Updated: Mar 23
November 2020 Soul Notes
Like many of us, I’ve been working out of a small room at home for the last 8 months. My desk is set up in a bright corner of the room and I have a large folding screen that I put into place each morning to signal the end of my rest and the beginning of my work day. It’s far from ideal but is the best of my limited options for creating workspace at home. One of my joys has been to gaze out of my large bright window between client sessions, usually cradling a warm mug of tea, and resting my eyes on the abundant oak tree that spills out of the neighbour’s garden opposite. The tree has become like a friend in these strange days. I’ve enjoyed watching her mark the seasons over the months, unrestricted by the rules and regulations of the pandemic and a reminder of nature’s determination and reliable cycles. From bare branches to sparse green shoots, to lush laden foliage, and then a tinge of burnt leaves appearing as she gets ready to undress for the winter once again.
So you can imagine my horror, when a posse of tree surgeons arrived one day last week to lop off most of her branches. It took them a whole day to strip her completely and now all that remains are many stumps with twigs poking out, like some badly drawn stick tree character. I still pause to enjoy her in the spaces in my days, and am looking at her now, wondering if she will grow back to her former splendour, but mainly mourning her and all she represents.
This brutal action feels so symbolic of the multiple severings of the last few months, both personal and global, and the sadness invested here is full of many layered sadnesses that are less free to flow. The felt loss of all face to face contact with my clients and colleagues; the limited physical contact with family and friends; the interminable feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness; the horror of people close losing others dear to them; losing jobs, losing partners, losing children to anxiety, depression, self harm and worse; the breakdown of relationships across the distance; the loss of innocence and understanding of my own complicity in the inequalities that persist in our world; the loss of freedom; of a way of living that is familiar; of a world that looks like what we know.
I feel breathless just writing that. All that loss is here. And more. So much to acknowledge – to feel – to grieve.
In her fabulous newsletter brainpickings, Maria Popova writes:
“The more we learn about the universe, the more we see that chaos, flux, and impermanence are its ruling orders, and yet we continue to yearn for permanence and immortality in our own lives. The mismatch between the knowledge and the longing is perhaps the most anguishing of all human experiences. We live with it daily, this background awareness of our finitude and the mortality of those we love, but it is brought into sharp relief in moments of loss, when grief sinks its insatiate teeth into the flesh of being.”
Even though we know of this mismatch, grief can be so hard to bear. Our own and others’. We so want to “feel better”, to be free of the pain of the loss, whether that be of a person, a pet, a job, a marriage, a hope or dream. We want it to be “over” and rush ourselves and others away from the ending and into new beginnings, desperately hoping the pain won’t follow. But such measures are deceitful. The experience of loss is just that – an experience – that must be engaged with, rather than dismissed. For to ignore it, is to parcel up a piece of yourself and to lose all that is joyful as well as your distress. We cannot choose indiscriminately to reject parts of our experience, for each part is bound to another – the dark and the light go hand in hand.
My own life has shown me, across many losses, that that which is not named, cannot be felt. That that which is not felt, cannot be grieved. That that which is not grieved, cannot be integrated. It becomes a part of ourselves lost to us.
Freud observed in Mourning and Melancholia that:
“Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be. It is a way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.”
In a healthy mourning, we feel the passing of the person or moment from our lives and meet despair. In his book, Consolations, David Whyte describes despair as the place that “takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore”…
“The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories…To see and experience despair fully in our body is to begin to see it as a necessary, seasonal visitation, and the first step in letting it have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time.”
I love this description of the dark place as a “seasonal visitation”. Back to the impermanence of everything, even these feelings, if we can respect the flow of the experience through our bodies and allow it to transform into “some other season”. Just like my oak tree, not holding onto her leaves in the autumn, allowing herself to be naked, exposed and readying for the onset of spring and new life.
Whilst I know this intellectually, I also know that I can get in my own way here by holding on in the way that David Whyte points to. Allowing the despair to become an enduring story of sadness, rather than allowing it its just space and letting it pass when it’s ready. Then I feel stuck, but on careful examination it is my mind that is lagging. Usually my body is ready to move, to express, to be somewhere else, if only I would acknowledge that too and allow it.
Musician, Nick Cave, who lost his young son in an accident, writes of his and his wife’s experience of grief in his Red Hand Files:
“We discovered that grief was much more than just despair. We found grief contained many things — happiness, empathy, commonality, sorrow, fury, joy, forgiveness, combativeness, gratitude, awe, and even a certain peace. For us, grief became an attitude, a belief system, a doctrine — a conscious inhabiting of our vulnerable selves, protected and enriched by the absence of the one we loved and that we lost.”
I find this insight that grief is a “conscious inhabiting of our vulnerable selves” both touching and illuminating, especially now. Rather than bounce away from, or armour ourselves against, the losses in this world of fierce conflict and challenges, how can we consciously inhabit our “vulnerable selves” and meet each other here? Breathe together. Hold each other (albeit virtually). Love each other in this dismembering time.
With love and gratitude,