Songless

blackbird2

This essay was originally published on The Rabbit Room last summer, and is adapted from my plenary session, “Notebooks and Number 2 Pencils,” at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee last March.

I know what it means to soar.

When I was twelve years old, I got called out by my algebra teacher for writing stories in class. It was humiliating to have every eye in the room pinned in my direction—and it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. I couldn’t help it, though: that back corner desk by the window was too near the real world of birdsong and daydreams, and that story was too intoxicating. My bonneted heroine had just toppled over in a buggy, for heaven’s sake, driven, if memory serves me, by her deceptively demure rival. It was no time to be thinking of integers and variables (as if there ever was a time I willingly submitted my mind to such imponderables!). I still remember that notebook, purchased by my mother for the ostensible purpose of mathematical equations. But the thick, college-ruled paper was just too much for me: I almost saw the words on the page before my #2 pencil formed them. My heart jolted along in the wake of that tale, giddy as my girl in her careening buggy. Writing wasn’t work—how could it be? It was flying.

By the time I was seventeen, writing had become a much more serious business. The #2 pencils and college-ruled paper were now requisite, along with the addition of my dad’s law school-era thesaurus, held together by a rubber band and smelling, enchantingly, of must and sweet wordsmithery. (To this day I can’t open that battered Roget’s without a rush of association so tender it hurts.) But there was something more, something at once mystical and exquisitely practical: as a dreamy-eyed, home-educated high-schooler, I had accidentally discovered fertile valley of solitude. Suddenly rather thin in the friend department, but always one to occupy my own imagination with the utmost contentment, I found in the freedom of my new life ample space for the tending of a rich inner landscape. I walked around in a world of daydreams, stumbling from time to time against prosaic things, like math homework and Friday chores (indeed, “prosaic” was my term of utmost disdain in those days), but at night, I came into my own.

This is what writing looked like when I was seventeen: I would wait until the house fell silent, until the last light in the kitchen had gone out and I heard the scuff of my mother’s slippers retreating to the opposite end of our long, low ranch. Only then would I slip from my bed and steal across the room to the front window, where, beneath tall casements set with fake, 1950s lattice (which I happened to think the most beautiful, bowerly windows imaginable), reposed a particle board footlocker (which I found equally alluring, owing to the treasures housed within its humble frame). To throw back that lid was to let my stories out, friends with whom I shared some of the happiest—albeit most secretive—moments of my life. I had a reproduction copper chamberstick that my dad had given me, and lighting its taper and flinging wide the magic casement to the night air, my ritual was complete. I would kneel there for hours at my footlocker desk, scribbling and dreaming, unburdening my overfull heart of the lovely visions that had been accumulating throughout the day. I like to say that I got addicted to #2 pencils during that time (Empire Integrity, to be precise), but what I was really addicted to, of course, was the thrill of what happened when that pencil made contact with paper. The stories spun themselves, of moonlight and gossamer, laced with the spice of a spring evening or the heart-charging tempest of a blustery October night, and it was magic. The wings of my fledgling soul were tireless, immortal, unencumbered by the weight of self-consciousness which was to tangle later attempts. I mounted and swirled and dove amid the romance of words and ideas; swift as a skylark, exuberant as a mockingbird singing at sunset, I wrote like it was the one thing in the world I was made to do.

No one knew about my stories but my sister and, later, my best friend. Those two took my dreams at face value, a fact for which I owe them an eternal debt. I didn’t want to be a writer in their eyes—I was a writer, by the fairy birthright of ambition. I wrote by night, but I shared my tales with them by day, under the flowering fruit trees of April, or on a carpet of moss beside a merry brown creek. And they did me the honor of crying in the right places and refraining from negative comments which might have snatched me too early from the skies. (Only once did my sister take issue with one of my rather florid descriptions. “I don’t know that ‘flowers straining their silken ears for a familiar footfall’ is quite the best image here,” she said gently. Thank goodness I listened to her.) Apart from my sister and my friend, however, my stories were a closely guarded secret. I had some nebulous notion of sending them out into the world one day, so long as the world proved kind enough. But there was plenty of time for that—in the stories I read and the stories I wrote, things just had a way of working out for the dreamers of dreams.

