Revisiting Mary Oliver, in the wake of her death, last week. Today I’m leaning into her essays, and her reflections on the artist’s labour. In “Of Power and Time”, she writes about self-distraction, and the many ways creative people can get in the way of their own best work.
Yes, the external world has a way of knocking that is hard to ignore;
“But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”
As I read these words there is a stinging twinge of self-recognition. My son is gone to school, the garbage is out, the groceries are put away, the music is just right. I have scheduled this time to write. I want to write. I need to write. I quite like to write. Yet just in time, my eagerly responsible way of being shows up, clamouring to fill this sacred time and space with lists: to-dos, must-dos, should-dos, should-have dones and more.
Dentists, mustard, plans, opportunities, wishes and still.
One of the recurring questions that I’ve encountered from clients in my coaching practice is, how do I make space for my art—for making the work better, for giving it more attention—when the pull to otherwise is so strong? How do we, as professionals in creative fields, buttress against the interruptions—whether architectural, in the form of open offices, technological (smart everythings), social temptations, or, as Oliver so beautifully evokes, internal (the whistling of the “self within the self”) —so that we can keep returning to the work that matters most?
In my Integral coaching practice, I work with clients to help surface and articulate the deeply held values and beliefs that inform their own current way of being, including their unique ways of interrupting outcomes. From there, with compassion and curiosity, we develop new creative practices to help them evolve towards a way of being in relationship to their creative work that is more fulfilling.
There’s never a quick fix. Instead, there is regular and ongoing practice, a new flexing of a new muscle. Followed by regular returnings to the work, and observing what’s shifted. And again. Everyone’s practice is differently aligned, according to their needs and capacities.
My own current practice, as I face the blank page and the selves rush in with their urgencies, is to turn to poetry. With an admirable economy, reading a poem can cut through the noise with a luscious new texture that reminds me and propels me towards the action I long to take.
Over the coming posts, I’ll explore a bit more about this practice-based approach, and how it differs from other forms of coaching or motivation (*spoiler alert: it works). I’ll also share some of the poetry and art that’s helping me create the space I need to do my work.
In the meantime, there is this, from A Thousand Mornings, by the wonderful Mary Oliver (d. 2019)
I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.