True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out — you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.
from the novel Roderick Hudson
My mother-in-law, Edith Smith, was an even-tempered woman, except in late winter, when cabin fever sometimes undid her and her quiet good nature would become quietly irritable. She was hardly alone among New Englanders who become blah in February; but unlike many others, her remedy required neither travel to Southern climes nor Prozac (though I suggested the latter more than once). As soon as the March sun pried the worst of the snow crust off her garden and the ground gave quarter to a shovel blade, she was cured. She would grab an old jacket and gloves, and out she’d go — hauling fallen branches, raking away mucky leaves, uncovering flower beds to reveal the first white snowdrops and yellow winter aconite poking up from the icy ground. Like a monarch reunited with her realm, her relief at resuming her proper duties was palpable. Though their unworldly green had yet to emerge from the clotted mud, she knew where her subjects resided, and she’d plan how to best impede the poppies, when to separate the irises, and whether, finally, to trim back the aging, overgrown purple lilacs or simply let them sprawl. (She tended to indulge the lilacs.) The winter’s apathy was vanquished.
At ninety, over her daughter’s ever louder protests, she mowed her lawn in the summer heat or kneeled on her padded “kneeler” to yank weeds from among her flowers, her only concession a hat against the withering sun. Each time my husband and I visited, she’d modestly lead us among the beds, encouraging our attention toward whatever bloomed and then protesting our kudos. She’d offer us pots in which to carry away phlox or black-eyed Susans or whatever we admired. When, not long after she died, my husband and I moved to a new home, he dug up a clump of Solomon’s seal she’d given us years before. Now, each April, he stands over the plant’s dried, clipped autumn stalks, rake in hand, worrying new life out of the ground, relieved only when the shoots — exotic nematodes from the deep — poke up for another season. It’s his way of keeping her with him.
I grew up surrounded by writers, painters, potters, musicians — artists of all sorts. But it wasn’t until I observed Edie in and out of her garden that I recognized the shared patterns I had long witnessed: life is better when you have a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort, a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labor and create and rule over a world of your own.
Truth be told, my own gardening is desultory. I’m gung-ho in May but disinclined in sticky summer. When serious gardeners don their straw hats, I retreat to our dark, cool library. But I’ve worked at mastering other crafts: writing, photography, and also psychotherapy. When they go well, each leaves me with a deep sense of satisfaction. I feel stimulated, content, purposeful. Though I don’t think much about it in the moment, I’m comfortably aligned with my ideal of myself; life seems right, or at least righter.
As with the act of gardening, pursuing any practice seriously is a generative, hardy way to live in the world. You are in charge (as much as one can ever pretend to be — sometimes like a sea captain hugging the rail in a hurricane). You plan, you design, you labor, you struggle. And your reward is that in some seasons you create a gratifying bounty.
Yet the pleasure I describe is rarely an easy one. Crafting a good sentence is not like ripe blackberries dropping into your mouth. The actual process of writing is often a struggle. Even on mornings that end well, with the prose advanced by a paragraph or a page, the hours of trying can make me dyspeptic and dispirited. The desired words do not come readily. In their place descends a damp malaise. What berries do exist are hidden or unripe, guarded by scratchy brambles or surrounded by mosquitoes. I shirk the effort. I bemoan the task and my own ineptitudes. I doubt the possibility of finding my way, of possessing the stamina to conclude successfully.
Let me put it another way. Years ago a poet friend titled a collection Listeners at the Breathing Place, referring to an Eskimo lithograph of a hunter poised beside a hole in the ice where seals surface to breathe. A seal hunter waits, sometimes from before dawn until evening; he must settle within himself enough to survive the cold, yet he must listen and remain alert, poised to throw a spear, to seize the fleeting opportunity — the brief surfacing flash of a needed word, or image, or musical note. Many creative processes require periods of this same contradictory form of exertion.
