I suppose when I worked at the hotel when I was young, I could go home and leave work at work. It wasn’t my hotel, after all. Certainly, I’d get calls at various times since I was manager, but not often since the owner was often on site. And when I worked for Richard Simmons, it was a similar situation. As manager, I’d get calls at home if there was a significant problem, like when the other manager, Andrea, slammed her finger in a metal door and couldn’t work for several weeks. But overall, when I went home, work stayed at the studio.
This was less true as a college professor. Certainly before computers and cellphones I was able to compartmentalize my papers into office-hours work, and if I planned things well, I could get everything done for my normal eighteen teaching hours at one college, twelve more at the university, each semester. It was an insane schedule I maintained for almost three decades, including summers. But the luxury of making my own schedule, remaining primarily responsible for when things were due, allowed me to keep some sort of retentive check on everything, so, once again, when I was home, so was my mind. Sure, there were times the stack of essays followed me to my porch, sat down next to me, and would not stop babbling until I finished them. But mostly not.
Yet I have another occupation, one which chose me, therefore I cannot simply quit, lay down some sort of guidelines, and go about my business. As a writer, my mind does not clock out, ever. I have many writer friends who can do that, but I simply can’t and I’m not sure why. It might be one of several conditions, or it could be one of several medicines, or perhaps it is simply my inexplicable need to describe and highlight the miraculous beauty of life juxtaposed with the insistently rapid pace of life. But I cannot turn off my mind. I see narratives and characters, I hear stories and elements of distress, and the dynamic moments of everyday life can be overwhelming.
I actually and literally feel completely better when I’ve written something. The fact is this very blog started as an effort to relieve my mind. I know Van Gogh was like this as well, and Hemingway, and Jake the plumber at the hotel who could not rest if there was a pipe that could be fitted just a bit better, but after a solid attempt, even if he fell short, he could rest. Vincent wrote often about how his mind is eased either by absinthe or a good day of painting. My poison is nature and a few moments of trying to say something right.
But I remember fondly the days when I’d go home from the club and absolutely nothing felt undone or needed to be reworked. I could watch a football game and have some drinks with friends and never once glance at a somber face and need to make notes. That’s gone. Maybe that’s why I’m always searching for some peace of mind.
I was in a local store earlier and someone said to someone else, “No I haven’t been able to find him. I’ll call later.” That’s it. But that was enough and for the past three hours my mind has been beating the hell out of a piece I’ve been working on for far too long. This morning my son mentioned he might make biscuits today, and “process” stayed with me like a bad song that won’t leave your mind, and I either need to write things down or dive into some waves, let the cold ocean saltwater wash across me and make me present.
Nature can do that for me, more than anything else, really, make me present. A few months ago I was hiking the mountains in Utah and found myself nowhere else. Nowhere. I wasn’t writing in my mind, I wasn’t rewriting, or making notes. I was hiking. Yesterday I sat at the bay legs in the water to my calves and I watched two egrets fish for dinner. When I walked away I knew I’d spend time with them again late at night on these pages, finding that peace again on the page that I found on the bay. But at that moment, it was just me and them, kin.
I haven’t had a day off since I started working on a book about Van Gogh more than thirty years ago. Wine helps, though more often it can just fuel the flames. Lollipops certainly help. But my mind is growing tired lately. I’m always writing, even when I don’t mean to be. Still, I’ve come to terms with that. My friend Linda used to tell me, “Don’t die with the music in you.” This keeps me going. As long as I have some endless swirl of vocabulary beating at the exits of my mind, I should be fine. Maybe I never needed medicine to begin with. Just a notebook.
Painters see colors and perspective even when walking their dogs. Musicians hear that quartertone in the cardinal’s call, and writers, well, we keep indenting and backspacing, even when trying to eat a bowl of fruit loops.
That’s just how we are.