“Deep Work,” What It Is, How To Get It

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say- ‘come out unto us.’ But keep thy state, come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity.”

                                                —–  Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Self Reliance”

Although written 176  years ago, Emerson’s astute words are eerily relevant today. Just substitute the words Email, Text, FaceBook or Twitter for his list of “emphatic trifles” clamouring for attention, and Emerson could easily be speaking to a 21st century audience. For who among us hasn’t heard the siren call of these addictive network tools, and social media platforms, and then surrendered to a “weak curiosity,” when we meant to be accomplishing our “real” work?Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

The first time I read Emerson’s insightful critique I felt instantly the sting of recrimination. I saw myself lured into confusion time and again, seemingly against my will. In a recent blog post, I examined how I use author Steven Pressfield’s rule of distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important to establish the priorities for my work. Once I know what I want to accomplish as a writer and an artist, I do those things first. But I also have a “weak curiosity.” Sadly, it is not enough to sequester myself in my studio because those “emphatic trifles”, only a click away, are incessantly knocking at my closet door.

Why is it so hard to resist their power I have often wondered? Is there any antidote to their addiction?  And, how can I build my resistance, so that I can regain control of my own attention and feel satisfied with my creative accomplishments at the end of the day?

I recently discovered Cal Newport’s book entitled Deep Work, Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, IMG_0971which addresses these very concerns. His book confirmed what I innately knew, that an environment of quiet focus is essential to produce quality work. But it also helped me to understand why and how technological connectivity can actually hinder my productivity, making me think twice about how much of it I want in my life. Most importantly, Deep Work provided me with tools and rules that I can use to minimize the powerful allure of the Internet and Social Media while maximizing my creative goals, both daily and for the long term.

Cal Newport, is a theoretical computer scientist and assistant professor at Georgetown University who has managed to become a successful blogger and respected author- without the help of Social Media, as he proudly claims. He defines Deep Work as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

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Photo of the author from the book jacket

He begins his book with the basic premise that now, and in the future, the best jobs and careers in our “technologically driven and constantly changing information economy” will be awarded to those who possess the Deep Work skill, because Deep Work allows you to “master hard things quickly and produce at an elite level again and again.” The problem for most of today’s knowledge workers, as he sees it, is that they have lost, or have never learned this skill.

Newport further asserts that it has now been well studied and well documented that much of the blame for this dearth of skill lies with the overconsumption of what he calls “network tools.” They are: “… a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.”

While initially his book seems to address those workers in his own sphere of computers and technology within the framework of 9 to 5, his book is for anyone who wants to succeed at anything that requires concentration, whether that be in a conventional workplace or not. It is for anyone who wants to know the sense of well-being and gratification that come from fully engaging their minds. For me, I found his concepts applicable to my own work as a writer and musician.Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Deep Work is divided into two parts. In Part One the Author begins by making three claims: Deep Work is Valuable, Deep Work is Rare, and Deep Work is Meaningful. Already convinced of the validity of these statements, I felt the urge to skip ahead to the practicum in part two, but I had many “aha” moments learning some of the neuroscience behind how our brains tackle cognitively demanding tasks which Newport divulges in part one.

For instance, studies reveal that multitasking creates a brain byproduct called  attention residue that impedes our focus on each subsequent task that we engage in. And then there is the fascinating psychology behind the state of “flow.” That sense of well-being and deep satisfaction that can only be entered into by a total immersion of concentration. Interspersed amongst the studies and research, Newport shares real life success stories of individuals who have understood the value of deep work, how they have used it to their advantage, and how assiduously they guard it, including one executive who took a round trip flight to Tokyo just to have all those hours of distraction free time on the plane to write his book!

In part two of Deep Work, entitled, The Rules, you will find both good news and bad news in the application of a Deep Work regimen. A first bit of good news is that, as humans, we have a limited capacity for cognitively demanding work, so you needn’t imagine yourself isolated and chained to your desk for hours on end. According to the Author, even experts, accustomed to intense concentration, only have about four hours a day worth of this “brain strain” in them. As novices, we should shoot for an hour and think of our Deep Work practice as a muscle we can build gradually with training. So, baby steps.

