Detours on the Way to a Binge

Eleven months ago, in June 2013, I came to Pendle Hill for a weekend conference on the life and writings of Isaac Penington, one of the first generation of Quakers in the 17th century. After the conference ended on Sunday afternoon, I was able to tuck in a stay of an extra 36 hours to do some writing of my own on Choosing Miracles. It was time well spent. I was able to get some words out about a heartbreaking time of my life. Based on the responses of my beta readers, I managed to do so with some economy and without too much self-indulgence. And then did life take an amazing turn!

I’d been home about a week when, from the next room, Bowen said, “Huh. This is odd. I seem to have an e-mail from Google. They want me to call them.”

“What is it?” I said. “Some kind of prank or spam or phishing thing?”

“No,” he answered. “It seems to be legitimate. They saw my resume on LinkedIn and they think I might belong there.”

And so, after a screening call, a few phone interviews, a day of coding sessions, several lunches, and more phone interviews, Bowen was hired by Google in mid-September as a senior staff software engineer. He resigned his position as a teaching adjunct in late September, took six weeks off to get rested and organized, and began working for Google in the New York office in November.

I’m still moving back and forth between Peekskill and Manhattan, but now we have a regular schedule. In on Monday mornings on the 9:15, back to Peekskill Friday night on the 5:35, 6:35, or 7:21. Commuting takes less energy now that we have an established rhythm. Now the energy is going into learning how to support my partner in his high-level job. How can I make life as easy as it can be around the times that he’s not coding or thinking about code? What can I put on the table for dinner? And most of all, what can I throw out, give away, take to the Housing Works thrift store, or shred next in order to free up more room for us in my 400-square-foot studio apartment where we spend Monday through Thursday nights?

I am amazed to find how much of my past accumulations I can let go of when I feel like I have a new future!

I have been thinking about this blog, and wanting to get back to it, and wanting to get back to Choosing Miracles, but Google life comes first . . . for now. It comes first because something else has happened. After more than thirty years of supporting myself as a freelance proofreader, the work has disappeared. In January my two major clients reorganized, doing away with the departments that contracted me. In one month, 50 percent of my income disappeared. I have other clients. Work is coming in at the end of this month. But for the first time in decades I’m not self-supporting. The same technology that’s taking away my livelihood is providing my partner with a salary ample enough to take care of both of us and his four children and their college educations.

It’s a loss for me of identity, of independence. It’s a gain for me of energy. Much less splitting myself between straightening out other people’s words and writing down my own.

And now here I am at Pendle Hill again after eleven months. And blogging again after how long . . . ? And why? Because of Google! Bowen and I drove down from New York today, he dropped me here, then he went to the Philadelphia airport for a flight to San Francisco and his first visit to Mountain View, California, Google’s main office. While he meets his coding colleagues in Silicon Valley, I go on my longest binge yet at Pendle Hill. I’m clear to write until Friday morning. I’ve got to get myself and my readers through a dark and painful piece of my life. There’s no better place to face up to that work than here. 

How many words can I get out by Friday?

 

 

 

Binge Writing and Bukowski

I’ve been thinking about binge writing. Is it simply my process? Should I embrace it as mine and live with it? Should I disavow it and work to change it by writing every day no matter what?

While I ponder, here’s a poem by Charles Bukowski, titled “So You Want to Be a Writer?”

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16549

Here’s how it begins:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.

What Happened?

At first I was planning to open with, ‘Yes, it’s been that busy around here.’ 

 

And it had been! It really had. Solid weeks of in-house work. Many trips back and forth from Peekskill. Conversations about Bowen’s job searches for the fall and maybe for the summer. (Did he really want to apply to the University of Kazakhstan?)

 

Then, by the end of March, it had slowed down. The deadlines got met. The in-house work waned. I spent more and more time sitting quietly in Peekskill. But I still wasn’t writing a blog post. I wasn’t writing anything but e-mails and Facebook statuses.

 

It took me a while to catch on to that. I certainly meant to let people know more about what it’s like to write at Pendle Hill, what a great place it is to use as a personal retreat, and how my second writing sojourn had gone. I even had pictures to post. But, no. The good intentions didn’t overcome the non-blogging. I was gone, Absent With Out Leave. 

 

‘Oh,’ I said, rousing myself in early April, ‘Look at what I’m doing . . . sitting here . . . doing nothing.’ So I got a couple of sentences down on a draft in TextEdit, and that was enough of that.

 

By the middle of April I knew nothing further was going to happen. I knew enough about myself to know that the thing to do was surrender to my blog silence. Invite it in. Make it a welcome guest. Serve it a cup of tea–in a variation on a Zen parable I once heard about dealing with despair.

