BY JUDITH WALCUTT
March 8, 2017
I have a confession to make. I am behind in my sky-minding. Lost in a mental clutter of this and that, I have forgotten to look up — to cast my eyes physically upward to the sky — and remind myself of what’s there and how it keeps changing. I think this simple action helps me remember that, like a famous fortune cookie once said, the only permanent condition in life is impermanence. That is the one thing we can count on — whatever is happening now, is changing even as I write this, even as you read it.
A friend I saw at the Whidbey Community Orchestra Concert in Oak Harbor last Sunday asked me, “How are you doing with it all since…since….”
And I nodded, without saying much, recognizing the grief that still comes in waves, about…oh…so much these days. Young lives lost for no known reason, people we loved still gone for good, others we know frightened for the well-being of parents or children, or themselves. A Canadian journalist I hope to work with confides he is afraid to go home for a visit, worried that as a credentialed journalist, he won’t be allowed back in the U.S. on return.
These are interesting times.
With so much to worry about, it helps to remember one fact: this is all temporary. This may all disappear.
Many people are struggling with a long list of uncertainties, ranging from wondering when the toxins in their drinking water will be dealt with to considering what will happen to them and their families if they miss one more mortgage payment. People are wondering who will feed the growing homeless population if the federal subsidies for food programs in schools and food banks in communities vanish. I know a few people who are awake in the middle of the night, considering such matters and trying to find answers, even under the current chaotic circumstances. Many good people are feeling the stress of the populace and are working on it. I just hope they, we, all practice ways and means of self-restoration.
If you are in overwhelm, characterized by a clouded dither of should-a-could-a-would-a’s and the paralysis that accompanies states of regret, self-doubt, and second-guessing, I suggest this one easy action: Look up.
The very movement opens your mind, while breath intake eases that inner crumpled feeling. Taking an oxygenating break, a moment to just focus on the in-breath and out-breath, helps that crazy panic feeling that comes of glancing at the headlines, catching one sound bite too many, or misplacing your car keys, reading glasses, and/or phone.
Take it slow. Pause. Look up at the sky, breathe in, breathe out, count to seven, and then turn your attention to the room you are in, to the project you are doing, to the task at hand. Do what you can to make progress, in some way, in the time and place where you are.
That’s the advice I am trying to practice and the advice I am giving to anyone who asks, as that same friend did at the concert, “How are you coping with that feeling in your gut, that something very wrong has happened?”
We are doing what we can to do something right, we are being with our community when we can, we are doing the work that we must by ourselves, the work that is ours and only ours to do. In this way, we are resisting entropy, resisting the easy urge to sit down on the job; we are carrying on and we are resisting apathy.
I watched my husband take his place with the community orchestra, dressed as a gallant Gandalf or a dandy Dumbledore, take your pick! He came to read the texts behind the music performed by the participating volunteer musicians from all parts of Whidbey. The theme was Movie Magic, with music from the scores of Harry Potter and “The Hobbit” movies, the Tolkein Trilogy, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and even “Pinocchio.” The musicians were dressed for the occasion, with elf ears and Hogwarts uniforms and house colors. I thought — we are very far away from the world’s troubles here. Aren’t we the lucky ones? For a moment — here was unequivocal respite, here was magic, truly.
At home, I have piles of projects sliding into and around each other and no functioning wand to twinkle them into place. Only the practice of plodding along will do here — and that’s how I got behind in my sky-minding. I was busy staring into screens, staring down the issues, returning to the problem compounding all problems, for me at a personal level and regardless of politics.
I know it sounds a little small-minded in comparison to the bigger issues we are all looking at, but here it is, nonetheless: I have a book to finish. It has been on the back burner through so much, for so long, I can’t believe the thing hasn’t gotten up and left me for some other writer!
But it hasn’t. It is just sitting there, waiting for me to decide: are we there yet? Are we done?
Completion — people who know me know I have a problem with it.