Now a bit of bad news. We are going to need willpower to attempt a Deep Work practice and “we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it up.” Citing recent psychological research on the subject, Newport informs us that “your will… is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires out.”  All day long as we resist distractions including television, the Internet, Social Media, (and all those other “emphatic trifles,”) we are making withdrawals from our willpower account. Between limited resources of willpower and undeveloped brain power it is imperative that we have a strategy in place before we begin.

To that end, Newport offers a variety of Deep Work scheduling philosophies to try out coupled with the support of routines and rituals and other pragmatic practices. He suggests that you “execute like a business” and employ tactics of lead measures, goals and accountability. But he also offers up the surprising good news that any Deep Work Practice needs a shutdown ritual that includes permission to leave tasks undone at the end of the day and to periodically be lazy, all without guilt.Photo by Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

Perhaps more than any other, the Deep Work rule of “Embrace Boredom” spoke most directly to my personal dilemma of distraction. According to behavioral research, 24/7 access to “on-demand” distractions, (like the internet via your smartphone, or a t.v. remote and hundreds of channels) is literally addicting to the brain. And, Newport writes, “…constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” (emphasis mine) Scientists say we have rewired our brains in this way making it difficult to flip the switch to “concentrate” even when we want to.

So, while we must train our brains to tolerate long periods of concentration, we must simultaneously and consciously work to overcome our brain’s craving for novelty and distraction. In other words, we need to “Embrace Boredom.” For practice, see if you can resist checking your smartphone every time you find yourself waiting for a friend or standing in line for more than five minutes. Newport suggests that we take breaks from focus rather than breaks from distractions, and he lists various strategies on how to schedule Internet usage even if your job requires constant Internet and email use.  

Photo by William Evan on UnsplashRule # 3 may be the most difficult and controversial of all, “Quit Social Media.” Albeit given with a dash of hyperbole and wishful thinking, Newport’s advice is worth your consideration and he makes a solid case for why we should quit it. Newport argues that FaceBook, Instagram, Google +, Twitter, and Snapchat, et al., are Social Media tools, and like any other tools we use, we cannot justify using them with what he calls an “any-benefit” mindset. We must weigh the pros and cons and find a middle-ground. In this chapter he elaborates with great tips on how we can assess our own individual needs and discover which tools truly add value to our work and personal life. He would also like you to remember that besides being highly addictive,

“These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper.”

Herein lies the crux of Deep Work I believe, and it’s why Cal Newport’s book has so resonated with me. The myth that Social Media has somehow made us a more connected human race was busted long ago, and most of us would admit that we know the vacuous feeling of too much Internet and Social Media. How it drains us and leaves us fractured and unfocused.

For me, the concept of a Deep Work practice is to live more consciously and deliberately, choosing to protect my limited resources of time, energy, willpower, and concentration. I do not want to give others the “power to annoy me,” with their “emphatic trifles” as Emerson would say, due to my “weak curiosity.” More days than not, I want to know the satisfaction of having fully engaged my brain in the creative work I have already determined to be deeply necessary for my sense of well-being. I want to close my ears and my door on the confusion.

Dear Readers, can you relate? What Deep Work is inside you that you need to get busy doing? What are your biggest and most persistent “emphatic trifles” that are keeping you away from that work?

 

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Do What’s Important First

“you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and you must do what’s important first.”— Steven Pressfield

For most of us, life moves at a break neck pace of multi-tasking days as we juggle the competing demands on our limited resources of time. IMG_0518A mobile device seems necessary to organize and plan the details. Being a bit of a Luddite myself, I still prefer to make written “To-Do” Lists. Mine look something like this:

  • -Today
    -The Week Ahead
    -Before the End of the Month
    -Long Term Projects for the Year
    -House Projects
    -Things to Shop for On-line   etc.etc.etc.

