It’s Friday afternoon. I’m staring out a large picture window, watching the poplar leaves dance with invisible partners. A squirrel just darted across my line of site, leaping from poplar tree to pine tree to spruce tree. Just beyond those trees is the lake. If I stood up from my semi-reclining position on the couch, I could see it. A moment ago, I was out on the patio, watching a pair of cormorants on the water, until a light rain chased me inside. This morning, I paddled across that lake, when it was as smooth as a plate of glass, on a yellow kayak and I watched an eagle come in for a landing at the top of a tall tree at the edge of a cliff. On the way back, I stopped to photograph lily pads and lotus flowers. After I put the kayak back in its place, tipped over to drain the water that had dripped from my paddle and down my knees, I sat on the dock with my journal and watched a turtle poking its head above the water.
I’m at a cabin in western Ontario. It’s nearing the end of a week of solitude and writing. I haven’t been online since Sunday. I don’t miss it. I have no idea what’s going on in the world and the only time I’ve spoken has been once to the young boy who greeted me on the dock, and for about five minutes each day when the owner of the cabin checks if I need anything. (My answer to her is always the same: “I’ve got everything I need.” Except when I needed more propane for the barbecue.)
Since I arrived here on Sunday, I have done a remarkable amount of work – more work than I normally accomplish in two months at home. I’ve worked twelve hour days since I got here, and today was the first time I allowed myself enough of a break from the work to paddle across the lake.
I’ve completely re-vamped the Holding Space Foundation Program (formerly the Holding Space Practitioner Program) incorporating the new book into the curriculum and adding new content. I’ve written the curriculum and created a journal for the new Holding Space Certification Program. I’ve created all of the video notes for a course on How to Hold Space for Discomfort when there is Disruption. And I’ve done a complete read-through and edit of the book that will come out after The Art of Holding Space. (I wrote it a few years ago and then put it on hold to publish The Art of Holding Space.)
It always seems somewhat indulgent when I book a cabin like this for a working retreat, or I fly to Reno to stay in my friends’ guesthouse to complete my book, but so far I have never, ever regretted it. Not even a bit. It’s worth every penny I spend on it. And I’ve done some version of it at least once a year for the last eight years or so. (In the early years, I had to find inexpensive options, like borrowing spaces from friends.) I will continue to do it every year for the foreseeable future, though it may look different once my kids are all moved out of the house.
Because this is how I do deep work. This is how I hold space for my wild and wonderful wisdom. This is how I entertain the muse when it’s especially greedy and wants my undivided attention.
Not that it’s only for capitalist reasons, or that I have to justify why I do it, but if I were to work out how much income I generate from what I create in a week like this, the hourly value would be much higher than the usual time I put into my business. It is, therefore, one of the best annual business expenses I ever invest in. (If you have a business that relies on your ability to create things, I highly recommend you consider doing something similar.)
It’s not that I can’t write or create at home. I can and I do. But when I have a major project that requires intense focus and my clearest, most creative mind, I do much better when I remove as many distractions and other commitments as possible (it’s especially important to get offline), give myself large chunks of uninterrupted time, and find a place where nature nourishes and inspires me.
Cal Newport calls this “Deep Work”. It’s “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. … In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.” Sadly, he says, most people have lost the ability to go deep, “spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”
It’s true – our world has become too fast-paced, too high-impact, too full of distractions and unrealistic expectations of speed and availability for many of us to do deep work. Just as I am less focused and less creative in my home, where the internet distracts me, the news worries me, and my children’s and clients’ needs and expectations often take precedence over my writing time, so too are people the world over. (Especially in a pandemic.)
Some of us, though, have a special calling to do such deep work. The writers, artists, makers, musicians, philosophers, designers, teachers, inventors, healers and leaders – all of us need to find ways of accessing deeper wells of inspiration than we normally have access to in our day-to-day lives. We need to carve out time and spaciousness to tap into our own wild and wonderful wisdom. We need to create containers where the flicker of our most brilliant ideas can be protected from the wind of the noisy world, and then we need to add fuel to grow that flame into burning heat that warms, lights and destroys whatever it needs to.
It feels a little like an archaeological dig, when I disappear into work like this. When I’m at home and can only work in snippets, I only ever dig a few inches beneath the surface and never get to the really juicy ancient stories buried under centuries of history. When I’m away and can dive into the work for twelve hour stretches, interrupted only by the need to sleep and eat (and occasionally stare out the window or sit on the dock), I get to dig down into the places that make my whole body come alive with wonder and possibility.
I wish that there were more support, more permission, more money, and more acknowledgement of the importance of this kind of dedicated time available for the creators and thinkers of the world. I wish that there were more patrons and/or public institutions that would fund the sparks of ideas that come especially from those who can’t afford a week in a cabin the same way I can. I wish that there were many champions who would advocate for anyone who needs dedicated time to work on their craft, so that they didn’t have to spend all of their energy convincing people of the economic value of their work and could spend more time creating. I wish that we had stronger communities that would identify the makers and dreamers and thinkers among us and would collectively decide that they need to guard, protect, and encourage the space and time for these people to do what they do best. I wish there were eager volunteers for childcare and meal prep for all those whose families take them away from their ability to create.
Because, more than ever in these strange, challenging, disruptive times, we need art. We need music. We need books. We need ideas. We need ingenuity. We need dreams. We need hope. We need makers. We need thinkers. We need inventors. We need scientists. We need healers. We need people to go to those DEEP places.
We need creative people who will imagine our world into climate solutions. We need artists and musicians who will help us dream into more racial justice. We need thinkers and inventors and scientists who will navigate our way through this global pandemic. We need creative community builders and healers and web masters and coders who will help us thrive and connect in the midst of this strange pandemic-imposed disconnection.
But all of these people need to first find ways of doing deep work. They need to be able to carve out space and time without disruption. They need to be given ways of feeding their families and paying their bills so that their minds are not consumed with financial stress and family responsibility.
What will we do to make this happen? I don’t know. Coming up with that solution is not my particular line of genius, but I hope for whoever it IS, they will find a way to disappear into the exquisite solitude of a week in a cabin by a lake (or whatever helps their creativity blossom) so that they can think and create their way into their wild and wonderful wisdom. And then I hope they share it and we all get onboard.