Every illness is narrative

Tilly at the window

One of the strange things about a long-term medical condition is the abruptness with which it can overturn your life. Most of the time it simmers quietly in the background, folded into the rhythm of the days, time-consuming and annoying perhaps, but also familiar, under control. That control is entirely illusory, however, for bodies are complicated things and don't always act in the prescribed ways that medical textbooks say they should. And when they don't, there isn't always a clear and demonstrable reason why. One day you're just like everyone else: doing your work, paying your bills, making plans as though the future is ordered and predictable; and the next day you're flat on your back. Again. Feeling like Charlie Brown the umpteenth time Lucy pulls the damn football away.

Why, you wail, is this happening again? You can blame yourself, you can blame your doctors, you can blame the Man in the Moon if you want to, but the desire to place blame, to find a reason, is a desire to maintain the illusion of control and to make life predictable once more. If I do X, then I'll stay healthy. If I don't do Y, then getting sick is all my fault. But life is not a straight-forward equation; it is random, messy, surprising and confounding.  You can fret, fume, cry, and tie yourself in knots trying to determine where you went wrong. Or you can give yourself over to Mystery, and turn your energy towards healing.

Bedside reading

"In the secular world of modern medicine," writes Kat Duff, "we try desperately to rescue ourselves from the grasp of the Unknowable. Doctors have supplanted the gods, deciding when life begins and ends, working miracles, and taking credit for their successes. This aura of divinity that surrounds the medical profession in our society, and the extraordinary expectations that come with it, is the source of much pain and frustration for doctor and patient alike, especially when cures are not forthcoming....

"The sense of diminishment we often experience in the grasp of the Unknoweable, the face of the uncurable, probably has something to offer us from a spiritual perspective, but in the secular world of [modern] America, it is without meaning and so intolerable. That is why the first commandment in illness is to get well. Sick people are under tremendous pressure, from themselves and from others, to overcome their ailments, and return to life as usual in our fast-paced, production-oriented world."

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

Books in bed

Books and notebooks

The pressure to get well.

We all know that pressure -- and, as Duff makes clear, it comes from within us just as much as it comes from the expectations and norms of modern society. It's hard to reconcile the slow, gentle rhythms that deep healing processes demand with the pace of life going on all around us: our families, friends, and colleagues whizzing by us in the fast lane, a blur of motion. Yet there is much to be learned from the fallow time and enforced solitude of illness; from those hazy, sweat-soaked, fever-dream days when the mind, like the body, is cut off from its usual pathways and preoccupations. Illness strips us of the things we believe to be central to our identity: our daily tasks, our creative work, our usual roles in family and community. What's left is the naked, vulnerable Self who lies buried beneath these things: the person we are, not the social construct we build, and that person is worth knowing.

Books in bed

In the aftermath of her cancer surgery, Rebecca Solnit observed:

"There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough. In that state I've only been in before with severe flu, there is no boredom, no restlessness, no thinking about what should be done or has been done. You are elsewhere than consciousness, than everyday life, than the usual bodily awareness and social engagement. We call it doing nothing or resting: the conscious mind does little but the body works furiously, under cover of stillness, to rebuild, rewire, recharge."

A major illness or injury, she continues, "is a rupture that invites you to rethink, to restart, to review what matters. It's a reminder that your time is finite and not to be wasted, and in breaking you from the past it offers the possibility of starting fresh. An illness is many kinds of rupture from which you have to stitch back a storyline of where you're heading and what it means. Every illness is narrative. There are the epics in which you ultimately triumph over what afflicts you and return for awhile to your illusory autonomy, and the tragedies, in which the illness will ultimately triumph over you and take you away into the unknown that is death, and the two are often impossible to tell apart until they resolve.

"Then there are the enigmatic illness whose prognosis is uncertain, in which well-being comes and goes unpredictably, with the difficulty of a story without a plot, or an unfathomable one. Doctors are forever being implored and pressured to read the future from the medical evidence to the present, to confirm the story, but early on they learn that rules are rubbery: the near-thriving suddenly collapse, the person at death's door travels all the way back to rejoin the living, and the time line of death and likelihood of recovery remain unforeseeable."

The ups and downs of such illnesses, in other words, remain a Mystery.

Flowers in the window

The Joy of Snow by Elizabeth Goudge

Although I spent the last month confined to bed, watching the world through window glass, I was simultaneously making a long journey: from the land of the well to the sick and back again. It's a journey we all make sooner or later, for as Susan Sontag famously said: "Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."

Books, like the faithful Hound beside me, have been my boon companions on the journey: volumes grown thick with scraps of paper and margin notes pencilled in a shaky hand, marking passages I'll return to here on Myth & Moor in the days and weeks ahead.

Right now, however, I'm still in that liminal space between one world and another: between bed and studio, sickness and health, winter's end and the approach of spring. I haven't fully transitioned back to normal daily life and I know (from having made this passage all too often) that the transitory process should not be rushed. Released back into the world, everything is strange, fresh, and remarkable, undulled by familiarity. The sunlight shimmers, the woodland cries its welcome, the hillside hums with a numinous enchantment. And what better state can there be for a fantasy writer to work in?

Even illness has its gifts.

Primroses, and Kissed by Fox by Phyllis Stuckey

The HoundThe passage above by Kat Duff is from The Alchemy of Illness (Bell Tower, 1993), the passage by Rebecca Solnit is from The Far Away Nearby (Viking & Granta, 2013), and the Susan Sontag quote is from Illness As Metaphor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978). All three are highly recommended. The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (No. 9, Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs:  Some of the books I've been reading (or re-reading) in the weeks of crisis and return; plus the faithful Hound and bedside flowers. The beautiful quilt was made by Karen Meisner. Some related posts: Stories are Medicine, the four "On Illness" posts beginning with In a Dark Wood, and Books, the Beast, & Me.

