There’s an image that’s been in my head lately: Nero playing the violin while Rome is burning. Historians will tell you this was impossible, if only because Rome burned in 64 A.D. and the violin wasn’t invented until 1500 years later. But since when does something have to be true to resonate, or even to speak the truth? And there is truth in this image of a man making music while the world around him goes down in flames.
This image is not typically used to inspire hope. If anything, it’s the opposite. For one, Nero was a horrendously wicked man, notorious for everything from murdering his own mother to burning Christians alive and lighting his garden by night with their inflamed bodies. The image of an emperor playing the fiddle during a great fire has also been satirized to death, replacing Nero with every political leader who wastes time with frivolity while his country is crumbling. But lately, I’ve found myself identifying with this image again and again–not of someone who is ignoring the chaos and suffering around him, but of one who is doing the only thing he can to cope with it.
I have been asked several times over the course of these past months how I am able to keep writing with so much uncertainty looming over me. These people aren’t criticizing my dedication (I don’t think), but rather, they’re dumbfounded as to how I, planner and organizer extraordinaire, am able to get my mind and soul quiet enough to produce creative work. And time and again, I have told them, “I don’t have a choice. My writing is the only thing I have.” When I say that, I don’t mean to discount my myriad of blessings–family, friends, a quiet home, a relatively healthy body. What I mean is that, on a day to day or even hour to hour basis, it’s just me and God and this book. That’s the way it’s been for a long while now, and the longer my life goes on like this, the more I feel like Nero, playing music when all outside forces would contradict his ability to do so, would maybe even condemn him for it.
But I would take up the position, not of the critic, but of the dumbfounded–how do you get quiet enough to hear your violin amidst the screaming, the beams of houses cracking and shattering, the city now one great roar? It’s not easy, especially when you are already a highly sensitive person, much too attune to the feelings, both joyous and agonizing, of the world around you. And the irony, of course, is that in order to be an effective artist of any kind, you almost have to be overly sensitive. Your occupation demands it.
On Saturday, Paulo Coehlo posted a poem by Hafez on his blog. Hafez was a Persian poet who lived in the 1300’s, and while I think the person who translated this poem into English might’ve done a better job, the basic sentiment comes across. These lines struck me the hardest: “Your love / Should never be offered to the mouth of a stranger, / Only to someone who has the valor and daring / To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife / Then weave them into a blanket / To protect you.” I’ve talked before about feeling like I’m one giant bruise, and how Kandy thinks of me as a person who lives with all of her nerve endings exposed, and these facts are perhaps why I nearly wept at the image of someone cutting off pieces of his own soul, painfully but willingly, to create a blanket from them with which to drape and protect me.
That is what I thought when I first read it: How wonderful. But that thought quickly devolved into, Who on earth would ever want to do that for me? But then I realized something–I do that. I do that for people in my life, and I do that for everyone who might one day read what I write. For what is writing if not cutting away pieces of one’s soul, weaving them into a new creation, and then sending that creation out into the world, that it might find the person or people it can enshroud, bring solace to, protect? That’s what writing is for me, especially now that I’ve gone through what I have these past months. Writing is my love letter to the world. It is the blanket made from fragments of my soul, willingly sacrificed.
Willingly, but painfully, and there are times, like this past weekend, when that pain becomes almost too much to bear. I wrote a hard scene this weekend, and even though the writing itself went well, I felt that pain of my characters as though I was living through it myself. And again, this is what we must do in order to make the writing believable, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t take its toll. And then, right on the heels of bearing this weight, of just getting ready to once again lift my head, I dumped a glass of water on my laptop last night and about gave myself a stroke. Really, on top of everything, everything, everything else, this too? And I lost it.
I wondered why I even bother enduring, why I’ve held my heart out to those who don’t know what to do with it or even seem to care that it’s being offered, why I am fighting tooth and nail to put down roots somewhere for the first time in my life, when the place I’m trying to grow in will have none of it. And perhaps most importantly, why am I writing when every voice in the world, sometimes even my own, is telling me I don’t have a chance? That I’ll never get anything published, no one will ever hear what I have to tell them, and besides, no one cares anyway. Why don’t I just give up, call it quits, accept my lot in life scraping by, unhappy, perpetually living beneath the surface of existence?
Because I can’t. Rome is burning, but God help me, my hands won’t stop reaching for that violin. Logic would tell me to give it up–my heart tells me someone needs to hear the music I’m creating. And so I lay down and slept, and when I woke, my computer was alive (after spending the night drying out, with its battery submerged in rice). I was grateful, but I didn’t feel better. And yet, I knew what I had to do. There’s a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Wild Rose,” which he wrote for his wife, and the last lines say, “And once again, I am blessed, choosing / again what I chose before.” Sometimes, blessing doesn’t come until later. Sometimes, it doesn’t enable us to make the right choice, but we have to make that choice anyway, even when it’s hard and makes less than no sense. We have to choose and to trust that, one day, blessing will come from it.
Emily Dickinson said, “This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me.” I used to feel the same, that I was writing even though the world didn’t care one way or the other, and yet, I felt the irrepressible urge to write on. But lately, I’ve come to feel differently. The world and I may have our ups and downs, but it does write to me–it writes to me every day, love letters, even while it’s burning. And my writing in response is a way of saying “I love you” back. It’s what enables me to trust–to know–that I am doing what God would have me do, and by continuing to write, He enables me to keep writing. It’s a continuous circle. I cut away pieces of my soul, and He repairs them, makes me knew, helps me hold my heart out once again, even to those who may break it. That’s okay. Writing is my way of saying to the world, yes, we both know things are bad now, have perhaps never been worse, but I will keep writing because I believe that beauty can be reborn from ashes. That sometimes, everything has to fall apart beyond repair for something new to grow in its place.
And when that new thing finally arrives, what do I want to be found doing? Running around like a frightened lunatic, scrambling to hold onto things that will burn like everything else, crying and yelling and cowering with my head in my hands, afraid to open my eyes for the horror I know is closing in? No. I want to be found singing the song of my soul, hands to the keys of my resuscitated computer, writing the words I tear from my very being. If Rome is burning, I want to be found playing the violin. Because one day, the fires will end, Rome will be leveled, and then, it can be restored, made even better than before. Beauty will be brought forth from ashes. And when that day comes, the world will need music to build by.