The active effort of waiting, embracing the seasons of the spirit & remembering to play our way through tough times
Vol. 2, Issue 3
One morning earlier this month, I woke up early and scurried over to a nearby church to stand outside its doors for more than an hour in 34-degree weather. My mission was sacred, if not holy: to enroll my daughter in preschool—perhaps the rarest and most precious of all unnatural resources here in central Alabama.
The preschool teachers were horrified that my very-pregnant body would be out in the cold for so long, but they couldn’t allow me inside the lobby while the little ones were arriving (which I totally understood). I insisted on standing by the doors rather than waiting in my car and risk my first-place position getting scooped by another parent, and ultimately my strategy proved right. As time passed, the line behind me grew, and it became clear that only the first few of us would be successful in our quest to get our little kids out of the house for a few hours a day next fall.
Eventually, the chattier mothers in line started to drum up conversation. I winced, probably visibly, when it was my turn to introduce myself. “A writer,” I said in response to the obligatory so what do you do, with the quick caveat that “I used to teach classes at the university, until the pandemic.” That line, I’ve learned, helps turn confused stares into sympathetic nods. “Teacher” sounds like a real job. To most people, “writer” does not. And for whatever reason, these days I’m more sensitive than usual about my lack of formal, traditional, professional “accomplishment.”
I’m sure this is almost wholly due to a combination of late-stage pregnancy hormones and the interminable wait for news about my book on submission. But it’s also true that we live in a status-worshipping culture, where titles and salaries and awards and fame/pseudo-fame all factor considerably into whether we think a particular person is successful or even “good.” And for creatives working outside title-offering institutions like universities or companies, it takes a firm backbone to stand with dignity during times like the preschool registration line, where first impressions are too-quickly chiseled in stone with small-talk tidbits.
I know with every fiber of my being that I wouldn’t trade my life for the desk jobs of most of the other mothers who waited in line with me that morning. I know because I had those kinds of jobs a decade ago, and I eagerly jumped off that particular career ladder as soon as I had the chance. But I’ll admit, I’m just as eager now for a new title to manifest on my resume, one that will supposedly explain every gap and odd turn in my work history: published author.
Of course, I know that desire is shallow and uninteresting and not-at-all useful as motivation for the actual work of trying to tell good stories. But sometimes, I can’t help myself. Sometimes I want in a way that will likely always be a moving target. Five years ago, I wanted an MFA degree. Two years ago, I wanted an agent. This year I want an editor to say yes to one of my projects. Next year I’ll want something else, I’m sure—even though all that striving, all that wanting of external validation for my creative work, risks hollowing the thing I love doing most into the same sort of corporate carrot-chasing void I rejected years ago.
I know all of this, but sometimes my feelings don’t match my thoughts. And so, despite the fact that I’ve been “training for this moment my whole life” as I joked to the other mothers about my Midwestern tolerance for winter weather, the wait for what I want can sometimes feel very long and cold.
My lifelong dream hasn’t panned out. Should I give up or keep trying? Galadriel Watson, The Washington Post. “For a long while, I’ve been writing novel manuscripts and hoping to get published. To date, it hasn’t happened. Sometimes, I feel like abandoning this goal. After all, I’ll still be me whether I publish a novel or not. Then again, having grit, a combination of passion and perseverance, is what helps us achieve our dreams. It’s an internal tug of war, and I’m still not sure which side will win.”
Wintering: Resilience, the Wisdom of Sadness, and How the Science of Trees Illuminates the Art of Self-Renewal Through Difficult Times, The Marginalian. “[The] cyclical nature of the seasons of the spirit is counter to our dominant cultural narrative of self-improvement, with its ethos of linear progression toward states of ever-increasing flourishing. It is counter, too, to the world’s major spiritual traditions, with their ideas of salvation and enlightenment. And yet befriending this cyclical rhythm of our inner lives is the key to wintering—to emerging from the coldest seasons of the soul not only undiminished but revitalized.”
Pâro, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Invented by writer John Koenig, the word pâro describes the haunting feeling that there’s some secret to living a successful life that others know but you have not managed to unlock.
“Times of change and flux can be very vulnerable experiences,” says Dr. Russya Connor. And in order to cope with that vulnerability, she recommends free, creative play—for both children and adults. “Play is at the very core of creativity and innovation. Play is an evolutionary process. It is a profound biological experience and it affects our outlook on life … without play, adults might become burned out from the hustle and bustle without really understanding why.”
Listen to her full talk:
We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
This week, I’m trying to refocus my attention on the writing process rather than product. And maybe you, too, could use a nudge to revisit a project through the lens of playful experimentation.
If you’re looking to start something from scratch, here’s a prompt: develop a character who has just won a major award but is unhappy for some reason. If you’re in the middle of something, here’s an alternative prompt: if you can, move your piece to a different room or even outside. Do you see something new from this different angle? What fresh ideas are forming thanks to this subtle change of scenery?
Whatever happens, I hope you enjoy it. And as always, thank you for being here.
You can find Sandra on Twitter, Instagram, and at sandrabarnidge.com.