The words of Longfellow were my rallying cry:

“How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!”

Then I grew up, and learned how cold the world could be. I’m 40 years old now, and I’m still reeling from the shock that life is hard, and that there’s a cruel, sad spirit abroad which scorns our most sacred ideals. What’s more, I’m staggering around most days under the blow that art is hard. I’m haunted by that 17-year-old girl, with her flying pencil and her heart full of arrow-sweet visions. But here’s something I know to the core of my being: what that idealistic girl believed about God and the world and herself and art and story is the truest thing about me. To hang on to what I knew instinctively then, in the midst of what I know experientially now, is the battleground of my art and my faith. To whisper to a grieving world, even out of great pain, that God is not just as good as we hope He is, He’s better—that the innocence and beauty and goodness we’re all mourning the loss of is actually our rightful inheritance—well, that’s the worthiest reason I can think of to make this great, messy, arduous effort of stringing sentences together, one awkward word after another.

But it’s hard. And right now it’s really hard. Between a burden of circumstances and an accumulated inner crust of self-doubt, the words just aren’t there. I’m not flying—I’m not even gliding short distances: I’m frozen. I feel like a stunned bird that’s smacked into a window, too dazed to try my wings once more. I seriously doubt I would try them, but for a force that’s breathing the beauty of spring into my winter world: friendship. I’m humbled to say that God has sent one of His very sweetest singers to my side in this dark place, a kindred-compatriot who is not only one of the most brilliant souls I’ve ever encountered, she’s one of the truest. Scarcely aware of her own influence (as God’s most shining ones always are), she breeds beauty with a seemingly effortless touch—seemingly, for I’m aware of what it costs her. If I didn’t know her heart, I’d be tempted to envy her gift. But, as it is, she’s generous enough to take me into the counsel of her struggles, her feelings of paralysis, her fear. It was her idea, in fact, that we establish a weekly commitment to help pull one another out of a wordless slough. The routine is simple enough: every Friday, we send each other what we’ve written that week—unpolished, unfinished, and imperfect. We set small, creature-comfort penalties for missed exchanges, but they’re really unnecessary: a debt of honor trumps denial in my book every time.

And so, I’ve been sending her pitiful fragments, bits that never amount to anything, embarrassingly clunky snatches of prose. The intent of our arrangement is safe-keeping, not critique; much as I value feedback, what I need right now is someone I can trust with my messes. This all flies in the face of my sense of privacy and perfectionism, of course—which is exactly what it needs to do. I’ll never be unselfconscious about my writing at large if I can’t be unselfconscious with a beloved friend. Nevertheless, I don’t think I realized how stuck I really was until I started trying to produce something for her eyes. Things got so bad back in February that I cast aside the essay I was grinding over and started something new: a Petrarchan sonnet on writer’s block. (I know—I mean, what did I have to lose?) I sent it to her in pieces as I wrestled out each hard-won word. It’s not a good sonnet, but it helped me articulate the mess I was in:

Word-clipped, I flounder under frowning sky,
Stone-sealed in sullen cloud, from which no ray
Of pallid light escapes to ransom day.
Such useless wings! What passage can they buy
Upon this bone-chill of a breeze? I lie,
Breast-heaving, frantic eyes a-dart, and pray
The ragged crows that circle in the grey,
Or gather on bare branches with a call
So coarse it curdles hope itself, will fail
To spy my helpless state, too stunned to seek
Concealment. Come, heart! Come winter’s prey, small
Songless quarry of the cold: Up-stir! Avail
Yourself of flight! Alas, I am too weak.

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but the effort of writing this poem was so great it felt like an ending, a swansong—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. For right into the midst of this chaos of scribblings and scratched out words and hair-pulling shone one of those ordinary miracles that hint at something terribly important. Midway through the painful birth of this sonnet, I stepped outside one morning into a world as raw and frozen as my own heart—but, overnight, the world had changed. Impossibly, implausibly, the air was full of music. The branches overhead were host to a crowd of lithe forms, darting, upstarting, and settling again, and they were singing the song of my summer heart.