Despite our technological efficiency and our herculean efforts, we still say “I can’t find the time” to do this or that. A true statement. There is no more time to be “found” lying around unused somewhere. We cannot lengthen a day. The solution then, is not about finding more time, but about taking time. And if we take time for one thing, we take time away from something else. If we add here, we must subtract there, like it or not. This is simple math, but of course, it’s not easy to do!

How, and what do we subtract? How do we spend the time that we take?

About 2 or 3 times during the year I get to the point where I feel totally overwhelmed. Not only by my “To-Do” lists, but by all the new and interesting activities, people, and places that I want to incorporate into my life. Overrun by choices and the demands on my time, I quickly lose focus and catch myself spinning aimlessly, unable to accomplish anything.

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Me, trying to keep it all under control

Do you know the feeling?

 

When this happens I know that I need to sit down and re-read my “Life Priority List” to remind myself of what I consider to be my life’s over-arching essential goals and direction. It’s my personal vision statement so to speak. It’s my Big Picture “To-Do” List that helps me regain my perspective. It’s my compass to help me find my path when I can’t see the forest for the trees. Here is the gist of it:

-contemplative time to read and write in my journal
-maintain and build relationships with friends/family
-creative expression through song writing and blogging
-development of my piano/guitar/writing skills
-Mind/body wellness through exercise, meditation, etc.

In his motivational book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield talks about how, as a professional writer, he must continually discipline himself amidst the demands of the day in order to get his work done. He writes,” I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.

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Me, when I can’t see the forest for the trees

I love the simple truth of this statement and have it taped to the wall in my studio. Like Pressfield, I must discipline myself each day to resist the siren call of the urgent, (basically everything on my “To-Do” Lists), and make my work my priority. I must first sit down and hammer out a set of lyrics, or practice chord progressions in the key of A flat, or flesh out a blog idea. I must take time to do what’s important or I will never find the time. I only feel overwhelmed when I lose sight of this. When I look at the map I’ve drawn for my life, suddenly it becomes clear what I need to subtract to regain my equilibrium.

 

Sometimes what’s urgent and what’s important are the same thing. Only you can decipher this. But if you know the difference between the two, and keep your priorities as Ground Zero, then you will not be subject to the relentless Tyranny of the Urgent with its insatiable appetite for your time. Funny thing, you may discover as I have that when I do my important work first, I feel more energized and I can let go of the stress of whether everything on those “To-Do” Lists actually gets Done.

Dear Readers, do you know what your big-picture life priorities are? How do you cope with the Important versus the Urgent in your daily life? Do share.

Why Women March

By now we all know that history was made on January 21, 2017. What an awe-inspiring sight to see millions of women in this country and around the world, marching in unity. Epic in Proportion. Powerful.

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Wilmington’s Women’s March        Photos courtesy of Sandra C.

To my amazement, I read comments on-line and on social media from people who could not understand what the Women’s March on Washington was about. One guy on my Facebook page  pejoratively referred to it as “your so-called” march. When I read that I thought, “there, that is it exactly. That is why women march.” “So-called” is such a put down, such an attempt to belittle and invalidate. Women are sick and tired of having their accomplishments demeaned. Too often our voices, concerns, and issues are ignored or bullied into silence.

To not understand why women marched in solidarity on January 21st is to not understand why Alcoholics Anonymous exists, or other support groups like cancer survivors, veterans, or MADD. There is hope and healing when you discover that you are not alone. Now imagine how it feels when you discover that millions of people around the world feel the same way. The Women’s March on Washington, in all its forms and in all its places, was the tangible reality of that fact. It’s like never having seen the ocean but being told how expansive, powerful, and majestic it is. And then one day you see the ocean for yourself, you witness its grandeur with your own eyes.

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Wilmington March

To be sure, women marched with many agendas and for a wide range of issues that day. Each woman came with a personal life experience or story that motivated them. You cannot have a gathering of that magnitude and not expect that to be the case. After all, each woman is still an individual! The point is that in our current political environment, and around the world, groups of every kind, under the larger umbrella of women’s rights, are being marginalized, ignored, abused, and discriminated against. Thus the mantra, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and “Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” 

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Great Question!

