Take more time, cover less ground
In July, I spent 10 days in Collegeville, Minnesota, at a women’s writing workshop on the campus of St. John’s University. I applied for it months ago, and was accepted, which meant all was paid for, even flights, which was such a gift. I was among a brilliant group of 10 women, and we had completely open mornings to write, workshops in the afternoon/evenings, and time to swim, hike, and pray with the monks at the Benedictine Abbey on campus. Lauren Winner (an amazing writer & editor & Episcopal priest who led the workshop) gave us deeply generative and meaningful writing prompts/exercises.
What those 10 days taught me was a lesson in deep patience. To make a vow to my writing and creative work means to be in it for the long haul. To keep showing up for my writing, to be disciplined and committed—that’s what a vow means. Yet I also recognize writing as a gift given to me by the Spirit. How do I steward this gift well? How do I remain connected to the source of my creativity, which is God?
I began the workshop feeling intense imposter syndrome. I was so nervous, so jittery with thoughts of what others think about me, the do I deserve to be here, really? pounding in my brain.
But those 10 days, even with all the processing of my own insecurities, was one of the best experiences of my life. I left Minnesota feeling deeply affirmed in my writing… fast forward to the second to last day when my piece was finally workshopped by everyone, and the most meaningful feedback I got wasn’t about the content, or how well or not well I craft and write a sentence, but about the spirit of vulnerability in the writing itself, the way ‘the author’ writes from a place of openness and simplicity that is inviting and, some said, felt rare. I share this only because it’s my continuous desire to be authentic in the words I write and this felt like an affirmation of that, an answered prayer.
The first morning we were there, I sat outside the apartment I was staying in for the week (which had beige-colored furniture and overlooked a reflective, mossy lake.) Hallowed out inside in the best way, feeling intimidated with the week ahead and how I’ll spend my time, what I’ll work on, what I’ll create. I ask you my God: you brought me here. May I write from that place of trust. I feared I was going to ‘waste my time’ somehow. I was nervous about the workshop.
Inside the St. John’s monastery chapel is an entire wall of stained glass in a honeycomb pattern. I joined for mass the first sticky morning. For a while I sat in quiet, just my sweaty self and the low hum of fans, sharp light filtered through glistening colors—purples and blues and whites and clears that are filled with remnants of sun. I can’t escape the colors all around me, the bright orange lilies and red bricks out the window. Color, I’m realizing, is intimately bound with prayer for me, bound with who God is for me.
Oh glorious, tree-singing morning of soft light and lily pads and dragonflies and docks to sit on, I wrote that day. I am so restless in my core, anxious, afraid, unsure. I long, my God, to feel at peace here, and I don’t, and it makes me frustrated. I long for time with you in this land of cloisters and prayer. It feels at home to my soul to be in a place so contemplative, a monastery and wall of colorful glass, glittering purple in the light, the Holy Spirit churning in my flesh like a flu ache. What really do I have to say among a community of writers so brilliant? God of this lake, Mother Mary who understands, hear my prayer. I don’t even know, quite yet, what that prayer is.
One of the highlights of my week was getting to see the St. John’s Illuminated Bible. I went to the Hill Manuscript Library after mass, where it is housed. It was the first completely hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine community in 500+ years. It was completed in 2011 and took 23 artists and calligraphers over 11 years to complete.
Something very deep and profound and intimate and primordial and sacred shuddered in me while I looked at the Bible’s pages. The deepest depth—of what? To live a life as slow and attentive as calligraphers of an illuminated Bible. To spend years with sacred words and themes and art and color for the sake of beauty. It was like I was reading verses totally brand new, the words of Christ somehow more deeply rooted in their ever-living truth when colors and ancient techniques and time become part of the words themselves.
I stood in front of a passage from Ezekiel: the Lord led me into the temple and prepared a place for me, the rainbow-blended colors with technological, glitchy shapes and indigo, gold-carved palm trees and fish beneath. I cried with overwhelmed awe and felt the Spirit say to me too: a place has been prepared for you, I am leading you in. Palm trees and fish and holy architecture are part of my story, all that is happening to me this week is part of my story, part of my being led in.
Another one of my favorite writing exercises was responding to poetry/interview excerpts cut out on paper. This exercise helped me better understand the fear I was holding about my piece being workshopped. “I was defeated. I felt pressed, smashed… I don’t know if I want to write anymore.” That line broke my heart and I understand it. Hollowed out by my own words, feeling smashed by the demands of writing, why do I keep choosing it, longing for it? So many criticisms and thoughts from others about how to write about one’s own life. Yet this is what is true, this is what I trust: it is material sacred and readily giving, it will not run dry, it is your own life. What is more precious than writing about your own life lived?
During our free day, which was the Feast of St. Benedict, I went for a walk in the early afternoon along the lake and through the grotto and stopped to eat from a wild raspberry bush, the tiny sour berries making my tongue salivate. Sweet in the deepest sense of the word: born of seasons, sweet like the memory of eating snow, sweet like the smell of trees in the morning. Today, I thought, is one of those July days that feels very green and gray, with bluegrass mixed in (“Green and Gray” by Nickel Creek is stuck in my head as I write this). Summer green and gray is thick and heavy and inescapable, you feel it all around and in the crevices of your skin, light not direct but everywhere.
During the raspberry-bush walk I was on my way to the St. John’s Pottery Studio for a tour and tea with the potters. The lessons of patience and deep time that I had been thinking about abstractly became concrete there. The studio was on the lower level of an old house-looking building, and you walk in see kick wheels to the right and a large Japanese stove in the center. Incense was burning and instrumental music was playing as the kettle heated. All along the walls were shelves full of cups, plates, bowls.
