Perhaps the easiest piece of my personal Rule to fulfill. I live in a house full of talkers, analyzers, discussers, ponderers. Online and and in the world, I gravitate toward friends of similar bent. I spend more time than I should following rabbit trails of research. (It feels almost heretical to say that!)
I should say: discussion is easy to come by. It’s the pondering piece that needs protection, because that takes time, silence, and closed tabs. It’s far too easy to gather stores of information, and then whisk on to a new topic of interest without taking time to sit with the accumulated horde of ideas.
Sensing this, I made a shift in my morning routine last month. Instead of struggling through (during the first year of the pandemic it had become a struggle) my longstanding pattern of writing almost immediately after waking, I decided to give myself the first hour—or however many minutes there are between waking and 7:30 (sometimes more than an hour, sometimes less)—for study.
Typing that, I get the same thrill of relief I felt upon making that decision. Time to read? To make notes in margins? To sit with an idea—a single thought—in a quiet room, with a notebook and a good pen? To breathe in (read, think) before I breathe out (write, speak)?
I made myself a little syllabus of sorts: a stack of books I knew would nourish, not derail, deep thought.
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen—an absolute gem of a book. When I read a few pages (I’ve been reading it slowly for probably a year), I often get a flash of the scene in Heidi, a book I read over and over as a child, when her aunt is taking her up the mountain to the Alm-Uncle for the first time, and Heidi, delighting in the fresh, scented air, keeps shedding layers of clothes as she goes. Coat, scarf, heavy woolen dress, stockings all strewn among the wildflowers. By the time they reach the grandfather’s hut, she’s down to her white cotton shift. That’s me at the top of each chapter.
The Muses Among Us by Kim Stafford. A book I inhaled last year and have returned to this year at a more contemplative pace. Keeping its essays company, a volume of Stafford’s poems called Wild Honey, Tough Salt. The essay I love best is the one in which Stafford maps out his process for collecting fragments of images and overheard conversation, storing them in pocket-sized notebooks made by folding a few sheets of paper, and later returning to the notebooks to harvest ideas for poems and essays. “When I write,” he says, “I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me.” There’s an idea to sit with for a while.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I love Godden’s writing, especially The Kitchen Madonna, but I’ve never made it all the way through this novel of hers. It nudged me as I passed by its longtime home on a bedroom bookshelf. I know it’s many people’s favorite of her novels.
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield. She’s a poet I love, and whose mind I want to know better.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. A joyful reread of this glorious collection of poems. Ross Gay has become one of my favorite writers; his Book of Delights is on its way to dog-eared Best-Loved Book status after less than a year in my hands.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. A novel I learned about through Natalie Goldberg, about an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a grocery store in Washington, D.C.
Just these few. It was painfully hard for me to not load up the list, but slow reading and thinking is the point. There are other books on my Kindle, not to mention a new stack of future Dart titles waiting for me!, but the books in this small collection are the thought-stirrers I mean to spend these early mornings of spring with.
Reading, of course, is a way to collect and absorb ideas; to fully ponder them I must write. I hardly ever know what I think until I write it down. At 7:30am, birds chirp on my phone. I eat one square of mint chocolate (a ritual or habit to signal time to write), open my notebook or Scrivener, and let my fingers begin to think.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss;
• white space;
This post contains Bookshop.org and Amazon affiliate links.
It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, and over a month since I shared any of my own photos on Instagram. This time, the silence was intentional, an awareness that I needed to sit quietly and read and learn, amplifying voices other than my own. I’m working through Mia Birdsong’s antiracism resource list, reading more slowly than is my usual gulping habit. I’m trying to listen more than I speak.
(Facebook friends will know I’ve not been totally quiet over there—that’s the space where I feel most compelled to speak out, for reasons that probably merit unpacking. That’s for another post, though.)
I’ve been wondering when I would come back to this space, and to Instagram, which is where I express myself in visual images—not planning for it, just allowing the tide to carry me back. I never feel entirely myself when I’m not blogging. Last year I read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and thought: aha, that’s it, that’s what I was doing for a solid decade on Bonny Glen—showing my work, thinking out loud, writing to discover what I know and what I think. Learning in public.
Of course, it was easier to “show my work” when the main part of my work was homeschooling young children. Thinking my way through various educational philosophies, curating resources, and chronicling our daily learning adventures—these were practices that felt fluid and natural. Inevitable, even. Once I made up my mind about how best to approach our home education experience, I found I had less to say—just as my feverish urge to discuss a book subsides after I finish reading it.
I wrote (a much longer version of) the above across two mornings. And now today I’ve written a new post, which I thought I was going to put on Patreon but (you’ll see me thinking through it below) decided to move over here, which means now I need to go through and reverse all the heres and theres of the first draft. And it’s getting late! Breakfast is nudging me. But I’m not ready to stop. If I include this morning’s efforts, this post will be monstrously long. Maybe that’s to be expected after a month away!
