This says everything.
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.
Adrienne Rich, 1929 – 2012
Adrienne Rich, you wrote beautiful things that spoke to me as a woman, as a human being, and I hope you died knowing, never denying that your wounds came from the same source as your power.
[Author’s note: I’d originally started a draft of this post in order to talk about the poem itself, to discuss our wounds as a source of power, but now I want to post it as it is as a tribute to Ms. Rich. Maybe I will discuss the poem at another time. For now, I just want the poem to speak for itself now that she’s gone.]
I was rifling through Rilke’s The Rose Window yesterday, and played that silly game I sometimes indulge in where I close my eyes, ask for some sort of important information about a specific subject in my life, then open the book randomly and read. Yesterday, I asked for some insight on writing, and this is what came up for me.
Who knows this stranger who has turned his face
away from life to live another life –
which nothing interrupts except the swift
and forceful turning of each printed page?
Even a mother might not recognise
her son, lost in the world that lies below him,
steeped in his own shadow. What can we know –
who live our lives so governed by mere hours –
of other lives he may have lived and lost
before he looks up, heavy now and burdened
with all the matter which his book contains?
As children rise from play and look around
his eyes now turn to all that lies outside,
towards the world again made manifest;
but yet his face, for all its discipline,
will never while he lives change back again.
— Rainier Maria Rilke
Having spent the last several weeks absorbed in other worlds as a writer, I found it interesting that Rilke chose to address the phenomenon of losing time and gaining unsharable, unknowable lifetimes from the point of view of the reader. I’d love to hear from readers whether or not they often face the accusatory questioning that writers face regarding valid uses of their time. I obviously am both a reader and a writer, but given that writer is my primary identification, that is the place that most outsiders attack with questions of validity. “But if you’re not published yet, how can you call yourself a writer?” “How can you justify the time you spend writing when you haven’t been paid a dime yet?” “What about the state of your house? Are you sure you’re an actual grown-up? It doesn’t appear so. I mean, a quick look around this place proves that!” Okay, so maybe those are my inner demons judging me more than anyone external, but I still suspect those are the kinds of things that people (family) think about me and writing on a regular basis. Who does it help? What does it do? Why can’t we read it?
(Because it’s chock full of explicit sex of the gay and het variety, Mom. And while I know you love the m/m romances and get behind the sometimes kinky-lovin’ in them, there’s something a bit different about saying, “Hey, Mom, I wrote this sex scene!” It’s just…hinky. To me anyway. Much less showing them to my mother-in-law and her bridge friends! Yikes!)
And yet this is what I write. This is my shadow, or my bliss, or some combination of both being written out on a regular basis, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Which brings me back to my question – why wouldn’t I? What’s in it for me – creating other worlds with people in them who don’t exist, where they have a ton of sex, and laugh, and cry, and fight, and screw some more? Obviously it’s something compelling because I keep coming back to it, despite how lonely it can be, despite how it can cut me off from some of the people who matter most in my life, because it isn’t something that they will get to share.
I found within this poem the age-old question that all writers are asked, and all writers occasionally ask themselves: Why? Why do you spend your precious time dallying about in a world that doesn’t exist, and ultimately may never be shared with another human being, or with those human beings that matter most?
It’s a question that, for the writer, can often be answered with the inexplicable explanation: “Because I must!”
Why do you read or write? Why do you walk in a world that your mother/spouse/children/grandmother can’t know? And do you, as Rilke suggests, come back changed or altered from your time spent there? Or do you feel that you return relatively unscathed? At times I feel like writing is better than therapy for me, though that is probably because I’ve never had a decent therapist, and I feel like I return from each encounter with creating another world somehow stronger, better, and able to fight for who I am, who I want to be, and to embrace healed parts of myself that maybe I hadn’t even known were wounded. At other times, when the house is adrift with the giant socks of my husband and the small socks of my child, the laundry is backed up, and I turn my back on sleep and dishes alike, I think it’s a sickness that I could well do without. But then, like any addiction, I feel positively ill at the idea of letting my sickness go, or turning my back on it. Which brings me back to its role as healer in my life and how it brings me more in touch with my true nature, and while the house may be a wreck, my soul is getting strong.
What about you, dear readers and fellow writers? How often do you ask yourself the question why? How often do you have to validate or justify your choice to spend time in imagined worlds with characters who don’t exist outside of our minds?