How Valuable It Is, in These Short Days

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the final installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

I have in mind a new project. It involves embarrassing myself in public. You can help. 

I don’t mean a book (although I absolutely have more than one of those in mind). I mean a creativity-adjacent practice that I’ll commit to doing regularly, in the spirit of discovery, for a specified period of time. Not a hobby so much as a ritual of creative play. 

I’ve discussed previously how projects unrelated to the daily work of writing can function as both structure & impetus for creative practice. Since 2015, I’ve had one going most of the time. Sometimes it’s a daily thing, sometimes weekly, etc. Always, there’s an element of public accountability, because that’s motivating for me. 

My current practice of play is The Florilegia Project, which is still going strong, and daily. (Well, mostly daily. Sometimes I am—or I was, before COVID-19—far from home and it slips my mind, as my routine slips with the different delights of travel. And sometimes I’m just busy, quarantine or no quarantine. So I make it up later. Daily-ish.)

Meantime, I have started copying down, in a small blue book, the poems I know by heart. This is not the project. I’ll get to that.

Okay, but—why copy poems down if I have them by heart? The most immediate reason is that I forget, sometimes, which poems I know. There are more than the four or five things most humans can easily hold in mind at once. And no one else knows my mental library, so it’s not as if I have someone to prompt me with a title or a first line. Now I have this book.

Another reason is that someday I will die. If I am very lucky, it will be when I am old and happy and finished living, and I will slip peacefully to rejoin earth and sky and river. It may not be like that. Regardless, I hope that someone I love is there when it happens*, and I imagine, because our culture is terrible at death and also because death is just hard, that person may have a difficult time knowing what to say and do. I want them to have a ready helper: this book to read aloud (or at least the knowledge of it to rely on) to comfort both of us.

(Less finally, I may have injuries or incapacities yet ahead of me in life. It seems to me that such a touchstone might come in handy for less mortal circumstances too.)

There’s a third reason, connected to the last. 

The book doesn’t have a title, but it has a quote on the flyleaf, a sparklet from The Florilegia Project, in fact: “how valuable it is, in these short days.” It’s from Molly Fisk’s graceful poem “Winter Sun”, which I discovered in this beautiful collection**. 

We never know how short or long this individual day might be—or our own days generally, or (there’s so much of this in the air now, living as many feel we do at an end of the world), our culture’s or even our species’ days as we know them. And there’s so much of value and of joy inside those days to celebrate. This book—a single copy, written by hand, of the particular poems that allow themselves to echo in my particular memory over time—is one such small and quiet celebration. Fragments I have shored against my ruin—or something like that. (See, that one I do not have memorized.)

_______

I said I had a new project, and I said that this memory-book is not it.

The book’s creation is, however, the genesis. It got me thinking along several specific lines, and out of those is born the project, which does not yet have a name. 

I.

Poetry is for reading, sure, but also, often, for speaking. That last is certainly its older form. I speak poetry to myself quite a lot, out solitary-walking.

Occasionally I’ve been asked to read my own poetry aloud. I love doing this. I’m also scared of it, and not terribly assured in the doing. My poems sound different out loud than in my head; once they’re written, I mostly read them silently. So translating aloud, sometimes I stumble. I need practice.

II.

Most of the time, I connect most deeply with words I hear, rather than words I read in silence. (Sometimes I read aloud to myself to effect this.) I may repeat and ponder them silently later, but to graft them onto my heart, I use speech.

III.

I have hundreds of songs and hymns memorized, plus several liturgical settings from the church I grew up in, and many of the various spoken formulas of my faith.

The holding of these in memory is a formative experience of my life. Not just back in the day when I first did this memorization (mostly unconsciously), but now, every day: an ongoing formation. They’re a background, a lens, and a part of my identity. They’re quite often a comfort.

IV.

The poems I have by heart function like that, too. But there are far fewer of them.

Partially, this is because I didn’t memorize a lot of poetry in childhood. (I did memorize some delightfully silly Shel Silverstein poems for campfire recitation; ask me to recite “Warning” sometime; it’s my favorite.)

So, in the last couple of years, I’ve started intentionally adding to my mental collection. 

It always sounds daunting—at least to me—to commit whole poems to memory. Turns out, though: I can still do it. You can too. The human brain is amazing.

