Patience

30 Sep

by
Rhea H.Boyden

When I was a
young student at university I wrote quite a few good papers, but it
was always a trial, and I always stressed out about it, because I
never grasped the process correctly. To write a good paper, article
or essay with ease you need patience and an understanding of the
process of creativity. Why did no professor ever point this out to me
back then? It is only years later at age 37 as I write as a mature
adult, do I now appreciate with full clarity the patience that is
required when working on any creative project, and I am trying to use
this new understanding in other areas of my life beyond writing. It
only took one reading of a very short essay by a teacher of creative
writing and poetry named Natalie Goldberg for me to relax, be kind to
myself, and let the ideas unfold at their pace.

In her
perfect essay entitled ‘Composting’, Goldberg uses the simple
metaphor of the brain and subconscious being a compost heap through
which our thoughts and ideas need to decompose before becoming the
rich soil and fertile ground from which grow our stories and poems.
She talks of how she was attempting to write about her father’s
death, and she had pages upon pages of disparate notes about the
topic that she was processing, but nothing seemed to be working. But
then, all of a sudden one day, she was sitting at her favourite cafe
and a long poem on her father’s death just flowed out of her. As she
says: ‘All the things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy
and unity-a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.’

A couple
weeks before I read this essay I was in New York and I went to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had a wild experience at the museum and
was particularly struck by two paintings that inspired me so
incredibly. I took some notes at the museum and then I went back to
my aunt’s apartment in Brooklyn and started to write about the
paintings. I also compared them to some other crazy electronic
gadgets I had seen in Berlin at an electronics store and then I
started talking about art and science fiction and alienation and
technology and so forth. I filled a good dozen pages of my notebook
with a whole lot of crazy disparate notes that were attempting to
become some insane essay on what I am not quite sure. I ended up
throwing the notebook aside in exasperation and making myself another
iced-coffee to quell my over-heated impatience with myself and the
New York heatwave. ‘I am such a crap writer. What the heck is it I am
trying to say here?’ I didn’t write another thing in New York.

Back in
Berlin a couple weeks later, I then looked over my notes from New
York again and it hit me like a thunderbolt. ‘This is not an essay or
an article!’ I exclaimed. ‘This is a poem!’ I sat down, turned on my
laptop and a long prose poem flowed out of me on the paintings I had
seen in New York. The science fiction and electronic gadgets were
ignored. The next day I read Natalie Goldberg’s essay on ‘Composting’
and she described EXACTLY the creative process I had just
experienced. Every essay, article or poem I have written since has
been done with great ease and patience as I consciously realise that
in the time leading up to writing, while I am researching, making,
notes and processing, that is exactly what I am doing. I am
composting my materials. Good things take the time and patience.
When I next have writer’s block I can also remind myself to be
patient with myself. Every field must lay fallow for a spell before
it can produce more beautiful plants. And not every seed that is sown
will sprout. What to do with all those other notes on science fiction
and electronic gadgets? Maybe at some point in the future when I
re-read those notes, they will grow into an article, essay or poem.
And maybe they won’t. That is ok too. Some notes, like weeds, must be
discarded and do not blossom.

Natalie
Goldberg also knows very well how many poets and writers love whiskey
and wine. How that nice glass of red wine can unlock and unleash the
trapped thoughts in an artist’s head. How, when thoroughly
intoxicated, the writer loses all inhibitions and all is laid bare in
words on the page. I too, have written some of my most inspired
essays while drunk, and it was, admittedly, a wild and enjoyable
experience. Goldberg encourages us, however, to have the patience
with ourselves to get drunk and intoxicated on reading poetry without
the aid of whiskey. When completely absorbed and understood in its
essence, poetry is a drug enough and the whiskey is not necessary.
Poetry becomes the whiskey.

Since I have
quit drinking I have realised that a greater patience with myself is
demanded as I am forced to look at myself completely with sober eyes
and it takes more effort, but the rewards are evident. I feel much
better and produce more quality writing while sober too. Berlin
winters, however, can be very long and cold, and alcohol is
definitely something I used to help me survive in the sub zero
temperatures in January. Who can resist a cup of hot mulled wine that
is being served on a platform while waiting for a severely delayed
train after a long day of work? I was once reading the online
satirical magazine ‘The Onion’ and I stumbled upon a silly photograph
of a man holding a thermos coffee mug which had the words ‘I love
commuting’ written on the side. He was secretly pouring a generous
shot of Jack Daniel’s whiskey into the mug. Who can’t relate to this?
Commuting daily for years is surely one of the most mind-numbing and
soul- destroying activities of modern life and it is easy to see why
it leads people to drink. Commuting also demands a lot of patience. I
personally hate it, but a good amount of it is a requirement of my
job, so here again I try and take Natalie Goldberg’s advice. I keep
her book of short essays (which are the perfect length for reading on
a train), and a book of short poems to help make my commute more
meaningful and enjoyable.

Not only
commuting can be lethal, but also the effects of a repetitive job. I
have been teaching English for years in companies and I love it, but
it can get very repetitive and a greater amount of patience is
required to carry it out with grace. When I find myself having to
answer the same question for the 500thtime,
I find myself feeling very impatient with my students. I try and
practice patience with them too. It is only the first time this
student has asked this question of you, so do not take your
impatience out on him, I remind myself. I get impatient when a
beginning student cannot identify Australia on a map of the world, or
does not know things about the English speaking world that I, in my
wordly ways, take as general knowledge. ‘Have you ever been
anywhere?’ I ask through gritted teeth. ‘No, I have never left
Germany.’ my student responds in German. ‘I have never been anywhere,
I have two horses and I spend all my free time with them.’ she
informs me. ‘Ok, fair enough’ I respond, humbled. I sometimes forget
what a privileged and jet set life I have led and that many, many
people stay in one place. It’s good to be reminded of this. Horses
must take a lot of patience. I don’t think I would have the peaceful
composure that is required to look after them.

