We are the yearning creatures of this planet.
-Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize winning fiction writer
There’s no love in me without your being,
no breath without that. I once thought
I could give up this longing, then thought again,
But I couldn’t continue being human.
Lal Ded, born in Kashmir, was married at twelve years old. The next twelve years brought on constant harshness and neglect by her husband and her husband’s mother.
And then she left, not knowing where she would go or what she would do. She just knew she needed to follow an ache. She trained for a while as a disciple in a tradition devoted to the oneness between God and the physical world. She wandered through that physical world, Kashmir’s countryside, wearing few or no clothes while she sang and danced to her own songs of longing. Poet Jane Hirshfield translates some of these exquisite songs in her anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred.
Lal Ded’s situation might seem alien to ours. But not really.
Something aches in us creatives at times that’s hard to admit.
It’s more than the yearning to feel as if our life makes sense. That what we make and who we are matters.
It’s a longing to feel more alive in every cell. More connected down to our sinews.
It’s a longing to burn with creative fervor and swirl with, not do battle with, the world.
It is a longing of ecstasy.
It is a type of longing I am admittedly wary of.
It’s a dangerous ache to acknowledge. Why? And why resist admitting we have it? And what about creativity? What does that have to do with any of this?
Those are questions that burn in me this season. I’ve been writing into and admitting my own squirming yearnings. I’ve dived into centuries of poets from various times and traditions to see how they’ve carried on the symphony of longing.
If you don’t care for philosophy, you can skip this article. I won’t be offended. Otherwise, help me untangle some responses to these questions and share your responses in the comments below. I also share a video of a poem by Goethe called “The Holy Longing,” a poem he wrote when he was 65 years old. If someone you know burns with yearning, share this piece with her or him.
THE DANGEROUS LONGING
Here’s what I’m thinking. One, if you acknowledge it, you’re admitting your life lacks something. Granted, sometimes, that’s just not true. Sometimes, your story simply needs reframing, and you realize you have all you really need. You might frame a new story:
You are content with enough instead of restless for more.
I’m tempted to “coach” myself this way at times. Look how wonderful your life is, I tell myself.
But sometimes the restlessness is true. Sometimes you can no longer deny the ache in your bones to vibrate in the world at a different tenor, for your skin to touch the rest of the world in all of its splendor.
Which leads us to the second reason it’s dangerous to acknowledge:
You can sound a little daft when you talk about your yearning. You get embarrassed. You sound like you have a privileged complaint or kvetch. Or that you’re a mystic nut.
And the third reason:
You don’t know what to do about it. You simply feel numb with ache.
Perhaps the most dangerous reason to acknowledge this yearning, this holy longing, is because we can misplace our deep desires into objects, addictions, romantic partners, and authority figures. This is Jungian-trained counselor and novelist Connie Zweig’s tenet.
But what we can do about it is precisely what we ache for: Create.
CREATE INTO THE ACHE
Create into the ache. It’s what writers, artists, and seekers for centuries have done. They have found ways for words, image, design, dance, and other forms to act as vehicles for shaping the yearning.
In fact, at the heart of any compelling story is one character’s yearning.
“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something. And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning.” -Robert Olen Butler
But so are whole traditions of poetry and song and symphony. And some dance, design, as well as modern and contemporary art.
But the form doesn’t matter.
Art acknowledges and unleashes the yearning.
Art brings longing into the open with no blushing, only beauty.
Art says, I. Am. Yearning.
I have discovered centuries of men and women, too, who have flung their traditional robes and garments – some of them literally – for this ecstasy.
The very act, if it does not alleviate the ache, makes something of the longing itself. Artists are agents, not victims.
We make of longing a symphony instead of a symptom.
The ache pulses. Our hands and limbs and minds move. Something new is born and given away like an instrument made of mirrors.
Few of us feel and see our longing clearly by sitting still and quiet (although getting quite enough to listen helps). It’s in the visceral making that we sometimes hear and see and feel what exactly it is we’re longing for.
And here is the paradox of creative longing I’m sensing:
The roots of longing are in part in the body and in part in the mind.
Our bodies have boundaries. And we know it.
Fleshy body + self-awareness = yearning and creative animal
We’re aware that we’re physically separate from other people, creatures, the beautiful physical things. And we can experience in bittersweet and fleeting moments something broaching ecstasy and then remember such moments in our cells, a memory that leads us to long for that return
You might argue that all of us who have been in a womb and have self-awareness have cells somewhere that store those memories.
At least that’s my hunch.
The creative act arises in part out of this restlessness in our cells and muscles and nervous system. We’re restless to create to connect.
The paradox is that the very factors that lead us to longing – the body and our awareness of separation – lead us to make beauty for ourselves and others.
All of which is why I’m in part engaged in several poetic acts this season. I’m writing poetry. And I’m studying poems and songs of longing and putting some of them to deep memory.
My neighbor and world-renowned musician Steve Gorn and I have put together a program, too, designed to facilitate your listening to, acknowledging, and giving expression to your own deep longing. I’m breathless, I admit, with anticipation of what will happen at this event.
GOETHE’S HOLY LONGING
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was, by most accounts, a restless but astoundingly creative human being. A novelist, poet, playwright, theorist on color and of natural forms, and a foremost thinker about what became known as the Romantic movement, Goethe left his mark.
In fact, when he was not yet twenty, Goethe was recovering from a lung infection. While fairly dormant, his body in turmoil, he wrote his first series of poems that his friend Bernhard Theodor Breitkopf set to melody.
By the time he was 65, some 18 years before his death, Goethe had seen and felt a lot on this planet. In that year, 1814, he wrote this poem. In some sense, I wonder who all the “you”s in the poem are – part of the poet’s self, a friend, us.
How does longing figure into your creative drive? I’d love to hear your stories.
See you in the woods,
P.S. Check out my lovely friend Tara Mohr’s poems Your Other Names for contemporary songs of longing. -jbd