As I write this, I’m looking out the window at the fluttering yellow leaves of an aspen. Storm clouds are rolling in over the blue mountains. I’m at a retreat, with friends I’ve known for nearly all of my career. It’s a lucky thing, this house, this time. I have a book that absolutely must be finished, and it’s good to have the time.
I’m listening to the new Leonard Cohen album, just released. He’s 82, and his raw, regretful, whispery voice goes directly to the ache in my heart. There’s that thread of melancholy violin, his mystical wonderings, his admission, again and again, that it’s hard to know the truth, but maybe trying is all there is. In his work is the knowledge of impending death mixed with love and beauty and lust and song, whiskey and women and high mountain tops.
He reminds me that one of the greatest things we can bring to our writing is that certainty, lurking always, that we will die. If you find yourself ducking away from that, getting ready to skim, don’t. Stick with this for a minute.
I’m grieving my old dog, who lived a great long life and loved me madly and kept me company for 14 years. Jack was the warm body next to me during some of the saddest days of my life, when I was first divorced and feeling like nothing would ever be okay. He traveled with me up the highway to a new city, hanging out with me as I dated and went on hikes and found my way into a new life.
His death was not unexpected, and it was as clean and good as one would hope for such a loyal companion, but it was the second significant loss of the year. A good friend of mine died last spring. There is more, but you don’t have to hear it all to know my point.
Grief is exhausting. It leaps into your arms and must be carried for as long as it takes to work through it. There’s no getting around the powerful, philosophical, urgent questions it brings with it.
The main gift is has brought to me this year is a sense of urgency, an awareness of time. Time is the essential element in all of our lives, the utterly democratic allotments of minutes and hours, the days that make a year. It’s also utterly tyrannical in that we don’t know how many hours we each possess. It’s maddening, and it’s a great gift. It allows us to forget time, let it flow.
As writers, however, that knowledge of tyrannical time is the greatest of gifts. It brings piercing clarity to the smallest of things—a tiny silver pitcher in a patch of fleeting sunlight, the fleeting laughter of a baby, who becomes a toddler and then a legging four year old and then in the twinkling of an eye, a woman at her wedding. A knowledge of the fleeting nature of life can serve to keep us present, here, aware of what gifts time is giving us right now.
It should also galvanize us. Write the book, the one you really want to write. Make the time to do your best work. Don’t skim and skid through time, dig in with both hands and all your love and give it everything you have.
I nearly cancelled this trip. I had more sad news late last week and it suddenly seemed that I should just stay home. My friends, however, let me rage for an afternoon, and then said, “Are you sure you don’t want to come anyway?”
In the other room, three of them are talking out a plot. I can hear them laughing beneath the rumbling voice of Leonard in my ear. Since I started writing this piece, the clouds have moved in hard and the wind is kicking up. Snow has fallen on the high craggy peak I can see through the window. I am not young anymore, but I am not old, either. Leonard Cohen is alive in the world, with me, this very moment. My dog’s ghost is rattling along beside me for now. I’m writing a book that’s strange and beautiful and I know the relative I’m grieving will want me to finish. I am here, showing up in my life, right now. One moment at a time.
How do you grapple with the tyranny of time? Can you remember a moment when you felt it in your gut? How does that transform your work?
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