We spent the morning sitting outside in the sunshine, sharing our nature writing with one another. As I said, I didn’t have any particular expectations about this exercise, at least in terms of the quality of thought and expression we would hear, only because I knew this was not a writing workshop and there was no expectation that participants had or wanted any experience with writing. What stunned me was how heart-felt and honest and brave the writing was. We had discussed over the past two days how personal pain and grief can heighten the vulnerability we experience when contemplating natural landscapes. We all learned what we always know in theory but rarely remember in practice: that everyone carries wounds and that sorrow and loss are so central to what it means to be human that we can scarcely begin to cultivate deeper environmental awareness and appreciation before the pain emerges. We had several participants who had lost spouses or siblings or who carried scars from past battles, and the simple task of confronting the landscape before them only caused these sorrows to come to the fore. What was impressive was how boldly and thoughtfully they met them. One participant observed how pain and beauty seemed to come together, that they could not be compartmentalized. Many remarkable phrases and images stuck out to me: the “goose bumps” on the surface of the lake as the afternoon winds picked up and the unexpected gracefulness of cows dipping into the lake water, the image of a woman “floating on a sea of grass” while engaged in thought, and an unexpected voyager ant that had joined the kayaker on the lake, similarly dislodged from family and responsibility. It was an honor to witness these participants many of whom were giving nascent expression to long held feelings of belonging, of yearning, of sorrow, and of joy.
In the afternoon, we continued our discussion of writing, turning to the term “ecoautobiography.” What might it mean to write our story as one intermingled with the land? How might our human story change when it is diminished by a broader context? How can we balance the feeling of our life’s significance with the feeling nature sometimes provides of our own nothingness or diminution? I began with an example of what I feel to be the most ambitious attempt to strike this balance I have ever seen. I showed several clips from “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, noting that the film seeks to bridge the enormous and seemingly irreconcilable gap between the individual life story and the story of the cosmos in deep time and deep space. It is an attempt to understand the possibility of God’s grace within a context of great suffering as well as great beauty and great immensity (Malick suffered the loss of his brother to suicide and seems to be working out his faith and grief in this film).
I suggested we rethink the three “senses” I had introduced the day before with a greater “sense” of irony. I wanted to capture the way that great writing emerges from bold impulse but also from deferential and self-limiting restraint. We talked of how a sense of history, for example, must ultimately give way to an awareness of how little of the past we can, in the end, capture and how imagination and desire are often needed to compensate for the absence of a complete account of historical truth. A sense of ecology too must be only humbly offered. If ecology teaches us anything, it reminds us of the complexity of the world, its often unknown and vast interdependencies, and our own sense of smallness in the larger context of life. And in our spirituality too we must learn to temper our enthusiasms, to acknowledge the gap between what we feel and all that there is to feel and know, between what we understand and what might be held within God’s all-encompassing consciousness. I pointed the group to the poem, “Casting and Gathering” by Seamus Heaney, a poem I examined in an earlier post. His point seems to be that there must be a dialogue between the impulses to set our soul free in the urge to create and the impulse to second guess, to rewrite, to listen and refrain. Every writer must discover how and when more can be said with less, especially when what we seek in telling our story is paradoxically a desire to lose ourselves, to find anonymity in the greater narrative of life.
We rested for the afternoon before I did a reading from Home Waters. I have given a dozen or so readings, and ever since the book came out, I swore that I would never read the chapter about my brother’s suicide. It felt too sacred and perhaps too emotional to share in public, especially when it has often been a public that includes many new faces. I know that is a strange thing to say. I did write the story after all and lots of people have read it whom I will never meet. But it was simply a promise I made to myself, but after so much talk over the week about grief and the courage to make ourselves vulnerable and after developing a relationship of trust with this wonderful group, I felt I owed it to them and perhaps even to myself to read the entire chapter to them. And despite being someone who cries rather easily, I could tell I was going to be able to do so without shedding a tear. I succeeded and felt so rewarded for reading it when I looked up and saw their faces. I don’t know what else matters in what I have written in my life, but if I never wrote anything else but that chapter, I would feel that I had written the most essential thing and that I had answered the call of the burden his death placed on me. I have always wanted to give Kenny some recompense for the life he cut short. In that chapter, I shared the essential portion of the grief as well as the spiritual reassurance I have experienced. His death and the spiritual awareness that emerged in me in the aftermath brought me through the deepest pain and yet also to the most acute joy. If I know anything, I know that God knows and loves us individually and that there is life after death. I have no idea why for all that life often feels like it careens beyond any providential care or direction and that terrible, awful things happen and not infrequently, nor why I can still waiver. But I remain firm in my commitment to the duty to sustain and inspire hope.
It has been a curious thing that despite the attention I gave to environmental themes in the book, what readers most often seem to want to comment to me about is the suicide of my brother. So many people are affected by mental illness, by shocking and violent loss, and by the accidents of biology. Faith, if it is to mean anything, must face up to the most difficult challenges of life even if it would seem more just to live under conditions far less unpredictable or painful. I find deep meaning and reward in choosing my faith in this way as if against odds but in honest reckoning of what life does.
It was wonderful to then enjoy a cello concert that evening that featured Bach’s Suite #3 for the cello. The cello suites are my favorite music to listen to when writing and are one of the most beautiful expressions of the pleasure and deep spiritual meaning I believe is inherent in our lovingly crafted and devotedly expressed human imaginings.