Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

One of my goals for this summer is to write daily. When I sit down to write each day, I don’t usually have a topic in mind. Instead, I have a commitment to sit at my desk, uncap my pen, and fill four journal pages with whatever comes up, following Natalie Goldberg’s advice to “keep my hand moving” as faithfully as interruptions allow.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

This practice of sitting down and seeing what arises is very similar to what I do when I meditate; in fact, I’ve come to think of writing and meditation as being basically “sitting with and without pen.” When I write, I allow my sentences to follow wherever a given thought leads, regardless of how silly, stupid or scary that thought may be. When I meditate, I watch my thoughts without either chasing or repressing them. Like a flagpole planted on the edge of the sea, I stay standing no matter what the tides and surges throw at me, using my breath as an anchor.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

It turns out that these two practices–following random thoughts with a pen on one hand, and watching thoughts come and go on the other–are flipsides of the very same coin. In both cases–whether you’re following and recording your thoughts or simply watching them–the muscle you’re exercising is what Buddhists call non-attachment. You aren’t judging your thoughts, and you aren’t weighing their worth. You aren’t sorting your thoughts into piles to keep and piles to discard. You aren’t rating or ranking or recoiling from any of them. Instead, you remain firm and rooted in your commitment to simply stay sitting. Whether writing or meditating, you commit to staying firmly planted, regardless of what comes up.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

What you don’t do, in other words, is stop because you think your writing or your meditation “isn’t working.” The phrase “isn’t working” is code for “This activity isn’t immediately delivering the kind of results I want, so I’m going to stop and do something that feels more rewarding.” Both meditating and writing require you to ignore the demon named “Isn’t Working” and press on regardless. Does it feel like your writing “isn’t working” because what you’re writing seems stupid, disorganized, or inane? Keep writing anyway. Does it feel like your meditation “isn’t working” because your thoughts are scattered and disjointed? Keep sitting anyway. Ultimately, the quality of your writing or your meditation isn’t contingent upon the quality of your thoughts; it’s determined by the strength of your staying.

Fallen leaf and leaf prints

A few nights ago, my writing partner emailed to let me know she hadn’t completed her daily writing commitment, but she’d done part of it: she’d showed up at the page. The phrase “showing up at the page” is a shorthand we both understand: showing up at the page is what you do on days when you don’t feel like you have anything to say, or you’re stumped at how to phrase what you do have to say, but you show up anyway, just in case words magically appear despite all your doubts and second-guesses.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Showing up at the page takes a great deal of faith and dedication. Regardless of all the evidence to the contrary, you believe in your heart of hearts that the process of showing up is worthwhile and valuable even on (and even especially on) days when the product you produce is puny, disappointing, or just plain insipid. You believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that the discipline of showing up is its own reward, and you believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that showing up is important because there are, occasionally, those magically unpredictable days when Something spontaneously appears out of Nothing. If you hadn’t made a practice of showing up at the page, how could you have experienced that windfall?

Henry David Thoreau captured the spirit of showing up for the page when he wrote in Walden, “I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” The sun will both rise and set without you, and there will be days when it’s too cloudy for you to see anything the sun might happen to be doing at the moment. But on those days, too, there is something to be gained from the discipline of showing up for the sunrise and observing whatever you can see. Think of all the things—an entire bustling Universe of activity—that happen every day whether we’re watching or not…and then think of the things we might actually see if we were present with our eyes open and alert.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Years ago in Rhode Island, in the woods behind the Providence Zen Center, I saw a weasel by sheer accident. Hiking the winter woods behind the monastery where I’d been meditating and suffering, homesick and sore, for five days, I stopped to listen to the sizzle of rain falling on melting snow. I remember the woods were silent, hushed and expectant; honed by hours of meditation, I must have instinctively sensed the precise silent moment—raindrops paused in midair as if in a giant snow globe—when that tiny fanged predator, a curling wisp of sinew and muscle, would silently patter into view, running downhill into his own footprints, a limp and bloodied chipmunk dangling from his mouth. Had I not been walking in the silent Rhode Island woods at precisely the right moment, I would have never seen that weasel, that chipmunk, those sizzling raindrops.

Showing up at the page is like keeping watch at the bedside of a comatose relative: you watch, wait, and hold out hope because your patient might be present and alive in there, despite an unresponsive body. Just because your patient doesn’t seem to respond doesn’t mean they aren’t there: as Jesus said of a child he raised from the dead, “She’s not dead; she’s only sleeping.” On days when your own creativity seems dead, you show up and sit by the tomb, expectant. If today should be the miraculous day when your lifeless creativity should stir and then sit up in its shroud, you will be there to see it. There might not be anything you can do to help either the sun or the dead rise, but it is of the last importance that you be present just in case.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Keeping a blog is a great exercise in showing up at the page. When you start a blog, you make an unspoken contract with your readers that you will show up and say something regularly enough to make their checking in worthwhile: a blog grown cold is like a closed and darkened house where a weary traveler had hoped for hospitality. Many days when you show up to “feed the blog,” you feel like Old Mother Hubbard reaching into a cupboard that’s sadly bare. When you’re forced to concoct a blog-worthy meal out of meager scraps, you often end up with a stone soup simmered with bits of this and that: nothing fancy, just something simple and savory. Out of the leftovers of your days, what kind of sustenance can you cobble together if you simply continue to show up for your own life?

Uncle Freddy's bench with leaves

I can’t explain why some days when I sit down to write in my journal, the words flow easily while on other days my thoughts and words are halting. On some days, my mind locks onto a track of thought and my scribbled sentences come easily, and on other days my words are halting and my attention gets snagged by anything but the blank page before me.

Dessicated

It’s not exclusively a matter of having “something to say,” for on some days I blather quite easily about nothing while on other days, my words and thoughts trip over the Profound Thoughts I want to convey. For whatever inexplicable reason, some days are smooth and some days are choppy: there is no rhyme or reason to it, just as there is no logical explanation for why some days it feels easy to meditate and on others it feels like torture simply to sit still.

Neither meditating nor writing necessarily gets easier over time; you just learn to keep doing it–to keep showing up–whether it feels easy or difficult, smooth or choppy. After you learn that it’s possible to write or meditate even on choppy days, it becomes easier to keep doing it consistently, even though there are plenty of days when the actual doing feels difficult. Like walking the dog in all seasons, you learn to roll with whatever weather the day offers, persevering even when the way feels difficult.