the Shepherd Home

I am happiest in places where I can walk to everything I need. I drive maybe 10 miles/week, if I have to. This luxury, however, feeds my fear of driving. After mulling it over for years, I finally purchased a GPS system, complete with a calm female voice telling me which lane to get into and redirecting me when I take a wrong turn.

The GPS came into my life much to the chagrin of my do-it-yourself, I-could-have-been-an-artsy-pioneer husband, who--on a disastrous road trip to see a recent Over the Rhine concert--vented that he now had TWO women telling him what to do when he drove!).

Needless to say, we have earmarked a new rule of marriage: I use the Tom-Tom when I drive to new places, and he does not. And having the GPS means that I will volunteer to drive more frequently (with the idea of finally breaking that wild stallion of phobias: making a mistake, which as we all know, can carry more weight on the highway).

My compass instincts are too easily swayed. Growing up, I learned destinations via landmarks or through daily practice, not intuition or even common sense. "Turn at the next red barn with horses in the alfalfa fields" was a legitimate instruction. Imagine my surprise when I lived in cities where one wrong turn meant possibly circling for hours in a foreign land (which, yes, I have done, martyr that I sometimes am.)

I've been a visual learner on most of life's main roads, as well. For a writer, this can be dangerous, only in the sense that I went through college and my 20s always looking ahead to one version of "success" or another: what was the next thing I could read, publish, write, win? No pun intended (well, maybe), but I was driven with a capital "D." I wore what you could call "literary blinders," my life focused on what was just around the corner...

And who am I kidding? The blinders are comfortable, though kind of like texting while driving: really freakin' dangerous to your overall health. And now, the Internet brings us a constant hailstorm of journals and contests and blogs and reviews we did not write and have not written and maybe, if we let this realization sink in--we never will .

This is my old self talking. Or, at least this time of year, it's easier to hope that it is; that come Jan. 1, I'll be able to shed that layer of my self-snake-skin that follows around every artist: doubt. Seems at least once a year we have our mental burnout when we swear we will never write again...Thank god, we grow out of that version of our selves. Over and over, we step into a new road, breathless.

My dad once gave me a quote he'd read somewhere: "The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to those less talented as a consolation prize." I used to let the heart of this steer me. But in the end, it just led me circling a city I'd never get to. (If I spend my whole life in a fog of creative entitlement, when will I actually get to enjoy the things I'm creating?) I think acceptance and groundedness trump doubt any day.

Here's the joy-bound slow lane academia never taught me: the drive isn't worth it if the gas tank's filled with the wrong stuff. I know, I know--enough aphorisms and metaphors. Here, "drive" means what makes us write every day. Here, "gas tank" means our storage of self-kindness, empathy, patience, and faith.

William Stafford once read a poem at an event where an audience member shouted "I could have written that!" Stafford thought for a moment, then said from the podium, "Well, you didn't... But you have a chance to write something of your own" (paraphrased from an excerpt in Early Morning... by Kim Stafford--a book, by the way, that has changed me).

For 50+ years, Stafford rose early to write, what he called "doing the hardest thing first." His usual pattern started at 4 a.m. (you can read that short sentence again if you need to). His days were filled with his family, teaching, correspondence, and a fiery love triangle with pacifism, literature, and nature.

After researching Stafford's work, here are the road signs I gleaned for the kind of life I want to lead, both on the page and off of it:

"Life Advice from William Stafford"

Do the hardest work first

Know there’s a thread, and follow it

Follow smoke’s way (be flexible, vulnerable, surprise-able)

Send your work into the world like water leaving a hilltop

Certainty & its anger can kill—even a little at a time

Know the weight of a happy problem

When you get stuck, lower your standards & keep going

Do not engage in war of any form

"Every person you meet has a god / and is an animal /
Find both"

Though technology has usually been at the root of some of my most stressful moments these past few months, I am grateful to be sitting here, blogging about an imperfect man and writer who knew who and what his shepherds were (and who has inspired me again to revisit the source of my craft and belief systems). I am grateful for an ocean of new creative work in the world where I am a small and stubborn wave. And I am grateful for that insistent female voice that will undoubtedly keep urging, "In one mile, get in the left lane."

May that voice be my own, and may I learn not to grit my teeth in unfamiliar territory. May that voice call me home, back to the constant advent called "a writing life."

"Turn," says the muse, says the next fresh morning, "Turn here."

("Follow the Shepherd Home" by Mindy Smith)

1 comment:

  1. What great and inspiring words...both yours and the Life Advice from William Stafford.
    I applaud you in your quest to carry on into unfamiliar territory.
    When you're out there in that ocean, turn a little to your left...I'll be the other "small and stubborn wave".