Not Today, Noonday Demon
Editor’s Note: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info
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With two new books between us, my wife and I spent nearly nine months of 2019 traveling, giving readings and teaching workshops at festivals and conferences from Florida to Washington state. Our meager spells at home consisted primarily of recovering from our most recent trip while simultaneously preparing for the next one, our bags permanently half-packed, our pets alternately desperate for our attention (the dogs) or showily displaying their displeasure at our absence (no surprise here: the cats).
Then, 2020: We taught at the Palm Poetry Festival in January and after that? Panic, global and local, uncertainty, every last one of our spring gigs postponed or outright cancelled. Which meant that, fortunate as we were to have our home and health and each other, all our normal markers of time were gone.
In some ways, there was great beauty in this. I can now tell you the exact stages of bloom and fruit and seed undertaken by the blackberries, then the raspberries, and now the figs; the names of our neighbors and their much-more-frequently-walked dogs. But I’ve also floundered in periods of deep restlessness, having difficulty concentrating when trying to read or write.
When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom from one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren…Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert.
Sound familiar? That’s not twenty-first century me talking, but Desert Father John Cassian, writing in the 4th Century of a frequent scourge of his fellow monks—acedia a.k.a. “the noonday demon” a.k.a. sloth, listlessness, chronic and debilitating apathy. A disease the British writer Sara Maitland called “the reverse sense of ‘givenness’. . . that no action or decision is worth taking for oneself, that no act of will can have any results, so why bother?”
Reading this text from so long ago that so accurately described my internal struggles, I felt not only a sense of transtemporal camaraderie, of being that much less alone, but also learned from Cassian a solution to what before felt like a uniquely modern malaise: make a schedule and keep to it, do work on behalf of others, give thanks for the specific moments of each day for which you are grateful while reflecting on what you might like to change for the better, and try and connect with something larger than yourself, like God or community or the natural world.
And so I’ve begun crafting a shape to my days. Between regular runs and dog-walks and meal preps, I’ve been editing and teaching, and, to feed my own writing, delving into Torah (the Old Testament) and associated scholarship and contemporary spiritual poems, grateful for the ancient wisdom, companionship, and inspiration to be found there.
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books), one of Library Journal’s Best Poetry Books of the Year, winner of the Goldie Award in Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and a finalist for both the Brockman-Campbell and Julie Suk Book Awards. Her debut collection, Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Julie Suk Award. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock-climbing instructor, bartender, and professor, and now serves as the Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown, with whom she co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/PenguinRandomHouse), and is at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash. You can learn more about her at jessicalgjacobs.com.
Study with Jessica: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info