And because it requires discipline, the mind resists. Other endeavors may seem inexplicably compelling: unloading the dishwasher, plucking dead leaves off houseplants, deleting e-mails. Yet, if I mostly stay in my chair for half the morning, or several half mornings in a row, if I flick aside enough of the distractions meant to relieve the anxiety of the effort, then I can usually find my way through the soul’s dreary sleet into something fresher. Like a recalcitrant mule who’s resigned to haul a plow, my body and brain settle into the work. Better words rise, a richer soil from beneath the dull surface.
On such days I end the morning’s work feeling confirmed in a quiet yet substantial way. Although I will suffer my portion of disappointment, grief, ill health, and busywork and endure my share of hours stalled in commuter traffic, I am indeed living the life I want to live. We control little, but through our decisions about where we put our effort — or, more precisely, by putting it into a demanding process of craft or art — we can shape our idea of ourselves in small but crucial ways. I’m not just the woman inching the car forward; I am the seal hunter.
As I seek to name the qualities that make the work so sustaining, I find my metaphors going to nature, my analogies to the past. I suspect it happens because the labor I describe is both ancient and organic. A vase painter 2,500 years ago in Athens would recognize it. No PowerPoint slide dictates the task at hand. The work grows as our body and our mind (conscious and unconscious) would have it grow. Technique requires discipline and practice, but the imaginative acts are themselves serendipitous. If the part of the mind that waits is the seal hunter, then this other imagining part is the seal, swimming about, surfacing to breathe.
Indeed, one pleasure of writing is its resolute inefficiency. The necessary thought may come today, or next week while I’m at my desk, or later while I’m chopping vegetables for soup. It resists the sweep of the second hand. It is opposite to my daily punch lists, telephone calls, day-job requirements, and family life. It’s not, however, the same as leisure; the struggle toward that next thought is often rigorous and wrought with tension. The poet Richard Wilbur writes about laundry drying on the line, “moving and staying like white water.” Moving and staying. A stream rushing into and over rocks illustrates again the contradictory way the work insists you bear time: you must hold still and wait, and yet you must push forward.
And while you may complete many projects, the labor itself is never finished, the mastery never final. This incompleteness, by turns fetching and vexing, is part of its essence. Each moment of mastery is merely a breather snatched at an overlook during a long hike — a snapshot, a sip of water, and a tightening of one’s boot laces. But it is not an arrival. The point of arrival wavers like a heat mirage upon the road, always in front of us. There is always the expanse yet to come — more to traverse, to learn, to do. It can be frustrating, yet it also offers the comfort we sometimes feel while in transit. Because you are neither here nor there, you share in a traveler’s sense of liberation.
This effort to master a craft or an art form is also driven by a mental torque that I would describe as the inescapable psychological pressure created by our longing and our pain. We are, as the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear reminds us, “finite erotic creatures.” I love this phrase because it names succinctly the haunting tension between our expansive desire and our inevitable death. Mastery and creative expression are one way to capture energy from this clash and its conundrums. Not unlike the DNA in our cells, the processes we learn well and the objects we make encapsulate, carry forward, and transmit some portion of us, of our erotic energy, into the world, as much “ours” as any breathing offspring we bear.
The labor pays tribute to death, and yet expresses defiance, as if announcing, “Yes, I’m going, but not quietly. I’m having my say first.” In essence the defiance is about using time and skill to elaborate on an expression of feeling — or an object — beyond the crudest utility, and, by doing so, to endow it with an energy, an attractiveness, an aesthetic that invites the interest and recognition of others, sometimes even after much time has passed. The defiance is the act of giving to the craft more than bare necessity requires, of resisting mortality while acknowledging the futility of the resistance.
Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day, I’m drawn to an ancient Egyptian wood encaustic (an image produced by fixing wax colors with heat) crafted in the second century and called “Portrait of a Boy.” I am dumbstruck by the child’s appeal. His brown eyes are large, bright, and direct; his skin is smooth; his lacy white shirt offers contrast to his light-olive skin; his full lips lift slightly into a winsome half smile, as if he gently seeks the artist’s approval or shyly offers reassurance to him — and, beyond him, to us. Someone really loved this boy before he died. He invites tenderness in the observer in the way one does when one has been loved. Looking at him evokes in me fond memories of my own sons as young boys, and clock time is breached. I imagine the child’s context in Egypt — the historic past — as alien and distant, a long time ago, and yet I feel a sense of its immediacy, here right now. So too an earlier era of my own family life returns sharply. The memory invoked by the painting overlays itself upon the picture. I could have been the boy’s mother; he could have been my son.
