Recommended reading: A Still Life

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Following last week's post on creative inspiration born out of hard experience, I'd like to recommend a book I've recently read and loved: A Still Life by British author Josie George. In this beautiful, painful, deftly-crafted memoir, George brings us into the center of a writing life honed by illness and disability: circumscribed by physical limitations, yes, but rich in observation, reflection, and depth of feeling, alchemized into the making of art.

She begins the book like this, writing from her bed in the small house where she's lived for fifteen years:

A Sill Life by Josie George"Houses like mine exist all in a row along every street of my industrial West Midlands neighbourhood. They push themselves right up against the narrow pavement, rusty weeds marking the join. It's a land of scattered wheelie bins, patched grass, broken glass, dog shit and prowling cats. Cars ride the corners and the yellow lines because there is never anywhere to park. The neighbours shout behind closed doors and smile at you on the street, and for half the year the old people drag plastic garden chairs to sit outside their front doors and smoke in the sunshine, their heads tipped back to the sky. We're good to each other. We're so trodden together that we have to be. There is peace and reassurance in that and I like living here.

"I share the house with my nine-year-old son and no one else. Our days follow a repetitive, quiet rhythm. I take him to school, him dutifully shifting each bin that blocks our path so I can squeeze by on my mobility scooter. We make up phrases beginning with the letters on the car number plates we see, each as daft as we can manage. 'Bee, ee, ess!' I call. 'Bubbly...elephant...SNEEZES!' he returns. We are happy with each other. I watch him run to his friends in the playground and then I go home again.

"I write. I rest. Some days, when I'm well enough, I'll scoot to the community centre the next street over and write there for a while until I need to lie down again. I've spent the last few years trying to make a living with my words and thoughts. I don't really know what else to do. 

"I write the words, but often won't say a sound out loud until it's time to pick up my son from school again. I don't mind it. There have always been long years when I've struggled to leave my house for more than an hour or two at a time and so I am used to solitude.

"I am thirty-six years old."

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George's text is not just about living with an illness (although her writing on the subject is gripping), it is also an unsentimental appraisal of the value of stillness, of slowing down, and of fully engaging with what we have -- right here, right now -- instead of measuring our days (and, by extension, our creative work) by what we lack.

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Although my own experience of health disability is milder than George's, and more intermittent, I found enough similarity to be grateful for her insights on the subject; I also appreciated her raw honesty -- often expressed through a dry humour that does not disguise the courage beneath. This is, however, a book worth reading whether you've experienced chronic illness or not, for its primary theme -- how to maintain creativity, vitality, and a sense of self while dealing with life's trials -- is one we all must face, if not through illness then through age, through loss, or through some other hard life change ... such as long, world-wide pandemic, where even the able-bodied have had to learn to live with physical restrictions.

A "still life" imposed by circumstance (health, poverty, age, a cultural barrier, pandemic isolation, etc.) can be painful, frustrating, and burdensome...but also enlightening, tempering, liberating, and full of unexpected gifts. George's story encompasses all these things ... and it does so with a quiet beauty that our brash, angry, overly-fast-paced society could use a great deal more of.

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She writes:

"The miracle is, perhaps, that I am still here -- that I continue -- and that despite all that's come before, I believe my life to be good. That is the truth hidden under all of this: that I am deeply happy to be alive.

"Usually, when you are unwell, people expect one of two stories: either you get better -- you beat it -- or you get worse and die. Stories of everyday living and undramatic, sustained existence, stories that don't end up with cures or tragic climaxes but that are made up of slow, persistent continuation as you learn and change -- stories about what happens then -- they made be harder to tell, but I believe they're important too. I believe we need to tell more of them.

"That is why this year I decided to be brave. I decided I would try to find a way to tell my story, to pin it down and spread it out in front of other people -- in front of you -- so that we could look at it together. On the first of January, I made a resolution to try and write down my confused and searching past and the quiet days of my present, simply, honestly, and ignore the voice inside me that continues to tell me that it is a worthless, unimportant story to tell. I have barely told a soul of it before. It was always too much to explain. It was always too complicated and I have felt flawed and vulnerable in complexity's jumble. My life has made it easy to hide, and so I have, but I don't want to be something small and hidden any more. Mine is only one ordinary human life among countless, similar others, but it is a life that doesn't leave anything out: not grief, not pain, not delight, not failure, confusion, nor joy. It holds and embraces all of it equally, and that, I have learnt, is nothing ordinary at all."

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Words: The passage above is from A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons.


