A short bit of advice for those who are casting about during this crisis.
There are rare times when something takes place in history that is so large that we can think of nothing else. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. This coronavirus fear.
We try fruitlessly to look away, to divert our attention, to assert the normal. But we can’t. Beneath all our thoughts is the concern, even the fear, that this thing we cannot control is ultimately going to control us.
We fear for ourselves, we fear for our families, we fear for our elders, we fear for our children. We fear for our very way of life and the world as we know it. There is no escaping this fear.
These moments have great power, because they give focus to our minds and thoughts. We cannot escape into movement and diversion. Everything returns to the source.
One of the great balms in times like this is to turn to writing. We all have stories within us; we all dream of sharing them and telling them. But most of us never do, because we think we aren’t talented enough, aren’t important enough, aren’t capable of shaping something as shapeless as our lives into a something worth sharing.
But we are wrong. I tell you this as someone who writes for a living. This is a moment that needs to be recorded. It needs to be recorded for your children and grandchildren. It needs to be recorded for your own understanding. Writing it down, documenting it as you are experiencing it, will force you to give shape to the shapeless, and will offer a precious glimpse into a time that will be impossible to recreate in our hearts and imaginations once it is over. And it will be over.
Have you not longed for your grandmother’s memories? Have you not found the old letters from relatives and ancestors to be something precious?
Did you assess their writing style? Did you critique their spelling or the way they structured their thoughts? No. They were a window on the times, and no matter how they chose to express themselves, you receive it as a gift.
Did they speak only of their daily lives? Did they open their hearts and express their feelings? It does not matter. They gave you themselves.
I assure you that if you sit down with pencil and paper or at your keyboard, and just start where you are, your story will unfold. And in the unfolding it will allow you to walk through the confusion of your own feelings and give shape to this shapelessness, because you will have to choose what to include.
And here is the magic. Choosing will not be hard, because it will be done for you. You have wandered into a garden of possibilities, and no matter where you turn, no matter what you touch, it is a bloom worthy of the picking.
Do you write a journal, going day by day? Do you go back to the poetry that you used to write in high school? Do you just write down your shopping list and say why you chose what you chose? Do you start with your fear? It doesn’t matter. This moment will give you your voice, because only you can tell the story as you are living it.
I’ve used this time of enforced isolation and, yes, discipline, to work on a novel I’ve been threatening to write for years. And I have no greater pleasure than passing through the doorway of that world and finding the people and places who are living inside. But I could as easily be recording the thoughts and feelings and frustrations and fears that animate this moment. Once inside of any writing – any creative act, actually – the world starts to take form and you begin to give shape to the shapeless.
This moment gives us what I like to call “a fine attention.” It is giving us the gift of mindfulness, where the small is as large as the great. Take advantage of it. Grab a notebook or a legal pad. Open a new file on your computer. Speak in your own voice. Judge nothing. Throw away nothing. Everything you think or feel is important at this moment because the moment is important and you are given the dark privilege of living through it.
You are a living document of the times. Do not let your voice go unheard.
21 thoughts on “IN TIMES LIKE THIS — A THOUGHT FOR THE MOMENT”
Thank you, once again, for your wisdom…. all so true.
Ah, Kent Nerburn, this is as compassionate a post as I’ve ever read. I write every day. If it’s not particularly good, I follow William Stafford’s advice and “lower my expectations” and keep going. But the point is to chase stories, to find words for where there are none.
Thank you for this heartfelt missive.
Dear Mr. Nerburn,
Thank you for this precious encouragement. Faced with plenty of time during lockdown to make art, i have also tended to my writing, posting a piece every now and then on Facebook and Instagram. These are difficult times yet filled with sacred days of mindfulness, taking stock of many, from the pantry to the way we live. Writing has been a comfort and a discovery. Thank you for reminding us of this gift.
This morning, I slept in and awoke feeling depressed and unmotivated. “What’s the point?” I thought. “Why bother?” But arise I did, and made coffee, and checked my email. Near the top was the link your blog, Kent, which I always enjoy reading. Today’s entry was wonderful and motivating. About a week ago, I started writing my post-coronavirus journal and having your words as encouragement, I’m looking forward to getting back to it and having something constructive and positive to do. Thank you so much for this fine entry!
Thanks for the encouragement to all. I had started several days ago, and was already thinking it might be silly.
Sure hope you find your way to writing that novel. There are countless who feel this way!
In stillness we find ourselves. It’s only ever now isn’t it? The splendor of Nature Is so predominate in this stillness, as if rejoicing, yet it always has been in this state. Nature, Undetectable when caught in the mundane yet always in song to the quiet mind. Even gazing at the moon can bring tears. How often do we speak to the elements acknowledging their life. Communion. This is our Spirit, Recognizing itself, in eternal gratitude.
