The Quiet Post #20: Throwing Water (Summer Hiatus)

This is a legacy post from a blog I wrote in 2018 about language, storytelling, and the shape of things. Delivered here straight from the archives, please enjoy the following issue of The Quiet Post.

This is my last post for the summer. Probably.

I mean, I might pop back every once in a while if the mood strikes, but I’m going to put The Quiet Post on a brief hiatus until the fall. Training myself to share some writing on a weekly basis has been wonderful, but I’d like to ease up on some of that pressure for a little while, mostly because I’m taking another stab at writing a book. There’s this idea I’ve been sitting on for a couple years and it’s time for me to disappear and see if I can make it work.

Many thanks to all you folks who’ve been reading along. Your support and encouraging words have meant a ton.

I finished Acceptance last week, the final book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, and this paragraph stood out to me. It’s from the point of view of a character called Ghost Bird, who is not entirely human.

She knew where it would all lead, what it always led to in human beings—a decision about what to do. What are we going to do? Where do we go from here? How do we move forward? What is our mission now? As if purpose could solve everything, could take the outlines of what was missing and by sheer will invoke it, make it appear, bring it back to life.

Some of this we can read as snark. I’m certainly happiest when I have a particular creative project to do, a goal to pursue—but the point is well taken. Life seems to go a little more smoothly when I work without expectation and without worry about the quality of the final product. I like having something to do, but the satisfaction in doing something is better taken in the joy of process than the joy of accomplishment.

Ghost Bird’s doubts about mission complement a passage a friend shared a couple months ago, a sort of counter to the idea that only forceful action invokes meaning. It’s from the end of Middlemarch, by George Eliot, a book I was supposed to have read in college but never finished. Alas. This wisdom about living a small, quiet existence could have been part of my life a whole six years earlier.

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Which, in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of all, from theologian Henri Nouwen. I return to it many times over the course of a year. Maybe you’ll find something valuable in it too.

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn't be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.

I’m going to take the next three months to throw water.

Go to work.

Write this book.

Talk to friends.

I’ll see you in September.