There are times when the beauty and poignance of the world, the universe simply takes my breath away. The feeling that fills me is neither one of joy nor sorrow. Bittersweet is the closest word i've found to name this emotion. Nor does "emotion" name what is taking place. I am convinced it is something more. But what?
I think of the Stendhal Syndrome - that state of being overcome/overwhelmed by the beauty of art or the beauty of the natural world. I am a sufferer of this syndrome, if it is even proper to qualify this experience as such. Once while viewing an exhibit of Van Gogh's paintings from Arles, France and once while listening to Yo Yo Ma live in concert i was reduced to tears. I was struck by the apparent elusiveness of what evoked this reaction. There was no single image of Van Gogh's that triggered me, nor was there one piece by Yo Yo Ma that stood out. Rather the entirety of the moment affected me. I was neither a viewer nor a listener 'receiving information' - but rather a participant in something in which i was completely immersed and for which i lacked language with which to describe to myself or others what i was feeling.
Some colleagues at York are doing a podcast series - CoHearence - on the "relationship between cultural practices and our environment," the first two of which focus on melancholy and mourning - topics for which i have great affinity. Although it has been my nature to leap - both mind and heart - into engaging this topic, i find myself curiously reluctant at the moment. And, for sure, it has to do with my obligations to a family and, perhaps especially, its three-year-old member. Over the past few years of parenting i have experienced searing moments of awareness of the fragility of life - either when the kids get very sick or when i hear a story of some infant hurt or, as is too often in the news, killed. In those moments, the social distance between what happens to others and what happens to me and my closest loves, is collapsed; my heart literally feels clutched and squeezed - i'm sure my pulse quickens - and i have to assert conscious will to remain calm, reason that there is no need to allow any anxiety to escalate, that things are, at least for the moment, okay. I've learned (and am still learning) the truth in the maxim that "having children is like choosing to live with your heart permanently outside of your body." But, if i am uncharacteristically protective of my heart these days, my mind is (perhaps as a counter to this) all the more eager to engage (and thus these words, i suppose).
Yes, my heart is tender. This past weekend I performed stories at the Royal Ontario Museum for which I had planned to tell The Golden Fly (similar to this version). It is a story that has always moved me to bittersweet emotion. And with Taliesen being sick, my mum unwell (and my dad in step), and while listening to a podcast dialogue on melancholy, and reading Gabor Mate's work on addictions .... Well... as I mentioned, I am curiously reluctant to embrace that space of sadness, sorrow, bittersweet. With the bright, young soul of a child in my care it seems my ethic is to keep that bittersweetness at bay - at least for a while. For surely the abundance of the bittersweet will have ample attention in the years to come. And, believing as I do (having been persuaded by Alice Miller) in the innocence of children (not that that lasts long, mind you, before it is assaulted by our world of sorrows and contradictions) I feel that part of parenting is to do what we can to prepare our young to encounter these truths. I think we treat blithely what deserves careful, loving attention. For our world - with or without the ubiquity of TV violence - has an overabundance of moments that can damage an innocent and unprepared soul. And we are wrong to think that we can protect our children from the world of hurts as long as they are "under our roof." From the moment we are born we are fully in the world. Fully! And i have learned sadly that there are so many many ways - from passive neglect to active aggression - that we mangle the souls of the young.