V.

I love the practice of sitting with (walking with, breathing with) a single poem.

I am one of those people who wants to read everything, learn everything, more more more. Lately I have been learning to do less, and do it deeply.

Even writing those words, I can feel my greedy brain hasten to smooth over the actions they imply: the magazines I love and don’t get around to reading; the books I buy and don’t read, sometimes for years; the ballet class I won’t be going back to when it restarts, because it’s too late at night; the places I don’t travel and films I don’t see. Hush, brain. This is ok.

One thing about doing (and, specifically reading) less that’s better than ok: it clarifies my thinking by giving my thinking space. Yes, I know this is nothing new, but it is new to me, and I am in love with it. One reason I’m writing these words is to remind my future self: rediscover this love.

VI.

One thing I don’t have in memory is much of my own poetry.

I have, at this point, written plenty of poems. Certainly over a hundred that are “finished” and that meet my standard of beauty and value; about 30 published or about to be so. And I could not, as I was making the cover of this memory-book, call to mind more than one in its entirety. (Is that odd? Do poets today, working mostly in writing and not in speech, usually memorize their work?)

Anyway, I want to commit more of my own work to my heart as well as my voice, alongside much more poetry I love by other people. So this (at last!) is my project:

Twice a month, for one year, I will learn a new poem (or revisit an old one). I will spend time with it every day: learning it, maybe writing it out, turning it over like a small river stone in my pocket. And at the end of a couple of weeks I will recite it.

To you, if you want to hear it.

This is the accountability bit: there it will be, in my voice, posted on my website semi-regularly for anyone to hear, scoff at, comment upon, puzzle over, whatever you find yourself doing with both the poem and my voice speaking it. 

I promised in paragraph one that you could participate. I’d be grateful indeed if you did, and here are three ways you can:

1) Take a chance on listening to my (short! I promise!) recordings. Send any thoughts or questions or suggestions my way via comment or email.

2) Help me name this undertaking. Right now it’s getting vaguely called after the memory-book. If you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments. 

3) Suggest some poems to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll love them or that my brain will want to learn them, but I will be glad to read them and find out!

So what do you think, friends? Come listen to some poems with me? Maybe memorize and record one of your own? (I would love to hear it!) We all need something to get through this present moment. I’d be pleased for you to join me. 

_________

* I conceived this project, and wrote the first draft of this introduction to it, before COVID-19 changed all of our lives. How and with whom folks are thinking about death these days has shifted. But I didn’t change my words above, because this pandemic is not the only reason to think about what it means to have a good death, or to set things in order for the loved ones you hope will survive you. “Things in order” is poetry, in this case: a little piece of comfort and ease in a big and difficult transition. But of course I also mean your will, your advance directive, your spiritual practice, your worldly affairs. 

**Since many of us are buying more books these days, can I make a plug for purchasing from your local bookstore instead of Amazon? Amazon has deprioritized books anyway. Please help your local small businesses stay afloat in this Interesting Time. If you don’t have a local bookstore, might I suggest the excellent Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Montana? Or my own local, Annie Bloom’s in Multnomah Village, Portland, Oregon?

Your Own Holy Text

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the third in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

Sometimes I hear someone talking about a thing they love or watch them doing a thing that’s part of their identity, and I imagine them writing a poem about it.

My friend, for example, who shapes and measures and tests recipes with the kind of minute attention I give to the placement of a comma. 

My mom, who is some kind of sorceress of flora. (The most practical kind imaginable: magic is work, and sometimes it hurts her back and her getting-older hands.) 

My dad, who has a hundred aviation adventure stories that light up his voice when he tells them.

My cousin, who not only sets out to read the entirety of Shakespeare’s work in a year, but also writes essays about each encounter, occasionally drawing some startling connections.

My husband, who listens for ways to bring friends, family, and perfect strangers joy, and crafts accordingly. (He is such a Hufflepuff.)

I don’t want to write a poem about these things in the voices of their particular humans. I know that’s a thing poets do, especially with historical persons or our own ancestors. It’s a function of poetry, maybe: lending our voices in attempts at understanding. It doesn’t feel right here.

For one thing, I’m talking about living people. You all have your own voices. They’re beautiful. I guess I’m a little drunk on that right now. 

