Column: Don’t Sin Against Your Talent

A little while ago, someone asked me what was on my #ShelfofWisdom, the book shelf of indispensable tomes that are page-worn and near-memorised because they’ve shown the way so many times.

So, I did what anyone with a Facebook, twitter or Instagram account would do: I artfully lined up a selection of books designed to cast me as incredibly smart and creative, took a photo, tagged her, and posted it for all the world to see.

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Of course, I hadn’t read most of them. I’d acquired them all anticipating they would convey wisdom and brilliance, but for the most part, I just skimmed, left them on my bedside table for the requisite 3 months, dusted around them until I got fed up with the growing pile then relocated them to the bookshelf.

What I didn’t put on the shelf, because I don’t have a copy, was probably the single most influential book I’ve ever read. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

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Admittedly, it wasn’t just because I don’t have a copy. I feel a little bit embarrassed by the book I inhaled as a teenager longing for a more inspiring life, eating up every word about writing as a practice.
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Loving Natalie Goldberg made me self-conscious about how unsophisticated I am, about my raw 15 year old longings, and that I am, and probably always will be, so much more earnest than clever or cool.

But in an unrelated email conversation with Susan Reifer, an uber-talented writer who I regard as plenty sophisticated, creative, and smart, I was given permission to own my fan-girl status. “Natalie Goldberg was a vital, valued teacher of mine for many years through her writings,” emailed Susan.

Thank you Reifer.

Goldberg parachuted back into my life last year when I half-read her latest book, The True Secret of Writing, while nursing a new baby and feeling utterly bereft of wisdom (or any clue whatsoever.)

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Reading about the writing retreats Goldberg had modeled around Buddhist meditation retreats, while I sat half naked in the back room disengaged from conversation, current affairs, work-life, idea trends, the world-at-large, her words were an invitation to mindfulness when it seemed my whole life’s momentum had stopped.

A year later, I picked up the book again (thank you Pemberton Library) to revisit it. Maybe even finish it all the way through. But first, I wanted to find the most powerful part, the bit that had held my attention and replayed over and over through my 2am wheel-spinning mind.

I skimmed through the 236 pages twice, and then started over, reading slowly, right from the beginning before I finally found it – a tiny little sentence tucked at the bottom of page 29.

Tony Bennett: “I was a little hooked on drugs when all the assassinations took place, with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. And everybody got so disappointed in America that the rage become drugs, you know, when everybody started taking drugs. So I dipped into that a little. But I learned… Woody Allen’s manager, Jack Rollins, he said to me: “I used to handle Lenny Bruce.” So I said: “Oh, Lenny Bruce,” I said, “what was he like?” He said: “He sinned against his talent.” That one sentence changed my life. “He sinned against his talent.” I listend to that, and I stopped taking any kind of drugs. And it changed my life for the better.

Who the hell knows why this resonated so deeply that I thought it took up half the book, that Don’t Sin Against Your Talent felt like a new commandment, or a neon rallying cry, a call that connected 15 year old me to brand new Mama me to the lost friend who had just jumped off a concrete parkade to her death, to folks in our communities wrestling addiction and wordless heartache.

But it did.

Maybe because “talent” is just another word for Life Potential, and there I was suddenly charged with the care of one small bundle of blinking, crying, pooping, Potential, and feeling a great ferocious surge of desire to protect it, in us all.

So Wendy, that’s actually what’s on my Shelf of Wisdom right now. A pile of diapers and an overdue library book. Want a picture?

 

The Wellness Almanac is launching a Shelf of Wisdom series on this daily blog. If you’d like to share a tale or recommend or review a book that had an impact on you, let us know at TheWellnessAlmanac@gmail.com.

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