When my older brother was in fourth grade, he had a term paper on birds due the next day, and he hadn’t started. So my dad sat down with him with an Audubon book, paper, pencils and brads — for those of you who have gotten a little less young and remember brads — and he said to my brother, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice. And then find out about chickadees, and tell us about them in your own voice. And then geese.”
So the two most important things about writing are: bird by bird and really god-awful first drafts. If you don’t know where to start, remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs — your truth, your version of things — in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.
Number 7: publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and evil people I’ve ever known are male writers who’ve had huge best sellers. And yet, returning to number one, that all truth is paradox, it’s also a miracle to get your work published, to get your stories read and heard. Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, that it will fill the Swiss-cheesy holes inside of you. It can’t. It won’t. But writing can. So can singing in a choir or a bluegrass band. So can painting community murals or birding or fostering old dogs that no one else will.
Number 8: families. Families are hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. Again, see number one. At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in all cases, it’s a miracle that any of us, specifically, were conceived and born. Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself, and then you might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.
When William Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But I promise you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderella, you can do it, and you will be amazed.
Number 9: food. Try to do a little better. I think you know what I mean.
Number 10: grace. Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure.
The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember, grace always bats last.
Number 11: God just means goodness. It’s really not all that scary. It means the divine or a loving, animating intelligence, or, as we learned from the great “Deteriorata,” “the Cosmic Muffin.” A good name for God is: “Not me.” Emerson said that the happiest person on Earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot and look up. My pastor said you can trap bees on the bottom of mason jars without lids because they don’t look up, so they just walk around bitterly bumping into the glass walls. Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.
And finally: death. Number 12. Wow and yikes. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you cannot live without die. You’ll never get over these losses, and no matter what the culture says, you’re not supposed to. We Christians like to think of death as a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live again fully in your heart if you don’t seal it off. Like Leonard Cohen said, “There are cracks in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how we feel our people again fully alive.
Also, the people will make you laugh out loud at the most inconvenient times, and that’s the great good news. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. Grief and friends, time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize you and the ground on which you walk.
Do you know the first thing that God says to Moses? He says, “Take off your shoes.” Because this is holy ground, all evidence to the contrary. It’s hard to believe, but it’s the truest thing I know. When you’re a little bit older, like my tiny personal self, you realize that death is as sacred as birth. And don’t worry — get on with your life. Almost every single death is easy and gentle with the very best people surrounding you for as long as you need. You won’t be alone. They’ll help you cross over to whatever awaits us. As Ram Dass said, “When all is said and done, we’re really just all walking each other home.”