Myth & Moor update

Helen Stratton


Gentle Readers, I'm out of the studio again due to health issues. I'll be back to Myth & Moor just as soon as I can be. Thanks for your patience.

If anyone else here is coping with an illness, here are two good essays on the subject that I stumbled upon recently: "On the Harmed Body: A Tribute to Hillary Gravendyk" by Diana Arterian (The LA Review of Books) and "Tiny Little Messes" by Simone Gorrindo (Vela Magazine).

And if you need some cheering up, try "Dogs I Would Like to Own in Art, Even Though They Are Probably Dead Now" by the divine Mallory Ortberg at The Toast. It certainly made me smile. (There's a sequel too.)

Re-kindling the fire within

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Frida Khalo painting in bed(Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)

In her beautiful Guest Post two Fridays ago, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale Tree of Hope, Remain Strong by Frida Khaloboth documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.

There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.

Henri Matisse working from bed

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse

It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz

Rescue, from the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki

There are many fine examples in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Paula by Isabel Allende, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove DitlevsenWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.


Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.

From Witness by Beckie Kravetz

Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.

From ''The Battle We Didn't Choose'' by Angelo & Jennifer Merendino

Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen tale and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.

The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness by Terri WindlingThe problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.

What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!

But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.

Life Vs Death by Nomi McLeod

In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds Cradle by Nomi McLeodin mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.

For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art Bunny Maiden with Scars by Terri Windlingto schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?

I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.

The Tree of Doors by Meg Zivahl-Fox

One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. (You can listen to it online here, or obtain the print edition from Victoria University Press.) In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too.  I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:

"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.

"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?

"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."

Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.

The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox, published by Victoria University Press

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?

With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.)

Crossing an Iced-Over Stream by Gina LitherlandShe asks: "How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.

"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.

"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland

During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.

If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.

Coyote Woman by Terri WindlingArt credits: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph  by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series. Text credits: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.

Myth & Moor update

Terri Windling and hound, photographed by Howard Gayton

I apologize, dear Readers, for taking so long to participate in the discussions in response to last week's posts. I'm still moving rather s-l-o-w-l-y through this period of physical recovery, and I'm having to strictly limit my online time in order to catch up on all the work that I've missed these last few months. I value the discussions John Battenhere a great deal (as well as the extraordinary poems), and I intend to go back and respond properly to it all just as soon as I can. I am reading the comments as they come in, and I'm grateful to all of you who've been keeping the discussion here going.

Tilly is still doing well in her own recovery, and has bounced joyfully back from her operation last month. Today, however, she's on medication for an unrelated infection, so she's moving a little s-l-o-w-l-y this morning too. But as you can see from the photograph above (taken by my husband), we're managing to get outdoors...and that's the best medicine of all. 

Thank you for all your good wishes and prayers over the last weeks and months.

Howard Gayton & hound

On illness, 4: Emerging from the Forest

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

For the final post in this series on illness, I'd like to look at illness's aftermath: that tricky transition from the slow, deep work of recuperation back to the bustling workaday world, the final part of the fairy tale journey when we emerge from the forest at last. In mythic terms, the end of shamanic initiation is not the ascent from the Underworld, re-born and carrying new knowledge and skills from the spirit realm; it's the return to the tribe and the use of those skills in the service of community.  

"Contact with the mythic realm, and the knowing that that imparts, changes the very being of the initiate," writes Kat Duff (in The Achemy of Illness); "he or she is never the same again. Perhaps that is why so many sick people come to divide their lives in two: before and after getting sick."

Since You've Been Gone by Jeanie Tomanek

Duff continues: "The final phase of initation -- emergence from the underworld, return, and reintegration into the community -- is a very delicate one, for the incessant activity of the mundane world can be painful, even devastatig to the initiate so sensitized by contact with the mythic realm. Many do not make it. Since I have been getting better in recent months, I have dreamed more than once that I am a bear coming out of hibernation, all groggy and clumsy -- and blinded by the light of day; in the first two dreams I just crawled back into my hole.

Beginnings by Jeanie Tomanek"Newly 'hatched' initiates are often protected for a short while , sometimes rocked or suckled like newborns, to help orient them to their new lives. Similarly, people recovering from serious illnesses need a quiet place, a safe haven, where they can gradually recollect themselves and establish a new center of gravity."

I couldn't agree more, and yet our modern society -- obsessed with youth, speed, perfectionist ideals and relentless productivity -- rarely permits the time and practical support for our slow re-orientation to lives that have been profoundly changed by the enormity of what we've just been through.

"Unfortunately," Duff laments, "few of us get that support, as we are pushed by the demands of contemporary living back into the hustle and bustle as soon as we are able. There are debts to be paid, children to be attended to, and jobs that will not wait forever."

