‘Sleep,’ says Macbeth, who hasn’t had any, ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care.’
I love overnight thoughts and the fact that my brain keeps trying even when I go to sleep. It’s as if everything does not depend on consciousness, a great relief when you haven’t got or can’t summon enough of that vital commodity to deal with all the things you’ve got to sort out.
This morning I woke up with some lines of George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ playing in my mind. I’ve written about that poem before (search George Herbert and you’ll find it) but here it is again today. Great poems come back and prove useful over and over.
It’s a religious poem and must come with my usual caveat: I’m not a Christian and have to translate what George Herbert is able to think as a Christian into something that makes sense to me. I borrow his language and try to understand my own situation through it.
Let’s read it quickly through:
Teach me, my God and King,In all things Thee to see,And what I do in anythingTo do it as for Thee.Not rudely, as a beast,To run into an action;But still to make Thee prepossest,And give it his perfection.A man that looks on glass,On it may stay his eye;Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,And then the heav’n espy.All may of Thee partake:Nothing can be so mean,Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—Will not grow bright and clean.A servant with this clauseMakes drudgery divine:Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,Makes that and th’ action fine.This is the famous stoneThat turneth all to gold;For that which God doth touch and ownCannot for less be told.
Why did I wake with the following lines quietly but insistently reciting themselves in my mind?
Not rudely, as a beast,To run into an action;But still to make Thee prepossest,And give it his perfection.
I had been dreaming, or perhaps better to say, unconsciously thinking, about some work problems and my brain was offering me ‘The Elixir’ as a solution. It was saying ‘You already know this! Think on!’
I say ‘problems’ but these weren’t the gut-wrenching problems of leadership common to every charity (and non-charity?) CEO. For me those problems, real problems, the worst, the 2.47 a.m. and I’m wide awake problems, always involve people and their individual sensibilities. Other kinds of worries sometimes wake me up but it is the people problems that make me sweat. I think this is connected to what William Stafford is talking about in his poem ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ (which you’ll find here) when he speaks of ‘the horrible errors of childhood’
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
When I’m reading ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ with other people , this stanza is always a tricky one. You need a lot of trust to be willing to go into ‘the horrible errors of childhood/storming out to play through the broken dyke.’
Stafford is talking about people trying to make a new pattern in the world, people following each other or sticking together, trying to get somewhere together. Everything depends on trust. And this stanza about the ‘horrible errors of childhood’ is a stanza about moments when our trusting fails.
‘Betrayal’, which is a big thing, starts small, a private, even secret thought, ‘ in the mind’. No one would even know what you were thinking. But that small betrayal results in a physical action in the world: ‘a shrug’, which doesn’t at first seem much.
You think something bad about someone (which is how I take the word ‘betrayal’ – but we might argue about that) and you stop bothering. You let it go. Some things can’t be fixed. That shrug doesn’t seem much, and might even be sensible.
But it is the shrug that ‘lets the fragile sequence break’ and suddenly all hell is let loose.
We become as children, in dangerous adult bodies/lives. To have the emotional needs of unhappy children, but to have them in adult lives, with adult powers of language and memory and behaviour and power, is a terrible thing. We become a raging flood, breaking the dam, the dyke, out of control.
Working on problems like that, the work of the priest or psychotherapist, is hard in a workplace where we don’t have time to slowly unravel reasons and face them in our own time. We have to decide to do something today, now.
Poetry can help at work. You don’t need hours, you need a couple of lines. You need a different feeling round a table. You may only need one thought.
None of that was my problem last night, however. I didn’t wake up sweating. I slept through and woke with ‘The Elixir’ in my mind.
The problems of last night are creative problems about trying to make Calderstones a place where the horrible errors of childhood are not storming around too much and where all our tasks, from picking up litter to serving soup, from reading the poems to reading the people, from filing our accounts with the Charities Commission to submitting expenses forms on time are all done as if they all mattered.
A servant with this clauseMakes drudgery divine:Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,Makes that and th’ action fine.
The floor-sweeping, housekeeping, of filing my expenses on time saves the finance team trouble and that is as much a part of the vision of Calderstones as good communication or fine literature or delicious soup. Shrug those small things off at your peril. Next thing, we’re all lost. ‘The Elixir’ came into my mind to tell me so.
Teach me, my God and King,In all things Thee to see,And what I do in anythingTo do it as for Thee.