I meandered out into the woods this afternoon, a place I’ve spent shamefully little time this winter. I knew today, almost as soon as I got up, that I would end up out there, and I’m glad that I did. It was a short visit, uneventful, mostly me weaving in and out of trees in search of the next patch of sunlight for my face to rest in. And it was also a time machine, that visit.
I wriggled my feet into the perfect spot so that, upon turning, my face would enjoy the warmest window of buttery sunlight, and there I was, blinking in the light, and looking down upon the very first fort my brood of seven made for themselves back in the day.
They were 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 when we wed, and this fort likely came into existence in their first full summer together, just a year later. It’s not much more than a ruins now, an echo of seven childhoods well-spent. If you look close, you’ll see it, the rope stretched around a crescent of towering trees, the army of sticks stood up against that bulwark, walls in miniature, now tumbled into heaps.
They spent some serious hours down there building that place in the pines. I believe, if local lore is to be trusted, the construction came to a screeching halt one day when the royals came to blows.
It will help to remember that our seven were not siblings by birth. We, our messy blended family, had two eldest children, a handful of middles, and two babies. Birth order brings with it fascinating roles and hurdles, and when you blend two birth families into one chaotic gaggle, things get more and more interesting with each passing day.
Critical to our story, the then eight and the ten-year-olds were both eldest children, and spent more energy than either of them would like to admit during their childhoods in pursuit of the alpha role in our pack. Wars are always about power, aren’t they?
Well, on that fateful day, the war waged around a television. Not a real television, although there were plenty of battles under our roof revolving around the real television. But on this day, the war was over a make-believe television. For when the ten-year-old hefted the bulk of her imaginary TV down to the fort for installation, the eight-year-old was appalled at her basic misunderstanding of… well, pretty much everything, it seemed.
Words were exchanged. Five children looked on in horror as their idols did fierce battle on the merits of technology in the woods. The invisible tele was installed in the fort, in a rage. It was unplugged and removed from service in an equal yet opposite rage. Wall components were repurposed into threatening weapons.
I’m not certain exactly who won that day, as the legends conflict some in the passage of time, and the lack of actual television makes both sides hard to prove, but I am certain that many parties were scarred by the horrors of that day.
It was something for me, today, to watch the ancient drama play out there in the snow, and wonder what embellishments I’d layered on of my own accord. Those days seem like yesterday, but the fuzziness of the details belies their age and I’m forced to admit that some water has passed under the bridge.
Those kids are all growed up now. Soon and very soon, we will have an empty nest, all the little birdies flown and hatching their own broods and schemes. Sigh.
Last month, the youngest baby got accepted into the college of her dreams. She’s only 16 right now, but between her stint at a Semester School a year ago and the complications of Life in the Times of COVID, she knew she was ready to graduate early and get the hell out. So both babies graduate this year. How did that happen?
Anyway, it was a fun trip, and once again a reminder that it’s time to write.
Life is burdensome sometimes, often more than we’d care to think about, and sometimes this writing thing that I do takes a back seat to the more mundane. Sometimes it takes a back seat to the best that life has to offer, like every time I refuse to take my laptop on vacation, but sometimes it is relegated to the shadows because the shadows are all-encompassing.
In my life, I’ve been sure to keep my aspirations in check in relation to my primary occupation of Mama Bear. In the dawn of my writing career, I made the very intentional and fierce decision, that my family came first, and writing came second, no matter what. I even blogged about it: Moderation, even in writing (gasp). I’ve lived a life where that was a possible luxury, and I’m pretty proud to look back, from this vantage point, and tell you I think I did a pretty good job of it.
There were… moments. Moments when I got carried away. Moments when I forgot to look up from the screen. Moments when I may have forgotten that I had a family at all. But by and large, I held fast to my insistence that time would come later when I could dig in with all four hooves (that came our hives the first time I typed it; interesting), and really give the writing my all, without compromise.
Dang, folks… You know where we are? You know when we are?
The bigger part of me likes to curl up and weep that my time with kids at home is almost done. But there is that little part that is ready for what’s next. I’m ready to refocus on different aspects of life and marriage and joy. Weird feeling, but a true feeling nonetheless. And one I’d better embrace lest I spend a lot of years in the fetal position.