 

I’ve been told that the American Sign Language sign for ‘Quaker’ is made by clasping the hands in front of the belly with fingers interlaced, and then twiddling one’s thumbs. As theological statements go, it’s not bad. One of the gifts of Quaker life is the permission to step aside from taking action for action’s sake. In Quaker life, sitting very still and saying nothing can be the deepest faithfulness. My blog silence and I would sit together and wait. 

 

What has opened to me as my blog and I have communed wordlessly is that I am a binge writer. Not for me the classic model of writing every day. (Or, at least, not yet, anyway. Perhaps it lies ahead.) On my retreat at Pendle Hill in late February I wrote 7,000 words in 72 hours. And they weren’t just any words. They were words that took me through a painful and frightening time of my life when my marriage had ended and I was holding my sanity together with my bare hands in graduate school, as it were. Well, actually, I was holding my sanity together with large doses of Moby-Dick, Norman Mailer, and bourbon.

 

I just interrupted this post to go back to the manuscript and skim through the section I wrote at Pendle Hill in February. I had no idea how I was going to get those wretched times down on paper. All I had was the faith that I would. A couple of times I caught myself censoring and I was able to tell myself to shut up and keep going. My editor (whoever that would prove to be) and I would straighten it out later. It was self-talk that worked.

 

I was soaring when I left Pendle Hill. Soaring and clear, to use a good Quaker word. I had emptied myself of everything. I had sung my muse to sleep.

 

I worked hard straightening out other people’s writing in March. I puttered with words in April (not least of which pastimes was playing online Scrabble and Lexulous). In early May, I waited and listened. But in the past ten days things changed. 

 

First, I had a medical test scare that turned out to be absolutely nothing. Free and clear. However, waiting for the results put me up against my mortality in a way that nothing else has in years. I hope to make good use of that fright. During that time, Phil Gulley happened to ask on his Facebook wall what one thing you wanted to accomplish before you died. It was sobering to see the number of his friends who wanted to write their books. And, finally, last week–as I was emerging from my excursion trip to the Underworld–I had a phone call from a Mailer scholar who told me I had a book to write about Norman. He even laid out its theme for me, a theme he’d heard me voicing in our earlier conversations. 

 

The thing of it is, he’s right. Since 1969 I’ve had the vision of putting everything I know about Mailer’s work into Mirrors of the Moon: A Lunatic Study of Norman Mailer. It’s time. As long as I’m struggling to write one book, I might as well struggle to write two.

 

Long ago . . . in fact in those mad times in grad school . . . I made up a motto for myself: Having trouble? Have a little more trouble and see what happens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Writing Retreat

It was last September that I started thinking about writing retreats and writers’ colonies. I knew that taking care of myself–making meals and washing dishes–really seems to get in my way. I began to think that if I could find someone to put three meals a day down in front of me, it might be all the writing support I needed. But, as a freelance proofreader, I live on a shoestring. Proofreaders are the lowest-paid workers in an already low-paying field. There’s not a lot of disposable income lying around here. I searched around the Internet to see what I could find. I posed a question to the Editorial Freelancers Association discussion list about colonies and retreat centers I might try and got some interesting responses–enough to confirm me in my sense that it was the next step for me. But where to go that was affordable and that I could get to by public transportation, since–true New Yorker that I am–I don’t even have a driver’s license.

One obvious possibility for me was Powell House. It’s a Quaker Retreat Center near Albany, in Columbia County, and I could get to it by going to Hudson, NY, on Amtrak from New York City and taking a car service to Old Chatham, NY. I knew Powell House inside and out. I’d been going there since 1982. At $60 a night for lodging and a cold breakfast, it’s affordable! I would absolutely recommend it for any writer looking for deep peace and quiet. The problem for me is that I’ve been on the governing board of Powell House for the last four years, so it’s not a getaway. But please do look into it for yourself. It’s convenient to both New York City by Amtrak and Boston (if you drive).

The next most obvious possibility for me was Pendle Hill, the Quaker study and retreat center near Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia. I’ve been to Pendle Hill many times, too. I have friends who work there. But it was not an extension of my New York life the way Powell House has become for me. I called the registrar, had a good talk about what kind of room I might get in which building, and suddenly it had all fallen into place. I was booked for three nights in early December.

It was exciting! Because I had an evening meeting to go to in Philadelphia, I didn’t get to Pendle Hill until about 10pm. The place was quiet. Almost everyone on campus had gone to their rooms. But my key and a welcoming note was left conspicuously out for me and I found my room with no trouble. It was in a building that had gone up in the blandness of the 1950s, so my room was as featureless as a simple, pleasant dorm room. The walls were white, but the curtains were a cheerful flowered print. There was one armchair, a table for my computer and a chair, a single bed, and a sink and mirror. (The full bathrooms were down the hall.) Most welcome on this December night was a thermostat by which I could control the heat in the room. I fell into bed and slept nine solid hours! It was wonderful!

