Friday, October 9, 2009

Dare We All Die?

About once or twice a month I have a restless, almost sleepless night. It seems I can sustain some minimal degree of emotional health for a few weeks at a time and then it catches up with me. Wednesday night was my most recent bout of toss and turn. And, as usual, I can tie it to at least one practice that probably leads to this exhausting cycle: I was on the computer and/or watching television late at night. Even reading some books right before bed can trigger it. When I was a child my parents gave me tranquilizers for a period of time, and the doctor told my mother not to let me watch television, read, or “do anything mentally stimulating” for an hour before bed. So… what’s a person to do for that final hour of the evening? I think even if I was into knitting or some other such craft and tried to sit and do that for an hour, my mind would still be racing with Soul Chatter.

I have thought about the fact that on Wednesday night, just a few hours before bedtime, I listened to a talk given by Joshua Armitage at St. John Orthodox Church on “The Unseen World,” with special emphasis on guardian angels. Joshua reminded us of the importance of praying to our guardian angel just before sleep, because of the increased activity level of the demons during the night. And so, yes, I remembered to include the prayer to my guardian angel in my evening prayers that night. But something was already stirring.

It was still stirring the next morning at our monthly women’s meeting, where Father John Troy shared some letters of St. Nicolai Velimirovich. (Side note: Watch this brief video on Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog, for a few lines of St. Nicolai’s poetry. I love this line, from his Poems By the Lake: “Only someone who sleeps in Your heart knows rest.” Fr. Stephen will be speaking at our next women’s retreat at St. John, November 13 and 14. More on that later.)

One of the letters was about suicide. We talked a little about how suicide is a rejection of the life God gives us. But I was wondering about the “little suicides” we commit every day—like eating too much, which can cause death from obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and a plethora of other things. And drinking too much, which kills the liver and other parts of the body. And smoking, which has taken the lives of five close family members through lung cancer.

At lunch with two of the women from the morning study group, I continued to explore these thoughts, and to try to figure out what I was anxious about, what might have contributed to my sleepless night. As I talked with these two dear friends, I gave voice to the soul chatter from the night before: aging, pain, fear of failure, lack of fulfillment in my creative endeavors, scattered family members (children and grandchild in three states, son going to Afghanastan next month, mother in nursing home with Alzheimer’s.) Trying to balance my life as a wife, mother, friend, “Church lady,” daughter… and (it seems to always come last) writer, continues to be a challenge. And it seems the harder I try to write, the louder the negative voices scream in my head: “You’re wasting your time. Why don’t you do something more valuable, like volunteer work?” I have backed off from so much of the “volunteer work” I’ve done most of my adult life, in order to try to write, but then I feel guilty about the “good things” I’m not doing for others. My wise friends suggested a balance… write and do volunteer work. If I can organize my time wisely maybe that would work. I think what’s at the core of all of this, though, is my struggle to embrace the art as something valuable, something worth offering to others.

Later that day, I found myself returning to the wisdom of one of my heroes—Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle died two years ago, September 6, 2007. (I posted about her death here.) One of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, often sits atop the leaning tower of books on my bedside table. Yesterday I returned to the wisdom between its covers.

L’Engle was a gifted writer but also a woman of faith. Like Flannery O’Connor, she had no desire to be cast as a “Christian writer,” but rather as an artist, a writer, who is also a Christian. Her spirituality, her faith, infused all her work. She often turned to the wisdom of the ancient Church Fathers and the mystics and the monastics for help. And from her faith comes these words that are helping me today:

“The creative process has a lot to do with faith and nothing to do with virtue, which may explain why so many artists are far from virtuous—are, indeed, great sinners. And yet, at the moment of creation, they must have complete faith, faith in their vision, faith in their work.”

