The Other Side of the Mountain by Mary Sharratt


The author in the Dolomite Mountains in 2017.

I love my new life in Portugal and I’m so happy and grateful to be here. However, I have encountered one major roadblock–I simply cannot replicate my daily writing routine that I’d relied on in the UK for nearly twenty years. I used to get up and leap right on the page, but now I keep horses on my property and their care and feeding come first, before I even get my human breakfast. And horse care is the last thing I do before sunset. If once I was a morning writer, now I’m a late morning/early afternoon writer. Writing gets sandwiched between horse care. Creative ideas bubble up as I ruminate while picking poo in the early morning. I’ve had to find a new rhythm that fits my new life.

Many of us, particularly many women, are struggling to find their daily rhythm while balancing the demands of remote-working with childcare, home schooling, and elder care as we enter the eleventh month of our global pandemic. This can be depleting, to say the least. To make matters worse, the old boundaries between work, family life, and “leisure” have unravelled and become impossibly blurred. Many of us feel under even greater pressure to be productive during this time.

Experts preach that we need to manage our time, plan every minute of the day by making little boxes for each task in our daily planner. I have tried to do this, but always rebel in the end. It seems a pointless task to try to force the flow of my day into orderly boxes. Instead I try to find what rhythms work for me so it feels organic rather than forced.

Now as a woman in my mid-fifties, I feel I have arrived at the other side of the mountain. I moved to Portugal, in part, to slow down. To be less frantically obsessed about work and career. To take a step back from the whole competitiveness of the writing world that can be soul-destroying and completely antithetical to the creative process. I’m done running myself ragged in some misguided attempt to get ahead. Perhaps I’m losing my “edge.” Perhaps this is what it means to be literally “over the hill.” You’ve come so far on your journey that it’s too late to return to old ways of doing things or old ways of seeing the world–the view is completely different up here.

Due to the radical reset of the pandemic, I think that a lot of people are arriving at this place, regardless of their chronological age. At some point we reach a peak of life experience beyond which there is no going back. We have entered a new landscape, brand new territory where the old maps will not get us anywhere. We have to seek a new direction. We have arrived in the place where we can claim our power, our inner sovereignty, and live our life to the rhythms that work for us.

For me this means abandoning the cult of productivity, the pervasive belief that living to work makes us virtuous. That our worth is determined by our output. This cult is particularly damaging to women who still carry the bulk of childcare and domestic work–the whole second shift of wife work that goes unrecognized, unvalued, and unpaid. I believe the majority of male productivity gurus can only adhere to their monastically rigid schedules because they have an unpaid woman in the background doing all the childcare and mopping up all the mess.

One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that, if we let it, the cult of productivity will completely poison both our creativity and our spirituality.

The cult of productivity diminishes our daily spiritual practice as yet another demanding task on our to-do list, a result-oriented form of competitive striving. “I’m not a serious spiritual seeker unless I get up at 5:00 am to meditate. How else will I be on track to achieve enlightenment?”

Spiritual practice is by its very nature the precise opposite of doing or striving. It’s letting go, surrendering to a state of pure being and receptivity, relaxing into the divine luminosity welling up in our hearts.

As for creativity, international best-selling author Hilary Mantel, one of my great idols, has written one of the best essays on the writing process I have ever read. Writing world-class literature, for her, is not a matter of locking herself in her office for eight hours a day or adhering to a rigid word count but of finding the right rhythm.

“I have to grab a notebook and write before I am properly awake,” she writes. “The day’s writing starts to unroll in my head. It’s fragile and often a matter of rhythm rather than words.”

Mantel stresses the importance of writers trusting themselves, trusting their creative flow, rather than obsessing about productivity. Good writing is not a matter of “persecuting paper with ink or pounding the keys. . . . You can’t measure your productivity day-to-day in any way the world recognizes.”

Then Mantel spills her secret that cuts the productivity gurus down to size:

 

 

 

I feel shy of saying this, because to non-writers it sounds lazy–but if, seven days a week, you can cut out two hours for yourself, when you are undistracted and on-song, you will soon have a book. Unoriginally, I call these “the golden hours.” It doesn’t much matter where I find them, as long as I do. I usually work many more hours. But sometimes I wonder why.

 

When we step into flow, either creative or spiritual flow, we enter a realm of timelessness, where our calendars and clocks dissolve into oblivion. We lose ourselves in that rich inner world. And it’s not forced. It’s not imposed upon us. The flow carries us. May we all be blessed with golden hours.



Mary Sharratt
is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel
Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.

 



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19 replies

  1. “Spiritual practice is by its very nature the precise opposite of doing or striving. It’s letting go, surrendering to a state of pure being and receptivity…” There you have it! Productivity is a way to make myself feel important enough when in actuality I am steeped in the void…Whenever I engage with productivity these days I am asking myself what’s really wrong.

