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On Interruptions and Mourning Doves
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Welcome to Spirit: Notes for the Creative Contemplative, where I discuss the role of literature, creativity, and mindfulness in culture through personal essays.
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I’ve never lived in one home for more than seven years. This past month marks the sixth anniversary since my husband and I bought our first house, so there’s a good chance that I’ll break that seven-year record. We’re held in place firmly here, by our good jobs, by our community of friends and neighbors, and by our never-ending list of home improvement projects. We’ve painted every room in the house. In our 70-year-old house, we’ve replaced faucets and ceiling fans, doors and crown molding, but there’s always more to do when time and money to renovate are in short supply.
Life, too, intrudes and interrupts our plans.
The March we moved in I was 7 months pregnant with Stanley. Though planned, pregnancy and motherhood felt like an interruption. In her lyric memoir, Sarah Manguso describes how disorienting her pregnancy was, how difficult it was to remember things, how hard it was to form coherent thoughts. This terrified me. I worried that it would be impossible to write, if not while pregnant, then certainly in the sleep-deprivation of my baby’s infanthood. But, Manguso also consoled:
“Emerging from the sickening exhaustion of the first few months [of pregnancy], I began to see the work I might do next—this, an assemblage of already exploded bits that cohere anyway, a reminder that what seems like a violent interruption seldom is.”
As if it were a Bible verse, I memorized that last dependent clause as if my life depended on it:
“What seems like a violent interruption seldom is.”
Illnesses, job losses, relocations, pandemics—all the things that make us feel stuck and stalled—don’t permanently halt creative endeavors. I trusted that I would write the things I needed to write.
Having a baby wasn’t really an interruption. It turns out it was an inspiration because I was living my life, and writing comes alongside that. “At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing,” Sarah Ruhlreminds me,” and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”
The last third of my forthcoming book, What Will Outlast Me? I wrote only after Stanley was born because he had given me new material. The ideas and connections surprised me and flooded my brain amidst endless diaper changing, feeding, and rocking.
We make our art from the fragments of our lives, those exploded bits that get created whenever something momentous goes off in our lived experience.
Shortly after we moved in the first burst of warm weather hit (85 degrees and 80% humidity) and our AC unit conked out. I remember this because I was so crushed with fatigue that day, I’d called in sick. Growing a human inside one’s own body is a wild experience, and one generally recognized difficult. Time off to nap in another circumstance would be verboten, an interruption to the hustle, climb-the-ladder, Capitalistic productivity. I was encouraged to rest. (A privilege not every pregnant woman gets, but certainly deserves.) Remnants from the days we called pregnancy a delicate condition remained, so I learned to be delicate with myself in a way I hadn’t before.
I spent the whole day in bed, in and out of lucid dreams. It was a windy day, and I’d opened all the bedroom windows. The newly-hung curtains wildly danced and swirled in the balmy breeze. The heat of the house pressed down on me and seemed to sink into my drowsy bones. I surrendered to delicious sleep. In the liminal state of dreamworld and consciousness my consciousness latched onto the soundscape.
Just outside my bedroom window, dozens of white-winged doves called. Woo-woooo-woo. The sound mesmerized me. I was living in a new soundscape, one in which trees towered just outside our bedroom windows, standing sentinels around our new backyard. The doves called to each other, wooo-woo-woo. Calling and responding, in literal surround sound. I knew the mourning dove call from my childhood in the great plains of Nebraska. It’s a sound I’ve loved my whole life, the most beautiful bird song I know. A lowing. A whispering, a longing sigh.
That first spring in our house, I didn’t realize that the mourning dove calls would start every March—as they call their mates. I didn’t realize that I would welcome their sound each year or that it would become a part of what it means to live here, season after season, cycle after cycle.
Life has a rhythm. Surprisingly what I found that June, after the mourning doves had hatched and their calls quieted, and after I’d birthed my own beautiful baby, was that life continues onward. I kept writing, composing my stories in my head while pushing Stanley in his stroller early in the morning on our daily walk. Then I wildly typed out those ideas while he napped in the afternoons.
The thing you are called to do—be it paint, sculpt, sing, dance, draw—if you keep doing it, it will become so interwoven in the life you live that it will be impossible for life to interrupt it. Your crazy, busy, messy life will become its inspiration. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it because you can’t imagine any other way to live your life.
Every year the dove calls return, I add to it a layer of remembrance, or it reverberates in new ways. One year, the sound reminded me of Willa Cather, when she wrote:
"Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."
Another year, when I was teaching Valeria Lusielli’s novel, Lost Children Archive, I thought about one of her main characters, a soundscape documentarian who sampled sounds of a place and inventoried them, trying to understand how those who lived her before us experienced the place. “He’s somehow trying to capture [their] past presence in the world, and making it audible, despite their current absence by sampling in echoes that still reverberate of them. The inventory of echoes was not a collection of sounds that have been lost—such a thing would be impossible—but rather one of sounds that were present in the time of recording and that when we listen to them, remind us of the ones who are lost.” A twisting puzzle, a reminder of nature’s constancy, a present that’s singing to us and will sing to us in the future.
When I hear the dove calls next year, for the seventh spring in a row, these memories will echo and bring new associations. Their call will be another anniversary of life, not intruding, but exploding, outward in the wonderous, unique shards, and which I will keep piecing together with words.
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from Ongoingness: the End of a Diary (Graywolf 2015).
from 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014).
from O Pioneers! (first published 1914).