Thank you for your words Kent.
Kent, thank you for this timely prompt to write. It’s just over a year ago I participated in a call-in writing class led by you and Marc Allen.
From 2013 to last spring I began journaling to chronicle my first husbands battle with pancreatic cancer and subsequent death. I continued through my writing journey through grief and recovery, remarriage and discovery. However, In the midst of a health crisis of my own last year, my journal sat idle. I retrieved my last journal book yesterday off the shelf with the very thought, “it’s time to write.” Then this message from you arrived.
I wrote because I wanted to leave a record for my children and grandchildren. A guide I leave them when I am no longer walking with them…to survive during tough times and thrive with zest always.
Yesterday I participated actively with my fellow Facebook friends in the New York Times cooking community group, initiating a conversation to reach into our memories and share how our parents of the Great Depression cooked and conserved. My goal was to sow a seed of conservation so we take some, leave some at grocery stores. Ideas like my mother’s careful reuse of aluminum foil. I can still see her wipe down lightly used squares of tin foil, dry them, and carefully place them in a kitchen drawer to be reused time and again. A lively conversation ensued with people from all over the country contributing family stories, traditions, and helpful ideas on conserving products in the household. I felt enormously blessed to use my writing to initiate community in action.
Yes, I will journal. I will write. I will reread my notes from your class. This is a unique time. It is scary. However, it is also an opportunity to challenge ourselves to grow into our potential; to speak truth with courage about how we have lived and what we should change. Those of us who write have a moment in time to record our todays and our experiences within that framework. We can also be agents of love, unity, change, and preservation of the earth. That wonderful, mystical world we have exploited rather than respected. Humanity must evolve if we are to survive. We must ask deep questions and find meaningful answers.
May the Lord bless you and your readers, cause his face to shine upon you, and grant you wisdom and peace. And greetings from me here in Holland, Michigan.
I’ve only recently realised that developing the practice of telling our story helps give meaning to our lives. In the process we learn about ourselves and when we share our story we give others permission to tell theirs.
Thank you for sharing your story!
Just a little note from England. Thanks for the words. Came about your books through buying them for my other half and absolutely love them. I have read three this week but others previously. They make me calm and they make me think and for that I thank you. I haven’t written before and although I love being creative it is not something I have thought about. I work for the NHS (National Health Service) in England for which I am so, so proud but actually at the moment, bloomin’ terrified. I feel like a fraud, I don’t feel brave, I am not a doctor or nurse but I do work in the community and help to get people home safe, I am an Occupational Therapist. I value every day tasks and it’s really making me think at the moment, I miss my normal routine but mostly I miss giving people massive big hugs. I have thought about things differently. Maybe I will give writing a try, it may help me make sense of things or at least get them off my chest for a bit. Till I can get out again for a lovely brew and cake with my friends then I will give writing a go, good or not so… whatever lands on the page. Once again thanks for the inspiration and take care, kindest regards, Karen xx
Hi. I had been guilt tripping myself over only writing intermittently…most of my book-obsessed life, starting in 3rd grade when my mom bought me a beautiful cloth edition of Little Women, complete with snug case…I have been told repeatedly by teachers, family, and friends, that I Must write!
I have spent many years as a bookseller, for both independents and the chains, among them, Kroch’s and Brentano’s in the Chicago area, and Borders Books in W. Lafayette, IN.
And I spent an incredibly intense five years working in book publishing publicity, with some skirmishes into editing, in Manhattan.
Your piece comes as a lovely, serene, compassionate reminder that it’s never too late to make a fresh start…to begin the writerly dance I’ve denied myself out of the accrued fear of disappointing so many people who have told me for years, “But you must write.” Thank you for this. And be well.
You sound like a perfect candidate for my recently published, little known book, Dancing with the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art. It was badly fumbled on its launch and will be republished this spring as “On Making Art and Being an Artist”. It sounds like it is absolutely in your wheelhouse. Good luck on your new journey.
Thank you very much! I will certainly look forward to reading it.
Thank you again for your wise words.
You can get it as Dancing with the Gods from Amazon right now, or a signed copy from wolfnordog.com. Go here for a sample chapter: https://kentnerburn.com/sample-chapter-from-dancing-with-the-gods-the-slamming-door-the-pain-and-challenge-of-rejection/
You always inspire. From the first book Neither Wolf nor Dog your writing hooked me. Although not an artist Dancing with the Gods was devoured with much insight. Thank you for your books, your words and your spirit. Looking forward to the next book!