I almost decided to make some ridiculous resolution to write every day of 2021. These sorts of things are the kiss of death for me. But still I am drawn in like a squirrel to Scott’s bird feeder.
You’ll notice I did not blog yesterday, on January 1st. It was intentional, just to nip that temptation in the bud. Didn’t write a thing. So there. Take that.
OK. Fine. It wasn’t intentional, but I’ll take it as divine intervention, and run with it.
In that vein, of the sort of writing I’ve been engaged in for the past near-decade, I recently ran into something Ranier Maria Rilke wrote in his first letter to a young aspiring poet. Here’s the gist of it:
“This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse… “
~~~ blah, blah, bl-blah… ~~~
“if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all.”Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
It was a good letter. Really, it was. But this part about must got me all riled up. He’s not the first to make that claim. Well, I dunno. Maybe he was. Regardless, he isn’t the only. And I always have the same reaction. Love and recoil in equal measure.
Because I DO need to write. And yet I don’t need to write.
In this year of weighing essential vs. non-essential services, I’m sure you know what I mean here.
I think that I can need to write in a different way than I need air and water and food and shelter. I think that I can need to write for my best life, without thrusting myself out in a boat of hyperbole where I declare writing an essential function of my body.
Maybe this is because when asking myself the question, “Must I write?” I come up short, and know that I would not die if I couldn’t write. Good Lord, does that mean I’m not a writer???
I would be a sad, sad sack, were I not able to write, but it remains fact that I have gone many, many days without writing, and still I am here, not even crippled or disfigured (much). I do know that the bulk of those days would have been infinitely richer had I tapped away at something, anything, but I would not say that they presented a danger to my existence. My highest existence? Yes, likely. My greatest, most lofty potential? Yep, could’ve been better. But my very life? No, I didn’t even get a fever. Not so much as a hive.
Thus it is clear that I am not destined to write, and should instead take up needlework. Thank you, Rilke.
Mostly, I think that I bristle at Rilke on this point as a matter of definition. What is essential, really? Poetically speaking, there are so many absolute, desperate non-negotiables in life. Things that I cannot live without. But down here on the ground, when the poem lights and rests its wings, the realistic list is somewhat sparser. Truth be told, my list of essentials is populated with a million things I can’t imagine living without. But as life has taught me, sometimes they are taken away, and I am somehow still standing, hangdog though I may be. Sometimes the losses even lead to greater gains than I ever could have fathomed. Sometimes they are only losses, pure and solid and crystalline. Empty voids that will accompany me the rest of my days. But all of them have left me, whether richer or poorer, or that strange amalgamation of both, alive. Even the things that I scribble on my list of absolutes fall a little short of that lofty mark.
So I have to remember that Rilke was a poet. His definition is a bit more dramatic than I’m prepared to adopt as my own. But I will say, poetically, that yes, I must write. Because I do want the fullest. I do want the richest. I do want to squeeze every drop from this life I’ve been given. And that requires me, it musts me, to do and have certain things in my life. Writing is one. It is a must. And I am grateful for the luxury.
The days of leaving my writing on the simmer burner are coming to a close. The cubs are filtering out of the den, and there’s little to keep me from the keyboard but the inevitable worries and compulsions of life. The shadows that can suck the life right out of life. Which I’m pretty capable of obsessing over, for the record. Also, there are grandkids. But I’m sure they won’t take up any of my time.
Nevertheless, the clouds pass, and the blue sky shines forth, (the grandkids always go home), and the long-term moderation argument that I’ve held fast to through the years is about to lose some steam. The hearth will soon have room on the hot seat. Yikes. where does time go?
A lovely writer buddy of mine asked me today on a distanced retreat later this month. Don’t worry your little head on the viral logistics there, but I have to say I’m excited. A little kick in the pants is often a good way to get things rolling.
So if you need me, I’ll be working hard to embrace the next stage. Deep Breath.
Here’s the Christmas Letter:
(You can read them all in Odds and Ends up above.)