Remembering who we are

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From Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose books I return to again and again:

"The earth is our origin and destination. The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element. We are children of the earth: people to whom the outdoors is home. Nothing can separate us from the vigour and vibrancy of this inheritance. In contrast to our frenetic, saturated lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. Movement and growth in nature takes time. The patience of nature enjoys the ease of trust and hope. There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here."

By the leat 1

"Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind; its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force. When it dominates, the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame."

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"Yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be tempered and balanced with a capacity for celebration. When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. When we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled and our lives brighten with unexpected courage."

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Words: The passages above are from Beauty by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004). All rights reserved by the author's estate. Pictures: Reading and writing by the leat on a bright summer's day.


Finding the words

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While passing through a period of low health these past weeks, I was reminded of the following passage from "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber, which I send out to all who balance art-making with managing an illness or disability. Huber writes:

A drawing by Helen Stratton"It’s an odd thing to continue to show up at the page when the brain and the fingers you bring to the keyboard have changed. Before the daily pain and head-fog of rheumatoid disease, I could sit at my computer and dive headlong into text for hours. Like many writers, I had a quasi-religious attachment to the feeling of jet-fuel production, the clear writing process of my twenties: the silence I required, the brand of pen I chose when I wrote long-hand, those hours when I would sit and pour out words and forget to breathe.

"Then, I thought that my steel-trap focus made for good writing, but I confess that I’m not sure what 'good writing' means anymore. For example, what happens when the fogged writing you thought was sub-par results in your most popular book? ...

"Today I am tired -- despite a full night’s sleep -- merely because I had a busy workday yesterday. I’m actually hungover, in a sense, from standing upright and talking between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. Before I got sick, I would have declared this day a rare lost cause. But this is the new normal. Now, even the magic of caffeine doesn’t allow me to smash through the pages like I used to. As my body and mind changed, I feared that I would become unhinged from text itself, and from the thinking and insight that text provides. In a way, that did happen. Over the past decade, I have had to remake my contract with sentences and with every step of the writing process. The good thing is that there’s plasticity in that relationship, as long as I am patient.

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"I don’t know a lot about neurology, but here’s what it feels like: there’s a higher register, buzzing, logical, and mathematical, in which I could often write when I was at full energy. And then there’s a lower tone, slower and quieter -- my existence these days. The music of the words sounds completely different at this lower register, producing different voices and different shapes, but it still resonates. It requires me to intuit more, to pay much more attention to non-verbal senses and emotional structures and to try to put them into words, rather than to follow the intellectual string of words themselves.

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"Although our diseases are very different, I have felt what Floyd Skloot describes in his essay 'Thinking with a Damaged Brain,' in which he traces the ways his thought processes have been altered by the aftermath of a virus that ravaged his attention and memory: 'I must be willing to write slowly, to skip or leave blank spaces where I cannot find words that I seek, compose in fragments and without an overall ordering principle or imposed form. I explore and make discoveries in my writing now, never quite sure where I am going but willing to let things ride and discover later how they all fit together.'

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"I do work more slowly. Of necessity, I place more faith in Tomorrow Me. When I stop writing, daunted by a place where I’m stuck, my energy plummets and I hand it off, knowing I’ll pick up the challenge on the next session....

"The dim semaphore through which my sentences arrive today leads to a strange by-product: I have less energy to worry about all the ways in which I might be wrong (though maybe age and confidence have also helped). In plodding along slowly, my voice has become clearer, at least in my own head. This slow writing forces me to make each word count."

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Please take the time to read Huber's insightful essay in full (published online at Literary Hub), as this is just a small taste of it. I also recommend her brilliant collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System, discussed in this previous post

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"In order to keep me available to myself," wrote Audre Lord in The Cancer Journals, "and able to concentrate my energies upon the challenges of those worlds through which I move, I must consider what my body means to me. I must also separate those external demands about how I look and feel to others, from what I really want for my own body, and how I feel to my selves."

This is also a challenge for all of us, the sick and the well alike.

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Words: The passages quoted above are from "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber (Literary Hub, June 25, 2018) and The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 1980). The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (No. 9, Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A gentle stroll by River Teign. The pen-and-ink drawing is by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Sheltering in books

The Princess and the Pea by Gennady Spirin

I've only just discovered Survival Lesson by Alice Hoffman (2013), a slim, wise, beautiful volume written after the author's treatment for breast cancer. Her advice for coping with fearsome passages of life includes turning to books for solace and escape -- a sentiment with which, as a fellow cancer survivor, I heartily concur. Revisit the stories you loved as a child, Hoffman writes:

Baba Yaga by Gennady Spirin" -- you'll love them even more now. Start with Andrew Lang's fairy books, books sorted by color. Red, Lilac, and Blue are my favorites. Sometimes I think we can learn everything we need to know about the world when we read fairy tales. Be careful, be fearless, be honest, leave a trail of crumbs to lead you home again.

