I have been feeling creatively empty. It’s a combination of a few things that are real: the baby won’t sleep, I have four children and there aren’t enough hours in the day for everything to get done, I have obligations and duties and work and requirements demanding all of my attention and my time just like everyone else – trust me, I’m no special snowflake.
But it’s also the unreal, the unseen, the you-feel-it-but-can’t-say-it of times of creative quiet: I’m empty and I’m tired, I have nothing from which to pull the water out of the well, there isn’t a bucket or a scooper and even if I could find one, I suspicion that there isn’t much in the bottom of this old well right now. I hope it’s not death, I hope it’s gestation of winter sleep but whatever it is, I’m feeling the failure of it, the loneliness of it. I’m unable to write and this inability is both an indictment and a fear.
What if I never write again? What if this is it and my time of creativity is gone? What if I’ve lost my voice and my passion? What if I am being submerged and sucked under by a tidal wave of obligation and regular life? diapers and meals, breastfeeding and navigating preteen dramas, spreadsheets and budgets, phone calls and toilet scrubbing, and good gracious how are these laundry bins full again? how is that conducive with a life of the spirit and a baptized imagination and a hankering for goodness and the mind embodied in ways of, well, even art?
I have had to find a way to create, to be my whole self, in this space and in this time with the life I’ve chosen. Because I chose this. And I would choose it again. This is the life I love and I have to believe that there is enough abundance, enough room, for even this Canadian chubby mum of many to show up and try to articulate a bit of truth, that somehow my voice would matter not in spite of this season of my life but maybe even because of it.
So I tried to write an essay one morning, an essay about prayer. I love to pray, or at least, I think it’s prayer: it’s more like holding space for God in my mind and in my heart, an invitation and a clearing away, a shifting over in the booth and the “hello, this spot is for you, go ahead and sit down if you like” in my soul and always somehow the spot is taken and filled and we eat and we are together even without words often.
But the essay wouldn’t come and I started to think black thoughts about white male theologians with wives and housekeepers and grown-up children who only visit once a while and while I’m at it, I should probably start writing letters again and delete Facebook from my phone and what am I even doing with my life, trying to write about prayer from this place when I’m pretty sure there’s little kid pee on the toilet seat that still needs to be cleaned up?
But I kept trying and it kept being awful. Now that I’ve published two books and countless articles, I have some legitimacy to my scribbling hobby. People call me a writer and the big miracle is that the word doesn’t make me feel like an imposter anymore, I even say it out loud when people ask me what I do (“I’m a …writer….”) but it’s a hard kind of life to nail down. I think that’s what frustrated me: I made the time and the space and then it didn’t happen. I booked a babysitter to come here to my house for two days a week, six hours each of those days. She looks after my two littlest ones while the two big kids are at school and I’m supposed to “create” during that time.
I hear from big and good writers that they require regularity and discipline to write: I am the same way. I know when I write the best stuff (early in the morning) and I know what helps me to write my best stuff (time outside in the wilderness, a clean house, a plan for supper, quiet, solitude) and yet I am rarely in that sweet spot. When I do try to create the sweet spot, I sit here at the page and I think in great blank spaces of nothing happening.
I try to coin words that don’t exist and craft sentences to explain how it feels when I look at the curve of my daughter’s cheek while she nurses at my breast or how I learned to pray by doing laundry or how dignity is overrated and how the Holy Spirit feels like a bracing cold wind to me and how you only really learn that when you have nothing left or how I believe in a God who climbs down into the obscurity and calls us beloved but I keep coming up with nothing much. Or how it’s when you’re down to the essence of yourself that you realize even cynicism is for the well-rested and undesperate, and how God deals so gently with us, more gently than we can suspicion, and I feel like I could lay down on the floor and just rest in the love I feel so strongly while I’m here in this daily luminous life, and then I think I should just quit and tell everybody to go read Brennan Manning or Madeleine L’Engle because this is absolutely ridiculous.
So I went for a walk. The babysitter was here anyway, what the hell? I drove to one of my favourite walking paths, striding along the lake. It’s been cold but not too cold so there is a skin of ice on the surface, even a duck wouldn’t dare to test it. I stuffed my rough bare hands into my coat and tucked the grey hair at my temples behind my ears. I haven’t gotten my hair coloured lately and it shows, I haven’t slept and it shows, I’m tired and so I’m here to walk and hopefully find something akin to a deep breath. I won’t find it sitting in my basement staring at the computer screen, I know that by now.
I walked and here, look, God is still here because there are people and there is beauty if you know where to look. One of the reasons why I love this walking path is that it’s always boasted a fine collection of senior citizens. I have my favourite paths for solitude and wilderness out in the mountains nearby but sometimes a little city walking park is just the right thing. Plus I’ve gotten more wary in my old age, I prefer witnesses.
The sun was low in the sky already and the trees are asleep with winter cold. I breathed in and out, counting my breaths. I shifted over in the booth of my heart and thought, okay, here’s your spot, Jesus, wanna walk with me? There was only silence and loneliness there. So I stood at the edge of the little lake and watched the geese fly in, the clouds resting like a gauze scarf on the mountains rising darkly in the deep light.
I turned towards the reeds and there, standing still and staring right at me was a heron, a big blue heron. Slender and regal, its long legs were in the water among the reeds. I’ve always loved great blue herons, their blue grey wings are like twilight, their elegance among domesticity, their perseverance and cleverness. I remember hearing once long ago that herons were considered good luck: when the aboriginals would head out on a fishing expedition, the sighting of a heron meant they were headed into success because they embodied patience and wisdom.
I stood silently watching the great blue grey bird caught between mud and cold water and a darkening sky. They’re a regular sort of bird, ordinary and yet beautiful.
Just then an eagle caught my eye far above: there is a nest way up high above the pines at the other end of the lake and sometimes we can see it soaring. Eagles are pretty amazing to see in real life: they are stern and beautiful and awesome. Their white helmets, their golden beaks, their black feathers are striking. Their wing strength is economic and around me I can hear other people gasping as it dips lower to us. I watched the eagle glide higher and then disappear into a horizon I can’t imagine, living far above the rest of us. My gaze returned to the great blue heron still standing patiently in the reeds and I said, all right then.
I went back to my home, the babysitter went home, I loaded up my small ones to go pick up the big ones at school, we came home and I presided over recorder practice and we made tacos for supper, we read books and we watched Jeopardy! together. I nursed the baby in the old rocking chair, knowing full well I would be back there again in about three hours, I bathed small bodies and clipped fingernails, I checked reading folders and signed permission slips and packed lunches. My husband of fifteen years caught my eye from the corner of the couch and winked at me and I grinned. I poured a glass of ordinary red wine and I sat down at the computer again to try to find a few words to say how I find God in this daily place and in this work, how I only learned to pray when I began to pray with my hands and my attention on purpose and how most of prayer to me now is listening and abiding, how I believe it would be nice to have a lovely housekeeper and a clean house and to create amazing soaring art with all of the white space of an uncluttered life and glorious heights of transcendent spirituality, I guess, but I need the God who sits in the mud and in the cold wind, in the laundry pile and in the city park, who embodies grief and joy, wisdom and patience, loneliness as companionship, renewal with simplicity and a good deep breath, and who even now shows up in the unlikeliest and homeliest of lives too, as a sacrament of and blessing for the ordinary things.