I just heard from an ironworker friend of mine. He’s started back drawing and painting, things he said he should be doing his entire life. It was good to hear from him and to hear the sunshine in his voice.
As you know, ironwork is slow right now. I can hardly call myself an ironworker, having not worked in the trade for a solid nine months. But the nature of the business is up and down—sometimes way down. I sat in the union hall last year, working only on and off. When the semester started in the fall, I went back to teach school at the community college. I’ve gone from wanting to wait out the work trough to now anticipating being worked to death on a bridge. What I wouldn’t give to come home physically dead tired at the end of the workday. What I wouldn’t give to know that I was going to do the same thing tomorrow.
But, as you know, ironworker is exactly the kind of thing I should not be doing. Writing, dissertation, book, poems, teaching. These are the things I should focus on. They are the things that could very well make my future prosperity.
But these creative endeavors were always what I should have been at. There’s a something inexplicable in me that prevents me from allowing myself the pain and freedom to do them. So, I shove too much into a day. Take on too many projects. Intend to catch up with old friends, write the book, finish the dissertation. The thought of these keep me up at night.
Frankly, I’m fearful. To do one thing very well is to miss out on all the other great undertakings. Like the kid who can’t give up the day, I feel as if I’ll miss something if I just focus, forget all else, and do something, one thing well. I am afraid to hear the voice inside and so distract myself with a million new tasks and attempts at new and unknown things. I make frequent trips to the woods, to meditate and hear that voice. I try to allow through at night. But as soon as I hear it, I feel ashamed. I’m not good enough to have something so lovely, gentle, and humane. My flaws and inadequacies keep the plugs in my ears.
Silly, I know. But I think of you at the head of one of the nation’s great newspapers and I admire, envy, am jealous. I wish I had the focus and resolve you seem to have shown throughout your great career. Like my ironworker friend, I wish I could get to my life’s work.
At the same time, I hear people tell me what a fabulous, full life I’ve led. The wonderful things I’ve done. The places I’ve been and the people and celebrities I’ve been in the presence of. Sure, it’s good to look back on those events and occurrences and see the good in them. I realize that none of that would have been possible without the restlessness I’ve carried in my heart since I was just a small child.
I know, however, that the view from the inside is more complicated and difficult. In fact, I have lived well and done many things. I’ve attempted what most people dream of trying. I am the person that others envy as they sit at their desks wonder what’s next. But I also dream of being settled enough within to sit at a desk and be happy with the things that life provides of itself. I want to live without wondering what lies over the next horizon.
I have always wanted that peace. I have always wanted the ascetic ability to deny myself the excesses of emotion and physical want. But as much as I try, I cannot. I keep at it. At the end of the day, however, I find myself overloaded—by choice. I’ve eaten too much of the wrong things. I have indulged in great swings of emotion, from absolute elation to the depths of despair. I resolve to do better on waking and to start life anew.
But like an addict, I find myself at the end of the next day in the same position as I was the day before.
Days for me have the nature of extremes. Love and anger. Anger and joy. Joy and despair. Despair and contentment. Intense physical and intense intellectual labor. I wrote a friend of mine the other day and told her of the pain of creativity, that the process is not a seamless, smooth, and uninterrupted channeling of what’s new in the universe, or, at least, new to me. Not at all. Beauty is painful, I wrote. Creativity and expression of beauty hurts.
In my note to her I mentioned the Pleiades. Winter nights, after Orion has reached the horizon, I look for that loveliest and most subtle of constellations. As you’ve experienced, the Pleiades draw the eye to them. But it is always elusive. I see it in the corner of my eye, clear and defined and bright. Immediately, I glance up to look at the constellation directly and it vanishes into a milky smudge. I can never see it as it appears with an indirect gaze.
My inability to resist the temptation to grasp the Pleiades is my flaw. I have yet to allow the Pleiades to be that mysterious gathering of stars in the corner of my eye, where it is clear and has definition and grace. In direct vision they become less than real, their beauty absconded behind the desire to perceive them directly.
The search for a settled soul is like the Pleiades to me. The more I look, the harder they are to find.
This is why my ironworker friend’s call was so important to me today, and why I think of you and your career. Someday, I might develop the vision and ability to have comfort and contentment in my skin. But as I’ve told you, I’m talented and am good at absolutely nothing except hard work and persistence. These will, perhaps, be my salvation.
Keep being who you are and fighting the good fight. You are doing the penance for all us sinners.