How Is Writing Like Burning Baskets?

I have always been able to separate and distinguish between different aspects of my life; keeping my work, hobbies, writing, church, and family life in neat little compartments, but more and more I’m finding them all blending together in new and surprising ways. At work I have been adding recently acquired materials for author Kathleen Norris’ papers to her processed papers in our archives collections, and what I learn when I process another writer’s papers helps me a lot in my creative writing work.

The new materials from Norris that I’m processing are draft manuscripts and research for her book,  Acedia & me. I started reading the book because I was curious about acedia and how it is different than depression. The first chapter begins with a story from The Institutes by John Cassian about Abba Paul, a desert monk who created baskets from palm fronds to pass the days. The transportation to get them to a market would have cost more than he would have made selling them, so he collected and burned the baskets every year. Reading the story made me think about my writing and how at times it seems so futile. I think that most of us want not to be forgotten. We want some remnant of ourselves to remain after we’re gone. We want to know that our lives have mattered, that we have changed the world for the better.

Without even really being aware of it, I’ve bought into the pervasive belief that the “baskets” or physical “product” that we create is the way we leave a lasting legacy. Yet all of our experience shows us that physical things don’t survive forever, and they don’t stay the same. New technology replaces old equipment. New books and new ideas eventually become yellowed and obsolete with age. I love gardening, and I know that a garden takes continual care. I’ve planted a flower bed, tucked all of the plants in place, surrounded them with landscape fabric and mulch, installed edging to keep grass from creeping in, and expected that the garden would stay as it was for years. It doesn’t work that way! The mulch gets washed away, weeds start to poke through here and there, in winter the rabbits sometimes chew the plants down to stubs, and grass eventually moves in from the edge. Nature continually works toward changing, assimilating, re-using, or re-forming everything into something else.

In the archives profession we’re especially aware of this. Our efforts go toward slowing down deterioration as much as possible, but we can’t completely stop it for any extended period of time. The story of Abba Paul helped me to see that the only thing that really endures is the interior work that we do, the stuff that we can’t see. How and what do we learn? How do we affect the lives of others around us? What I do, say, or write will impact someone else in a positive or negative way, and that will affect how they interact with others and the world, and that is how my work lives on. The exterior “basket” is really just a manifestation of that interior work. I have always been puzzled by the Buddhist tradition of making and then dismantling sand mandalas, but now it’s starting to become a little clearer to me.

Of course, I’m not about to gather up all of my writing and throw it on the bonfire that is DSC_0407burning right now in our driveway, cleaning up several years’ worth of branches and yard waste. I work in an archives after all, and my job is preserving, not destroying historical papers and artifacts. The ideas and knowledge contained in those materials provide the seeds for new creative work, and hopefully we will all be richer for it.

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