On a recent warm Saturday, I sat in the garden to work, recording meditations for a residential I was teaching and putting together a series of audio segments for a slide show based on a writing exercise to accompany W S Merwin’s amazing Unchopping a Tree.
Stratas of a sanctuary
I started off on a bench in the little orchard by the river. The white noise sound was soothing and the birdsong exquisite. The bank was a riot of primroses and a rose tree that has become thick and high, was already dripping full pink-red blooms, others flaming into bud, tens of them, more, waiting to stretch and exhale their healing-sweet scent.
Between making recordings, I listened to the last segments of an internet weekend I’d been taking part in — the Unthanks Winter onliner — folk music, podcasts, recordings done on the Northumbrian coast, unaccompanied singing in church yards or cathedrals, concerts from times when such things were bursting with people, warm bodies leaning into the music — always melancholy and moving, tender and tear-filled and achingly beautiful.
I’m 60 this year and decided that each month I would do something I don’t normally do or that is an experience of depth. The Unthanks weekend was a Valentine’s gift and it had proved deeply healing. The community around the group were so full of soul, of stories of the last year, of what they are missing, what they are valuing. And I rediscovered two lost friends. A man now in his 50s — someone I’d not been in contact with for 30 years — our oldest sons were born a couple of months apart and we shared an involvement in local politics, early parenthood and an extraordinary holiday on Dartmoor with our families and so much more — and there he was. And a woman who was a young silversmith 16 years ago and took on my youngest daughter as her occasional apprentice. I still and always wear the bracelet that my daughter made me then.
All these connections layered over this deeply effecting music from a group whose voices taste of home for me. They are from Northumbria and I’m from Teesside — but we share those fat full vowel sounds that tell me I’m in the right place.
And then there were the meditations — thinking about the world tree and the connections of all life — and Merwin’s poetic and radically earth-centred prose.
And the sun, moving so that I realised my hands were icy and shifted to the other side of the bench, moving again when the sun moved on, to a table at the other side of the garden, close to the forest track and more banks of primroses.
The sound of water — the river voluble and fast-flowing, the songs of chaffinches and nuthatches, a buzzard soaring overhead in a sky piercingly blue and feathered with the high branches of the ash trees, holding up their buds, eighty, ninety, hundred feet tall and more. The largest was perhaps here before this house was built 160 years ago.
Writers need places of sanctuary. Whether it’s a corner of a room with a painting that inspires, a garden shed, a place accessible in body or mind, the nourishment of place and of the earth holds us in the creative practice. Writing after the loss of husband and three children, imagining a world of pandemic in The Last Man, Mary Shelley, writes of the need to sometimes know when to withdraw:
Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies.
Withdrawal to engage
Into my sanctuary and creative flow a couple of Sundays ago, new noises suddenly boomed — the braying and barking of hounds. Not excited dogs out for Sunday walks, but dogs herded and goaded by the men who come to the forest to kill; the rallying calls of horns, calling for blood; gunshots exploding through the birdsong, thumping the air, cracking open the tranquil day; noises of lust with one intent: death.
How do I meet my antipathy with compassion? I asked myself.
This too is life. This and all the suffering beyond this garden. It’s not a balancing act with numbers and a scale. It’s so much more urgent than that. It’s not enough to shut out the howls of the dogs or the finality of that gun, splitting open air and life in the same moment. That I have this extraordinary sanctuary in a patch of ancient forest doesn’t negate all that is broken and howling with grief in the world. And yet the sun goes on shining, the birds keep singing, the water glugs and glitters, the daisies track the sun, their golden eyes answering its light.
It’s a process, finding sanctuary, centring, holding the light no matter how deep the dark. It’s rhythm and flow.
Writers need sanctuaries of the mind and heart and body in order to find this flow. But the withdrawal is not a sinking into self-indulgence and delusion that all is right with the world. Mary Shelley’s protagonist in the The Last Man concludes:
There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.
We withdraw in order to engage, in order to honour our connectedness. And this is an act of forgiveness.
I don’t understand the hunters any more than I understand those who seem to set out to sew hatred and division. But I am connected as much to them as to the earth in this place and to those I love. They are as much a part of the web of life. All of us are spinning that life from our own bodies, some more fearful and hurt than others, some passing on the pain, some with radically different perspectives on what it means to live. And if my only reaction to them is anger and baffled scorn, what does it add to the story of a world in need of transformation? If my reaction is one of closed self-righteousness, what does it tell me about my own shadow and darkness? What does it contribute to the ‘happiness of others’?
