I think all writers have a “spirit book” or two. This term happened into my head the other day as I pulled out A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson. Whenever I am embarking upon any kind of writing project, I pull out this book. The cover, the underlined passages, and the book’s premise all speak to me. All speak to the core of my writing heart, the type of writing I long to do.
In short, this book refreshes my soul.
A Year by the Sea found me when I was asked to lead a women’s book club at the bookstore where I used to work. I was taking over for a dear coworker who was struggling with cancer. The manager handed over this book, asking me to read it for the next session of book club.
The night of the meeting, the women—mostly in their 40s and above—were skeptical. One even said (I paraphrase): “I can’t imagine you liked this book as it was about a middle-aged woman. I’m sure you couldn’t relate…” (I was in my early twenties at the time.)
Oh, but I did! I did relate. This book spoke to my heart in a way that few books ever had. And haven’t still.
The book centers on a woman, a wife and mother, who has lost herself in the shuffle of her myriad of roles. Her children out of the nest, she feels lost. And when her husband gets a job offer out of state, she makes an instinctual decision—surprising even herself—to step away, to spend time alone in the family cabin on Cape Cod.
My body became a stranger I chose not to know.
The book talks of finding one’s mental and physical self, as Joan makes the scary move to live by herself in a rustic cabin, risking hearing those authentic voices that don’t always tell us what we want to hear—in part why we fill our lives with so many things, so we don’t have to listen to these longings, these voices that speak from the core of our beings, longings that can hurt.
Joan learns to live with the tides of life, getting a physical job at a meat market, swimming with seals, stoking the fire—all the while reflecting on her marriage, her life—listening to that voice she had been snuffing out all those years.
This book inspires me on many levels, mainly because I relate to this intense desire to step away, to get to know one’s self, to live a simpler, more reflective life.
Probably because I do everything in my power to avoid it.
Like Joan, I fill my days with to-do list items, practical items, items to keep my mind occupied and my bills paid. I make sure that those in my life are okay with me. That I am not neglecting this person or that person. That all is okay. Managed. Organized. This started years ago as a child when my mother floated in and out of my life in a way too confusing for my young mind. So I kept it occupied. I read. Compulsively organized my bedroom down to the inside of drawers. Listened to songs over and over. Anything that didn’t give me time to think. Anything to make me feel that I had control over my life. And this practice stuck. During those book-club days, I was doing the same.
I had learned that keeping busy keeps the tide of difficult feelings at bay, silences the voice of one’s authentic self, whose voice we may not want to hear, whose voice may ask us to do something we do not feel ready to do, whose voice may ask us to face that difficult truth we do not want to face.
But, eventually, we can’t push that voice down anymore, as it comes out of us in a guttural, often unexpected and sudden way, and we know that we can’t ignore it anymore.
Which is why I’m at this coffee shop writing this blog post instead of doing what I “should” be doing. Because it’s time. It’s time to write. It’s time to reflect. It’s time to express. It’s time to feel.
And it’s guttural. And I couldn’t ignore it.
When I lost my father, I sought out a counselor, and after a few tries, I found my match—a woman whose creative heart matched my own, who would listen to me and have the perfect song, poem, book, passage that spoke to the core of what I was going through. And one day she gave me an exercise:
Sit with your feelings. When you begin to feel pain, sit. Force yourself to sit there for five minutes to start. Then ten minutes. Get comfortable with your feelings.
This reminds me of a passage in Joan’s memoir:
You can’t just one day order a body to do what you need at the moment; a relationship must develop. I must make friends with this stranger that is speaking to me with whines, creaks, and groans, coming to life after thirty-five years of slumber, a woman turned inside out, just now in touch with what once was invisible.
And so it’s no wonder that this book calls out to me like a fresh breeze, like a compass whenever I am ready to write again, because this is what my spirit longs for—time to reflect, slow down, pause, delve deeper into life, which is what a writing project allows.
A writing project is my cabin in Cape Cod.
When I lost my father, an unexpected loss of this person who was my favorite person, my father and mother for many years, my biggest cheerleader, I was lost.
And then I thought of Australia.
And a book project.
I was lucky at the time to have a bit of life-insurance money that I used to pay down a few debts and to plan this trip to Australia. It was my father’s dream trip, the one he always longed to take because his mother had been born there. And his mother had been his favorite person. His biggest cheerleader.
As the ensuing days without my father became more and more painful and as I moved back to my home state, shuffling between family members’ and friends’ houses while seeking a job, I returned to this writing project.
Planning, writing, thinking, reflecting.
It was my mental cabin. The cabin on Cape Cod that I escaped to.
While we don’t all have cabins, can’t all take a year off, and can’t all run away to Australia, we can find a practice to return to that centers us, that helps us pause, that allows us room to breathe, think, and get in touch with our authentic selves.
A Year by the Sea is my compass book. My spirit book. When I pick it up, it reminds me of why I write, why I want to write, why I should write. Which is probably why I picked it up a few days ago and why I’ve carried it in my knapsack these past few days. Why I’ve finally started this blog.
What is your spirit book? What is your cabin on Cape Cod?