“Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.”
I’ve always loved writing – especially poetry – which I started experimenting with in middle school when all things feel like they should go in a poem. By the time I was in high school, my journal was filled with lots of poetry (and math proofs), with a somewhat hilarious and hubristic variety of subjects, most of which I had no right to have an opinion about. Bullying and domestic violence, racism, love, loneliness, and trying to grow up. Some of these I knew some things about.
Regardless of all this writing, I never really thought of myself as a writer, let alone a poet, which seemed a term reserved for people like Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, or my 10th grade favorite, Sylvia Plath.
Around the same the time I read The Bell Jar, I overheard a friend of mine talking about a poem she wrote with one of her friends. I had showed her a little of my writing, after she’d shown me hers, but we hadn’t really talked about it. I just figured, she too was shy about sharing.
Which was why I was especially surprised when I heard her say my name, and that I wrote poems too. Yeah, Gretchen also writes poems. Really cheesy ones. You should read them – they are all so sweet.
I basically died. It was literally the worst thing I’d ever want said about something I’d written, let alone a global characterization of my writing to a random guy. It hit me so hard.
While I didn’t decide to stop writing, I did start thinking that whatever I wrote would have to be like Emily Dickinson. As in, discovered after I die, for the world to evaluate long after I wouldn’t have to hear anything about it.
Obviously, given the fact that a major part of my job involves writing, and then sharing what I’ve written, I mostly got over it. But still I’ve remained hesistant to take my writing, in and of itself, as something serious, or worthy. Something to share as writing. What I write for Sunday is spoken into the context of community, and relationship, and then by Monday, set aside for the next Sunday. I write calls to worship, and prayers, and sermons – but I am not a writer, per se. Especially not of poetry.
Which is one big reason that I came into sabbatical with an intention to write everyday, as a discipline. To free myself of some of these old stories, and to remember the joy of writing just for writing. To experiment and learn about different practices of writing, to remember different forms – and to relish in the freedom of being unrestrained by the practical needs of an upcoming theme and persistent deadlines, or the expectations of what is appropriate for church, or the worry of how my words would be taken, if they would matter, and in what way.
And then, sabbatical actually began. And it turned out, I wanted nothing do with writing. I found myself exhausted of introspection, and of meaning-making entirely.
I wanted only to be quiet, work in my garden and in my home, to watch netflix, to go on walks and to have nothing to say about most anything. And as the days and weeks passed, I could feel the weight of Sundays lifting, the push to produce a certain number of words (not too few, or too many), with a well-crafted bottom line, and a tidy message of hope and meaning – all fall further and further away.
I loved the relief of it all so much that not quite half-way through sabbatical, I confessed to my spiritual director I was worried that I had nothing to say about anything anymore, except maybe about moving rocks from one part of the garden to another, or the mystery of still having Uggs boots in our shoe bin two months into summer.
She said, isn’t it interesting how reality doesn’t come with meaning attached to it? Reality isn’t a story. Reality is just – what is. You’re experiencing reality.
We’d talked about this, she reminded me – that this would happen.
This is life, she said. How does it feel?
We are asked and ask ourselves to process our lives so quickly today, to move from experience, to story, to meaning, (and often to reporting it out on social media) – so fast – we start to take the story-making, and the meaning, as the reality itself. Especially when a main part of your job is getting up in front of people and trying to weave meaning out of the preceding days, or weeks, or years – all in the span of 20 minutes for a crowd whose attention is already veering towards the grocery list, or the text they just got, or the week ahead.
So that to step away from the cycle feels – terrifying, disorienting, groundless. And also, if you let it, glorious.
In place of story-weaving and meaning making of my own, I found a hunger to listen to new words, and new ideas. Another story of sabbatical I’ll tell soon will be about “my summer of infinite podcasts,” as podcasts were how I began to feed that hunger.
On my own for most hours of the day, in the hot summer sun, I’d alternate between listening to the trees, and the next-door neighbor’s chickens, and the windchimes sounding from every direction- and then hitting play on another random podcast while kneeling in the dirt, amending the soil, noticing all the small changes of summer.
Along the way, I kept my my journal near, and would write small and unfinished notes to myself that when I look back at them now appear like little pep talks I was giving myself….or maybe, I see now, like aphorisms, or psalms….here are a few of the more intelligible ones….
- It takes a long time to dig up such a small amount of ground. Often, whole days.
- Time is not a problem to be solved. But I keep trying anyway.
- There is nothing extraordinary about betrayal, or grief. It’s regular.
- There are right and wrong ways to love. Love is not actually always love.
- Weeds are a way to remember we have the power to choose.
- To pick up is to begin setting down.
I’d get a line like this written, and then – nothing else would be there. I’d want to go back to moving rocks, pulling weeds, listening to podcasts, or the wind, making dinner, watching netflix. It was sometimes terrifying, annoying – sometimes just – perfect. Who needs meaning anyway?
Along the way, I discovered two podcasts that began to shift things in me.
One was an interview with the poet Maggie Smith, who wrote what became a “viral poem” in 2016…..