"In a novel you'll find yourself in a world of possibilities. You'll find shelter there. I spent an entire summer reading Ray Bradbury. I was twelve, which can be a terrible year. It's the summer when you suddenly know you will never be a child again. Being an adult may not look so good. The world that awaits you is scary and hugh. This is when you want to stop time, be a kid, ride your bike. But everyone around you is growing up, and you have to, too.

"I remained in Bradbury's world for as long as possible. It was a place where it was possible to recognize good from evil, darkness from light. I was a cynical kid, and I didn't have much faith in the world, but I trusted Ray Bradbury. I took everything he said personally. Often I would read until the fireflies came out.

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin"I read because I wanted to escape sadness, which was a big theme in my family. My great-grandfather had been forced into the czar's army, where he served for twenty years, before he shot off his toes with a rifle so they would finally let him go. Because we were Russian, sadness came naturally to us. But so did reading. In my family, a book was a life raft.

"I've often wondered if I spent too much time inside of books. If perhaps I ended up getting lost in there. I feared that reading, and later writing, stopped me from living a full life in the real world. I still don't know the answer to this, but I'm not sure I would have gotten past being twelve without Ray Bradbury, and I know that imagining the plot for my novel The River King during a lengthy bone scan helped me get through that test. The hospital faded and I was walking through a small town where I knew everyone. I slipped into the river, past water lilies, past the muddy shore. Here was my life raft. A book."

Frog Song by Gennady Spirin

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

The art today is by the great Russian-American book artist Gennady Spirin. He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, studied at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art, and then worked for Soviet and European publishers before moving his family to the United States. Spirin's sumptuous watercolours -- reminiscent of traditional Russian folk art and paintings of the Northern Renaissance --  grace his numerous, award-winning books for children, including Boots and the Glass Mountain, The Children of Lir, The Frog Princess, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Fool and the Fish, Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput, Kashtanka, The Sea King’s Daughter, Perceval, and The Tale of the Fire Bird.

To learn more about the artist, go here.

Unicorn by Gennady Spirin

The passage above is quoted from Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Open Road, 2013). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.


Wintering

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Here in Devon, we're on the cusp of spring (daffodils in the woods, new lambs in fields, wild Dartmoor ponies beginning to foal), but I'm reading a book about about winter right now and finding it full of interest. Wintering by Katherine May explores the winter season metaphorically (as a symbol for those hard times in life that I refer to as the Dark Forest), as well as the actuality of winter as it is experienced in northern climes. She weaves her meditations on the cold and dark with a personal memoir about her own period of  "wintering," when illness in her family -- first her husband's, and then her own -- shook every foundation they had built their lives on.

"There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world," May writes, "and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somwhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can't quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards."

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"Everybody winters at one time or another," she explains; "some winter over and over again.

"Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of the outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness; perhaps from a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humilation or failure. Perhaps you're in a period of transition, and have temporararily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of care responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.

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"Yet it's also inevitable. We'd like to imagine it's possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of equatorial habits, forever close to the sun; an endless, unvarying high season. But life's not like that. Emotionally, we're prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if, by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck, we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn't avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in....

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"In our relentlessly busy contemporary world, we are forever trying the defer the onset of winter. We don't ever dare to feel its full bit, and we don't dare to show the way that it ravages us. A sharp wintering, sometimes, would do us good. We must stop believing that these times in our life are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite winter in."

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That's what her new book is about, May says: "learning to recognize the process, engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how."

I recommend this wise and beautiful text for those going through their own wintering...which I expect may be a lot of us now, facing the life-altering consequences imposed by a global pandemic.

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As the Great Wheel turns from winter to spring, I've been contemplating my own winterings and the gifts they have given me, over and over. Those gifts are going to be useful now as we cope with unimaginable challenges ahead. Eager for springtime's warmth and sun, I celebrate each flower, each lamb, each foal affirming the steady turning of the seasons....

But I'm also grateful for the dark and cold, and the lessons of slowness, of quiet, of healing.

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Wintering by Katherine May

Words: The passage above is from Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by English novelist/memoirist Katherine May (Penguin/Random House, 2020). The poem in the picture captions is from Fugitive Colours by Scottish poet Liz Lochhead (Polygon, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, many of them pregnant with this year's foals. I love encountering them on walks with Tilly, grazing on the village Commons and roaming the hills behind my studio.