Doing My Utmost: Why I Write

In yesterday’s blog, I hinted of a new page I am turning in my life on the on-ramp to 65, six months from now. The book metaphor was not chosen idly, if perhaps ironically, as I have turned many, many pages in the writing of my 21 books over the decades.

But I will never have written a book such as the one I will be telling you about in my next blog, nor will I ever have gone through the publishing process in the mode I am now choosing, and which will be the subject of many blogs to come. (And which will serve as an example, in real time, of what I mean when I am referring to becoming “fierce with age.”)

There is a story that captures the essence of my hopes for this next chapter of my life. It’s the story of Babette’s Feast, based on the novel by Isak Dinesen. Refreshing the details in my mind by visiting Wikipedia, the central plot line that speaks to me most centers on the modest and mature woman Babette, who after a big life as a counter-revolutionary in 19th century Paris, takes refuge in rural Denmark in the home of a strict minister and his two repressed adult daughters.

For 14 years, Babette works as a modest cook and housekeeper, finding her place in the austere community through giving and receiving small acts of kindness. “Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris and her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice; Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.”

In fact, she has been dreaming of preparing this repast for years, drawing upon every bit of her past and present resources to prepare a feast beyond anything anyone in this community has ever experienced. The preparation, the serving and finally the consuming of this banquet is literally life-changing for Babette’s guests “elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.”

I love all this: the storyline, the pacing and sensual quality of the film-making, itself,  and, of course, the display of sumptuous dishes delighting the senses one after the other. But it was a quote from Dinesen’s book, discovered after the viewing of the film, that struck the chord that continues to reverberate: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist:  ‘Give me leave to do my utmost.’”

That’s it. That’s the new page I’m turning in my life. To both recognize and seize the opportunity to do my utmost. Like Babette, this moment does not come without a cost, nor without risk. But also like Babette, I have been planning this moment and patiently awaiting the opportunity to do my utmost all my life.

Babette’s  feast was a culmination—and a manifestation—of her fully-evolved essence. She was undivided in her intention and flawless in her execution.  For me, in place of a feast, the culmination of this next stage of my life will take the form of a book due to be published in my 65th year. Like Babette, I aim to be undivided in my intention and flawless in my execution. Like Babette, I hope to do my part resulting in the mystical redemption of the human spirit.

But, of course, fiction is one thing: real life, another. And to not only create a work of art, but to make one’s entire life a work of art is a tall order, indeed. I am already sure that my story, as it unfolds, will have to weave in strands of self-doubt, back-sliding and boundary issues. But, too, I am increasingly hopeful that it will be bound with compassion and courage and strength. While Babette’s guests were magically transformed, I will attempt to hold this aspiration for my own work—while resisting old habits of judging life primarily by results, no matter how elevated and noble.

In my goal of living life as a work of art, I aim, above all, to surrender to living my life fully—to engage wholeheartedly in the tumultuous, organic stuff of creation. My goal for this next page of my life is also my prayer: “Give me leave to do my utmost.” Amen.