Finally, we acknowledge all of the men and boys; fathers, partners, brothers, sons and male friends, who marched alongside the women.

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Not just about women

Their presence affirmed that the march was in fact bigger than just about a bunch of bitchy women with an axe to grind. The multitude of voices who used the March for their platform were speaking for the (here-to-fore) silent majority of humanity, not the minority as detractors would like us to believe. It is imperative that we keep raising our voices and remembering that while there are those with money to buy political power, there is another form of political power, Power in Numbers.

Dear Readers, did any of you participate in a March on January 21st, or have a story about someone who did?

 

 

What Is Sexual Assault?

Much has been said of late about sexual assault so I decided to educate myself about how the law defines it in my state. My good friend Alice, a brilliant and respected attorney, sent me the NC Statutes regarding Rape and Sexual Assault. You can read them in their entirety here:  NC General Statutes – Chapter 14 Article 7B  For the purposes of this post, I am limiting my focus to Sexual Battery.

In understanding the Statute, certain Definitions are given and, once again I list here those most pertinent to this post and you can click the link above to see them in full.

  1. (5)  “Sexual contact” means (i) touching the sexual organ, anus, breast, groin, or buttocks of any person, (ii) a person touching another person with their own sexual organ, anus, breast, groin, or buttocks, or (iii) a person ejaculating, emitting, or placing semen, urine, or feces upon any part of another person.
  2. (6)  “Touching” as used in subdivision (5) of this section, means physical contact with another person, whether accomplished directly, through the clothing of the person committing the offense, or through the clothing of the victim. (1979, c. 682, s. 1; 2002-159, s. 2(a); 2003-252, s. 1; 2006-247, s. 12(a); 2015-181, s. 2.)

I now skip to:

§ 14-27.33. Sexual battery.

(a) A person is guilty of sexual battery if the person, for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, engages in sexual contact with another person:

  1. (1)  By force and against the will of the other person; or
  2. (2)  Who is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless, and the person performing the act knows or should reasonably know that the other person is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.

(b) Any person who commits the offense defined in this section is guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor. (2003-252, s. 2; 2015-181, s. 15.)

I have been a victim of sexual assault at least three times in my life. I didn’t know it at the time it was happening because I was young, naive, uninformed, and completely unprepared to respond to such an assault. But I knew something was happening to me that I did not encourage or willingly participate in. Something that made me feel violated.

One day while going up the stairs in my high school, a male classmate reached up and grabbed my ass. Naturally I pulled away as he laughed, and I ran up the stairs thoroughly embarrassed.

Also while in high school at a friend’s house, her father cornered me and tried to kiss me when she left the room. Luckily I was able to pull away, and I made sure that I was never in the room alone with him again. It felt terrifying but how could I tell my friend that her father was assaulting me when I didn’t even know how to define it?

While in college, my boyfriend’s grandfather copped a feel of my breast after he “sweetly” pulled me down to sit on his lap. Of course I jumped up horrified but was too embarrassed to tell my boyfriend that his sweet little old grandfather had just assaulted me when his back was turned.

My point in all this? Groping, fondling, unwanted touching, whatever you want to call it, IS sexual assault. The victim and the assailant may be fully clothed. Not by my opinion, but by the law. Considering that I am just an ordinary person living an ordinary life, it got me wondering how many other women, just like me, have also been victims of this kind of sexual assault during their lifetimes? I think if all women were honest, the number would be staggering.

Why is this so? I believe it is because we live in a society that does not have a mindset of zero tolerance regarding all forms of sexual assault. Everyone seems to agree that rape is abhorrent and wrong but groping is viewed as innocent male “horseplay,” something that boys and men can laugh about in the “locker room.” It doesn’t really “hurt” anybody and it isn’t a “big deal” so women should just “get over it.” 

And many women do endure it and are silent on the matter. Especially since in most instances boys and men take advantage of young naive girls and women who are in some way in their control or under their power of influence. Males also use the element of surprise and assault women in public places catching them alone and off guard.

