At the vernal equinox, I stayed with a dearest friend in two bright rooms in the rear of a bungalow in Los Angeles. The setting felt like a tropical version of The Secret Garden: just off the street, in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood, was an L-shaped garden curling around the side of her house, so that from every window and through the screen door the view was close, fragrant, and green. I kept asking her to say the name of each plant, just so I could hear the extravagant words again. Kalanchoe. Bougainvillea. Ranunculus. Honeysuckle and jasmine perfumed the air like a grande dame, and riotous pink flowers climbed over head. Waxy, dark green succulents sat in orange clay pots along the brick walkway. I’m not one to talk about the energy of a physical place, but looking out her windows in the morning at all that lush growth, I felt something special there.
We went on a couple of hikes. The view was obscured by fog one day as we scrambled up a steep, narrow path my friend had never wanted to take alone. The way down was long and dusty, our sneakers slipping on the too-smooth surface. At one point I looked up from my shoes to see how much further we had to go. It was a long way and I groaned and cursed. Don’t look, my friend said. And then she said something meant as a practical piece of advice to keep me from skidding on my ass and knocking her down in the process, but which sounds really cheesy and instructive in this context. It was something along the lines of keeping my eyes on the next step.
We sat later in her garden with frozen pineapple vodka drinks (hello, California!), and I thought again of that passage from Bird by Bird I had just excerpted recently on the blog:
E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
I have been exhausting myself with thinking lately. If I see another article about 10 ways to live your passion or 5 steps to embracing abundance, or if I make another list of what makes me feel most alive, or write a mission statement, or craft a 5-year plan, I might just pack it up. This happens sometimes. I’m comfortable in my inner world, but sometimes it starts to get a little claustrophobic in here. It is too plush and confined, with way too many thoughts and feelings not acted upon. It’s like a Victorian drawing room.
And so it is spring! What a perfect time to get out of thinking and into doing! Only not so much. An encouraging April horoscope had me frozen in my tracks. Wait, what new path am I supposed to be forging? I am (and you, too, Aries sisters!), apparently, unstoppable during our “cosmic birthday” April 10. But for what purpose? Circulate, put it out into the universe, make those dreams manifest! I can’t take the pressure. That, too, feels exhausting.
Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I can think myself out of every problem. Lists are helpful to a point, but I keep forgetting the two bits that come after brainstorming: surrendering (full stop here to really think about that one) and putting one foot in front of the other. I get stuck in a giant, swirling whirlpool of ideas and plots about how to scale the mountain ahead of me, when what I need to do is close the notebook, and feel my way. Put one foot in front of the other.
On Tuesday night, another friend told me about the Taoist concept of wu wei, which she described as the action of non-action. It’s not doing nothing like a purposeless layabout; it’s “the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of ‘going with the flow’ that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which––without even trying––we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”
I think this concept is hard for a lot of us. We are goal-oriented doers, achievers, and list-makers. If I gave all that up, how would I get anywhere? Tara Brach’s recent podcast on self-compassion broke this same wall down in such a startling way, I couldn’t embrace the basic idea. What would it mean to be OK just as we are? What the hell would happen if we gave up all the busyness of improving ourselves and our lives? I mean, honestly: can you even imagine? I’m afraid that releasing a vise grip of what looks like control will plunge me into complacency. But complacency is a far cry from “effortless alignment” or “great ease and awake-ness.”
I don’t have answers, but I hope asking the questions counts for something. I do know that perhaps more than ever, this spring feels like an opening. Not to leading with intellectual force, but taking a cue from subtler models, like the neighborhood crocuses who had a false start in mild January and are back for good this time. We just have to hold out hope for how natural the process of blooming really is.