Space for the heart

I am newly returned from a week and a half out of town. I went on a writing retreat and visited some friends for a few days. I came back to a bunch of stuff to catch up on and am still not quite caught up. Closer, though.

And I want to say: this is great. I have done more of it this year, I will continue next year, it is so good. I think it doesn’t require a particular shape of thing to be good. Whatever you can manage, whatever works for you. For some people this will be an hour at a coffee shop, for some a weekend at a friend’s house. For some people, having any humans around defeats the purpose, and for others having to do any maintenance work does, so those shape what will be possible for you. If you really need to not have to think about food and cleaning, housesitting for a friend while they’re out of town won’t fit the bill. If you need at least a day to really get mental distance, a few hours by yourself won’t work. If you can’t have people around you, getting an airbnb with half a dozen friends will be a pleasant vacation rather than a productive retreat. But.

But consciously, actively making a quiet, separate space–this is a thing that I think is undervalued, especially for people trying to do large creative projects. It’s not just the room of one’s own. It’s the time of one’s own, the permission to take that time. The sense that taking that time is not the same thing as powering through a word count goal. Ideas may come, word count may come. But the quiet comes first. Even if it’s half an hour’s stop at a waterfall on the way home from running errands, a quick dash into the woods when you’ve been doing eldercare. Whatever shape it takes for you.

I have seen in people of all ages–though reflected in different behavior sets–the idea that being up on current events and well-informed is an unlimited virtue, and a virtue that requires the intake of every soundbite that comes out of a politician. I am all for informed voting and civic engagement. But 1) You do not get informed from soundbites. Yes, there are times when “this candidate said this appalling thing” is news you can use. But it’s not all there is to the vast majority of campaigns. If you were going to buy a major appliance, you wouldn’t consider yourself ill-informed if you hadn’t watched all the company’s commercials–or well-informed if you had. “Hey, the Maytag man said they’re reliable! He said it again!” That’s not research. Neither are the soundbites the news/commentary cycle thrives on. And 2) Everything you do in life, you do within your own limits. Even if you’re committed to making home-cooked meals, some days that’s going to mean pasta or scrambled eggs instead of five elaborate courses. Your limits include your emotional limits as well as the limits of your time and understanding. Doing your best does not mean doing nothing but reading political commentary for months before an election. There has to be room to set it aside and think of other things. Your family, your friends, your scrambled eggs, your creative work. The way the river looks as your plane lands.

I really mean “has to.” There has to. Our elections have gotten unreasonably long in the US, and it’s affecting everyone else in the world. If you stay intensely engaged on it, you will get exhausted, you will burn out. There has to be space to breathe occasionally.

I know I’m lucky to have the money, the flexibility, and at the moment the health to go somewhere completely separate from my ordinary life. I’m really lucky. But I also think that it’s a good thing for most of us to look for opportunities for set-aside space within our lives, however we can find it. Not just “I am on deadline and now I will go and go.” But also “what is this thing that I am doing that is worth doing, and how can I do it better?” and “what am I missing, what am I not seeing?” And other subtler questions that are how we keep our heads above the waves, other questions that speak to what we’re doing that’s worth protecting. Culturally easier when you’re at some stage of a large project–I could say to my Facebook, “I’m going away to start my new novel,” and that was true. But the novel is what it is because I had the conceptual space, the emotional space, to make it that and not do it by rote and reflex.

No matter what work you want to do, I think that’s something we all need from time to time, especially in times of whirling chaos.

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