Prompt 271. On the Horizon
& Robert Frost on surprise and surfeit
I saw a headline the other day: “The World Health Organization has declared loneliness a ‘pressing health threat.’” It’s similar to other reports I’ve seen since the early days of Covid, one that matches up with what I’ve heard from this community. Isolation—be it medical, creative, or existential—has been an ongoing theme in my own life, so building this community and creating opportunities for connection feels deeply important to me. Though we have more ways to connect than ever, we so often feel alone. This is especially true when you’re in the wilderness of uncertainty. When you’re hurting, it can feel like you’re the only person in the world suffering in that particular way.
What excites me most about sharing our documentary, American Symphony, is that it might be a balm for that sense of isolation. American Symphony is by far the most intimate, laid-bare thing we’ve ever shared—and it’s a completely different documentary than the one we set out to make. Starting out, my husband, Jon Batiste, and the director, Matthew Heineman, dreamed up a short process film about the symphony Jon was composing, which was going to be performed at Carnegie Hall for one night only. There were no personal or professional elements beyond that. But within the month, I learned that my leukemia had returned, and Jon was nominated for a record eleven Grammys. Suddenly the story changed into something much more challenging, but also far richer and more interesting. It was not just the story of American Symphony, but the symphony of life.
Even though Jon and I both have public platforms, we are also deeply private people, so nothing about the process of sharing so vulnerably felt intuitive. Nothing about having a camera around from sun-up until sundown for seven months straight felt easy or natural. We were living the highest highs and the lowest of lows of our lives, often simultaneously, and no one knew how the story was going to end. As Jon says at one point in the film, “You think I’m gonna crack?” None of us knew if we were going to crack, and if so, how.
To let people into our not-knowing was in some ways the most challenging thing to do. When you’re transmuting lived experience into art, the impulse is to wait until you can wrap something up in a neat little box with a perfect bow. But that never actually happens; life does not come in neat little boxes with perfect bows. And more than that, there’s power in capturing the not-knowing and in sharing the not-knowing—sharing our fumblings through the mess of our lives, our attempts to make sense of our experiences and even make meaning of them. Rather than something prescriptive, we wanted to show the full range of life. The hopeful moments, along with the really hard ones, and the lonely ones, the scary ones, the ones where I’m alone in my hospital room, or where Jon has collapsed into bed after a long day of work, his head buried under his pillow, talking to his therapist.
Each time I see the documentary, I think of the lines by Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” This was true in terms of the film. We embarked on this journey not knowing where it would lead or when we’d be brought to our knees or bewildered by the twists and turns. I didn’t even know if I would survive long enough to see it. That’s why, along with total terror, I feel so much joy that this documentary coming out this week. I also know that the creative endeavors most worth doing are the ones that most terrify you.
With all that said, with Robert Frost on my mind, with the feasting done and the turn toward winter on the horizon—today I’m sharing his classic poem “After Apple-Picking” and a prompt inspired by it. In these incantatory lines, the narrator speaks about a day spent in an orchard plucking apples from the bough and its imprint on the body, the echoes of it in his mind and mind’s eye. Read on for more.
P.S. Below is our trailer for American Symphony. If you know someone who might enjoy our story, would you share it with them? Just hit the button below!
It’s almost here! Our documentary American Symphony, which debuted in select theaters last Friday, comes out this Wednesday on Netflix!
As a reminder, on Tuesday, November 28 at 7pm ET, we’re hosting an early virtual screening of the film for paid subscribers, followed by a conversation with me, Jon, and the director Matt Heineman. The screening is has limited capacity, but don’t worry—if you didn’t get a spot, we’ll record the conversation and send a video replay to paid subscribers on Wednesday when the film is released!
Prompt 271. After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost
To hear the poem read by the author, click here.
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still, And there's a barrel that I didn't fill Beside it, and there may be two or three Apples I didn't pick upon some bough. But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough And held against the world of hoary grass. It melted, and I let it fall and break. But I was well Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take. Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in. For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired. There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. For all That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth. One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about an experience of surfeit. When you saw or ate or did something to excess—maybe so much so that it troubled your dreams.
If you’d like, you can post your response to today’s prompt in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals. As a reminder, we love seeing your work inspired by the Isolation Journals, but to preserve this as a community space, we request no promotion of outside projects.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874 and lived for many years in New England. The author of dozens of books of poetry, he is best known for his meditations on the landscape of his adopted home and for rendering the human experience with nuance and irony, as in such famous poems as “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and (the oft-misinterpreted) “The Road Not Taken.” He died in 1963; the epitaph on his headstone reads, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
For more paid subscriber benefits with Jon and me, see—
A Creative Heart-to-Heart, a podcast where Jon and I talked about using the creative process to marry our joys and sorrows
On Failure, an excerpt of my Studio Visit with Jon, where we talked about rejection being an integral part of success and he shared his ma’s red beans recipe
Marriage Vows and the Myth of a Good Catch, where Jon helped me answer the question: “Is it selfish to ask someone to marry you if you’re ‘broken’?”