In a recent blog on why listening is so important to writers and to anyone who wants to be fully and humanely alive, I wrote about the generoisty and hospitalityof listening. This kind of radical listeing, as Rebecca Tamás points out in her book of esays, Strangers, opens us to how deeply conected and intertwined we are with all life.
We need to cultivate such listening, generosity and radical attention for other people. As Martin Luther King puts it, in A Treatment of Hopefully:
Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.
Nurturing agapé in our lives and writing
Such love is unconditional. It is perhaps best summed up by the Greek work agapé, which went into Latin as caritas (much more than the later watered-down notion of charity). It is that quality within us that allows us to warm to our antipathy as well as feeling empathy with those, humans and other creatures, who more easily appeal to us. And this is no easy or glib task. To love with no thought of reciprocity, to hold space in which to honour those we don’t understand (whether humans with views we find abhorent or life forms that our own bodies find repellent) is something we never come to the end of.
Projecting the ethic of love to the centre of our lives and listening to the other is an enormous and powerful undertaking, one that demands energy and focus. When we commit to living in this way, perceiving all of life as our kith, then we know we will have to start the project of agapé over and over again.
And we do this not only in our daily lives, but in our writing. Someone I’m currently mentoring is developing a character who we both find quite terrifying. It’s a brave and deep creative leap to inhabit someone, however fictional, who embodies qualities that chill us because in doing so we have to explore these qualities with honesty and vulnerability,
Nurturing agapé in our lives and writing is courageous and demanding, but it changes our own story as we gain more nuanced insights into those more likely to be simply deemed ‘monsters’.
Nurturing those who depend on us
And it’s likely that as writers we not only give out a huge amount of energy to nurture our empathy and to hone our deep listening so that we can write different stories that make a difference to the world, but also have wider lives in which we nurture others. Whether we are parents, carers, partners, nurture gardens or animals or friends, most (if not all) of us will find ourselves in the role of giver some or a great deal of the time.
In these relationships, whether with plants or people, it’s likely that there is more reciprocity. The gardens we cultivate offer back delight and food. The children we tend become (for many) adults who enrich our lives. The partners we share our journeys with nurture us as we nurture them (at least when things are working well). But these things have rhythms and there will be times when we feel that we do more giving than taking, more giving than we can go on with.
And for some people in nurturing roles this is not simply a rhythm and a season but an unremitting demand. Children caring for sick parents, partners caring for a dying loved one, or those in unbalanced and unfulfilling relationships, may rarely feel they are seen or cared for themselves.
Nurturing the muse
As writers we also have our creative practice to nurture. Whether your image of the muse is your subconscious or is embodied in a person or animal; whether your muse is a matrix of rituals — from sitting in a café eavesdropping to lighting a candle in silence, from listening to music to walking before writing — we all have to show up and be present to the creative work.
The flow and the creative work is hopefully a joy, but it still takes energy.
Nurturing not distraction
With so much energy going into the writing life in addition to the daily demands we have on us by virtue of our work, relationships and commitments, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or exhausted. Nurture isn’t only what we put into the world but also what we need from it.
Sadly, there are whole industries around self-nurture now. Some of them pander to the worst impulses of rich nations, whispering a pernicious sense of entitlement into our lives. Others sell us lifestyle dreams that often leave us feeling emptier and more distant from any true sense of nurture. Some are distractions that fragment rather than revitalise our energies. But despite the cul-de-sacs there always remain ways to deeply nourish ourselves, body and intellect and heart.
Nurturing as holding the space
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about why the concept of kith is so vital to the writing life. We all need to find circles of kith — communities online or in person that allow for mutual support and the flourishing of creativy; people in our lives who hear and see us and who allow us to develop in an atmosphere of mutual trust and love.
The prospect of ever being able to warm to our antipathy and being able to hold a space of agapé not only for those we love but also those we find little or no common ground with alike is only conceivable if we we have sanctuaries in our lives — people in whose presence we experience belonging, people who allow us to grow and who enable rather than mould us.
This is beautifully illustrated in Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, that adults need to read too, The Missing Piece meets the Big O. It’s a story that elevates relationships to mutual support systems in which no one is either the savior or the victim. The missing piece is a wedge in search of a circle with a gap, dreaming of fitting in so that they can roll along together but what he finds is wrong fits, wrong shapes, a succesion of disasters until he finds the perfect fit — wonderful, until he begins to grow and the partnership no longer works — the circle never expected its partner to change and grow.
Finally, the piece meets a whole circle — it wants to join up but the circle is complete and suggests the piecing piece does its own rolling, knocks off some sharp corners … So it tries and it works and eventually the missing piece is a whole rounded circle and Big O reappears — and the two roll away together, side by side. A wonderful metaphor of nurturing as enabling others to be the stories they want to become, rather than fitting them in as static extensions of the self.
