“I’m going to sit outside on the back patio for 45 minutes after supper,” I tell the boys. “It’s for the workshop I’m taking. It’s my first homework assignment.”
I feel the need to explain myself, to legitimize my doing nothing. Rowan rolls his eyes. I suspect he finds my evening plans boring.
“To be a good artist, stillness is something that we should choose and practice,” writes the poet and essayist Chris Yokel. “Seek it out. It’s a vocational requirement.”
Earlier I’d swept the cement pavers and brushed oak seedlings from the metal table and chairs. I’d dipped a sponge into a Tupperware of warm, sudsy water and wiped the table clean of dirt and pollen. I didn’t plan to sit at the table, but I cleaned it nonetheless, knowing the dirt and clutter of debris in my line of vision would distract me from my “vocational” sitting. I know myself. I don’t sit well; ridding my surroundings of distraction is key.
It’s cooler than I expect when I finally slide into my patio chaise lounge after the dishes are done. Inside the house, the day’s heat refuses to succumb to the air conditioner, but outdoors, a breeze lifts the river birch leaves.
A pair of cardinals chitters back and forth like the staccato of an old VW bug. Four squirrels perch high, all on separate branches in the mulberry tree. They look like Amazon monkeys, each nibbling on a berry clasped between two claws, tail hanging limp.
Across the street the neighbor guy whose name I always forget mows his lawn. He’s fastidious – first the mowing, then the edging and trimming, and finally the blower, breezing strands of cut grass from the sidewalk back onto the lawn. I’m strangely soothed by the whine of the mower, quieter as he pushes it around the corner of the house, louder as he plods into view again.
This looking at and seeing my surroundings, without creating the scene into something more than it is or infusing it with a deeper meaning, is hard for me. My brain wants to manufacture meaning rather than simply seeing and appreciating. I find myself looking for something to write about, seeking depth, substance, metaphor. I want to package this backyard experience into a story and tie it all up with a shiny, red bow.
Sit and look, “without bothering to interrogate [your] own response,” Christian McEwen suggests in World Enough and Time. Be patient and wait, she advises, suggesting that often — not always, but often — meaning will arise on its own, without prodding, without manufacturing.
McEwen mentions the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who often sat side by side in Rodin’s garden for hours, not speaking, but instead musing, daydreaming in silence. After one such sitting session, Rilke remembered the sculptor declaring, “We have done a lot of work this morning!”
My backyard sitting feels like work, though I suspect not the creative refueling Rodin was referring to. Perhaps I will have to practice; perhaps this new way of seeing doesn’t happen all at once, but with repetition, habit. Perhaps my brain, so accustomed to the create-on-demand I’ve forced on it for so long, will have to relax into and learn a new way to see.