The sensation crept up on me slowly over the past week or so. I would sit down somewhere with my laptop, sit down to write, and that creeping, subtle sense of confusion would descend. Or maybe that's not quite it. Maybe I would descend, settling down into the inner landscape of my own mind, looking for the trail of breadcrumbs and blue pebbles left behind from my last writing session. Nothing ever looked the same. Sure enough, the words were there, for the most part where I'd put them, signifying directions and ideas, places I had intended to go. Now where was I? What had I been saying? I would write intensely and slowly until I was tired, until sunset and twilight, and then I would go to bed. And in the morning, I would wake up like a half-dazed sleeper in an unfamiliar place, and ask myself: where was I, now?
Writing isn't usually like this for me, at least not anymore. Writing posts for this blog is usually like a pleasant trip out into the countryside, equipped with a picnic blanket and a set of colored pencils. Find some hill with a panoramic view of sky, green and lovely rolling hills, maybe a stream wending its way to the ocean always inexplicably just beyond the horizon--spread my blanket and pull out my sketchpad. It was all there in front of me, and I sat still and quiet, attending, moving my fingers through the air, moving my pencils in scratches and scribbles across the page. Today, I would say, I want to write about meditation, and I would go sit on a hillside somewhere and watch the subject of meditation slowly coalesce in cloudforms and move in sheepish shadows over the shimmering fields below. Or, today, I want to write about grief and longing, and I would sit by a shallow creak and watch the muddy algae flicker and bend in surrender to the restless redundancy of its current. Or, today, I want to write about what it's been like to write...
In college, I used to build things with my writing. Sometimes what I built was a poem, but more often I was building essays, academic papers, analytical responses. I built with the raw material of class discussion and scholarly citations. This kind of writing was not quite like going out to the countryside to watch the wind and waters move across the earth; it was more like clearing a small patch of flat ground and propping up a shanty out of local stones and fallen branches. Sometimes I liked what I built. Every once in a while, an essay I wrote struck me with a kind of shy impressiveness and I would catch myself thinking, "Look what I made with these ideas, look how I supported this one with that one, how I found the best way to utilize the sharp edge of this argument and the suppleness of that philosophy... and how it all holds together, yes, quite nicely I think." What I made was my own in design, but I was working with what fellow students and teachers, what classes and texts, what others had given me. I learned the craft of engineering an argument.
But this is something else. For the past couple weeks, I've been struggling. There are times when I wonder if I'm not as smart as I used to be, if my brain is out of shape, like a muscle I haven't used all that seriously since I graduated college and left grad school to pursue my own passions. If I had stayed in graduate school, I could have a masters, maybe even a doctorate by now, I could be some wizened professor (or perhaps still unemployed, but with a scholarly publication or two under my belt). I would have a foundation, a network of vetted and institutionally-educated peers, some external confirmation of my work and my progress. Maybe I have been fooling myself, believing that I chose freedom when really I chose laziness and lax standards. Maybe if I were still in school, my brain would be accustomed to endurance and resistance training. Maybe writing these posts about pacifism wouldn't be such a struggle.
But then, maybe that's not quite it. Maybe it's just that I'm descending, settling more deeply into my own thoughts. I don't know what I would build with the ideas of others on pacifism and peace--but I have that creeping sensation that this is not engineering anymore, that I am not really building an argument at all. Instead, each writing session feels like turning again towards the jungle, going out once more into the wild. There are tracks and the thin trails worn by animals in the underbrush of my thoughts, and I step carefully, one foot in front of the other, swinging a stick from side to side to beat the bramble and insects out of my path. Each day I go out into the wilderness of my own mind to see what has been living and growing there, what howls in pain at night, what flowers or fans its feathers in the shifting light of sunset or dawn. How could I not know? How could I be so unfamiliar with my own internal landscape?
I want to pause, to catch my breath--but this is the jungle now, not the pleasant farmland and sunny hills closer to home. I'm on the edge of my own consciousness, pushing forward into the dark where seeds planted in childhood, planted lifetimes ago, have grown up thick and unchecked to obscure the lay of the land, where ideas are skittish and comfortable with camouflage. Something leaps from branch to branch high above in the canopy, and all I catch is a glimpse of brown fur, a long tail, the rustling leaves--I have to move quickly before it's gone.
I can feel it, every time I sit down to write, that urgency, that lack of perspective. I keep moving, feeling my way deeper, hoping to stumble suddenly upon a glade or vast gaping valley where I can stop to look around, to see where I have been and where I might be going. I don't know if my ideas hang together, if the words I have set down here and there to mark my way give trustworthy direction. Sometimes I feel as though I can't even be sure what I'm trying to say, or if what I want to say makes sense at all or rests instead on some secret, shoddy framework that may come skidding and tumbling down with the next heavy rain. This is not a mapping or surveying expedition. This is an excavation; this is a scavenger hunt. This is me, edging half-blind through the inner wilds tracking the ghosts of memory and culture, of Gandhi, King and Christ, catching the scent of reverence on a dense and sluggish wind curling through the limbs of trees as ancient as the heart; this is me, stooping now and then to turn aside a stone or trace the spiral lines of new-grown ferns, collecting samples and cuttings and discarded animal bones to bring back with me for closer study.
Now.... where was I?