What we assent to as writers, as humans, is important for both our art and our lives on a fragile planet where, increasingly, people feel overwhelm and a lack of agency. Yes is what we value, how we want to live, what we are grateful for and what we say no to. This may seem counterintuitve but whatever we say yes to has something that we say no to. Saying yes to giving our writing time and power will mean saying no to other things we might be doing. Saying yes to social justice means saying no to ways of life that trade on the story that some people are irrevocably ‘other’ and ‘alien’. Story changes the world and our stories are a testimony to what we say yes to, including those times when we are saying yes to a no in order to defend the space for our creativity or defend some part of the world.
Yes to life
Life sometimes seems beset with obstacles, yet sometimes we find ourselves savouring life, having a sense that what we have is enough, a sense of harmony and equilibrium. Those moments may come most naturally when we complete a project or realise a dream, however small it may seem to others or when we are with those we love. What does it feel like when you feel most positive about life? Where do you feel it in your body? And what blocks this from being the feeling we have much more of the time, even every day, even it that’s only for a few moments?
Saying yes to life, savouring it and feeling gratitude for it is not to dismiss our need for lamentation. We have personal losses and challenges, we have a world heading towards ecological meltdown, we have governments that bewilder us, but it’s also the case that if we didn’t care about life and the planet, we wouldn’t have sorrow. What we lament isn’t a contradiction of how valuable and wonderful life is, but arises from it.
Saying yes to life & gratitide is not to gloss over sorrow, not to try to make the sorrowing forget, or try to jolt them out of it. Saying yes to life for ourselves doesn’t mean telling the bereaved to look on the bright side. Those in deep sorrow need to be heard, not contradicted. Rather, our yes to life is a way of honouring the loss by insisting on the value of living. As Emily Dickinson puts it:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
I recently did a course on grief in which one of the sessions was on the ‘Joy of Grief’. It didn’t imply that we relish grief or take some perverse delight in loss, but that losing someone can make us realise how precious life is. When I was in ministry, I was struck every time I officiated at a funeral by how I always came away with more respect for life, and more determined not to waste it. It was a feeling of being more alert precisely because life is so fragile and passes away. It was a feeling that insisted that each moment matters.
Sometimes, of course, our yes to life is a matter of barely hanging on. Affirming life is a decision, a commitment even to the painful parts. At the opening of his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote:
To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy, Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.
And if our answer is yes, then that life needs truly to be lived. There’s a proverb, that is generically atributed to Africa, though it must surely have originated with a particular people, that says:
When death finds you, may it find you alive.
This is the yes to Camus’s question; to life.
Yes to the journey
And it is a yes that we make while ‘staggering on rejoicing’, as Auden says in his poem, ‘Atlantis.’ It’s a yes to the the journey, which is always made of steps that take us towards the goals, dreams or path we have chosen, knowing that most of it might remain aspirational, but the journey will have been its own way of affirming life. This is something the poet David Whyte talks about as getting close:
is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up.
Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there, we are creatures who are on the way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals. […]
Human beings do not find their essence through fulfillment or eventual arrival but by staying close to the way they like to travel, to the way they hold the conversation between the ground on which they stand and the horizon to which they go. […]
We are in effect, always, close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that, is as close as we get to happiness.
Affirming life isn’t a matter of perfection, but of travelling in a direction of hope, refusing cynicism even in the dark times
Yes to our suppleness
All of which takes courage and suppleness of spirit in our writing and in life. Someone once said to me that writing is very like cooking — you need creativity and flexibility for taking a high degree of risks and a high tolerance of failure. This kind of suppleness is not about fighting life, but about finding our flow and rhythm within, something we also need as writers. Flow is a wonderful metaphor for suppleness and one that isn’t simply passive. As the Tao Te Ching
Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.
Suppleness is about finding a way to say yes to life and finding ways to have agency in our lives, even in a world of darkness and uncertainty. If we don’t find this suppleness and rhythm then we become defined by the flux of events that happen to us. It’s all too easy to reduce ourselves to a list of disasters that have befallen us, to an illness that dogs us, to events major and minor. Of course, we are shaped by our environments to some extent and we will have emotional responses to events, including working in honest and deep ways with our fears, anger and grief. The Stoic Marcus Aurelius advises us to become like headlands — buffeted by the strongest waves, yet standing fast, unconcerned. But in truth the headland is slowly eroded by water and changes shape in response to it. It’s the supple element that has the endurance. And who wants to be as hard as rock?
