The Wall at Central Square

A quick search of my blog archives reveals I often get the blog blahs–that is, an inert sense of not having anything to say or share–in August, but this year I seem to be ahead of schedule. In the past, I’ve learned that simply showing up in the midst of a dry spell can sometimes lead to the unexpected, but this time around, the blog blahs feel like a bad case of “been there, done that.”

This time around, even my morning journal pages feel sluggish and repetitive, with me repeating a seemingly endless list of undone tasks and to-dos: a litany of “shoulds” and “gottas.” When you’re in the midst of the blog blahs, you read old blog posts and journal entries with a sense of amazement and even jealousy: Who was I when I had the time and inspiration to write long and insightful essays? At the moment, saying anything profound or even positive seems ambitious and unattainable.

But, I’ve been writing (and blogging) long enough to know that even the worst case of blog blahs eventually passes: you just have to wait it out. And the best way of waiting, of course, is to keep writing, even if what you’re writing seems inane, insipid, and uninspired. Are to-do lists and whining rants fun to read? No, which is why I write them in my journal and mercifully don’t share them here. Are to-do lists and whining rants fun to write? No, but sometimes you have to flush out the gunk that’s causing your creative clog.

So, here is a post that feels both clogged and gunky: an attempt to shake off the blahs by posting something, anything. I remind myself of something Gary Snyder said when I saw him speak back in 2010: “You never know if you’re going to write another good poem.” When you’re in the midst of the blog blahs, you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to write another decent blog post, another decent journal entry, or another decent anything, but the only way out of that slump is to write your way out.

Flickr is currently down, so I’m posting this entry as-is, with only one accompanying photo. I don’t know what it is that “Everybody Knows,” so I’ll leave that to you to figure out.

Ben & Jerry's "Flipped" ad

Last night on my way to practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, I took the T to Harvard Square, ostensibly to go notebook- and pen-shopping at Bob Slate. In reality, though, I simply wanted to lose myself in an anonymous throng of fellow pedestrians, as is possible in a city like Cambridge. (As true as this Ben & Jerry’s ad is when it comes to the pace of passing pedestrians, it gets its geography wrong. The throngs passing through the Harvard Square T station are largely composed of Cantabrigians, not Bostonians. So much for market research.)

Breathe - it's the only freedom you have left

Before I left for Cambridge yesterday, I had duly planned to blog, as I do most days: one of the repeating items on each day’s to-do list, in fact, is “blog.” But as I did this time last summer, this past week I’ve felt a bit of the blog-blahs. In the past, I’ve gone walking around Harvard Square when I’ve felt my Muse was hibernating; sometimes a simple change of scenery helps you see things in a new, more creative way. Or sometimes not. One of the things about both writing and meditation practice, I’ve learned, is you can’t generalize based on past experiences. Something that worked last week, last month, or last year might not work the same way if you try it again. The standard investment advice of “your results may vary” applies not only when you compare yourself with others but also when you compare your current situation with whatever happened previously. That was then, and this is now.

Art is everywhere

And yet, we continue to make this sort of comparison because comparing seems to be a deeply entrenched aspect of human nature. One of the recurring themes I encounter in the questions I field as a Senior Dharma Teacher giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, in fact, involves this sort of comparison: “I read somewhere that you’re supposed to do/feel/experience X when you meditate, but when I meditate, I do/feel/experience Y. Is this/am I normal?” The standard answer to the “is this/am I normal” question is YES. The books say “X,” but your results may vary. It’s not that the books are wrong, and it’s not that your experience is wrong: it’s that the Present Moment hardly ever looks how you, the books, or anyone else expected.

Harvard Square kiosk

Finding yourself, again, in a situation that Isn’t What You Expected, now what? The openness of this “now what?” is the space where the Present Moment unfurls, flowers, and bears fruit. But what unfurls, flowers, and fruits today probably won’t be identical to what you’ve grown used to. What two leaves, flowers, or fruits are identical? The beauty of any walk through Cambridge or any other city–the beauty of any stroll among fast-paced Cantabrigians, Bostonians, or others–is that you never know quite what to expect. If you knew exactly what pen or notebook to buy, what need would there be for shopping? If you knew exactly what you want to blog today, tomorrow, or the next day, what room would there be for exploration, serendipity, and surprise?

