Monday, June 22, 2015

Intersect: Hope and Despair

Every day a theme arises. Words appear on pages of the books I've got piled and shelved around my home; sometimes I choose a book at random, open it, and a passage will leap out, leading to other passages. Today my meander began with Gail Caldwell, then moved on to David Whyte, then to Dylan Thomas and on to a poem I composed yesterday.

Thomas' "force that through the green fuse drives the flower" surges up through each of us. Caldwell, in her book New Life, No Instructions, writes that "we are engineered to rise up, in every developmental sense."



We are made to aspire, like flowers and other green lives. As babies, we raise our heads, our necks, our torsos ... and then, one miraculous day, we fumble to our feet and stand. We toddle, walk, and run. A day will come when we can cradle buttercups in our hands during an amble though a wood, as I did in this photo.

Buttercups ... hope in tiny yellow bowls. Hope for spring arising through us, no matter what. Hope is a pivotal power, entwined with our vital force. Who cannot be attracted to buttercups, to the little suns that they are? To their brief perfection, to their proof of Life insisting on expression?

I write of hope today because for so long, I've felt so close to being bereft of it. Every day for about the last seven months, I have vowed to stay alive despite poverty, loneliness, and long illness and injury. The last straw seemed to be the death of my most beloved cat, Vida, who died just over six weeks ago. She was my mainstay, my closest bond, my cuddler, my bedmate. I used to joke with friends, "You know that VISA ad? -- 'VISA. It's everywhere you want to be.' My take: 'VIDA. She's everywhere you don't want her to be -- on the kitchen counter, the keyboard, the top of the fridge, the edge of the balcony!" The truth: she was everywhere I wanted her to be: in my lap, on my chest and belly, my shoulder, under the covers with me. She was my primary reason for being after I was divorced five years ago. She and I kept each other alive. After three years of deepening, unrelenting illness, her time to be freed of pain and suffering arrived. I had to make the agonizing decision to reqlinquish her, and I howled at Life: "How will I go on?"


I write to stay alive. I vow to stay alive because of how David Whyte understands despair. His book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, arrived by surprise in my mailbox last week, gifted to me by a dear friend who understands the sustaining power of the written word, and how it tethers me to life.

Whyte's thoughts on despair are unique; he uses the word "beautiful" three times in his meditation on despair. Beautiful?

He begins: "Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved ... Despair is a last protection ... a necessary and seasonal state of repair." A state of repair?

We experience despair as the musty, cob-webbed cellar of our soul, a dead zone of psychic winter, a winter that we perpetuate when we refuse to admit any warmth to our lives, when we refuse to recognize that spring, like winter, is inevitable. Despair, writes Whyte, stagnates in us when we decide "that the seaons have stopped and can never turn again." We can chain ourselves in that existential cellar with a single thought, by abstracting reality into morbid fantasy, by freezing our bodies and breath, by refusing relation. Yet we are webbed and wedded into relation, even as we deny its truth. Even in despair we bond, even as we believe we cannot, when our eyes are cast only into the unlit distances of cellar-thinking, unable to see beyond the cage we have latched ourselves into.

"Despair is a difficult, a beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a waveform passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us."

Where's the key to the cage? It's in awareness ... and in one breath. Another breath. Every breath admits spring to the soul. Oxygen: the force that drives the pulsing fuse of the brain. One breath at a time allows us to pay "a profound and courageous attention ... independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it ..."

Can we hold our despair like we might cradle a buttercup?


The best is yet to come? How about "The rest is yet to come?" -- The rest being one of two possibilities: rest as in succor, retreat, quiet. David Whyte writes that "Despair needs a certain tending ... the body left to itself will breathe, the ears will hear the first birdsong of morning or catch the leaves being touched by the wind in the trees ..."

The rest is also simply the next. What will the next moment, the next instant, bring? We cannot know ... but we can guide ourselves into possibiities. What will they be?

Every morning, I tune my ears to birdsong, and one of my favourite sensations is a breeze meeting my skin ... the breath of the world greeting the gift of sensation. At dusk, I tune in again to the birds' nesting songs, their lullabies ...

Despair has a lifespan, as White says: "A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition."


Volition! Momentum. One breath, one word, one aspirational thought at a time. This is where Gail Caldwell's words arrive as more sustenance:

"I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway. About second chances, and how they're sometimes buried amid the dross, even when you're poised for the downhill grade. The narrative can always turn out to be a different story from what you expected."

Always. It's a word we often nag at, telling ourselves and others not to generalize, globalize, concoct catastrophe. But here ... always is a word of hope, of possibility.

"... if momentum is a physical version of hope, well, I've got that ... my body heaves in an absolute sense of going forward, with a kind of determination that feels like rushing water; it is the way that one throws off despair ... sometimes force is all you have, and that has to be enough. Because with just that force, according to Newton, eventually you get to someplace else. A calculus of hope and motion."

That green fuse again ...

A person whose brain and being have been mired in depression and trauma's aftermath often experiences what I call volitional paralysis. Frozen by terror, quicksanded by despair, how are we to inch our way back to vitality?

Poetry helps me. C.S. Lewis wrote that "When we read, we know we are not alone." I know that I am not alone when I read this passage from James Wright:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Break into blossom ... like a buttercup.


A buttercup among buttercups. 

You who read these words: dear buttercup, you are not alone. 

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