Equilibrium, joy, abundance and grace don’t arise from denying our difficult emotions, but from listening to the wisdom they offer, giving them space to process and mature. Having a sense of agency in a crazy world is not about pretending not to feel anything negative — that way lies a world of repressed shadows that will find their way to leak out in toxic ways. Rather it’s about slowly, consciously and with suppleness processing the events that come our way. Suppleness allows for the full range of emotions whilst also giving us a place to stand at the intersection of all that’s going on, a place from which we weave the story of who we are and who we want to become.
Suppleness is the space in which we don’t try to wall ourselves off from life. Commenting on this poem by Izumi Shikibu:
Although the wind
blows terribly here
also leaks between the roof planks
of this ruined house,
The poet Jane Hirshfield notes:
What I understood from this poem was that, If you try to wall yourself off from pain, difficulty, distress — if you try to build a house so solid that the cold wind won’t be able to enter — you will also be keeping from your life beauty and joy. It became a kind of vow toward permeability. It really let me understand that if you want to live a life of fullness, then part of that is a willingness to experience all of it — to experience love and to experience loss. And to understand that you don’t get either without the other.
And the truth is that whether we are willing to experience all of it or not, life still comes to us, but we are more likely to feel miserable and overwhelmed without that vow to permeability, and I would add suppleness, that allows us to transform the narrative of our lives.
The Stoic narrative is one of resilience in the sense of, “I’m not effected by all of this.” But most of us are affected and shouldn’t be ashamed of being so. Certainly “this too will pass” but talk of resilience is often a harsh call to being impermeable. The opposite extreme is also a danger: wearing random suffering as a badge of honour in some strange competition to out-suffer others or using our distress as a currency to gain attention and create drama are no more healthy and life-affirming than trying to become a headland. But permeability and suppleness offer a way to feel what comes without becoming either hard and without getting locked in a loop of ego on repeat.
Resilience means to bounce back, but it implies that nothing changes in the process — we just go back to how we were, unchanged by the life we’re saying yes to. Suppleness is more tender, more empathetic towards the fragilities of others, as well as ourselves, more humble. It’s a way of abiding in the darkness whilst celebrating the return of the light.
Yes to our art
Writers need to be open to life, supple and permeable if they are to say yes to an art that witnesses and prophesies. And we do need to say yes to our art, even knowing that it will involve saying no to other things.
Mary Oliver, writing in her last book of essays, Upstream, puts it perfectly:
Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. […]
The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
Saying yes to our art is the yes of showing up, over and over again and it’s a yes that will be all the more fruitful if we are also saying yes to life, to the journey, to our suppleness. It’s the yes of becoming and creating a different story.
Teffy Wrightson says
Surely saying yes to life includes recognising one’s duty to others, which may often take precedence over one’s own artistic desires? I find Mary Oliver’s attitude rather arrogant and selfish. I’m sure nothing I could ever produce would be worth leaving someone dependent on me in discomfort or less than as well cared for as I can manage. As you’ve said before, Jan, we are all a part of the whole, which I believe includes our responsibility for others.
I think there’s some hyperbole in what Mary Oliver is saying, Teffy — perhaps to provoke a reaction on how we see our writing and where it fits in our particular journey. From accounts of Oliver’s relationship with her partner and also her relationship to animals and the environment I think she was someone with a lot of compassion who would’t leave a loved one, pet or a rescued bird in discomfort.
But I think she also makes the point that a lot of the interuptions to our writing don’t come as much from others as from ourselves — as she says ‘Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.” It’s often our own sense of more duty than we might really have that gets in our own way–things that could wait or that won’t cause harm if they are postponed that the little whispering voice inside sometimes insists we do ‘now’.
And of course sometimes our responsibility towards others might be bound up with writing — could be the thing that touches or moves or helps…
Lots of food for thought 🙂