The Tumult of Time

 

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Well, the month of June has come and gone without any mention from me, here.

I always swear I am not going to let the days smoosh together unrecognizably, or get caught up in a current of activity that is moving so quickly I am merely carried along, not noticing or marking the unique (and therefore precious) moments along the way. But sometimes it happens anyway.

Summer solstice brought us the longest day; the charcoal grill got uncovered and cleaned and put into action. The weather warmed and the garden has started to grow in earnest. A good portion of my time has been spent there.

So, in truth there have been markers along the way.

The last couple months have been full of the emotional distractions and energy-absorption of canine health issues and crisis that kept our household on edge much of the time. I am familiar with that blur that can happen with the act of caregiving (and the worry and lousy nights’ sleep that accompany it). So I am neither apologizing nor judging — merely noting and now am finally starting to pick up the threads that I had set down a while ago.

My birthday was in there too, somewhere (well-marked by an avalanche of birthday wishes via social media), but that day found me in bed with the flu.

Some years are more celebratory than others.

 

But there is some good news to this story.

I now have renewed energy for the novel-in-progress, thanks to the wise insights, suggestions and genuine enthusiasm from editor and mentor Max Regan. I have started plowing back in, rethinking and reshaping some of the characters, time lines and sequencing. It is an exciting prospect, but I am feeling a little tentative and shy and new about the whole thing, so for now am going to suspend the monthly excerpts here, and focus on the writing itself as I move ever closer to a finished first draft. It hardly seems possible from here!

And short story has been accepted by Spadina Literary Review, to be published online in the fall! So stay tuned.

So okay, it has not been a complete blur, after all.

 

But then at the end of May, Brian Doyle died.

 

Those of us who knew about his cancer diagnosis knew that day would be coming sooner than later, but it was still a shock to the system. One of those shocks that momentarily stop all awareness of the outside world, filling the senses and mind and heart and body with the roaring silence of the Awareness of Absence. Something irrevocable. As certain as it is mysterious. It’s one of those human mortal things that are difficult to explain but as tangible as a metallic taste in the mouth or the hairs rising up on the back of your neck.

A teacher and someone I consider a mentor, Jeffrey Davis, says there are different kinds of mentors: people we encounter live and face-to-face, those we connect with at a distance and online, and those whose writing inspires and informs, our mentors-on-the-page.

Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, compelling storyteller and illuminator of the marvel and grace in life’s smallest moments, but not everyone is able to love his style of writing: He had a deft hand with run-on sentences and had an amazing knack of putting punctuation-less, stream-of-consciousness prose on a page that, if you stopped and thought about it, reflects exactly how the active and curious mind actually thinks. (He told a funny story in an interview once, that after the publication of the novel Mink River his brother sent him a page full of nothing but commas, and an attached note to the effect that he seemed to have lost his supply, so here were some he could use.) For some people this makes for difficult reading. I totally get it. But, if you’re able to settle back and unhinge something in the conscious mind, wade into the stream of his writing and be able to ride its ebb and flow, it can be rich and lush, abundant in the wonders of the world.

I received one of the most gracious and encouraging rejections ever from Brian, in response to a piece I had submitted for consideration to Portland Magazine – the quarterly University of Portland publication of which he was Editor – the turnaround time was next to immediate (which, for any of you who have experience with submitting know this occurrence is on the far side of unlikely and unusual). His explanation was that he respected writers and the courage it took to submit, and he wanted to honor both with a timely response; and besides which, he knew himself well enough to know that if he waited to respond the submission would likely get lost in the vastness of his inbox and he was afraid to lose track and not respond in a timely fashion. I had never felt so respected as a writer.

 Above my desk sits a framed “self-portrait” with the inscription “with laughter and prayers, Brian Doyle.” It was his response when I handed him my notebook open to a blank page to sign; after a wonderful talk about some of his favorite writers and the imperative we should all feel to tell stories (as being the warp and weft and grist of our lives, of where we intersect as human beings), others had thought to bring a copy of one of his books to sign, but I hadn’t had that forethought. So, feeling slightly foolish but sincere, I handed him the blank page to sign. What I received instead, was this: 

Brian Doyle self-portait

It is apparently something he sometimes did – I recently saw one tacked up next to a shelf of his books in a local independent bookstore where he had done a reading in the past – and I was thrilled to have one of my own.

As he was thus autographing my notebook page, I told him of the nephew of a friend of mine who had recently suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. My friend would sit by his bedside in the hospital while he was still in a coma and read out loud from Mink River, which was one of his favorite books. He later told her he remembered hearing her reading from the book, and how important that was. Brian’s response was to ask for both my friend’s and her nephew’s email address; I don’t know what he wrote but he made a point to write to both of them. That was the kind of person he was.

I want to say we are truly gifted by the richness of his spirit as well as the many stories and “promes” (his word for his particular prose/poems) full of rich language and wonder that remain even in his absence. (If you would like to read more – tributes and reflections as well as some of his words in essay and interview – the links are below.)

So my return to my own creativity, as well as to the desire to live fully into each day, comes in part from this latest reminder of how precious and fleeting is this gift of time we have here on this planet, in this life.

 

Brian Doyle’s essays published in Brevity.com

Brian Doyle’s interview on Brevity podcast

Brian Doyle and Orion Magazine

An open letter from one of Brian Doyle’s students

Brian Doyle’s last poem

 

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Writing Time Do-Si-Does With Nap Time

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This is Moe. At fourteen weeks he is all teeth and wiggle, vacillating between running and chewing and sleeping, back and forth and back again,  in a glorious display of life-loving, open-ended sense of wonder at the world  – something that is so much the province of small animals, humans included. He reminds me to delight in the simplest of pleasures, and calls upon my deepest reserves of patience and compassion (especially at the end of a busy, tiring day, when I want him to go to sleep so I can). He is my teacher in being exquisitely present and discerning of what is and isn’t important, as these days my available time is in small, not always yet predictable, parcels.

