2016 has proven to be a difficult year (and it’s not even over yet). Work has been slow and unchallenging. I moved from a furnished flat to an unfurnished house and that took me a month. Others dear to me have had some life trials: cancer, divorce, children with emotional issues, you name it. Oh all that and Syria, Brexit, Hillary and Donald. It’s all been a lot to bear but not enough that I can claim some sort of sympathy for it.
I am not a religious person. I do not believe in any god or any supernatural being. I do however feel a terrible malaise that I can’t shake, something that has taken roost in my head and is pecking at my well-being. When faced with an emotional crisis that doesn’t really require therapy (or maybe it does, not sure), to what does the hardened atheist (hint: me) turn to ? What would be uplifting and/or distracting from the hell-hole the world is turning into? I looked into my usual pursuits and rejected them thusly:
- Reading a book to take my mind off things? Yes, this is my go-to distraction method but because I was unhappy with my fitness and/or body image I started reading Kelsey Osgood’s book How to Disappear Completely and made myself feel worse. What was I thinking? I also had some missteps this year with reading for my book club, namely trying to get through Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. What a mistake that was. I made it worse by trying a champagne and absinthe cocktail described in the book (and called Death in the Afternoon on the menu) at my partner’s birthday dinner. In a word: foul. I decided to take a break from reading books for a bit.
- Look for distractions on the internet? This is either a work activity, done during my lunch hour or a train activity, done whilst squeezing into overcrowded carriages trying to avoid touching people. This obviously was an idiotic idea but the dopamine hit my brain would get from finding something interesting to read kept me coming back for more. What a completely asinine and stupid thing to do. I want to make the comparison of an alcoholic who’s given up drinking going and hanging out in a bar but I feel that’s unfair to recovering addicts (especially from the two books I’ve read recently on this: Blackout by Sarah Hepola and Parched by Heather King). I’m giving up looking for internet distractions for a while as best I can (and creating one instead, ok I get the irony).
- Resurrect my painting and drawing habit? I haven’t done this in so long it now feels atrophied. I didn’t have the space to paint or draw in my flat, and the house I moved into doesn’t have anywhere to create an ‘art studio’ type space. This makes me feel guilty and I really struggle with it. I dug out my sketch book and some of my pencils, but they’re still sitting on the shelf taunting me from across the room.
What to do? I didn’t want to burden my lovely friends with my malaise (although getting together with them to blow off steam and drink lots of wine was still a regular activity, make no mistake). No, this wasn’t a feeling that could be cured by interaction with others. This felt like my consciousness was going into a spin, a self-defeating grey mode, a place that had no perspective or colour.
When I was a kid and I felt grey or foggy or down, I might read The Lives of the Saints or some other book about people overcoming huge problems. Given that I now believe all of that is the same fiction as was letting me down at the moment, I couldn’t go back to it. I couldn’t pray. I’m haven’t tried to be good at meditating (the concentration it requires is what I’m currently lacking so I decided compounding my problem with it was self-defeating). I can’t do yoga on the train or at my desk, so what was the alternative to give myself a lift? The answer is poetry.
I have a little hardcover copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 that I bought in a charity bookshop somewhere, maybe Brighton. It is the size of a missal, with a blue fabric cover and pages thin like a bible or a prayer book. It was published in the 1950s and my copy has an inscription in fountain pen on the inside cover that must have meant a lot to someone called Chris.
I started to carry this around with me and thumb through the pages, reading a poem or two that corresponded to my mood (or was the opposite of my mood). So many stories of nature, love, war, death, god, family and it occurred to me: how is this any different from a religious text, e.g. a c bible? It’s the same physical structure (cover, pages, font) and it is also written by many different authors in verse form. Each poem has a message and it’s up to the reader to determine what that message is, much like the Christian bible.
What if reading and reflecting on poems had the same effect as reading, reflecting and praying according to a religious doctrine? Could I fill the empty space in my self with Lord Byron instead of the Lord Our God? Worshiping and following a doctrine are not relevant to this question, only the spiritual solace people ascribe to religious texts and why they read them. Could poetry do that for this literature-loving atheist?
I will try it out and we shall see.