Electric

Even though New England has been getting its fair share of torrential rain this summer, my blogging has been in a dry spell. It’s not exactly that I haven’t had things to say, and it’s not exactly that I haven’t had time to write. It’s more like I haven’t been able to coordinate these things so I have “things to say” when I find “time to write,” and that adds up to many days without blog posts.

Coffee cup

It’s not the first time I’ve had the blog-blahs, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes, you run out of things to say (or at least it feels that way); I’ve also practiced (and taught) Zen meditation long enough to know that sometimes, you go “dry” in your practice (or at least it feels that way). New writers and new meditators often think these dry spells are a sign they’re doing something wrong: “Maybe I’m not really cut out to be a writer,” or “I tried meditating once, but it didn’t work for me.” What new writers or meditators don’t know–the sole secret we seasoned veterans have figured out–is that it doesn’t matter whether it feels like you’re “doing it right”: you just keep trying anyway.

Empty tables

I can’t call this current bout of blog-blahs “writer’s block” since I’ve been faithfully writing in my journal nearly every day, and there have been many times when a dry spell has completely derailed that practice. And I can’t call this current bout of blog-blahs a “spiritual crisis” since I’ve experienced a recent renewal in my meditation practice, coming back to my cushion to meditate regularly after too many months of practicing only sporadically. So in everything but my blogging, life has been stable and healthy; indeed, I’ve wondered whether this current blog-block is caused by the happy fact that everything right now is going fairly well with me, and there’s not much narrative excitement in a blog-post that duly reports “I finished grading those midterms,” “I made enough money last month to cover my bills,” or “I accomplished almost all the items on yesterday’s to-do list.”

Zorn Dining Commons

In other words, this bloggish dry spell happens at a time when I’ve comfortably settled, for the moment, into Normal Life. Every year as August approaches, my heart reminds me it’s my anniversary of independence: today marks four years since my then-husband and I separated, a personal milestone I usually mark by blogging some sort of State of the Psyche address. This year, I don’t feel I have anything significantly new or different to add from last year: perhaps one way that shock settles into stability is the way that ultimately, you stop counting the months, minutes, or years between Then and Now. These days, I don’t feel particularly mindful of the fact that it’s been four rather than three years since my separation and divorce; these days, apart from an occasional slip where I use my married name, I can almost trick myself into thinking it was someone else, not me, who was once married.

Spruce and Sky

And yet, interestingly, one lesson I learned from my almost thirteen-year marriage is one I’ve heard echoed recently by my still-married friends: relationships, too, have their dry spells, and the seasoned veterans who stay married somehow figure out how to wait them out. Although my ex-husband and I eventually called it a day, what kept us married for almost thirteen years–and what kept us trying to be decent human beings to one another even down to the day we separated, and after–was a shared commitment to keep trying, anyway. Even if you’re not doing marriage “right”–even if you’ve determined, at long last, to call it quits for good–you keep showing up to that realization: you face it rather than fleeing from it…or already having fled too many times and for too long, you keep coming back.

Fire alarm

Perhaps the twin mottos of “keep trying anyway” and “keep coming back” are the motivational bookends that embrace successful writing, Zen practice, and human relationships alike. Even if you think you’re doing it wrong, keep trying anyway. When you’ve all but given up, keep coming back: if this page, this moment, or this relationship eludes you, just show up for the next one. Did yesterday’s page of writing really stink? Keep trying to write a page today. Did you fail even to show up on your meditation cushion, again? Keep coming back, regardless of how often or how long you’ve gone AWOL. Did your last relationship fail, or does your current relationship (marriage, friendship, other) feel dry and routine, beset with a terminal case of ho-hum? Keep trying anyway, and keep coming back: in a word, just show up. Dry spells come and dry spells go, or as my grandfather used to say, “Marriage is easy; it’s just the first fifty years that are hard.” Even if a dry spell lingers, even that dustiness can be grist for the mill.