I’ve been driving myself a little bit crazy in the mornings. You’d think the quarantine would have seen me sinking deeper into the creative practice that nourished me all last year—the early rising, the yoga-stretching while water boiled for my cocoa, the fervent commitment to Poetry Before Screens, the writing of morning pages or what Holly Wren Spaulding calls “zero drafts” of poems, the heady feeling of having written, no matter what else the day brought. How gratifying to have the time and space for this practice; how satisfying to feel well begun each day. You’d think!
Instead, I’ve let my good habits slip, one by one. Standing in the kitchen reading Twitter while the water boils? Ah, there’s the whole thing dashed in one swoop. No stretching, no poetry, screens first. The most agitating kind of screen. One tiny choice each morning: which domino chain will I set off?
I resisted the Twitter urge today, the gnawing desire to see what happened in the night, in the East Coast morning while I slept (good thing, because the news of the Trump administration’s renewed efforts to cancel our healthcare would have utterly derailed any creative activity). It drains you, exercising willpower constantly. That’s why habits are so important; they remove the need to expend mental energy on constant choosing.
I worked hard to build good habits around creative practice. If I start my mornings reading—poems, essays, not news—I’ll want to write. Every time, simple as that. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, for example, sends me soaring and makes my pen twitch.
This morning I kept my rules, and here I am writing. I had a laughing revelation about myself a few minutes ago: I’d followed the steps of my creative practice faithfully, reading all the right things, and I’ve been trying (even, or especially, on the Twitter mornings) to do a tiny two-minute meditation to clear my mind for writing—just two minutes! With an aim to work up to five. This morning I couldn’t make it thirty seconds—and it hit me that what always happens, half a minute or a minute into silence and breathing, is that my mind starts writing. I wrench focus back to breath and two seconds later I’m scribbling another line in my head.
It was comical, suddenly, to realize that I’ve been trying to cultivate a habit that will help me write, and then I exasperatedly push away the writing that wants to interrupt the habit. It struck me as a bit like swatting away the action verb to focus on the helping verb. (And maybe that’s the point of meditation—sitting quietly with “I am” instead of leaping, scrawling, dashing.)
Laughing at myself shattered the silence and I gave in to the impulse to reach for my notebook. I wanted to write down the path my reading had taken before I tried to meditate.
—A Holly Wren Spaulding post featuring a Ron Padgett poem, “How to Be Perfect.”
—Linked in the post, an exchange of letters between Padgett and a bright young student about Padgett’s delightfully inscrutable poem “Nothing in That Drawer.”
—An Austin Kleon newsletter, which I can always trust to send me in good, writery directions. Such as:
• this article about the arson-suspected burning of Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire sculpture in the Presidio (reminding me, because of a long-ago Goldsworthy connection, of John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, which I should think about rereading);
• a mention of zuihitsu (re Kenko’s Essays in Idleness), which reminded me I meant to read Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, purchased months ago on a recommendation from Kimiko Hahn in her exquisite zuihitsu collection, The Narrow Road to the Interior
—Tonia Peckover’s new blog post, especially this:
In the garden this morning, I noticed the cool-weather crops have been lingering around longer than usual and the summer plants are still small and unsteady, different than other late Junes – but not surprising for this cool and rainy one we’ve just had. There is no sense of frustration there, no anxiety vibrating off the tomato leaves. I want to live by such confidence, content with the sun I am given, and the rain when it falls, taking what I can and growing. I admit I am not there yet.
I have notebooks full of these connection-lists, each entry dissolving into original writing, notes toward poems or posts. It strikes me that I used to do this kind of chronicling of the day’s rabbit trails here on the blog almost daily! Those collections of thought are invaluable to me now, and they’re much easier to revisit in my blog archives than in my heap of crammed notebooks.
I’m sure there’s a reason I needed to spend the past year writing by hand, but I’ve become frustrated with the aftermath: I can’t get to the particular note or draft I’m looking for without paging through half a dozen Leuchtturms. (Not to mention the expense. That paper is a dream to write on, but those purchases were a thing of the Before Times. My quarantine reality is: use what you have.)
I’m uneasily aware that one reason I keep dropping the blogging habit is because of my Patreon. I have the hardest time deciding where a post belongs. There, because it’s about creative practice? Here, where I’ve stashed fifteen years’ worth of booknotes? There, where I have a bit more privacy, which changes how I write? Here, where search engines can find me (meaning I’ll have an easier time, myself, finding references and quotes later)?
For better or for worse, today it’s going here.
I wrote that line on Patreon and then immediately decided, nope, wrong spot. So here it is, all of it. Way leading on to way.
This is me, showing my work.
Tags: andy goldsworthy, austin kleon, creative practice, holly wren spaulding, John Stilgoe, kimiko hahn, mia birdsong, Patreon, poetry before screens, ron padgett, ross gay, tonia peckover, zuihitsu