Updated: Sep 11, 2020
: Rhythm / Devotion : is a series of interviews intended to illuminate the connection to ritual & rhythm in our daily lives. This series explores the intimacy of routine, the magic of the ordinary, & how these small acts of devotion set the stage for larger workings in the world ~
What is your name & where are you in the world?
My name is Adrian Shirk. I live in the ancient Catskill mountains in New York, at a cooperative living experiment called The Mutual Aid Society.
How do you define yourself & your work?
I'm a memoirist and an essayist; a writer of books; the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Stories from the Byways of American Women and Religion (Counterpoint, 2017) and Heaven is a Place on Earth: Fieldnotes on Utopia (Counterpoint, 2021). I'm an adjunct instructor in the BFA Writing Program at Pratt Institute, where I used to teach creative writing workshops and women's studies, but have since morphed into the program's professional development/material lives advisor, and now I oversee a slate of courses that help students imagine, articulate, and in some ways begin to build the kinds of lives they'd like to live as artists.
I am the non-hierarchical Queen of Pentacles at The Mutual Aid Society. I'm a Virgo! With heavy Taurus and Cancer undertones.
Will you walk us through what a day in your life looks like? Begin with how you greet the morning & guide us until you close off the day in the eve ~
I'm very undisciplined and irregular in my day-to-day, despite my Virgoan rage for order. Or at least it seems to me that the habits change frequently, perhaps never becoming habits at all. It's also -- this is the last of my preamble -- interesting to consider this question right now, in the constraints posed by COVID, as well as the last three years of my life in general, which have seen at least three very distinct life-ways and locales.
When it was just me and my husband in an apartment, caring for my father-in-law, and constantly shuttling between the Bronx and Brooklyn for work, there were perhaps obviously different daily rituals with which I structured writing and thinking. It took a lot of time and energy to orbit around the city for work, commune with friends, acquire groceries. Now that I live among a variety of people in the sticks, and don't have to physically be anywhere other than here, I've become much more aware of how much alone time I crave, and the different ways I need to create it, now that sociality is in surplus. (I understand that most people's lives right now have made an opposite turn.)
Typically though, then and now, I begin the day with a great deal of coffee, and then do morning pages/journal outside if it is warm, or by a window indoors if it is cold. I either eat something hearty (eggs, veggies, toast, fruit) or kind of insane (popcorn with milk, a very sweet insubstantial pastry, a cookie). Then I write in a frenzied fugue state until the afternoon comes in like a weather front and my mind gets heavy with it. That writing time in the morning is at least 65% just sitting and staring, not typing or scribbling or even reading, so when I say I "write" for x number of hours a day, I really just mean that I show up with the intention and hope that it all matters in the end, even the staring.
Then I eat a midday meal, drink a tea from an experimental apothecary I've cobbled together from the land I live on (and make enough to leave a surplus for the whole house), and can't do intellectual or creative work again until the sun goes down, so the afternoon is for teaching, doing administrative work, gathering (or hanging out with) plants in the woods, doing household chores, making calls. The tea is sort of the geographical center of the day. There's a lot of things alive in these hills right now: goldenrod, boneset, thyme, elderflower, mint, pearly everlasting. But the tea-making feels connected to the writing feels connected to the creative advising I do for a living.
In the late afternoon, I'll have a cup of coffee, sit outside, read a bit, smoke a cigarette. And, if I'm working on a particular time-sensitive project, which it seems I usually am -- at sundown, I jump back into creative work for another couple of hours.
Sundown is for revision, dropping deeper into a specific piece of writing-in-process, and pealing out new writing from a place of re-seeing. I can only relate to the work in that way at night. The dark provides a silence, a muting of the world and my context or other responsibilities that allows the writing to come into sharper focus. I can hear it and myself in a way I just can't during daylight. But I find myself doing that less and less these days because, in part, I have more free time than I have ever had in my entire life, and also because I have been living with people in this more communal way, and there's a group rhythm of dinner, talking, sitting by the fire. But I'd like to recoup some of the night brain-on-fire time -- or I'd like to, maybe this is better, be curious about the new habit perhaps that is emerging and work with it, i.e. night's being for resting and wind-down primarily. I almost always end the day with an extremely hot and deep bath, which is when I read novels.
You are a writer, author, educator, & advisor to your students ~ how do you prepare yourself &/or your space to enter into this practice? I suppose I stare a lot, and naval-gaze a lot, as a mode of preparation. I write more than I'll ever need -- I overproduce, and do a lot of writing without thinking. (The "real" composing happens in revision.) I write a lot -- I need to write a lot -- and every day I expect to finish everything, and every day I also accept that I don't know what I'm making or saying, but that eventually I will.
I move very slowly. I don't transition swiftly between one thing and another. I drink coffee to steel myself for the day, like climbing up the roller coaster. I smoke cigarettes before and after and between teaching a class, as an energetic forcefield, though that's gotta end soon.
I barely prepare for teaching any more, in part because I know the shape of my own course really well from repetition, but also maybe because I've adopted this pedagogy over the years where I treat every class as basically twenty (or however many are enrolled) independent studies for which I primarily act as connection maker, obstacle remover and catch-all resource. So it's very student-centered, each student sets the terms and I respond and build from that. So I just smoke my cigarette and then get in a posture of listening, brainstorming, solution-making. When someone consults me about something I trust that it is in fact because I do in fact know something worth sharing, so I rely a lot I think on other people's encounters with me being a source of revelation for myself about what it is I have to give.