Having a puppy reminds me of the attention and prioritizing of time and energy that is required with a baby and toddler. It’s been a lot of years since my son was new in the world, but in these last few days I have been reminded of that particular juggling act: The need to try to get things done in those periods during the day known as Nap Time. Sometimes utter exhaustion demands I take a simultaneous nap; or the siren’s call of the sheer pleasure of being able to sit, unencumbered, basking in the peaceful quiet of the house or porch is not to be denied. But there quickly evolves a fine-tuned sense of importance and the artful streamlining of tasks. My focus becomes more sharp-edged and certain.

I dislike the notion that I work more efficiently when I have a schedule or a deadline, but it is sometimes true.

Last year, after a long life of being employed by others (with a delicious three-year break when my son was born), I was able to leave my day job, and suddenly found my schedule was entirely a product of my own creation. I had a couple regular freelance writing deadlines, chiropractic and acupuncture appointments to hook my new life calendar onto, but that wasn’t much.

I was surprised at how adrift I felt. I who had been for so long craving and dreaming about quiet mornings to myself in the house and garden; not having to get in the car and join the stream of others motoring toward their jobs that took up the bulk of the day. But, I realized, I hadn’t been without a prescribed daily/weekly schedule since I was, what? Six years old, when I started first grade? Yikes. And that was a hell of a long time ago. So that I couldn’t be the master of my daily doings yet wasn’t my fault, I’m out of practice!

I admit I frittered a lot of time in that interim, with the help so many interesting things crossing my screen on the computer; because well, I could. The feeling of open-ended time was divine. But at the same time, in an extreme pendulum swing, I found myself scheduling the hell out of myself, with workshops and seminars; coffee and lunches with friends I no longer saw everyday at work; a sizable freelance writing project that was on a very tight deadline.  It was exhilarating. And exhausting.

My creative learning curve went into a steep trajectory as I put myself in the company of an amazing group of people via Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, both in person at YBNS and more recently in an intensive online workshop known as ArtMark. I put my butt in the chair in a serious way for an online “boot camp” with Max Regan that proved I could indeed crank out 1000 words a day of decent early first draft material. Wow. Work on the fledgling novel rekindled. Experiments in a poetry class proved fruitful and expansive in rich possibility. I continued to meet monthly with the writing group I have been a part of for several years. I submitted pieces to journals and started amassing the requisite stack of rejections. Posted photographs for an online photography workshop, and a daily posting of a writing (usually) – related photo via #continuouspractice  – as exciting and enriching as all this has been, it was too much. I hit a wall. My attention was too divided, even though with a cornucopia of wonderful experience and new friends and colleagues.  What to do…

And there were all those ongoing distractions, false starts and near misses that come from trying to work/produce at home, that many writers and freelancers have talked and written about at length. Though it was nice to not be alone on this crazy roller coaster, to have the company of so many others that have faced the same challenges.

I freely admit this is a good problem to have. But I still hit the wall.

So I started to discern and be more selective, started saying no to invitations and not having to take every interesting short course that crossed my radar. All with a determination to start to more productively craft and sculpt my time (for in with all the creative work there was also the more temporal matters of a clean house, healthy food, regular exercise, attention paid to partner and dog, friendships maintained). I had some good tools for this in hand: Jeffrey Davis’s time management and prioritizing tools, the Mind Rooms Guide and 7-Minute Prioritizer.  I was set. I was ready to really get into the groove of regular creative work, self-care, life’s practicalities covered, relationships not given the crumbs of what was left. Okay, here I am.

And then along came Moe.

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All of a sudden, I knew I was going to long again for those stretches of totally self-directed time, because it was going to be awhile before I got them. It was funny, in a way, to think that years’ worth of my days being scheduled, followed by months of flailing self-determination, suddenly finding myself back to an almost 24/7 accountability to another being; molding and shaping my time to his needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this by myself, I have help – but there is this sense of having to nevertheless be always at the ready. His needs will come before mine, much of the time. He is the one needing shepherding and guiding to find his place in the world. And in this task there is an amazing sense of grace and purpose. I enter into contract with this pup willingly. I have had to learn to parcel time to available slots before; I can do it again for a while. And I have my dog to reassure as to her place in the pack.

Tonight I cooked dinner while the puppy was resting after his dinner. I started this post during an afternoon nap and am working on it more as he is sound asleep after lots of running and playing with my older dog Juno (bless her heart, my special dog helper).

I was still able to attend my final poetry class today. In the coming weeks, when my partner gets home from work, will likely be the time that I will take myself to the pool for a swim and sauna. It will all work out, and it won’t be forever. Puppies grow fast. Faster than human babies.

One day there will be two dogs instead of just mine keeping me company in my office and when I take my laptop out on the back deck as the weather gets warmer. Time will again open out and become more spacious. I have the feeling that the lessons I learn and the priorities I discover in this compressed period of available time will make that time to come more potent and purposeful and directed. I’m keeping hold of all the pieces. Nothing is getting truly lost.

All this makes me think of the wonderful writers and creative people I know who are successfully making their way – and time for their creative work – while in the midst of raising children: Jeffrey Davis is one. Marisa Goudy is another. My good friend and poet Claudia Savage is collaborating with her musician husband John Savage on joint projects and performances (watch for their emerging recording label, THrum), as well as collaborating on the raising of their young daughter, River. Claudia’s blog, aptly named: While River Sleeps.