Sunday, 30 April 2017

Samhain: Gateway to the Dark

Unlike last year, when warmth unfurled itself generously into May, autumn has come already. March was a month full of rain, and since then the nights have been cool, filled with cricket song, and sometimes the call of a boobook owl. Although I do mourn summer’s loss, as soon as daylight saving time ended at the beginning of April, I felt ready to welcome the dark. Night rises early, and there is comfort in that. I feel held, cradled in its gentleness.


I’ve written of the darkness before, and will again, I am sure, for the dark is such a fertile place, and I refuse to characterise it, as we too often do, as negative. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t unknowns lurking in the dark that it is natural to fear. I remember one night about six months ago when I had fallen asleep asking, What is in the dark? During the night I was woken by a scratching sound so loud I was sure there was something in the room with me, crawling over my bedside table, over my books. My heart was pounding. Twice I turned on the light, expecting to come face to face with a rodent. But there was nothing/nobody there. Once I had calmed down and convinced myself that whatever had made the noise was inside the wall, and not actually in the room, I had to laugh. What is in the dark, indeed! There are others who we may have to share the darkness with—such as terrifying mice—but we can face those fears and learn from them. 

Last year I also wrote of Imbolc and why I tend to eschew the New Year’s Eve celebrations at the end of December. Imbolc, early spring, is when I feel the New Year rising into being. Yet in my reading I’ve come across the idea that the Celts marked their New Year at Samhain, one of the most important hinge-points in the Celtic year (the other being its opposite, Beltane), when the transition is made into winter, the dark half of the year, the harvest period over. (Their day also begins and ends at sunset.) This intrigued me—that the year could begin with the final descent towards the solstice, and the long darkness of winter, rather than with the brightening of springtime.


It is almost as if the year ends at Samhain, and we enter a cocoon of disintegration and regeneration for a time, before the wheel swings upwards and the year begins again at Imbolc, with the first green and the returning sun. For a while we are floating free in the dark, surrounded by unknowns, possibilities, things growing and waiting to be birthed. 

I think this year I will try to see it in this way—the winter-dark gaping between the end and the beginning, in which there is a cessation of mundane distraction, an opportunity for going deep within and tapping into the well, the River of Creativity, where possibility and renewal dance in the darkness, unknowns gradually coming into vision, before rising up to begin again at winter’s end. 

I want to explore the darkness. I hope I will find more than mice.

Merry Samhain! And a happy Beltane to my northern readers.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Alchemy of Illness

As you know from recent posts, I have not been well for some time, and have not been able to write as much as I would like. Thus, I have been grappling with the dilemma of wanting to be creative, to find the words (or images) for what I am experiencing—for creativity is so much a part of the ongoing process of coping with illness—whilst also knowing that I should not equate my personal worth with being constantly productive, with always trying to prove myself to the world through what I do or achieve (especially here).

Kat Duff has written in The Alchemy of Illness of the toxic cultural assumptions and illusions of illness that prevent us from seeing it as an opportunity for transformation, instead viewing it negatively, as something that must be fought and overcome, denied and ignored. The well shy away from the shadow-lands of disease and disability. But for those of us who dwell in those dark places (or descend to them frequently), there is the knowledge that illness, and our weak, vulnerable, and dysfunctional bodies, can be one of the most powerful teachers. 

I want to feel better than I currently do. I want to have the energy to write and make art. But I believe that CFS has come to me for a reason, to teach me something, and I do not want to suppress it, to overcome it, without having learnt the lessons that are meant for me.