I could hardly believe it, though it happens every year: the red-winged blackbirds always pass through our place on their migratory path, and I’m always surprised. Just when I think I can’t take one more minute of winter, I’ll open my kitchen door one day to a raucous anthem of warmth and youth and spring. It’s no coincidence that I fell in love with these birds at seventeen, on my first visit to an island that has come to be both haven of dreams and healing place—their music is an unfailing connection to a inner spring of essential “me-ness,” and a time and location that marked me for life.

But that February morning, they sang a wider song, of a strife and a mirth and a joy and a pain of which my solitary struggle was only a part. I thought of my Rabbit Room colleagues and community as I stood there in the cold, warmed by the great, glad, goodness of the various songs they were singing into the world. I thought of the authors who shaped my ideals; the musicians whose songs saved my faith again and again; the poets who emptied their dearly won jewels into my hands. There, in a delightful jumble, I thanked God for Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Innocence Mission and G. M. Hopkins and Andrew Peterson and Elizabeth Goudge and George MacDonald and Michael Card and Sheldon Vanauken. I thanked God for Pete Peterson, who believes in me enough to mark up my stories and point out my writer’s tics, and for dear old “Jack” Lewis, who told us all we’re not alone. In a flash of transcendence, that chorus of blackbirds imaged for me “a great cloud of witness”—a host of faithful ones singing a song so beautiful I longed to lift my voice among them, even if I’m more of a house wren among such larks and nightingales.

Weeks later, I sent my friend a companion to that bleak sonnet, an answering refrain springing from the courage her kinship had leant me. I know that sorrow, struggle, grief, and pain all serve the truest art, but what I’m seeing in this songless place is that we’re not meant to create in isolation. While the ritual of my dear old #2 pencils connects me by some deep instinct to the sweet, secret dreams of my youth, the desperation of experience connects me more than ever to the people in my life. It takes guts and grit and determination to be an artist—we all know that—and lots and lots of solitude. But it takes something more, something mystical as a moonrise and practical as a firm handclasp in the dark: it takes each-otherness.

And in that fellowship, we know that the soaring’s not the thing—the Song is.

What is this whispered force abroad, this rush
And whir of feathered life? The air is stung
With song: a lightning-liquid sweetness wrung
From scores of tiny throats. The dark wings brush
Athwart my gloom, each pinion marked with flush
Of flame, each note a summer hour among
A host of wintry days. Such music, young
From ancient time, and bearing yet the blush
Of spring’s primeval dawn, is goad so glad
It cracks the frozen air with joy and wakes
A sleeping secret in the earth. I rise,
Lift voice, lift bruiséd hope, enough to add
One note to that bright hymn their rapture makes—
And, having done, mount with them to the skies.

6 Responses to “Songless”

  1. You are one of my all time favorite writers. I have learned… albeit not thankfully at the time… that God’s crushing brings about the sweetest wine of creativity. From absolute numbness one begins to come awake with a deeper capacity than we had before. Much like Job, we who knew of God now know Him personally.

  2. Anita says:

    The world is cold. That is why we NEED all the sparks of light and life that we can get. We need your voice, Lanier. We need the voices, the music, the art of all those who bring beauty and hope. Most of these voices will probably never see a big publisher at their door, but seekers will find them. I am glad you can put even your wordlessness into words.

    I am so thankful for the voices that reach out to me from the now and the past. Tolkien, Montgomery, Austen, Goudge, Beatrix Potter, Vivaldi and on and on goes the list. You don’t know but that those words (or music,etc) won’t echo through the dimmed hallways of time and burst into a glowing hope and life in the soul who is reached.

    We have to create our own world, we don’t have to take “their” world. We don’t have to accept it. Just as the great “they” has made the world we know, we have to take our ideals and make our own. It may be all in our heads, but it is so much better than “their” world.

    I think you have done that and do that. It is wonderful. That is what I am trying to teach my daughter to do, with humility.

    Anyway, thank you that you do what you do. I must say that in perusing some of your old posts, it seems that you have lived such a charmed life. So beautiful. Very sorry that it has been so painful of late.

  3. Josie Ray says:

    Well, Lanier, a confession: I love the phrase, “flowers straining their silken ears for a familiar footfall.” It reminds me of Winkle hearing the Canterbury Bells ringing. Maybe the bell-less flowers among them could only strain their ears to listen for His footfall. I have strained my ears to listen for His voice. Eagerly-waiting creation must as well; the flowers surely adore Him. Perhaps your flowers weren’t listening for Jesus, but all these heroes and heroines point to Him and to His beloved. I can imagine Elizabeth Goudge thinking, “No one is going to believe me when I say the Canterbury bells were ringing. But I know it is true.”

