We are proud and delighted to introduce Rachel Kelly, author of Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me, My Journey Through Depression and Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness.
Forever at the Heart
By Rachel Kelly
When I began to keep a diary of my year, noting down the strategies that were helping keep me steady, I began each new season with a poem.
Here’s my entry from the beginning of Spring:
We are just back from a family trip to the Lake District, where lambing was in full flow. Printed below is John Clare’s ‘Young Lambs’, his celebration of spring as a time of renewal, when all sorts of things seem possible. This poem slows me down and makes me appreciate and be more attentive to my surroundings, which I tend to ignore when I’m busy and overwhelmed.
The spring is coming by a many signs;
The trays are up, the hedges broken down,
That fenced the haystack, and the remnant shines
Like some old antique fragment weathered brown.
And where suns peep, in every sheltered place,
The little early buttercups unfold
A glittering star or two – till many trace
The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold.
And then a little lamb bolts up behind
The hill and wags his tail to meet the yoe,
And then another, sheltered from the wind,
Lies all his length as dead – and lets me go
Close bye and never stirs but baking lies,
With legs stretched out as though he could not rise.
Clare describes the first signs of the unfolding season in loving detail. He sees ‘little early buttercups unfold’ into ‘a glittering star or two’. The haystacks from the last harvest have been dismantled ready for a new crop, leaving only a shining ‘remnant’ of hay behind. These winter leftovers are so out of place they seem like ‘some old antique fragment’ in a scene where everything else is renewed and brimming with possibility.
A lamb bounds out to meet the poet and ‘wags his tail’. Another, basking in the sun, allows him to walk right up to it ‘with legs stretched out as though it couldn’t rise’. Spring, to Clare, is best represented by a newborn animal, so carefree that it remains flat on its back, enjoying the sunshine even when the poet approaches. Stopping for a moment to imagine Clare’s sunbathing lamb always makes me smile.
Whatever the season, poetry has proved a lifesaver for me. Poetry first provided solace when I was first struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’
These words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped temper my feelings of despair. I learnt to believe I would become stronger as a result of the ordeal. I often think of depression as being like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the phrase endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.
Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with the illness, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I have learnt to keep my ‘Black Dog’ (as Winston Churchill famously referred to depression) on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line of poetry, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’.
‘In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright’.
Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
As I recovered I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.
I began to put my own own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:
‘Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back.
Guilty of dust and sin’.
The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation.
A powerful poetic line can diminish ones sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple ones sense of time – involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past – but the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.
Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.
The diary I spoke of earlier has now been turned into a book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness. In it I record the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more. These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is still the poetry at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.
Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available for purchase on Amazon. For more information please follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit www.rachel-kelly.net.