SABBATICAL LESSONS

As I said at the time …

When I was 38, several developments occurred in a way that allowed me to give myself a year of unemployment, drawing largely on savings. Rather than travel the world or undertake some related activity, I hunkered down in a writing spree [that resulted in the novels now (finally) being published]. The sabbatical meant that for the first time in my life, I had a period of uninterrupted concentration on this work. The writing itself. Three fast novels, now to be revised, and thud! skidding to a crash or whatever. Enough to expand to a dozen, in the hours of revision after I went back to the paying work. Looking back, I know it had to be done. And done then.

Nevertheless, in my struggle between practicality and art, there’s been a longstanding sense of guilt in spending time on myself. To my surprise, a resolution came through a workshop on prayer, when we were divided into smaller groups and then asked to write out a prayer request. Not for what others might need or a social issue, but for something we needed individually. “Ask for something for yourself,” which the others would then pray for.

Of course, each of us works differently. I’m not one for the blank sheet writer’s block syndrome: I’m usually springing from notes jotted down earlier. (Pacing is another matter: just where is this going? And why?)

In contrast, I recall a poet friend who was also a public school teacher; he was quite prolific during the busy school year, yet during the summer, could produce little, though he could never quite figure out why. (He could also stare at a piece of paper for five hours and then turn out a sharply focused gem.) The other friend, having all the leisure in the world, could produce only disconnected flashes. Could it be some juggling or resistance is also essential to the practice?

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HEALTHIER BALANCE

For most of my adult life, I’ve tended to load up on the fresh vegetables, but fruit’s been another matter. Maybe if you stuck a piece right in front of me, on my plate. Yes, I love blueberries and, with breakfast, a grapefruit. But even after living in an orchard (cherries, plums, pears, peaches, and varieties of apples), I rarely went out of my way for that end of the dietary spectrum. Until I retired.

Maybe it was a sense of reclaiming some of my ashram experience, but once I left full-time employment, I found myself in a routine of setting down for a midmorning meal of fresh homemade toast (with homemade jam or jelly, meaning fruit), fresh homemade yogurt (with fruit), and (in season) an orange I’d just peeled.

And then there are all the goodies from our garden, much of it eaten fresh and the rest, frozen for later, such as the strawberries, blueberries,  and raspberries. That’s even before we get to the trips to the pick-your-own orchards, where we focus on the half-price drops on the ground, such as peaches and apples, or the crab apples we pick from the strips between the sidewalk and some city streets. Add to that a daughter who revels in canning, as well as making jams and jellies.

It may be deep cold outside, but on my table these days, I’m reliving summer. Now, what are we having for dinner?

HOLIDAY GREETINGS

We’re in that time of the year when we receive cards and letters. Personal ones, I mean, rather than direct-mail advertising.

Each year, I find myself reflecting on differences among generations regarding this custom. My dad’s circles, for instance, would send out and receive about two hundred cards apiece – keeping touch long after their high school and Air Force years, and trailing off only with illness and death. My generation, in contrast, falls away quickly. Each year, more lost connections, often with a pang of disconnection. There are, of course, a few who cling on, often with nothing personal included. There are also some older friends of my parents or a handful of relatives, in some sense of duty. (Only one of my first cousins has kept in touch). There are even a few correspondents who have reconnected, after years of silence. My wife and kids, being of a practical mindset, figure the folks we see regularly know what’s up with us (and so there’s no sense in mailing greetings), while those we don’t see, well, they’re history (so what’s the point?).

I think a lot of my dad’s era was a continuation of an earlier awareness, before cheap long-distance phone calls and then email. Those connections were special. My kids, on the other hand, don’t send letters of any kind, but they do have a wide range of online correspondents and texting. (Should we ask what will happen to the timeless art of the love letter?) What all this says about American society is another matter.

Quakers in some measure maintain an ancient practice of epistles, typically sent from one Meeting to another or even from a Meeting or “weighty Quake” to individuals. Some of our most powerful expressions survive there, and not from George Fox exclusively. Still, in an email world, how do we extend our faith? What efforts will survive? What will be read over the years? How do we reach out with something personal and special? Suddenly, I notice how many people are buying candles, especially at this time of year! Candles, in an electronics age. Remarkable! A spark of Light in the dark!

CHOOSING, IN THE END

As I said at the time, considering …

The matter of burn-outs, too. I have a long list, from those who’d been close. The ones who self-destructed at the brink of fame, largely through misplaced sexuality. One who achieved fame while still in high school, but then pursued a tangled life more than the fact. A common story, really. Perhaps the sex, like liquor, is the cover for much deeper wounds that need to be confronted and healed – but are instead allowed to fester.

We could also look at charisma in public figures, and how so often it comes by consuming in flames those who surround you. Witness Clinton and Lewinsky. (Which also raises questions about the kind of marriage the Clintons have agreed upon – obviously, not the usual white-picket fence variety but something far more Continental. Marriage blanc?)

Yes, there are reasons for fears. Actually, before I shift gears in a moment, I should recommend Camille Paglia’s controversial but seminal Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a great overview of art and literature and human sexuality in the course of Western Civilization. As she convincingly titles her chapter about Dickinson: “Amherst’s Madame de Sade.”

