A Difficult Generosity
Cross-posted at the Rabbit Room. I’ve come to write today in a downtown coffee shop where books line the walls and the air hums with slow, jazzy music. I haven’t accomplished a single useful thing. Instead, I’ve cupped my coffee close, sipped it slow, and let my sleepy eyes roam over the rim of the mug. Mostly, I’ve spied on my neighbor. A scholarly air hovers about her along with heaps of textbooks, stacked notebooks, and four different kinds of pens. She’s working very hard; eyes down under her fringe of dark hair, pen at a swift scratch, earbuds wedged in tight against the lazy aura of this place.
But every so often she stops. With a distinct sigh, she reaches for her mocha and sets down her pen. And as she sips, she stares. For propped against the nearest pile of books is a vivid photo of Audrey Hepburn. The girl beside me fixes her eyes on that photo, never blinking as she takes a long sip of coffee and chocolate. Then she sets down her mug, wriggles up a little straighter in her seat and sets to work again. I cannot help my surreptitious stare. The strength she obviously takes from that photo fascinates me, as if in fixing her eyes upon it she receives some new shock of courage.
I turn reluctantly back to my own book-piled table and cappuccino. A blank computer screen and a blank notebook are open before me. I ignore them. I open the topmost book on my pile, a series of essays by the poet Denise Levertov. My good friend Ruth is my source for modern poetry and when she tells me to seek out a poet, I go for it as I trust both her taste and also her navigation of the current age of poetry (a sphere of which my knowledge is slight). When she quoted Levertov and I found this book the very next day, I bought it. I am only one paragraph in before I stop, eyes arrested by these words:
“I believe poets are . . . makers, craftsmen: it is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members one of another.’”
I have studied many facets of the writer’s vocation, but this idea of Levertov’s startles and even stings me. She seems to class writing with spiritual imperatives like loving your neighbor and telling no lies. I squirm in my seat, abruptly uneasy in conscience. I think I do see as she describes—imperfectly and with wandering attention. The scenes and people that brim my imagination, the joy glimpsed like light on a far-off hilltop, the story worlds that come to my mind more as gift than anything else, these compel me to write. But I rarely share them. For every one essay or story I do show the world, a dozen more lurk behind my eyes and in forgotten computer files, unknown to a single other soul. I’ve never thought of sharing my writing as a duty; perhaps I’ve seen my best pieces, the ones I actually like, as glimpses of beauty I simply must pass on, but I’ve certainly never thought of that sharing as an imperative in the same class as adherence to the golden rule. I like the luxury of considering my inner world a private one to be shared only when, and if, I desire.
I sip more cappuccino and feel stung by Levertov’s words. The truth is that writing often terrifies me. Not the easy kind of freelance work and editing projects and countless small jobs. Those I can accomplish with mind alone, thankful to earn my bread, and grateful, I admit, to avoid those clamorous dreams that beg to be told. Because oh, I don’t know how to begin to set the best things forth. I half begin then draw back in fear. My imagination blazes with pictures begging to be written, but my words seem too frail to bear them. I’ve set down countless sentences, cast dozens of hours to typing away only to scrap the whole thing in sheer frustration. My pride cringes to admit that, but Levertov’s words add the sting of conscience to my discomfort. I tell myself I will get to them soon, that when I have quiet or rest I will finally tell that one story that glimmers and sings, unwritten in my mind. The truth? I’m afraid I cannot do that story justice. I doubt my skill. I doubt my vision; I wonder if the worlds I know within myself might be deemed just silly by a reader. I don’t want to be mocked. So the story stays locked in the little room of my head and fear is the bolt on its door.
I glance again at the girl next to me to escape the discomfort now burning in my throat and I wonder. What does she “see,” what true vision does she touch through her contemplation of Audrey Hepburn? Did Audrey know she was embodying an ideal, and did she offer it willingly? I glance down at my own table, and my eyes wander to the pile of books I have toted with me. Again, my heart burns with conviction. For each of the books before me has been the sort of gift that Levertov describes, stories that allowed me to see, to taste, to grope my way forward when I felt blind. I would not have made several hard, defiant decisions this year without the vision provided to me by a few generous writers.
In my moments of crisis, when the landscape of my own mind and soul were fogged and dim with confusion, several writers kept me in hope. I opened their stories in the evenings, when my heart and mind were exhausted with the over-thinking required by major decisions. The worlds they had made and the people they presented were a refuge to me. Wendell Berry’s Port William. The Eliot family and their home of Damerosehay in Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. The artistic grit of Thea in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. Nouwen’s story of God’s mercy traced through his contemplations on Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal returned.
They sheltered me. When I was blinded by doubt, I journeyed on by the vibrant light of their created worlds. As I struggled toward wisdom, feeling homeless in soul as I teetered between several possible futures, those stories were my refuge. I was nourished by the power of what they presented as possible. I sheltered within their scenes, stood beside their characters, then stood back on my own two feet to reclaim my own vision and walk the long road required to bring it to life.
As I mull this, I pull out my journal and page back through my last months of notes, skimming the quotations I jotted down from those companion books. At one particularly long quotation, I stop, reading again a favorite passage from Song of the Lark. In it, the heroine Thea, like me, feels battered by the wide world in which she is fighting to establish her own vision of life. But Dvorak’s New World Symphony revives and steels her for the challenge. I read the scene again:
Something had got away from her; she could not remember how the violins came in after the horns, just there… A cloud of dust blew in her face and blinded her. There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the conference hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape… Thea glared round her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now… Very well; they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing!
And just like the girl at the table next to me, I sit suddenly straighter in my seat. Here I am, reading about another person sheltered in trial by the vision offered by an artist. Dvorak’s music sheltered Thea (and no doubt Cather, Thea’s creator) when she doubted, renewed her strength to fight, to acknowledge the beauty she knew as the real thing over against the clamor of the world. I flip the page of my journal. There, in like manner are Nouwen’s words about Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, telling how the color, line, and form so faithfully painted by one man ushered him into the arm’s of the Father’s mercy. Rembrandt’s vision sheltered Nouwen. And that encounter produced Nouwen’s book, whose vision now shelters me. And suddenly I am breathless.
Every work of art reaches out across the centuries, and each is a vision that casts a flame into the darkness. The wonder is that one great light wakes another. The song of one wakens the story of another. The story she told becomes the poem he made that kindled the painting in yet another’s hands. Each is a work of obedience. No artist can cast their flame of vision without a twinge of fear that it will simply fade or even pass unseen. But each is also a work of generosity, precious, private worlds offered in a self-forgetfulness that pushes aside vanity, insecurity, perfectionistic pride.
Levertov is right. The visions set forth in the books (and paintings and songs) we turn to for hope are offerings of love, given in the recognition that we truly are members of one another. We all bear the same hunger for eternity. We all walk forward in the dark of doubt, reaching for something we can’t quite name. We yearn to discover who we are meant to become, what it is we hunger to find in those midnight hours when our hearts will not be sated. But the artists and storytellers and makers of song offer the inner vision they have known as a sign of hope to the hungering world. They invite us into the sacred, inmost rooms of their minds and let us stand at the windows of their own imaginations where we glimpse, ah, wonders we might never have dreamed alone.
I glance again at the girl next to me. She is unrelentingly diligent. Who knows what she is writing, perhaps in response to the beauty she has seen? I brush my hand over the books whose weathered covers bear the scuff and dent of my many readings. The life within them crackles under my hand. I meet the stare of my own silent notebook, blank before me, and my pen sitting lonely on the page. I sigh and wriggle up a little straighter in my chair. I pick up that pen. At the very least I can write what I have just seen. A tiny gift, but a good place to begin.