Although I'm making a good recovery from last year's health crisis, which kept me confined to bed for long stretches of time, recovery is never a steady, straight line. As everyone with a long-term health condition knows, the only predictable thing about managing such an illness is its utter unpredictability. One day you're doing fine, the next you're down again, for one reason or another; or for no discernable reason at all. You can rage about it, or flow with the ups and downs of it as gracefully as you can...and I'm still learning the latter after all these years. I was down for the last four days and now I'm up again. Go figure.
The words below were written in 2011, but could just as easily been written today, for some things never change -- like illness, and art, and the deep soul-medicine of the Devon woods:
To make art and to recover from a long illness are two things that are never an easy mix...and yet, I remind myself, the philosophers and spiritual traditions that I trust the most do not prioritize "ease" in the living of an artist's life. It is often precisely from what is hard that our best work grows, our ideas deepen, and our spirits mature.
The Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue (1956-2008) is a writer I often find myself re-reading during difficult times -- usually while sitting in the woods behind the studio, morning coffee in hand and Tilly close by. My little black familiar sits patiently, ears cocked and nose twitching in the rustling, breathing forest, as I turn the crackling pages and lose myself in O'Donohue's words....
"When you become vulnerable," he says, "any ideal or perfect image of yourself falls away."
That's certainly true during periods of convalescence. Who am I during the long, quiet days when I can't write, or draw, or even think properly? What is left at the core; what is still me when the parts I value most are stripped away?
"Many people are addicted to perfection," he continues, " and in their pursuit of the ideal, they have no patience with vulnerability."
There's nothing wrong with ideals themselves, he adds.
"Every poet would like to write the ideal poem. Though they never achieve this, sometimes it glimmers through their best work. Ironically, the very beyondness of the idea is often the touch of presence that renders the work luminous. The beauty of the ideal awakens a passion and urgency that brings out the best in the person and calls forth the dream of excellence.
"The beauty of the true ideal," Donohue insists, "is its hospitality towards woundedness, weakness, failure and fall-back. Yet so many people are infected with the virus of perfection. They cannot rest; they allow themselves no ease until they come close to the cleansed domain of perfection. This false notion of perfection does damage and puts their lives under great strain. It is a wonderful day in a life when one is finally able to stand before the long, deep mirror of one's own reflection and view oneself with appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness. On that day one breaks through the falsity of images and expectations which have blinded one's spirit. One can only learn to see who one is when one learns to view oneself with the most intimate and forgiving compassion."
Who am I, then, when I glimpse into that mirror? A writer and artist still, on the days I can work and on the days when I can't.
And also just a woman reading and writing in the woods, a dog beside her. Healing. Healing.
Words: The passage above is from John O'Donohue's Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (HarperCollins, 2004); the poem in the picture captions is from Otherwise: New & Selected Poems by Jane Kenyon (Greywolf, 1997), who died of leukemia in 1995; all rights reserved. Pictures: The autumn woods, photographed this morning.
Related posts (on banishing perfectionism): "When Every Day is Judgement Day" and Dare to be Foolish"