The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I memorized this poem years ago when I was working in theater and also pursuing a degree in a new field. It struck me as the perfect fit when I used it as the introduction to a research paper on stress and  health. To me, it describes the reaction of the human spirit to the demands of work—work we once chose with idealism and commitment but which now consumes us. William Butler Yeats, no doubt, rewrote the poem many times to achieve such simplicity and strength, yet the words seem to rush out in a flow of passion.

My father was my role model in many ways, the kind of person I aspire to be, with his gentleness, humor, open-mindedness, warmth, community engagement and enjoyment of the arts. He retired early from his management job to run his own small business selling specialized supplies to bird watchers. In many ways he was a cautious person, but he had the courage to risk a change when it was time. People tell me I’ve been glowing since I decided to retire early. Revisiting this poem after I’ve acted on the need it expresses, I get more out of it than ever.

How does it speak to you?

 

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

as though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,

Theater business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Karma and Creativity

I woke up with an attitude today. Tuesday I had to start the day with a divisional meeting and today I had to start the day with a faculty assembly. It wasn’t the event that was the problem, but my reaction to it: a negative thought.

Goswami Kriyananda’s book, The Laws of Karma, says that karma isn’t punishment or retribution, but cause and effect. The subtle aspects of the causes often get overlooked. I keep contemplating this line from the book: “If a negative thought enters your head, know the first law of freedom: Don’t feed it.” On the next page, he says, “Knowledge is greatest eradicator of negative karma.”

To me, this means that when I have a negative thought, I need to notice and transform it, not smother it. If I suppress and ignore it I could still feed it—dig a hole for it and plant it and water it with my other unsolved problems and cranky attitudes. Talking about it can go two ways: I can vent to a friend and transform the negative, or I can vent to friend and magnify the negative. Writing about it can go in various directions, too, from pointless rumination to logical, problem-solving analysis to creative transformation.

In one of his talks, Kriyananda said something along these lines: “If I’m meditating in a cave, I have no problems. But as soon as I have a student, I have a problem.” This made me laugh—it’s so true.

Humor is one way of transforming the negative. Some professors have little pottery jars in their offices labeled, “Ashes of Problem Students.” The meeting this morning suddenly became amusing when I saw it through the filter of my critique partner’s work in progress, a comic paranormal mystery in which life after death has not fire and brimstone but meetings—bureaucracy and rules and meetings. I listened to the speech about new committees for assessment being formed and could see it as a scene in that book. With that shift in perspective, I stopped feeding the negative thought and started to smile.

I know writers who transform annoying people into murder victims in their stories. That’s not a choice for me, since I write murder-less mysteries. However, I have used people who troubled me as the inspiration for oppositional characters—and a funny thing happened when I did it. I developed compassion for them. Though the characters’ roles are antagonistic in the stories, I have to understand these difficult people and feel my shared humanity with them or they’ll be cardboard villains. The process gives my protagonist some complicated and interesting enemies, while it changes my resentment into insight. One of my students told me he transforms his stress into poetry, and that it’s the best therapy he’s ever experienced. It’s working. I’ve known him for a year and seen him change to become gentler and more open-minded. He used to rant on and on about things that bothered him. Now he makes poetry with them, understands himself more, and complains less.

I suspect we’re so attentive to our negative thoughts because they are alarms going off, telling us that something needs to change. That’s also what makes them so uncomfortable, and such fertile material for art and humor.

*****

The give-away posted last week is still open for entries.

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