Apologetic and Still Looking for Meaning

One of my longest-standing delay tactics when it comes to writing is to look up the definitions for words that I already know, telling myself that I’m just “warming up,” but really choosing someone else’s way of defining something rather than my own.  Maybe it’s an okay strategy, I’m not sure; sometimes I do learn interesting things.  For example, this morning I was looking up “apology,” and I found this adorable collection of “apology poems” from Mrs. Trebour’s class at Countrywood Primary School in Huntington, NY from October 2003.  The class wrote apologies to pumpkins they had carved for Halloween.  Here’s my favorite, by “Alex:”
Dear Pumpkin,
I am very sorry for taking
your brain out.
Please forgive me.
But now I can make stew 
out of you.

I feel exactly as though someone has taken my brain out when it comes to writing, and maybe they’re making stew somewhere and will bring it back, but I’m not sure.  Writing my Lenten blog had a purpose and a structure that I can’t seem to reproduce.  I thought the “43 Eternal Truths” was an intriguing enough new structure, or new purpose, but the embarrassing truth is that it’s just not.  Not for me, anyway.  Writing it feels like this definition of apology:

“an inferior specimen or substitute; makeshift, as in ‘The tramp wore a sad apology for a hat.'”  (www.dictionary.com)

Ironically, number 3 of the 43 Eternal Truths is: “You can’t get there from here, and besides, there’s no place else to go.”  I’ve been going around and around with this for about a week, and nothing feels right.  I don’t like it, I’m not even sure what it means, and writing in response to things like that makes me feel like a performing seal. 

Some writers can write in response to anything, any instruction or direction or exercise.  I’ve tried this–things like “make a list of random words and write a poem using each word at the end of each line,” or “write 200 words about ‘saying goodbye,” and I immediately feel like someone has asked me to start spontaneously speaking Croatian.  This week, I tried skipping ahead to the 4th Eternal Truth, hoping that might feel inspiring, but that one is: “We are all dying and are going to be dead for a long time,” and I could actually feel the neural pathways in my brain start to collapse as I read that.

Now, at this moment, the ironic part is that indeed I can’t get to where I wanted to go via this route–from there to here or whatever it is–and it’s taken me this long to realize it.  The lovely aspect of a blog is that you are directly connected to readers when you have written something worth reading; the embarrassing aspect of blog is that you are directly connected to readers when you have not.

My uncle, a very gifted and complicated man who does not have access to a computer, recently asked me to send him some of my writing.  At his sister’s suggestion, I printed out the Lenten blog and sent it to him.  It was 120 pages, and this felt ridiculous to me, but she told me he would “love it,” so I sent it anyway.  And now we’re talking about it on the phone, which makes me feel both quietly excited and completely uncomfortable.  He told me that after the first 7 pages, he thought, “Wow, the kid can write.”  And then he told me, “But you use the word ‘meaningful’ too much.”

“This is just my pet peeve,” he explained, “but ‘meaningful’ is one of those words that doesn’t really mean anything.  You can say that something ‘has meaning,’ but things are never really ‘full of meaning.'”  Nothing is ever really ‘full of meaning,’ because there is always room for more.  There is always some other aspect, something else to consider, some other way to look at things.”

I love this, even though I’m not sure why yet.

When he had finished reading the whole thing, he left me a voicemail that said that he loved it, that it reminded him of a line from a Pay Conroy novel about oblique writing because it wasn’t oblique at all, and that he hoped we could talk more about it.  “And it was even ‘meaningful,'” he said, laughing his strange tired old man’s laugh.

I hope we can too, even though I find it very difficult to look back at things I’ve written.  I mean, I edit pieces to death BEFORE I post them, but once it’s done, it’s done, and it embarrasses me to go back to it, to claim it.  My uncle’s reading of the Lenten blog has been like having someone waving a hand in front of my face and saying, “Hello?  I thought we were writing here??  Where are you going?  I thought we had a deal.”

David Whyte says that writing is like overhearing yourself say things that you didn’t know you knew.  I have definitely found this to be true, even though he’s talking about poetry when he says it.  But it’s even better if you can actually listen to yourself, to care enough about what you’ve said.

