In my last blog I wrote about transcendence, about how all humans reach beyond ourselves and have a sense of spirituality, irrespective of particular faith traditions. Part of writing about transcendence and acknowledging it in our art comes from our awareness of mortality. Our atoms will be returned to the universe.
Living in cycles
We’re on the cusp of the Celtic festival of Samhain or, in the Christian tradition, All Hallows when the dead are remembered before the feast of All Saints. Outside the light is changing and it’s a time when we may have a sensation of touching the numinous. Autumn is turning to winter, days are shorter and darker and it’s a time when we may be more aware that life is not forever. This finitude can be a source of fear, yet it is also one of the things that gives life meaning; the brevity and preciousness of life going hand in hand.
Yet though we may long for eternity, Jana Levin points out in her book How the Universe Got its Spots, that the desire for the infinite is misplaced:
No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory — except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite.
The universe had a beginning. There was once nothing and now there is something. What sways me even more, if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein’s, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We’re all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite. […]
Infinity is a demented concept… Where in the hierarchy of infinity would an infinite universe lie? An infinite universe can host an infinite amount of stuff and an infinite number of events. An infinite number of planets. An infinite number of people on those planets. […]
I welcome the infinite in mathematics, where … it is not absurd nor demented. But I’d be pretty shaken to find the infinite in nature. I don’t feel robbed living my days in the physical with its tender admission of the finite.
The ‘tender admission of the finite’ means, of course, death. How do we make meaning from this?
I think part of the answer has to be in how we live our lives—what we make of the one wild and precious life that the poet Mary Oliver writes about in the poem ‘The Summer Day’.
This is also what Pico Iyer concludes at the end of his book, The Half-known life: in search of Paradise. He gets to his conclusion through an extraordinary journey in which he makes pilgrimages to shrines and cemetaries around the globe. He started in Iran, surrounded by monuments to Omar Khayyām, the place where the word ‘paradise’ originated `and on to Jerusalem, the Himalayas, North Korea, a monastery in California and more… He visits places torn by conflict and places of serenity and ends at a mountain-top cemetery not far from his home in Japan, writing:
The thought that we must die, I might have heard the two hundred thousand graves saying, is the reason we must live well.
What it means to live well will vary for each of us, but for writers our art will always be a part of that meaning. Writers and thinkers who are enlarging the imagination are deeply aware of the power of story. And developing a way to live in the world as writers involves developing a personal myth, one that encompasses who we are and want to become. It involves finding the numinous in the everyday inhabiting our bodies to be present to each moment and making emotional links that will allow story to emerge; the story we are writing and the story of our selves. It involves facing our mortality and also the mortality of those who have gone before us.
Learning from those who’ve gone before
In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood concludes that in writing story we make mythic journeys. We go into the Underworld, taking our offerings and returning with treasures. When we write story (including poetry or nonfiction) we are not just working on the book or the project, we are writing ourselves. The writing process and the life process resonate. We write both our inner world into the outer world and offer an embodied experience that speaks some truth. We participate in the process and emerge changed.
All writers must ‘negotiate with the dead’, with our influences and forbears. Atwood notes that both prose writers and poets use the metaphor of going into the dark to retrieve their stories. She develops this into going into the Underworld where the dead have the stories that writers want.
All writers learn from the dead, those who have gone before them. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you. You may also feel judged and held to account by them. But you don’t learn only from writers – you can learn from ancestors in all their forms. Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truths – what Wilfred Owen, in his descent-to-the-Underworld poem, ‘Strange Meeting,’ calls the ‘truth untold’ – so if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. Even if that time is only yesterday, it isn’t now. It isn’t the now in which you are writing.
Writers plumb the darkness to bring back treasures. As Atwood says:
All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must descend to where the stories are kept. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more – the realm of the readers, the realm of change.
The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more – the realm of the readers, the realm of change.
Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light
Bringing back meaning and story
We bring it back to the light and make our myths so that we can live well ourselves before joining the dead who others will search out to help with their own myth-making. The tender admission of the finite is always around us and this is not a morbid thought, This does not negate living well, but it gives it urgency and value. As Toni Morrison says:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
As a writer, what language will you use, what story will be the measure of your life?
Here’s to the meaning and measure of our stories.