Writing another sentence, one after another after another, avoiding reality by writing about it, revising and revising it, a little forward, a little backward, still writing, sometimes brand new sentences when I should be cutting old ones out or down. There is no end to it — how many times you can change a word, a phrase, an adjective, a verb. If there’s one, there’s bound to be another!
I get it. I am trying to arrive at the end of a book I have been writing on and off for, I kid you not, twenty-one years. I am getting closer, though.
And … I have been in this Zeno’s paradox place before — halfway and halfway and halfway to more, still more changes. I am beginning to see a pattern here.
I’ll put it to you this way — I have everything necessary except the beginning and the end. The middle is easy — it’s just one thing after another. I did have a beginning, once, of course. But between that beginning and the present draft’s beginning, a lot has changed — how much do I let that change, change the picture of the pre-21st-century reality in which the book takes place? I’m not sure!
If this is hard to follow, let me tell you — it is just a taste of what is going on in the inner workings of this writer’s mind.
Hey! Time to look up! What’s the sky doing?
As for the end — there is a visible run of words that seems to indicate when the story is over. Do I feel good about it? No. I do not. What should it be?
I do not know — yet.
Why is that? Well, in the world of making things up, writing fiction rather than creating alternative facts, writers, for the most part, try to arrive at meaning, discovering it through a purposeful layering of realizations and understandings drawn from a character’s choices and experiences. And over the story’s arc, through the territory of it’s literary time, we make new meanings out of old ones. Sometimes, that process arrives at wisdom — or we are hopeful that it will arrive at that, at least some of the time.
What is the real beginning and the real ending of this book? How will I know when I am there? Will I get chicken skin on my forearms? Will the ghost of Ed McMahon show up at my door with an invisible check for $10,000,000?
Or will my editor wrest the thing from my cold, undead hard drive and forbid further changes? That would probably be best.
Some people — writers, painters, and artists of all kinds — just don’t know when to quit, when to put the final period, when to put the paintbrush down, when to just shut up already.
The best bet is to stop before it is ruined, to land on the side of something less, rather than something more. There is a beautiful word in Japanese that expresses that aesthetic which connotes simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty. It is shibui.
It expresses the suchness of leaving a thing be, just before it is complete, finding pleasure in its innate balance of simplicity and complexity, its natural perfection, just as it is.
I am always striving for something like shibui in things I write — especially here, in Minding the Sky, though it is a term not usually applied to literary works. But I think of it as the aha! moment where the meanings line up, and we all “get it,” with an exclamation point, like an epiphany or like the lift you get in front of a really good painting, sculpture, exquisite ceramic, or even just a flower arrangement — shibui is chemistry, a state of mind, triggered by such beauty.
Wabi-sabi — another term, similar to shibui but distinct from it, is probably closer to my heart and more apt to my work. The wabi part is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. The sabi piece suggests that beautiful wistful longing that transient beauty makes us feel. It is a beauty of things unconventional, one of a kind, capturing their evanescence.
I am trying to get there from here. I am trying to follow the path where the imperfect world speaks its imperfect beauty, through an unconventional character whose story begins where it ends — leaving town for good.
In the world of fiction, I can tell one indisputable alternative fact after another and no one is the wiser. Or maybe, just maybe they are! I think I’ll look up from where I am looking down now and think about it.
Try it yourself! You’ll like it! Look up and take some time to mind the sky.
You might find a moment of wabi-sabi grace, set against the wild blue patina of shibui in the sky — enough to get you through the next hard part.
Judith Walcutt is writer and media producer living on Whidbey Island with husband David Ossman. Her novel, “Memoirs of a Modern She-Noodle,” is currently scheduled for publication by Neopoiesis Press in 2017. She recommends the therapeutic value of attending Whidbey Island Community Orchestra concerts. The next one is Mother’s Day, May 14 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland with outstanding musicianship, huge heart, and delightful refreshments afterwards.
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Ahhh the life of the writer/activist. I know it well–and you are in good company around here, Judith. Thanks for sharing and for the reminder. I read this, got inspired by your lovely photographs and ran outside and looked up. Now I have rain pouring in my ears. Oh well–it’s the thought that counts, and where are the Q-tips?