Tuesday, June 7, 2011

THE WRITING LIFE, PART IV: SEEK YE FIRST


[The last in a series. Here are Part I, Part II, and Part III]

Near the end of 2009 I kept hearing: “Sell what you have, give to the poor, come follow me.” I kept hearing the voice of a man named Ladon Sheats, who I didn’t know myself, but who was a friend of friends, and had quit his job as a corporate executive, given away everything he owned, and spent the rest of his life traveling around to monasteries and Catholic Worker communities and federal prisons to do often long periods of time for acts of civil disobedience and who, as he was dying of cancer, told his friends, “I just wanted to see if the Gospels were true. They’re true.”

For a long time, I’d felt that my work was not bearing fruit. I felt like all my efforts to get my work out had come to naught. I felt as if Christ were calling me to something further, something deeper. I thought maybe another town or city. I thought maybe a deeper solitude. I had a deep urge, a pilgrim urge, an urge that told me one more time I had to change my life.

There was that, and there was also the fact that I wasn’t sure I could continue to afford to live in Los Angeles. So I prepared to leave the apartment in which I’d lived for 17 or 18 years. Though I tend to attach profound emotional and spiritual significance to all things, I sold or gave away most of my furniture. I gave away almost all my books, my stereo, my sewing machine, the down sleeping bag with which I’d hitch-hiked around the country in my ever-receding youth.


I took off in my ’96 Celica and I was gone for six months, to Taos, New Mexico, the Gulf Coast of Texas, Appalachia. I had six months of almost complete solitude. The whole time I was gone, I wasn’t worried about my career, I wasn’t thinking really about my career. It wasn’t that I’d given up, or didn’t care, but my caring took the form number one, of simply writing every day, as always, but of trying to discern, as I said, where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do. I didn’t think maybe I shouldn’t write at all. But I did think maybe I cared too much about the fruits of my work and maybe I should just live in a little cabin in Taos and grow hollyhocks and praise the mountains and write and go to Mass every day, which believe me, would be one very attractive and viable life, and then after I died, someone or other would find my work and if they wanted to and anyone was interested, they could publish it then.

Which sounds kind of operatic but you have to understand, for fifteen years I had totally and single-mindedly devoted myself to writing. I knew absolutely that writing was my calling. I had always known the human connection, the one-to-one contact was the thing, and I had made and fostered many such connections, and they meant the world to me and I thought maybe for whatever reason I was just not meant to have any kind of public presence. Maybe, for whatever reason, my work was not meant to sell.


The whole time I was gone I had no internet in whatever room I was staying in. I’d go to the local café or library or MacDonald’s most every day to check my e-mail but I had no online presence whatsoever except my website and I think Facebook which I rarely if ever checked. I descended into some kind of very deep silence that I did not understand, in which nothing seemed to be “happening” and in which I sort of stopped caring if anything was happening. I stayed in Taos, New Mexico for three months, I did a silent forthy-day retreat, I stayed at the Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage in Spencer, West Virginia for a month.

And then one day I realized if I stay any longer, I wasn’t going to be on pilgrimage any more, I was going to be hiding out. It was almost literally like a baby bird must feel like when it knows it’s time to crack the shell and emerge.


I made the drive from West Virginia to the West Coast in three days. I came back to L.A. and lived in a sublet for five weeks. I had always been very anti-blog. I knew nothing about blogging. And within a week or two of arriving home, with very little conscious thought, I simply sat down one afternoon, went to blogger.com, came up with a spur-of-the-moment title, put up the photo of the Jesus statue from Elvis’s bedroom I’d snapped on my Motorola Razr a few years before at Graceland for a header, and started writing.

It was as if all those months of silence, not to mention the fifteen years of relative silence of my career, had ripened in a way I had never remotely looked for, expected or imagined. For years I’d been sending out essays and manuscripts, and waiting months for an answer, and more months for the thing to be published, if at all, and suddenly my entire subconscious or the collective unconscious of cyberspace, of which I had always been extremely wary, kicked in, and I saw: Oh there’s another way, what fun!


I put up a Writing Mentor page on my website to try to drum up some money, and I started writing, and I haven’t stopped since. After awhile I bought myself a little refurbished Canon for 120 bucks off amazon and have had so much fun taking my own pictures really mostly of flowers and trees and the undersides of leaves.

I’d never read, and really still haven’t read, many other blogs so I just went about my own blog the way I wanted to. Sometimes I write 2000-, 3000-word essays. I try to write about what I am for, not what I’m against. I know next to nothing about popular culture. I write about what I love, what moves me, what intrigues me, what I can’t figure out. I write about the books and music and film and people that have saved me.  I don’t care about politics or being relevant or topical. I care about the mystery.