In initiatory rites around the world, the initiates return not only schooled in new spiritual knowledge but also carrying sacred gifts, like the tobacco seeds in Tuesday's story. Duff notes that in traditional society these gifts often took the form of new songs or dances. "I suspect," she says, "that these gifts actually ease and ensure a successful reentry by calling forth the body's memory, which is so much more detailed and accurate than words or ideas, of the mythic realities encountered during initiation. Of course, these gifts are also responsibilities; initiates are often required to perform their songs or dances at later dates, for the continued well-being of the community of life. We too need to carry something of what we've experienced back into the world of the living, to remember the dreams, follow the imperatives, or use the powers we have been given by our sojourns in the underworld. That takes courage, clarity of mind, and the willingness to follow one's truth even if others cannot affirm it, especially in our culture, which does not recognize the initiatory role of illness, in fact actively resists it by encouraging us to 'get back to normal.' "

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

"If we do not carry what we have learned back into the world," Duff  continues, "we risk getting sick again, for the energies unused can revert into their destructive forms, in what I consider to be one of the hidden cruelties of illness.  It has happened to many people -- including [the great Lakota Sioux medicine man] Black Elk. When Black Elk first received his great vision at the ripe age of nine, he knew it was meant to be shared, but he could not figure out how to do that, and so he did not; eight years later he got sick again and was tormented with fears until finally an old medicine man told him that he must do what his vision wanted him to do -- enact the horse dance for his people to see -- and helped him to do it.

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek"When initiations are successful, the survivors slowly return to their communities with new eyes to see, new ears to hear, and the courage to act upon those perceptions. [After recovering from a heart attack,] Carl Jung went on to do his most important work, explaining that 'the insight I had had, the vision of the end of all things, gave me the courage to undertake new formulations.' [In The Cancer Journals,] poet Audre Lord spoke of feeling 'another kind of power' growing within her, one that was 'tempered and enduring, grounded in the realities of what I am,' with the determination to 'save my life by using my life in the service of what must be done.' Just as girls are 'grown' into women through their puberty initiation rites, many people who have been seriously ill become what they must become, what they are meant to be, whether that occurs through death or recovery."

The Contract by Jeanie Tomanek

"And so, through processes well described by alchemical formulas and initiation rites," Duff concludes, "we are both diminished and enlarged by the agency of our illnesses, and so opened to the possibility of new life. The losses are many and visible; the harvest grain is smaller than the standing stalks, but so much more useful. So Nietzsche observed: 'I doubt that such pain makes us "better"; but I know it makes us more profound...from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one's skin.' "

The Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

"Cancer changes people," writes Doris Brett (in Eating the Underworld). "It is one of those marker events that delineates a 'before' and 'after' in our lives. It forces us to define and redefine ourselves. And then, because the experience of cancer is an extended process and not a static event, it forces us to do it again and again.

"And it is right that we are changed. As with any descent into a feared and terrifying country -- whether it the country of illness or the country of a grieving heart -- we have entered the underworld. And we have eaten its fruit. I remember all the mythical stories of those frightening journeys, and with each one the rule is inviolate. Those who ingest the food of the underworld are bound to it in some way. It is not the binding of instruments of torture and the roastings of hell. Instead, it is the binding of that terrible, clear sight that can only be gained in the depths. The knowledge of ourselves, the knowledge of others. We cannot remain unchanged."

Eve Does Take Out by Jeanie Tomanek

"The end point of the cancer survivor's narrative," writes Brett at the close of her luminous book, "is inevitably the 'what I learned from cancer' finale. We expect it in the way we expect swelling music as the movie ends. It is more than expectation, it is a need. And we need what is learned to be good: 'I learned how loved I am,' 'I learned I am a survivor.' It is a way of waving away the dark; a way of reassuring ourselves; a way of saying that even though it was hard and punishing, it was worth it. It meets our deep and often unspoken need to complete the story; the familiar bedtime story that tells us that everything will be alright in the end.

Moon of the Long Nights & Kindling by Jeanie Tomanek

"When I began my dance with cancer," Brett admits, "I imagined that this is what I would emerge with. That when it was ended, what I would hold in my hand was the silver lining. I imagined that I would be changed, but that was the point at which my imagination failed. All I could imagine was a better, brighter me -- the steel that is finer for having been tempered in the fire.

"What I learned is very different from what I expected to learn. I have learned that I am loved. I learned it from old friends who stood by me, and new friends who helped in unexpected and touching ways....But I have also learned from others that where I thought I was loved, I was not. I have been attacked when I was most vulnerable. I was deserted by those I thought would gladly stay with me.

Bye Bye by Jeanie Tomanek"I have learned that things turn out well. And that they don't. I have had moments when I thought I would die from the sheer physical beauty of the world. And moments when it merely seemed to mock what was happening to me. I have had wonderful things happen and terrifying things too.

"My journey through cancer was supposed to be a simple one, along the lines of St. George fighting the dragon. Instead, it led me to revelations about the underside, the flawedness, of all things -- myself, my family, my friends, my world. Recognizing and accepting these has required far more courage than facing cancer. It is what I never expected; fought hardest to avoid -- and yet perhaps it has been the truest gift to come out of all of this.

"In many ways, it is hard to live in the real world with its lack of delineations, in inequities, its ambiguities. How do you keep going in the face of uncertainty? Not just the uncertainty of mortality, but the day-to-day slogging on your dreams, unsure they will ever come to fruition; the investment in relationships, unsure of what they will turn out to be; the tender nurturing of hopes, aware they may be shattered; the knowledge that nothing is purely one thing or another.

"But it is only by emerging from the shimmering world of make-believe that we have a chance at finding our true lives -- our strength, and with it, our authentic capacity to love. Because love must be about seeing the shadow as well as the light, otherwise it is merely the love of a fantasy, an image created to soothe the wounds in our soul. And strength must involve recognizing one's own fear and vulnerability, but standing up anyway."

