Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Relationship with Illness

The creative process is a most mysterious thing.

If, like me, you are attempting to cultivate an animist perspective, then you will know that everything is alive. And by this I don’t just mean the beings that we (usually, but not always) consider to possess some form of sentience: animals, plants and trees. I also mean the land itself, and its weather: mountains, rivers, forests, the ocean, stones, rain, wind. But also, and perhaps most significantly, the intangible things that we don’t normally consider to be alive or ensouled at all (or to come from anywhere other than our own human minds): ideas, thoughts, dreams, symbols and stories. 

Thus, when an idea arrives, be it the instigator of a story or poem or work of art, it seems to have a life of its own, wanting to be this way, or that way, and often quite what I’d least expect. I find that forcing things rarely, if ever, works. Instead, I must allow the idea to lead me where it (or should that be s/he?) wants to go, which requires a certain amount of trust—a letting go. 

This means, in my way of thinking, that creativity requires a relationship. It is about connecting with beings that come from elsewhere, outside of or beyond ourselves, that decide to grace us with their presence every now and then. It is about letting those beings speak. Hence, listening and learning to interpret their language(s) are skills that must be developed as part of the creative process (and, when you think about it, it’s just good manners).
Consider, for instance, this extraordinary account of how fully-formed poems came to American poet, Ruth Stone:

As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming...cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, "run like hell" to the house as she would be chased by this poem.

The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would "continue on across the landscape looking for another poet".

And then there were these times, there were moments where she would almost miss it. She is running to the house and is looking for the paper and the poem passes through her. She grabs a pencil just as it's going through her and she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In those instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first. (

If you have read my Beginning post, then you will know that I live with CFS, a chronic, though often fluctuating, illness. Accordingly, if I maintain an animist point of view, I have to concede that my illness is itself alive, having agency of its own. I visualised it once as a blacker than black pompom-like ball, alternately soft and fuzzy, or sharp and spiky, though now and then sparkling with an inner light. 

Over the past few years I have been trying to develop a relationship with my illness, to try to work within its boundaries, push them a little, and discover just how far I can go. This is far from easy, for the main (though far from only) symptom of CFS is a lack of energy, which can manifest as anything from extreme fatigue to mild lethargy, and everything in-between. This fatigue can affect people physically, cognitively and emotionally, and makes it very difficult to get things done, let alone cope with the normal responsibilities and pressures that life tends to throw at us. I am very fortunate in that my symptoms are not severe. I am not bedridden or completely housebound; I can go for walks, read, and write sometimes (though my life is still greatly curtailed). Though needless to say, developing and maintaining a relationship with my illness, and with creativity, is a constant challenge.

It has been said that illness is a ‘call from the gods’—a gift or message. If so, what is it giving me or trying to tell me?

I am of the opinion that many, if not most, illnesses today, both physical and mental, are ‘diseases of (Western) civilisation’, such that they would not have existed, or only very rarely, before techno-industrial civilisation spread its way around the globe. This idea may be controversial, but I stand by it. Rather than illness being something that is wrong with us, perhaps it is a way in which our bodies/minds/souls respond to and rebel against the toxicity, destruction, violence, inequality and overall soullessness of modern life. Disease is evidence of our dis-ease with the way the world is. Our bodies/minds/souls intuitively know that this is not the way the world has always been, nor the way it needs to remain.

In a recent article by Charles Eisenstein, which is well worth reading, called Mutiny of the Soul, this very idea is explored: 

What if there is something so fundamentally wrong with the world, the lives, and the way of being offered us, that withdrawal is the only sane response? Withdrawal, followed by a reentry into a world, a life, and a way of being wholly different from the one left behind. (

I can’t help but identify with this idea. CFS came to stop me in my tracks, to force me to withdraw, to shake up my life and encourage a transformation of who I was, so that I could move ahead on quite a different path. Illness itself, therefore, is an opportunity for creativity, in how we respond to it, in how we learn to listen to what it is trying to tell us, and then take action to change how we live. 

As I said in my first post, CFS has become something of an ally for me, an enabler. It has given me the time to read and learn, and what I have learnt has led me to tread a certain path. That path has been dark, winding and tangled with snags, and I have lost my way many times. I still do, often. But I have also come across some wild and wondrous things on my journey, and have learnt a great deal about myself and the world, and for that I am grateful. 

Of course, CFS is still not easy to live with. It complicates matters, for, more often than not, it prevents me from working on writing or art (or life itself) as I would want to. That is where acknowledging and understanding the cycles of both illness and creativity has helped, for those cycles teach a crucial lesson: all things pass. 

Sometimes I need stillness, silence, inactivity. Other times I need to be busy with the gathering of inspiration and influences by reading, journalling and thinking, amongst other pursuits. And sometimes, just sometimes, I am able to create. 
My pile of winter reading
Where does the energy come from for creating? Well, if ideas are alive, sometimes I think they must lend me a little spark of their aliveness, and that is what energises me to grow an idea into a story (or, more rarely, a poem or piece of art). A fruitful idea enlivens and motivates me to get to work, and often won’t leave me alone until the work is done. And that is where my focus on animism is essential, for I believe that connection and relationship with the living earth is the key. I need to be open and willing to listen to ideas when they come, and ready to respond, even if that means pushing myself beyond my limits occasionally. 

If I can embody myself in a animate and ensouled world, learn from it, and create in service to it, then maybe I can find a way to heal myself. 

And if we heal ourselves, then perhaps we can heal the world. 

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