This morning I had a far-ranging, heart-lifting conversation with the wonderful Michelle Wilde that set my mind spinning. We were talking about the cyclical, eternal routine of the day-to-day and the incongruity of living that way when there are shattering losses everywhere in the world. We were talking about relationship, and childrearing, and mental illness.
“We are always talking about setting boundaries,” she said. “Boundaries are what we set in politics—they’re imposed and artificial. Nature doesn’t have boundaries. What if instead of building walls we planted gardens?”
I thought about the deep love I have shared with people who have hurt me terribly. I thought about building walls around those experiences, trying to isolate them. And then I thought about what it would be like if the walls were torn down, if I saw those incidents and relationships as strange soil–soil in which to plant the seeds that won’t germinate in the sun and rich humus of my daily life.
There is a gift that darkness gives us. When I think about what there is for me to do in the face of the terrible losses we are sustaining right now, I think about the strange soil of my dark experiences. I survived them. Sometimes I survived them by behaving in ways that contradict my own moral code. I think about some of the relationships I have sustained with people whose brilliance is matched by a searing lack of empathy. In this strange soil, I can plant seeds that would not grow anywhere else in life. A person without empathy does not worry about the judgment of others. She can live the kind of experiment that might greatly advance our species, because she does not fear social censure. But the personal costs of befriending her are terrible. These are strange and vital gardens. They are frightening, and the impulse to wall them off is strong, but if we plant here we may grow answers that would not grow elsewhere.
It is only recently that I have had the courage to make terrible art. I asked my teacher, once, after having a profound art-making experience that resulted in a slab of what appeared to be gray vomit, if I had to keep this terrible thing. She said I had to keep the message. I could ask this art I had created: what do you have to tell me? And I could hold onto the answer and let the form go.
I’ve been thinking about that, in the context of walls and political boundaries and activism and loss and gardens. Where do I miss messages by holding on to forms? Where do I refuse to notice the truth of my experience because it doesn’t look the way I want it to? Where do I build walls instead of allowing the soil to be what it is, perhaps not for heirloom tomatoes but for wild and thorny medicine?
When I do retreat to the soothing cycles of the day-to-day, when I do take nourishment from what remains the same, I want to bring the messages with me. Those messages are an honoring of the terrible power of my own shadow and the shadows of others. On the days when I cannot even take action, I can pay attention to what is true. Because nature does have boundaries, of a sort: the edge zones of sand to ocean; the falling away of forests into grassland. There are places that do not nurture life. But even these are not walled away; they too are ground down by water and wind, warmed by sunlight. We do not have to live there or look upon them every day. But they are there, slowly becoming everything else. And they are part of us. We can tear up the art, but not before hearing its message.
(This song is another work-in-progress exploration of these questions. )