It is very time-consuming if I were to "count the cost," but in a way the whole thing has turned into a big "scavenge" for me, a casting my net and then people from far and wide are dredged up in it, and then I spend more time responding to their emails, and yet--enough money comes in to keep me going, and so who cares how much time it takes when I love putting the stuff out there? And it is really Christ I am putting out. So I am really getting to go my own way and see the strange kind of fruit it bears, though I would have no other kind of fruit! This, too, however, is a constant process of discernment Am I thinking more about myself, or less? Am I being distracted from prayer or being led deeper into prayer? All I know is last week I went to Mass every day, and after the 7:00 p.m. Friday at Holy Trinity in Atwater, Adoration, and what could be better than sitting before the Blessed Sacrament? In my ragged sweater and scuffed Pumas? What truer sign that my work is leading me in the right direction?

I always thought the paradigm must be: The more success, the freer the ride. But what I see now is the more success, the more responsibility, the more work. On the one hand, I get to do exactly as I "want," and on the other, I’m a 24/7 servant. On the one hand my burden is easy, and on the other I take up my cross daily. In one way I have no safety net and in another way I am ministered to continually by angels. On the one hand I am utterly focused, and on the other I have no idea where my next buck is coming from.



And that is the total total fun of it!  I correspond with an army chaplain in Afghanistan, a homicide detective in Decatur, Georgia, a priest in the Holy Land. I hear from monks, housewives, people who can’t get sober, people whose husbands have just undergone a trans-gender operation, people whose sons just OD’ed, people in wheelchairs, people who are pissed-off, people who want to write memoirs about their struggles with anorexia, childhood incest, or being a drunken nun. I heard from a guy in Madison Lake, Minnesota who said You misspelled churches on your website and I said Where and he said I’ll check and right now I am going to a Twins game right now even though they’re losing and then I never heard from him again. I love that guy! That guy is not the distraction or side note: that guy is the whole thing! In November, I’m going to speak to the parish of St. John the Baptist in Tipp City, Ohio (!) My friend Toni Flynn might set a reading up for me soon in Shell Beach, on the central coast of California. I hear from folks in South Africa, Alberta, Canada, the Philippines, Australia, the UK. I never know where I might end up or who I’ll meet.

If you were to examine my life from the outside you’d say: It cannot be. It cannot be that in this resolutely secular culture, of which in one way I am squarely a member, you could write about Christ and still make a living. It could not be that you could have no brand, no platform, no politics, no axe to grind, no message except the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world and still have people find you, and respond to your work, and ask you to come speak at their parish or novitiate or independent bookstore or beauty parlor. It could not be that you could write about your love of Christ and hear from atheists, bitterly lapsed Catholics, agnostics, Buddhists, and Jews who are seeking, who are questioning, who are finding their way as well, and who want to say hey, or good for you, or I disagree but I like that you’re reaching.

Truly my work has become the bread of life. Truly, my life is a minute-by-minute demonstration of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Truly, when Christ said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”—he was telling the truth. He was making a promise.


18 comments:

  1. Love this. I'm going to start reading Shirt of Flame EVERY morning at 4:00. xobon

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't even know how to tell you how much I enjoy reading your observations, comments, insights, responses et al. I came a long journey to return to the Church and I can say with Ladon Sheats, the Gospels are true! Although I have done nothing radical or heroic, in my day to day hum drum life I see Grace at work, the promises of Christ realized, miracles small and large. I appreciate your ability to articulate so simply and yet eloquently the pilgrimage we're all on, both the burden light and the daily cross. Your entry about avoiding the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right provided me with a wonderful answer to a son who is an embittered ex-Catholic. Thank you. Don't stop. Please. AL

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Al. This blog is a blessing. The piece about avoiding the Catholic Left and Right was a timely intervention for me, after spending the past several years on the Catholic Far Right fringe.

    As a former IBMer, I was very interested to hear the story of Ladon Sheats.

    David

    ReplyDelete
  4. I read Redeemed when it first came out and really enjoyed it, but I am enjoying this blog even more. This medium seems more spontaneous, more direct somehow. I am looking forward to Shirt of Flame's release in the fall.


    For many years I thought that I had the writing vocation. I wrote many things -- most of it for publication or work, and they were all horrid. I began writing a novel based on my life (a very colorful, difficult one, especially in its beginning), and within months of being part of a writers workshop (which I will never do again) and writing regularly, both my parents died and I realized that I was trying desperately to tell them something important about myself. I lost the impulse to write. With their deaths I no longer had anything to say or anyone to say it to, except God. Now I tell him everything ... in prayer, in meditation, at Mass, Adoration, or when I am in pain.

    I tried blogging back in 2005, and found I was too eager for approval, too desperate for love and attention to write authentically so I stopped.

    A month or so ago, I found your blog, and am grateful and blessed to see that somebody is doing this ... what this is, I cannot articulate but that is ok, since this series of yours on The Writing Life says it well. It's the Writing Life and the Pilgrim Life and the Body of Christ all in one place!

