Snow scene of Russian winter. Photo by Vera Belikh. Taken while she helped with a winter camp for children near Komarovo, House of Creativity for Writers, near St. Petersburg,where I stayed July 1992.
The thing I do that’s unusual, I’ve learned, is work from what I feel I must do–hold onto that–and then use my ingenuity to solve the problems related to persisting toward my goal. Things don’t always fall neatly into place. Arranging my trip to Russia turned out to have many snags.
Communication was so difficult, and then the local Sister Cities group that was my link for information on how to do this was preoccupied with their other projects. They had their first big delegation going to Kostroma at the same time. Perhaps their leadership was even resentful that I had popped up in the middle of things with an official invitation. They helped me, but half-heartedly and distractedly. I remember my rage at the person I needed most to help me. It took him forever to get through on the phone to Kostroma, but then he forgot to ask my urgent question. My rage did no good.
I needed patience. Looking back I see that I did the main and necessary things, and so did M. on his end. We worked–both of us–from this faith in the other. With so little knowledge. A remarkable combination of faith and ingenuity. I got a cable from him a few days before I left and figured out all the Russian words with my Russian-English dictionary but one. I wrote to him the number of the train car I’d be in, and that, it turned out was what the missing word had asked. I had answered the question before I knew what the question was. But that letter hadn’t arrived even when I left Russia.
I had learned it was very difficult for the Russians to telephone outside of Russia, but he called me in Finland. My Finnish friend answered the phone and said someone was speaking a language she couldn’t understand. She hung up. I said, “Maybe it’s Russian. Next time speak English.” She did, and sure enough, I was being called. I talked to the woman I would later know as Natasha, my interpreter, and she asked me the train car number, and I ran to get my ticket. So all worked out. They found us (my son and me) in car number nine.
One of the funniest of my obstacles, occurring on the very last day, was that I had to take a car radio Tim had borrowed back to his friend. The friend had proved himself untrustworthy for Tim, as far as I was concerned, over and over. Tim got angry at him but persisted in the friendship. The friend, B, was trying to manipulate Tim into coming to town on the pretext of the radio, and I put my foot down. I would take the radio when I went to town in the morning to do other errands. I got excited. I yelled.
Notwithstanding his knowledge that I was upset, B called back, disguised his voice, and asked to speak to Tim. Then he asked Tim if he could come out and get his radio. I again said no. Tim got very unhappy with this fight between his friend and his mother, and said, “Here, you talk to him.”
So I said, “B, I’ll bring your radio at 8 in the morning. You be there to get it.” And hung up. B called back again to say their Doberman pinscher would be loose in the A.M. I left for town that last morning in N.C., wondering if after everything else, a Doberman pinscher would eat me up and stop me from going. I put the radio and speakers in a box and approached the house cautiously. No dog. I opened the car door and pushed the box out. Then B appeared. I pointed toward the box and drove away.
So the Doberman pinscher, the fiercest dog in the U.S., by reputation, didn’t keep me at home, didn’t prevent my getting to this window in this room where I am happy to sit and look and think and write all day long.
Being here though, doing what I’d planned to do here, is a tougher challenge than the effort to leave so that I would have this time to write. Jacques Maritain, whose book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry I’m reading, refers to the “self-abnegation and the ordeals imposed by poetic creativity.” (161) “The road of creative intuition, however, is exacting and solitary, it is a road to the unknown, it passes through the sufferings of the spirit.”
It is so much easier to plan to write than to write; to arrange time, notwithstanding impatient friends, bank book errors, and Doberman pinschers, than it is to do the inward searching and groping that writing means, for me anyway. Some days it comes to me relatively easily and quickly, and then my mind signals that’s all for awhile, so I do other things....
Little chores are a welcome relief from the slow turning of my mind as it wrestles with feelings and meanings. I can’t say I know where this book is going any more than I know how this new love I feel will work out. Two mysteries I’m living with and laboring with in the present. Both are in a birth process. Yesterday I labored, and slowly but surely, words came to me. Today I labor and the words seem so elusive–or perhaps it’s the dance of meaning under the words. I guess my being here is not unlike my being in Russia because of a bond I felt with another soul. I’m here because of a promise to my own soul...
Once I put the same determined spirit, the same care and ingenuity into raising children, into keeping Carolina Wren going. I took breaks, but then I went right back into harness. I’m not going back into harness this time. I am going to lean on my writing, put the weight of both feet there. That’s the thing I’ve needed to think about and bring to the surface. The face to face fact of it has eluded me.