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

Though we are talking here about the end of the journey, the "before" and "after" of a serious illness, for many of us there is no clear "after," but, rather, the ups and downs of a recurring condition, or the slow deterioration of a progressive one, or an illness marked "cured" in a medical file that nonetheless leaves one weakened and vulnerable to others, debilitating in their own right. Each flare up, each descent, is another mythic journey, and it rarely gets any easier with repetition or familiarity. But still we go on. We ascend from the depths. We emerge from the forest. We return to the world with tobacco seeds in our pockets, with a new role to play, with new stories to tell.

This one's mine. And Kat Duff's. And Doris Brett's.

It may be your story too. If so, I wish you well. Be safe. Be strong. Perhaps we'll meet somewhere in the dark woods, and we'll find the path out together.

Answered Prayers by Jeanie Tomanek

Words: The long passages quoted above are from Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett (Random House Australia, 2001), and The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993); all rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The heart-rendingly beautiful paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, an America artist based near Atlanta. The titles can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) To learn more about Jeanie's work, visit her website, her Facebook page, or read my article about her here.

A related post on returning to a creative life after illness or trauma: "Re-kinding the Fire Within."

On illness, 3: Wild Snails, Shadows, and Grown-Upness 101

Journey 1

Serious illness, like all the important things in life, is rich in paradox, and one its paradoxes is this:

The journey of illness is a deeply personal and profoundly solitary: we are alone in the sickbed, alone in pain, alone in those terrifying moments of being wheeled into the operating room, and alone, ultimately, at the journey's end: whether we're the lucky ones, the survivors exhaustedly surveying the wreckage of our previous lives, or those at the very end of their stories, crossing the threshold from life into death. Yet it is equally true that illness unfolds in a space crowded with other people, stripping us of privacy and self-agency as we depend on doctors, nurses, receptionists, anonymous technicians in distant laboratories and, especially, our dear families and friends, whose own lives must change to make room for The Beast (the illness) now living so awkwardly, ferociously among us.

My last two posts have addressed the solitary nature of the descent into the Underworld of illness -- so today, let's look at the other side of the coin. These passages come from three of my favorite "illness memoirs": The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, and, once again, The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff.

Journey 2

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an unusual and beautifully crafted book that is part memoir (an account of her life during years bedridden with a semi-paralysing auto-immune disease) and part nature writing (the close observation of the life of a woodland snail who lived in a pot of violets, and then a terrarium, in the confines of Bailey's sick room). She has this to say about her relationship to her friends during her illness -- relationships which, inevitably, changed as she drifted farther and farther from her former life:

"The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn't feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.

Journey 3

"I eagerly awaited visitors, but the anticipation and extra energy of greeting caused a numbing exhaustion. As the first stories unfolded, my spirit held on to the conversation as best it could -- I so wanted these connections to the outside world -- but my body sank beneath waves of weakness. Still, my friends were golden threads randomly appearing in the monotonous fabric of my days. Each visit was a window that opened momentarily into the life I had once known, always falling shut before I could make my way back through. The visits were like dreams from which I awoke once more alone.

Journey 4

"As the snail's world grew more familiar," Bailey notes, "my own human world became less so; my species was so large, so rushed and so confusing. I found myself preoccupied with the energy level of my visitors, and I started to observe them in the same detail with which I observed the snail. The random way my friends moved around the room astonished me; it was as if they didn't know what to do with their energy. They were so careless with it. There were spontaneous gestures of their arms, the toss of a head, a sudden bend into a full-body stretch as if it were nothing at all; or they might comb their fingers unnecessarily through their hair.

"It took time for visitors to settle down. They sat and fidgeted for awhile, then slowly relaxed until a calmness finally spread through them. They began to talk about more interesting things. But halfway through a visit they would notice how little I moved, the stillness of my body, and an odd quietness would come over them. They would worry about wearing me out, but I could see also that I was a reminder of all they feared: chance, uncertainty, loss and the sharp edge of mortality. Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health.

"Eventually, discomfort moved through my visitors, nudging a hand into motion, a foot into tapping. The more apparent my own lack of movement, the greater their need to move. Their energy would turn into restlessness, propelling their bodies into action with a flinging of arms or a walk around the room; a body is not meant to be still. Soon my visitors were off."

Journey 5

Bailey's relationship with her dog changed as well.

"Even at eight years of age," she writes, "her energy was extreme compared to my own. It was incredible that I, too, had once moved through life with such exuberance, with her at my side. From my bed I could give her scraps of my dinner and manage a few stokes of her soft ears. I loved her so, and her intense longing for more made me ache to leap up from my bed, fling open the door to the outside world and escape, the two of us heading, once again, deep into the woods."

Instead, Bailey was forced to lie still, to let time crawl past while her broken body healed. Looking at the door to her room, she wondered, "Was this truly a door I would someday open and walk through, as if walking out into the world were an ordinary thing to do? I would look at the door until it reminded me of all the places I could not go. Then, exhausted and empty from my audacious adventure, I'd make the slow roll back toward the kingdom of the terrarium and the tiny life it contained."

The wild snail, by contrast to her visitors, was slow but purposeful, alone but self-sufficient. "Its curiosity and grace pulled me further into its peaceful and solitary world. Watching it go about its life in the small ecosystem of the terrarium put me at ease."

