Thursday, May 19, 2011


(The draft of a chapter from the book I'm currently working on.)

For one who is a great believer in the necessity of sacred space, I find it curious—indeed, a little disturbing—to confess that I have never made a serious effort to create one for myself.

By “sacred space,” I mean a place that is exclusively dedicated to a particular, sometimes—but not necessarily—spiritual practice. It can also be simply a work space, a den, or a retreat. It can be as great as a mountain or as small as a private shrine. It can be as ancient as Stonehenge or a recent as that little prefab studio in your back yard. It’s the kind of place that, when you get there, you feel you have arrived back home.

I have on several occasions been advised to create a sacred space for my own meditation practice, just a small corner of the house which I could adorn with a small statue of the Buddha, say, a decorative textile, a photograph or two—perhaps of family—a candle, a bowl of flowers… Just a tiny space that is dedicated to that one, singular purpose, a place to go and sit.

It’s a lovely idea, and I understand not only its appeal but also its benefits for a meditation practice. It would serve as an aid to regularity, dedication. And yet… I have never done it.

And it’s the same with a work space, which is something I freely recommend to others when asked for my advice, but which I have never truly established for myself. Again, for a writer it’s not complicated. I need no more than support for my computer, a printer, a few shelves, some books, some reference works… I harbor a secret envy for those who manage to carve out an elaborate cave, in a hard-to-reach attic or a basement—the work, for some, of years, where they are surrounded by stacks of books and papers, a frantic mess of files and never-to-be-finished projects. It’s the kind of place where anyone but yourself would be at a loss to find anything, but where you can lay your hands on exactly what you need without a moment’s hesitation.

It need not even be in your house. It could be a rented space in a high-rise office building or a mini-mall…

I have had studies. I have a study. Two of them, in fact, in different houses. They double as guest rooms. And while we do not frequently have guests, they do not feel, to me, as though they are completely mine.

And so I wander when I work. I take my laptop to the dining room table or the corner of a couch in the living room. I bring it to bed with me in the morning or the afternoon, at nap time. And while I continue to nurse this wish for a place of my own, for some reason I do not manage to create it.

Now that I think about it, I realize that this uncomfortable truth may be significantly related to that deluded conviction I mentioned in an earlier chapter: “I have no right to be here.” It’s as though I carried around with me some wrong-headed message that kicks in whenever I have a mind to change things. At a still deeper level, I recognize with a certain sadness that even “home” is not an easily definable concept for me. Sent off to school at an early age, I would return home to different places in the holidays; following what he felt to be his pastoral call, my father moved from parish to parish as I was growing up. When people ask me where I’m from, in England, I hear myself respond that “I’m a little from all over.” I was born in the north, and am inordinately proud of being a “Geordie”—one born on the banks of the River Tyne—even though I spent only the first year and a half of my life there. Other than that, I went to school in the south, and “lived” at various locations in the Midlands.

Since leaving England nearly fifty years ago, I moved around a good deal before settling in Southern California in the late 1960s. Having lived in Los Angeles for more than four decades, I have to confess that I still don’t feel “at home” here. I suspect I share this rootlessness with many others in this day and age; we are long past the days when we human beings did not move far beyond our place of birth and family hearth, but I’m inclined to believe that we preserve the gene that longs for that simple sense of belonging, of being where one is supposed to be in the world.

I bring this up because I see a connection between that sense of belonging and the kind of sacred space I’m talking about. How can you feel that you have “arrived back home” when you have no real sense of home to return to—even if that place is a psychic and spiritual space rather than an actual location. To the mind, as I see it, the two are one.

And still we need a place to work. For the artist who works with physical media, the requirements are harder to fulfill than for the writer. There are the materials to find a place for—everything from pens and pencils to tubes of paint and brushes, to much bulkier materials for the artist who works in three dimensions. There is the question of appropriate light in which to work, and physical space to accommodate the action. The ultimate, of course, is the spacious, white-walled studio, with the traditional north-facing skylights and ample room for racks. Nice space, if you can get it. Most have to settle for something less: a converted garage, perhaps, or a spare room in the house. At the very least, an attic, or a private corner somewhere.

But there’s more to this than physical space. Just as important and more problematic, for many—and here I include myself—is the ability to protect its borders, to maintain its integrity as a truly sacred space. The invaders are many and persistent, and it takes but a small loss of vigilance to surrender your treasured work space to them. More of this, then, in another chapter…

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