Live Like a Mighty River

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Funny how life takes you on a journey.  How certain moments lead you to one thing that then leads on to thoughts and then another thing and then a connection to an interest and before you know it you have walked a little further down the road and something new and deep and so interesting has opened up.

Over a month ago I came across a new biography on the poet Sylvia Plath’s early life, pre her meeting with and marriage to Ted Hughes.  The book is called Mad Girl’s Love Song, taking its name from one of Plath’s unknown earlier poems.  I have long felt a connection to Plath, and been fascinated by her work.  She suffered the loss of her father at a younger age, than mine, and had a powerful and emotionally complex relationship with her mother, which was another connection. And since Plath was strongly Plutonian, with Sun and Mercury in Scorpio and her ruling planet Pluto opposite to Saturn there were strong astrological parallels too, that drew me to explore her life and the astrology surrounding her life and relationships.

I had never before explored her life in context of the astrology but was urged to by an inner voice while reading Andrew Wilson’s book. While researching it last week I happened upon several pages devoted to Plath on the web  and then upon an astrology website where her chart, Ted Hughes chart and those of her children as well as critical events in their connection were also displayed.  It was a moment of profound sadness, for me when I learned that her youngest child, NIcholas Plath took his life in 2009 at the age of 47, not long after retiring form his post at University. I noted that Nicholas was born in the same year, 1962, and a few weeks apart from me.

Today I have been exploring some writing around Nicholas Plath, mostly English and American newspaper reporting on and trying to make some sense of his death and of its strong link to his mother’s early suicide.  Sadly one writer blamed Sylvia Plath for killing her son, while others sought to lay the blame on genetics, quite a superficial and shallow view.  However in the course of my explorations I came upon the following letter written by the poet Ted Hughes, Nicholas’ father to his son.

Nicholas suffered from depression throughout his life.  His mother Sylvia Plath took her own life on 11 February 1963 when Nicholas was only one year old. He and his sister were locked in another room when Sylvia gassed herself, a cripplingly painful legacy for both children to have borne, both eventually moved away from England, Frieda to Western Australia and NIcholas to America.

What interests me about his letter is how Ted Hughes talks about the child self and makes some attempt to explore his inner world, but nevertheless not in a huge amount of depth.  Re=reading it I understand more, perhaps about how alone Nicolas must have felt with his own struggles and the area of shadow surrounding the hidden truths of his parents complex relationship. When you explore his chart, Ted Hughes had the Sun and Neptune in Leo and as a curious parallel at todays writing the Moon in at 19 degrees Leo is very close to passing over this conjunction, while at the same time sitting right on top of my own North Node with the transiting Sun conjunct Uranus trining the Moon and squaring transiting Pluto which is widely inconjunct the transiting Moon.

The letter appears on http://www.lettersofnote.com and is entitled Live Like a MIghty River.   Maybe it will speak to you.

Dear Nick,

I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking. Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses. I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock—I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do. (It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girl friends, in case one of them set eyes on me—presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.) Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.

So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations. Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate—except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain. When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your Independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know. But in many other ways obviously you are still childish—how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line—unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive—even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources—not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self—struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence—you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.

And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.

I think it is a beautiful letter. Sadly it doesn’t address the deeper pain of what Nicholas suffered, however it does give us a window into Ted Hughes’ psyche and conflicts. Hughes lost his first two wives to suicide and his infidelity has been blamed for their deaths.  I can only imagine the questions that the letter raised for Nicholas.  Its interesting that Nicholas moved to the wilds of Alaska to be closer to nature and pursue pottery, following his retirement while his father, acknowledges in this letter some of his own unlived hopes and dreams surrounding his American life now borne by Nicholas.  The deeper pain and feelings that  dogged Nicholas were too strong in the end and the breath he needed to breathe became, sadly impossible for him.  He went to his death with the painful truth locked deep inside, unspoken.  In a mysterious parallel in his ending was symbolically displayed was the devastating impact of the pivotal emotional event his psyche bore, over 46 long years.

My wish

This a cry from the heart blog which comes from a very raw and vulnerable place.  I just spoke to my sister and when I ended the call, I was brimming with sadness and inside my heart from the ache I was feeling came the cry “I wish my sister wasn’t on medication”.

I also wish my sister had never had to go through the violence of shock treatment which she did two years ago. I felt sick today while we were talking, my sister is suffering really bad nausea and a headache because she has recently had her medication changed. I cannot tell you how many different medications she has been on over the past 10 years but after her suicide attempt two years ago I had to take home a bag of empty packets she used and there were about five different meds in it. When I googled several of them I read the following “may cause (amongst a heap of other things) anxiety”. WTF.

Sorry is it obvious I am in a recovery programme and have been for over 20 years and I HATE THE FUCKING MEDICALISAED PSYCHIATRIC SYSTEM which offers fuck all insight into childhood at times and just resorts to drugs?

While my sister was in intensive care following the suicide attempt in 2013 a doctor asked me :

“why is your sister on an anticonvulsive.”

I was so distressed that I exploded.

“You want to fucking know why, because they don’t have a clue, they play Russian roulette with her meds and take a look at the result, without any awareness we have a family history of alcoholism on my mother’s side.”

I expected them to send in the men with white coats and put me in a straight jacket, following my angry outburst.  I had really screamed in the middle of the ICU unit.  Instead I was stunned to see them treat me with tenderness and a new found respect. The nurses took me to another room and sat me down while I began to cry and tell them about our history. They had put my sister on yet more medication which they then decided to stop. They showed real compassion and care for me and for my sister.

Possibly my sister needs to be on meds as it is clear she cannot manage her moods alone and without this, but never the less it makes me feel so very sad to see what she has to go through and the lack of emotional nurture and insight that at times surrounds her. My heart breaks for her. I wish she had a therapist, that she could explore the impact of her childhood, and our family with, as I have done as I believe it may help her more, but in the end it’s not my decision and its out of my power and control.

At the moment I am just aware that my sister is suffering deeply and I can’t do anything but call her, show my support, concern and love and then let go to focus on my own recovery.

I can also share about these feelings in a blog for at the moment there is no recovery meeting to go to pour it out.  Just being able to voice it in this space will help me to process and come to terms with my feelings and the burden I feel in seeing another sister suffer in this awful way with so many memories of how my other sister ended up at the end of her life bloated from all the drugs they gave her that never took away the deeper pain she suffered until it all got to much and death came for her last year.

Having written this I am aware both sisters could have tried to find a healthier way, but could not.  This gives me the incentive to keep working hard to heal myself and make healthy choices and find a way to deal with the feelings in a positive way.