The conversation with Maggie Smith had her talking about coming to believe that her life, in the every day, would be a worthy topic for poetry. Motherhood, and meal making, laundry and car pools. She talked about a moment in her life when she realized she didn’t have to write about things that “poets write about,” she just had to write about life as she saw it, and that still she was just as much a poet.
There was something really comforting in hearing her struggle with the poet identity, and the question of what is worthy of real-live-writing.
Second, I discovered a podcast from poet Tracy K. Smith, called The Slowdown. It’s a poem-a-day type thing, except with curation and most-often commentary from Smith. Most episodes are five minutes or less. For a while, I just let the back episodes play one-after-another, with only a short breath between – like I was gulping it all down.
But eventually, I fell into a rhythm of each day waking to hear the new episode, to let that be my poem of the day – without any real need to make my own meaning or application. Just to take the time to really hear the words, the ideas, and the sound of Tracy Smith’s voice which basically feels like a lullaby to me.
These two podcasts opened up even more curiosity, so that I went looking for more books of poetry – I got Maggie Smith’s book, and a few books from the library – Sharon Olds and Lucille Clifton and Christian Wiman.
And then more poetry podcasts, including an interview with Camille Dungy where she talked about form in poetry, and about the need to study and practice different forms – stuff that I only slightly remembered from high school and college English classes. Which led me to Mary Oliver’s two books on poetry – A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance – where she talks about why it’s good to emulate other writers, that it’s a critical way to gain skill and eventually, to develop your own voice.
I started to wonder what it would mean to take up writing not as a hobby, but as a student. To imagine myself just learning, free to not know, not understand – despite all the words I’ve written, to be ok with being a beginner.
In mid-July, about 10 weeks into sabbatical, I flew to the north shore of Lake Superior – an area of the country I have never been, but that immediately felt familiar. (I learned later that my great grandparents had settled there for a time, with the other Scandanavians.)
I was there for a retreat with a senior colleague, an individualized retreat meant for looking back on the story (stories) of your life, and considering the story ahead. In my room there were shelves of even more poetry, that I sat for hours late into the night reading – Wendell Berry, May Sarton, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy…
And another book, a guide of contemplation and prayer grounded in poetry. It invited a three part practice – a question to contemplate, and then write about, a verbal prayer of poetry or scripture, and then centering prayer for increasing amounts of time – eventually 40 minutes a day. I began right away, and have been continuing every day, ever since. I have found an especially beautiful collection of poems that I highly recommend – called Poetry of Presence – that, in addition to Tracy K. Smith’s daily poem, have been part of my daily scripture.
And somewhere – through all of this – everything changed. Slowly, and also suddenly. Like going to the gym for weeks and weeks – and just at the moment when you feel like maybe you just don’t have the sort of body that makes muscles – you look in the mirror and it’s happened. That it was happening the whole time.
Since then I have written every day, including four completed poems and three sabbatical reflections – with another three poems and ten or so reflections in the works. You can find all the poems posted here.
I don’t know that I have yet come to peace about calling myself a writer, but I do have clarity that I want and need to keep writing, and to take writing – including poetry – in and of itself as a serious and worthy part of my life, and what I am called to do. Which also means that I have to continue to find ways, even as I return to church – and meetings, and email, and the march of Sundays coming again, and again – to make space for the experience of Reality. Unstoried, unfiltered, without any meaning around it, at all.
Which is maybe what scares me most about returning to work.
Because what I have learned during sabbatical about Reality, is that it takes a really long, long, long time. It cannot be forced to comply with our deadlines, not if we really mean to contend with it rather than our ideas and stories of it.
That is, it takes a long, long time – until one day, it feels sudden and simple. Relentlessly available, and abundant. That there is no way to make it feel available and abundant by rushing it, but only by giving over to its slow and invisible and mysterious workings. That it is random, and unpredictable, and that somehow, this makes it all the more beautiful, and trustworthy. Because we cannot make sense of it, not really, cannot contain it, certainly, cannot force good news to come on our terms – we can only pay attention and let the world and life work on us, and then – maybe, something will come through. Something some call spirit, or grace, or maybe just Life, for real.
This is what it means to be a grown up, my spiritual director tells me, when I express my fear that I will not be able to continue to pay attention like this, once I’m back tending to the emails and the meetings and the march of time. She says the challenge becomes not to keep up your spiritual practices, or to stay connected to these new insights and connections – these are the choices you are going to make. The challenge is only how many emails or meetings will you be able to add in to your life, while maintaining these things. Growing up means being able to choose to keep these connections while tending to all that may come your way, to not lose yourself, or Reality, along the way.
This is the story, and the prayer of my sabbatical. To make this choice. And to trust that even when the words seem sparse, and the weeds seem to have taken over, and the peaches got slammed by the hail storm – that Reality will continue to shake loose something more, and that so much is happening that I can’t see, or know – until the time comes. That rebirth, and reconciliation, is always on its way.
And that sometimes, this trust, and the practice will have to be – is – enough.