From the time I read William Wordworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” I believed events were best discussed after they happened, after one had “processed” one’s feelings — made peace with them, transcended or transformed them, broken through to insight or wisdom.
If you wrote from within an emotion or experience, you wouldn’t have the perspective, or what in zen we call the spaciousness, to describe it accurately, much less synthesize meaning from it.
When my zen teacher talked about his teen-age determination to find the meaning of life by reading all the books about philosophy, religion, history and science he could get his hands on, he often described his quest as “foolish”. Once I asked him about this, and he clarified that it’s not the search for meaning that’s foolish, but the assumption that there’s a single answer, and that it can be found “out there”. Meaning isn’t objective or static; it’s a co-creation of the ever-changing self and its times.
Because my intention with this blog is to encourage and inspire, I’ve usually written about dark events in retrospect, from the other side, so that I could write not only about the maze, but about the way out, so that every story could have, if not a happy ending, at least an empowering one.
I think of this as my profession, the vow I took in becoming a priest — helping people enlighten themselves by enlightening myself and telling about it. Not that my path will be yours, my meaning your meaning, but that any one person’s finding a path, a graceful way through, encourages us in finding our own.
I’ve been working and waiting for the right time in my two-year fight with Lyme disease, the time after, when I’ll be able to sum my experience into a story with an uplifting finale. So far, I haven’t been able to write from the middle, the time during. I’ve wanted to offer something, but had nothing besides exhaustion, sadness and fear. Along with the losses wrought by illness, I lost my ability to make offerings. For someone whose calling and vow this is, there’s no more destitute feeling.
How to write blind, from inside the maze? What to offer with empty hands?
Outside the hospital where I had surgery long ago, there’s a labyrinth. Walking a labyrinth is a meditative and reassuring exercise. You can’t figure out the way to the center by looking ahead, so you’re forced to focus on your feet, on the step you’re taking now. This is relaxing. And it’s spiritually reassuring, because you can’t help but reach the center, and the way back out, if you simply continue walking. This is because labyrinths are designed to be “unicursal”: one road in, one road out.
But life, especially life with a poorly understood illness, is more like a maze. There is no one path. Instead, we’re faced with myriad intersections where we have to choose. Some choices lead to dead ends. There’s no guarantee of finding the heart of the matter or the way through. In a maze, a person can spend a lifetime walking in circles. And it could feel like your fault, for having taken the wrong turns. Although a counselor told me there might not, at any given time, exist a “right” move. I can’t decide whether this makes things better or worse.
I can say it’s hard to keep faith in a maze, unlike a nice, trustworthy labyrinth. You can lose conviction in your chosen direction after just a few steps. And it’s hard to keep walking for long without conviction. Every day my belief in what I’m doing unravels, and almost every day I thread it back together by taking the steps that seem to make sense today, although I know they may lose that quality before tomorrow. This is what there is to do in a maze, and why there aren’t mazes outside hospitals.