This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
About a month ago, I had one of those days where everything feels hard. Without belaboring the intensity — perhaps you already know what I mean — I will say that the feeling is like a long and unexpected eclipse. A dark day of the soul.
These eclipses come upon me periodically. No precipitating event is needed. No particular activity, no success, and no special treat will solve them. But I have accumulated a number of useful prescriptions for getting through them.
I recite poems. I remind myself that no feeling is final. I try deliberately to react to the day’s specific difficulties with patience, kindness, and courage. These help, over time, by building my experience of resilience. (“I knew I could do it…because I’d already done it,” as Harry says to Hermione.) It’s true they don’t make me feel better right away. This particular day, I found, to complement them, something that did.
Three somethings, in fact. I want to think about these three for a little while; about how they serve as healers and friends — not just on dark days, but also everydays. About how, if I invite them, they also heal and companion my practice of writing poems. About how I suspect that they, or somethings like them, are universal friends — not just to me, but to you as well.
The first healing friend is silence.
Silence comes in many forms. I happen to have a deep need for the one form over which I have no control: silence external to me, all around me. On the particular day I am remembering, I didn’t have it. What I did have: the ability to still my own hands, and close my own mouth on sighs of frustration, explanations, and that talking-it-through-out-loud thing I often do when I feel stressed.
There’s a particular serenity that attends the arrival and settling of inner silence. I cannot compel it. But I’ve discovered that I can invite it by the practice of outer silence. The outer sort and the inner are not equivalent; one does not necessarily even lead to the other. But their substances are similar enough that it’s worth learning how to do the one you really can affect. It’s also more difficult than it sounds. Try it — for more than a minute, or an hour, or a day, whatever your threshold is — and you’ll see.
For awhile, I had a regular practice of deliberate outer silence. I moved house, the pandemic moved in everywhere, and my practice fell away. On this particular dark day, I remembered to turn back toward it, and it felt like turning toward home.
The second healing friend is sunshine.
If the first friend was familiar, this one surprised me utterly. I have always been a shade-seeker. But this day, I sat at the kitchen table, where the sun is strongest in my house, and I shut my eyes and spread out my hands and just fully soaked in the strengthening light.
I never do this. My skin marks, for one thing. So I was startled to find, after only a couple of minutes, that my pain had shifted, enough that I didn’t feel constantly like screaming.
I moved to the front porch, so the sun could bathe my whole self. Out of the silence I’d been holding, I sang the sun a song of praise. And then I sang another, and then some totally unrelated songs, just because it felt so good to keep singing, and to keep feeling grateful.
Singing is the third healing friend.
“Of course,” said a human friend I told about it later. “Singing forces you to breathe.”
Since that day, I have sought out my new friend sunshine for short soaks. This is the right descriptor — the action is like a warm bath, in its pure pleasure and slowness and physicality.
And I’ve started a weekly practice of silence and singing. Leave me alone long enough and I’ll sing, but I forget this friend when I’m emotionally tired, or near other humans who aren’t also singing, or keeping company with too many responsibilities. So my practice is sited mid-week, in the afternoon, when I’m most likely to forget without the ritual to prompt me. I sit somewhere by myself, and after holding some silence I let a song rise up, and then another and another, until I feel even.
Pretty often lately, I’ve been sitting outside, combining my healing pleasures. And pretty often — not always right away, sometimes the next morning, as I walk outside — a new poem leaps from the nest and tries its wings.
My working theory is that the silence and the sunshine and the singing are key materials of the nest I am always building, to hold whatever thoughts, feelings, rhythms, and ideas become my poems. The more attentively constructed the nest, the more nourished the wordlings it incubates.
In themselves, silence, sunbathing, and singing are just play. They have neither obvious use nor monetary value. They therefore cannot get in the way of creativity. Once you embrace “wasting” time, and not getting paid, whatever you really need to do or say starts opening up.*
This maybe sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s not at all. It’s counter-capitalist for sure: it rubs the wrong direction across all the ways we’re trained to think about “producing” — a type of knowledge so ingrained we sometimes mistake it for instinctive or intuitive. But intuition is just experience added to paying attention. And that leads me right to silence and sunbaths and singing, and says to my poem-grasping brain: Stop talking. Start right here.
What I am doing when I compose is breathing, praying, attending. This is the key, I think, to why my three particular healers encourage my specific work. Each of them teaches these things in the body.
To sit simply in the sun is prayer, is attention, is gratitude.
To be silent is to attend, without trying to mediate, to the world that breathes inside you and around you.
To sing is to breathe with,and to make an offering in return.
Which reminds me that I recently named a particular phase of writing “The Singing.” I gave this name to the time after I’ve finished a complex work, and it’s still inhabiting me, still actively a part of my daily being. What I end up doing in that phase is offering those poems—out loud and with gratitude—to the places, and the states of mind and heart, that helped me compose them.
I like the symmetry of this: sun and silence and singing lead to attention, leads to Shaping, leads to Singing. Which leads, when the voice is ready, back to silence. Back to sitting (in the sun, perhaps), and accepting this moment’s gift.
What is the moment’s gift, on a day such as I described above, a dark day of the soul? The spiral here is so tight it’s nearly a tautology. The moment’s gift is the sun (or the rain, or the thunder, or the warm breeze.) It’s your body’s ability to quiet, and your throat’s — or just your soul’s — willingness to sing.
*This is the part where some of you say “what a privilege, to accept not getting paid!” And yes, you’re right. The acceptance applies without the privilege, too, but it’s harder to literally live with. Give away money, join a community organization, get involved in local politics. Replace profit-worship capitalism with a system that’s based on people instead of money. Yes, yes, yes, yes this is very hard, and also we can do this.