When I am falling apart, I have found I can rely on self-organizing wisdom, a seventh grade strategy.
The pleasures of writing began with dodging outline assignments when I was in junior high school. An English or history teacher typically required me first to turn in The Outline, and then use it as a guide to writing the paper:
I Main Idea #1
II Main idea #2
The problem was I am gifted with an associative mind.
Composing an outline drained the life right out of my thinking and ordering processes. My work-around was simple: I did the assignment backwards. I wrote the paper first and then used the paper to construct the required outline. This strategy forced me to front-load hours of homework, but that was relatively easy in comparison to pulling Main Ideas out of thin air. I trusted how my mind works, and how my creativity works.
Fast forward to Goucher College, where I majored in French Lit. I tried to go for a cross-departmental major in English and French, but I was way ahead of the interdisciplinary curve. I wrote my senior thesis on metaphor in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. A la recherche du temps perdu was published conveniently in 10 rather slim volumes (en francais). This allowed me to read and take notes on one volume per week for the 10-week first semester of senior year, and do other collateral research and write the paper the following semester.
I took notes on 3×5 file cards. Quotes that stood out. Points made by Proust’s biographers or literary critics. I had several shoe-boxes full by the time I began to write. I spread the cards out on the floor around me and sorted them into piles by theme. Then I began to consider how the themes related to one another, the structure of the whole work, and Proust’s use of language. Metaphor attracted my attention and became the organizing principle. If you had asked me at the time, I would certainly have claimed credit for the whole thing.
As a life-long student, it turns out that I have been captivated by self-organizing behavior.
My papers organized themselves. Like animal swarms, neural networks, embryonic and ecological development.
As an herbalist I have likewise come to trust the wisdom of the body. I look for a combination of plants and formulas that will nudge an ailing body back towards health. Typically I offer a combination of restorative herbs and nutrients and encouragement in weaning from habits that make the system work harder. Together these two approaches companion the body in doing what it knows how to do: restore order to its own house. That is to say, healthy relationship among the parts, the body’s functions.
But I still somehow failed to grok that the whole of my own life is a self-organizing process – one that I shape and mold, for sure, but is not, um, in my control. Rather, is guided by an inherent wisdom that is not personal to me at all.
It has taken two winters, each with an extended episode of illness, to bring me to my full senses.
Last winter it was dysregulation of my nervous system: sleepless nights, anxiety bordering on panic attacks. None of the considerable inner resources I had cultivated had any effect at all. My friend and master body-worker Johnny had the skill to lead me through a session where the switch flipped and my parasympathetic nervous system – the one responsible for rest, recovery, and digestion, came back online. This winter it was two bouts of flu, each with 7-8 weeks of recovery time. These illnesses, like the previous winter’s, occurred within the context of the unwinding of deep emotional patterns embedded in my body.
Here’s the thing: once the unwinding had occurred, my body knew what to do. I just had to listen. Even the unwinding was my body knowing what to do.When to hold on and when to let go. When to speak up, when to be quiet. When to expend, when to save my energies. This has allowed my whole being to reorganize itself in a healthier, happier way. And gifted me with a greater trust in the falling-apart process.
It feels like a free fall, and it’s a time to reach out for help. But this wisdom is there to catch me. And you.
That wisdom is God’s longing to be in this world with us and through us. In Come Healing, Leonard Cohen sings it: the “longing of the branches to lift the little bud, “the longing of the arteries to purify the blood.”
If I had to, I could turn this story into one heck of an Outline.
PS Wishing you all a summer with enough of the weather, fresh veggies and fruits and outdoor life that most delight you. Over the next few months I will be posting just once a month. Something is afoot that wants more time: for reading and research and conversation and listening and quiet absorption and integration. It’s my way of “going to the beach” or, as we Marylanders say, “down-ee o-shun.”
Banner photo Burning Through, by Mary Lansman. Hillsborough Gallery of Art, Hillsborough, North Carolina.