I’ve started a new collection: out-of-office replies.
Brilliant manifestos, wise words, gentle reminders. Auto replies that inspire me to put up one myself. This one from a fellow nature-loving writer, for example, remains a favorite: “I hope this email does not find you. I hope you are outside somewhere, chasing the last golden sunsets of summer and looking for the first clusters of green apples laden upon a nearby branch you never noticed before. Don’t give up on the real.”
Right ON, Rebecca Williams! That was my first thought, which only solidified as I read on, because she then quoted Edward Abbey: “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and . . . mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains . . . breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves.”
Maybe because I’m getting older, or maybe because COVID brought me so low that I reassessed all my priorities, or maybe because it’s finally spring after a terminal winter, but I feel more like contemplating the precious stillness and mysterious awesome space. And less willing to sacrifice awe.
And awe is rarely found at my screen.
My other all-time favorite out-of-office reply came to me from the poet Camille Dungy, who quoted Charles Dickens on the subject. She pulled a few awesome lines from a “sorry, I can’t” type of response he wrote to a friend: “It is only half an hour’–’It is only an afternoon’–’It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again. But they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day. These are the penalties paid for writing books. Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”
I snorted in delight when I read this one too. And surely this is applicable to everyone, not just authors. An invitation for “a cup of coffee” will eat up a half day, and, indeed, change the course of our entire days, and although I love a cup of coffee with a friend as much as the next person, I’m also unwilling to parcel out my time when I just can’t.
It’s my job to stop the slicing. No one will give us the time we need. It will not get better “as soon as” we finish whatever-whatever project. We must take it for ourselves. Now.
Sometimes acquaintances say they’d “like to take me for a cup of coffee” with the implication that somehow I’m getting the good end of the deal here — that a cup of coffee is a good exchange for my hours of time. Or a near-stranger asks me to meet them in town for a “quick lunch” so that they can ask me some questions. And I think of Dickens, 158 years ago, saying no, and he inspires me to say the same.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. But I am, I suppose, because often people (through no fault of their own) simply don’t know what they’re asking. They don’t know that I’m struggling to find the time to have coffee with the best of my friends.
Lest I sound like a jerk, let me say that sometimes I am the recipient of such responses, and after the initial aw, bummer, they don’t have time for me, I try to remember that this person is trying to protect and preserve her space. And that’s a request I should honor.
In her new book Soil: A Black Mother’s Garden, Dungy writes of this same struggle and her simple and yet difficult quest — what she wants, she writes, is to simply “be in the quiet center of my own life.”
Yes, yes, yes. That’s what I want too.
So, no offense, but I likely will not answer every email. I don’t dislike you, I’m not a misanthrope, I am just taking care of my one sacred life. And I promise not to be offended when you do the same. We must find the quiet centers of our life, and it strikes me that that means frequently walking away from our inboxes and our screens.
So, I’m putting up my out-of-office automatic reply and heading to the Rowe Nature Sanctuary in Kearney, Nebraska, to revel in the wonder that is the sandhill cranes. And I hope you put up your out-of-office, or the equivalent, too. And actually, I hope you are not reading this. I hope this finds you reveling in the wonder that is the snow-melted waterfalls and the first glorious sunrises of spring . . .
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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