In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.
Ranier Maria Rilke [Letters 2]
My son graduated from college last weekend. Mac and I flew back to New York and spent a quick week taking part in the festivities and mostly just watching Lewis celebrate with his friends.
They are a hardworking, accomplished, charismatic bunch. But on this visit they had a new look of ambiguity on their faces and didn’t seem at their usual confident, self-assured best.
They seemed anxious and I suspect a little scared, I could almost read their expressions: God, these four years have been hard, imagine what’s next. And, of course, as parents we make it worse by underlining that very same idea: You better get a jump on it, it’s a tough world, it’s competitive out there.
And the graduates were all amped up with achievements and awards – excitedly anticipating fabulous internships and innovative and creative jobs – so different from the way I recall myself and our own sloth-like class of 1984. These young people are moving at a fast clip and fully expecting to reach their goals and aspirations handily.
Of course, they’re realistic, and have already experienced the lousy economy and the competition for jobs. But the accelerated information era they grew up in has made big promises to them and imparted some frightfully overblown ideas.
They have a natural sense of autonomy in terms of their careers and want to own and operate the whole process, independent of the corporate/establishment or any compromising institutions.
Along with the entire package, they fully expect meaningful work and a rich personal life to go with it – and it’s all going to happen now. The atmosphere feels a bit like life on steroids – grossly bloated and completely unmanageable.
Anyway, I gave the above quote to Lewis because the journalist’s world is particularly about deadlines and scrambling for the story, delivering the goods with flash and dash.
Writing for an audience that values quick and concise, rather than measured and thoughtful.
Crafting something pithy and clever rather than complex and mature.
Designing a splashy webpage rather than a well thought out piece.
Or writing for status and fame rather than creating something insightful and timely, with only a blink of attention as opposed to a lifetime of pondering.
Lately, I have been studying writers and poets who spent time in Switzerland, and one of my favorites, Ranier Maria Rilke, popped up a few weeks ago. Rilke was the consummate artist. He greatly valued solitude and used meditation as a tool to access his creative brain.
He understood the deep cauldron of imagination and how it needs time and patience to brew up something worthwhile. Suffering from mental illness, he lived in the shadow of debilitating pain, and believed that his writing was the work of a lifetime, and could not be hurried.
He used his pain to understand his art, but it was an intense struggle that required a fierce patience.
Rilke never valued what came easily and he deliberately embraced what was difficult. Knowing that what came without pain would never resonate in the body or echo in the soul. And that what was created without long, dedicated practice would never leave an imprint on the mind or in his poems.
On our last day in Ithaca we hiked into the Taughannock Falls State Park. And as I looked up at the massive granite canyon cradling the riverbed, I could see where the soil was divided by lines. Evidence of years and years – millions of them(!) surrounded us, stacked like thin layers of baklava.
This hollowed out Cayuga basin had been witness to generations of families like ours who had trod along the gentle path at its base. Through war and fire, storms and drought – the grey rock has been shaped by the incessant pounding of water, and yet has stood firm.
Listening to the water churn against the rock helped me slow down and focus on the magisterial beauty and also to reflect on Lewis’s short time here at college. Along the eroded path, on the way back, I took a moment to examine the slim stones that resembled soft flakes of ash stacked in piles.
And spying the most perfect one, I rinsed it in the clear, icy pool and slipped it in my pocket to take back to Zug.
And I am back in Switzerland now, looking at the blank computer screen and sifting through my mind, sorting bits and pieces from the graduation and family time, a little daunted by the task.
It’s challenging, this writing thing. The words that I click out onto the empty screen seem to go everywhere and nowhere all at once. The impulse is to blurt it all out in a glob – my writing life feels as muddy as ever. What am I doing here again?
But being with my family at graduation reminded me that the things I hold dear only exist because they have been allotted generous time and ample space to grow and ripen.
And that I am incredibly grateful to my parents who have supported me in my long, painfully fallow periods. When I looked to the world like a big, ugly mess. My mom and dad saw the pieces and patterns and variations in me that I couldn’t see.
And they were patient – they let me be.
And our marriage, the kids, my relationships, my passion for writing – they are a composition of bits and fragments, not always easy to assemble and at times not fitting together at all.
But I am all of that stuff that’s been culled and fired and worn into this rounded out life. The time feels so short, but has also been extremely long.
And now, at my desk, I lift the upstate New York stone in my hand and feel the symmetrically balanced weight, noticing the obsidian color darkening as it warms in my sweaty palm.
I think of how long it had rested in that ancient river bed, what has come and gone during that time. And I imagine that the rock feels like time itself – worn down and softened and perfectly solid beyond destruction.
So to Lewis and his friends, but mostly to myself, I say: be diligent, be thoughtful, and all the rest – but be infinitely patient.
And be totally passionate in that pursuit.
Resist the trend to define your work or your vocation so quickly. It is the challenge of a lifetime. Avoid producing something immediately that isn’t you.
Your efforts will be accrued layer by layer, without rush, on their own watch. There is no forcing inspiration – you just have to be alert and available to witness it.
Your days will be lined and numbered with hunting and pecking and scratching out something – but it will be all yours. It will take a good long time but that’s just the way of it.
And the materials of your vita will gradually grow and, like that New York granite, become hefty and solid in purpose and design. And the work you create will be you, and you will be in it and it will be in you.
And your legacy will be stacked like sheaves composed of dirt and sweat and sorrow and marked by jagged depressions and even fertile failures.
But also abundant with laughter and joy. And love, steady and immovable – craggy and chiseled, hollowed and carved out so deep – as mysterious as the old gorge and her waterfalls.
And for myself, I guess the lesson is the same – to just stay with it, keep at it, even when it’s crap. And to try to keep in mind the long years that it took to get me here, wherever that place is, and to just respect that – and to just gently let that be. It sounds simple but it is never easy.
It’s inconvenient and slow and needs solitude and crazy focus and attention. And even after all these years, it relentlessly demands that I do the hardest thing of all – believe in my own writing.
But I’m getting there – and I know it’s only a matter of time now.