Places That Speak

I am not I.

I am this one

walking beside me whom I do not see,

whom at times I manage to visit,

and whom at other times I forget;

who remains calm and silent while I talk,

and forgives, gently, when I hate,

who walks where I am not,

who will remain standing when I die.

—Juan Ramon Jiménez

From what place do you write?

When you enter the space of writing, where, exactly is it that you go, if anywhere?

The poem above makes me think about a shocking moment I had as a beginning meditator. When I was asked to notice my thoughts, gently label them “thinking,” and return to the breath, I was struck with the question, “who is doing this noticing?” Is there more than one “me?” “Is this perhaps the first stage of Multiple Personality Disorder?”

I still don’t have an answer to who it is doing the noticing, but what I’ve come to understand is that there is a deeper, more peaceful part of myself who, as I get older and as I spend more time doing contemplative things, becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. I’ve come to think of it as a truer self, but maybe it isn’t even “me”at all, maybe it’s far less limited than that. I know I’m not alone in this experience, which says something.

What I know personally is that it is very difficult for me to write if I can’t first come to some place of stillness. I can do the physical labour of writing, but it is very hard, and far less joyful than entering and inhabiting the places where my characters live and breathe. And after more than three years of working with these characters, I can tell you that they do indeed live and breathe. And that I’m more than a little in love with them.

Beyond the psychological though, there seem to be actual physical places that for some reason, are more conducive to writing, or to stillness. I am fascinated by what makes these places so.

My family travelled to Panama recently. We had an amazing time and were treated royally by our dear friends. To say that they went out of their way to show us their home is beyond understatement. When they recommended that we visit El Valle, a mountain town not far from where we were staying, we didn’t hesitate. What we discovered was for me, one of these places that seems to “speak” from its very soil, whose energies were so strong that I wanted to stay longer than our time permitted. This is the spot in the photo above.

There was in fact one point, when my kids and husband were off chasing monkeys, that I sat in a place so arrestingly beautiful, with a small pond in front of me and a mountain peak beyond that, and had an experience most closely described by Virginia Woolf as a “Moment of Being.” Alas, I had no pen and paper, but it was a place so calm and silent that I was able to meet, in Jiménez’s words, “the one who walks beside me” without effort.

Is there a place for you, either physical or philosophical, that invites you to find the deeper side of yourself, whether or not you produce art from it? If you are willing, would you share some advice about how to find these places inside, in the swirls of a world less and less inclined to attend to quieter truths?

About The Quote

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”—Colum McCann

When I first read the above quote, written by a man who produces his work in a tiny, enclosed corner of his office, I think I let out an audible gasp. For a long time now, I have been accumulating silent things within myself. I have a few theories as to why, but they aren’t so important. What is important is that sometimes the opportunity to live one’s life exactly the way one envisioned, in that limitless way that a child does, can be unexpectedly terrifying.

If you’re like me, along the way you’ve chosen a good career, one that’s stable and makes your mother proud. But despite this and other choices, maybe there was something that simultaneously bubbled below, something more energetic, something your third grade teacher saw in you. Maybe over time as you tried to silence it, tried to dissuade it using your most logical and fact-based arguments, you know, the ones that are list-like and rooted in economics, it still whispered to you, what if?

Maybe, despite your arguments, it did not go away but instead grew louder.

Such is the stuff of fantasies, no? Easy to dismiss if you’ve become prone to practicality.

But maybe an opportunity to begin did arise, one that shook you with an almost audible “YES!”

And you took it, and it brought you to places of such joy, while a network of newly nourished roots began the work of establishing themselves gently, in soil that had rested too long.

But this was a training ground, a place for your hand to be held. And you knew there would be a time for you to claim a space that would be uniquely yours. And that you would need to do this alone.

Maybe at first there was excitement, a sense of possibility. All things must begin this way.

But then something went wrong. Perhaps a voice or two. A clenching of your chest. A frozen shard of doubt.

At first you didn’t recognize it, but over time something changed.

The whisper was still there, and the roots patiently awaited further nourishment, but you weren’t moving.

And then you remembered.

*

Years ago, a wonderful writing mentor said to a group I was in: “You already have the best part of writing—the act itself. Don’t worry so much about publishing, it’s not the best part. In fact, there’s no point doing this if you don’t already want to engage the work. It can be extremely difficult, but all work is. If you love writing, that’s not a problem.”

To this day, these words provide me comfort. When I write from the place that knows that it must write, any awareness of imagined critique, any need to justify having chosen an unconventional way to work, is simply nonexistent.

What work must you do?

For me, I know the joy of engaging words and images, of inviting imaginary people to let me glimpse their lives. I know that this joy is inclusive of suffering, of all experience really. This is very simple, but it keeps me from distraction, from worry. It’s an excellent reminder that I know I am already living my life’s dream, and it is a privilege I don’t take lightly.

When fear and worry attempt to massage my heart with their chilly, unwelcome fingers I use the balm of this advice, and I recognize that none of this has anything to do with me. It is only the reflection of superficial concerns about how the world perceives a novice writer with no more than contributers’ copies as a paycheque, (but oh how hard won were those small recognitions!)

Writing is about communicating. I write poems and stories to enable a portion of my heart to find its way out in search of yours. May we meet in this blessed space, for it is where we all dwell, when we’re silent enough to notice.

I am on a journey of invitation. To let the whispers take over, without agenda; to play with silence and the ineffable; to find the places where writing meets meditation, contemplation, and nothing less than full engagement. Frightening, yes. But won’t you join me?

Another Noble Truth

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”—Colum McCann