“Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic,’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” — E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (1973)
With a gritty swipe of ash to my forehead, I’m launched into Lent. And every year, it’s different. Every year it’s less about “deprivation,” more about incarnation — specifically, about adjusting habits in such a way as to turn down the noise that blurs my hearing, and my sight.
What type of noise? The voices of should and why don’t you and wouldn’t you rather and wouldn’t it be different if you possessed this thing or this one and what is here, now, is not enough and see this hole? fill it with whatever’s to hand. What does it blur my ability to see? That which is already here with me, now. The clear, onward-running presence of what is true and what is real and what I do and don’t want and need. That which is really at stake, and that which will matter in a year or a decade and that which will not. That which daily life and the endless stream of bullshit poured into it by TV and corporate culture do their best to swamp and disguise. But that clear stream is here. It waits for us to listen. And we can.
Every year I look forward more and more to Lent because the joy at the end is greater, and because the experiments it lets me try and the structure it gives for them are more necessary. This year I’m giving up Facebook again and containing email within tighter boundaries. And I’m recommitting to writing — every day in the journal, no matter what, to skim off what’s there, and every day on one or more of the several projects I’ve got cooking. This week I bought a plane ticket to a city I’ve always dreamed of visiting. And today I typed two words of immeasurable power: Chapter One.
Writing is tied into living is tied into spirit is tied into the moment-to-moment decisions to let habit do the driving or to wake up and pay attention, to take a walk and let yourself be emptied out and refilled with all you see. In my advanced creative writing class this week we talked about writing a poem or story or essay as building a container for the invisible thing, the spirit, that you want to tease down out of the air around you or out from your own mind or memory or heart. What’re the tools we have to do that? The senses. The body. What the body knows and the language that renders that, compelling and exact, because the knowledge of bodies can speak across the borders of different minds or skins. Denis Johnson’s junkie huddles in a truck with baby rabbits under his shirt, rescued from a snowstorm, and we feel that quivering against our own bellies, try as he tries not to breathe too hard. Doestoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor pauses to stare at the meek man in front of him, level, lethal. Eudora Welty shows us a bust of Beethoven on a small-town music teacher’s piano, “softened around the edges, as if a cow had licked it.”
So a big part of being a writer is using what the body knows, and the knowledge it develops with time and attention, to build that airy structure of little black lines on a page that nevertheless contains multitudes, that gappy and striving garden shed with gaps of sun where the rickety sides are nailed together. Build that structure and, word by word, you invite that spirit to come closer and sit down. Settle in, cling to the lines and letters like fog clings to trees. This is incarnation, flesh and matter as temporary container for what is always sweeping miraculously on and in and through us. This is what we miss, and keep on missing, if we let ourselves be numbed to it, if we let ourselves not care. If we let ourselves be told, by the forces of habit or meanness outside and inside ourselves, that the small or the quiet or the patient or the inexplicable or the apparently “unprofitable” — sitting on a riverbank, watching — aren’t sufficient expressions of our priceless time on this earth.
Chapter One, plus more words. And then I walked down to the river — why haven’t I just done this more? Just taken a walk? — in a blazingly bright blue afternoon, so cold my face burned. Snow had melted and swelled the river but on the ground it had frozen again in solid ice and crunchy frost that huddled around the brown grass you can see, now, in patches. Every so often there was a low boom and crack of calving ice, nibbled at by the water that was still running, stronger and thicker with the melt from somewhere. And then there was an instantly, obviously, animal noise, crunch crunch crunch. At the water’s edge a fat russet-brown shape hunkered and a flat head swam back and forth — beavers. They’ve destroyed creeks on my family’s land back home but here I couldn’t be angry at them, with everything but simple curious watching swept aside: how on earth can anything have so much fat and fur that swimming in this river on a twenty-degree day is no big deal? The big one slipped into the water and touched noses with the little one, who turned and made an arrow-shaped wake downstream. Then he hauled himself up onto the ridge of ice at the foot of the bank, exactly like my fat cat hauling himself up onto the couch. The ice crackled and the beaver froze, then tested it, paw by paw. Finally he stood up on his hind legs and tugged a stick down toward himself in both hands, then settled down to gnaw on it – the same little crunching noise that had caught my attention in the first place. I could have watched for hours, just looking.
And maybe that’s the gift of Lent, or any season of practice and recommitment, for writers, and for everyone: you have this sort of attention, and all the wild world’s gifts, available to you at any time. Just look, and you will see.