Journey 6

Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett

Eating the Underwood by Australian poet and clinical psychologist Doris Brett is a mythopoetic memoir of her experience with ovarian cancer -- a book I relate to particularly deeply as this is one of the illnesses I've come through as well.  Here, Brett writes of her feelings of betrayal when friends she's supported through various crises turn away from her during her own ordeal:

"The fear that cancer inspires cannot be underestimated. Many people cannot bear to think about it, let alone come into regular contact with it and the reminder of their own mortality. Other react in infantile ways, angry that you will no longer be able to be 'mummy' and support them in ways to which they have become accustomed. Others still are so overcome by the anticipated pain of losing you, that they can't bear to have contact with you. Still others don't know what to say to you and so they say nothing and keep away. None of this, of course, makes it any easier on you. It still feels like abandonment."

Journey 7

It was not until long after, Brett writes, that she was able "to think about the choices I made in ringing those particular friends. I have recognized by then that there are other friends whom I didn't ring, who would indeed have come over and given me the support I needed. The friends I turned to for help were the ones I had given the most help to in the past.

"It highlights the shadow of the younger self I thought I'd left behind me; the one who felt she had to be extra good, nurturing and responsible; the one who was there to take care of people, not ask to be taken care of. I recognized the amazed gratitude I still feel if someone, unasked, goes out of their way to do something for me. The astonishment, because I haven't 'earned' it. And I can see that in turning to those friends to whom I had given a great deal, rather than to those with whom I'd had a more equal relationship, I was again bowing to that inner fear."

Journey 8

Later in the book, after time has passed, and after the frightening ups and downs of treatment have led to comparatively safer ground, Brett re-visits the subject with wisdom and compassion:

"I have a renewed appreciation of the friends who have stuck by me. And I am enormously touched by the friends with whom I haven't had much contact previously, who made time to come and see me or phone me. With the ones I felt let down by, it has taken time. I don't think I'll ever be able to trust them in the old way, or be as giving as I used to be with them. I am more clear-eyed. The view is not the view I wanted to see, but it is there and I am finding I can live with it.

Journey 9

"I'm not angry at them anymore, the way I was months ago. I have to recognize the part I played as well, try to understand it. I feel as if I've just taken a compressed course of Grown-Upness 101. Part of me has the slightly dazed expression of the child who's just accommodating the fact that no, the Tooth Fairy doesn't really exist. I am more cynical, not a characteristic I particularly like, but perhaps a more successful one than being too naively idealistic. I am simply more ready, more able, to see things as they really are.

"Because it does feel now as if I am freer to simply take these friends for who they are. I don't want to idealize them but neither to I want to demonize them. It doesn't have to be an either/or situation. I know their flaws. And although I can't imagine that I will want our previous closeness, I can still enjoy a friendship. Not everyone has the capability, or the will, to be there through difficult times -- and perhaps not everyone has to."

Journey 10

The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff

In The Alchemy of Illness, Kat Duff -- who suffers from M.E./chronic fatigue -- looks at the subject from a wider culture perspective:

"I have come to realize that many people are deeply disturbed by the fact of my continuing illness," she writes; "they want to help but also need to reassure themselves that disasters like disease can be avoided and, if necessary, easily remedied. Treya Killam Wilber remembered devising theories to explain her mother's colon cancer, only to realize later, when she herself developed cancer, that 'it was really fear -- unacknowledged, hidden fear -- that motivated me to believe the universe made sense and that its forces were more or less within my control. In such a reasonable universe, staying healthy would be a simple matter of avoiding stress or changing my personality or becoming a vegetarian.' It's hard to swallow the fact that we have little or no say over the extent and timing of our illnesses.

Journey 11

"Before the advent of modern medicine, people gave thanks for good health, counting it as an unexpected blessing, as many traditional peoples still do today. (Remember when people simply wished for good health in the New Year?) Buddhist scriptures taught that the bodies we inhabit are fertile ground for all manner of misfortunes, and no sensible person would entertain expectations of well-being unless they were mad. Well, we must be mad, for now we've come to assume well-being, and regard illness as a temporary breakdown of normal 'perfect' health.

"Our concepts of physical and pyschological health have become one-sidedly identified with the heroic qualities most valued in our culture: youth, activity, productivity, independence, strength, confidence, and optimism. Advertisements reflect our picture of health as young, white, slim, athletic...and beaming with 'the cheerful effervescence of a Bernie Siegal or a Louise Hay,' as writer Daniel Harris observed wryly. Even sick people are encouraged to cheer up and be brave, and those who can joke in the midst of obvious agony are revered by all."

Journey 12

Sickness by this definition, Duff points out, "is not only a breakdown of normal health but a personal failure, which explains why many sick people feel so guilty and ashamed....In our infatuation with health and wholeness, illness is onesidedly 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. Normal life passages , such as birth, adolescence, the crises of middle age,  old age, and death, are now treated as illnesses in need of medical intervention, simply because they are often characterized by pain, withdrawal, introspection, and alienation.

Journey 13

" 'In heath,' wrote Virginia Woolf, 'the general pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed -- to communicate, to civilize, to share, to cultivate the desert, to work together by day, and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases....We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle; we float with the sticks on the stream, helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps the first time in years, to look round, to look up -- to look, for example, at the sky.'

"As Woolf intimates, the withdrawal, inactivity, and alienation of illness threaten the social order, undermining the faith, optimism, attachments, and obligations that keep systems in power -- in the family, workplace, and society at large. In the quiet stillness of the sickbed, where we look up and around rather than straight ahead, another -- truly revolutionary -- perspective emerges."

Journey 14

"Even at my sickess," Duff notes astutely, "when I was spending the majority of daylight hours in bed aching, I knew my illness was showing me facets of truth that I had missed -- we all had missed, it seemed -- and desperately needed."

