This has been a deeply unsettling week, a time of change and transition in our family life, while the horrors of the headlines throw shadows over all, even here on a hillside in Devon.
As artists, when we step through the studio door we must leave the world and its worries behind in order to center ourselves in our work...but what do we do during times like these when trouble clings to our skirt like burrs and each day's news is a song of despair? When the shadows loom large, and the work of words and paint seems small, even trivial, in their presence? How to we free ourselves from the numbing paralysis of cultural despair, and find the spark of vitality, creativity, and hope that will keep us going?
As always, I turn for guidance to those who have walked such paths before -- if not this path precisely, then parallel paths through the dark of the woods. And sometimes what they offer is not a map that leads quickly and easily out, but a deeper understanding of the woodland itself.
"By honoring our despair," writes ecologist Joanna Macy, "and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.
"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."
The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination.
"To hope is to gamble," she says. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."
Words and paints are small things indeed compared to the shadows that gather around us. But they are what I have, and what I will use. Once again, I choose hope.
And the obligation to act that comes with it.
The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010); the Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004). The poem in the picture captions is an excerpt from "What the Light Teaches" by Anne Michaels, published in her collection Poems (Bloomsbury, 2000); I highly recommend reading it in full. All rights reserved by the authors.