Last Shabbat, I read a book that had been lounging on my shelf for a good six or so years without being touched. It was given to me by a friend of mine in seminary. She'd found it at a used book store and thought it sounded like something I'd like. I haven't seen that friend in five years now. I wonder how she's been.
The book is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th century German poet/writer. Inside my old used 1950's edition is a hand-written note to the original owner of this thing, a reminder that "sometimes inspiration comes at the darkest of times."
I felt like I should have read this book a few months ago. Right now, THANK YOU G-D, things don't look dark to me. I don't want to say that too loud (YES, I know that's superstitious. MEH, I say!), but I'm really grateful to G-d right now for all I've got at this moment. I wish I could have this state of mind all the time.
But that book is something incredible.
It's just half of a conversation, the letters sent from Rilke to a young, inexperienced poet who was having a hard time. We never see the young poet's half of the conversation, but most of Rilke's letters contain some amazing words of advice, my favorite of which stuck with me so much that I found myself doodling it out the other day.
If it's hard to read, that quote is: "Being an artist means not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that summer may not come. It does come. But it only comes to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything."
Truer words, as they say. But I find that this applies to a lot more than just being an artist. But let's start there.
Being an artist is frustrating. Unless you're insanely lucky, being an artist means paying your dues for a lot longer than you'd like or expect. It's exactly like this quote says. But then there's the rest of life, which applies whether or not you're artsy.
Patience isn't exactly a virtue I have in abundance, and it's the number one thing I've been working on. In the past two weeks or so, it's been popping up here and there, as if the Universe was underscoring itself in the context of my life.
Last week, I met up or got back in touch with a few friends I hadn't seen in a while. And in two or three cases, they were feeling very much like the Young Poet. Unsure, maybe lost or down.
I didn't know what to say. What the hell do I know? I'm only 24, and haven't done anything that would give me the right to tell others what to do. I make TONS of stupid mistakes. I try to avoid commenting on things I don't know much about, so when people come to me with a problem, sometimes I feel ill-equipped to help, even though I want to.
Thus Letters to a Young Poet. It's super short, easily plowed through in an afternoon, and actually written to just such a lost twenty-something. Maybe a little dramatically at times, but hey, it's a poet talking to a poet. It has so many quotes I could wax on about, including this one tackled touchingly by Zen Pencils, but the one about patience struck me and stuck like a branch hitting tar.
So instead of trying to give advice as if I remotely know what I'm talking about (which I don't, and let's face it, neither do most of us), I'm going to recommend giving this a read. I don't think Rilke really knew something more than the rest of the world (maybe I'm wrong), but he sounds like he did.
Whether or not you currently feel lost or are feeling a sense of tentative, cautious optimism (please, G-d, let me stay in this state. I like it here.), I'd recommend picking this thing up. I'll lend you my used, 1950s thrift store copy. Apparently, as its written dedication suggests, it's made to be passed from person to person.
Here's one more quote for the road:
“Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
A weird sort of Karmic affection. I like it.