Breakfast at Pendle Hill is from 7:30 to 8. My friends who work (and live) there welcomed me. There was hot cereal, homemade bread, eggs, fruit, and coffee, coffee, coffee. Much of the food is produced on campus. It’s organic. There are always vegan and vegetarian options.

After breakfast, the resident students, faculty, and staff gather for a half-hour Meeting for Worship. It was exactly the way I wanted to start my day. I needed to pray. The truth is, I was scared. I didn’t expect that, but it was frightening to have two whole days ahead of me in which I had nothing to do but write. What was I frightened of? I don’t fully know. But some of it was . . . what if I can’t do it?

When the Meeting for Worship ended and visitors were invited to introduce themselves, I stood up, explained that I was there to write, explained that I was taken off-guard by the fear I felt, and asked for prayers.

I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to see Doug Gwyn, one of the Quaker writers I admire, smiling quietly and nodding at me from across the room to let me know he knew exactly what I felt.

And then I went to my room and wrote . . . and wrote . . . and wrote. I broke for lunch and went back and wrote some more. I broke for dinner and went back and wrote some more. And so it went for two days. I wrote in my room. I took a long walk with one of my friends where we caught up with our lives. Then for a change of scene, I went to the Pendle Hill library and wrote there. It was during my time in the library, as I was staring across the lawn musing on a transition I was trying to make, that it popped into my head to start this blog that you’re reading now. And then it was over. Time to come home.

The total bill for my sojourn at Pendle Hill was $273 for 3 nights, 3 breakfasts, and 2 lunches and dinners. To get to Pendle Hill I took NJTransit to Trenton and transferred to SEPTA to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. At 30th Street I transferred to the Elwyn Local. These are commuter trains with stops every 5 minutes or so (a nap and good book are in order), but the grand total for my senior citizen round-trip fare from NYC to Wallingford and back again was $33.50!

On Tuesday I will leave around 11 in the morning for my second sojourn at Pendle Hill. I can’t wait and I’m a little scared. But I know there will be encouragement and good food and good rest waiting for me there.

Answering Jim’s Question: Living in My Work

Yesterday, my writer friend Jim added a comment to my “Identity Shift” post about the words I heard in Quaker meeting. He asked: “What are the implications of ‘You live in your work’? Was the next inspiration, ‘and that’s where I belong,’ or was it, ‘and that’s not right’?”

The answer to Jim’s question is important. I understood ‘You live in your work’ to be both an instruction and an explanation. The implications were, ‘I’m doing all this in your life so you will understand that you are to live in your work.’ And ‘I’m doing all this in your life to make it easier for you to live in your work.’

The opening brought an immediate and deep shift. (The word ‘revelation’ comes to mind.) It was effective in several directions: It helped me accept the comings and goings I’ve been pondering on this blog as being a support for my writing work, not an energy-consuming interference. It told me that my writing work was solid enough to hold my weight. It told me that God is an active partner in what I’m doing. And it reassured me that I’m on the right track at last.

“At last” because I started work on my manuscript more than four years ago, and it’s taken me this long to come to terms with writing it. And, yes, the call came in and there is room for me. I’m confirmed for my second three-day writing retreat next Tuesday.

Identity Shift

Yes. It’s been that busy around here, what with the comings and goings and the deadlines. But I’ve been thinking about this blog and wanting to get back to it, because I have news. The blog is working for me!

That last post I made, “Monday Afternoon Commute, Friday Morning Commute,” was a breakthrough. For the first time, I gave writing that piece priority over working on the proofreading deadline. I was able to put personal, creative work ahead of money-making labor.

Of course, let’s overlook the fact that, having done so, I then disappeared for 23 days. Let’s not connect those two events at all. Let’s not consider that perhaps it hasn’t been all that busy around here.

In any event, I’m doing it again. I’m writing this before I turn to the day’s deadline.

That’s because there has been another breakthrough I want to commemorate. On Sunday, February 2, I was sitting in Meeting for Worship (I’m a Quaker) where I was offering up some of the anxieties and questions I’ve laid out here, specifically, ‘Where do I live?’, and I felt a sudden and profound opening and shift. Up from the space that had appeared inside me came the words, ‘You live in your work.’

I have felt different ever since.

I’ll add only that my consciously acknowledged reason for disappearing into my deadlines for 23 days is that I’ve been accumulating money to take my second three-day writing retreat. I’m waiting for a call back now to let me know if there’s space for me. More about my writing retreats soon, I promise!

Monday Afternoon Commute, Friday Morning Commute

In my last post, I wrote about commuting to the city from my partner’s home in Peekskill to do a day of in-house work.