So what can be done? First of all, women can end their silence if they have been a victim of sexual assault because speaking out is an act of  empowerment. (This is happening now among online social groups like pantsuit Nation.) Secondly, men and women of integrity can work to raise our standards of decency and respect by demanding a zero tolerance of any form of sexual assault. Not only of ourselves, but of our school and business leaders and especially our elected officials. Religious leaders, here-to-for virtually silent on the matter, should be the most vocal and outspoken advocates of a zero tolerance society.

Finally, we must teach young girls to know what sexual assault is and to know their rights should they be a victim.  We must give them tools to help them protect themselves, make them pro-active and prepared. We must embolden them to speak up and not be silent. We must all lead by example.

Dear Readers, have you been a victim of sexual assault? If so, without details would you share something of your experience? What are your thoughts and suggestions on how we can work together to end our society’s casual and cavalier tolerance of sexual battery?

Let’s keep this discussion going among our family, friends, co-workers, and elected officials. Please share this post via email or Facebook.

 

A Lesson From Van Gogh

Well, June 3rd has come and gone. The first of the last hurdles is now over in the race to  complete my recording.  I’m very pleased with the results.  Today I head back up for four more days of work in the studio. This time I will record two songs on guitar and we will review all of the songs recorded thus far to determine what will make the cut for the cd.recording studio

One of the songs I’ll be recording next week is actually a re-do of a song I recorded last October called “A Stone’s Throw.” I didn’t like how the recording turned out but I didn’t want to give up on the song so I re-arranged it stylistically and now we’ll give it another go. It is the first song I ever wrote, which was about 4 years ago. Truthfully, it’s not the kind of song that I feel I am gravitating toward writing now. But giving it recorded voice feels necessary for closure to that period of my song writing.

For some reason, Stone’s Throw has undergone more revisions than any song I’ve written thus far. I’ve changed the key, the lyrics, the rhythm and the arrangement. Some songs are written quickly and have an immediate coherency while others, like this one, seem to evolve with fits and starts.

portratureI have been reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. In his early correspondence, Van Gogh details his experiences of learning to draw, especially the human form. He works and re-works countless sketches, using live models, hours and hours a day. Landscapes too require much trial and error to get right. He expresses worry over the expense of using so much paint on studies that are then discarded. He tells Theo that he tries to draw with charcoal as much as possible while practicing so to save the costly paint for more evolved compositions. Pot of paint

Van Gogh’s letters reminded me that all artistic work really is work, no matter the artistic form. What we see as the “finished product” is the result of countless hours by the artist of honing their craft. None of us are immune from the learning curve. Van Gogh did not sit down one day and produce a masterpiece. I don’t know if I will ever produce a “masterpiece” but I can certainly attest to the fact that if you want to create something of value then you must buckle down and do the necessary work. It is unavoidable. You can’t go around to get to the other side, you must go through. Is this not true of life in general?

So, back to my song. Actually all of the songs I’ve written. The writing of the melody, the lyrics and the arrangement isn’t the end. The recording process is part of a song’s evolution. Sometimes you just don’t know how it’s going to sound until you record it.  All artists have songs that didn’t turn out as they hoped or just weren’t right and were either abandoned in the studio or reworked in some way. Of course, I’m hoping that this next attempt at  “A Stone’s Throw” will be a keeper for the cd. But I’m learning to remain open to the fluidity of the process trusting that no matter what happens, ultimately having done the work will produce the reward.Painted Background 259

“Insist On Yourself”

June 3rd is looming large on my calendar. On Friday I go back into the studio to record the last two piano songs for my cd. Later in the month, I’ll spend four more days recording on guitar and reviewing all of my songs in preparation for release. I have been working on this project for more than a year now and am finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.IMG_2283

IMG_2288Deciding to write and record my own songs was a giant leap into the unknown. An endeavor begun in middle age, with no knowledge of how to do it, and with only a fledgling’s self-confidence that I could do it. But when the opportunity presented itself to quit my day job a few years ago, and to focus on my music, I knew it was now or never.

