Filling the Well


May 13th 2011

This morning I sit in a bedroom overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The window is open. All week the constant and ever-changing sounds of the surf have been with me. I am at Pelican House, a silent retreat house owned by the Episcopal church of eastern North Carolina. With eight other women writers, I am here to fill the well. We keep silence during the day as we write in our rooms or wander through the live oaks and sand, or sleep. In the evening we gather and listen to each other read. Life has slowed. We are filling the well. It feels luxurious; I suppose it is luxurious.

Our meals are provided. No money changes hands, since we took care of that before coming. We feel outside commerce for the moment, an illusion—useful or harmful I am not sure. I first came across this phrase, filling the well, a few years ago when I sheepishly told a friend about my activities during a recent solitary evening. Here is that story:

The Sunday paper mentioned that Runrig (a Scottish band I had learned about from my daughter) had a new CD out that week. It caught my eye so I went to I-tunes, several times, sampling their music without buying. The next day I bought a few songs and loaded them into my current playlist. That evening Jim worked late and I felt restless, at loose ends. I watched an episode of Without a Trace and then started a CSI but noticed that I wasn’t really interested. So I checked to see what movies we had in the house and ended up watching the first hour of A Room With a View, one of my all-time favorites. For the first time I saw that it is in part about misunderstanding what it means to grow up; more about this in a minute. My interest in the movie waned so I put my ten Runrig songs on shuffle, knowing I wanted more – I wanted an extravagance, an abundance. For some incomprehensible reason the sounds created by this particular Scottish band was what my soul wanted right now. And that it was somehow connected to my interest in seeing The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a film about the struggle for Irish independence. I never fully understood that link, two segments of the British Isles at one time overrun by the English, two places where my ancestors came from. The next morning, after yet another foray into I-tunes, I had 28 songs, which seemed a good number. The night before, as I played those first ten songs over and over, I felt the energy starting to flow in my body; until that moment I hadn’t noticed that it had stopped. In “Maymorning” the singer repeats the phrase “I’m alive again.” “I’m alive again.” Here’s the connection to growing up. When I was an adolescent, even into my twenties, I used to be overcome by these obsessions—with an actor, a band, a film, an author. I’d go back to the same movie three or four times in the same run, carefully keeping my return a secret, ashamed of my wasteful, frivolous, unseemly enthusiasm. And then I grew out of it; like Lucy in A Room With a View, I took hold of myself and dismissed these old obsessions as immature and childish, inadvertently starving myself of the food that only they could provide. When I confessed my Runrig obsession to my friend Jane, a pianist who grew up knowing herself as an artist, she said “oh that’s art, routine, normal, that kind of obsession. That’s what artists do.” She had known all along that it’s a thread you follow until it plays out and leaves you with its gift, which can’t be approached through reason. It occurs to me that maybe these dreamy obsessions are, in fact, meant to be private, or at least that it’s not a problem if they are. They may be my personal liturgy. I’ve come to believe that they can provide the energy I need to engage with everything else that matters in my life. And, before I learned this, I had been stopping the flow right at the source out of a misguided effort to grow up.

Last May, as soon as the semester ended I fell into Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a wonderfully meaty novel that tells the familiar story of Henry VIII’s intrigues and appetites through the eyes of his counselor Thomas Cromwell. I read the 600 page book in two delicious days, following it in quick succession with three other novels set during the same time period. None were quite as commanding as Wolf Hall, but together they provided a blissful interlude of conspiracy and romance. I started on a fifth book and after forty pages realized I was done. Whatever needed to happen through these books was finished and I could now get on with the work of the summer. My well, for the time being at least, was full.