The Hand That Stretches the Bow

I have a long habit of thinking that just because I can dream it, I can do it, because sometimes that is true, and the rest of the time I want it to be true. It’s a form of magical thinking. And I like magic, but I’m trying to be less of a boss and allow for a different ethos to shape my movements through the day. One based on what feels healthy and doable, and which allows me a greater sense of ease.

But then how do I accomplish all of the great things I imagine? How do I finish these manuscripts that have been on my desk, calling to me, seducing me, asking for undivided attention? Part of the answer is that I don’t do everything. I just can’t, and that’s okay. I say No. I let ideas sit, sometimes, until they are ready, or until I realize I’m not actually interested in that book/project/collaboration/class/etc. after all.

My friend Eric shared a passage from Zen and the Art of Archery, by the German philosopher Eugen Herrige, which comes to mind right now:

“The hand that stretches the bow must open like a child’s hand opens. What sometimes hinders the precision of the shot is the archer’s over-active will. He thinks: “What I fail to do will not be done”, and that’s not quite how things work. Man should always act, but he must also let other forces of the universe act in their own due time.”

As long as I’ve studied, and as mindfully as I have practiced, I am guilty of just such a will, which is part of the haunting that many artists suffer: we imagine something we want to create, and despite every kind of obstacle, we push forth into the wilderness, as we attempt to achieve it. Weariness, doubt, despair . . .

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”

Thoughts and ideas are fine, but I believe in practice. In practicing what I preach (or what others preach, that resonates with me.). This month I’ve given myself what I’m calling a mini-sabbatical, meaning that for most of July, I made no appointments, took no editing jobs, and have done my best to abstain from handling email.

I’m returning to Star Island to teach a three part “Practice of Poetry” workshop later this month. I took this photo there in 2017.

I did this once before, when I was gifted a month-long artist residency in 2007. The experience taught me how well my mind works, and how amazing I feel in every other sense of myself, when I unplug and think and daydream and write without, interruption.

Most writers have a fantasy of doing this at some point, and while residencies can be hard to come by, creating the space at home was possible for me this time, a decade after that defining experience. Can it really have been that long since I took time like this, to simply do my own work?

Sometimes writing is dreaming. Or napping. Or just listening to the rest of the world.

My daily routine still involves cooking, cleaning, childcare and so forth, but I have saved and planned and can forgo earning for a while, with the hope that the arrow will fly in the direction of the two manuscripts I am ready to finish this summer. In accordance with the master’s advice, I am trying to loaf and roam and make space for purposelessness, too. I end the day by soaking in the river at the bottom of my street. I start my day watching and listening to the birds from my porch. I am reading Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers.... loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My	respiration and inspiration.... the beating of my heart.... the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice.... words loosed to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses.... a few embraces.... reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health.... the full-noon trill.... the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop	this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun.... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.... nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

Read more of the poem over at

Summer studio. I write here between 7 and 10 am.

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