“Dear soothing, healthy, restoration-hours––after three confining years of paralysis––after the long strain of the war, and its wounds, and death” Walt Whitman
After each hard and slow return to the world I’ve had to make after serious illness, I turn always on my first days back up (as again now, after ten days with Covid-19 symptoms) to a few trusted rites and rituals.
The first day is always appalling. The world, whatever the season, has a layer of frost over it, and I am frozen out. My place in the nature of things is lost, forgotten. I feel fear, panic, self-pity. There is a lump in my throat, a stone in my stomach. It seems impossible I will recover my appetite for food, life, laughter.
This is when I take myself in hand. I scour myself with a rough flannel. Pinch my cheeks and bite my lips to bring my colour back. Tie on my apron, my headscarf. Sit then with blank page and pen to simply describe the view from a window.
It is always painful laboured stuff, as with the burning first walk nurses make one do after abdominal surgery, or the deep necessary breaths after a chest infection to force fresh air into the swampy lung bottoms. On my worst return – from month-long pneumonia that happened after the loss of a beloved friend – I believed myself finished. Broken beyond repair; heart, health. But I wrote anyway, if only to prove I was still made of moving parts (albeit unstrung by grief and illness):
New Year’s Day view from the kitchen table. An exercise in beginning again after loss, folly, failure, and the pain in the guts I am left with. Back garden gate swinging on its hinges, its crossbars rotted off leaving wet unpainted strips. Along the back bed, the verbena all fallen flat and tangled, like my daughter’s hair unbrushed during my confinement. Old cereal bowls and camping mugs left out on every low wall by her and her friends in their last mud-pie making of summer. (Sharp pang: Their last ever perhaps, being nine now).
Lid blown off the compost bin. Wheelbarrow brimful of rainwater. Sodden egg box. Go on. Keep looking. How ruined it all is. Watering-can consumed by weeds. The three espaliered apple trees bare of leaves, just unkempt twigs spread out like the chicken feet of Babayaga’s house. (I picked no fruit this summer; was hungry, following my return from a once-in-a-lifetime’s foreign residency, only for an unwise life as an entirely free woman. The work of this recovery will be to learn how to write as well as wife, mother, and husband my neglected home and friendships.)
It worked after all, once again. The strange alchemy by which a simple listing of even dismal things had me arrive at the private shames, fears and failures which had me hesitate to return to the everyday after illness.
My other recovery ritual is to read Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, both of whom spent long seasons alone wandering creeks after serious illness: Whitman, strokes; Dillard, near-fatal pneumonia (Robert Macfarlane’s essay about how her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek emerged from this time is in itself a sort of smelling salts: reminding us, sharply, of how much life can emerge from drawing close to its opposite).
To think of Whitman in 1877 always moves me and restores my courage. There he was, after all he’d seen in his time as a volunteer hospice nurse during the American Civil War and the strokes which followed. Facing too, at 58, that he’d never been fully reciprocated in the sort of male love he yearned for. He takes all this – his infirmity, his longing – to the trees:
Feb 20, 1877: – A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high – pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets and plays – or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes…I make the echoes ring, I tell you!
Rather than some passive idea of nature as cure, what delights me in Whitman is his genius for tapping joy and taking big giddy draughts of it.
I read him til I’m able myself to wrap up and reach whatever small patch of woods my circumstances allow. Once there, I smell, I touch. Improvise moves I imagine are Tai Chi among the trees. Let boughs and branches take my weight. Say aloud to the birds the small stock of poems I have by heart. Sing, like Whitman, the song of myself til my self comes back.
📷 Banner: Ash Dome by David Nash; Main: 7 x 7 Irregular Cube by David Nash. Credit Tanya Shadrick
Poem: ‘Walt Whitman Wrestling Naked with the Young Trees’ by Donald Platt
As in Whitman, what I love in the work of my mentor David Nash, is the interplay between mind, body and natural materials. His Ash Dome – which he began growing and shaping in the 70s in response to the Cold War – is an ongoing engagement with forces that act against growth: ash dieback, his own ageing. This is a lovely long interview, conducted in the place where the Ash Dome and other living works are situated.