This past week in my Writing as a “Righting” Journey group, I gave an assignment that incorporates some of the work I’ve been reading about emotional balance and the brain and my close reading of Jane Hirshfield’s poem Between the Material World and the World of Feeling, below.
I asked the participants to focus their attention on a time when they were worried about their child’s health. Then I asked them to complete a number of sentences that all began with “When I am worried about my child’s health I feel…or I am…” I gave them a list of things to think about: what color they felt, if they were the weather what would it be, some kind of food, a taste, smell, animal or sound of an animal, etc. Then I asked them to do the same thing for when they feel grounded.
Next, I asked them to think of something that connects one thing to another. I wanted them to write one sentence about when they are worried, write about traveling on whatever it was that connects them from one place to another (for one it was an airplane, for another a path through a bamboo grove) and then write a sentence that corresponds to that aspect of worry but is from the grounded side of their list.
I was looking for a way to create a pathway from worry to groundedness using language. I was also thinking about the poem below and how Jane Hirshfield (also her mentors, Rilke and Cavafy) uses an object to embody her feelings. In this poem, she imagines or wishes for, a particular chair, bentwood, and a very specific vase, blue-green, that could hold her and a range of feelings in “an equally tender balance.” And so finally I asked the writers to think of an object in their house they dearly loved and to write descriptively about that object.
This exercise seemed to grab the participants at different junctures. One found it easy to write about certain worries as she compared it to various other senses, objects or experiences while another took awhile to find an object in her house that she cared about. But when she thought about her piano, that had belonged to her grandmother, a whole new ‘aha’ moment opened for her.
Finally, we all read this poem together, aloud. We spent time looking for the feeling words, the words of materia and the connectors or vessels that held things and the immateria of feelings. The poem has become for me another vessel. One I return to again and again, so I may pour myself into it and have it echo back.
Between The Material World And The World Of Feeling
Between the material world and the world of feeling there must be a
border—on one side, the person grieves and the cells of the body grieve also;
the molecules also; the atoms. Of this there are many proofs. On the other,
the iron will of the earth goes on. The torture-broken femur continues to
heal even in the last hour, perhaps beyond; the wool coat left behind does
not mourn the loss of its master. And yet Cavafy wrote, “In me now
everything is turned into feeling—furniture, streets.” And Saba found in
a bleating goat his own and all beings’ sorrow, and this morning the voice
of that long-dead goat—which is only, after all, a few black-inked words—
cries and cries in my ears. Rilke, too, believed the object longs to awaken in
us. But I long for the calm acceptance of a bentwood chair and envy the
blue-green curve of a vase’s shoulder, which holds whatever is placed
within it—the living flower or the dead—with an equally tender balance,
and knows no difference between them.
–Jane Hirshfield from After