Grief. Art. Writing

I was honoured to be a guest on Jane Davis’ blog yesterday. You can read it here:

https://jane-davis.co.uk/2018/06/20/an-exploration-of-art-in-fiction-part-3-grief-art-and-writing-by-vivienne-tufnell/

I’ll be writing later this summer about the various books I’d recommend for a non-beach read, and Jane’s recent book Smash All The Windows will be among those I’ll be suggesting for immersing yourself in excellent fiction rather than sand, sea and suncream.

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Celebrating Brokenness

While I was walking home yesterday I was musing on various things and the chief of these is the question I have often asked myself: why is it that most of the dearest and closest friends I have are deeply damaged people in some ways? Oh sure, that’d be because they have me in common. Somebody has said that the people we attract into our lives mirror our own inner state of soul.

I admit quite willingly I am a mess. But I am a functioning mess nonetheless: I hold down two remarkably difficult jobs and do them well, I have been married since the dawn of time to a man I still love, I have managed to succesfully rear one child to adulthood( defining success here is not on the agenda) and I’ve never yet been arrested by the police for socially unacceptable behaviour (like murder or GBH or public drunkness). But despite all this I know full well that inside I am pretty mashed up and broken up and a real live crash test dummy.

If you could look at my soul as a collection of bones, you’d see unhealed breaks, compound and simple fractures and even bones that are little more than fragments of crushed egg shells.

Thank God no one can see into the soul like that.

But brokenness has a strange side. The edges of those internal fractures rub against each other, creating pain but also friction. And that friction creates a kind of inner heat that becomes transformed into a fire. Now the fire can go several ways. You can douse it in the ice water of whatever pain relief works for you, be it drink or drugs or sex or soap operas or whatever, and stop the pain. Or the fire can rage out of control and lead you into psychosis and loss of self. Or the fire becomes one of creation.

The painter sees an inner vision rising from that pain and the flames and seizes his brushes or his chisel, the poet rushes to capture the words on paper, the singer/songwriter reaches for their guitar, the shaman draws their drum to their heart and drums the pain for the people.

And the writer simply writes.

It’s a process of alchemy, defying description and definition, of weaving not the pain itself but the reactions to the pain and turning it into something that is beyond the pain.

I’ve been given morphine many times over the year by medical people and it has a strange effect not of stopping the pain but of moving it to one side so you lose conection with it. It’s a weird state to be in: you are there and the pain is there, so real you can almost touch it but it isn’t hurting you any more. And while the pain doesn’t hurt any more, you can lie still and stop thrashing around to try and escape it and then, a miracle happens:

You can start to heal.

It’s the same process with writing. The strange internal chemistry takes the fire and your feelings and your intense pain and it changes it. You find the pain still exists but no longer inside you, burning its way out,  but now it is to one side, so you can look at it burning away, dispassionately and without judgement. And as that fire burns without burning, you can for a while be still and let it be and let yourself heal from it.

Fire cannot burn forever without fuel and eventually the fire burns out. You are left with the memory of the pain and whatever you created. And if you have responded sensitively and skillfully, you are left with something that can act as a marker for someone else, a template so that they too can feel your pain, feel it move beyond you and then subside into healing and in doing so, they can experience some measure of healing themselves.

There’s a story in Greek mythology about the centuar Chiron, tutor to the young Hercules who was given a wound that would never heal and also immortality. In his search for relief from his own pain, Chiron found herbs and healings for many many people but his own pain never left him entirely.

For a broken person, perhaps the friction between those ragged fragments of soul will never end because when one soul-bone heals there are still plenty more that hurt beyond measure.  But if art and music and literature rise from these friction flames to heal others of their pain, then perhaps the soul purpose of the brokeness is revealed.

I despair at times of the self help world because it promotes wholeness without understanding brokenness. It’s not a perfect world. It can’t be. We cannot be perfect people because while we remain open and alert to the beauty and wonder of the world we remain open to the horror and the pain and the ugliness to and if our souls are sensitive, we break.

Would you have a world without pain? Then you would also choose a world without sublime beauty and soul too. As night and day are part of the same thing, so too are pain and beauty.

I’d like to leave you with the final stanza of TS Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, from the Four Quartets.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I shall write more about the fire and the rose in another post but I’d like to leave you with a thought. Think of your favourite piece of music, or poem or painting or book. Would you rather that didn’t exist? Because I would be willing to bet that the creator of that fashioned it from their response to that internal friction of soul fragments rubbing against each other.