Our language—or maybe our culture in general—have limited terms to describe those times when a life gets turned upside down.
For creative types, much has been written about writer’s block. Whether you view creativity as a product of sheer self expression or the gift of an inspirational visiting daemon, every artist I know has had periods when what is coming through feels inadequate, unsatisfying, lacking in luster.
There is a plethora of advice available for how to get past those difficulties. (Turns out I have a lot to share on that topic too. When I did a search on Slow Muse for “writer’s block,” the number of posts about that topic was staggering.) Whether the techniques for eradicating it work or not, most artists do move through these obstacles.
Then there is the dark night of the soul, a term that came from spiritual traditions. (Dark night of the soul, or “oscura noche,” was the name given to the writings of a 16th century Catholic priest and mystic, St. John of the Cross, about his struggle with the human separation from god.) Religious writers point to the importance of this particular experience and often position it as an essential and initiatory rite of spiritual passage.
Secular thinkers have latched onto the concept and have used it to describe a variety of phases encountered in a lifetime—depression, discouragement, disaffection, suffering. Author and therapist Thomas Moore offered this description in his essay, A Dark Night of the Soul and the Discovering of Meaning:
I reserve the expression “dark night of the soul” for a dark mood that is truly life-shaking and touches the foundations of experience, the soul itself…Often a dark night has a strong symbolic quality in that it points to a deeper level of emotion and perhaps a deeper memory that gives it extra meaning. With dark nights you always have to be alert for the invisible memories, narratives, and concerns that may not be apparent on the surface.
Whether tethered to a spiritual initiation or a psychological passage, dark nights of the soul bring about change in thinking and how a life is lived. These experiences can last one night—quite literally—or they can protract into decades. After all, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life in prison.
Aside from these two terms there isn’t much in the way of nuanced language to describe the variety of other transitions that can impact the creative and spiritual dimensions in a life. While some have argued that a word or name is needed to give credibility to an entity, I am more aligned with the belief that many ideas and states live outside language and logic. Not having a name doesn’t negate its reality since much of what is operating in our world is in fact invisible. In the words of Kathryn Schulz:
An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.
Maybe having no name matters because it makes it harder to share your story. I have been having an unnamed experience for almost two years. It started at the end of 2017 when I felt the need to shift the way I made my art. I wanted to move from an expressive-centric, highly personal, atelier art practice to one that had its center of gravity closer to the viewer.
That was the intention that a group of us sought to achieve in a poetry/sound/visual collaboration, Clew, mounted at Philips Exeter in New Hampshire. It was also the intention of Intuition, an exhibit curated by Daniela Ferretti and Axel Vervoordt at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice that same year. As Ferretti stated in her goal for that event, “Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.” Intuition embodied that “irrational elsewhere” by assembling a visual experience without language or a prescribed point of view.
In the midst of this very personal desire to shift the way I work, events in my life took an unexpected turn. I suddenly found myself dealing with a neurological condition (carotid cavernous fistula) that brings unbearable headaches and disabled my vision. Over the next few months two neurosurgeries brought relief to some of my symptoms, but these efforts were not successful in fully restoring my vision. Then, in the midst of navigating these medical challenges, I was stunned by the news that the rent on my painting studio of 22 years would be increasing fivefold, well outside what I could afford.
My vision. My health. My art studio. This felt like a foundational dismantling.
At this point in time, things are definitely better than they have been. I had glasses designed to expand the range of normal vision sufficient enough to allow me to drive a car again. I found a studio, perfectly adequate for my needs, in nearby Waltham. While I am still struggling with how to design my creative efforts to accommodate my limitations, it it is fair to say that the high drama of this many faceted ordeal is slowly moving into past tense.
One of the many surprises has been to discover that bodies and creative energy are more delicate and fragile than I had supposed. Trauma can be furtive as it takes hold and lodges in the body and the psyche. I am careful about finding my footing in a landscape where the physical body and art making are both in a state of profound change and uncertainty. Many dimensions of my life are in play—physical, artistic and spiritual. I have yet to find a map for this particular terrain that feels accurate and complete. Like many things in life, the path gets determined one day at a time.
So no, I don’t have a name for what this has been. Every term I have tried to use feels inaccurate. Transition? Journey? Healing? I do know that what I am in is not writer’s block or a dark night of the soul. And while my experience shares some characteristics with each of these, it is an entity of another kind and type.
Even so, I have been aided and informed by a variety of writers, artists, healers, teachers. In his essay Moore references the story of Maya Angelou who did not speak for many years as a child as a response to a trauma. She grew through that trauma and became an extraordinary voice of strength and an advocate for speaking one’s truth:
Angelou’s experience demonstrates in an intriguing way how a dark night might take away your “voice” and then give it back with added power. The question is, how do you go from a dark night to having a positive impact on the world, thus giving your own life purpose?
The first step is to embrace the darkness, take it to heart, winnow out any subtle innuendos of resistance. Then find any images that are trapped in the thick dark mood or situation. Those images may hold the clue to your release and future service. Angelou lost her voice, a fascinating symptom and a strong image, and then became known worldwide for her voice. The cure lies in the illness, the hint at future activity within the symptom. If you tone down the dark elements because they are painful and discouraging, you may also hide the gifts that are there for you.
There’s strong wisdom in the Buddhist admonition to stay with the hard stuff. In my experience of this peculiar life adventure, the call to stay in it has been essential.
Poet Jane Hirshfield has her own version of this admonition:
For us, honey is a gift; for the bee, it is labor.
Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well…Whatever people find in my poems of radiance or grace comes out of the struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.
Turning away from disappearance, moving toward presence. Or more colloquially, the aspirational words of Buddy Holly: Not fade away.
Sometimes that’s as much as you can muster. Whatever is next, just bring it on.