Signs & Portents

I've spent the week going over my notes and making outlines for the chapters of my new book, which probably explains the nightmare I had on waking this morning.

I dreamed I was in my office and heard construction outside. When I "awoke" from my dream-nap, I found my office door replaced by a temporary wall that, thankfully, still opened, and people milling around outside talking about how to move walls and make space for the administrative offices they were planning to move to my floor. I found my dean and began pleading with him not to disrupt my work space in this way, but oddly soon found myself comforting him as he broke down in tears. When I got back to my office, it was full of more people, my wood floor was covered with a hideous blue shag carpet and, horror of horrors, all of my books were gone. At which point I broke down in tears and actually awoke, gasping at the effort to try to talk these strangers out of taking over my life.

Can you say anxiety dream? The thing is, this sort of thing really has happened to me over the course of my career. Not walking out into a radically transformed architectural space, to be sure.* But most definitely crises that seem to coincide precisely with either successes or efforts at trying to work. Three months after our son was born, our second summer in Chicago, my husband's mother died, age 57. A month after my family had moved from Chicago to Durham so that I could spend the year at the National Humanities Center working on the book that I needed to keep my job (a.k.a. get tenure), my grandfather (and my last living grandparent) died, age 89. A month after we returned to Chicago, me still working on that first book, the city began constructing a skating rink immediately outside my office window. I lived with the construction noise for an entire year and a half, all the while working on my book.** The day I finished my book and was planning to put it in the mail to my publisher, the Twin Towers came down.***

You'd think things would calm down after (happily!) I got tenure. Not a chance. The first summer I had not worrying about whether I would have a job, I got caught up in a media storm over a change in our college curriculum and the people from whom we had purchased our new condo tried to bring a complaint against our association for discrimination in a dispute that had happened between them and the people who had lived upstairs from us, but who also moved out that year. The next time I was on leave, just as I was finishing an article that has only this month come out in proofs, my father died, age 66. This was four years ago. Summer before last, the week I was working on the fellowship applications on which I was depending to give me the time that I needed to get started on my next book, I came to my office one morning after a thunderstorm and found my desk, my papers and all of the books around it, not to mention many of the books in my bookshelves and all of the carpet on the floor soaked. (See? It really wasn't just a dream.) Everything had to come out so that the carpet could be taken up and the room dried out. Needless to say, I couldn't work there for the next month or so, although of all the crises my writing seems to provoke this was the one with the silver lining: I got rid of the institutional gray carpet that I'd always hated and now have a beautiful hardwood floor.****

I've never known how seriously to take all of these coincidences, if they are coincidences. Is there something out there that doesn't want me to write? That throws crises my way at just the point when I'm really getting down to work? Julia Cameron (whom I would be happy to nominate for sainthood, her advice has saved me more times than I can count) says that the universe, properly speaking, the Creator wants us to create; that our greatest problem as artists is trusting that all will be well if we work on our art. And, certainly, things have gone much, much better with my work than in my bleaker moments I have ever dared to dream. It does seem to be true that the more we open ourselves to possibility, the more we are supported in our work. I have, after all, had more than one fellowship; been on leave now three times; had my first book published and reprinted in paperback; been able to keep this blog going for almost eight months now. For every crisis that I have encountered, there has been something even more powerful sustaining me through.

And yet, I'm still scared. Thus far this year, our cat died and the world economy entered its worst recession ever, at least in my lifetime. On the other hand, we now have a president whom I trust and the world seems to be willing to believe that maybe America isn't so bad after all. I'm not saying that all of this has happened simply because of my being on leave (no, really, I don't think the world revolves around me), but I do wonder sometimes whether to take it as a sign. But of what? Hope? Mortality? The preciousness of existence? The importance of art? I do remember that on September 12, 2001, I was filled with the conviction that what I was doing for a living (writing books about medieval Christianity, keeping civilization alive by participating in the work of understanding and of making art) really mattered, mattered more than I had ever appreciated before that day. Sometimes it seems so selfish, just working on my research. Surely I should be out there, working to save the world. But then, as Julia Cameron would put it, I am (working to save the world, that is) because I am the only one through whom the Creator has chosen to express this thought and if I block it, it will never be said.

Great, now I'll be paralyzed because I'm convinced my work is of earth-shattering importance, when it's really just another academic book. Trust and humility: how to keep these in balance? Well, that's easy: remember that it is not we who create, but the Creator who creates through us. All we have to do is listen and get what we hear down on the page. But who is it then that keeps sending me all of these crises and dreams?

*My office is on the top floor of a tower and there are only six offices on our floor, all opening onto a large interior, windowless lobby where the students sit waiting for us in office hours. In my dream, the floor somehow extended behind my office, which otherwise is on an exterior wall.
**And, by the by, exploring every sound blocking technology on offer, from ear plugs to white noise machines to noise-canceling headphones. Nothing--and I do mean nothing--would block out the sound of the bulldozers backing up. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. For nigh on two years.
***Yes, the very day. And my publisher is in New York. I had to wait until the 13th for FedEx to take the package.
****In case you're wondering how I could have a flood seven floors up, the roof had filled with water that leaked down through the attic and into my office through the electrical conduit to the ceiling fixture. My office was the only one on our floor affected by the rain in this way. Another colleague had to have his bookshelves refitted to the wall, but he was not working in his office that summer.


  1. So, can I be so bold as to ask what this book is about? Is it related to your last? Shall I pre-order it?

  2. Only if I can pre-write it! : ) "The Virgin Mary and the Art of Prayer." The focus is on the Little Office of the Virgin, but the theme is prayer as poetry.


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