Then there’s the whole realm of intrigue about fetishes themselves – and even whether they remain more powerful left in the imagination than in reality. Columnist Bob Greene toured the Playboy Mansion before it was torn down and was disheartened to discover how small and dingy the indoor swimming pool was compared to all the photo layouts he had worshipped in his adolescence. Maybe the potential of doing X, Y, or Z has more hold than no longer being able to do the tattoo differently now that it’s there. Ditto so much else!

The paradox, actually, that choice doesn’t exist until you choose one – and rule out the others. Guess that comes into place here. You can believe in marriage in general, but in the end it’s going to be with a blonde, a brunette, or a redhead – or for her, possibly with a baldy. Go for them all, and you avoid going as deep into the experience, or so they say. From my experience, it gets tiring investing all the effort and time in what is essentially the early stages of a life journey – I’d much rather be much further along with a reliable companion. Hope this doesn’t sound moralizing, but I’ve been making the decision to move forward on some other fronts of my life the past few years rather than jumping into another relationship that pulls me away from my life’s direction. And, yes, there are many moments of weakness in that, when the loneliness can become paralyzing.

MEMORY LANE OF DESIRES

As I said at the time …

Looking back through the yearbooks, I’m surprised to admit how few of the girls were as sexy or mysterious or genuinely attractive as they’ve remained in my memory. This is not what I would have thought earlier.

I can also wonder why I didn’t move on KK or why nothing connected with MM, despite the youth pastor’s encouragement. What were the astrological factors? Anything else I might have noticed later?

Of course, most of us guys, well, that was another matter. Some things never change.

WILL THE REAL ME PLEASE BRAND UP

Branding, we’re told, is everything. It’s not just marketing, or even just a product. It’s the whole lineup. A slogan for differentiating one Big Box Store or high-end boutique from another (including everything inside). Even academia wants a label as a way to file a writer or artist away for easy reference, however awkwardly into one slot or another. It’s ultimately a word game, with or without an actual referent. But what if you’re a misfit, as many truly are?

In literature, the labeling relates better to those who stay within a genre or stick to a manifesto or particular technique or remain in a specific locale – an Oklahoma gothic mystery crime writer, for example – than to my favorites, especially those whose work ranges over many subjects and forms and continually grows. Likewise, I’m bewildered by how often the labels applied to them are downright erroneous, if not simply glib. Or matches one part of their output while ignoring all the rest.

This turns up repeatedly when I attempt replies for those who wish to pigeonhole me. I do what I do. The writing goes where it goes, and the revisions follow. I try to be faithful. So far, I’ve been a part-timer and non-commercial. Neither by choice, but both by fidelity. My opportunities for literary writing (in contrast to the daily journalism that’s paid the bills) have never been that easy or as sustained as I’d wish. I’ve envied those who set out knowing the direction they would pursue for a lifetime, those whose work presents a continuous focus and tone. Especially those who mature as they progress, rather than repeating a facile formula.

Looking back over my poetry and fiction from across the years – and, for that matter, across the continent – I’m struck by the ways so many of the pieces differ, at least outwardly. How varied the subject matter and approach. Here I keep intending the plainspoken, direct, clearly focused piece, and keep winding up with Mixmaster compounds and distillations. Maybe my mind’s rarely that unified; instead, a multitude of mental and emotional activities have kept occurring simultaneously and the most I could hope for is some convergence. Besides, so much of my writing has arisen in some opposition to my daily employment, with all of its own dulling repetition – my writing keeps veering toward the “experimental” fringe, if only in reaction to the daily grind of news stories and headlines. Or, in the past decade, obituaries. Through much of my adult life, I’ve felt torn and uprooted, from Ohio and Indiana to the East Coast and then Washington State and back again. To say nothing of my love life and social environment. The nature poems stand in contrast or discord with the police blotter love poems or, in turn, with my current home setting. That, before I even consider my fiction or the genealogy or Quaker expressions.

(Have I performed the daily journalism to pay the bills while I pursued my literary endeavors? Or had I pursued the literary work as a way of keeping my journalism skills sharpened? What started as one wound up the other, and then shifted back again.)

The writing, in turn, has been an attempt to bring some understanding to all the eruption I’ve experienced. The turns in the road, the setbacks, the advances. A quest for understanding and, if not clarity, some meaning or permanence. I tend my personal journal because I forget so much, and often record observations I will not comprehend until years later. Am baffled, because I have yet to define my mission with a label that sells. Write, then, to discover myself in this morass.

Still, I’m open to suggestions. If you can.

ONE PHONE CALL TOO MANY

Journalists learn the importance of covering all the bases they can before the deadline cutoff. You learn the risks of running a single-source story. Even when you’ve talked on record to several people, you’re urged to make one more phone call. Just to make sure.

Sometimes, that’s when the reporter tells an editor, “There’s no story.”

“What do you mean?”

It was simply a rumor. It didn’t happen at all. The problem was fixed long ago. The guy we were going to praise has a serious drinking problem. The person who called in the tip is a crook or simply dishonest. You get the picture.

As for what had seemed to be a hot story, there was just one phone call too many.