Like all rites-of-passage, illness and calamity have things to teach us, and stories to tell us. But first we must listen. Then, we must remember. And finally, we must pass them on.

Journey 15

Books on illness

The passages above are from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010), Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett (Random House Australia, 2001), and The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993). The poem in the picture captions is from The Zen of La Llorona by Native American poet Deborah A. Miranda (Earthworks, 2005) -- It's a powerful piece about grief inspired by the legend of La Llorona. All right reserved by the authors.

On Illness, Part 4 is here.

On illness, 2: The Nights to our Days, the Roots to our Trees

The Buried Moon by Edmund Dulac

I'm going to continue posting on the subject of illness this week, not only because it's been a personal preoccupation in the last few months, but also because this side of life, too, has its myths, its folklore, its cycles and seasons; and even the healthiest among us will come to know its terrain as the story of our lives unfolds. It's a subject, however, that I'm well The Tempest by Edmund Dulacaware makes some people deeply uncomfortable, and if you're one of them and prefer to return to Myth & Moor next week, you have my blessing.

One of the most interesting books I've read on this subject (and I've read many) is The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff, who shares my own interest in the folkloric, philosophic, and cultural ideas that quietly inform our daily lives, whether we're consciously aware of them or not; and who also finds parallels between illness and tales of descent into the Underworld of myth.

"Illness," Duff writes, "is an upside-down world, a mirror image reversing the assumptions of our normal daily lives. I think of it as the underside of life itself, the night to our days, the roots to our trees. The first thing that happens when I get sick, even before physical symptoms appear, is that I lose my normal interests. A kind of existential ennui rises in my bones like floodwater, and nothing seems worth doing: making breakfast, getting to work on time, or making love. That is when I know I am succumbing to the influence of illness, whether it is a minor cold or a life-threatening case of dysentery. I slip, like fluid, through a porous membrane, into the nightshade of my solar self, where I am tired of my friends, I hate my work, the weather stinks, and I am a failure."

Leonore by Edmund Dulac

"Under the sway of illness," Duff continues, "people, like food, lose their appeal. Simple tasks, such as getting dressed, making meals, or returning phone calls, become difficult, onerous duties we avoid whenever possible. Our tolerances shrink to a narrow span; the juice is too sweet, the refrigerator too loud, the sheets too cold. I used to enjoy listening to the radio while working at my desk, but once I got sick, I could not stand the noise; I felt crowded and exhausted by it. That is why sick people spin cocoons around themselves; I often imagine myself wrapped like a mummy in a thick, fluffy blanket that filters out the invasive noise and smells of daily life.

"We shut the door, pull the shades, and unplug the phone when illness strikes, slipping away from the outer world and its material seductions like a boat drifting out to sea. The detailed terrain of our usual lives fades into a thin line between the vast indifference of sea and sky in the underworld of illness. We have nothing to say or do and want only to be left alone."

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

"There is, perhaps rightly so, an invisible rope that separates the sick from the well, so that each is repelled by the other, like magnets reversed. The well venture forth to accomplish great deeds in the world, while the sick turn back into themselves and commune with the dead; neither can face the other very comfortably, without intrusions of envy, resentment, fear, or horror. Frankly, from  The Bells by Edmund Dulacthe viewpoint of illness, healthy people seem ridiculous, even a touch dangerous, in their blinded busyness, marching like soldiers to the drumbeat of duty and desire.

"Their world, to which we once belonged and will again, seems unreal, like some great board game that could fold up at any minute. Carl Jung reported that when he was recovering from a heart attack, the view from his window seemed 'like a painted curtain with black holes in it, or a tattered sheet of newspaper full of photographs meaning nothing.' He despaired of getting well and having to 'convince myself all over again that this was important.' We drop out of the game when we get sick, leave the field, and desert the cause. I often feel like a ghost, the slight shade of a person, floating through the world, but not of it. The rules and parameters of my world are different altogether.

"Space and time lose their customary definitions and distinctions. We drift in a daze and wake with a start to wonder: Where am I? On a train to San Francisco or at Grandmother's house? Maybe both, for opposites coexist in the underworld of illness. We are hot and cold at once, unable to Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulacdecide whether to throw off the blankets or pile more on, while something tells us our lives are at stake. Sometimes I feel heavy as a sinking ship, and other times light as a spirit rising from the wreckage. Our worlds shrink down to the four walls of the sick room, then entire universes unfurl themselves in the dust.

"Time stretches and collapses, warping like a record left in the sun. After living with epilepsy for several years, Margiad Evans wrote, 'Time has come to mean nothing to me: in certain moods it seems I slip in and out of its meshes as a sardine through a herring net.' Ten seconds seems like an hour of torture in acute pain, while a whole lifetime can be squeezed into a few moments as we wake from sleep or fall in a faint. Past and future inhabit the present, like threads so tangled the ends cannot be found. There have been times, in that liminal realm between waking and sleeping, when my life appeared before me in the shifting patterns of a weaving pulled by the corners, or the flickering reflections in an oil slick. What has been and what could be stand side by side without distinction; strange things seem connected."

The Sleeve of Night by Edmund Dulac

"Defying the rules of ordinary reality, illness shares in the hidden logic of dreams, fairy tales, and the spirit realms mystics and shamans describe. There is often the feeling of exile, wandering, searching, facing dangers, finding treasures. Familiar faces take on the appearance of archetypal allies and enemies, 'some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed into the squatness of toads,' as Virginia Woolf noted. Dreams assume a momentous authority, while small ordinary things, like aspirin, sunshine, or a glass of water, become charged with potency, the magical ability to cure or poison."

