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Words to Live By

This week's blog post has been written by Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater.

Photograph of books stacked on top of each other

A couple of months ago, my colleague Marti Balaam and I were joined by the actor Emilia Clarke (as in Game of Thrones) for our Nursing Now workshop on compassion and mindfulness. Emilia, who has been running an online poetry salon during lockdown, opened the workshop with a reading.

I didn’t know in advance which poem she was going to read, and was moved when I recognised the opening lines:

Before you know what kindness really is

You must lose things,

Feel the future dissolve in a moment

Like salt in a weakened broth.

 

This is ‘Kindness’, by Naomi Shihab Nye. It’s a poem that felt just right to begin an exploration of the importance of belonging, and the power of the present moment. Not only that, but it felt right to have beautiful words alongside talk of stressed-out nerves, and cognitive sub-systems.

After all, during lockdown, many of us have turned to the written word for solace. Words, written, are tangible. They capture things, and so, if we return to them, we may recapture something we might have lost. And we have lost things, during this time: routines, structures, places; the unremarkable, much-missed fabric of ordinary life. We may have forgotten confidence, vitality, or hope. Our financial stability or good health may have been shaken. We may have lost loved ones.

Loss tires and compresses the mind. For a lot of people, it’s a feeling like a literal tightening in the head. You may notice that your visual perception changes: you look down a lot, or you see things in a grey flat murk, rather than in broad depth and colour. Those of you who have seen Inside Out will remember how the young girl, when she is depressed, sees the world in black and grey, rather than in reds, blues and yellows.

In this mind-state, actions are a more typical therapeutic port of call than poems. ‘Behavioural activation’ is a core CBT principle of lifting low mood. Very effective, if rather prosaic, it hinges on working gently and realistically through tasks, and beginning to do things again which bring pleasure and energy – doing this step by step, even and especially when we don’t feel like it. Many of us do this naturally. We will have our go-to pick-me-up, or a sense of which of the piles of dirty dishes, laundry, or discarded junk mail it would be easiest to tackle first. The Nike adage ‘just do it’, with a bit more gentleness, and perhaps less high-tech gear, is roughly the idea.

But there are moments, when the future dissolves, as in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, when it is too hard even to begin to imagine what to ‘do’. To attempt this may simply be a reminder of what we have lost. And in those moments, words can become the ground under our feet.

Whether it’s Shakespeare, Lemn Sissay, or Cheryl Strayed, words speak to us in various ways. They can come to mind of their own accord: a poem in a Whatsapp message from a friend, that we carry with us, and find ourselves repeating in our heads. We search them out: a series of books we have read a hundred times, and hunker down with in the evenings, because we know how they end, and they are a trustworthy thread to hold on to. We store words up, like how someone once said something to us, and we wrote it down, because we loved it, or them.

We do this because words are more than the sum of letters. They are how we connect with our world, and each other – particularly when we can’t be physically present. And so here are some ways with words, to shore ourselves up for, and in, those dissolving moments.

 

1.     Take Time

The words we need to pick us up when we are down, or comfort us when we are afraid, often reveal themselves at the right time. But they ask something of us, too: that we are open, and willing to meet them.

So when the poem touches you, allow yourself to pause and listen. When the phrase leaps out from the page, stay with it a while. When you are out on a walk on a hard day, in which your mind seems to offer you nothing but worry and pain, and from nowhere comes a glimmer of a line of verse – let it come through. Write it in your diary, and print it for your wall. When you are feeling stronger, sit with the book you are reading at lunchtime, or at night. Permit yourself that time and space, like a gift.

If we are open, and allow things to resonate – even if we don’t understand quite why – we store them up like a great quiet library of comfort. One day they will be there once more, flitting through the mind to bring courage, hope, or respite.

 

2.     Seek Them Out

There are sharp, dissolving moments in life, and then there are long, slow, tired ones. In the latter, it can feel as if the world before us is flat, like an A4 photocopy of itself. In such moments, the way back into the world is to follow the thread of what is here. It may start blank, and flat – but it ends with something shimmering and alive.

So when a Mary Oliver poem comes to mind, and you can’t quite remember how it ends, go back to it. Riffle through the book, and see what else captures your attention. When you keep thinking of that passage in a favourite novel, dig it out from your bookshelf, dusty and real, and set aside a half hour for it, with a cup of tea after work. The author whose books you used to read, and whose latest has sat on your Amazon wish-list for a year: buy it. Let it land through your letterbox with a satisfying thump.

Curiosity is a force of nature inimical to sadness and exhaustion. So take one step, however small. The words will meet you halfway, and soon enough, your mind will feel alive once more.

 

3.     Pass Them On

Some of you will have followed the Daily Prayers and Reflections that we ran until the end of June; my colleague Ali Newell set these up, with a daily prayer, poem, or quotation from across our diverse Chaplaincy team. They have brought comfort to many, and are still all on our website. You may also have been tagged, as I was, in ‘poetry round robins’ through lockdown – sending favourites to strangers, and friends of friends. Not another email, you think, or I don’t know any poems…

But there are many ways of passing on words that speak to us. A cheering article or a quote in a Whatsapp group. A book for a friend, because she is having a hard time, and you know it’s just right for her. And maybe you have your own story to tell, and a person you could tell it to, for whom it would bring solace, or hope.

This week, try a mindfulness of body and breath practice to settle and ground the attention. And maybe listen to Fergal Keane, reading a blessing, by John O’Donohue. It’s a beauty that was passed on to me, earlier in lockdown. Here it is.

 

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

Pages of a book and the spine of the book.

Try, as best you can, not to let

The wire brush of doubt

Scrape from your heart

All sense of yourself

And your hesitant light.

 

If you remain generous,

Time will come good;

And you will find your feet

Again on fresh pastures of promise,

Where the air will be kind

And blushed with beginning.