Thank you once again for making getting through this pandemic a bit easier. At the moment, I am reading “Voices in the Stones” Another book to love.
Be well, blessings and hugs always.
Thank you for the inspirational post.
Author Paul Kingsnorth draws upon Irish mythology to pen an essay on the virus and this civilization’s response to it:
“Now I will say what I believe: that this civilization will not learn anything from this virus. All this civilization wants to do is to get back to normal. Normal is cheap flights and cheap lattes, normal is Chinese girls sewing our T-shirts under armed guard, normal is biblical bushfires and barrels of oil, normal is city breaks and international conferences and African children poisoning their bodies sorting the plastic we have dumped on their coastlines, normal is nitrite pollution and burning stumps and the death of the seas.
We made this normal, and we do not know how to unmake it, or—whisper it—we do not want to.
But Earth does, and it will.”
I doubt the dominant culture in the US will learn anything from this. We didn’t from 9/11, or from 2008, and we won’t from the virus. We will hustle, we’ll think we’re groovy, and we’ll continue to kill kids in the Congo so we can have cell phones. Americans have been doing the same thing since the late 16C, and they have no interest in a different way of life now. Or even in a better one.
There is a sad and likely truth in this. We have to hope that we take this time to reflect, and not merely to pause. As a Native friend of mine said, “Mother Earth is dying, and she will not put up with it.”
I just finished reading the Wolf at Twighlight after reading nor wolf nor dog last year. Thankyou for your books Kent.
After 4 weeks feeling caged, a change in lockdown policy allowed us to drive to Dartmoor, a national park 20 minutes from our home in Plymouth, UK.
My husband had read your books too. My husband talks alot, you know, one of those people that narrates everything he does and when he has nothing to say, he makes silly noises, whistles… Its always felt like an annoying intrusion, like I have to constantly be made aware of his presence. I rarely feel like I get a minute to my own thoughts. I had a conversation with him about stuff Dan says in your books, about white men filling silence with noise. Using your book as a shared reference point, after 10 years of marriage, I think my husband finally gets it…This is relevant, I promise.
Dartmoor is beautiful, wild, wide open hills, tumbling down from ancient Tors scattered along the landscape. You can feel the history there. Some of the descriptions in your book brought Dartmoor to mind. Anyway on our walk we reached a thick wooded area, marked off by old dry stone walls and a low barbed wire fence. The trees behind looked so inviting I wanted to climb over that wire, I’m not sure what private land was beyond it. But my sons presence deterred me. So I just stood in silence looking into that woodland, nature is louder under this lockdown anyway, its been a gift. But this was different. After reading your books, I have become bothered by the lack of quiet that I often feel I need. Without a word or a silly noise, my husband kept walking ahead with my son and I stood there for 10 minutes enjoying the quiet, my ears tuning into the different birds sounds and the wind. It was the most perfect serene moment I have felt through this whole bizarre, shared experience this world is in.
Thankyou for getting Dan’s words to us.
I finished Wolf at Twighlight this morning, then noticed your website on the back. This is where I found myself. I’ve been wondering if I should be recording the tangle of thoughts in my head everyday to make some sense of this time…
I think I will. Thankyou Dan, thankyou Kent xx
Thank you for taking the time to write. It is always a great joy to me when my work has some instrumental value in someone’s life, especially in these trying times. I send my best to you and your family and encourage you to write your thoughts. Our experiences take shape when we force ourselves to commit them to paper. And if you need further diversion or, hopefully, consolation during this time, please look up the third book in Dan’s trilogy — The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo. It is in many ways the most complex of the three and is well worthy of your time.
With all the fear going on in the world today I find myself reflecting back on previous years and have decided to finally begin my book about the voyage I have taken the last twenty years of my life. Since 1999, I and a few others have been taking care of a large colony of cats at our local fairgrounds. When I arrived there were many and another agency was fixing them and adopting some out. We formed feeding stations and made friends with the cats, accepting them as they were. Some were sweet and friendly, some you could never touch. Many grew old there. At first my notes were sketchy but then more intricate. Putting this down on a first draft is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The emotions evoked bring me to tears as I begin to remember each one of them and saddened me as there are a few names of some that I don’t remember at all. Their courage inspires me and it still does. A few I have taken home. Many I have helped pass on. Without us helping them there lives would have been so tragic. There will be many more stories to tell, but there had to be a stopping point which was in 2015, when I retired. If I don’t ever get this published at least I have a living memory of them. In these terrible times, when I feel that are humanity is being hijacked by higher sources, I remember creatures who taught me to endure. And I get up in the morning, although slightly depressed, and begin another day….Thank you, Kent, for your wonderful writings all these years.