So I’m still looking for direction, and I know it’s out there, somewhere.  One thing I can tell you for sure is that tomorrow I’ll have a story to tell you about an unexpected development in my “Spreading Cheer at Work Project.”  I hope you’ll stick with me for it. 

Today’s poem is called “Lost,” by David Wagoner.  It’s a retelling of a Native American “teaching story,” and what an elder would say to a child if asked, “What do I do if I am lost in the woods?”


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner, Who Shall Be the Sun?

10 thoughts on “Apologetic and Still Looking for Meaning

Add yours

  1. Leslie — I love your writing, and I appreciate your talent. But sometimes the well runs dry, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for it, nor apologize. As far as what we write, doesn’t it, in some ways, become obsolete the moment we “put it out there”? It’s not like drafts that we keep for ourselves, which we can go back and rewrite, rework, rehash … when we put ourselves out there, it means what it means at the moment. Yeah, an hour later you could go back and add or delete something … perhaps your perception changed drastically in that hour’s time. But you are not an irresponsible writer … I know that when you put something out there, you have given it great thought. You are sharing yourself with us, and while you owe responsibility to some degree to your readers, don’t we in turn owe you some measure, also? Don’t be too hard on yourself … I love you and your talent.



  2. So if one finds direction in writing, does it follow that one will find direction in life? [it would be really nice to find something “meaningful” in life]

    I am in utter awe of anyone who cares to write as regularly as you do.


    1. Hi Ruth,

      Very good question! I have found that I do feel more “directed” in my life when I am writing regularly and with a purpose. It may be an arbitrary direction–something I am making up myself to keep myself on track–but that in itself is a worthwhile effort, I think. And I promise to share any insights on meaning with you if you promise to do the same!

      Leslie 🙂


  3. Hi Leslie. I missed your writing so much while I was on my meditation retreat. I feel that the writing process is exactly like a retreat — there are times when you feel you “get it.” And then there are times when the whole thing feels ridiculous and you’d be a lot better off if you just got off that stupid cushion and stopped fooling yourself.

    I’ve got to sit down and look at these 43 Eternal Truths. Part of the dilemma may be that when something is “true” in the deepest sense of the word, it can’t be spoken of precisely. Like how the Tao opens:

    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao.
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    But I still think it’s worth the effort, just as Lao-tzu, the author of the Tao, wrote 81 verses doing just that. It points to the truth for us mere mortals. Thank you for being a guide.



    1. Thank you, Barbara! The analogy to meditating helps clarify some important things for me, namely that this whole process is not always (or perhaps ever) as lovely and elegant as we would wish for it to be! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Leslie


  4. Hi Jeanine,

    Thanks for being here and for your thoughts. And believe me, I have thought about asking for readers’ help with some of these thoughts, and now your comment has convinced me to go ahead and do that! I’ll be looking for your comments…”

    Thanks for the encouragement,

    Leslie 🙂


  5. So happy to see that you sent him your writings and he responded! Had to read his critique a few times and then had to smile! ” Wow the kid can write but you use the word “meaningful” too much! ” Sounds just like him :))) Just wanted you to know that in my mind, you made his day much more “meaningful”. No apologies needed for that!
    Looking forward to the next blog about “spreading cheer at work”. The “43 truths” do not interest me much but I will read along if that is the direction you decide to take. Personally, I really enjoy the writings that come from your heart!
    love m


    1. Hi Marilyn,

      It’s been very rewarding to talk with him–we’ve had several conversations now and I’m appreciating this connection. Thanks for reading, and for your encouragement!



  6. Hi Leslie,
    I enjoy your use of “meaningful”, personally 🙂
    It’s generous of you to write for us, your readers, but I wish you didn’t feel so pressured to deliver.
    Just brainstorming… how about you turn to us for some help? Ask your following to reflect on something (something brief… filling in a MadLib, answering a question, our own 2 or 3 truths or favorite somethings), and then you can write about that. Or ask us to email you a poem and see if that sparks something. It’s just an idea, but I want you to feel supported from us, your loyal followers. You give so much in your writing, it’s OK to ask for something back. (…at least, it’s ok with me!)


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