Tilting at Castles: On writing, risks and unintended time travel

As I may have mentioned one or a thousand times since I arrived in Spain back in early June, our terrace has a front-and-center view of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

This sprawling, Roman Catholic Basilica is a work in progress, to put it mildly. Construction kicked off in 1882. It’s supposed to be finished by 2026, on the centenary of Gaudi’s death. (Tragically, ironically, unbelievably, he was struck by a tram while crossing a street near the church, headed to another day at his life’s great work. I can just picture him, starry-eyed, gazing up at the unfinished spires, and BAM! Poor guy.)

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona - Erin J. Bernard

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona – Erin J. Bernard

I’ve spent plenty of time out on that terrace gazing upon those sugary spires, watching the crane lift thousand-pound hunks of cement and place them, gingerly, atop the ever-complexifying behemoth. I’ve been pondering what it means to create something so big that even its mere making outlives you, easily, by two or three.

It would require taking the long view, to say the very least.

That’s hard for me.

Yes, time is on my mind. It seems apt, I suppose, because mine is running out. We do fly home in three days.

But how can that be?! Time takes on a strange and stupefying dimension when a person is traveling far from home, I have found.

It’s not that it goes faster. It’s not that it goes slower either. It’s that it tend to drop away entirely. We count down and then we count out our precious vacation time in hours and days, and, if we are lucky, weeks.

We curse the Portland rain and say, “This late spring is endless.”

We land, bleary-eyed and dopey, and say, “I plan to enjoy every moment.”

And, when it’s all finishing: “How the summer has flown!”

However, I think what we are really copping to with such emoting is that we’ve temporarily lost our grasps on time. What it is, how it passes, why it matters.

I am a schedule-oriented kind of girl. Very much so.

Here in Barcelona, I’ve been working half-time, but I’ve avoided my usual frenetic single-mindedness when it comes to work. I’ve given up to-do lists for the duration of the trip. Even if I like them. Even if they work. I’ve joined a yoga studio and I’ve been meditating. I’ve been breathing, which I have been known to go an entire day, sometimes, without doing even once. It’s a miracle I’m even still animate! I’ve been trying mightily to slow the hell down.

Not to slow time down, mind you.

To slow me down.

To fucking relax, which is not easy for me. I often joke to E that I am the world’s worst right-brained, creative type. I hate uncertainty and disorganization. I cannot abide great financial risk. I am almost never late to anything. And I fret. Oh, do I fret.

All of these things make me who I am, and they’ve gotten me these past three years through the strange adventure of freelancing mostly intact. But lately, I’ve felt anxious, dissatisfied, teary-eyed. Everything stresses me out. I’m sleeping even worse than usual, and my usual is still pretty poor, sleep-wise.

But why? I’m exactly where I wanted to be at this point, in the city of my youth, working as a writer and living in a beautiful home with the man of my dreams and stoked for our future together. What the hell is so wrong?

If I’m being honest, I think I had kind of started to hate my work. And for what? All I’ve ever wanted was this. Maybe I’m not Paul Theroux, traipsing across the wilds Africa with a smooshed-up notebook in hand. I’m not Sloane Crosley, shilling out mad copies of my bestselling books of snarky personal essays, though I’d desperately love to be.

And as that sourpuss Oregonian editor so presciently reminded me during an ill-fated interview right out of grad school, I’m “No Nicholas Kristof,” either.

I’m not saving the world. I am a simple copywriter and a journalist. What I do isn’t art, but it’s certainly meaningful to me to connect other people with valuable information. I also have the fantastic privilege of working with writers as an editor, and each one of them teaches me something about my own process. And I’ve become, through some strange trick of fate, on the side, a portrait and wedding photographer, which is too fantastically bizarre and unplanned and wonderful to even begin to understand.

So why all the punk-rock style angst and ennui these last six or eight months?

I’ve felt, to put it simply, out of whack. Mildly frantic and disoriented. Like I lost the trail somewhere miles back. Like I’m wandering through some ineffable and glorious land, but it’s not my land, and I’m moving in circles besides, and I need to pick up the scent again before the person I’d planned on being drops away, sails clean off the edge of the horizon forever, out of sight for good.

“Like the explorer lost in the isles of bread and honey,” as Pablo Neruda says.

All of this is to say that I feel I am failing myself as a writer of the stories that matter most to me. I’ve been posting personal essays on this here blog for more than 10 years, if you can believe it. I suppose it has become a sort of safety blanket for me. A soft place to land my ideas, where everyone is mostly congratulatory, or at least silent if they don’t agree or like what I’ve got to say.

I’ve decided it’s time for me to start a new chapter. I want to take more risks. I want to put my writing out into the world in more direct and meaningful ways. I want to commit to trying, at the very least.

What does this mean? At a minimum: I’ll be launching a new website and writing project in the next few months. (Details to come!) I’ll be carving out 15 hours each workweek for my personal writing. And I’ll be building a platform for my essays and seeing if I can’t do more to find them homes in bigger publications.

All of that, very soon.

It’s 9 a.m. here in Barcelona and the bells of the Sagrada Familia are chiming away. They sound congratulatory, or at least optimistic. The day’s work has commenced, for the men down below and for me way up here on the eighth floor. I like to picture the machinations of those befuddled construction workers and architects as they puzzle over Gaudi’s grand design, considering materials and crumpling maps.

Sometimes the coordinates get muddled. Sometimes you build a castle when you really only meant to build a cozy, sturdy tower or two. Sometimes you’ve got to rub the grit out of your eyes and flip the plan on its side, consider the less probable angles, and get on with your work.

We’ve all got to take the long view.

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One thought on “Tilting at Castles: On writing, risks and unintended time travel

  1. lauzlau says:

    Great post & one I can relate to. I enjoy your bold style & have found inspiration in your posts. I want my life to be uncluttered (no tissue boxes) and to get a good night’s sleep! Cheers 🙂

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