Today instead of a Wednesday links post I’ve decided to write a regular post with a few links thrown in.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been moving my office from our large spare room to our small one, in preparation for my mother-in-law moving into our home in September.
Initially I liked having a large office, but it didn’t take long for it to become a dumping ground for things I didn’t know what to do with. Add to that the boxes of stuff that were never unpacked from a previous move, plus a few more boxes of stuff that were sent to me last year from my university office. There was gardening stuff, sewing stuff, knitting stuff, photographs still in their developing folders. Magazines I’d long since cancelled my subscription to, journal articles I’d never read, science books I’d never use again.
Moving offices became an exercise in unearthing my past, including letters all the way back from when I was 4 years old and my parents were trying to get me into kindergarden early.
There were the photo albums my parents put together of me from childhood to age 16, photos from trips to Peru and the UK, various backpacking and day hikes in the Rockies; field photos from the high Arctic and the northern Coast Mountains; poetry and prose from my high school and university years; magazine articles and newsletter items I’d written during my PhD. Hell, even a printed copy of my PhD thesis itself, which I’d somehow never gotten around to binding and making official.
I have boxes of letters and cards from friends, family, and my husband; a Rubbermaid tub full of all my journals since I first started filling them in high school; and another tub full of published writing. I have a viola (which I used to play, just like I used to play the French horn and the piano). It reminded me of being part of the community orchestra in Victoria back when I was finishing my PhD—a welcome distraction from the drudgery of writing a thesis.
Here was my life, strewn around me in books, photos, instruments, and words. And me sitting in the middle of it, wondering where I went wrong.
A friend shared a post on the importance of protecting your inner life. It includes the quote:
“We must…remember St. Exupery’s words that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” We must wall off our inner selves from the colonizing part that assesses, quantifies, judges.”
17 years ago I had a rich inner life. I wasn’t on Twitter or Facebook, and I definitely wasn’t blogging. All I did was be a grad student, read, walk, cycle, hike, and swim a lot. I went to writing and editing workshops. I kept a regular journal.
Those poems, short stories, and essays I ran across while cleaning? They were good! I’d had the writing spark in me even then, but I feel like the spark is dimmer now.
I wonder when that inner life started to decline. Perhaps during my first depressive episode while finishing my PhD. Or maybe during my first faculty position, when I was focused on learning to navigate the anachronistic hallways of academia. Or maybe during my second (and final) faculty position, where I realized too late that I wasn’t a ‘good fit,’ as academic interviewers like to say, and that being young and female was a liability rather than an asset.
Granted, my circumstances are different now and I don’t have the energy or mental capacity to manage everything I used to. But I do think there’s something to be said for protecting your inner life—and I’m not doing a good enough job of it.
This is important because your inner life isn’t just about writing. It’s also there to guide you, subconsciously, in the decisions you make every day about life. What to prioritize each day (because we all know that “how we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” according to Annie Dillard). Where to live. Who to associate with. What to strive for.
With an inner life in disarray, the path forward seems shadowy and vague, with unexpected side branches that you’re not sure whether or not you should explore.
But it’s not just about our own inner life. It’s also about how the world around us is changing—and how we’re impacted by these changes. In this Vox article about Al Gore, his daughter says:
“Progress” pushes people away from the work of the home, connections to community, and natural cycles…There’s a moral and spiritual pain at the bottom of all this…it has to do not just with feeling disconnected from the life-giving beauty of the natural world, but also disconnected from community and culture, having a purpose and a role.”
Cleaning out my office helped me see that there are activities and places I’ve loved for a long time, but that just don’t exist in my current life. I feel disconnected from community and nature, and feel like I need these activities and places back: regular writing time, the mountains, cycling, swimming, hiking.
Maybe I’m realizing what Antonia Malchik wrote in a January 2017 essay:
“It took me a long time to understand that connection to the land is what guides my compass needle every time I sit down to write. Even if I am not writing about place, if a piece has any bit of my heart in it, the aroma of pine trees is woven through every sentence. The narrative shapes I’m aiming for are the ridgelines of the Rocky Mountain ranges I know best; the atmosphere I’m trying to evoke is reflective of the silent trails I’ve walked most of my life, where even birdsong and the rippling of streams are rare but the wind makes conversation with granite and shale and creaking lodgepole pines.”
I may not be writing about pine trees, but the ridgelines of the Rockies are there, as are the rolling hills of Alberta’s aspen parkland and the shushing of the slushy North Saskatchewan River in winter. The knife blade of my body sliding through the chlorinated depths of a swimming pool, the rush of air through my helmet as I race my bike down a steep hill. The step and push of backpacking with hiking poles, using all my limbs to muscle my way up a steep mountain trail.
On Monday we had a partial solar eclipse, which some cultures embrace as being emblematic of a shift or a change in our everyday lives. As Susan J. Tweit writes:
“Many spiritual traditions regard eclipses as times of great change, opportunities to focus inward, to harness the shift in the sacred, the energy of the cosmos, the beyond-words-power that moves us in ways we often do not understand, and sometimes are not even aware of until afterwards.
For me, a day spent tending to the mundane in a mindful way is part of preparing for a shift I feel coming in my own life. I can’t see what it is yet, but I can feel it in a kind of inner awareness, a listening within that I notice especially when I am engaged in tasks that allow my mind to wander…”
Like Tweit, I feel there’s a subterranean shift going on in my life. But one phrase from a previous blog post sticks with me:
“the problem of properly defining the problem you’re trying to solve.” (J. Fleck)
While I may want a more rich inner life, and I’m trying to balance that against the pressures of public life, I still have to define what problem in my own life I’m trying to solve. Do I want to get away from social media entirely or do I want to use it more sparingly? Do I have specific writing goals in mind? What about outdoor activities—do I want to get uber-fit, or just be more active? Do I want to build a community here or do I want to move to a new landscape that I feel more suited to?
What problem do I want to solve? I’m not sure yet. But I’ve been testing the waters.
I’ve been cycling a lot, though I’ve just been stymied by a major bike repair that will take over a week to get done. The plan is to do more kayaking while waiting for the bike repair parts to arrive. I’ve committed myself to writing this Wednesday post every week. I’ve updated my copies of several key editors’ handbooks (Editing Canadian English, The Chicago Manual of Style, Scientific Style & Format) with the idea of learning more and expanding my editing work. I’ve been getting rid of my science books, as they’re from what feels like a completely different life.
But I feel like I need more mountain time—which is two days drive away. And what about swimming and hiking? How do they fit into the current shape of my days? How can I change that shape to make it match my needs and wants?
Once again, a quote from a previous blog post is relevant here. This time from Anne Giardini on writing:
“There may not be a perfect time, and there may not be as much of it as we would like, but if we can find some bits of it, and organize them in a way that makes sense, then we may be able to turn those scraps and moments into something enduring—a poem, a story, a memoir, a novel. The days cannot be stretched, but they can be shaped.”
We can easily substitute ‘swimming’ or ‘hiking’ for ‘poem, story’ etc. It’s all in how we shape our days. And knowing how to do that requires quiet thought and reflection.
Which brings us back to the importance of having a rich inner life. Perhaps this is the key problem I want to solve, and once that’s sorted out the rest will follow. Because, as I wrote above, that inner life helps you decide what to prioritize each day, where to live, who to associate with, what to strive for.
We’ll see how that pans out.