Imaginative acts — or well-painted portraits — dissipate clock time like a breeze shoos off a fog. They amend mortal loss. My mother-in-law Edie is some years dead now, yet she labors amidst her plants. My words, capturing her actions, mark and realize her surroundings — a free space where we may visit, linger, and recall.
Though it is hard to say just how much and how, our desire, patience, and receptivity all help drive the strange mental progression that allows us to master a process and create something. Working at it regularly matters. Freud noticed how people’s unconscious minds hardened during the weekend interruption of their weekday psychoanalytic sessions. On Mondays they arrived a little lost, a little closed up, with less access to their own feelings and associative process. It was as if doctor and patient had to chip through a layer of thick ice.
So too it matters to your mastery and your quest for satisfaction that you show up repeatedly to your bench, studio, or desk. If you bicycle several miles each week, however slowly and miserably, there comes a day when the air is clear, the humidity just right, and you suddenly float along effortlessly in an almost inconceivable lightness of being. Your muscles don’t tire. You feel you could pedal forever. On other days, no matter how much you may wish for the same lightness, the same ecstasy, it is nowhere to be found; you cannot will it. The experience is the result, first and foremost, of setting out. The more days you take to the road, the more opportunities you have to experience a moment as a “gift.”
Similarly, serious singers know that parts of their voice are beyond their control. Involuntary systems do or don’t produce the right timbre at a given instant or the perfect landing on the desired pitch. But these singers also know that the more they practice and sing and actively imagine the desired sound, the more often the involuntary muscles and reflexes will work as needed during a performance, and the more possibility there is for a transcendent moment in which everything comes together and their voices soar.
Perhaps this uncertainty about hitting the note names a reason people falter or give up trying to learn a craft. They understandably lose faith in the worth of something that is invisible and elusive. Or perhaps they hope that they will somehow not have to offer the process its due — the inevitable price that comes from living in time, from having a single life and having each choice eliminate all the other ways we might pass that hour; of having our use of time shape us the way wind shapes a snowbank.
In his 1974 book, Working, Studs Terkel describes talking with a woman who has spent her work life pressing clothes. The woman, as I recall her, is standing between rooms, leaning slightly against the door frame. Terkel describes how, as she speaks with him, her fingers absently reach up and smooth the door frame, just the way for so many years her hands smoothed cloth before she pressed it.
We become the work to which we dedicate ourselves. I know that now but had only begun to grasp it then, while reading Terkel. Sometimes the transformation is physical — the woman’s hands, or Louis Armstrong’s cheeks, over years of trumpeting, gradually stretching out like thick balloons. Sometimes it’s less visible but no less explicit. We cannot both give ourselves over to a process and preserve ourselves from the way our choice alters us.
Yet, if we agree to the exchange, what we get in return is a way of living in the world, and of seeing: a perspective, a point of view, and with it a way of bearing our lives. I remember a wrenching moment with my mother several years before she died. I had done some errands for her, and she wanted to thank me somehow. Often I resisted this, but now I wanted to let her. Was I hungry? she wondered. She rolled her wheelchair to the refrigerator and listed out its contents, offering me anything within it. Her desire, mine, our difficulty finding an easy way to be with each other — all welled up and overwhelmed me with sadness, guilt, and intense, helpless love. When, weeks later, I described the moment to a friend, she observed, “You’re writing it already.” And she was correct. I was using my practice of seeking words to describe an experience to tame the unmanageable anguish, to begin retelling the tale.
A different version of this essay serves as the introduction to Janna Malamud Smith’s new book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, published this month by Counterpoint Press.