Springtime in Devon is beautiful: the greening of the hills, the budding of the oaks, the bluebells emerging in the woods, the wild ponies giving birth to their leggy foals. Yesterday a neighbour stopped by our gate to ask, "How are you coping with it all?"
"Locked-down in paradise?" I answered. "How could I possibly complain?"
But of course it's not really paradise, and we're not immune from the world's travails. The UK's death rate rises and rises, with no clear government strategy in sight. Friends working for the NHS and other essential services are looking increasingly haggard and discouraged. Much of Howard's theatre work has been cancelled. The bills keep coming while income keeps disappearing. Community life in the village has halted. Family life has closed down too: we see our daughter and other loved ones only on phone and computer screens, with no idea when we'll next be together. My youngest brother's ashes are sitting in a box; no one can gather for a memorial now. We're surrounded by beauty, and it sustains me, but the shadow side of life is equally vivid, equally present.
Most days I focus on all that's good: the gentle rhythms of the countryside, the daily miracle of spring unfolding, the quiet hours in my studio coaxing a novel into shape, and the small domestic pleasures that I share with Howard and Tilly. But there are days when the shadows press too close, and refuse to be ignored or reasoned with. All I can do then is breathe deeply, accept their presence, and carry on.
What I didn't say to my neighbour is that I am coping, even on the hard days, because this is all strangely familiar -- and I suspect that those of you who have also experienced personal (rather than global) medical crisis know what I mean. This is not the first springtime in our lives when beauty and fear have co-existed; when simply being alive each day is a wonder to be grateful for; and when love for family, friends, and community assumes its rightful place at the center of our existence, holding the shadows at bay.
How do we balance light and shadow when crisis puts us on the narrow path between them? How do we avoid despair's passivity, or optimism'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, 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. 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."
As I rise and follow Tilly back home, she dances ahead of me on the trail, a four-footed embodiment of exuberance, joy, and living fully in the present. I have known despair, we have all known despair, but on this misty morning I am choosing hope. I am choosing movement, action, transformation. Art is the "ax" I choose to carry: sharp and not too heavy, fit to the limited strength I have. Stories are the light I choose to guide me. They won't banish the shadows completely; nothing and no one can do that. But they keep the light and dark in balance, and help me find meaning in it all .
"It is Story that heals us, that shapeshifts us, that saves us," writes author and artist Sylvia Linsteadt.
Tilly waits on the path ahead. I take a deep breath. And carry on.
Words: The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010). The Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Our hill on a misty day, and a drawing by Scottish illustrator Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916).