These passages from The Alchemy of Illness have spoken loudly: 

Our concepts of physical and psychological health have become one-sidedly identified with the heroic qualities most valued in our culture: youth, activity, productivity, independence, strength, confidence, and optimism. (1)

[…]

Sickness, by these definitions, is not only a breakdown of normal health but a personal failure, which explains why many sick people feel so guilty and ashamed—or angry at anyone who intimates they have done something wrong … When symptoms persist and illness becomes chronic, we often find fault with the victim, we call it a lack of will power, a desire for attention, an unwillingness to work or change, rather than question the assumption that it is within our power as human beings to overcome sickness and, in fact, it is our job to do so. Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig has termed this tendency to accept people only when they get better, heal, or want to heal, “wholeness moralism.”
In our infatuation with health and wholeness, illness is one-sidedly identified with the culturally devalued qualities of quiet, introspection, weakness, withdrawal, vulnerability, dependence, self-doubt, and depression. If someone displays any of these qualities to a great extent, he or she is likely to be considered ill and encouraged to see a doctor or therapist. In a perversion of recent discoveries of body-mind unity, self-help books encourage sick people to cultivate positive attitudes—faith, hope, laughter, self-love, and a fighting spirit—to overcome their diseases. As a result, many sick people are shamed by friends, family, or even their healers into thinking they are sick because they lack these “healthy” attitudes, even though illnesses often accompany critical turning points in our lives, when it is necessary to withdraw, reflect, sorrow, and surrender, in order to make needed changes. (2)

From personal experience, I can say that developing a positive attitude has brought much good to my life. Yet it is not a cure, merely a technique for coping better, for rising above the negative feelings so that they do less overall harm. And crucially, positivity and optimism, while important, cannot be maintained constantly. Not even a healthy person is capable of that! There are times, for all of us, when there is a need to surrender to grief, to vulnerability, to confusion, doubt and disenchantment—to hit rock bottom, as it were—because it is from this quiet, lowly, dark place, that we begin to see with new eyes. Rebecca Solnit has written of Virginia Woolf: ‘in her essay “On Being Ill” she finds that even the powerlessness of illness can be liberatory for noticing what healthy people do not, for reading with a fresh eye, for being transformed’. (3) And having found this different perspective, we can begin the process of re-enchantment, of finding our place in the world once more. Furthermore, this process is cyclical. We are required to undergo it many, many times, throughout or lives.

This is where I am right now, and it is tough; but part of me wants to be here, to let it work its magic. Perhaps I am coming into a new phase of my life. Perhaps unknowns are blossoming within me, and, with time, and careful tending, they will emerge into the light, full of mystery and beauty. 

I am not well. I am not productive or strong. But this is all right. I am just dormant. Waiting. Transforming once again, in readiness for what is to come. 


References:
1. Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness, Bell Tower: New York, 1993, p. 40
2. Ibid, pp. 41–42
3. Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books: Chicago, Illinois, 2014, p. 103

Friday, 21 April 2017

Anniversary

The wheel of the year has turned a full circle since I launched this blog, so I am once again where I began, though in a wholly different place (and a year older too). 

Mere weeks after my Beginning last April, I started to have doubts. Was I doing the right thing? Who was going to read this anyway? 

As I didn’t want to give up so soon, I decided to set a goal to continue for at least one year; to embrace possibility, rather than limiting myself; to be open to whatever happened, whatever came—good or bad.

Needless to say, it has been a long and difficult twelvemonth, but I have made it! 

I’m not sure that I have quite achieved all the things that I wanted to, as stated in my first post, but I know now that this journey that I am on will be a long one, and even after a whole year, it has still only just begun … and keeps beginning again and again.

I have changed as this place of offerings has grown, and I hope that my second year of blogging will bring even more transformation and growth. I may not be in the best place right now, in terms of my health, but I still feel that exciting happenings are ahead, and that feeling pulls me onwards. 

Thank you to everyone, from all over the world, who has come with me on this creative endeavour, who has read and followed, commented and shared. Without your support—even though most of you are complete strangers—it would have been much harder to continue. I hope that you will stay with me as I go in search of more glorious unknowns.

Landscape II (after Alan Lee)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Seed

It stood on the left side of the windowsill, which was generous enough to sit on, to read a book, or take in the view over the garden. I love anything that is rustic, made with imperfections as part of the structure, rather than smooth, mass-produced products which have no souls. The eyes slip over the surface of those things, hardly noticing them at all; but this, this was something with beauty, with texture, and a history.