    Even though I am not a writer, your decision in 2009 jibes really well with how my life is at this moment. That deeper urge to solitude is exactly the turning point at which I find myself. I am not working and don't want a 40 hour job, which is what I just left. Where this new (but not so new) aloneness will take me I don't know. Every day I wake up and put myself in God's hands. Not just every day, but many times each day. It's like getting sober. Just for today, I will trust in you, Jesus. Just for five minutes, I will trust in you, Jesus. Lord Jesus, help me trust in you just for this moment.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Heather, all I can say is that you had me at Flannery O'Connor. Anyone who totes the Habit of Being around is my kind of girl! Thank you for allowing me to share in your search for mystery.I am renewed, enriched and challenged by your work. May God continue to bless you in your vocation.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Heather, your blog is actually a 'destination' in my day - I set aside time to read it and look forward to it. Thanks for sharing your journey. It means a lot to this freelancer across the country :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Your blog is a blessing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a beautiful piece - I read your blog to feel more human, more alive, more connected and closer to Christ. Does it get better than that? God bless you - it's your integrity and vulnerability and AUTHENTICITY that shine through. That's why I keep reading...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Would you have anything to write about if you did not make yourself the topic of every single post?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Would you have anything to write about if you did not make yourself the topic of every single post?

    And so, once again, the turd goes "kerplunk" in the punch bowl. The party just wouldn't be complete without it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Anonymous 9:04 PM -- what's the problem? Eliminating the first person perspective from spiritual writing would mean the elimination of a good block of Thomas Merton's work. Oh, and St. Augustine's Confessions. St. Ignatius of Loyola's autobiography, also, along with those of St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux. Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love would be out the door as well.

    If these posts bother you so much, then why keep reading them? No one compels you to do so.

    ReplyDelete
  12. A jilted lover, perhaps?

    Just kidding, Heather. The exhibition of such curiously obsessive hostility tickles the imagination. :-)

    David

    ReplyDelete
  13. Not a jilted lover of mine, but someone who perhaps feels himself to have been jilted by the world...there is no possible response to obsessive hostility, thus I make none, and leave this poor soul to his hell...

    ReplyDelete
  14. WAY more to the point, thank you, thank you all for your beautifully heart-felt comments and support. What's interesting to me is that the thing is not just the writing, but the form the writing takes and the community that forms as it makes its way out there...Please know I am continually inspired and encouraged by your own insights, groping, writing, art, faith...Yes, "just for five minutes" to trust...that is always our task...

    ReplyDelete
  15. Heather, thought you might appreciate the message of Cardinal Ravasi to Catholic bloggers:

    Beyond doubt, it is impossible to ignore a reality that ever more assumes the characteristics of a "cultural movement," able to intercept and interact with the public in uncontrollable ways. We can say that we are in new squares and new cathedrals -- virtual spaces, to be sure, but ones inhabited by people who communicate, express ideas, tell stories, ask hard questions and expect answers. We can not, then, avoid this call to dialogue, taking into account that it entails a fluid world, a complex, articulated one in continual movement.

    ...

    It remains an indisputable given that the culture and the philosophy of bloggers needs to be decodified, surpassing the prejudice that speaks of an unthinking, instinctive communication. On the blogs we don't solely find a pigeonholed postcard at digital speed, in which news emerges in real time and everyone affirms what he wishes and as he wants, like an online newscast in which all can find, for free, their own information and receive it in exchange. Surely, this is an aspect of the blogosphere, but above all, the cultural dimension of the phenomenon needs to be singled out: we are in the presence of a "way of life." In fact, the weblog (the original word for blog) is a chronicle in electronic format that doesn't just list facts but comments on them from one's personal sensibility, so it is a reflection on daily life and, in a certain way, an interpretation of existence

    ...

    The encounter of 2 May has made us understand that a new reality is growing that communicates emotions, sentiments, impulses of the spirit, opinions and stories in an unedited way that [Marshall] McLuhan himself would never have expected.... Let us seek, then, to reflect on the ideas raised in this dialogue, even the most suggestive, interesting and even slightly provocative, to highlight the necessity of not letting this meeting of bloggers remain only one event to be consigned to the annals of history, but that it becomes the first step of a long path of listening to the many people who wish to speak with us.


    ~ Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi
    President of the Pontifical Council for Culture
    22 May 2011

    ReplyDelete
  16. David, I love this! Especially this: "In fact, the weblog (the original word for blog) is a chronicle in electronic format that doesn't just list facts but comments on them from one's personal sensibility, so it is a reflection on daily life and, in a certain way, an interpretation of existence."

    So that the whole exchange, the tone, the unfolding dialogue is part of it. I am changed somehow, already, and will change more, simply for having created and kept the blog going, and yet it's really you all who "keep it going." A constant sifting, negotiating, discerning, interacting, discovering, reflecting, learning...

    ReplyDelete
  17. Heather, it might be good to not allow anonymous comments. Using a comment policy that requires people to use real names and email addresses cuts down on the abusive comments and nastiness. I'm not sure if you can do that on Blogger.

    Also, if you were hosting your own domain and blogging software like Wordpress, you can log and ban specific ip addresses that are associated with people's comments. Thus, you could ban people who keep showing up leaving abusive comments.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks, Brian. It's just been the one same tiresome, boorish crank, but I'm now monitoring the comments so the general tone of generosity, fellow-feeling, civility, intelligence, humor, heart, reverence for art, wonder and mystery, for which I am FOREVER grateful, should henceforth prevail.

    ReplyDelete

I WELCOME your comments!!!