My friend Grace gave me a copy of this poem by Rumi for my 50th birthday this year. It stood out at the time among the other birthday wishes for flourishing and good times because it acknowledged a darker possibility which has been very prescient.
This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thoughts, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
I’ve thought about it a lot. I can identify with that feeling of my house being swept empty, of the familiar structure of my life disappearing so I’m unsure how to be in the space that is left. I can’t say that I’m welcoming this or inviting it in, but the possibility of doing that intrigues me. I really struggle with the idea that cancer has been sent to me for a reason, as a guide.
That is one of the gifts of poetry, I think, to offer a different way of seeing reality that is not didactic or imposed, but an invitation to see things from a different perspective. And it is so helpful to find words that express some of the half-formed, unspoken thoughts that swirl and gather at a time like this. Jeanette Winterson’s book, Why be happy when you could be normal, is a powerful story of how the discovery of words changed her life. She writes, ‘I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Someone has been there for us and deep-dived the words.’
When she was about to be thrown out of her home at the age of sixteen for loving a girl, she finds a book by TS Eliot and devours it, sitting on the steps of the library. She says, ‘I had no one to help me, but the TS Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.’
I have often been too impatient with poetry to allow it to do its work. In my over-busy life, if I don’t ‘get’ a poem instantly I usually move on to the next thing. But in this newly empty house, there will be more room to linger with words. Perhaps that is part of the new delight.