Last Thursday was National Poetry Day, which inspired me to record a reading of Mary Oliver’s poem “I Worried” and put it up on my sadly neglected Soundcloud. I enjoyed doing it. In fact, I’m tempted to make a habit of it – especially given that it took me precisely one minute, and is thus a bit more suited to my current energy levels than recording music.
The theme of the day this year was “refuge”. Mary Oliver’s poetry is one of many things I’ve found refuge in during this incredibly challenging period. This poem is one that particularly speaks to me, for reasons that will be immediately obvious to anyone who’s known me well for a long time.
I have spent most of my adult life worrying. About everything. I thought it was a fundamental part of my personality. To be honest, it probably didn’t help that people who knew and loved me repeatedly told me that this was who I was. I do not feel it is who I am any more. I don’t think our neuroses are who any of us really are. They are just something that happens to us.
Of course, I still worry sometimes (although not nearly as much as I used to). Old patterns take time to rewire themselves, and some worries have deeper roots than others. But I no longer self-identify as A Worrier. I think this poem has helped with that process. Sometimes, when I catch myself getting tight and tense and trying to control the outcome of a situation, I whisper to myself: “Will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not, how shall I correct it?” It always lightens me up a bit.
I never used to think of myself as a poetry person. Novels were always more my jam. But I haven’t been able to read novels for well over a year now, and a new appreciation for poetry has been the silver lining to this particular cloud. It’s just one of many ways in which embracing a radically limited existence has paradoxically broadened my horizons.
I recently discovered that I’m in pretty illustrious company here – thanks to my wonderful friend Rachel, who drew my attention to a passage from Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill”. When feeling “disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts”, it’s natural, Woolf argues, to turn to poetry instead. As she observes, “in health … our intelligence domineers over our senses” – but in illness, our over-active brains are forced to take a back seat for a while.
And, “with the police off duty”, we gain a fresh perspective on things. “We break off a line or two and let them open in the depths of the mind, spread their bright wings, swim like coloured fish in green waters… In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that and the other.”
I was excited when I read these words, because they so precisely mirror my own experience with long covid. Perhaps this is also why it has helped me to unhook my identity from incessant worrying. “Brain fog” took the parts of my mind I thought were me largely offline, or at least made them prohibitively exhausting to use. The police were off duty. In doing so, it showed me that there was something beautiful and pure and simple underneath. Something capable of seeing and knowing and appreciating the world in a whole different way.
I think the things we find our truest refuge in are the ones that bring us home to this part of ourselves. I think this is why Mary Oliver is so beloved, and also why I’ve found such solace in playing and listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s piano music, or revisiting passages from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince”. Like this poem, they are both very simple, but there is something true and luminous that shines through that simplicity – something our hearts respond to, and which I think accounts for their universal appeal.
As well as being labelled A Worrier, for most of my life I have been labelled An Intellectual. I thought this, too, was who I was. My mum was diagnosed with Alzheimers’ when I was eighteen, and I have always been afraid the same will one day happen to me. It seemed a fate worse than death. Who would I be, if I could no longer follow a thought to its conclusion without losing the thread? Someone else, surely: not me.
I am less afraid of this now than I used to be. I know that even if my brain does decay, another part of me will stay intact. The same part of my mum that beamed with pleasure at the sight of babies or animals or flowers, almost right up until the day she died. The same part that could still hum along to hymn tunes (and, more bizarrely, ABBA songs), long after she had forgotten her own name.
The human brain is a remarkable thing. I respect and appreciate mine more than ever since I have been unable to take it for granted. The latest learning curve in my long covid journey has been the realisation that I need to look after my brain – with diet, sleep, exercise and predictable routines – so that it can look after me. I know I will need its full force to marshall the evidence and construct the complex arguments required to finish my book. The intellect is an incredibly useful tool.
But it is not who we are. More and more, I want to live from that other part of myself – that tuning fork inside us that vibrates in resonance with poetry or birdsong or the sufferings of others. In the words of poet Mark Nepo, “humility is accepting that your head belongs beneath your heart.”
Of course, the nagging worry still crops up: what has this illness done to my brain? What if it leaves me somehow permanently less smart than I was before? What if I can never again devour books with the same ease I used to?
But another part of me knows that there’s value in being forced to absorb ideas more slowly and more deeply. And, as I gradually recover the ability to handle complexity, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that – as my brother said on my wedding day, introducing an AA Milne poem read by my young nieces – “sometimes it really is that simple”.
I have always struggled to write short: too many thoughts jostling for space in my brain. But in the early days of my long covid, “breaking off a line or two” was all that I could manage. With endless space to let thoughts “open in the depths of my mind”, I found myself writing in a sparse and pared-back way I never had before – including, completely to my own surprise, poetry.
Now that I’m recovering, it’s hard to resist the temptation to produce lengthy profusions of words once more. I was determined that this would be short, and it has still ended up more than twice as long as I expected. These days, things tend to grow in the writing of them, and my writing feels more like something I discover than something I do.
But, as Mary Oliver herself said in this beautiful interview with Krista Tippett, sometimes a few words are all we need. I could write thousands more words on the idea of refuge and still not get to the heart of the matter. I could write thousands more words dissecting and analysing this poem and still not improve on the ones Mary put on the page. So I will refrain from adding any more, and let them speak – or perhaps sing – for themselves.