    You have mentioned Rich Mullins. Once his producer, who is rather cynical, told of Rich being excited about the symbolism of the shoes he wore on his album cover. Reed said (squashingly), “I don’t know who’s going to get that, Rich.” Rich responded vehemently, “*My people* will get that!” I never “got” that, but I loved him for that comment. He knew his people were out there, and he was sending his art past the cynics, in faith that it would reach them.

    Your flower phrase evokes *imagery* and emotion and mood. A sentence may not be worth a thousand images (nor is the reverse true), but it is worth (at least) one: one that is vibrant, living, and *transporting*. When I read how you threw open the casement windows to the night, I was suddenly there in spirit, felt a breath of air, felt the tender mystery of a southern night and endless possibilities. As long as you mentally open those windows, in secret, in solitude, to the vastness, to the infinite, to the *freedom*, before you write, your readers will always feel the breath of air and see the stars reflected in your dipper.

    Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
    O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
    The bright boroughs, the quivering citadels there!
    ….This piece-bright paling hides the Spouse
    Christ, and the mother of Christ and all his hallows.

    (Gerald Hopkins, S.J.)

    Would you mention the comment from your sister now if it didn’t still hurt or if it hadn’t robbed some of your joy (though inadvertently)? Perhaps you should lovingly challenge her to paint that phrase; could its magic be painted? I would stand by it. I *do* stand by it. Perhaps you should have it painted by a fine illuminator and hang it in your workshop. Maybe over the window to the stars. Wash it free of shame, and honor it to unstifle your song; isn’t this the true logjam in this essay, the cause of “Songless”-ness? I can see your phrase as a caption under a Lang Fairy Book illustration.

    (Tennyson’s The Poet’s Mind absolutely delights me. Not directed toward your beloved sister, another artist, but toward that big, squashing *something* that is out there, against which the true believers fight.)

    This is the response, though, of one who reads Regency Romances as well as Dickens and Goudge. I resolve many times to the Lord to give them up, then He whispers that they keep my heart soft, my ways tender, my soul young, hoping, believing. And I can remember one where the heroine’s rival removed the sign saying “Keep off the bridge” and the heroine’s carriage went over the side. :-) From now on, I will not mock myself for reading them, since the Lord works through them. They are given for the dreamers, aren’t they?

    There’s one other blog that I read that reminds me of you: A Clerk of Oxford. If you were to visit there and read the topics down on the left side, you would see why, I think: Some similar loves expressed through a different personality, one that doesn’t confess her dreams as openly as you do (clerkish!), but puts them out there just the same.

    Josie Ray
    Oxford, (just kidding)
    Candlemas, 2016.

    (A blessed Candlemas to you.)

  4. Josie Ray says:

    “But here’s something I know to the core of my being: what that idealistic girl believed about God and the world and herself and art and story is the truest thing about me. To hang on to what I knew instinctively then, in the midst of what I know experientially now, is the battleground of my art and my faith.”

    I love this the most, along with the imagery of throwing open the romantic casements for secret night composing. It really is about clinging fiercely to our view of how things really are. I love how, in The Secret Garden, Martha (and then Dickon) overrides Mary’s sour worldview, then Mary overrides Colin’s. Always, the good, true, wholesome worldview overrides the corrupted one; I see that this is one of the greatest works of the faith. In clinging to it, we create that world for others; at least, you do. But it is enough of a victory, I think, even to be able to keep it for ourselves.

    I wonder, sometimes, if the greatest difference between “flying” and “work” is simply that then we created for ourselves and now we are creating for others. I paint entirely different things when painting for myself than I do when painting to “sell.” And I have not been able to force, coax, or trick myself into uniting the two.

    Glad and thankful that you write,
    Josie Ray

  5. Anita says:

    I have to agree with Josie Ray about the silken-eared flower phrase. That is too cute! The best visual I’ve encountered all week, to be sure. Maybe even for the entire month of February and then some.

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