Monday, September 24, 2018

Seasons of the Soul

The calendar has driven us, once again, into the bracing arms of autumn. Northern Hemisphere residents are inhaling the snappy chill of the late-afternoon air, wrapping their dangerously exposed necks in magical Hogwarts scarves, exclusively eating and drinking things that taste and look like pumpkins, losing their children in elaborate corn-mazes, and unabashedly participating in the creepiest-sounding of all autumn activities: leaf-peeping.

Meanwhile, here in Santa Barbara, California, it’s 70-something degrees and sunny, and everyone is at the beach. Just like every other damn day of the year.

I’m not foolish enough to try to elicit any sympathy for my life in a Mediterranean climate. For a century, people have moved to Santa Barbara precisely for the therapy of sun and salty ocean air. No one in upstate New York will shed any tears for me when they’re shoveling themselves out of 11 feet of snow in January and I’m unironically wearing shorts.

Yet, while I am happy to call this place home, I miss seasons, sometimes desperately. No doubt retailers play a role in my angst; they have conditioned me, rather brilliantly, to associate dates on the calendar with particular products and activities. When the bell of the autumnal equinox rings, I start salivating for pumpkin-spiced whatever—like the most annoyingly hipster Pavlovian dog…and I don’t even like sweet things. Most of it is influenced by nostalgia. I grew up in Seattle, and autumn evokes childhood memories of driving with my dad past the sprawling local pumpkin patch on drizzly Saturday evenings and returning home to the fire after University of Washington football games.

But it goes even deeper. Seasons are not only realities that occur outside and around us, in the skies and in the trees. I believe seasons are also internal and personal, interwoven into the fabric of human life. We are designed to transition, to change, and to vary. Our souls have seasons.

When there are few changes in the outward seasons, it is easy to neglect the shifts required by our internal seasons. When you live in an unchanging climate, it’s tempting to try to match it with an unchanging life. External seasonal cues can remind us to transition into something new and to live differently. The reason why people historically have celebrated the month of October so extravagantly is not only because it’s harvest time, an ancient time of gratitude, but because they sensed on a primal level that the world was slowly closing, the sap was gravitating back toward the soil, the darkness was encroaching, and the natural world was going dormant. They knew their daily lives were going to change along with it: it was almost time to go inside, build a fire, and wait out the winter.

My longing for seasons feels like a desire for the permission to change, to slow. I don’t believe we are built to move at the same pace, do the same activities, and feel the same feelings all year round. Humans, just like the natural world, are meant to cycle through seasons of dormancy and new life, activity and contemplation, celebration and sadness, blossom and harvest, openness and closedness, austerity and abundance. I believe the seasons serve as a lesson book for the soul, instructing us when to move fast and when to slow down, when to act and when to rest, when to focus on the world outside and when to hibernate and go down deep. If we ignore the lessons of the seasons, we may feel the pressure to try to be “up” all the time—always going, ever energetic, constantly gleeful. We may find ourselves restless and exhausted without having any idea why.

Living in a climate of seemingly endless summer has taught me some valuable lessons. First, the seasonal changes are there, but you have to discipline yourself to pay attention to the subtleties. Seasons are exercises in attentiveness. The radiant glow of summer modulates into the beautiful sadness of autumn, but it’s delicate. The marine layer persists just a little bit longer in the mornings, and the air warms up a little slower in the morning and cools down a little faster in the afternoon. The clouds linger on the peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains into the afternoons. The light falls differently and casts longer shadows, and the loud pink rays of the summer sunset are brushed aside by the amber and burnt orange hues of fall’s curtain call.

Second, seasons are now something I choose. Here, autumn is something you resolve to do. I love that the word deciduous has the word decide embedded in it. Although I live in an evergreen climate, I have resolved to lead a deciduous life, for the sake of my soul. I allow the encroaching darkness of the fall to drive me inside earlier in the evening to read, to write, to reflect. And sometimes, you just have to put soup in the crockpot when it’s 80 degrees outside. I want to let the seasons, and their inherent gifts, rhythms, and offerings, teach me how to live and to be more human.

There is a growing trend in our country of eating in season, enjoying the produce that particular season has to offer rather than trying to eat a plastic tomato in the middle of February. What if we extended that idea to living in season? What if we stopped trying to live the year at a dead sprint and instead let the seasons teach us about how to move and how to live?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Writer as Madman and Mystic

I spend a lot of time reading what other writers say about writing. It's an excellent way to procrastinate from actually writing. In reading the words of seasoned authors, who themselves are usually writing about writing in order to avoid other projects, I have discovered two recurring themes. The process of writing may very well make you crazy. And it may also make you a mystic.

Sometimes the crazy is the charming kind of crazy, like the retired journalist in my hometown who walked the streets for hours a day, waving at everything that passed by: cars, people, planes, squirrels. Philip Yancey says that the first phase of his writing process "is all psychosis. I don't even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don't shave. I'll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk."

But sometimes the crazy is the life-choking, relationship-poisoning kind of crazy. It doesn't take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway's routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. Yet the alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle. Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, pondering that her greatest writing success is likely behind her, confesses "It's enough to make you start drinking gin at 9 in the morning." She laments that the pressures of the creative process have been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The writing process is an emotional rollercoaster that threatens to run you right off the rails. Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It's more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy. In writing, your hopes, dreams, fears and inadequacies are exposed. You learn what it is you most want in life and how incompetent you are to actually achieve it. It's easy to see how the first casualty of this war is your sanity.

But the process of writing may also make you a mystic. A life of writing can transform the most committed atheist into someone who talks of gods and spirits and muses. Countless authors attest that, in some mysterious way, the discipline of writing can connect us with outside forces, as our words become channels for other voices speaking in the universe. C.S. Lewis said, "I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say." Others take a more earthy approach when they claim they don't invent a story, rather they excavate it. They imagine themselves as literary archeologists, discovering a story or an idea that has been buried deep within them yet cries out to be found.

Some writers seek to renew our belief in muses, those ancient spirits that inspire the creativity behind great works of art and music and literature. Elizabeth Gilbert says that in ancient cultures people themselves were not considered geniuses, but they had a genius who sparked their creative impulses. In a different spirit, Stephen King envisions his muse as a fat guy living in his basement, smoking cigars and admiring his bowling trophies and pretending to ignore you. But, says King, "the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."

Some people may consider the writer's tendency towards madness and mysticism as one and the same. But from what I can see, the first leads to restlessness and despair while the second moves toward peace and freedom. Gilbert hopes that resurrecting the muse will give writers a necessary distance from their work, releasing them from the destructive side effects of the creative process.

As much as I appreciate Gilbert's views, as a Christian I am not ultimately satisfied with her solution. I agree that there is another power that overlaps with our creative efforts, but for me it is the Holy Spirit. I won't reduce the Holy Spirit to a muse, but I do believe that the same influence that inspired the apostles to preach and write is also, in whatever lesser form, present in my work, even in the very messiness of the writing process. I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.

The ancient muses, it was thought, helped create works of art and literature. But the God in whom I believe is about creating certain kinds of people, shaping them into men and women who believe, hope, and love. While I do think God cares about the works we create, I believe that God is more interested in the process and its effect upon us. God is in the dying - the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising - the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. And if, through the writing process, we allow ourselves to be shaped into new kinds of people, then perhaps writers will come to be known for more than just being crazy.