We are entering the season of Advent, a time of longing and anticipation; a time of looking back to what haunts us; a time to redefine and face the present moment. Advent, then, is a season for writers prepared to witness to what has gone before, mark out the territory of new possibilities and call us to centre in what we face now.
Writing the haunting
Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash
Parts of the past, our communal and individual pasts, haunt us. There are acts of betrayal or injury that reverberate down years so that we long to be free of them, yet they cling, ghost-like and amorphous, but powerful.
Letting go and forgiving can never be either commanded or faked. They are fragile and intimate processes, whether for people or ecologies. To move on from whatever haunts us, whether it is a broken relationship or genocide, is rarely a one-off action, but a process of witnessing, owning, briging to light and duly remembering on the way to finding a resting place. All ghost stories involve the spirit finding its way home.
The things that haunt us need facing and naming. Moreover, they need to be heard and learnt from so that the same behaviours that caused them are not endlessly repeated.
Looking to the past should not be a maudlin exercise in jinogism or nostalgia or stoking feelings of revenge. Rather, the things that haunt us should tell us what to long for in the future and how to live in the present. How not to repeat the mistakes, even as we acknowledge that we’re fallible and this will be a constant process.
Writing the longing
Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash
We long for so much. Advent is inextricably linked with notions of Christmas that have become synonymous with over-spending, over-eating, over-imbibing … Yet so often the scrabble to buy more, eat more, drink more, have more, hides much deeper longings: for wholeness, for integration, for meaning and connection.
The cravings for more and more stuff often hide the craving for life to be other than it is, less busy, less driven, less packed with things that fail to satisfy. The cravings can hide a deep existential unease that has particular incarnations in the time in which we live. As Olivia Laing remarks in The Lonely City:
There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice …
We live in a time of longing for connection. We live in a time when more and more of us are unconvinced by the notion that things are as they have to be and that there is no alternative (TINA). Yet we remain surrounded by the rhetoric of individualism, and the delusional myth that we should be ‘self-made’. No wonder so many of us have lost all sense of our deeply grounded embodiment, let alone of our wider connection to all of life. Laing goes on:
… current studies suggest that more than a quarter of American adults suffers from loneliness, independent of race, education and ethnicity, while 45 per cent of British adults report feeling lonely either often or sometimes. … The lonely ones, a hundred million strong…
But there are alternatives. Whatever insights a period of lockdown and the restrictions of the coming winter have left, they that have at least given us the space to imagine and even experience elements of such alternatives. However hard corporate greed and international capitalism pushes for business as usual, we know that it is not ‘business in the only way possible’.
And artists and writers are those who can take new experiences and suggest new futures. We are those who can propose futures of connection, justice and ecological sustainability.
Longing can be wistful and stuck. It can trap us in wishful thinking that goes nowhere. Or it can be the beginning of change. When we long for something different we inherently recognise that something needs letting go, that something is not right. Longing can be the germ of transformation and healing.
Traditionally, Advent has more than a small element of darkness running through it; notions of the last things, the end times. But mixed with warnings of death, judgment, heaven and hell, there is also a longing for a new order. The end can be disaster or it can be the inauguration of a different kind of eschatology: a utopian heaven on earth. It can be hell, or it can be justice and peace.
But the other aspect of Advent is the longing for salvation: peace on earth, good will to all (hopefully to all life and not only to humankind). This longing begins deep within and puts out vulnerable shoots, but even tiny green shoots can crack open a concrete floor.
Which elements of Advent will we imagine, conjure and write about?
How do we see them taking shape?
Writing the moment
Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash
The ‘eschaton’ is the last day, the last thing, the last word. We’re not there yet but we’re pushing towards it in an unsustainable world choking on plastics and increasingly depleted of resources. But there is also another theory of eschatology that locates it not at the end of times but now. Realised eschatology is a theological notion that heaven is already here in new ways of living and relating and new processes of becoming.
This doesn’t have to be a narrowly religious conception. Writers of all faiths and none offer us visions of reality that are inclusive and sustainable, equitable and connected. And lives lived differently, even in the smallest of ways, can contribute to this moment of transformation.
Advent is a good time for some deep thinking. This Advent:
What are you haunted by that needs to be witnessed to so that you can move on?
What are you longing for and are any of these longings a covering for deeper existential longings?
What is your vision of a world transformed?
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.
Anne Bateman says
Thanks Jan, I take away the phrase Heaven is already here and hold on to that in these dog days of the plague year. I’m usually pretty upbeat, counting my blessings but like many I am finding this confinement hard, especially the distance from family. So, to all you writers out there, Courage as they say in French, power to your elbows, your laptops and let’s write out hearts out.
Yes to this Anne and to writing our hearts out. It will be so odd this Christmas not to see family except my son who is with us in Brittany. We are usually a table of 10 and more at new year with extended family and this year would be 11 with the newest arrival. A Christmas of 3 feels like going back several decades. I think many of us are feeling the longevity of this pandemic and of the distancing. The days are darkening but the festival will not be the punctuation it might normally be. And yet… we are here — writing our hearts out and alive. I read some of Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light today — written after a terminal diagnosis (though there was another ten years in her):
“I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe.”
Here’s to writing fire to light up the darkness 🙂
So many true words, Jan. Inspirational. Thank you.
Thank you 🙂
Teffy Wrightson says
A deeply thoughtful piece, thank you for that. I was struck by your phrase about past injuries “clinging ghost like”. Very vivid and so true for us all. Total forgiveness of others and of ourselves is a long and difficult process.
I hope you’re happy in your new home.
Thank you Teffy
Yes a long process and often not linear. I’m struck by how we circle back and see things differently. Adn yes – radical generosity to ourselves is always hard but the basis for how we love others.
The forest is a very embracing place to be — feels a bit like camping or playing at moving at the moment but feel very lucky to be here 🙂
Mark Charlton says
Thought provoking and generous as always. I have come to belive that almost all lasting change is evolutionary – in the sense that it takes time and strengthens in increments. The calls for radical change – even in areas that seem urgent like the environment – concern me, for they are founded on the assumption (and hubris) of our correctness, of our infallible foresight …
The same is true of our troubles – there is never a magic solution; change and healing are a slow alchemy.
Thank you Mark
It’s intresting that radical and rooted have the same etymology, I think paaradigm shifts are sometimes urgent but they are rarely (if ever?) overnight revolutions – it’s often many actions over time coming together to makes the final push, which can then seem like it came from nowhere but really took many small steps along the way.