“Whatever you are doing, if you want something else to happen, you need to pause.”
—Helene Simonsen

Nine years ago my life was all pauses.

I was part of a seven-member collaborative called CityLab7 whose creative pause in Portland, Oregon—several days spent together away from family and jobs—yielded a working urban mushroom farm funded by an environmental grant program called Invoking the Pause.

That year, 2010, I was awarded a fellowship residency by The Civita Institute to live and write in the stunning Etruscan hill town of Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy. Those two months were my first-ever pause from work, which I’ve done straight through from age 16 to 36. I had never been in the financial position not to work, not even between jobs. When I moved from Tucson to Seattle in 2001, I was back to work from one week to the next. This would be my mini/adult version of a gap year.

Back Way Home

Steps from the tunnel to the far end of Civita

When I when to Civita, I defined a Pause as time away. Escape. Slowing down to a full stop. A Pause meant that I had taken a sabbatical from my job to do what I was “meant” to do. Purpose was separate from my profession. From that fertile Pause, a collection of essays emerged that became a book.

After my return to so-called real life, and the job that paid my rent, I lamented the change that had taken residency inside me as much as I celebrated it. No one had warned me (or not in a way I heeded) that there would be no going back to the life I led before. Civita sparked a transformation—namely the primacy of art-making in my life—that continued to unfold throughout the fall and winter in Seattle. The container of my old life that I returned to was too constrictive, yet I was being shoved back inside, like a genie who had outgrown her bottle. Old obsessions were replaced by new, more complex questions. A few people who had been important to me before I departed were no longer posting duty in the tiny, protective castle of my life. I was torn between feeling distraught and liberated from their expectations.

This Pause was a break, a demarcation. A Rubicon. A version of myself waved from the opposite shore, but I couldn’t reach her. I couldn’t admit it at the time—I was swooning with anguish over how life outside of Civita sucked—but I was secretly glad to maroon the person I had been on a dying shore. Life before the Pause was too controlled. I wanted to let it grow wild. To shake myself awake while there was still time.

In Civita, the acrobatics of time stretched long, like pulled strands of honey, sweet and falling over itself in golden ropes. I had never allowed myself to be lassoed that way, languid and patient. Unhurried. In flow. Terrifying and productive. It was the first time I trusted my creative instincts. The thrill of not failing was heady.

On my return, time accelerated the instant I stepped onto American soil in transit between flights at JFK. Was it my imagination? Was the buzz of America real? The Italian theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, believes that the experience of time is localized. There is no such thing as singular time, but many times, each dependent upon a myriad of circumstances and factors, including geographic position and the person perceiving time. It has been studied, and proven scientifically, that time moves more slowly the higher you go, meaning farther away from the earth’s core and center of gravity. From Civita to Seattle, I had descended from a hilltop village, where time moved slow enough to pluck answers from the thick, humid air, to salty sea-level Seattle, where life, love and commerce clipped by at a frantic pace.

Like a first love, I never forgot my Civita Pause. Two months focused on writing. No alarm clocks buzzing at 4:51 am. No conference calls. No meetings. It took over two hours to walk into town and back for groceries, which I carried in a satchel slung across my chest, up, up, up the hill on foot. Delicious physical effort that was also instructive, each trip revealed some nuance of the universe. When my soul/sole purpose for existence was creative work, I (surprisingly) found creativity in everything—even grocery runs. We were ensconced in our intimate mystery, writing and me.

Next June, I hope to draw other writers into that magic. In collaboration with my writerly friend, Sharon Mentyka, also a Civita Fellow, my return to Civita will mark ten years since my residency.. Together, Sharon and I will lead a generative workshop inspired by journey, place and the exquisite context of Civita di Bagnoergio. (For more info, see Civita Workshop.)

In dreaming of this Pause, I wonder what will have changed and what will appear familiar. I feel nervous and even a little shy about seeing Civita and the people I met a decade ago, though I know this place better than my home town, down to the stones. It’s like meeting up with an old crush for a drink, wondering if their long-ago allure will still be there…or if there will be a mutual disappointment, however slight, both of us having aged and softened around the middle and, in growing older, and more familiar, more human, more flawed, we will find the daring ego that once attracted us to each other has drained away.

Though it’s a year away, I’m thinking about how to make this workshop the most memorable experience for the ten daring souls who sign up. Yet, I remind myself, the magic they will find will come from what they bring and what they leave—as it did for me. I can’t force perfection into their experiences, but I can be a guide. We will all arrive, driven by the idea of a Pause; what it will ultimately come to mean for each of us as we come and go, including Sharon and me, will be unique.

A Pause, invoked to its fullest extent, is unnerving. It’s risky. Life’s comforting distractions are removed and, in the gap, is time. Many Americans fear silence and stillness. They are culturally uncomfortable “wasting” or “spending” time sitting with thoughts and ideas. A workshop in a dreamy Italian locale sounds tempting, but when faced with our own writing, and nothing else, our flaws and frustrations emerge. We are trapped in the truth of the Pause with nowhere else, like television, to look away.

A Pause is not a vacation. It is not a retreat, although it can contain moments of repose and deep relaxation. It’s not about achieving calm or ease, though the locale might be stunningly beautiful and nurturing.. A creative Pause is unsettling. A Pause, despite its name, is another word for Disruption.

Pausers don’t aim to unplug; we pause to break free of habitual thinking—deep groves and patterns that must be shattered to be escaped. We don’t eat-pray-love on a Pause; we pause to silence the noise that keeps us from our real work. We pause to sit in un-ease. To access the terrifying passion welling inside us that we do not understand, that we cannot sate with the day-to-day. A Pause is a tool to disrupt daily life. A laser blast to the grocery lists and errands and complaints about the obligations we claim hold us back from our potential (as we desperately cling to them): jobs, children, spouses, family, mortgages, routines. These road blocks give our lives purpose and meaning (in other ways) and we mostly let them win—and gripe that we don’t feel fulfilled as artists.

A Pause disrupts this. Selfishly. Precisely. A Pause sets the stage for a passion play that does not yield pure joy or happiness but deep core strength. A different satisfaction, low and sonorous, comes from building one’s inner resilience. A Pause allows us to creatively stretch and reach and balance in ways that might appear effortless, or even magical, to the observer. Inside, we feel every muscle trembling. To practice, to run drills, to become good at something through consistent effort and training does not mean that it comes easy, or without a price. But it does feel good down in the bones to pull it off.

A colleague recently described creative passion as “the chamber of butterflies you carry in your heart.” Like a Pause, the image of fluttering butterflies can feel gentle and heartwarming, though it’s anything but. Those butterflies have transmuted form; they’ve evolved into something mobile and free, yet they are beating their powdered wings against bars that restrain them from their liberty.

Those butterflies aren’t content. They are kept. Caged. 

They want to get out.