Privilege, prayer, parenthood
Joshua Prager's Half-Life

Not a sign of defeat, but a sign of engagement

I just shared a post about prayer and parenthood. (Which has garnered some lovely comments, by the way; thanks, y'all!) Next up, I wanted to offer something different. Variety being the spice of life, and all that. But apparently the writing I'm doing this week is either for other sources (and therefore not publishable here), or is on these same themes. As my mentor Jason Shinder used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." I guess this intersection is the work in which I'm immersed at this moment in time.

Lately, in fits and starts, I've been reading Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several short sentences about writing. I've dogeared the page where this appears:

But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're writing,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

He's talking about the writing life, of course, though (predictably) I've been thinking of this as pertaining to spiritual life, too. Writing life, spiritual life: both will inevitably contain times when "the thrill is gone," when the spark doesn't feel as though it's there; times when one has to work hard just to get the boulder moving up the hill, or when the journey is arduous instead of scintillating. And that's not a sign of failure, as Klinkenborg notes: it's a sign that one is engaged in something that matters.

Or, taking his words in a different direction, try this paraphrase:

But if you accept that parenting is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're parenting,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

Parenting is hard work! And it's supposed to be. Though rearing a four-year-old presents different challenges than caring for an infant, it's still work. I still struggle to maintain the good humor, the equanimity, the right balance of gentleness and firmness to which I aspire. I still fall down on the job, snap at our son when I didn't mean to, drive myself up a tree with fruitless attempts to convince him to try a food which he doesn't already know he enjoys. But if I take Klinkenborg to heart, then the fact that parenting is hard work doesn't mean I'm failing at it -- on the contrary, it means I'm doing it well.

Just so with spiritual life. Sometimes my prayer life and my spiritual consciousness "jut flows," and sometimes it feels as though the channels are blocked, as though God isn't listening -- or maybe as though I can't muster the focus to be listening in return. Sometimes I can't wait to set aside time for daily prayer, and other times I want to skip it all and just go back to sleep. That doesn't mean I'm failing in my spiritual life. If I'm paying enough attention to notice that sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's hard, then I'm paying attention, period, and that's an essential component of spiritual life.

And just so with writing. Whether I'm writing poetry, or blog posts, or essays, there's work involved in choosing the right words and putting them in the right order -- reading them aloud, winnowing a word here and a phrase there, reading them aloud again -- paying attention to white space, scrapping the boring words and replacing them with words which (ideally) sing. That's the craft of writing. Sometimes it feels like flying, but more often it feels like building a stone wall, testing it for soundness, taking it apart, building it again. (Which is why Stone Work, by John Jerome, manages to be simultaneously about building a stone wall and about the writing life. I miss you, John.)

As Thomas Lux wrote in his poem "An Horatian Notion" (one of the few poems I've ever memorized):

...Inspiration, the donnée

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.

(I wrote a kind of d'var Torah on that poem a while back -- What are we here for?) Poetry doesn't come from a bolt of fire. Sustained spiritual practice doesn't either. Though sometimes peak spiritual experiences can involve a kind of ecstatic blaze, the way to cultivate that flame is to tend it carefully, day in and day out, even when you don't feel like keeping the fire burning. The way to cultivate poetry is to keep writing and revising it. And as for parenting -- I don't think one gets a choice, having become a parent, about whether or not to keep doing it on a daily basis! These are long-haul journeys. We enter into them trusting that there will be blessings to balance the labor.

There's something beautiful, to me, in the idea that these lifelong practices take work, and that they're supposed to take work. It's okay if writing is hard -- if spiritual life is hard -- if parenting is hard. "The labor isn't a sign of defeat. / It's a sign of engagement." It's how we know we're actually in the world, doing work that matters.