Writing in the Eye of a Storm

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Writing in the Eye of a Storm

March 13, 2020 Uncategorized 2
Cover image of haggards

The birds have come back to the garden,
second brood starlings and sparrows
lined up along hedges, combing the lawn’s thatch
for spilt grass seeds, emerging ants. Blue tits
cling to whippy branches, dunnocks pry into cracks
in the bark, goldfinches pick apart seed heads
of nettle and marigold. A willow warbler slips
furtive between the stiff dulling birch leaves
and blackbirds plunder the ripening currants.
The last swifts scythe the hot air, quilted
with sulk and threat of storm. The cormorant’s
black crossbow looms above, heavy with hunger
and this year’s wren sings on a high branch
claiming in summer his winter territory.
El Niño has exhaled a great hot sigh.
The ice is melting, sliding off Greenland’s cliffs
into seas blooming with plankton. There are storms
and flash floods, blight and failure of crops.
There is drought in Africa and famine and war.
But the wren is on his high perch singing.
The druid’s bird, the bard’s bird, shaman’s bird,
Brigid’s chicken, the mouse’s brother,
sits on his high perch and cries out, so loud
a voice in his small breast ‘Now! Now! Now!’

Y’all know that I wrote Haggards for just this kind of crisis, no? All that about healing and social and environmental collapse and the need for compassion and insight? This isn’t just an opportunist plug, by the way – no, this is the kind of post I never thought I’d ever write. Let me tell you how I came to write this book.

Forty-five years ago, we had an energy crisis, with miners’ strikes, power workers srikes, rolling power cuts, a three day week, fears that oil would run out, preparations for rationing and military rule, I kid you not. I was in a vulnerable and unstable state at the time, my mental health collapsed and for about six months I was in a state of morbid obsession about the end of civilisation, which was poorly treated with a short course of heavy duty tranquilisers and a philosophy of ignore it and it will go away.

Since then we’ve had the winter of discontent, Thatcherism, miners’ strikes, wars, famines, the Black Monday financial crisis of the nineties, 9/11, the crash of 2008, global warming and Brexit. When I’m stressed, I go straight back to the cycle of obsessive thoughts, nightmares and despair, but here’s the thing. The way people are feeling now is the way I have lived all my adult life, so let me tell you what I’ve learned.

  • worry does help, if it makes you get informed. Unfocussed anxiety just makes things worse
  • we have to make peace with the fact that we are all going to die sometime, whatever we do, so the problem is not how to not die, but how to live best
  • this applies twice to the people we love. We can’t save them or prevent bad things from happening to them, but we can help, comfort, and mostly not leave them to thole bad times alone
  • it helps to distinguish between what you can control, and what you can’t. How does a crisis actually affect you? and your beloved people? You might find you already have more resources to meet this crisis than you thought.
  • It’s good to know what you actually need to get through this Don’t let anyone trivialise your need for books, chocolate and bubble bath!
  • No-one needs a bunker and an A-Team stash of machine guns and explosives. I could do the survivalist mentality fine, right up to this! We don’t get through tough times by defending ourselves from each other, but by supporting each other
  • people often behave badly in a crisis, but also, they often behave really well
  • there is no point not feeling what you’re feeling. Don’t try to be strong for the others. We need to grieve, worry, rage and lament together. It’s how we’ll create lasting solutions. Yes, we can’t hug so much at the moment, but it’s fascinating to see people concoct new social rituals to comfort each other. I never thought I’d see the curtsey come back in my lifetime!
  • People are really ingenious. There will be solutions we never could have imagined
  • it helps to connect with your core values. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, what actually matters? What can you actually do? At a real low point I came across a quote from the life of St Cuthbert – a novice came up to him while he was sweeping a floor and asked him what he would do if he knew the world was about to end, and St Cuthbert answered ‘Keep on sweeping this floor’. I’m writing. I’ll stop writing to help if my family gets sick or I need to take to the streets, but mostly the thing I can do best is to write
  • an end comes. It’s already clear we won’t all see it, but if we’ve loved our lost ones all we can, they won’t be gone from us. They will be part of us as we make things better.

Clearly, I am not a wise woman, I am a flake, a headless chicken, barely holding things together. But this is how I do it. I thought that by writing Haggards I might put it all to bed, and come out the other side – but here we are. If anyone finds anything here helpful, I’ll be glad.

2 Responses

  1. Eveline Pye says:

    I agree with the survival techniques you listed. I’d like to say something about ‘knowing we are going to die’. A few years ago I had a heart attack at home on my own. I thought I already knew that I was going to die someday but my surprise was so great that I realised I didn’t know it at a deep emotional level. Even a few years later I find that very funny. There is something deeply ridiculous about retaining that little child feeling that ‘it would never happen to me’. I find laughing at myself very therapeutic.

    The other thing I’ve found very helpful is a deep and enduring sense of gratitude. As lives go, I’ve done ok. I’m not far from my three score years and ten. Considering all parts of the world and all times I could have been born, this wasn’t a bad time or a bad place. I’ve been blessed with the ability to read and given access to more books than I can ever consume. I remain grateful in spite of a desperately unhappy childhood – maybe even because of that. I am happier and more contented now than I ever have been or could ever imagine.

    You are right that if we’ve loved our lost ones all we can, they won’t be gone from us. There is a kind of love that delivers peace and contentment even in the absence of the recipient of that love. I always think of it as a place I can return to in times of trouble, a place where the self dissolves.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Goodnes, what a shock that must have been! A lot of people do find that ‘it won’t happen to me’ thing can stabilise them long enough to do wonders, but in the state I was talking about, not so much. I found it just adds a layer of guilt at bothering people. I decided not to mention gratitude, as I’ve found that the concept is fairly meaningless until and unless you’re over the whole existential dread thing. It does come back though – often it’s the first thing to do so.

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