Your Work is a Thread
Maybe because I’m coming up on a couple of milestones, a 25th wedding anniversary, another birthday (I’m at the age where every birthday becomes a milestone, I suppose), I’m thinking about what it means to have followed my calling to write all these many years. It’s too late to go back. But are there other ways to pursue writing?
I have only so much time left, only so many books left to write. Which means that I will write them whether anyone wants them or not. This is not a terrible spot to be in. By the time you reach your 50s, you’ve seen a number of people stop writing or painting, making what it is they make. Maybe it’s lack of success, or just being disheartened by the milieu. Maybe it’s because of health concerns, financial reasons. It’s much easier to quit than to continue. But continue we must.
What is it anyway, to follow a calling? Let’s look at this poem by Maxine Kumin:
by Maxine Kumin
Over my desk Georgia O'Keeffe says
I have no theories to offer and then
takes refuge in the dismbodied
third person singular: One works
I suppose because it is the most
interesting thing one knows to do.
O Georgia! Sashaying between
first base and shortstop as it were
drawing up a list of all the things
one imagines one has to do . . .
You get the garden planted. You
take the dog to the vet. You
certainly have to do the shopping.
Syntax, like sex, is intimate.
One doesn't lightly leap from person
to person. The painting, you said,
is like a thread that runs
through all the reasons for all the other
things that make one's life.
O awkward invisible third person,
come out, stand up, be heard!
Poetry is like farming. It's
a calling, it needs constancy,
the deep woods drumming of the grouse,
and long life, like Georgia's, who
is talking to one, talking to me,
talking to you.
I think the O’Keeffe quotation bears repeating:
Your work, your calling, is like a thread that runs through your life. At least it has been for me. (Forgive the awkward tense switches, but I see what O’Keeffe is up to...I see what Kumin is up to, too).
And yet, we have a right to change course, I think. This is your life, and you have to find your own threads.
“You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too. No, I think there was too rigid a pattern. You came out of an education and are supposed to know your vocation. Your vocation is fixed, and maybe ten years later you find you are not a teacher anymore or you're not a painter anymore. It may happen. It has happened. I mean Gauguin decided at a certain point he wasn't a banker anymore; he was a painter. And so he walked away from banking. I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.”
― Anaïs Nin
Parker J. Palmer says, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” This is from his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.
We must be patient with our lives, and yet, when I see that word even, patient, I am sent back to the work of Adrienne Rich, that book, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. The line is from a poem called “Integrity.” And it begins with an epigraph, a definition from the dictionary: “The quality or state of being complete; unbroken condition; entirety.”
When we are able to listen to our life, when our life is in alignment with our soul, then we are more likely to feel unbroken, complete.
From Rich’s poem, written in 1978, when I was 12 years old:
“Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider's genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere –
even from a broken web.”
There are all these ways we come to know ourselves. We forget, too, what our path is. We lose our way, our thread. Our web breaks, we rebuild. We remember and forget and remember. We continue, with a wild patience.