On illness, 1: In a Dark Wood
On illness, 3: Wild Snails, Shadows, and Grown-Upness 101

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.


I am among the ones, and twos and more who live with illness more than health. The better, and better, is not necessarily the end product but how differently rich one can become when we slosh upon a sandy shore, again. Water logged from the deep swim. These stories shared, I know some of them. Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds me in her beautiful writing that Trees have an intimate communication thanks to the language shared through their roots: about timing, about invasion, about relating. Trees surround me, I believe what they tell me. Lucky me, illness has slowed me enough to hear it.

A koan by the ancient Zen master Yunmen asks:
"Sickness and medicine mutually regulate each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?"

A present-day Zen teacher, John Tarrant, wrote some musings on this koan and the life of sickness here; your post reminded me of it.

(And by the way, I loved your _Armless Maiden_ compilation and many other books you've edited and written.)

"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." Thank you for sharing such difficult truths.

Another poem today. I must have missed you. ;)


What blue sky where
Beyond the curtain
Yes perhaps I’ll see
Maybe tomorrow
Before you go
Would you turn off the light?
Thank you.
(I want also
To ask for more-
your company
your forgiveness
your quiet presence
in the chair, there-
This moment, unjoined,
Closes the door
A firm click.
Be well then
Alive in your light.

Silence, do your work.

Mirror Me

That face, that pale unmastered moon,
its un-metered heartbeat, erratic,
inconstant, waning, looks back at me.

That face, drawn down as if the gravity
of my situation pulls its heavy shades
across my eyelids, skin, my once smile.

That face, years flooding into my pores
till I drown in my own past, with no dike
to hold back the rise of foreign waters.

That face, once so well known, I could pick
me out from a crowd, even in a darkened subway
window, an old photo, a drawing by a once friend.

That face, no longer mine, palimpsest of who
I once was, the cartoon beneath the mural
of my healthier life. That mirror face.

©2015 Jane Yolen all right reserved

going through the long strange tunnel of the years lived through a life changing illness is recorded with deep empathy in "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating" by Elisabeth Tolva Bailey, it changed my perception of both snails and illness

Every single word is so completely relatable. And excellent timing for me. Thank you Terri, finding grace in illness is such a process.


I really love all of this beautiful insight. The only thing I would add is that I believe what we see of trees in the world, against the sky, is their true underside. Or perhaps they have no underside at all, but a dark self and a light self, perfectly balanced. What most of us believe about trees is based on our human bias. As an introvert who lives with a chronic illness, I feel the same way about how most people view "normal life". Our popular ideas about the proper experience of life seem to come from vigorous, young extroverts. I find such richness and beauty and magic and joy in the life my illness requires me to have - "one that holds closer to the ground of being, the feedback and teachings of their bodies and souls."

Wonderful poetry!

So glad you're feeling better! Although I don't know exactly what you struggle with, I often think about your "spoons" and explain that idea to others who don't understand my limits, as I struggle with my own illness. One thing I've grown thankful for, though, is the sharpening of my focus, as a result of so much physical pain. This may sound snobbish, and I don't mean it to at all, but I used to be absolutely paralyzed by the number of options that seemed to be available to me... the gifts and talents I could invest in if I chose to. Rather than spurring me to action, that crippled me. What if I chose the wrong thing? What would that mean? Blessedly, my choices have been streamlined according to my diminishing physical abilities, and I've been strangely freed to pursue some of the remaining choices. Although I'm not glad about my struggles, I'm thankful for how they've simplified my life.

Enjoying these posts about illness right now - and what really resonates with me is the references to the Western ideals of productivity and extroversion. Illness hurts so much sometimes because of the cultural and social implications, and how it changes the way we expect ourselves to function.

Illness is a hard teacher. It IS a quest. And sometimes the treasure at the end isn't to be a healthy and idyllic person, but to live a more wholly balanced life.

As a herbalist so often I find myself speaking to people about their expectations of recovery and wellness. It shouldn't be about finding a magic bullet or holy grail that will "fix" everything. Symptoms can be difficult, even crippling, but the path out of the dark lands and into healing is a slow walk, a good walk, and involves supporting yourselves on all levels of body, soul, and outer life. Building up strength, tonifying the body and mind, removing those things that take away our energy and happiness.

This takes a fierce self-love and determination. And I wonder if maybe finding that self-love and determination inside oneself is more precious than the attainment of symptom-free, physical strength.

Beautiful put Joel, sometimes the treasure isn't to be a healthy and idyllic person.

a poem like no other I have read. we follow the slowdown, the need for sleep, the sadness of not being up and about. to have some-one there, for you. hope. but so tired....
"Silence, do your work."

Ooooh. Queen of Metaphors. Moon, mirror, tired, more tired. when will it go away? Never mind...or do mind....


Lately I have stayed at home,
Slide down in the elevator
To get my mail, wear a gown
Hope not to see anybody.

This is not me. It is
Another me. The one
Who fell down in
A theatre bathroom,
Who saw the play,
And broke some ribs,
Annoying. Cat
Looks at me sadly.

