Mourning in the Burned House
braving our own wilderness, spiritual awakenings
Geoffrey Hill wrote that he thinks of a poem as an atonement. Precisely, he said ‘at-one-ment,’ to describe the coming together in the rightest way of the sound and the matter that makes of any real poem something final, something imbued with grace and sacred energy. Something understood and rare as the full engagement in life’s acts is always, to me, a form of holiness.
At both his best and at his least successful, Hill’s concept of atonement can always be detected as an attempt to redeem whatever disparate elements are under scrutiny in the poem. It is only a guiding premise, however, not a skeleton key to grasping every implication and meaning. Once a poem (or anything) is understood, there always still work to be done.
I think every great work has been obscenely difficult to make, not just because of the sacrifice, work, time, and dedication that went into it - but everything the artist had to experience, survive, endure, and transform into before they could make something great. What we forget is that these works come down to us cushioned by clouds of interpretation and a condensed timeline. It’s like walking up to a peach tree someone else planted, and cared for over decades - and all we have to do is reach out. We read these things in our leisure, take what we want, interpret based on our own experiences. That is how the economies of art and literature work. The responsibilities of discovery and effort again lie with us.
I’m learning to investigate, not just pay attention to what I’m bringing to the table with me when I write, and even what others will bring when, and if, they read it. I have a plethora of ways and skills (thanks to years of therapy) to navigate loss, complex grief, shame, body dysmorphia, depression, challenges, and transformative experiences. I’m nearly 8 years clean, and I rarely think about drinking or using - save the occasional intrusive thought. It’s never a genuine desire. A beautiful thing about recovery is that it allows us to access, treat, and heal from the traumas, identities, and behaviors that were causing the dysfunction and pain in the first place. I’m far more interested in treating a wound than numbing it, and that effort has not betrayed me once since I started.
I sit in silence a great deal. I feel utter despair at times. I experience the overwhelming beauty and tenderness of a moment. I listen to the same song 6 times in a row. I plug in my headphones and dance while grocery shopping and don’t care or notice if anyone is watching. I teach my nephew. I get down on the floor and let our new puppies slobber all over me and laugh until my sides hurt. I stain my hands with ink and charcoal from writing and dirt from my garden. I have breakfast with sponsees, teach them my experience, offer guidance, compassion, and wisdom. I trust my therapist with my whole heart. I read every recommended book I can get my hands on. I swim and surf in the ocean until salt patterns are formed on my body. I go to bed earlier, cry in the shower each morning. I travel alone and climb mountains. Clean my bathtub over and over, organize my closet 17 different ways and leave room in the middle for what some people call God to come rushing in.
I think spiritual awakenings are a combination of acceptance, humility, emotional intelligence and labor, and something more significant than me coming together all at once. Which is a lot like getting smacked in the nervous system with a 2x4 by a bolt of lightning. Other times it’s the gradual rolling back of a fog, and you wake up one day trying to understand how you couldn’t see this (new) thing before, that’s somehow been there all along.
I drink coffee with my loved ones and hold them closer. I cry, mourn, heal, grow, laugh, and recover. Mostly I cry and recover. I take solace in my solitude, and I stand up in loneliness. Standing up in isolation is a lot like taking an ice-cold shower each morning, you never get used to it - but you also know what’s coming. It wakes you up to the things you weren’t paying attention to before.
There are times when I don’t care about anything, even my work. Grief, shame, and unanswerable questions can be very destructive for anyone. I can’t remember what it’s like to hold the hand of someone I love intimately without being gaslighted or lied to. I long to be interlinked, to feel finger to finger, heart to heart. I turn my body sideways when a stranger hugs or touches me. Most people are strangers. I still do my best to love them. I’m proud of a select few. There are moments, split seconds when I am greeted by another Anam Cara, a friend of my soul, a compassionate presence that sustains me as much as my own light.
I want to come back to myself like the sun rising across a body of water. I want to feel my own warmth. I want to stand on those mountain tops and not be reaching for something that’s dead and buried, or for things that never were. I want to touch something that places me. I want to be shown where I am on a map; and then I remember that I am going somewhere where no-one has ever been, not in the same way I am going.
I know that braving my own wilderness means embodying Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who said: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.“
Writing comes to me after those initial necessities, those rages, the dying and rebirthing of light - which are each awakenings of their own. But when poetry or grace comes to me, it’s usually a way of making sense of the unimaginable and inexplicable. I don’t have the answers; I’m merely searching for them.
More and more, I’m finding out what doesn’t work earlier on; and sometimes, sometimes I find something beautiful, effortful, and holy that does - and it’s always worth it.