Writing of her experience after three years at the Tassajara Zen training center, poet Jane Hirshfield states:
When I returned to poetry, a different person in many ways, I brought with me two things I now can see would be useful to any young aspiring writer: the monastic model of non-distraction and silence, and the experience of calling oneself into complete attention. The ability to stay in the moment, to investigate immediate existence through my own body and mind, was what I most needed to learn at that point in my life, and to learn to stay within my own experience more fearlessly. I never considered going to graduate school. I did this instead. It wasn't necessarily a conscious weighing of one course of study against the other, but something in me did know: you cannot write until you can first inhabit your own life and mind.
—from God at Every Gate, forthcoming from Tupelo Press
These are wise words, the very kind I would not have understood the substance of until perhaps fairly recently in my own life. In fact, like Hirshfield, I had felt this at some deep level since I was young; I can locate its stirrings in flashes of memory, including one particularly poignant one. I was perhaps 13 years old, and I'd climbed up into a tree fort I'd built in a tall cherry tree in the patch of woods behind my house in central NY state. It was winter, a bitterly cold late afternoon, and for some reason I can't reel in now, I was sick with worry.
So I sat there in that tilted wooden cell 20 feet off the ground and watched the light fade.
That's it. I sat and tried to get as fully inside the fading of light as I could. I distinctly recall that I refused to consider anything else for however long I sat there—an hour, maybe two, I can't say. I refused distraction and as I remember it now, it was initially hard work. Gradually, my senses opened up, tentatively at first but eventually, and in unison, they meshed with the chill, the dusklight, the scent of wind and snow, the subtle sounds emanating from what I would have otherwise dismissed as dull silence around me.
I also recall that when I finally returned to the world of cares, reluctantly after much time had passed, I was utterly refreshed. I balk at the term "spiritual awakening," but I will say I can mark it as one of the first times I knew myself an animal in a landscape, a body entirely connected with its environment, a mind not distinct from a body. I had been in that state before, but I hadn't thought about being in those terms.
Another surprising revelation I had at that time was this—I was immediately hungry to write something down. This is significant to me still because I know that previous to this time, good Catholic boy that I was then, I might have compulsively reached for a rosary and thumbed my way down the beads, mumbling prayers written by others. That was what I knew to do in response to moments of mystery. But I see now that was a way station on a transition in my life. I'd arrived at an epiphany, a moment of clarity, recognizing what author Grace Paley states (in the same book mentioned above): "I'm not full of prayers. I'm full of language."
I can't say I started writing that day. I'd already started writing for enjoyment before then and it would be several years before I consciously started a journal, which I remember doing when my family made a jarring move to Southern California and I found myself badly disoriented. There were other moments of insight along the way, the gaps between them growing smaller, until by the time I was 17 it was simply a fact that I would live a writing life.
I'm a long way down the river I chose to ride in my little canoe of words. Sometimes I paddle, sometimes I let the current take me. Sometimes, like I have done this week, I take up responsibility for helping others to navigate.
Wednesday afternoon I found myself, as I have for nearly 30 years, stepping into a classroom populated with others who have discovered, or been discovered by, a writing life. The set up is deceptively simple—they're explorers and I'm a guide, a position earned by virtue of my experience and study and practice over many years.
Let's not confuse the situation. To be sure, there is a huge, broken apparatus clanging around the margins of higher education, a machinery being constructed by ciphers and knuckleheads who do not understand what learning is. When I close the door to my classroom, I close it to keep them out. I close it to claim a kind of sacred space for learning, and I go to work knowing I'll have to leave the room at some point and play a dozen different games just so I can get back to the classroom again and do some good in the world.
So it was I spent a few hours this week trying to communicate to my new class of students what's at the core of their challenge—that they have to fully inhabit their lives and then listen for the language that comes. They have to practice non-distraction. Think about that for a minute. How would you take a group of 20 people, whose lives are diverse but all bounded by the staggering distractions of contemporary noise and nonsense, and convince them to begin the arduous task of dialing it all down to quietude? It's hard work, and maybe only a few will manage it. I'm responsible at this moment for making it more possible, if I can.
I love taking up this challenge, and know that I've made a career out of doing it well. I love teaching writing, and far from draining me, it feeds me. I have managed, against the odds, to stay fresh with it for almost three decades. In part, it's the discipline of being fully there when I'm there, and then detaching so I can return to and inhabit my own writing time with a clear head.
Be fierce, I say, about inhabiting your life. Be fearless. It's real, and it's worthwhile.