    I’m so glad for you Mary. Like you I am a morning writer but also pulled into Nature at the same time… balance is sometimes hard to achieve here.

    Thank you for this important post.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thank you for this beautiful post, Mary. Just yesterday I was thinking that I was finally slowing down, enjoying the very tasks (typically the domestic ones) I used to think “got in the way” of my literary “productivity”— cooking, cleaning, organizing my closets, etc. Even just sitting and dreaming (and sometimes knitting!) gives me new pleasure now. Of course I am very privileged, able to enjoy this leisure—retired, living in a house in the countryside, sharing my life with a husband and two lovely young cats. I haven’t worked on my translations for a few weeks now, but I find myself happier and calmer. A new kind of “flow” from which something new may emerge! Congratulations on your own new lovely life! May we all find our golden hours.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Mary, good to hear from you! I hope the horses are all doing well. Thanks for this terrific post about slowing down. Partly because we’re all aging and partly because of the pandemic, we’re all slowing down. That may be good for us. We need those few golden hours to do whatever it we do and want to do. Bright blessings to you and your work!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love this richly inspiring and honest post. So many truths here. I hope you are finding your flow and enjoying it. I love the idea of finding freedom to leave the “cult of productivity” and all its imprisoning concepts behind.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for this post, Mary. I am here with you on the side of the mountain. I think I’ve always been here, though I like to take a hike up to get a view now and then. The kind of success I longed for passed me by. (That might surprise people, but I have had only small publishers and now rely on a micro-publisher–me and a couple of friends; no reviews for my last two books). But the gift is I am under no pressure. That said the Muse is still my main squeeze. It’s a lifelong love affair with all joys and pitfalls of any long term relationship. The main thing, as in any relationship with humans, deities, gardens, equines, gardens, is showing up. My motto is, show up for the muse and s/he’ll show up for you.

    Thanks for a beautiful post. Right on, write on, dream on, even/especially while you pick poo!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I remember when we first met at BEA in 2000! It feels like a lifetime ago! I hope you honor your success and accomplishments as much as I and your many readers do. We all rejoice in your dance with the Muse! <3

      Like

  6. So beautifully articulated, Mary. Thank you!

    I’m right there with you, been thinking about that same Cult of Productivity and how it is crumbling into dust like autumn leaves. It’s the foundation of the entire industrial/hierarchical society of the past few millennia, I think. Not a coincidence that so many of us are feeling it, in its disorienting effect and the ensuing freedom and possibility. The invented fog that locked us in is lifting, even though we were taught that most of us can’t sense the “paranormal”. Ahem.

    Also, I’ve been noticing that those same two hours you describe, in my studio, are all that’s needed to feel right with the Muses and also create something worth offering up. The elegant security of feeling like I’ve done enough, rather than the old feeling of Never Enough, is still shocking in its ease, like releasing a long-held breath, but it corroborates the feeling of not being the source of what’s created, only the conduit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “The elegant security of feeling like I’ve done enough, rather than the old feeling of Never Enough, is still shocking in its ease, like releasing a long-held breath, but it corroborates the feeling of not being the source of what’s created, only the conduit.”

      This is beautiful, Laurie! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Never Enough was my unconscious mantra for far too long . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Glad you are enjoying your new life,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh Mary, I so love your writing and your thoughts. Yes, this pandemic has forced all of us to re-examine and change our patterns. I went through 17 years of rigourous shamanic training. We were deliberately challenged constantly to look at and change our patterns, get out and stay out of our comfort zones. It was tough and perhaps even at times abusive but I do love the concepts of movement and change and learning to seek and listen to our own pathways of life. They are certainly holding me in good stead now.

    I am probably about 10 years older than you and I certainly don’t remember any specific hill that I may or may not be on the other side of. I see my journey as more of a spiral than a linear path so even if I did “get over a hill” I imagine I’ll find myself enjoying it yet another time in my life. I hope its in bloom with wild flowers the next time I climb it.

    One thing you write I am not so sure of: “Spiritual practice is by its very nature the precise opposite of doing or striving. It’s letting go, surrendering to a state of pure being and receptivity, relaxing into the divine luminosity welling up in our hearts.” Totally hard to be in a spiritual frame of mind when productivity is the goal. But still I have learned for myself that spirituality is what happens in everyday life, in every hour, every minute, every meal, every breath. Its easy to be “spiritual” sitting in a warm, sunny zen garden with calming music, lovely vistas, luxurious smells. But I would say that is more of a training ground than a permanent fixture of our day to day lives. Its taking those feeling and thoughts out into the “real world” that is the spiritual path I have found to be meaningful. Perhaps tending to your horses is the foundation of your spirit life for now. Congrats, I can think of no better. I wish for you that doing this now will give you a wealth of inspiration for your writing as you go along.

    Liked by 2 people

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