While one of the potters, Daniel, was giving us a tour and explaining their process, I kept thinking, this timescale/sense of time is not like our sense of time. Sometime the 90s, he told us, construction workers were building a new road about five miles from campus, and a huge clay deposit was discovered. This is hazardous to roads apparently so they began to remove it, when Richard, the senior potter and student at the time, heard about this and asked if the Benedictine community would give him a grant to take the clay to store it. It was 300 years worth of clay to use for pottery. So the monks gave him the grant, and now the clay forms a hill nearby with trees growing out of it. Daniel showed us the natural clay which is gray and full of roots and rock. There’s a whole long process of getting it ready for use— adding water and sand and going through many steps of flattening it out, then storing it for up to 12 years. Eight years is the sweet spot because the slates of molecules in the clay stick together and work together in the most ideal way at that time.
St. John’s has a giant wood-fired kiln with three chambers, and because it’s such a laborious and intense firing process, they only fire it once every two years. It takes eight weeks to load all the pottery—loaded in a way that is both planned and experimental. Daniel told us, for example, they try putting plates on top of cups that are full of wild rice, because wild rice burns without burning somehow, leaving glowing ash that colors the plates in surprising ways. People work around the clock for 10 days to keep the fire burning in the 2000-degree kiln, glowing orange, ash flying through the draft. In the kiln, the pieces take on a life of their own, beyond the potter’s control or intention. It’s the kiln that ultimately decides what the piece will look like.
After the firing there’s a two-week cooling process and, according to Daniel, deeply emotional months of unloading and seeing how all of these pieces turned out, all at once. Then there’s more months of smoothing them out, then glazing with a soy-based glaze they make at the studio which takes 20+ years of creating and refining. The absolute patience and slow sense of time strikes me. The cup I bought for $20 is its own sanctuary and reflection on time, all of these literal thousands of years present in a cup (the forming of the clay under the prairie, the glaze, the firing, all of it). Not to mention the hands and creative mind that formed it. Pottery is deep, and the spiritual metaphor is annoyingly obvious and so rich—this spirit of creativity, thousands of years in the making, like we are, clay in the Potter’s hands.
The Feast of St. Benedict is the day each year when the monks in the community make and renew their vows. During the vow ceremony, one monk, Brother Travis, was making his first vows, and part of the ceremony was singing, with his arms outstretched, “God, disappoint me not in my hopes.” There were two old monks who were celebrating anniversaries—one his 70th and the other his 75th year being a Benedictine. Benedictines make a vow of stability, meaning a vow to the physical place that is that particular landscape of Minnesota. To dedicate your entire life to that community, to that landscape, to God—it has stuck with me. Disappoint me not in my hopes.
Who knew that what this week needed to teach me was this: the life of a writer, like the life of a monk, like the life of a potter, is a life of patience, of letting things settle and sink into my system. A depth that I can’t fully understand because none of my life has operated that way. I believe a lot is still seeping into my body and nervous system from the week that will only begin to emerge little by little. What I know is, my writing would not exist without my faith and prayer practice, and the other way around too. They are so entangled and beyond my understanding.
The second to last morning there I finally went swimming in the lake. The water, warmer than the air, was steaming—a freshness and mystery and otherworldliness. Just me and my dripping lashes looking out from the floating dock onto the boiling horizon, warm water the color of icy steel. The sparrows dive-bombing for food, hermit crab shells drifting little ghosts. Alive, like the translucent, spotted fish that don’t seem to notice you, the herons, so prehistoric and delicate. I clutched the rusting ladder and contemplated the fish-filled, moss-filled endlessness underneath me, my breath rippling like metal ribbon.
Perhaps my favorite writing exercise from the week was one where Lauren had us write down five words that had to do with a writing project were working on. (Since I was working on a piece on Ben Shahn, my words were ‘art, alphabets, color, lettering, holy’). Then she had us circle one of them, I circled alphabets. Then she said we’d be using the word before the one we circled. So my word was art.
The first part of the exercise was writing the word in the center of a piece of paper and just brain-dumping every association we could think of with that word. Then, on a new sheet of paper, we listened to what the word was trying to say to us, and wrote it down.
Here’s what art had to say to me: You are allowed to create and call it art. I am intimately part of you, I am survival. What would you do without me? You would make me anyway. I make you feel alive, I make you remember you are alive. Humans are messy and need me to orient themselves in the world. In the nervous system of your mother I transferred to you, I’m an energy constantly moving and transforming, not a thing but a movement, moving through bodies, from one to another, constantly. I can’t be stopped from the beginning of time. Possible, for you.
One of the evenings a woman led a meditation for us at the Episcopal House of prayer. She gave us a blessing I want to carry with me into all my years:
May you trust yourself, especially in your writing.
It is the joy of my life to create from my depths and meet God there.
[Also I want to start documenting what was/is swirling in my head when writing about certain topics/events in my life because it’s cool to look back on connections and inspiration. While in Minnesota I was listening to Meredith Moon’s album Forest Far Away, the song “Good Tree” by Hillbilly Thomists, the One Fast Move or I’m Gone album by Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar (particularly the songs “These Roads Don’t Move” and “All In One”). I was reading Ben Shahn’s writings, some Thomas Merton of course, Mary Moore Easter poems, and M.F.K Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me]
If I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy.Thomas Merton