The Entomologist's Dream by Edmud Dulac

Later in her wise book, Duff notes: "The traditions of white Western civilization have taught us to ignore and deny the sensations, instincts, dreams, and revelations our bodies continually generate to maintain a life-sustaining equilibrium. Now that I am sick, I am appalled to think that I used to respond to tiredness by pushing through it like a bulldozer to get my work done, or swim the full mile no matter what. Our determined efforts to pursue abstract goals and ideals, be it success, enlightenment, social responsibility, or even health, lead us dangerously astray, producing an intoxicating high and false pride that immediately collapse under the onslaught of illness. 'Insidious thing, pride,' wrote Laura Chester during the throws of lupus, 'to assume you are better, better, better...putting down others in order to feel secure, better than, more righteous, but what a fragile security we build for ourselves, out of sticks and straw, for the first and second little pigs.'

"There is nothing like a serious illness to blow down our fragile houses of sticks and straws. Standing amid the rubble of their lives and thoughts, people with serious illnesses undertake the task of building a new house, a new way of living, one that holds closer to the ground of being, the feedback and teachings of their bodies and souls."

Death Visits the Emperor by Edmund Dulac

"Illness is the shadow of Western civilization, the antithesis of the rampant extraversion and productivity it so values. As we attempt to exile disease from our world, it persists to haunt us with an ever-menacing guise, and we need it all the more to be whole, to save us from the curse of perfectionism.

"So certain realities remain to plague us. The best of people get sick, and many of those who do all the 'right' things stay sick or die, while others recover for no apparent reason. Epidemics come and go. As soon as we find the cure for one, another arises. We would like to think we can banish disease with rest, exercise, diet, medicine, prayer, or positive attitudes, but few so-called cures are reliable enough to trust, as anyone who has been sick a while can tell you. They're good ways to live, in sickness or health."

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff

The passage above is from The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993), all rights reserved by the author. The paintings are by the great Golden Age illustrator Edmund Dulac (1882 - 1953).

On Illness, Part 3 is here.

On illness, 1: In a Dark Wood

Dark Wood 1

Dark Wood 2

"In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood," wrote Dante in The Divine Comedy, marking the start of a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. Likewise, a journey through the dark of the woods is a common motif in fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny; or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by ghosts, ghouls, wicked witches, wolves, and the more malign sorts of faeries....but helpers also appear on the path: wise crones, good faeries, and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguise. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.

Dark Wood 3

In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of "archetypal psychology" drew extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoed this belief when he argued that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature.

Dark Wood 4

Dark Wood 5

Having spent significant periods of my life in the muffled Underworld of physical disability, tales of the dark wood and myths of descent have a particular resonance for me, of course; but all of us enter the deep dark forest at some point in life or another, and such stories have much to tell us of how to find our way through; not unscathed, but transformed.

In an earlier age, a medicine man, shaman, or herb-wife consulted when my health problems first resurfaced this summer might have told me a story like this one, from the northern mountains of Mexico:

There was a young girl who married an old, old man, who used her ill. He worked her hard, beat her, starved her, and cast her off when she gave him no children, leaving her in the desert with no food, or water, or shelter. The young wife hid in the meager shade of rocks by day when the sun was fierce. By night she walked, crying, for she could not find her way home. The nights were cold. Wolves prowled the hills and carrion birds followed after her. She was hungry, thirsty, weary, and she walked till she could go no further. Lying down by a wide, dry wash, she wrapped herself in her long white skirt. She said, "Let La Huesera (the Bone Woman) take me, for I am spent." She died. Wild animals ate her flesh. Her spirit watched over the white, white bones and knew neither sorrow nor fear.

Dark Wood 6

The bones lay in that secret place until the moon was full once more. And then La Huesera came and put them all in her woven sack. The old woman took the bones up to her cave high in the mountaintops, then laid them out beside her fire. She sat and smoked. She smoked and thought. She smoked and she thought for a long, long time, and then she began to sing.

"Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone! Flesh Drawing by Arthur Rackhamto bone!" the Bone Woman sang, and before too long the bones knit back together, covered in flesh. Where the girl had once been red and rough, now she was soft and smooth and plump. Her skin was as gold as daylight and her hair as black as night. La Huesera sang and sang. She blew a puff of tobacco smoke. The young woman's eyes flew opened and she sat up and looked around her.

The cave was empty. The ashes were cold. The old Bone Woman had disappeared. All that was left were tobacco seeds and she put them in her pocket.

She left the cave and started for home, following the rising sun. She knew she'd find her village walking this way, and so she did. She came upon her dwelling at last. The place was dark, deserted now. "That old man has died, that poor wife has died, come away from that place," the people said, for they did not recognize the lovely young woman who came to them out of the west. They gave her a name, a fine set of clothes, a new dwelling place, a goat, and a hen. They taught her human speech, for she had forgotten all that she knew. She planted La Huesera's seeds and tended the new plants carefully. In time, she married, and gave her young husband many gold–skinned daughters and black–haired sons, and her children's children's children still grow tobacco in that village today.

Dark Wood 7

Dark Wood 8

There are different versions of this basic story found in cultures the world over, particularly among the oral tales associated with healing rites. In the literal way we approach old folk and fairy tales in our modern world, it might seem just a simple "where tobacco comes from" story, or even a Cinderella variant: a mistreated girl is made beautiful, marries, and lives happily ever after. (I can picture the Disney version, complete with a singing-and-dancing La Huesera.) My gentle husband is not an abusive one, and I certainly didn't come through a summer of illness with sudden supernatural beauty. So why would this tale apply to my recent journey through the dark woods of illness?

