Spirituality

The challenge

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

This is one of the statements that I most associate with Richard Rohr; and it is one that he must have said dozens of times. And so it also appears in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, where he adds:

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere, inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know where to put it.

If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. The natural movement of the ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again.

Biblical revelation is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing the pain onto the next generation. … Exporting our unresolved hurt is almost the underlying story line of human history, so you see why people still need healthy spirituality and healthy religion.

I think Rohr is right. How we deal with our hurts, disappointments, betrayals etc. makes all the difference, not only in how we experience and treat others, but also in how we experience life itself. Bitterness, cynicism and distrust are so dangerous because they are so destructive. They can seriously hurt and even destroy others, but that’s not all: in the end, they can destroy us, too.

The challenge, then, is not to close down but to accept and integrate our hurts, disappointments and betrayals, which of course hurt the more the less expected they are. The challenge is to transform our pain and not transmit it, to let ourselves be hurt without hitting back. A true challenge indeed, but the realisation that this is the only healthy way forward is perhaps the first step. Compassion for those who hurt us and a commitment to non-violence in all walks of life make all the difference, for ourselves in the first place but also, in the long run, for those we encounter.

Fiction

Er-Down-Under, Er-Up-Atop and other great characters

Before I put it back on the shelf, I have to pass on a few more quotes from Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, which is set in the early years of the twentieth century in the small Cotswold village of Slad. Lee’s book features many wonderful passages and some outstanding examples of characterisation.

My first passage has the little Laurie reflecting on the time when he was banned from his mother’s bed due to the arrival of a younger sibling. Having been led to believe that the exile would only be of a temporary nature, he complains:

I was never recalled to my Mother’s bed again. It was my first betrayal, my first dose of ageing hardness, my first lesson in the gentle, merciless rejection of women. … I grew a little tougher, a little colder, and turned my attention more towards the outside world …

‘The gentle, merciless rejection of women’ – which man hasn’t experienced it at some stage in his life?

In another, less traumatic scene, Laurie, having grown up a bit by now, is playing the violin, primarily, as we find out, for his mother:

… old and tired though she was, her eyes were a girl’s, and it was for looks such as these that I played.

Here is Lee writing about trivial old rain:

Water was the most active thing in the valley, arriving in the long rains from Wales. It would drip all day from clouds and trees, from roofs and eaves and noses.

But it’s the brilliant characterisation, which, more than anything else, makes Lee’s memoir such an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Cabbage-Stump Charlie was our local bruiser – a violent, gaitered, gaunt-faced pigman, who lived only for his sows and for fighting. He was a nourisher of quarrels, as some men are of plants, growing them from nothing by the heat of belligerence and watering them daily with blood. He would set out each evening, armed with his cabbage-stalk, ready to strike down the first man he saw.

And then there is the Prospect Smiler, ‘a manic farmer’:

Few men I think can have been as unfortunate as he; for on the one hand he was a melancholic with a loathing for mankind, on the other, some paralysis had twisted his mouth into a permanent and radiant smile. So everyone he met, being warmed by his smile, would shout him a happy greeting. And beaming upon them with his sunny face he would curse them all to hell.

We also meet the Grannies Trill and Wallon, strong characters both of them and the bitterest of enemies, who only ‘refer to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”’.

Granny Wallon ‘made wine as though demented, out of anything at all’, wine that was readily imbibed by the Lee family to dramatic effect. For, having drunk from it, ‘a curious rocking would seize the head; tides rose from our feet like a fever, the kitchen walls began to shudder and shift, and we all fell in love with each other’.

About Granny Trill, on the other hand, we learn that her ‘time was for God, or the birds, [for] although she had a clock she kept it simply for the tick, its hands having dropped off years ago’.

On a less quirky note, we encounter the lovely old couple Joseph and Hannah Brown, who

did nothing more than was necessary to live, but did it fondly, with skill – then sat together in their clock-ticking kitchen enjoying their half-century of silence.

You don’t often meet characters as brilliantly drawn as these, but then this is a memoir, not a novel. Perhaps it is true that life itself writes the best stories.

Poetry

‘When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up’ – Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap

Sharon Olds, Stag’s LeapStag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a book of poetry, written after her husband had left her for another woman. I picked this up the other day because (a) I needed something to read over lunch, (b) the subject matter intrigued me, (c) the blurb had succeeded in deepening my interest, (d) the book has won the T. S. Eliot Prize 2012 and (e) I felt like buying a poetry book (I actually bought two as it happens, but that’s a story for another day). Olds’s book also reminded me of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which similarly won the T. S. Eliot Prize, deals with the loss of a husband, is published by Cape Poetry and which I had enjoyed.

Stag’s Leap then. This is a sequence of poems (though not quite a narrative poem in the sense of Carson’s Autobiography of Red) divided into six parts – January–December, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Years Later – in which Olds reflects on love, the body, sex, loss, betrayal, divorce, pain, grief, anger, hatred ….

There are many poignant moments in these poems, but the earlier reflections in ‘January–December’ and ‘Winter’ moved me the most.

Now I come back to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. …

I am not here – to stand in his thirty-year
sight, and not in love’s sight,
I feel an invisibility

In the absence of love, Olds reflects, all that remains is ‘courtesy and horror’.

And yet, despite the horror and the pain, there are admirable expressions of tenderness and love even at the moment of separation:

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain – the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. …

Olds finds it possible to think back on how blessed her life had been, partly because she had been able to love and had not lost her husband while he still loved her.

Here is another surprising and rather touching revelation:

… When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. …

The poems talk about Olds’s shame at having been left by the one who knew her best. She notes how every hour is a ‘room of shame’ but also how there’s a ‘being of sheer hate’ inside her and how, since it cannot harm him, she can wound him, in her dream.

And she reflects on having lived with an idea, an illusion of her former husband, whom she did not truly see or know.

‘Years later’, she says:

… Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from the core
of our life together. …

Even so, she can’t let go of him yet but holds him on a string, watching her idea of him pull away yet stay, her ‘silver kite’.

These poems poignantly express the conflicting emotions experienced in the wake of betrayal and loss.