Sunday 21 February 2021

Imagination and things which help by Anne Booth

I feel at a bit of a loss as to what to write this month, as I know we are all just trying our best to get through this time. It's been nearly a year now of mostly staying at home, and we are all weary of it, and some are struggling more than others, and some weeks are better than other weeks, and some weeks are awful. Some days can be unexpectedly lovely. Some days I could just howl, missing family and friends. Underneath it all is a constant background of sadness and grief and often anger about the news, but also amazement at the goodness and heroism in the world.  So if what I write today doesn't help, just read something which does and whatever you do, be kind to yourself.

For me the weeks at the moment are marked out by random regular things. I write every day, but I often don't know what day it is! I do know we get eggs delivered on a Thursday, and I look forward to The Great Pottery Throw down on a Sunday night and then online Sunday mass at the rather late time of 9pm. Every Monday afternoon I have a zoom meeting at 2. I sometimes go to online mass on weekday evenings, and I try to go to a Wednesday morning zoom prayer group. I have just signed up to learn Irish Gaelic online on Monday evenings, starting in March. I am looking forward to that, as my parents were Irish, as were all my grandparents, and  one grandmother was a native Irish speaker but I don't know any Irish myself, and I am hoping learning it may also inspire me for future books.  Every day we take our puppy for a walk and I notice the changes in the trees and the feeling that Spring is on the way. I am cheered by seeing the emergence of daffodils in the garden but a bit embarrassed that I didn't get round to planting all the spring bulbs I enthusiastically bought last September.  Every day I try to light a candle and do an online retreat, which I have been doing for the past 30 weeks, and which will end sometime in March. Then, after my retreat time, I try and get back to my day job of writing, and I find that the retreat has really helped me keep writing even in these difficult times. I hope that some things which have helped me in my retreat, may help you, whether you are religious or not.

The retreat I have been doing is Christian and is Ignatian, after St Ignatius, who was a Spanish nobleman and soldier and then a priest and the founder of the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order he started in the sixteenth Century.  If you only knew the spiritual exercises and the Jesuits from the writings of James Joyce, you would be totally entitled to think this might be a rather scary experience, and I think in the past it might well have been, but the Jesuits of the 21st century, and 'lay' people trained to give the exercises as spiritual directors, are very aware of psychology, and my director is very kind, and I have found that this retreat has been such a healing and positive and creative and hopeful experience for me.

As a writer, I have also found it very helpful. This is a spirituality which values imagination as a gift from God - you have to begin each day's meditation by sitting and being aware that you are loved, and if you don't feel it, or this feels alien, this is also valuable to notice. Then, starting on that positive and fundamental  basis that you are loved, even if some days you don't quite believe it, you are asked to imagine yourself in particular scenes from the bible. You have to pay attention to what you see and say and hear, and, most importantly,  your feelings - what scenes fill you with joy and comfort or hope, what St Ignatius calls 'consolation' , what makes you feel bad about yourself and life and hope-less, what St Ignatius calls 'desolation'. It has helped me uncover contradictory negative or scary views of the loving God I claim I believe in, that I did not know I had, and false images of myself.  My lovely spiritual director, the one I meet on zoom every Monday, is very  wise and good at helping me look at what the imaginative contemplations are revealing about who I am, and what truly brings me joy and peace and hope, which in Ignatian spirituality is the sign of the presence of a loving, life-giving God, and indicates the direction our lives should take. This direction may be a surprise. 

So what is the point of me sharing this here? How can all this talk of imaginative contemplation  help any writer or person who isn't Christian, or religious? Well, I think that, religious retreats aside, and even if we don't know what the future holds, as writers, taking time every day to live in the present and specifically contemplate and notice and value what honestly and truly brings us joy, or even to remember what brought us joy in the past, and to let ourselves dream and imagine what we would do if we followed that joy, even in these sad times, is a good thing in hard times.

 It isn't about ignoring the bad things. My latest picture book. 'A Shelter for Sadness', illustrated beautifully  by David Litchfield, was out last month and is specifically about accepting sadness as an emotion, so this isn't about being unrealistic or untruthful. Many times in my retreat I have had a big cry, and being aware of my imaginative responses to my meditations has helped me to admit to being much more miserable than I thought I was. Sometimes the crying by itself has helped, sometimes I have realised I needed a change in direction towards doing something something more joyful, or to allow myself to say 'no' to something. But it IS about looking for clues and glimmers of Joy even in the dark. It might be as simple as noticing that bird song always cheers us up, and following the joy will lead us to learn more about birds, to  put some bird feeders in the garden, or to paint or photograph them, or write a story about them. As writers, it might be we learn NOT to beat ourselves up when we can't write and learn NOT to go down the road of desolation, imagining ourselves never able to write again,  but instead to head in the direction of Consolation and specifically seek out books and films and TV and conversations and actions which DO bring us joy - they don't necessarily have to be cheerful, but they do have to inspire and make us feel more hopeful.  

We might notice that we thought we wanted to write a YA book, and may have written them in the past, but these days we have been struggling to write one, and we actually feel more joy when writing a picture book, (or vice-versa), and we just need to follow that joy and take a new imaginative and creative and more life-giving  direction. We may have thought we wanted to write a screen play but actually, what we really love these days is listening to radio drama, and we need to let ourselves try to write it. We may find we can't write what we normally write because we unexpectedly really want to write a historical drama, or a literary novel, or an escapist romance. We might want to write Funny when we used to write Serious, or any new genre, or we may feel confirmed in what we have been doing all along. This is about noticing what we really enjoy reading and writing and watching in these days, not what we think we ought to enjoy,  and not judging ourselves or putting ourselves in boxes.

The thing that we as writers have, our imaginations, that can make us extra sensitive and prone to imagining the worst, can also be a gift to help get us and others through this time. When we CAN write we can write what honestly brings us joy, and we can use our imaginations to encourage others, when we can't, we can be encouraged by other's imaginative contemplations. We have to notice all the goodness in the present, and imagine a better world once this pandemic is over - maybe this is when we as writers can really be of use! As children's writers we are used to looking for the Hope, so we are very lucky!

And now I am going to watch an episode of Schitt's Creek, a series which has given me immense consolation this lockdown. I am so grateful for the people who imagined it into existence!  Thank you to all those who recommended it. And Sunday evening is The great Pottery Throw Down on Channel 4 - don't forget! Don't forget to look for everything that brings you Consolation and Peace and Hope this week - even if it is only remembering to take a break and savour a cup of tea.

I saw today that on BBC Radio 4 today, Sunday, there actually is a programme about Ignatian Spirituality, so if you are interested in it and the ideas of consolation and desolation, it is here:

I have been on silent retreat here pre-lockdown and they also do online Ignatian retreats. It is where Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote many of his best poems.

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely piece. Thank you, Anne.