It’s like, all morning and now well into the afternoon, I’ve been laboring to draw up this brimming bucket of water from the well inside me, and I doubted after awhile there was anything there to come up, it seemed to be moving so slowly. There’s resistance. Fear? Maybe? Maybe I’m not a good enough writer to lean on my writing. What do I have to give? How do I know it’s worthwhile? Who will wish to read it? I don’t have these answers. I’ll have them one day hence, when this present has become the past, probably a pivotal moment in the past when clearly, I’ll one day see, I did what I needed to.
Then the hills of my life will look to me like these Devon hills look right now. Sun is everywhere upon them. The green of every pasture and field glows with the immortal ichor, the green blood of the gods. The clouds are held at bay or pass without coming between the sun’s rays and that brilliant, everywhere-present green. ..
It comes down to devotion. To admitting when one has a certain steady, consistent ability–a hexis–according to Maritain. Creative intuition as a gift. It happens to me. He describes it exactly: (p. 35)
“Art resides in the soul and is a certain perfection of the soul. It is what Aristotle called an hexis, in Latin, a habitus, an inner quality or stable and deep-rooted disposition that raises the human subject and his natural powers to a higher degree of vital formation and energy, or that makes him possessed of a particular strength of his own; when a habitus, a ‘state of possession’ or master quality, an inner demon, if you prefer–has developed in us, it becomes our most treasured good, our most unbending strength, because it is an ennoblement in the very kingdom of human nature and human dignity.”
So I have this. My soul has this gift, and I’ve accepted it but kept on with many other things. And now I’ve come to Thoreau’s ‘one thing,’ as much as possible. There will be other work, and I’ll have to earn a living. But my task over the next few years will be to free more and more time, so that this gift has my best energy and time and effort. I do have a persistent experience behind me. I’ve stayed true to it. So many writers around me are confused and, even when they have the gift, betray it. At age 53 my hexis is in very good condition, and my conscience clear. A few people have been interested in what I write–a small but genuinely enthusiastic audience.
I also know it’s work of the hardest kind: work of the spirit. Patient digging and examining, evaluating what one has turned up. But then suddenly the spirit leaps in, like sun reappearing after the clouds have blown over, and the words rush to the surface of the mind, and one can’t write quickly enough. All the pieces of one’s daily life–spread out on the window ledge–the books and papers, the glass holding a sprig of honeysuckle, the grey rocks with a white stripe I picked up in Wales, the empty coffee cup and small alarm clock, the paintings from the Kostroma painter. I watch for changes as the light changes. The birchbark glasses case M. gave me.
All these now are part of an integral vision, whereas before they were only pieces–separate objects. Now they form a whole. They are at this moment in time the tangibles, the signs and symbols of my writing life, my devotion, my patient sitting here by this window, as by a pond, waiting for fish to rise or turtles to break the surface for air and then descend again. The sun brings the chickens across the road running out into their yard to peck for insects, and a sudden shower from a cloud blown low to the ground, sends them scuttling back into their house with the conical thatched top.
It’s a lot to take on oneself–the role of poet and seer. The way Maritain describes it, I recognize it. He says, “... so the unique rule of the perfect artist is finally: ‘Cling to your creative intuition, and do what you want.’ ‘This kind of excellence... we recognize in a person in whom we are aware of a rare presence, a pure creative force, or an untrammeled spirit.’” (p. 45, last quote from George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting, p. 80).
I’m like this. But to live it out, approach it, not limping, but with both feet carrying their weight, is awesome. It does imply I’m devoted to my artistic “demon,” living for the sake of my habitus. It may well be the way I help other people, including other writers, the most–by living this way. I can’t expect everyone to be enthralled, to think I’m great. I have to do it without asking for recognition. I have to do it, whatever people think of it. I have to leave my thought, and the words given to me to speak it, articulate, alive in the world, written down, and hopefully, printed.
I have no choice in this either. These two strands of love and art are choiceless. But having chosen and acknowledged them in the present; having accepted the rule of “It” a la D.H. Lawrence, I am free. Free to struggle and occasionally to be given a respite from struggle, an ecstatic moment when I know that everything I did before, no matter how wrong or inadequate it seemed at the time, was right, was good, because it led me here–to this present moment, which is where, exactly where, I’m supposed to be.