For another, this is a metaphor. The way certain folks lavish the same physical and verbal care on their enthusiasms as I do on a poem — I guess the thing my poet-brain does is immediately imagine them actually writing a poem.

All of this is to say — I don’t know, what am I saying right now? Your life is a poem? Some motivational-poster noise like that? (I mean, that stuff is on motivational posters for a reason, and no, that reason is not only consumer capitalism.)

Maybe it’s to say you should write a poem. If you want to. It’s hard, sure. Sometimes. It’s kinda mystical, sometimes. Equally, it’s not difficult at all, and equally, it’s just another way of making beauty and/or sense of the world, of telling a moment — or a relationship, or a flower, or a lifetime — as you experience it.

You might be perfectly content writing poems by digging in the dirt, or carefully leveling a cup of flour, or teasing out and tying together threads from Through the Looking Glass and Henry VI

So, not writing poems. 

The phrase “you do you” covers a multitude of vaguenesses, but this is the kind of application where it shines. The world is slightly terrifying right now. I love watching people put beautiful, creative, utterly themselves things into it. Balancing the scales.

____________

This is one reason I write poetry, of course. It’s my gift, and I’m often frightened, too. My poems are my feather on the cosmic scale. 

Another reason: because I have to, because to do so gives me a joy I can’t live without. (I could exist without it, but that is not the same.) Writing poems cuts me open, also, quite often. This is not incompatible with joy, which gathers pain and sadness as close as it does contentment and exhilaration. 

But there is doing a thing because you have to, viscerally, and there is figuring out how doing that thing dovetails with your philosophy of life: what you want to give, what you want to achieve, who you want to be and why. When I started to think about it seriously, I realized I write poetry* because, on one level, figuring out life philosophy is my life philosophy. So really what I’m doing is writing my own holy text.

A number of extant texts are important enough to the ongoing formation of my identity to be called, for me, holy. The Psalms. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (a hymn and liturgy book), and its predecessor, which has a name but which I mostly call The Green Book. Most of Mary Oliver’s work, and Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems. Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction, Robert Macfarlane’s non-fiction. 

For the rest, it’s inside me. Or the inside of me interacting with the outside of everything else. And as someone who doesn’t garden, or cook, or story-tell, or gift, or critically assay to discover and nurture my place in the world, I do instead what my particular joy dictates: I compose. 

Holy texts, flawed and fragile as any other human endeavor, have bits and pieces of rubbish left in them. The Psalms, for example. Some of those singers turn pettiness and vengeance into high art, and I read those lines with distaste. And… this is also part of what I connect to in those rousing appeals for deliverance from suffering. I, too, often write poems to companion myself in difficult moments, times when I’m being tugged out by the tide. 

And I also hope, of course, that my own low tides will speak to a reader somewhere, some other when, and bring them comfort, or strength, or a feeling of being seen and understood. I often revise for that person. But I don’t compose for them. I do that to fill my own depthless well of unknown longing. To conjure something beautiful from the nothing-times. To make an honored guest of that lonely, that particular echoing pull.

Granted, I write poetry from a place of contentment, too, very often. Though even that tends to illuminate shadows at its edges. That’s part of my life philosophy: in all experience, its opposite—and from this understanding I try to live toward kindness, appreciation, and generosity. I try to do this because I am not gifted at it. Poetry (among many teachers) is mentoring me toward it, showing me how I need to grow. Other people’s poetry, most certainly, and also the process of writing it myself. Writing my own holy text.

You are doing this too. (I guess I’m bringing us back around to those motivational posters.) Possibly you don’t know it, but that’s life, so often: you create the type of work you practice.

So maybe that’s what I’m trying to say: practice, with an intentional heart. Gift to yourself, and the rest of us, your joy. Your holy text.**

____________

*And everything else. But poetry, for me, is a distilled form of literature, the most potent. Your milage may vary. 

**And, you know, if you feel like it, go write a poemYes I know I linked that twice. Because it’s great.

The Gathering and The Shaping

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the second in an ongoing column about the creative practice.


I miss my book. I mean the one I’m supposed to be writing

I don’t miss the manuscript I completed last year. That one’s alive on its own now, finding its feet, and doesn’t need anything from me at the moment. Plus I’ve finally untangled my identity from it, after months of intense conversation, late nights, and needing to be together all the time. Writing that book (well, shaping it—we’ll get to that) was a lot like falling in love. I can’t live like that for long without exhaustion.

