Late autumn in Devon. Tilly and I travel the winding pathways of the dying year: through yellow leaves and rust red hills and green grass fields turned white with frost, through trees that seem to flame and wither between one heartbeat and the next.
I am wrapped in a warm and threadbare coat, skirt snagged by brambles, boots caked in mud, my steps unsteady, moving slowly through the quiet landscape of fragile health and recovery. It is not a straight trail. The pathway dips and rises, loops back, moves forward, then turns back again. My destination lies somewhere ahead: I can smell the wood smoke of its welcoming fire, see the golden glow of the back porch light, guiding me toward stability, certainty, strength of body, mind, and spirit. I'll get there. I am getting there. But the journey is my life right now: the taste of wind and sound of water and the damp grass slippery underfoot. The journey has its necessities, its lessons...its pleasures too, if I am open to them. If I am present on the trail and not putting life and art on hold until that moment of arrival.
There's nothing like the slow and tedious progression through an illness to bring to mind the words "hope" and "despair," although one's own tiny drop of discomfort seems so damn small, so insignificant when measured against the wounded world around us. I'm reminded daily of that old alchemical principal: As above, then so below. We harm the natural world; our bodies are nature; and we are not immune from ecological disruption, echoed in our blood and bones.
How do we balance hope and despair when daily life, or health, or work, or engagement with the world puts us on the narrow path between them? How do we avoid despair's passivity, or false hope's blindness to the challenges ahead? The ecological writer Joanna Macy suggests that despair and hope are not oppositional, but two sides of the same coin:
"By honoring our despair," she says, "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."
The trail dips down, rises again. Tilly dances ahead, a four-footed embodiment of exuberance and joy; and I follow after, taking courage from the stalwart gorse blossoms, bright among the thorns. I have known despair, we have all known despair, but on this beautiful morning I am chosing hope. I am chosing movement, action, transformation. Art is the "ax" I carry: sharp and not too heavy, fit to the strength I have. And stories are the lights that guide me, the golden porch light that will lead me home.