Death by Water, revisited

 

Death by Water, Revisited

 

The haves with their gilded lives,

Who turn the wheel

And gaze to windward,

And the have-not,

A fortnight dead in the world’s eyes

Exist side by side

Seldom ever touching

Rarely really seeing

Never imagining that

Like Phlebas the Phoenician,

He was once as handsome

And tall as you.

 

Written for Stories without words, 16th December 09

(in homage to The Wasteland, by TS Eliot

Returning from a Pilgrimage

 

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”- TS Eliot, Little Gidding

It hits like an earthquake or a flash flood, or thunder in a clear sky, this sudden understanding, this making plain of what was obscure. It’s like being hit on the head, the violence and the unexpectedness of the realisation that now, now  you understand.

And yet, in the moment also comes a realisation that the chances are you will never be able to explain what you know now and how you come to know it. Everything becomes a metaphor, a finger pointing at the moon.

The first time this earthquake really shook my brain I was nineteen and I’d just had a professor of astrophysics explain the Theory of Relativity to me, quite cordially over a cup of coffee in a senior common room I really wasn’t meant to be in. It had taken about fifteen minutes and when he paused and looked at me to see if I “got” it, the ‘quake hit and I did. I had the sense of my own intelligence being too small, too puny to retain it and relay it back to another person, but for a few seconds I “got” it and it made sense. Then the synapses involved seemed to implode and the fragile connections were lost. But for a short while I understood.

Perhaps I might have understood for longer had my field been physics or even mathematics, but my subjects were English and Latin and I was a sneaky interloper in this world of mad professors and bad coffee.

These last weeks have been full of goodbyes, some permanent and some apparently temporary. I’ve been discovering that I am homeless, in a very real sense, but not the literal one. On Sunday I attended Quaker meeting as I occasionally do. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Quaker worship consists of sitting in silence for an hour and listening to…well, inner thoughts, God, the collective thoughts of all. I don’t know. For me, it’s always been an oasis of peace and time to be, for a short time at least, a part of a greater community. This Sunday, I felt an outsider again. Nobody’s fault; I suspect it’s always been the case. I am unable to commit to being anything other than an occasional attender and on Sunday I realised that while it may be still of benefit, it’s never going to be Home for me.

Yesterday we made an impromptu pilgrimage to Walsingham.

It was unplanned in the sense that we didn’t spend days or weeks deciding we would go, but we went on the spur of the moment. It’s maybe an hour and a half’s drive away, when the traffic is good and it’s been some three years since I last went, I think. Walsingham has been the centre of pilgrimage since 1061, with a break during the Reformation until about seventy years ago when the Well was rediscovered. I’ve always liked the quirky little town in the middle of nowhere near the North Norfolk coast and enjoyed the Anglo-Catholic pomp and ritual, with a small smile of amusement, and I have had great respect for the well itself. The Shrine church is a masterpiece of bad taste and worse art and yet, amid the many flickering candles I used to sense the spirit of the place and of God.

But yesterday, while I enjoyed the visit, it had ceased to be special and meaningful for me. My purpose in visiting had been to touch base with my spirituality and yet, when I was there, nothing. I attended the sprinkling of the waters, drank the waters and was grateful and yet, beyond that, nothing.

When I got home, I remembered the words that had been in my head before we went:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.” TS Eliot, Little Gidding

That was true enough. I had indeed gone to pray and yet, my purpose in being there was indeed “beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”- I had come for something and yet, not knowing what it was, truly, even then I had found it was not what I had come for.

I had come for something else. I had come to find something I had believed I would find here and yet, I did not find it. I don’t even know if I can get further than this with my explaining.

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives—unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.” TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Something has changed in me. I am between two lives.

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.” TS Eliot, Little Gidding

I am the explorer, waiting for my new journey to begin.

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.