Tuesday, January 18, 2011

This Little Light of Mine

Here we are in mid-January, and I haven't posted in over a month. And that last post was practically cheating, since I didn't write anything.

I'd like to think that I'll be writing more soon, but writing takes time, and free time is a commodity that seems to be running low around here of late. Writing—at least the kind that anyone would want to read—also requires a clear mind, but my sleep-deprived thoughts have been about as clear as the oily mud puddles in the alley behind my house.

Several times a day, I walk into a room and immediately forget what I came for. My children are learning to answer to any of five boy names. (At least I'm still sticking to names that belong to actual members of our family. That's pretty good, right?) The Christmas tree, until just a few days ago, was still standing fully decorated in our living room. And the dust. Let's just not talk about that.

My excuse is that I have a newborn who is taking up all my time. And I have four other children who take up all my time. We had Christmas preparations and Christmas celebrations and Christmas cleanup which took up all my time. And now that Christmas is over, I have graphic design projects that are taking up my time. I have groceries to buy and floors to sweep and thank you notes to write and books to read and Candyland to play and guests to feed and laundry to wash (oh boy, do I have laundry to wash), and all of it is taking up all my time. I could be wrong, but I suspect that this is why the old woman who lived in a shoe did not win a Pulitzer prize. She was too busy—changing diapers while talking on the phone to the insurance company and pausing to tell the six-year-old to quit using the piano keys as a Hot Wheels race track—to consider the metaphorical complexities inherent in domestic life and then string them together into graceful narrative arcs.

But then again, some women not only maintain blogs but sign book deals while knee deep in this kind of beautiful chaos. So I suppose my failure to write reveals more about my priorities than about my busy schedule. If you can call it a schedule.

Blogging has been pretty well near the bottom of my list of ways to use up all my time right now. But this may be a good thing. The fuller my life is, the less time I seem to have to talk about it. The best writing I have managed in the last couple of months has been the occasional uncreative Facebook status. Brilliant literature it is not. That kind of writing sheds about as much light as a dollar store glowstick the morning after a party.

Last week, as I was mentally reviewing shopping lists and to-do lists and hurrying home with a van load of groceries to my crying baby, I was inhabiting—both literally and metaphorically—the gray cloud of mist and mud being spat upon me by the tractor trailer I was following. I was thinking how colorless and drab life can be on days like this (poor me), how dull and monotonous, when I started listening to a CD of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I bathed my weary brain in her lucid prose, and began imagining how satisfying it would be to write as she does, capturing in precise phrases the glory and excess and teeming life hiding within an unassuming clod of earth.

There I was, a living clod of earth myself, and failing to be amazed by the mere fact of my own of my own existence. But gradually, as I listened, I found the dark cloud growing lighter. I found myself seeing through it. Or not seeing through it, but seeing it, seeing the thing itself:
Look at this grimy cloud!
Look at these living, mud-clumpy hills emerging from their snow shroud and rolling along beside the traffic.
Look at that tired barn leaning on the verge of collapse next to the highway, and see the story hiding within its weather-and-rain-silvered boards.

I am suddenly aware of the strange beauty on every side of me; I wonder how I could have missed seeing what I was seeing. How could I have forgotten that every particle of dust mingling with the rain and melting snow has a history of its own? Each, if it could speak, could tell me how it came from a distant volcano or an ancient glacier, from a maple leaf or from the palm of my hand. My hands—my own hands—are formed from dust, and are returning to dust even as I write this. I, too, am dust with a story. But I did not have to exist here any more than that muddy raindrop. How could I not be overwhelmed with gratitude and awe?

That is what this book does to me—and I haven't even finished it yet. It helps me to see. It shines a blazing light into places I'd never thought to look. I can't take it in all it once; I have to pause it and revel in words for a while. It's probably not safe to listen to while driving. Customers should be sent home from the bookstore with this volume packed inside a brown paper sack stamped with the warning, "Be safe. Don't Dillard and Drive." I need to give my full attention to what she's saying.

That is how I want to write.

Sitting there in my van, I wished I had the power to shape thoughts into the kind of words that could rip away the grey veil from those dreary clouds. I longed to shine my own verbal spotlight, to make everyone see the swirling magic, the millions of untold stories, contained in the spray of muddy water spattering our windshields. I wanted to uncap my highlighter and pull everyone's attention in glowing yellow lines connecting the dust in those hills with the dust gripping the steering wheels in the cars that flashed past—living dust, dust filled with borrowed breath. Dust with birthdays. Dust with dental records. Dust with college degrees and laugh lines and regrets. I wanted to wield my pen and make the pages shout, "Dust you are! Isn't it miraculous?"

But then I sighed and just kept driving, watching the wiper blades flick away the dingy film that clouded my view. I flipped the turn signal and absorbed the gritty rhythm of studded tires on wet blacktop.

Who am I kidding? Annie Dillard must have been born with a gift for writing. And she also has more than just a fleeting desire to commit her ideas to paper. She reads about writing. She writes about writing. She, no doubt, gets up early and stays up late just to write. I am sure that she edits and revises and edits again. Is that really what I want to do with my life right now?

Her life is not mine. I will never write like she does. I will never write about the same things that she does. I will never be a writer. Much as I admire her book, I occasionally get the feeling that something huge is missing from her prose. I realize that all her vivid descriptions, all of her startling metaphors, all her hours spent holding perfectly still until her cigarette burned down to her fingertips simply in order to observe the secretive behavior of muskrats could arise only from study, practice, and an essentially solitary life. Not a lonely life. Not a boring life. But a life full of lengthy meditation apart from the society of peanut-butter-smeared toddlers.

I would not trade my life for hers—Pulitzer and all. I would not trade Candyland with noisy preschoolers for rendezvous with quiet muskrats. At least not on most days. There is no less wonder in my sticky, spit-uppy existence. There is no less magic. There is merely less opportunity to write about it. For now, I will content myself with the few words I can post here on this neglected blog. I will shed what limited light I can.

Annie Dillard can carry her spotlight and I my dollar store glowstick.


Kjerste said...

That feeling you get reading Annie Dillard is the feeling the rest of us get reading your blog. Oh to have Hannah's pen and thoughts! I'd "settle" for your glowstick any day!

Jason Farley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue Burnett said...

Hannah...my aunt actually won a Pulitzer for fiction after she stayed home to raise her five children. Most books left her wanting, so she created a story line that interested her.

Hannah G said...

Sue, that is impressive! What is your aunt's name?

Elizabeth said...

Hannah, I love reading your blog, and have been eagerly checking it to see when the next post would come. I'm glad life busies you with many children (glorious boys) and mud. And I'm glad you found time to write about it.

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