Wendell Berry, a novelist, poet, farmer and environmental activist, has written a number of superb books. Don’t believe me? Go read “Jayber Crow” and shoot me a message. I would love to discuss it with someone again! As a person who happens to have multiple sclerosis, I read far and wide looking for new ideas and information, and not just about drugs, treatments or therapy options (though those are important). Everything my eyes come across somehow feeds into and shapes my worldview. I feel like reading far and wide has not only made me a more well-rounded person, but also it has helped me come to terms with my disease and the ways it has impacted my life.
For example, I recently stumbled across something of Berry’s I hadn’t read — an essay, “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms” — from a collection called “Standing By Words,” while doing research for an article I was writing at work. In this piece, Berry makes an argument that structure — not absolute freedom — gives things greater depth and meaning. He uses marriage and poetry specifically to prove his point, but in this writer’s humble opinion, the truth is pretty well universal.
His argument, in a nutshell, is this: Forms (rules, parameters, limitations, etc.) compel us to think differently about how we approach things. Writing poetry using old formulas (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas) and even structured rhyme and rhythm may seem limiting and stiff, especially when compared to free verse, but the more one learns to work within the constraints, the more his or her work begins to take shape in new and unexpected ways. Berry’s words are delightful food for thought, but two paragraphs from this particular essay smacked me between the eyes (and ended up on my inspiration board). They read:
“It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
“In this way the keeping of the form instructs us. … The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.”
“The impeded stream is the one that sings.” Yes, yes, yes! Put that on a Post-It. Stick it on the mirror. Put it in the journal. Mark it down for those days when life with MS seems unbearable. Remember it! The stream that has to move around rocks and other obstructions makes the most soothing, beautiful music, does it not? The same is true for us when we come up against difficulties, like a disease that impacts our lives in a thousand and one different ways.
However, the things that at first appear to be limitations often turn out to be the biggest blessings. That’s true with MS, too. It has slowed me down in a lot of ways and kept me from checking a few items off the ol’ bucket list. But those limitations have also forced me to stay put, stay still and really see the world around me. And you know what? I’ve found a ton of wonderful things and experiences I might have missed if I’d been out gallivanting around looking for something I assumed was “bigger and better.” Because of MS, I rediscovered a love of writing. I’ve made many new and wonderful friends. I’ve even tried weird stuff like cat yoga!
Berry is absolutely correct. “The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought.” I know this might sound odd, especially if you’re newly diagnosed, but stay with me. After 14 years of living with MS as a constant companion, I’ve coming to see that my illness isn’t making me miss out on things. Rather, it is the thing that gives my life form, meaning and purpose.
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