This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
Martin Shaw gave an interview* last winter, from deep in the UK’s first lockdown, in the who-knows-anything time before Covid vaccines. Someone in the virtual audience asked about trauma: what do you do with it? “Get to moving water,” he said. “And sit there. And sit there. And sit there.”
On the banks of a creek who wishes to remain anonymous, I am sitting. It is mid-day, it is not cold, and my creekbank “belongs” to a U.S. State Park. Which is to say that it would be crowded—as it is, at its nearby confluence with a medium-sized river—but I have rolled my pants and taken my chances with slippery rapids and teetering log jams. Here upstream I am not alone, but neither are there any other humans in sound or sight.
I have been here a while: watching dragonflies and hummingbirds, and columbine nodding above an undercut bank; reading a letter from a friend; listening to the breeze changing its mind from downstream to up.
I find I am saying to myself it’s time to go. It does not feel like time to go, it just seems like the next thing. I’m addicted to progress. But I have got here, to moving water. My own wellspring, in fact. I slide my feet in the creek, skin on stone. Sit here. Sit here. Sit here.
I came here to write poems. Here, in this case, is a wider locality: a particular gathering of river/forest/ocean margins, my favorite place in all the world so far. I cleared a space on my calendar, found a one-room cabin, and hung on by my gritted teeth until the day arrived to make the journey. I am writing a book—no one is surprised—and so I have told myself that is the purpose of the trip.
I came to write poems, and I am writing poems. Creating is a primary way I encounter and explore; I can’t not do it. To do it well, I need space. I write from spaciousness. Here is space. Here, in fact, is home. This place is a great love of my life. I am writing poems; of course I am writing poems.
But I cannot only write poems, only be a poet. If I didn’t have to make money, this is what I say I would want to do—but poet is an identity that cannot exist alone. A writer of any kind must have something to write about, or all the love and skill and dedication have nowhere to flow, no work in the world to do.
I have plenty of work in the world. I’m conflicted, confused, frustrated, or downright despairing about all of it. Some of it is worthy, I don’t doubt. Much of it is pure garbarge: concerned only with money and obligation. I am looking for more that fits in the first category, yet I can’t imagine taking on more, period. I’m exhausted. I’m traumatized. I’m depressed. I’m ashamed and angry even to write those words. How can they be me? I’m better than that.
So. My obsession with progress says I’m here to write poems, to make something I can point to with my name on it. But really, I’m here to sit by moving water. I am here to rest. I’m here to excavate—patiently, kindly, bravely, if I can—who is this person who is not, in fact, better than, or even okay.
The several voices of the creek are just what I need. I listen to them—really listen, separating them mentally, and noting their pitch and volume. They’re not saying anything. They’re saying everything.
Possibly this is not a time to make sense of things. But I—like humans everywhere, and especially like humans who find their deepest work in art, in priesthood, in leadership—am a meaning-maker.
Just now, I was gathering stones. This beach is 98% stones. The longer you look, the more interesting they get. I would name aloud one of my roles or labels, and search for a stone to match it.
A palm-width stone, shaped like a lightning bolt and faced with quartz.
A slick black circle, split almost in two, like a broken-heart emoji.
A smooth and water-polished oval, warm brown and soft grey whirled togther.
A tiny, tumbled pebble, red as a berry, vivid. I perched it on top of a deep green rippling globe.
Each stone I held let me hold at arm’s length a role I inhabit or a label I’ve acquired: things I am, things I am called in certain contexts, and things I kind-of-am, because words for our experience are a collective obsession of a culture trying to re-found itself.
When I ran out, finally, my hand was overflowing: a strange beach offering, word and rock balanced on palm and fingers. I picked them back up, one at a time, and cast them to centerstream, saying to the stone and its label: You are loved here. You are held here. You are worthy. It’s okay if I don’t understand you. You are anchored here.
I am home on this creekbank: sitting, walking, resting. Making up rituals and scratching out poems. Not figuring myself out, just watching me be. Asserting that’s okay, and learning to believe that—a process, not an accomplishment I am claiming.
This creek, its river, its woods, its ocean-perfume—this is the one landscape where I belong, in a way I’ve tried to understand all my life, and I no longer need to. I cannot only belong here, only be here. Home and belonging must have some work in the world to do, too.
For this long summer moment, though? I can rest awhile yet.