Being right, even on those occassions when we actually are right, won’t change stories by itself. Forgiving, as it’s etymology suggests, allows us to forego this high ground and to meet where we are all human, flawed and attempting to
Stagger on rejoicing
as W H Auden puts it in his poem, ‘Atlantis’
How to meet antipathy with compassion?
Forgiveness is never easy or glib. But it will free us to write from a centre where we constantly return to clear the debris. It’s not a one-time solution, but a process, like the constant need to re-centre and re-align our creative practices; a deeply humane and compassionat process that will change our own stories as it ripples into the world around us. Forgiveness is a muscle that, exercised frequently enough, nurtures the sensibility that there is no future in projecting ‘otherness’ and ‘alienness’ and ‘beyond-the-pailness’ on others, no matter how they may appear to us. And in extending this compassion to others we begin to be able to extend it to ourselves, not with self-excuse, but with humility.
As Anne Lamott puts it in Hallelujah Anyway:
Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves — our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.
My bit of forest garden is a sanctuary not because it’s kept apart — all places are sacred, even the desecrated that are yearning for renewal. It’s a sanctuary not because it’s a la-la land where I can wilfully close my eyes to the enormity of despair in the world…
It’s a sanctuary only if I choose to forgive, to let go and live for what is gracious and kind, because, let’s face it, I need that as much as the hunter or the racist or the warmonger, and I’ll never have a word to say to them if I don’t find a way to forgive myself first and then, only then, finaly to meet my antipathy with compassion.
And words, as Ursula Le Guin so rightly tells us, are our ‘matter’, for all of us, but intensely so for writers, so it behoves us to find those that might be build bridges and new stories, not walls painted with the scrawls of old and life-depleting myths.
And our art, our writing will have no moral centre, no invitation to the reader to trust there is transformation here, if it comes from a place of spite and revenge. Which is, of course, not to say it should not witness to injustice and sing in protest.
We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope…
James Baldwin said to Margaret Mead in a conversation about forgiveness.
And John Lewis, whose life’s passion was to place love at the unbreakable centre of his work, to refuse to stop loving even what was most broken in his pursuit of justice gives the raison d’etre of forgiveness in Across the Bridge:
Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul… Lean toward the whispers of your own heart… Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge… But when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. […]
Our actions entrench the power of the light on this planet. Every positive thought we pass between us makes room for more light. And if we do more than think, then our actions clear the path for even more light. That is why forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life.
Returning to the sanctuary
As I wrote this, the shadows began lengthening, the river still shushing and bubbling, the birds still trilling, chirping and cooing. I needed to move again, to recentre, let go of all that could not be saved, believe that so much can still be forgiven. Start, as Mary Shelley notes, with myself.
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 here on the site as well as online courses of different lengths here. While you’re browsing, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.
Marina Sanchez says
Happy Easter Jan!
Thank you as ever for your blog, lyrical, compassionate and urgent, considering the strangeness of the world.
‘Being kind to ourselves and our shadows’ feels like an essential reminder for the ever unfolding moment.
I also loved the sublime quote from John Lewis which I didn’t know but shall add to my inspirations.
Heartfelt thank you Jan for your generosity, willingness and presence with what is challenging.
Thank you Marina
John Lewis is an extraordinary writer and thinker.
Happy Easter 🙂
Raine Geoghegan says
This is such a tender piece of writing and one which touches my soul. Thank you Jan. We all need reminders like this to prompt our reimaginings of a world which is beautiful yet deeply challenging. Easter Blessings Raine.
Mark Charlton says
I have noticed recently, in my return to more regular blogging, how so many bloggers’ posts are negative or inspired by some irksome event – but how so very seldom does this make for any insight or difference. Much journalism is like this too, searching for ‘story hook’ that’s more often than not a ‘row’ or a ‘bust up’ – or for that matter a curtain-twitching criticism of the behaviour of others.
I have resolved not to follow suit —I shall probably fail eventually, but at least for now I’m more conscious than ever that ‘what’ we chose to write about has not only a significant impact on our own wellbeing, but that our words tend also to be more interesting the more open and generous they are to other points of view.