By Tammy T. Stone
I am a writer.
This means that I am also—by nature, inclination and disposition, with everything in me—a devoted reader. Since the time I was a young girl sneak-reading under my blue-and-white checkered Mickey Mouse and Pluto covers with a flashlight, devouring everything from Archie Comics and Choose Your Own Adventure books, to the Sweet Valley High and Flowers in the Attic series, books have been my co-conspirators in life. They have been, at times, companions, friends, heated debate partners, gentle witnesses and yes, also very much like lovers.
I don’t mean to imply that books gave me something their human counterparts did not, or that I irretrievably escaped into them (though I have at times), but that the responses they evoke speak to the ability of the written word to generate the unfurling passions that also infuse and can inspire our interpersonal relationships.
Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that this is the greatest power of books, and of all the arts: to ignite our emotional selves by seeping into the deepest, most generative parts of us. We’re starting to understand, in contemporary science, that emotions drive the way we think and reason; our thinking minds are very much guided by our emotions, as elusive, fleeting, seemingly irrational and enigmatic as they might be.
I was raised, and I believe many of us are, to value my logical and pragmatic sides, and to keep my emotions “in check” in both personal and professional dealings. Looking back on any given year of my life, though, what do I remember more, the reasons behind the day-to-day decisions I made, big and small, or how I was feeling when I made them?
Do I remember what I ate for lunch when I was in high school, or how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin sitting in the cafeteria? Do I remember the content of my university essays and business reports, or how satisfied I was with my work, or the feeling of obsession I developed for the subject matter?
I often think in images. When our nature as humans comes to mind, I see beings of light, and within this vision of us, I see tiny, particle-sized bubbles filled with emotions and memories. The memories have a sort of substance—there are images and sounds, for instance—but these too, are laden with emotional content, which I see as colours. What’s inside these emotion-memory bubbles is potent: it makes and remakes us daily, and forms the basis of everything we put into the world.
The world, then, is a kaleidoscope of our enmeshed memories and emotions in action.
Where do these come from? When we start to examine our habit patterns, our tendencies to get sad, or angry, or feel rejected or abandoned, we ultimately realize that some of our core emotions are very deeply ingrained. It might feel like they are thousands of years old, and they might bring us at least as far back as childhood, when we were pure and magical emotional beings, pre-cognitive, that is, before reason could grab its hold on us.
Uncovering and then observing and letting go of our largest and most impactful emotions is a life’s work, and I would argue that this kind of work is the very life blood of the artist.
There is artistry, too, in the active participation required to take in an artwork, be it a painting, piece of music, or a book. At our most engaged, we are entering into true dialogue with the artist or with the artwork itself, meeting in a shared space where emotions can commingle, limits can be tested, and there can be explosive eruptions of meaning. Many argue that this is the place where art truly originates, is born, along with the person experiencing it.
Through this active dialogue we are forming and are being formed; we learn so much about ourselves in the mirrors and teachers the most glorious artworks can be.
This is why, in choosing from the vast selection of books I’ve read over the years, up to and including my recent preoccupation with the Buddhist teachings of Pema Chödrön and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I’d have to say that Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights stands out as a beacon. I read it ages ago, when I was an awkward-banged, braces-encumbered teenager reading stomach-down on my bed in a room whose dusty rose walls I hated (though I chose the colour), flanked by posters of the Beatles, Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” and Dylan Thomas quotes (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light!”), pausing constantly to obsess over my first crush to the strains of Air Supply’s “Making love Out of Nothing at All.”
I don’t remember more than the most basic plot lines of the book, any more than I remember the movie version I saw years later as a film student. I do remember my hand fluttering to my chest as I became swept away in the tempestuous love unleashing itself madly against a backdrop of moody moors, a combining of inner and outer storms I’d recently learned in English class was called “pathetic fallacy.”
I couldn’t tell you any of the characters’ names other than Heathcliff and Catherine, but I can hear, still reverberating in the chambers of my heart, the words,
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me, then!! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only DO not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I CANNOT live without my life! I CANNOT live without my soul!”
(I didn’t Google this; capped words may be my interpretation.)
I remember being on the phone with my friend Jasmine, who was also reading the book, standing on my bed and swooning as I yelled these lines to her, placing emphasis on different words until we were satisfied that we found the perfect expression for the glorious torment and suffering that was sure to kill us. Because who could survive in a grey, moor-less world after knowing (about) his kind of devastating romance and passion?
More than 20 years after reading it, I remember Heathcliff’s words the way I do the lyrics of all my favorite songs.
I remember them because they were the progenitors of my capacity to feel, and also the perfect manifestation of this as yet hidden power. They turned me into a fledgling superhero battling to the death in the name of Love. They simultaneously sublimated my desires and unlocked a need in me to seek the life of passion and possibility they represented, a passion that begins with love and spreads, as love does, to everything else under the sun.
The older I get, and the more I realize that life is nothing without connection, empathy and compassion, the more I feel I’m indebted to the mysterious forces which led me to a love for words and artistic expression in the first place, and to those pivotal works of art around which I have, inadvertently or not, built my life.
A single phrase, musical note, dance move or textured, sculptural curve can make a beeline directly into our most formative consciousness, interacting with those tiny bubbles of memory-emotions we harbor, thereby creating new ones. How lucky we are to have art in the world, and to be such incredible, gifted and magical beings capable of living in the light of art that awakens, heals and transform us every time we engage with it.
How lucky we are that we are art’s mirrors, works of art ourselves, lighting the world with our passion and love.
Editor: Dana Gornall