Quiet earthiness

The beloved life partner of a long-time friend was interred in a green burial today, a glorious May morning full of flowers (she loved gardening…); and I find myself with little to say.

It’s been that way for the past two weeks. Not exactly writer’s block, as I have in fact drafted several poems, but an extreme sense of turning-inward. My nature is reflective–I’ve always fallen into the introvert category (INFP for those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment)–but my job requires pretty constant interaction with other people, students and colleagues for the most part, and quite a bit of listening and talking. I enjoy my job and find it rewarding; but the stressful weeks just before exams, when term papers are due, can be challenging for a person whose inclination is to read books and putter in the dirt.

I planted seeds in the earth, and picked flowers. And then placed flowers on a coffin woven of reeds which was lowered into the earth.

Returning home the quiet overcame me. I’ve been reading poetry today instead of the Sunday New York Times.

Also, I’ve been reading books on “good death” and “mindful dying,” and the guidance of some sensitive and experienced authors seems appropriate and grounded.

But grief is hard. It’s probably one reason we invented philosophy, religion, and poetry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

One of my go-to anthologies for sorrow is Pinsky’s The Handbook of Heartbreak, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. In addition, I opened Christian Wiman’s book Every Riven Thing at random and came upon his poem “From a Window“–

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving…

 

The poem comforted me (and I read other poems today, by other poets, that also comforted me). This one ends with the following stanzas:

 

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

 

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

 

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

 

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

 

~
The joy comes in, somehow, through the quiet and the dirt and the trees.
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Introspection & narcissism

In August 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks wrote about the differences, if any, between narcissism and introspection. His opinion column explored whether self-questioning and rumination might lead to self-centeredness rather than self-discovery; he begins the column with the concept of the personal journal or diary and whether that practice has value or not. (Certainly there are other methods of introspection, but for a literate society it is writing that first comes to mind).

Citing research from several psychological studies, Brooks states:

We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts.

Interestingly, this suggestion more or less jibes with the multiple-levels-of-self version of consciousness as theorized by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.

Writing as a means to recover from trauma or to “make sense of the world” seems most effective when the writer puts some reflective distance between experience and feeling (see The Writing Cure), although James Pennebaker’s research argues that even immediate expressive writing can help psyches and bodies to heal. Brooks outlines three ways, different from the microscopic introspection of the narcissistic diary-entry, that self-reflection can develop into something other than self-absorption.

One of them is narrative, which makes perfect sense to me–human beings are story-makers. In fact, all three approaches to introspection Brooks mentions find expression in poetry, storytelling, fiction-writing, creative nonfiction, and in good journalism.

Creating our narratives from a reflective “step away” from intense analysis helps human beings to navigate the inner and the outer worlds.

I’m seeing this approach in action with my college freshmen this semester. More on that in a later post.

Introspection interregnum: on being ticklish

I woke at five this morning to the sound of birdsong followed by a heavy downpour. The rain will bring another onset of green beans even though the vines are a bit “tired” by now.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, and at seven I rose and took a cup of tea out to the back porch. It’s a good place to muse. [For delightful porch musings, see Dave Bonta’s blog morningporch.]

A sizable daddy-long-legs swayed elegantly across the decking. During my childhood and adolescence, I was afraid of spiders, and the daddy-long-legs was the first “spider” I learned not to run from. Actually, the creature to which I refer here is neither a spider nor, officially, a daddy-long-legs; it’s a harvestman (phalangium opilio), which is an arachnid but not a spider. But it resembles a spider closely enough that the arachnophobe is unlikely to stick around for a closer look. My father taught me not to be afraid of them: “They don’t bite, and they eat pest insects. They just tickle when they walk on your skin.”

Ticklishness arises from tension. I found that I could withstand the ticklish feel of an insect on my skin once the initial startle reflex calmed, just as I adjusted myself to my dog’s licking–a sensation I liked. Probably what I learned was how to manage “self-calming.” Breathing slowly and deeply helped me to get over the fears I had, and with time I learned to be unafraid of real spiders, too (as a gardener, I now bless the spiders and welcome them!). Breath and loosing of tension alleviated nervousness and ticklish sensations.

With a certain glee, I realized I could control being ticklish. I hated being tickled, the helplessness of it–even though other people love to tickle and be tickled (my sister among them). Mostly to spite my sister, who liked to tickle me into submission, I taught myself how to un-tense when someone tickled me. When the ticklee doesn’t laugh, the tickler has no fun…and stops.

These musings drifted through my mind while I idly watched the delicate creature make its morning ambit along the porch. And I thought: how interesting that when I was a child, I taught myself about relaxation and the importance of breath control for the purposes of overcoming ticklishness and fears. I wonder if my interest in philosophy and psychology has a basis in my peculiar self-education? And maybe it is no wonder that Zen and other “Eastern” philosophical-meditative-religious practices appeal to me as an adult.

meditative

meditative