Be Patient Toward all that is Unsolved in your Heart

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Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.

Rainer Maria Rilke

In the Eye of the Beholder

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I’ve had cataract surgery recently, and I am amazed at the results.  Cataract surgery could be the poster child for Western medicine.  It so perfectly exemplifies what we’re good at . . . upgrading the body’s mechanics.  There’s not much in an old lady’s operating system that can be improved, but my vision is now better than it has ever been in my life.

It’s been a curious experience.  The amber film had grown over my eyes so gradually, so subtly that I never knew it was there.  In the past year I came to be aware of a rainbow halo around streetlights and around the moon, too, but the vivid colors were rather enchanting.  Nothing to complain of, certainly.

I came, however, to be enormously grateful for electronic readers that allow me to adjust both the light and the size of print.  I wouldn’t have minded finding such a device to read street signs.  And night driving grew more difficult, especially in rain with lights glaring off the pavement.

So when told it was time, I went in for the surgery gratefully.

The results were startling.  First eye, 20/20.  Second eye the same.  That’s distance vision, but I can, without reading glasses, still read a newspaper with relative ease. I will, as soon as the new eyes have settled enough for another exam to be reliable, go back to my comfortable bifocals with no correction for distance.  Keeping track of readers is a nuisance.  Besides, it will be a comfort to put glasses on again and leave them in place.  My face feels naked without them.

But the most curious result of this fix, more surprising than my suddenly improved vision, is the change in the quality of light.  The world is suddenly brighter, whiter.  I’ve been in the house I’m in for about six years, and I’ve always turned on daytime lights because wide eaves and big trees make the house dark.  Or at least they used to make the house dark.

Suddenly with my new eyes, I need few lights in the daytime.

Most curious, though, is my bedroom wall.  A couple of years ago I painted one long wall a rich gold to match the gold in the Vermont quilt I keep on my bed.  And I have been utterly satisfied with my color choice, both for quilt and wall.  The gold is so warm.

Now I walk into my bedroom and stop.  Stop cold.  Is that the color I chose?  That arresting gold?  In quilt and wall, too?  The gold is so bright!

Which brings me to the end of a long and very personal meander, no use to anyone unless you happen to be anticipating cataract surgery and are curious about what to expect.

I’m left, though, with one final thought.  The gold paint on my bedroom wall.  I find myself questioning it again and again and again.  And wondering.

Is there anything in the world we don’t see through the fog of our own personal cataract?  And yet I have always thought my vision uniquely true.

Perhaps, it occurs to me at this ripe age, my eye isn’t the only test.

If I check the gold of my vision against the gold of yours, I might even find a reality that encompasses both.

A Big Juicy Creative Life

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction and aim for that. Shoot the moon.

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Annie Lamott,

Forget about Voice

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Everyone knows the term voice as it refers to a piece of writing.  Defining what voice means in our own work, though, is an amorphous task, more difficult than our instinctive knowing.

If you’re a writer and you find yourself thinking about voice, about trying to achieve such a thing in your work, you are on the wrong track.  You can’t get there by thinking about it.

Voice is, in its most fundamental aspect, you.  It is that deep part of yourself that lands on the page quite without your consent.  If you are fundamentally kind in your approach to the world, kindness will show in your themes, in your language, even in your basic rhythms.  If you are a know-it-all, your writing will have an abrasive authority.  If you are sad, discouraged, pessimistic, that will show, too.  A believer of any stripe?  Your passion will inform your style.

If you are writing fiction, your perceiving characters, especially a first-person narrator, will change the tone of your voice.  But unless you are an absolute master of literary deception, no character you make up will erase your fingerprint.  If you a looking for work that will keep your true identity hidden, try almost any other career.  Putting words on a page, day after day after day, is like living in a mirror.  If you are writing true, you will reflect back who you are.

I find it off-putting to have strangers respond to me with particular deference because I am “an author.”  That I have been published means little except that I’m capable of hard work and persistence.  But when I meet someone who has read and loved one or more of my books, I am moved.  If you know something I have written, then you know something of me.  You have my voice in your head, in your heart.  And that honors me.

When I was Faculty Chair of the early MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kathi Appelt, another faculty member named me “Mama Bear.”  It was a name that seemed to cling, and I rather enjoyed it, because it named something real in my soul. Not that I am—or was, when my children were young—always an exemplary mother, but that I always wanted to be that mother and because my virtues, such as they are, tend to be motherly ones.

 

Marion and her children

That mother piece comes through, not just in my teaching but in my writing, too.  It comes through when I’m writing about mothers, of course, but more subtly it comes through in the world I create and the language I use to create it.  But I never think “motherly” when I write.  I just inhabit my words with a mother’s compassion, a mother’s slightly larger-than-life perspective, a mother’s humbling lack of worldly power.  And if my story speaks to my readers, it is because in considerable part they respond to that mother’s voice.

No mother is only a mother, though.  I bring other dimensions of my self to my writing, some of them attributes I may not recognize.  How often I have learned who I am through the eyes of a perceptive reader who sees more clearly, more objectively than I!  All of those aspects that make up Marion become part of the world view that shapes my stories, of the language I choose, of the rhythm it finds on the page.  I have no doubt that who I am even impacts my punctuation.  (I love ellipses.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe one of my readers will explain it to me one day.)

All of this happens unconsciously, but no one starts out writing with voice already established.  It’s something we grow into, something the language we discover, the stories that discover us must find along the way.  And a great part of the joy of sitting down to write, day after day after day, is watching that core of who we are find its way to the page.

So forget about voice.  Thinking about it won’t help anyway.  But enjoy creating something that perfectly—and almost invisibly—mirrors your soul.  Then take your courage in hand and send that unbidden voice into the world.

 

Precious suffering?

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It is not suffering that is precious, but the concentric pearlescence with which we contain it. The raw grit of anguish will never be in short supply. There is enough of it in the happiest life to serve these instructive purposes, and there always will be. We are more sympathetic to Holocaust survivors than to malcontent children of privilege, but we all have our darkness, and the trick is making something exalted of it.

Andrew Solomon