What do you do/not do if you are feeling stuck around your work?
I pull cards or other kinds of objects I've imbued with some kind of divinatory meaning, and just write what they tell me to write -- that way it doesn't feel like I'm making conscious decisions about where to go or what to say, I'm just taking orders, following directions. I pull the card -- whatever story or theme or figure it prompts is where I start from, or in some cases where I let it prompt me to pick back up from (if I'm working on revisions).
I also use timers in a similar way, I'll set the clock for 45 minutes and that's the window I have to work on x piece or x section or x synthesis. Then I set another timer for 30 minutes, same idea, different task. Then 15 minutes, maybe three fifteen minute timers for generative writing, when I'm trying to open a piece or a section up and I'm getting stuck under the pressure, so I just say, ok, whatever comes up in fifteen minutes, GO! That way I don't get stuck in one place. And maybe just a sentence or an idea or an image will be salvageable, but that's kind of the point.
If I feel stuck, which I usually do, my mode is to do things that trick me out of thinking I have control.
Do you have a movement practice?
Long, very slow walks around the 64 acres of the Mutual Aid Society. Sometimes swimming. Honestly, I'm a real F-student in this arena.
What does structure mean to you, or what is your philosophy around ritual/routine?
I generally believe that everything is a ritual already or a routine or a structure already, and that the idea is not to create one and set out on it, but rather to notice the latent routine that is already present so as to inhabit it more richly, and only for as long as it lasts -- a week maybe, a month.
So my question is reoccurring: what's the structure, the new ritual, the new routine that is already happening, already present? And then there is usually a period where I feel out of routine, an interim period, that requires re-setting and tuning back into the new routine at play, cleave to it, let it run its course, etc.
So for instance, right now I am journaling every morning (very slow self-reflexive documenting of emotion), and then writing (as in composition, working on a book) until about 1:00pm, and then eating a late lunch and going on a long walk. But I can already feel that structure beginning to shift.
And that's how I conceive of structure in writing as well, I guess -- I come from a posture of, well, I believe the work is alive outside of me and already exists and my task or labor is, like, excavation -- discovering the structure that is already there, and inhabiting it for as long as it is useful.
What are you listening to, reading, or watching these days?
Out of nowhere came blowing in indie rock from the aughts, Alice Coletrane, I, Jonathan by Jonathan Richman, weird mixes that are like spells; The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing which has absorbed me, or I absorbed it, and just finished Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, which is excellent; bits and pieces of books for research on utopia; just watched Wings of Desire, every night til I fell asleep. And also Season 9 of How I Met Your Mother, more as an anesthetic, but I do actually think that show is a brilliant lyric essay on friendship and memory, fight me.
Any last words of wisdom?
Produce more than you think you'll need, and literally just show up, even if the output that day, or week, or month feels pitiful and deranged. Eventually for a minute things will make sense, the project will become clear, the path will alight, every moment you showed up will actually matter in the end, and then it'll all go murky again, etc.
Trust in the continual return to clarity, followed by darkness, followed by clarity, etc.
How can we find your work (website, instagram, etc.)?
@so_pioneerz on Instagram
Thank you so much, Adrian, for your beautiful work in this world & for sharing your rhythm devotion with us ~
I connect the flower essence of Blue Crown Passionflora (Passiflora caerulea) as a beautiful companion to Adrian Shirk & her work in the world.
I made my Blue Crown Passiflora essence in an old community garden I was part of when I first moved to North Carolina. I brought a group of my students to Wedge Garden on the 16th of June, 2018 & we all made this essence together, in the late morning in the sun.
Blue Crown Passionflower essence is like a trust-fall: it promises to catch us with its wide open palms & to gently hold us the more we sink into it. Blue Crown encourages us to move up & out of old stories that keep us down, old responses that no longer serve us, old patterns that we can't seem to break free from. It helps us to turn the volume down, release tension, & sink into the weight of our bodies. Blue Crown seems to sweetly lower all the chatter, allowing the mind to settle & the nerves to calm.
This essence is also a beautiful ally to those who are overly spontaneous or who get many brilliant ideas & want to act on them immediately, without taking time to consider the many dimensions, implications, ripples, or sustainability. It lends a hand to those who need help sorting through their ideas, seeing them from multiple angles, helping us to really sit with our decisions before taking action. Thus, it is especially nice for those who find discomfort in allowing the process to be a process, Blue Crown holds us steady while we let our ideas slowly unfurl, take shape, & organize organically.
Focusing, relaxing, strange, & unwinding, Blue Crown ultimately helps us to balance our constant need to go & to cling onto things, with the importance of rest & relaxation. It helps us to stay true to our own rhythms & inspirations in the world. So, I also find it to be a wonderful ally to the dreamer, the unique & strange & creative spirit who is often forced to overlook their artistic or authentic desires to “fit in” or who needs to ground their desire to create within a greater sense of structural support.
Find a bottle of Blue Crown Passiflora flower essence for yourself or a loved one here ~