The Spiritual Discipline of Light

I am sitting in my favorite diner. On the small Bose stereo at the end of the room, Pink Floyd is singing “Uncomfortably Numb”. No one else is here. The cook even, is downstairs prepping for dinner. The waitress is outside, cleaning tables.

It is grey today. A strange temperature, not quite warm, not quite chilly. No matter what you wore this morning, you’d be a little, just a little uncomfortable. I wore a thin long sleeve shirt and it sticks to my back, just a little. It is humid.

I come here to write. It is a spiritual discipline of mine. Often, when we speak of spiritual disciplines, we speak of religious things – prayer, the reading of scripture, that sort of thing. I do those as well, but in this case, the writing is a discipline for my own spirit. It’s like journal writing. Or spilling to a therapist. I never know what will come out. I just start. A word. A phrase and the rest comes. Like manna, the rest comes. It is an emptying of the poison, a purging of demons. It frees the rest of my day from having to dwell on the dark stuff that rattles around in my head.

I almost never sit down to write a poem about “X”. And when I do, the muse, if that’s what you want to call it, always self corrects to what is real and uncovers, releases, spirts out what is. Sometimes memories. Sometimes recent, even in-the-moment pain, broken parts. If I am in a rare good place in the mornings, something sparkling – love, gratitude, wonder.

It was my therapist, many, many years who suggested I publish them on a blog. Knowing I was a typical first child, she knew the responsibility of having even half a dozen readers expecting a regular poem would make me keep it up. Discipline for others has always been easier than discipline for myself. She got it.

And she was right. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I began writing again (again because I actually began in college, went to grad school to study writing, and then faded out over 25 years of being “responsible”).It has been good for me and you folks who read have done me a huge favor by reading, and now and again commenting. I don’t know most of you, but I am grateful for each and every one of you who visits. If you were to follow that fifteen years of verse, you’d read a really, really convoluted autobiography.

Convoluted, because while I write of true things, my training and my work and discipline kick in. How can I take this raw sewage and make something of it? Make it more palatable? Easier to take. Clearer? How can I make it interesting? How can I make the sound of it run off the tongue just so? How can I give meaning to what at times makes no sense? How can I leave a reader with hope?

Because there is always hope. If there is one lesson of my strange zig-zag of a life it is that there is always hope. There is always light, somewhere. It may be faint (like in the photograph above), but it is there. It took me a few horrid Dickensian chapters of my life to understand that.

“Never let them see you sweat.” My mom used to tell me that all the time. Her way of saying no one wants to hear about your stuff. Keep your life to your life. In that way at least, (Not in others. In others she was thoroughly modern) she was a product of the Victoria Age. I followed that path for a long time. And it was not a wise one.

Some stuff never makes these pages. I am sort of working on a book of poems that will likely never get published, entitled “Words Your Pastor Cannot Say”. It is raw, strange and at times angry, often without the redeeming ends I put on the ones that show up here. But they too, are part of my therapy.

Discipline. I write of it a lot because it has saved me from myself. I am not by nature a disciplined person. I have a fast mind that often makes up for my lack of discipline, able to dance from thing to thing, catastrophe to opportunity and back with such alacrity that you never even saw the dance.

But dance it was, and in time, I came undone by it. As a woman I used to date often said “How’d that work for you?” Not well. I had to change. I changed. Bit by bit, tiny step by tiny step, I changed, until now, I am pretty disciplined.

But don’t kid yourself that it’s natural or it was an easy journey. It was neither. And in the two steps forward one step back way I grew over the past fifteen years, I also had to learn to be gentle with myself. And in learning that, I learned too to be gentle with others. Another of my great lessons.

I don’t write much of others here, other than my love poems. And even then, I don’t tell you a lot of specifics about the woman I love.

I could. I am pretty gifted at writing character studies. But their stories are not complete. I never know enough of the back story. I never want to write something incomplete, or wrong, or worse, triggering, even if their stories might be inspirational or instructive. People have amazing stories that deserved to be shared. But not by me. The risk is too great. The responsibility of possibly doing harm is too great.

And so you get me and my imprecise history of…. me.

I used to do newsletters for the Television Industry. I would write in them constantly that I did not want my newsletters to be a blatant marketing poly. I wanted them to be useful. It is the same with my poetry. With my coaching newsletter. With almost anything I write. I want it to be useful.

I often tell my congregation that I am never preaching at them. I am generally preaching at myself. It’s the same here. If something seems pointed, or aimed at you specifically, I promise you it is not. It is just that we humans are far more alike than different, and we share this huge, wide range of experiences, hurts, trauma, and journeys. We are all connected far closer than we know, because whether we know it or not, many of us are living my mother’s adage. Trying to seem normal while we all are wrestling, consciously or unconsciously with our traumas, from somewhere back in our history. Knowing this, truly knowing this, makes compassion far easier. I am glad for the dark journey that brought me to now. If asked, I would say to the people who brought me darkness, “Thank you.”. And mean it.

This piece started as a poem that I could not find an ending to:

A small window.
A dim light on the desk.
An empty coffee cup.
Darkness in the morning
as you scribble a few lines
looking up often,
always at the light.

That too, the looking always up to the light, is a spiritual discipline. Religious, and yes, like my poetry, one for my own spirit. And for yours. Trust me on that. And for yours.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

6 comments

  1. “ How can I leave a reader with hope?

    Because there is always hope. If there is one lesson of my strange zig-zag of a life it is that there is always hope. There is always light, somewhere.”

    “ Discipline. I write of it a lot because it has saved me from myself.”

    Tom, these thoughts from today’s post speak volumes to me and to your character and integrity. I’ve been fortunate to follow your blog for several years – being introduced by Jon Katz, who apparently used to write his Bedlam Farm blog from the same cafe where you met each other long ago. Today I still look forward to reading both of you each morning, during my time in my “quiet morning chair.”

    I’ve always admired your discipline and your word-crafting acumen. It’s easy to see how hard you work to put your thoughts into just the right words, phrases, sentences or stanzas. As a writer for a column in a company newsletter in my past, I too always strove to share more than marketing hype, despite reprimands.

    Life has meaning when we share hope from our heart. Thanks for sharing yours day after day.

    A faithful reader.

  2. thanks for this. I have poet friends who go back to a poem to fine-tune, and i understand that it has to be let go. not finishing a poem is like taking half a breath. how do you know that the next breath isn’t a new one ,not a continuation. i move on because the poem is done when you move on. breath.

  3. Someone we both know well once told me I “should” write regardless of how it affected others who would be part of the narrative. “The responsibility of possibly doing harm ” is indeed too great for me to take that ‘advice.” It sells books but breaks too many hearts. And the poem? It reads as complete to me.

    • I am of the same persuasion, that getting it wrong about others is not worth the audience, or the story. There’s plenty to write about in life without damaging others in the process.

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