Because the best nurturing, whether in intimate relationships or mentoring, family or friends or fellow writers, comes from those who hold a safe space for us allowing us to experience how receiving is gracious too. This is something that doing teacher training in yoga nidrā has impressed on me. The therapist is simply holding a safe and invitational space where wonderful things will happen. One of my teacher’s used the metaphor of Stone Age people around the fire. The whole group don’t all sleep at the same time — someone keeps the fire burning, keeps a watch for danger, but not the same person all the time — it’s mutual. Using some of the images from a nidrā he led, I wrote this in response:
And in the dream–
between two fires,
where hammerhead sharks
warm fins, drowsy
and camp stories flicker
memory into hearts,
one of us sits, alert,
throws on a log,
staying awake, so others
may curl into sleep,
drift into visions,
landscapes of dreams,
one of us guarding
the flames, holding
the space so the wolves
will not eat us.
Nurturing as rest
And if receiving nurture is as gracious as giving it, letting oursevles stop to rest is deep wisdom. One of the most profound acts of nurture we can give ourselves is to simply to rest. The Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist, whose specialism is circadian rhythms, Michael Rosbash, believes that sleep deprivation is a chronic health crisis across westernised nations. We have time keeping genes in almost every cell of the body but are often out of sync with them and this decoupling of our daily rhythm from our body’s cycle is not without health consequences. From bright lights or screen light close to sleep time to sedantary lives indoors with artifical lighting, the way we live and the circadian cycle can be at odds, leaving us feeling groggy when we wake and too wired to sleep at night.
And in a world where work has expanded to take up more of our time by keeping us available on email or a host of messanging services, no matter where we are, the ability to swtich off can be difficult to come by. In the face of this, it’s been a pleasure to recently work with a yoga nidrā teacher who says that in the current world getting horizontal and taking rest can be a radical act. Whether it’s for a deeply restful practice of yoga nidrā or to sleep well, rest is as nourishing as the food we put into our bodies.
Nurturing as nature
And if we are to have any hope of revisiting the project of agapé over and over again, opening ourselves up to caring about those who may well be hard to care about, then the nourishment of the natural world is also fundamental.
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
Walt Whitman wrote in his diary. We know that he’s right — every atom of us was once another life or part of other matter in the universe and will be part of others to come. We know it but to feel it, to be astonished and moved by it, to have this ‘fact’ become the basis for connection, empathy and hospitality … that is something harder to achieve, but much more profound and nurturing. And one way to cultivate such nurture is to spend time in nature.
More and more of us live indoor, sedentary lives, but simply getting outside into any bit of greenery is an act of nourishment. The world has cycles that we have lived by for millennia and our bodies continue to respond to them.
As I write this, the fire of the summer season still burns. We have blue skies, expansive and warm. In a week it will be the Celtic season of Lammas, the first harvests. August turns us towards autumn, the sunsets blaze with a riot of colours, the winds become more skittish. Harvest can be emotional and creative as well as physical but for so many the sense of the turning of the seasons is now distant or faded entirely.
Those who garden and, even more, those, like one of our neighbouring families in this forested hamlet, who live off-grid, relying on what they produce, know this season as vital to surviving the winter. The autumn will bring harvests and seeds to nurture the lean months. The frisky winds, copper-leaved trees and dazzling sunsets will give way to hard earth and cold. The earth’s seasons teach us that to nurture ourselves we have to have rhythms.
Between Lammas and autumn equinox, then between the equinox and the bonefires of Samhain, our ancestors, and still today those who live by their land, harvested or will harvest the earth’s riches. The harvest is an investment in nurture to ensure, as far as ever can, that we will see the next spring. We have to ensure that nourishment is continuous.
But Lammas isn’t only about storing up nurture, it’s also a season of celebrating that nurture right now. While the days are still warm, the skies blue and the wheat yellow, we can savour the sun and long days, even as they are shortening by increments, savour the warm evenings and cloudless, moonlit nights.
Those who live in cities can find it harder to nourish themselves with nature but wherever you are, do what you can — throw open a window, walk whenever possible, find green places, even if it’s a street lined with trees. Green spaces are rich with nutrients for the soul, however you conceive of that.
Nurturing as …
How we nurture ourselves is as endlessly varied as our creative practice. Some of us dwell in music, some in silence that consoles and feeds; some of us swim or knit or read a million and one subjects as well as poetry and fiction. Some of us dance or forage or dry flowers or walk or make ceramics or cook up feasts or …
However you nurture yourself, savour it and hold to it. Breathe deep, rest fully, let green spaces enter you. Harvest nourishment of the heart and sprit in every season. If we are to cultivate deep listening, generosity and radical attention for other people and other creatures, if we are to be writers who embody agapé, nurture those who depend on us and nurture, also, our muse, our creative practices, then we need to be nurtured.
Teffy Wrightson says
Thank you Jan as always for this feast of wise and helpful words. May you have a fine harvest of the love you’ve sown.
Liliana Pasterska says
Your reflections, Jan, on living through love, without hate,… more than that – belonging amongst others, who choose to practise this kind of nurturing life, appeals profoundly.
Caritas gives wings to Hope, doesn’t it, and my living now in a large city, after being brought up in a country, adds yet another dimension to that thought. For the writing-self not to be entwined with nurturing, life is too short.
Thank you so much, Jan.
Thank you Liliana — I love caritas gives wings X