So, I don’t have to be good, or virtuous, to have faith in my work. This helps. But then she raises the bar when she writes about life… and death:

“Art is an affirmation of life, a rebuttal of death. And here we blunder into paradox again, for during the creation of any form of art, art which affirms the value and the holiness of life, the artist must die. To serve a work of art, great or small, is to die, to die to self…. That is our calling, the calling of all of us, but perhaps it is simplest for the artist (at work, at prayer) to understand, for nothing is created without this terrible entering into death. It takes great faith, faith in the work if not conscious faith in God for dying is fearful. But without this death, nothing is born…. Dare we all die? Willingly or unwillingly, we must, and the great artists go further into this unknown county. Great art. Great artists. What about the rest of us little people, struggling with our typewriters and tubes of paint? The great ones are still the best mirrors for us all because the degree of the gift isn’t what it’s all about…. The important thing is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered newness…. We all feed the lake.”

I believe that a desire for wholeness is at the bottom of my aching, of my longing. And I believe my own dividedness, brokenness, is at the bottom of my pain. And I believe, at some level, that the way to heal that brokenness and find wholeness is in the sacraments of the Church. But I also cling to L’Engle’s assertion that our work, as artists, can be part of that healing:

“To be in a healthy state of mind means to be whole (not divided into left and right), and if to be whole means to be holy, then wholeness is what the Christian artists seeks. It is what the Christian seeks. It is what any artist seeks.”


frank_ezelle said...

Susan--This part of your post stood out to me like a flashing neon sign: "And it seems the harder I try to write, the louder the negative voices scream in my head: 'You’re wasting your time. Why don’t you do something more valuable, like volunteer work?'"

I spend hundreds of hours each year as a volunteer photographer at Millsaps sporting events. The thought has crossed my mind more than once that maybe my time would be far better spent in more "valuable" volunteer work. Maybe I should do Habitat for Humanity or volunteer at Stewpot--those things have to have more value than taking sports photos.

Then, every once in a while, someone tells me a story about how much a particular photo meant to them. Maybe it's a parent in another state who has their life brightened by being able to keep up with their child through the photos. Maybe it's a student who is going through a rough time and a photo gives them a much needed boost of positive reinforcement. Not earthshattering stuff, but the photos are important to others and I know the photos send out many positive ripples that I will rarely hear about.

I believe the same is true with your writting. It is very, very good. It is very insightful and thought provoking. I am 100% certain that there are people reading your work and some run across something that is just the right thought at just the right time. Maybe not earthshattering stuff every day, but who knows. There are times when one phrase, one thought, one small thing to the writer turns out to be something life changing for a reader. And in most of those cases, the writer will never know about the value of their work.

It's obvious you have a love for writing and plenty of talent. Trust that this ability will be used to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It's a gift you should be using without any feelings of guilt. Take care and keep writing.


Lucy H said...

Susan, I loved your blog and the
thoughts expressed therein. As a performing musician, the artist in me totally relates to your feelings so aptly put here. How true it is that we have to get ourselves out of the way in order to let the true creative process flow through us. This is something that has taken me so many years to really learn, and I still have to surrender daily for God to fill me and somehow use my specific gifts.

"I believe that a desire for wholeness is at the bottom of my aching, of my longing. And I believe my own dividedness, brokenness, is at the bottom of my pain."

I particularly liked this image-- it's so true.

You write and paint beautifully. Anyone can do volunteer work. I have found that people should wear the skins they are comfortable in -- artists should be artists, replete with all eccentricities.

Thanks for sharing; I'll look forward to more.

Lucy C.H.

Ali said...

I so appreciate your honesty here, Susan. You capture so much of what someone who lives an examined life feels. Often Christians gloss over the hard times and make their lives appear perfect on the surface, and that is simply a facade.

Your post reminds me of what my priest said yesterday in his homily about getting past the surface of a person and trying to find out who is the real underneath (he was giving this sermon in the context of understanding that icons are not simply a surface representation of Christ or a saint).

PS I think I mentioned this before on you blog, but I am super impressed with your gift of writing icons. You icons look beautiful.

Susan Cushman said...

I am blown away by these three comments, Frank, Lucy and Ali. I have actually printed them off and have re-read them over and over. I feel so validated by your words, at a time when I'm questioning so many things. THANK YOU for taking time to comment.