Tired. Just started
Morning yoga,
Vivaldi and others
I can hum the "Folies,"
Up to the sky,
Put hands together,
Swift prayer, down
To touch my slippers,
Up again to reach
For some vision,
Of life,love, joy.

Cat follows me
Not the same woman,
Trying to meet deadlines
I have created for myself,
To make stubborn words
Like straw, to golden
As love and sunlight.

Not yet, not yet, only
Walk here and there
Until a strange tomorrow.

Hi Terri

I absolutely loved this essay on illness. The writings are wondrous, metaphorical and yet vibrant with truth and insight. The paintings beautiful and beautifully matched, reflecting that sense of ailing and physical malaise. Yet, I also see illness as a condition of the landscape and its natural spirit. Drought plagues human, animal and terrain. It saddens the heart with a sense of endless dread and drains the mind of both creative and faith bound energy. Resiliency comes from tolerance and patience, an understanding of how and why it happened, A Belief that something will come and cause change. I feel the discontent and the despondency of the high desert, I feel it in my bones and my outlook. Yet, I have hope things will change with the coming of the predicted Winter Rains, El Nina. So having read of Bone Woman yesterday and loving her influence and ability to heal and restore, here is my poetic take on the subject.

La Huesera

She appears as sky
bundled in clouds gray
as the pelt of seal
or otter. Her garment sewn
with rain scent, her hands
the gusting wind.

Over the field, she looks
searching for bones,
listening for their song.
The remains of a hare
and young girl lie
in the wild grass.

Both of them killed
by the desert heat.
Their fur and flesh
consumed by carrion birds.

Bone woman grabs
sparks of light scattering
from the stone pit
where old ones burn
branch and bramble.

From the embers
she weaves a sac of fire
cremating skull
and skeletal palings
that fence in death.

Bone to ash,
ash to seed
seed to root
and root to stem
stalk or trunk.

She chants
again and again
until the bag of blaze
becomes a bag of mist.

The sky soon
returns to sky
full of dusk and rain.

Earth ingests
the pour and pulse
of showers.

Their fall to flood,
their echo to louden.
And in spring

when the sapling grows
green and limber
as the maiden's spine,

When new leaves tilt
long and alert
as the jack rabbit's ear

the work
of Bone woman
will be reaped

and the request
of those who prayed
around the mesa flame

Living in California turning into a dust bowl or dust hill, has been painful. This is a good
witch poem, please, please, please. It prompts me to go to the sea and send out deep prayers to the great mysteries.

These are such wise and beautiful words.

My apologies, everyone, for taking so long to respond to these wonderful comments, links, and poems. I'm not quite back to full strength yet, and getting the posts themselves done is taking up many of my blogging "spoons" -- but I'm reading every comment, and promise to come back and respond properly just as soon as I can.

Amen Phyllis

I ,too, want to go to sea and pray! Thank you so much for your kind words and empathy. I deeply appreciate them!!

Take care

Hi Phyllis

What a true and wonderful poem!! I also have been that other woman who does not seem like myself. You describe her perfectly and I can feel and sense what she is going through;

"This is not me. It is
Another me.."

Thank you so much for sharing this.
I have been her and I have been there!

Take care,

Hi Edith

Love the poem and how you approach this thing called " Illness". I love Phyllis' description and think it sums up the essence of this wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing it. When silence does her work it can be helpful and healing.

My Best

Hi Jane,

That face, drawn down as if the gravity
of my situation pulls its heavy shades
across my eyelids, skin, my once smile.

That face, years flooding into my pores
till I drown in my own past, with no dike
to hold back the rise of foreign waters.

Love the title and the concept of the poem. You brilliantly use the lunar imagery to describe the face that was and the face that has become you. We change with age, illness, time and circumstances. Like that moon, we go through the phases and come out somehow a stranger to ourselves or what we knew or recognized of ourselves.

Really wonderful/haunting stuff.
Love it!

THis is a marvellous post, thank you. There is an otherworldly quality to illness which really comes over here.

Wow. Thank you

"I could pick me out from a crowd..." Love that line, Jane.

Agreed. Wise and helpful. Thank you.

"Swift prayer, down
To touch my slippers,
Up again to reach
For some vision,
Of life,love, joy."

A beautiful movement here that I could feel as I read!

Wendy, so many wonderful images here. I can't pick just one. I think the bone woman's hands searching and then lifting skull and pelt... or no, a sac or fire, or the new tree, a reincarnation. So many lovely moments in this piece. Well done.

Thank you so much Edith,

I deeply appreciate your kind and supportive comments. I was deeply moved by the La Huesera ( Bone Woman) story that Terri revealed in her blog postings earlier this week. It led the inspiration for this poem. And I am hoping so much when the supposed winter Rains El Nina is foretold to bring this Winter, that the drought will have
been reduced to some significant amount. But again, it's a matter of hope and anticipation.

Many thanks
Take care,

Oh, thank you, Edith.

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