Life in our family has always been punctuated by little superstitions and rituals that start as an aside before miraculously transforming into the main event; something that must be observed each year, if not, Terrible Things Will Happen. Take a simple thing like washing clothes for example – no washing on New Year’s Day or Good Friday. Why? Well, according to Gran who was the authority on the Terrible Things That Could Happen, you were washing someone’s life away or as Gran would say Washing. Someone’s. Life. Away. She had this way of using hand gestures as an alternative form of punctuation. She would slice an imaginary cabbage without the aid of a kitchen knife by way of emphasis or in the place of a full stop.
She saw it as her life’s mission to protect us from the dangers of Terrible Things That Could Happen. Placing new shoes on the table – are you mad? Bringing May blossom into the house – absolutely not. Leaving the decorations up after 6th January –not if you value a full and healthy life. Twelfth Night or The Feast of the Epiphany was the deadline by which the house was cleared of all things remotely festive in preparation for the season of no chocolate – Lent.
When exactly is Epiphany? Easy, the Feast of Epiphany is on the 6th January, isn’t it, to commemorate the visit of the Magi? Well yes, but remember we are still within the realms of those Terrible Things so it’s best to be sure. In Spain, the big parade (la cabalgata) that celebrates the arrival of the three kings, where free sweets are scattered by the bucketload to the assembled crowds (my advice is be prepared, take a Mercadona carrier bag, like all the local children do) is at dusk on 5th January. So. does that mean if I take down my decorations on the 6th, after the arrival of the three kings, I’m late and so only have myself to blame for the inevitable mayhem that will follow?
Epiphany itself seems to mean different things to different people at different times, among them, the birth of Christ, His childhood in general, His Baptism, the Wedding at Cana and the visit of the Magi, who may or may not have been kings and may or may not have been three in number. As for Epiphanytide itself, well, it can extend to Candlemas on February 2nd in some quarters or even Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. So, really, as to what it is, when it is and why we celebrate it, I haven’t got a clue.
Oddly enough, I feel a little more confident when talking of literary epiphanies. They all seem to involve “one of those rare moments of awakening” that Conrad refers to in ‘Lord Jim’, or even “the largeness of the world” that Dorothea experiences in Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’. Edna St Vincent Millay talks of the “ticking of eternity” in her poem ‘Renasence’ whereas it is ‘the wonder of mortal beauty’ that Stephen Dedalus feels in Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ or “wild surmise” in Keats’ sonnet ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’. They all embrace some sense of looking at something from afar, some sense of enlightenment, of rapture and, really annoyingly, they have this habit of happening when you least expect them.
Archimedes was taking a bath when it happened, Newton was sitting under a tree and I, well, I was … oh spit it out (as I was later instructed), I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, trying to block out any thought of what might be happening in my mouth, having shut my eyes in order to gather together some ideas for an article. Actually, this act of dream-composing went rather well, as an article did begin to take shape. It wasn’t an epiphany by any stretch of the imagination, more an epiphanyette, but it encouraged me to think about the processes of composition and insight in more detail. I found the experience useful and a lot of fun – or it was until I opened my eyes and met the worried gaze of my dentist and her assistant.
“Are you all right?” came the question.
I swiftly replied, “Es, I i I a uh eiaee-eh.”
Warming now to my task I repeated myself, for the sake of clarity, this time a little louder and slower.
“Es. I i I a uh e i a eeeee eeeeh,” I informed her, before I realised her left hand was still probing the inner recesses of my mouth and my attempt at articulating “Yes, I think I’ve had an epiphanyette” was really a non-starter. By the time I was free to communicate once more, I decided it was best just to ask for a glass of water, with what I hoped was my most winning of smiles.
There was no grand awakening, no staggering realisation or an earth-shattering realignment of the spheres, as I sat in the dentist’s chair; it was simply a brief moment of clarity about how I could approach this little task of writing that causes me so many sleepless nights, doubts and false starts.
It involved our understanding of right and left or more specifically the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Whereas the left hemisphere is the domain of language, analysis and problem solving, the right side is more wide-ranging and provides our connection with the world around us. In shutting out the dentist’s surgery and I suppose the world, I had concentrated on the logos (on the left side) and forgot about the mythos (on the right side). So, engaging my left side helped me to write a non-fiction article but didn’t help me to make it a work of wonder. The left side of the brain is our competitive, empirical, objective side – the side that doesn’t do metaphor – whereas the right side embraces poetry, music, religion, nets of meaning, and the general creation of ideas that sound daft on paper but speak to the inner recesses of your heart … that sort of thing.
Apparently, once we’ve received information through the right side, it’s then sent to the left to be analysed and then sent back to the right once more. The more connections we can set up between left and right the better for the brain’s health or so they say.
But, and here’s the part that’s bothering me, I was for a brief moment more successful because I had chosen to focus on one side of my brain rather than the other, or had selected one type of thinking, if you like, to the exclusion of anything else. My experience in the dentist chair was successful because I’d dialled down one hemisphere in favour of the other. What would have happened had it been the other way around and I had focused on the right side instead?
I termed my experience earlier an epiphanyette because through it I have formulated a hunch, nothing more. I believe that if we want to find epiphanies, they’ll be waiting for us in the right hemisphere of the brain where we make connections between disparate ideas and in so doing, create metaphor, poetry, music, awe, rapture, magic. The rituals we carry out when trying to create that perfect Christmas, party, poem, piece of music, painting reside in the left side of the brain, the insight we yearn for waits for us in the right.
Have you ever listened to a piece of music while reading a poem and felt strangely moved by the experience, in a way you can feel but can’t quite express? I know I have. I believe that experience has been intensified because both music and poetry are generated in the right hemisphere. We are focusing on one half rather than both in order to create a richer brew. We are turning up the volume on the right side and oh what glorious music we hear as a result.
So, here’s an idea: next time you fancy a moment of insight, here’s what you do. Select a favourite spot, it could be in the garden, on a much-loved walk, somewhere you can sit and relax; take your music and a set of headphones with you and of course your favourite poems – now, that’s all part of the ritual for the left side of the brain, just to keep it happy. Sit down, make yourself comfortable, then read your poem out loud while listening to the music and looking at the view and wait to see what happens as you let your right side have full rein. If you can recite your poem, even better; it’ll give you more time to appreciate the view. If you’re unsure which to choose try Part V of ‘Little Gidding’ while listening to the final section of Fauré’s ‘Requiem’: ‘In Paradisum’.
Reading poems can be a private affair but poems are also written to be read out loud, not necessarily declaimed in a grand Ciceronian way, but read aloud nonetheless so that the rhythms can be heard and appreciated. Why not try it with your own poetry and see what happens? Both hemispheres of our brain carry out useful functions but, as writers, perhaps sometimes we need to give that right side a little jolt to create the fertile ground for our epiphanies to thrive. Epiphanies are unexpected but they don’t have to be. We know where they live. There’s nothing to stop us knocking on their door to see if they want to come out to play. And who knows? Wonderful. Things. Might. Happen (thanks Gran).