This week my partner, Bowen, and I begin another commute. On Mondays we’ll come into the city from Peekskill to stay in my studio apartment in Manhattan so he can catch the subway to his campus in the Bronx to teach his Tuesday and Thursday 9 a.m. classes rather than fighting through rush hour on the Taconic. On Friday mornings, we’ll go back to Peekskill so we can be with his teenage daughters, he can help them with math homework, and we can all enjoy movies-on-demand together. Sunday morning we attend a nearby Quaker Meeting for Worship and get ourselves organized to come back into Manhattan again.

Bowen is a professor of computer science, a math kind of guy, and a high-level programmer. He’s got a mind that’s really different from my own. He’s all abstract and super-rational and mostly oblivious to his surroundings. (A touch of the Laputan there, for you Jonathan Swift fans.) I’m off-the-charts intuitive, highly visual, and often too deeply connected to my surroundings.

I’ve lived in my studio apartment in Manhattan since 1973. It’s at the top of five flights of stairs and has two north-facing windows. When I took it, I thought, ‘It’s dark and small, but I’ll only be a here a year or two.’ What I didn’t factor into my figuring was that the apartment is rent-stabilized (meaning the rent can only be raised by a small percentage each year). As the years went by and unstabilized rents rose much more steeply than my freelance wages did, the apartment became more and more precious.

92nd Street ViewThen three years ago, Bowen and I became a couple. He worked at IBM-Watson in Westchester County at the time, and that’s when I began living in his apartment and mine. A year ago, after he retired from IBM, he bought the one-bedroom co-op in Peekskill, and while my studio in Manhattan is my legal residence, I’ve gotten used to spending more and more time in the suburbs.

The view is better. Life is slower and easier (as long as you have a car). The Hudson River is a little under a two-mile walk from our front door. We have a balcony where we breakfasted in the summer and I grew flowers for the first time in my life. I’ve sunk into our life in Westchester seamlessly. And I’ve been musing on what it means that I haven’t missed any of the stuff in my Manhattan apartment.Peekskill Autumn View 7B4

I’m thinking what it means, as we begin spending more time here than we do in Peekskill, is that a great deal of that stuff is about to head to the thrift stores and the trash! A new method of de-cluttering? Move away for several months and see what you miss.

But what I’m also musing on is this: Where do I live? Do I have a home? For decades I was centered in my studio, my artist’s garret. I felt a great sense of accomplishment at having created a happy, independent life for myself, running my freelance proofreading business, enjoying the city, and delighting in Central Park and the birding community I discovered there.

Now, this garret, this center of my solitary life, is becoming our weekday pied-a-terre. How much energy will it take to make it ours instead of mine? What has become of my solitude? Was it something I truly needed? Or was it something I found a way to make a life with from necessity?

Morning Commute and Evening Commute

Last week, I did a day of proofreading in-house at UNICEF. I took the 9:26 train from Peekskill. The day was warm for January and bright, and I stood on the platform looking west across the Hudson River to Bear Mountain. The tracks run  beside the river from Albany to Manhattan, and the riverbank twists and curves so much at Peekskill that I can see my train coming down from Poughkeepsie several minutes before it gets to the station. It’s a wonderful way to start a day of work, waiting on the banks of the Hudson, watching the gulls, keeping an eye out for the eagles that nest nearby.

Commute Morning

After a day scrutinizing text, graphs, and tables related to funding meant to help children get through natural disasters and armed conflicts around the world, I raced from UNICEF to Grand Central with the hope of catching the 5:13. (The next train didn’t leave for Peekskill for a full 20 minutes! Imagine that.) West on 44th Street to Lexington, running to make the ‘Walk’ lights at Second and Third  Avenues so I wouldn’t have to stop on the sidewalk and give cars the right of way, into the darkish corridor beside the Graybar Building, flashing a glance at the Train Departures board to note that the 5:13 was at Gate 35 on the farthest corner of the station, then out of the passage into the wonderful open space of the station itself with its sky-blue ceiling high overhead marked with the constellations of the stars, its terrazzo floors, its famous clock anchoring the center of the space, and people everywhere running in all directions to make their evening trains. (You remember that scene in Broadcast News where Holly Hunter races to deliver the video? Multiply that by hundreds to get a sense of Grand Central at rush hour.)

Commute Evening

I’ve spent much of my time in Peekskill this past year, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, since my partner bought his apartment here. But I know I’m still a New Yorker when I navigate Grand Central at rush hour . . . and love it!

As I held my iPhone over my left shoulder and snapped the picture of my evening commute for this blog, I thought of the contrast with the morning’s picture. For the first time I wondered about how much energy it must take to move back and forth between these worlds, these rhythms.

What’s involved in internally shifting from contemplating the river outside the window of my moving train to running through the crowds and obstacles of the city? And what’s involved in being able to embrace both with joy and wonder?