Which is precisely what it’s earned me. 

I had a second manuscript already in the works, so it seemed reasonable, thinking about goals for this year, to say I’ll finish it by the time midwinter returns. All I really want to do though, this year so far? Is read.

About this time last year, I was making an effort to get back into the habit of loving reading. I think of myself as a reader, but I’d fallen out of doing a lot of actual, focused book-reading. I got better. But I was so busy falling in love writing! It’s now, when love writing has wrung me out, and left my usual defenses crumpled, that my re-made reading habit has moved in—insistently—to take its place. The place of lots of things, actually. Movie watching, multi-hour walking, and meetings for committees I care about quite a lot have also been victims of my pure exhaustion. Instead of them, I read.

It’s glorious. It also puts my current manuscript mentally across the room from me, lounging on the rug against the scrolled arms of my loveseat, eyebrows raised. 

I do know that the writing process is circular. Every artist needs to lie fallow periodically. You’re not less of a creative person for doing it. It’s just that I miss my current book. I’m excited about it; I want to fall in love again. And I am completely incapable of shaping that love into something beautiful, something outside my own self, right now. 

Which brings me to the difference between this part of the process I’m feeling nostalgic for—I call this The Shaping—and the part I’m inhabiting now, the much quieter Gathering. These are, as far as I can tell, the two distinct phases of my own writing process, once of which feels much more like “writing” than the other. And therefore feels more legitimate.

The Shaping is the being-in-love phase. It’s a furious round of writing up outlines, work-dreaming poetry, debating line breaks, revising revising revising, scrapping whole poems for parts, and changing my mind a hundred times about what order the pieces go in and what the sections are called. It’s the part that gets me to a definable end, a goal achieved. 

It’s also the part that drops me right off that end like it’s a pier, with the water down below cold and rough and deep and full of unknown creatures. It’s tiring, swimming to shore through all of that. And here I am chafing to run headlong off that pier again, as soon as possible. 

The phase that comes before this violent intensity of love is gentler altogether, and ambiguous as a cloud. It gets nothing at all “done.” I call it The Gathering, because it has that feeling of wandering about, not aimlessly but not focused on a goal either, and questioning, investigating, enjoying what you run across. It’s made up of daydreaming poetry, vague notebook scribbling, writing prompts, and joyful drafting; also literal wandering, journaling, dancing, deliberately putting myself in the path of new skills or ideas that have nothing to do with writing. And also reading.

Ah—reading. So I can say that right now I’m in The Gathering phase. If I’m being generous, which I want to be, so I will: lying fallow is a first part of Gathering. 

(You should keep in mind that I’ve made these terms up to articulate some learning from my own experience. Also that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. You should ask yourself what the heck I know.)

Here’s another thing I don’t: when will the present (wool)-Gathering resolve into The Shaping? And if that’s a mystery, how do I know I can write another book of poems in 2020? 

Maybe annual goals written in January are something in the nature of a first draft. Maybe they clarify what you value, and then hold it up to the harsh light of what you need. 

***

Besides a writer, and a reader, I define myself as a contemplative. “Contemplation” sounds passive, but it requires a lot of discipline. I’m so tired lately that sometimes I think I’m not rested enough to be a good contemplative. I get enough sleep, but I’m still trying to drop off during my morning silence-time. Contemplation seems to require space, by which I want to mean “not having a bunch of pressing demands on your schedule,” and by which I more sustainably mean an inner sense of spaciousness and time. 

The same thing poetry requires, in fact. 

The Gathering is a spacious season. You need it, or I do anyway, to invite depth and surprises and Mystery to participate in The (eventual, unsummonable) Shaping. 

I think The Gathering is about play, as much as anything. Mary Oliver has a line about “letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.”* I’ll sleep too, I guess, and read books like I used to: constantly, playfully, with no thought of what they might teach me or how I might use their knowledge. 

I’ll wave sometimes across the room at my manuscript, who is actually fine over there alone, maybe Gathering too. 

We’ll have so much to talk about when we get back together.  

***

*It’s from her poem “Today,” which for me is maybe something more like “This Month,” or maybe “This Quarter.”

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  

***

*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.