Another time
a student asked me what it was like at an airport. ‘Sorry, what do
you mean what is it like at an airport?’ I responded. He seemed like
a trendy young guy who I presumed had travelled and the topic in the
book was all about travelling. We were talking about baggage reclaim,
and he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. ‘Well, your
bags come out on a moving conveyer belt after your plane lands and
you take your bag off the belt when you see it.’ I explained
patiently. ‘Don’t people steal the bags?’ he asked amazed. ‘It’s not
a good idea to try and steal a bag’. I said. ‘The owner of the bag is
likely standing there watching it too.’

Airports are
another place that can test your patience. And I have spent a good
chunk of my life both in airports and on planes. How to patiently
pass the time there? In my younger drinking years, I headed straight
to the bar. That is the most logical place to meet other bored
passengers and have a few drinks and a few laughs. I have met the
most amazing people while travelling and drinking and I could write a
whole book on that topic. These days, I try and make sure I have lots
of interesting reading material and I find the most comfortable seat
I can to sit out the tedious wait for a connecting flight and try and
use the time as best I can. But as we all know, when we are forced to
have to wait for an exended period of time, it is a challenge to just
be happy and read and enjoy yourself. Who actually enjoys waiting at
an airport and using the time productively instead of heading to the
airport bars, restaurants and shops?

In his
article on patience in the magazine ‘Psychology Today’, Alex
Lickerman talks about strategies you can use to help you actually
enjoy the times you find yourself having to wait. And in our modern
world filled with so many people, there are plenty of times when we
find our patience tried by having to wait. He encourages us to try
and immerse ourselves completely in the action we are taking. With
practice you can get very good at this. He says you can also vividly
imagine you are already enjoying the thing you are waiting for.
Anticipation of something, he says, is often far more enjoyable than
experiencing the real thing. To this I can most definitely relate.
Getting lost in fantasy about some enjoyable experience you hope to
have is warm, fuzzy and comforting and really helps speed up time
subjectively. I have had certain romantic fantasies, for example,
that never happened in real life, but the fantasy helped pass the
waiting time in a more pleasant way. I was at an airport too, and I
was hoping to see the man in the country I was flying to. He let me
down and I never saw him, but it was a most enjoyable passage of time
thinking about seeing him. On the way home again after not seeing
him, I concentrated entirely on a funny book that helped me get my
mind off of him. It was so engrossing, in fact, that I nearly missed
my flight.

The ultimate
test of patience when dealing with the passing of time can only be
how an innocent prisoner decides to deal with this. Mumia Abu-Jamal,
a black convict, who has been serving a life sentence in prison since
he was convicted of the murder of a black policeman in Philadelphia
in 1981, has become an inspiration to millions. He is widely presumed
innocent, and his books and writings have been published from Death
Row. In his book ‘Death Blossoms-Reflections from a Prisoner of
Conscience’ he talks about the erosion of caring, nurturing and
community in present day America. He says: ‘For billions of us, life
is a search, a journey of seeking for that which we found unfulfilled
in our youth. We search for love, family and community. We search for
the completion of Self in others. As we search we find that modern
life with its bursting ballons of materialism, leaves us more and
more empty inside. Things that once seemed to fill us now fail to
bridge the gaping chasms in our psyche.’ Abu-Jamal reminds us in his
brilliant and critical essays how important community is and how
terribly our community bonds have eroded in the search for the dream
of self-actualisation and individuality.

In his essay
in ‘Psychology Today’ entitled ‘The Need for Patience’, Micheal
Austin talks about how erosion of community the need for everyone to
follow his own individual path actually really has increased levels
of impatience to an unprecedented level. We have become unbelievably
impatient and its easy to see what he is talking about. If you live
alone for years you get very used to doing things as you do them and
if anyone comes into your home and does them in a different way this
immediately leads to impatience with another’s methods. When living
alone, we forget how to compromise. I love having my own flat in
Berlin and living alone, but I notice with horror at the tender age
of 37 how stuck in my ways I am becoming and it terrifies me. My dear
dj and producer friend from Ireland has been staying with me lately
while he looks for his own flat and it is forcing me to be patient
and respect his space and his wishes even though he is in my flat. I
can be a total control freak in my kitchen, but I try and just keep
my mouth shut and let him cook dinner without interfering. It’s a
good lesson for me. We are both creative people and we both need our
space to get lost in our art. Me in my writing and him in his music.
We discuss how both our artforms teach us patience with ourselves,
but how as a creator you can never truly be fulfilled. Once one
project is over, you impatiently and hungrily move onto the next one.
Can one ever be satisfied? We need our art to live meaningful lives.
Without my writing and the intoxication it provides I know I could
easily slip back to the easy intoxication that is produced by whiskey
and wine. After a long day of commuting, I try and be patient with
myself, my friends and my artform. In the words of Picasso: ‘Art
washes away from the soul, the dust of everyday life’. And so true it
is. I want to continue to get lost in reading, writing and poetry and
use them to foster patience as I have learned from Natalie Goldberg.
Good things take time. I am half way through writing my book. It will
take a lot of effort and patience to complete and its completion is a
goal I cherish. In doing it though, I do not want to become too
self-absorbed. I must also remember the community of people around me
and patiently spend time with them, whether on a crowded train at
rush hour with strangers, or with the people I care for the dearest
whose patient feedback and love I am dependent on for my success as a
writer.

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