There’s a bittersweet tone to my approach to Solstice this year. On the one hand the trees are in lush greenery, flowers are blossoming everywhere, fruit is beginning on the apple trees and in two days time I’ll be travelling for the first time since moving to France, completing a herbalism apprenticeship in Ireland and then seeing much-missed friends and family. On the other hand we will be remembering my father in law, who died at this time last year and who we were not able to see before he passed away.
Writing from the paradox of grief and joy
Sometimes life seems to enter a long dark valley and the last two years has probably had more than its share or grief and loss for the planet and for so many of us as individuals. As I noted, writing about grief and mourning in a previous post:
We all enter the land of grief at some point. The question is whether we find it to be a place of grim despair where we become hollowed out, exhausted and retreat into disconnection. Or whether we find ourselves in a space where sorrow is heard, honoured and allowed to make a difference, with gratitude for all the joys that came before the loss.
At other times, life seems to be a succession of joys, whether of large triumphs or of deep and quiet contentment. But most often the rhythms of joy and sorrow come at us in close succession, sometimes so mixed together that we find ourselves living in the paradox of both, As I wrote about in a blog on joy:
I am convinced that not only can we celebrate our joys and loves with gratitude and delight in the face of all the suffering of the world, but that, if we truly love life and all that makes it sweet, we must have joy and celebration. […] Grief and the presence of suffering don’t invalidate joy, they make it urgent and fill it with meaning.
We have grief only because we love and care. We have joy only because we make ourselves permeable to life, which is a constant cycling of the bitter and the sweet. And we honour this bittersweet life in our writing when we make space in it for the whole range of human emotions and interactions.
Writing from the unstoppable sap of summer
And when we do love and open ourselves to these rhythms, we find that our writing fills with sap as surely as the flowers and trees. And we find ourselves embodying our writing more fully. After all, nearly all of our metaphors are based on shared bodily experiences and it’s the particular nature of our bodies shapes how we perceive and conceptualise the world.
If metaphor is fundamental to who we are as humans and if this in turn is embodied, it behoves writers to embody their work. Despite the seemingly disembodied state of flow, in fact we always remain bodies in context.
Millennia of bad press for the body in so many strands of thinking has played out in traditions that feminise the other, justifying hierarchy, patriarchy and colonisation. And we are living with the results — unequal relationships not just in families and communities but between the world’s north and south,between the colonisers and the indigenous and in all the ways the earth herself has been and goes on being commodified and pillaged.
Summer solstice, with its celebration of light, heat and fruitfulness and its explosion of sensory delights—from taste to scent, sights to the sounds of birds, is an excellent time to challenge this cerebral, colonising and hieratchical perspective of life. It is a moment to acknowledge all the damage to done to the earth and to so many creatures, human and non-human, by listening to and with our bodies, and connecting to both the environment and our creativity.
It is through our bodies that we connect to all other life and we need to say with Rilke:
I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion. All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood…
Writers, more than ever, cannot afford to be creatures of the mind labouring under an illusion of separateness and the solstice, with its extrarordinary abundance, fertility and blossoming, is a reminder of that.
Writing from the bittersweet
As writers, what we refer to as our ‘body of work’ arises from our individual physical bodies and all the idiosyncrasies and quirks of perception that come with each body. For each of us, the body is the locus of intimacy and distancing, of joy and loss, of the most amazing sensations and the most unimaginable suffering. It is the home from which we look out onto the world as witnesses, prophets and makers of meaning through poetry and prose. As Walt Whitman puts it in the sweeping opening lines of Leave of Grass:
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.
How much more enriched our writing is when we live fully in the bodies we have, even when those bodies appear to be far from perfect or present us with all kinds of challenges.
I was recently reading about the short life and beautiful work of the illustrator, Virginia Frances Sterrett. A gifted artist who drew attention as a teenager, her time at art school was aborted by the need to make a living to support her sick mother and younger sisters. Within a couple of years, juggling work while still producing exquisite art, she contracted tuberculosis, but completed a commission to illustrate a major volume of French fairy stories from the sanatorium. The payment supported her family for years and other commissions followed, but the treatments were not working and in desperation the family tried moving to a warmer, dryer area. The move didn’t have the desired effect and she was soon in another sanatorium, but was released more than a year later and told she was cured.
Sadly, the cure didn’t last and Virginia died in 1931 when she was just 30 years old. The art she left, haunting, delicate and beautiful, came from a body in struggle and a life full of immense challenges, financially and physically. But her body of work dignified her life and still persists.
Writing, or any art, cannot give us an escape from whatever life brings, but it can make beauty and sense of it, not only for us as individuals, but for others as well.
We write from the bittersweet and into the bittersweet. The summer solstice brings the longest day, but then the light begins to creep towards winter again. In the midst of the celebration we move towards darkness. At the other end of the year, when the day is at its shortest, the world is cold and grey, but the days move inexorably towards the light. In the midst of this rhythm, to write from the paradoxes of this miraculous and unlikely life is a joy to be celebrated.