"The clock! That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly! How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily! Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again! Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish! The clock is still ticking. All its vistas are just so broad - and regular. (Notice that word.) Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought. The town's clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself. Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day. (Notice that word also.)
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do - fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go around.
I, too, live in this ordinary world. I was born in it. Indeed, most of my education was intended to make me feel comfortable within it. Why that enterprise failed is another story. Such failures happen, and then, like all things, are turned to the world's benefit, for the world has a need of dreamers as well as shoe-makers. (Not that it is so simple, in fact - for what shoemaker does not occasionally thump his thumb when his thoughts have, as we would say, "wandered"? And when the old animal body clamors for attention, what daydreamer does not now and again have to step down from the daydream and hurry to market before it closes, or else go hungry?)
And this is also true in creative work - creative work of all kinds - those who are the world's working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook - a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always - these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the middle ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come - for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is an adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is all about.
Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity. One must work with the creative powers - for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place. Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration. A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example. Also, it is enough to tell them. Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all our conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings - disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion.
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn't that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Of this there can be no question - creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this - who does not swallow this - is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true. For they are in another world altogether. It is a world where the third self is governor. Neither is the purity of art the innocence of childhood, if there is such a thing. One's life as a child, with all its emotional rages and ranges, is but grass for the winged horse - it must be chewed well in those savage teeth. There are irreconcilable differences between acknowledging and examining the fabulations of one's past and dressing them up as though they were adult figures, fit for art, which they never will be. The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work - who is thus responsible to the work.
On any morning or afternoon, serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another. Serious interruptions come from the watchful eye we cast upon ourselves. There is the blow that knocks the arrow from its mark! There is the drag we throw over our own intentions. There is the interruption to be feared!
It is six a.m., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, wherever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o'clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time."
- Mary Oliver
Of Power and Time
Upstream: Selected Essays
the hammock papers
Waiting for God
This morning I breathed in. It had rained
early and the sycamore leaves tapped
a few drops that remained, while waving
the air's memory back and forth
over the lawn and into our open
window. Then I breathed out.
This deliberate day eased
past the calendar and waited. Patiently
the sun instructed the shadows how to move;
it held them, guided their gradual defining.
In the great quiet I carried my life on,
in again, out again.
- William Stafford
Last Day on Earth
If it's the title of a movie you expect
everything to become important - a kiss,
a shrug, a glass of wine, a walk with the dog.
But if the day is real, life is only
as significant as yesterday - the kiss
hurried, the shrug forgotten, and now,
on the path by the river, you don't notice
the sky darkening beyond the pines because
you're imagining what you'll say at dinner,
swirling the wine in your glass.
You don't notice the birds growing silent
or the cold towers of clouds moving in,
because you're explaining how lovely
and cool it was in the woods. And the dog
had stopped limping! - she seemed
her old self again, sniffing the air and alert,
the way dogs are to whatever we can't see.
And I was happy, you hear yourself saying,
because it felt as if I'd been allowed
to choose my last day on earth,
and this was the one I chose.
- Lawrence Raab
Mistaking Each Other For Ghosts
"All I know is that I've wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I'd get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don't want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow's sky. That's what I want now, and I think it's what you should want too."
- Kazuo Ishiguro
"I choose to believe that there is nothing more sacred or profound than this day. I choose to believe that there may be a thousand big moments embedded in this day, waiting to be discovered like tiny shards of gold. The big moments are the daily, tiny moments of courage and forgiveness and hope that we grab onto and extend to one another. That's the drama of life, swirling all around us, and generally I don't see it, because I'm too busy waiting to become whatever it is I think I'm about to become. The big moments are in every hour, every conversation, every meal, every meeting."
- Shauna Niequist
"Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you."
- Frederick Buechner
"Anger, [Evagrius] wrote, is given to us by God to help us confront true evil. We err when we use it casually, against other people, to gratify our own desires for power or control."
- Kathleen Norris
The Cloister Walk
Plunging over Niagara you hold
this picture in your hand: a summer day
arranging itself serenely onward, a lawn,
daisies, roses, a single pine in the sky
with a crow flying and a flicker calling, then
all stopped in the camera, one tremendous
instant that the world will never achieve again.
Now you own that, just for the cost of reading
this page. Assemble yourself and go on.
Don't worry about it. No, I didn't
mean you really plunge over Niagara.
- William Stafford
"There is a noise when Justice is being dragged in the way where those who devour bribes and give sentence with crooked judgements, take her. And she, wrapped in mist, follows to the city and haunts of the people, weeping, and bringing mischief to men, even to such as have driven her forth in that they did not deal straightly with her."