Kathleen Norris is an award-winning poet and essayist. In her books—such as The Cloister Walk and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography—she often explores spirituality in a way that is both personal and historical. We spoke with her recently about the importance of place, the relationship between creative and contemplative pursuits, and the benefits of belonging to a community.
This post is part of a series of short interviews on contemplation and creativity.
Even though digital media makes it easier to connect with people and places far away from us, it seems that spiritual experiences often need to be grounded in a particular place. Do you think having an intimate relationship with a geographical place is important for spiritual development?
Actually, this is a very deep concern of mine right now and for some reasons you might not expect. I’m in Hawaii, where I grew up since I was about ten years old. My family was here from the late ‘50s until my parents died some 50 years later, so I have a lot of connections with Hawaii. But in a lot of ways my heart is on the Great Plains. I think people have to deal with whatever circumstances come up in their life. Sometimes moving isn’t necessarily your choice, but it’s something you have to learn to live with.
After my husband died and I moved back to Hawaii, but my husband and I lived in Western South Dakota for 25 years. We really had a sense of belonging there and that landscape is still in my heart. But a couple years after my husband died and I went back to that little town, I realized I really couldn’t live there anymore. It was a painful revelation, but it was just a little too isolated.
And yet, I’ve never quite felt that Hawaii is my place either. Honolulu is as insular as South Dakota, which a lot of people don’t understand. I run into my high school classmates all the time. And there are a lot of small town attitudes. We are, in fact, the most isolated island chain on Earth, in terms of physical distance. So we get a very insular way of thinking.
So place has become a very potent issue for me right now and I have the feeling there are a lot of people dealing with these kinds of issues as their parents age or things change in their families: “Where should I be?”
It sounds like you’re suggesting that the answer to that question is that usually beyond our control.
I think that the illusion of control is probably one of our biggest problems. Technology is wonderful. It can do all sorts of things for us, but it’s not going to solve all our problems. Things outside of our control will always come up. Sometimes a tremendous earthquake forces us to acknowledge that we’re not as in control as we thought. But often it takes a real human tragedy like that to force us to understand that we just don’t have as much control as we thought we did over anything.
How can that acknowledgement of things being out of our control inform our spiritual development?
I always go back to the fourth century Christian monks and nuns of the desert, because they had such a healthy perspective on this kind of thing. I think they would laugh at the notion of control, saying, “What we really need is humility, because humility is what will get us through whatever happens.” If you had someone who was bragging about their spiritual discipline and prayer life, for example, an older monk would just shoot them down and say, “Hey, you better watch it. You think you’re in charge here, but that’s not what’s happening.”
So if control isn’t the best approach, do you think spiritual development is less about practices and more a matter of trying to surround yourself with the right people and grow through osmosis?
Practices matter, but I use those early monks as examples all the time because they knew that practices can become an idol. They can become a very stiff thing. So practices might have to change over time. But they do matter. If I were never reading the Psalms, I would be a different person than I am right now. The voices of wisdom that are in the Psalms bring me back to what really matters.
I’m so glad that you mentioned reading the poetry of the Psalms as practice. Can you speak to the relationship between your own contemplative life and creative life?
Absolutely. I think you go into kind of a trance when you’re really writing. And I think that’s one of the reasons that writers tend to resist it, because once you enter that trance, it’s a wonderful world, but it’s hard to enter and hard to leave. There’s that old joke about the cleanest bathrooms in the world of those of writers who are under a deadline, because they’d rather do anything than sit down and actually write.
I like that word “trance,” because there is a contemplative thing that happens when you really engage with the words of a poem or, often in my case, an essay. It takes you out of the world that way prayer does or the way meditating on the Psalms will do. So I think the two do go together. If I didn’t have my mind open enough to what words can do as I’m praying, as I’m sitting in silence, I really wouldn’t be able to write at all.
There are times when I just get too distracted by all the details that I have to do, the to-do list of the day. I get so distracted enough by that it’s as if part of me sort of fades away. In the Jewish scriptures, they talk about wisdom in a way that, if there is somebody who is willing to listen, she will come. And when we act foolishly or reject wisdom, she just departs from us.
Sometimes it takes me a while to get back in touch with that more contemplative, silent part of me, but it’s necessary if I’m ever going to write. It’s necessary for prayer, but it’s also necessary if I’m ever going to write again. You can’t let the world just sweep you away with all of the distraction. You have to be somewhat focused in order to get in touch with that creative spirit.
What do you do specifically to get in touch with the creative spirit?
Pretty basic things. I keep a notebook by my bed, so that if I have a dream I can write it down. I read the Psalms and pray every day.
In addition to connecting you to the creative spirit, do you feel that these kinds of contemplative activities can lead to connection with other people? Do you think they can help inspire social action?
I think that’s the hope, although I’m not sure how often it’s realized. We shortchange ourselves by becoming so involved with our own personal practices that we basically ignore the rest of the world. “I’ve got mine,” we think. One thing I like about Christianity is that it is inescapably communal. You can’t do it by yourself. You never do it by yourself. You can pray by yourself, but that communal element of going to a church and getting along with some people you can’t stand is also always part of it.
Of, course my church is not a social service organization. We’re a church congregation. But you can easily see how the spiritual dimension of our lives together as Christians translates into different kinds of social action that we do. Our neighborhood would miss us if we weren’t there. Whether they come to pray with us or not, that’s not the point. We’re part of the neighborhood. We’re part of the scenery.
Would you say that some the fruits of a spiritual life might simply be your ability to get along with the people around you?
It’s important, although I think solitude is important as well. If you can’t be alone by yourself for a good period of time, then that’s a problem. Of course, if you always have to be surrounded by other people, that’s a huge problem. Both of those extremes make for a very shallow spiritual life. As with most things, there should be some harmony between solitude and being in the company of others. It’s always a question of trying to strike a balance.