As my colleagues wax on, in the podcast, about melancholy and sublimation and Freud i wonder, not for the first time, how my feelings may be rooted in losses i experienced early in life. Is my sense of the bittersweet merely a result/response to what i experienced as a child? This is hard for me to answer since the evidence, for me, lies behind a virtually flawless wall of amnesia of my first ten years. What i know of those years is archaeological. Suffice to say that something in my child self thought it better to forget those years than to live with their recall. So i wonder if i am merely victim of losses which i seek to fulfill as an adult. Or could it be that, as a child, my experiences tuned me to receive particular frequencies of loss and sorrow? My explorations of literature suggest much truth in this latter proposition. From the most ancient of texts to our modern day echoes. I often think of the Bhagavad Gita, that ancient chat between the god Krishna and the prince and archer Arjuna in which Arjuna loses heart in the face of going to war against his cousins. The content of Krishna's advice aside for the moment (lots about yoga and impermanence) what strikes me is that Krishna responds to Arjuna's despair by sharing with him a vision of a grander pattern of life and death than can be seen from the vantage of one life. Not that that visions lessens the tragedy of what is to come in the war. But Krishna's truths are aimed not at the fleshly existence of one life but that of the eternal and abiding life of the soul. And yet it is a work that is imbued with sadness or, more accurately for me, the bittersweet. That these truths were discussed hundreds of generations ago gives me pause and courage that what i feel is not merely the consequences of one life but is rather an ancient discourse in which i, however unwittingly, became a participant. And perhaps this word holds the key to it all: participant. For as Neil DeGrasse Tyson (my favourite geeky enthusiast evangelist of science) says in the video above, "That's really what you want in life. You want to feel connected; you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you're a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That's precisely what we are - just by being alive." Krishna seeks to remind Arjuna of his connectedness. Melancholy is what we feel when our sense of connectedness is under stress. Mourning is a process in which we seek a new arrangement of connectedness. Connected is how we start out. It is where we come from. As Taliesen implies when he says that he "know[s] that place." And as Zora Neale Hurston writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Most humans didn't love one another nohow, and this mis-love was so strong that even common blood couldn't overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the marketplace to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made the Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness of the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mudballs, Janie has tried to show her shine.There is so much to do in this life - so much reconnecting to do. And it seems so terribly urgent. Will our children have to grow up faster for this? Will there be time to prepare them to bear the sorrows of the world we have treated so grievously while also being able to hold joy? For i believe deeply, as Kahlil Gibran writes of so eloquently in The Prophet, that sorrow and joy are inseparable:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.I take this as a virtual manifesto obliging us to carry joy. And while i respect the hard truth of which Ecclesiastes writes (1:18), "In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow," i feel that if we do not take seriously the obligation to carry joy then what we think is sorrow will be something quite different and deadlier. It will be despair. We need a vocabulary for this. We need to be able to communicate these truths in ways that are beautiful. Over 30 years ago i came across the following poem by Hayden Carruth and it lodged in my soul as one piece of that vocabulary i think we need:
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
EssayAnd one more from Hayden Carruth before concluding this meander:
So many poems about the deaths of animals.
Wilbur's toad, Kinnell's porcupine, Eberhart's squirrel,
and that poem by someone — Hecht? Merrill? —
about cremating a woodchuck. But mostly
I remember the outrageous number of them,
as if every poet, I too, had written at least
one animal elegy; with the result that today
when I came to a good enough poem by Edwin Brock
about finding a dead fox at the edge of the sea
I could not respond; as if permanent shock
had deadened me. And then after a moment
I began to give way to sorrow (watching myself
sorrowlessly the while), not merely because
part of my being had been violated and annulled,
but because all these many poems over the years
have been necessary, — suitable and correct. This
has been the time of the finishing off of the animals.
They are going away — their fur and their wild eyes,
their voices. Deer leap and leap in front
of the screaming snowmobiles until they leap
out of existence. Hawks circle once or twice
around their shattered nests and then they climb
to the stars. I have lived with them fifty years,
we have lived with them fifty million years,
and now they are going, almost gone. I don't know
if the animals are capable of reproach.
But clearly they do not bother to say good-bye.
If you see a child that shivers when it hearsHow do we teach this? Or will our children be our teachers?
a diminished fifth, nurture and protect him,
for he only in the schoolyard’s fierce abstraction
will know the cry of the lynx, the cry of the hare,
and that of the old man and the young woman.
Shivering is his genius. If he have speech,
he will utter it greatly. If no, he will search
in other ways beyond the ordinarily human,
the hating and angered. He will hear the light,
he will sing the light and the darkness, or will sound
the ideas of them in the concrete nothingness
of tones vibrating in the air that sight
cannot conceive, yet they touch each one of us.
He will hear love where we would behold a wound.