It had never occurred to me when I was younger that I might possess enough talent to do such a thing. My religious upbringing encouraged conformity not individuality. It was an inhospitable environment for creativity to thrive. Nevertheless, my desire to create never died. It was just lying dormant, awaiting the time when I would evolve into the person who was confident in, and comfortable with her own uniqueness. The person I was always meant to be.

 “Insist on yourself: never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half-possession…Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.” —  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two months ago I had only one song written to record on piano. Because we rent a large studio with a grand piano for the day, I knew it was necessary to have two songs ready to go. I had an idea in progress for a song, with a chorus already written, but I could never get any traction going on the verses.IMG_2290

After two weeks of laboring over it, I made the decision to cut bait and try for something new. The only thing I had in the wings were some lines inspired by the Greek myth about the Three Fates; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the three women who determine the length of a life. One spins the symbolic thread, one marks its length, and the third cuts it.

The Three FatesRecently I visited an elderly friend who expressed to me that she had never allowed herself to develop her life’s potential. She had so many dreams and ambitions that never came to fruition because it meant leaving an unhappy marriage, something she could never get the courage to do. Now in her mid 80‘s she was looking back with regret over what might have been.

I was reminded of another friend, who for most of his life, has viewed the world through a very narrow lens. He likes bullet lists, how-to formulas and five step programs. He believes that the most important thing you can learn in life is how to control your emotions. But in the last few years he has glimpsed the vitality and richness of other cultures and world views beyond his ken. The world could be his oyster, but does he have the courage to loosen his grip on control? Will he take the leap into the unknown?

As I pondered my friends’ life stories and my own life’s metamorphosis I saw the thread of commonality and a song began to coalesce and emerge. No matter our individual circumstances, if we are evolving we will reach a point of awareness when we say life has been “thus” but now it can be “thus.” We will reach a point where it will take blind courage to move forward. And we will become aware of the thread growing shorter.

The Fates of Time                                                                        

Looking back at the beginning
You had a formula for winning
Your secret was control
You wrapped your heart in a blindfold

So you took it on the road
In every town a sold out show
People hungry for a cure
Will buy a remedy like yours

But life always seems to stray
From the best of plans we lay
And walls buckles from the strain
Of a ruse you can’t sustain
Not even one more day

Chorus: 
‘Cause the Fates of Time are spinning
Measuring and trimming
The days, the hours, the time
You’ve left to find
The thread of meaning in your life

One day you catch a glimpse
Of a happiness you’ve missed
It’s a passion in your soul
That won’t bend to your control

So embrace uncertainty
You have all the strength you need
Take the leap, it’s not too late
To become yourself, don’t wait
Not even one more day

‘Cause the Fates of Time are spinning
Measuring and trimming
The days, the hours, the time
You’ve left to find
The thread of meaning in your life                                            

words and music by Penny R Pierce
copyright 2016 all rights reserved

 

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“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”

We grow accustomed to the Dark-

When Light is put away-

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye-

A Moment- We uncertain step

For newness of the night-

Then- fit our Vision to the Dark-

And meeet the Road-erect-

And so of larger-Darknesses-

Those Evenings of the Brain-

When not a Moon disclose a sign-

Or Star-come out-within-

The Bravest-grope a little-

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead-

But as they learn to see-

Either the Darkness alters-

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight-

And Life steps almost straight      —Emily Dickinson

I can remember as a child, being fascinated by how my “night vision” would kick in shortly after all the lights were out. At first it’s like you are blind but then slowly you begin to make out shapes and realize that all that is familiar is still there in the room.

In this poem I love the imagery of the “Neighbor” holding the lamp so that the light falls on her face as she pauses at the door to turn and say her goodbyes before setting off into the dark night. But it is the image of the night’s darkness as a metaphor for our mental darknesses that is so brilliant. Those “Evenings of the Brain” devoid of all light, both moon and star, when we experience the total darkness of grief and loss, despair and hopelessness.

At first we are blinded and can do little more than grope in the darkness. But if we just hold on, slowly the eyes of our soul will adjust. Maybe our life will be forever changed but we will continue to step out onto the road of Life and find it “almost straight.”