Of Course It Hurts
What can we learn from this change of season? Of course it hurts...which is the title of a poem by Karin Boye, the Swedish writer born in 1900, and who committed suicide in 1949 – that familiar ending for women poets. Her poem, though, is about living, about new life, about jubilation. It's about that agonizing moment of creation and rebirth after feeling as though one is beyond help.
Of Course It Hurts
by Karin Boye
Of course it hurts when buds burst.
Otherwise why would spring hesitate?
Why would all our fervent longing
be bound in the frozen bitter haze?
The bud was the casing all winter.
What is this new thing, which consumes and bursts?
Of course it hurts when buds burst,
pain for that which grows
and for that which envelops.
Of course it is hard when drops fall.
Trembling with fear they hang heavy,
clammer on the branch, swell and slide -
the weight pulls them down, how they cling.
Hard to be uncertain, afraid and divided,
hard to feel the deep pulling and calling,
yet sit there and just quiver -
hard to want to stay
and to want to fall.
Then, at the point of agony and when all is beyond help,
the tree’s buds burst as if in jubilation,
then, when fear no longer exists,
the branch’s drops tumble in a shimmer,
forgetting that they were afraid of the new,
forgetting that they were fearful of the journey –
feeling for a second their greatest security,
resting in the trust
that creates the world.
And what can we learn from the middle of the night? I like to contrast this really wonderfully excruciating poem by Karin Boyes, with this one by May Sarton:
In the middle of the night,
My bedroom washed in moonlight
The faint hush-hushing
Of an ebbing tide,
I see Venus
The waning moon.
I hear the bubbling hoot
Of a playful owl.
Ripple under my hand,
And all this is bathed
In the scent of roses
By my bed
Where there are always
Books and flowers.
In the middle of the night
The bliss of being alive!
It’s a nice picture of bliss that Sarton paints in her poem, and I like to think that it exists as a possibility. Even if it was just that one night, captured in these words. I immediately relate to the poem, to the books and flowers and the wakeful night, which holds its secrets, its charms after all.
I read Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude rather obsessively while writing my book, Calm Things. She gets the details of an ordinary life so perfectly. Although perhaps ordinary is not at all the correct word. She knows solitude, loneliness. She observes the light so well, flowers on a table, the feelings of connection and loss, the feeling of being unmoored.
I ask myself, what can we learn from our ordinary lives, from the weather, from the day?
The days are beautiful
The days are beautiful.
I know what days are.
The other is weather.
I know what weather is.
The days are beautiful.
Things are incidental.
Someone is weeping.
I weep for the incidental.
The days are beautiful.
Where is tomorrow?
Everyone will weep.
Tomorrow was yesterday.
The days are beautiful.
Tomorrow was yesterday.
Today is weather.
The poem goes on to talk about the ‘towers’ which of course refers to the twin towers in New York City. But the persistent, insistent refrain, throughout: the days are beautiful. Everyday on the news, the ‘incidental,’ and while we weep, we must go on weeping, we must also repeat and repeat, that the days are beautiful. And the line begins to hum, it becomes a hymn. It’s what we have to use against what is unthinkable. The hum is how we weather the daily atrocities.
It’s important to deeply feel that the days are beautiful.
So in the face of the news-hum, here’s the question I keep asking myself: how to be an artist of the everyday? I never really feel like a writer unless I’m writing, in the act of writing. But I also know it’s the everyday that feeds my art. Regardless, the news is unavoidable, and besides that the domestic is unavoidable, the domestic, too, is exhausting. Our days are filled with the hum of the outside world, and the demands of our private worlds, our domestic world. How to find beauty there in the midst of all that, how to find bliss, how to call forth the day’s riches?
As usual, a lot of questions have been answered long ago, by a poet named Rainer Maria Rilke:
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
There comes the point near the end of winter when you stop believing in spring, and your heart has become wintered and cold. Your seeing is pared down. You develop a disbelief in the colour green.
I came home from a spring walk recently, and looked for this quotation by Theodore Roethke:
“The feeling that one is on the edge of many things: that there are many worlds from which we are separated by only a film; that a flick of the wrist, a turn of the body another way will bring us to a new world. It is more than a perpetual expectation: yet sometimes the sense of richness is haunting: it is richness and yet denial, this living a half a step, as it were, from what one should be. The valleys are always green, but only the eyes, never the feet, are there...The feeling is always with us, but most in the middle of the morning.”
Writing feels a bit like this as well – that with a daily practice, one comes closer and closer to that other side, to seeing through the film into another world. And maybe, as Roethke says, it’s possible to get closer to what one should be, what one yearns to be, in the mornings, and maybe especially a spring morning.