Let's look at the tale again, as an ancient curandera (healer) might look.

Dark Wood 9

It doesn't really matter how the girl came to find herself in the desert -- the Mexican equivalent of the mythic greenwood -- for any life change or calamity can trigger events that lead into the dark: Hansel & Gretel's parents abandon them there, Beauty takes her father's place in it, Donkeyskin chooses the dark unknown to Illustration from the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Helen Strattonescape a more dreadful fate. The point is that our hero is there, alone, walking by night, miserable, in extremis, removed from the normal rhythms of life...and thus ripe for transformation. It is in the darkest hour of need that the guardian figures in folk tales appear, waiting by the side of the road as the hero stumbles by. In this case, our guide waits long indeed -- she waits until the hero is dead. (It is notable that as the young woman surrenders to her fate, all fear and sorrow leave her.) Like the hideous crones who are faery godmothers in disguise, La Huesera, scavenger of bones, is salvation cloaked in an unlikely form. The old woman carries the bones to a cave in the west, the place of the dead. Dead to her old life, if not to the world, the girl's spirit lingers, watches, and waits. Her patience is rewarded as her broken body is fashioned anew.

This "ritual death" is similar to shamanic initiation rites found in tribal cultures around the world. The initiates, in a state of trance, journey into the spirit world -- where their bodies die and are shorn of flesh, the bones picked over by spirits who are then persuaded, if all goes well, to sew them back together, better than new. (If the ceremonial procedure fails, however, an initiate can die in the trance state.) In this story, the young woman can be seen in the role of shamanic initiate. She lies down wrapped in long white cloth, the color of initiation. She leaves her body, returns to it, and finally becomes "twice-born," emerging from the cave (the womb of the Mother Earth) with a sacred gift for her people.

When she returns to her village, she is literally a new woman. She is given a new name, a new dwelling, and must learn to speak all over again. This, too, is common in initiation ceremonies found the world over. In one West African tribe, for instance, young male initiates drink a sacred brew which cause them to lose consciousness, whereupon they are taken into a special place deep in the jungle. When they wake, they have forgotten their past and must be taught to speak, walk, and feed themselves. They return to the tribe with new names and new roles, transformed from boys into men.

Dark Wood 10

Dark Wood 11

The safe return from the jungle, the forest, the spirit world, or the land of death often marks, in traditional tales, a time of new beginnings: new marriage, new life, and a new season of plenty and prosperity enriched not only by earthly treasures but those carried back from the Netherworld. Thomas the Rhymer, in the old Scottish ballad, returns to the human world after seven years in the woodlands of Faerie bearing the gift of prophesy, the "tongue that will not lie." Merlin returns from his time of exile and madness in the forests of Wales with magical knowledge and the ability to speak with the animals. Odin hangs in a death-like trance for ten days from the world-tree Yggdrasil, and comes back with the secret of runes from the dark land of Niflheim.

The hero of our story has also survived a great ordeal, a rite-of-passage from a barren life into one of great fecundity -- symbolized not only by marriage and children, but also by the precious tobacco seeds she brings for her people. To a modern audience, tobacco might seem a strange gift to appear in a healing tale since we now associate the plant with addiction, cancer, and death. Yet tobacco was once a sacred plant used only for ritual purpose and prayer -- particularly as old, ceremonial strains had hallucinogenic properties. (Some tribal elders say that it's casual use for non-religious purposes is what makes it so harmful today.)

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Rites-of-passage stories like the one above were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of–passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are "twice-born" in our return to life, carrying seeds: new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit.

Dark Wood 13

Dark Wood 14

The poem in the picture captions is "Otherwise" by Jane Kenyon, who was born in Michigan in 1947 and died of leukemia at the age of 48. The poem comes from her collection of the same title (Grey Wolf Press, 1996); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The drawings above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).

On Illness, Part 2 is here.

There and back again

Woodland reverie

Thank you for your patience (and all the kind messages) while I've been out of the studio due to health issues. It's good to be stepping gently back to life and work again, and I'm hoping to resume my regular posting schedule now, health and strength permitting. I'm not exactly dancing on tables yet, so work will be a little slow for a while -- but slow is better than the alternative. Between my health problems and Tilly's operation, what a strange and difficult summer it has been. But the Great Wheel turns and now it is autumn, a new season and a new beginning.

In folkloric terms, September and October mark the end, not the start, of the Celtic year...but this is also the time when a new school year kicks off for children all across the Western world, thus the sense of autumn as a time of fresh beginnings tends to linger after childhood is done. At least that's how it feels to me as the weather grows crisp, the leaves begin to turn, and the blackberries ripen in the fields: a fresh start for the whole of our Bumblehill household. May creativity flow, energy quicken, and the harvest be abundant for you and your loved ones too.

Faeries and berries by Arthur Rackham

Ripening blackberries

A new season beginsThe painting of faeries and berries is by Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

Tilly update

In the studio

Tilly had a disturbed night again last night, and thus so did I, so we're both feeling rather tired and fragile on this beautiful August morning. But she's able to come up to the studio with me now, sitting quietly beside me as I work -- or at least try to. (*yawn*)

She's got one more week of recovery to go, then she'll be back in her beloved woods again. As for me, I don't really know how much longer recuperation will take this time...it's frustratingly slow,  but every day is a little bit better. In the meantime, this is our view out the window from the studio couch, so the healing power of nature surrounds us, even indoors:

Out the studio windows

Meldon Hill