He told me it was jarrah, made from an old fence post. Carved from a piece of wood that had come to the end of its useful life, and would have gone to waste otherwise. Rotting in a field, or firewood. Now it stood, a wooden vase, all curves and cracks and wood-grained warmth, on the sun-filled windowsill.

*

The workshop smelt of timber and was littered with wood shavings. I inhaled the tangy dust of the place, detecting linseed oil and turps lingering in the background. There were tools everywhere, their handles worn from long years of use, so that they fitted perfectly in the palm. A lump of wood, cracked and holey, part of an old fence post, I suppose, lay on the workbench, no doubt ready to be turned into some new object, carved into some new creation, to take on a life entirely new.

*

It stood in the very corner of a field, taking the strain of the wires running a right angles, south and west. Sheep were scattered across the grass, chewing calmly, watching me with a slight caution in their eyes. But they knew me well, just as they knew this field, and each old post in the fence, which they would sometimes rub themselves up against, satisfying their itches. And it stood there, that strong corner post, like a sentinel. What stories it could tell! Or perhaps it couldn’t tell many at all. Just tales of sheep and sun, rain and wind.

*

It stood tall, flanked by others of its kind, and different ones, all reaching out to each other, and to the sky. How long had this tree been here? Growing, putting forth its leaves and blossoms, drinking up water from the earth. It seemed meant to be. A splendour of grey, brown, green. It belonged. 
There is nothing I would change about this place. No life I would take. 
Then a man arrives, carrying a chainsaw, a noisy, biting machine, and I know that everything here will change. Whatever tree he takes, it will never be the same again. 

*

A seed falls onto the bare, ashy ground, ready to grow. What will it become?

* * *
Jarrah stump (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
I wrote this piece back in January at my writers’ group meeting. We were provided with a number of interesting objects to prompt our writing, one of which was a lovely wooden vase made from an old jarrah fence post. I decided to take a journey back through time to reveal the many lives of this piece of timber, back to its very origins as a newly fallen seed. The piece thus became a reflection on change, and on how we humans tend to create things by destroying other things—in this case, a living tree is cut down in order to be turned into fence posts. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), ‘Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society’ (p. 148). Does the fact that one of those jarrah posts eventually becomes a beautiful object to be displayed in someone’s home justify the initial death? Perhaps looking back at where something has come from, and remembering, in this case, that it was once a living being, enables us to appreciate it more.

I felt enlivened after writing this. It was the first piece I’d written that I’d been happy with in some time, and it reminded me of what I love about writing—and what I miss about it, now that I am not able to do so much. I thought I would share it here as a reminder to myself, and to all of you, that even in the darkest and most difficult times, there can be little glimmers of life and hope, and the arising of an unexpected beauty. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Acceptance

For the past week or so I have had nothing to say, nothing at all to write about. I’ve been flicking through books, hoping to find some inspiration, even just a pithy quote, but nothing has spoken to me. And I simply haven’t had the energy to think deeply or constructively about anything. 

This is a frustrating state to be in. 

Though recently I read Corina Duyn’s blog post about acceptance, which was just what I needed at the time. In it she says: 

I find that when I accept whatever is happening, I can let it be, and find an ease I do not experience when I keep 'fighting'.

This is what I am endeavouring to do at the moment. I cannot force myself to work, but must simply settle back into this situation, and let it be what it is. 

Of course, I’d like to be writing. I’m months behind with a series of stories I have been working on since Samhain last year. I wonder if I will ever finish it—or if I will ever write a story again! This is the kind of disheartenment that can arrive when nothing is achieved, when inspiration is absent, and even my normal interest in the world is dulled. 

Kat Duff’s comments in The Alchemy of Illness (1993) spring to mind:

Living with a chronic illness, in which some days are better than others, constantly reminds me that my mood and outlook follow the swings of my energy level with uncanny precision. (p.  8)

This is certainly the case with me. When my energy levels are better, I dwell within possibility; when they are low, I languish. There is little I can do, little I want to do, and I feel utterly lost to myself. 

All things pass, but when will this pass? I ask the universe. When will inspiration return? When will I be strong again?

I can only accept this set of circumstances, and wait it out. 
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