On a particular morning, I walked from blossoming tree to blossoming tree, following the path of the bees. Finally I had my fill, much as the bees did before flying off, heavy, full. In my case, it was my camera that was full of images, my eyes that were stained with the pollen of what I had seen.
I had been reading Thoreau’s description and etymological analysis of the word “saunter.” He traces the word back to “idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la sainte terre – to the holy land.” A sainte-terrer becomes a saunterer, a holy lander. One who wanders in such a manner, one who saunters, goes toward what is holy. It seems to me that every walk I take contains something of what is holy, so I have found.
All winter, I’d been telling myself to make do with what there is – to take photos and to find beauty in unlikely places, in the cold, and to find beauty, pared down, by the fence deep in snow. I have tried to find beauty in the snow itself, in the frost, and in the soft and carved drifting. To find it in dried leaves still clinging, the way they cup snow with such elegance.
How often have I thought that I was running out of things to photograph, to see. My images are usually taken within a radius of three kilometers, in the suburbs, near the highway, of a not particularly beautiful city. Often, they’re taken in my house. And maybe this is the most important thing that this near daily practice of snapping photos has taught me – and I’ve said it before – the more creative you are, the more creative you are. Your seeing is continually refined, you begin to observe things, nuances, where you’d not before. Sure, there are the days when your seeing becomes dull, your mood squashes your ability to see the brightness of the world. There have been days, weeks, where I thought, well, there, I must be nearing the end as I’m feeling emptied out, spent, hollow.
But then the light will change, the season, and one goes on. Replenished, somehow, which I think is also the secret of the daily practice. That you will empty out, refill, be renewed, and that you have it within you to begin again, to invent yourself from scratch, over and over. Annie Dillard talks about how “every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts.” She says, for example, “A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch…” She goes on: “A tree stands there, accumulating deadwood, mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes, it splits, sucks and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green, fringed fling.”
You too will fling your great green leaves, you will blossom, but also, you will winter, become spare, soft and sparkling, and dormant and cold. And that spareness, your whittled down winter seeing, will inform your spring seeing. And so on.
The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “You have an appointment with life, an appointment that is in the here and now.” And he has also said this:
“Around us, life bursts with miracles – a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops. If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere. Each human being is a multiplicity of miracles. Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms; ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap; a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos; a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings. When we are tired and feel discouraged by life's daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.”
As for me, I’ve had an appointment with the new leaves in the small city forests, with what is green and young. I've had an appointment with the fleeting blossoms.
I've been trying to stay awake to everything; I’ve been trying to save myself by looking at small green things. (Perhaps it is beauty that will save us in the end, said Dostoevsky). The way the light falls on leaves, into them. Reminding myself that the miracles are there, whether I can really see them, or not. And it’s difficult to see the miracles when one feels flat, tired, thinned out, sad on the ground. And yet, the trees will go on flinging their leaves, regardless.
I watch this green explosion as closely as I’m able. I’m drawn to those little, odd forests we have in the suburbs. Stands of trees that someone forgot to mow down as the houses and condominiums went up around them and in which beer is drunk late at night, and illegal bonfires are lit. I’m drawn to the green leaves, each one that poem called ‘tenderness’ that Galway Kinnell spoke of ("The secret title of all good poems could be ‘Tenderness’").
I’m drawn, once again, as I always am each spring though I forget this completely every winter, to the light that falls through the canopies of trees and down onto the tender new life awakening and arising from the forest floor. I’m walking on the dead matter on the well-used paths through the trees, and deking off the path from time to time, ankles scraped by wild rose bushes. I’m kneeling down on the dead leaves, damp earth, and getting low with the camera to try and catch the light and sparkle and glow on a leaf, or trying to capture the movement of the light, the dappling, the rain of it. I had begun to think of my heart as shriveled, though I’ve had no real reason for it. This is how life goes, and I want to find even that interesting – the fact that we constantly fluctuate between knowing the miracle, being able to see the everyday as though it’s been illuminated in a holy light, and then, being deadened to it, worn down, and blind.
That even in the deep of winter, the fact that the earth holds, and we too hold, within us the memory of spring, is a thought that poets return and return to. Rilke said, “It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.” And more recently the American poet Marie Howe says in her poem, ‘The Meadow,’(which can be found in The Good Thief):
“As we walk into words that have waited for us to enter them, so
the meadow, muddy with dreams, is gathering itself together
and trying, with difficulty, to remember how to make wildflowers.”
I come back home from one of my appointments with the spring forest, muddy with dreams, and find these lines by George Herbert:
“Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness?”
And, well, really. Who would have thought? (Of course it hurts).