The Shallowness of Sanity

By: Mary L. Collins

From the frontispiece of Joan Didion’s book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the writer chronicles the devastating illness and near death of her only child and of the loss of her husband of 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that same year. Didion speaks of the unspeakable; the “shallowness of sanity.”  She references that moment when we recognize we may be losing our grip on all that we know to be “normal.”  The balance we keep with what we consider our sanity is, Didion recognized, at best, tenuous.

So, what do we do when we feel at the edge of our capability to cope – as all of us do to some degree at various points in our lives?

This past weekend, I had the honor of spending time with a talented and dear artist who manages to maintain a sense of the magic and mystery of life just by the way he extracts himself from its noise. As a fine jeweler and photographer, Peter’s work takes him out of normal “seeing” every day. This is a person whose talent leaps outside the bounds of the normal. His work is extraordinary, indeed, magical. Within the work, Peter embodies a knowing that comes from wisdom, observation, patience, compassion, and humility. He lives these practices; and so, his knowledge grows as does his expression and artistry. I believe his sanity is derived from his dedication to expression. His method of expression, however, takes him to the edges of “normal” experience all the time.

I’ll attempt to explain.

Peter shared a story of a dream. In this dream he was given a vision of an object. That object was a deer toe rattle. As a fine jeweler, he understands the knowledge that is in his hands and translates that knowing into whatever piece he is making – be it a necklace with gemstones, or a deer toe rattle. He explained that the dream was extremely vivid, compelling, and insistent. He didn’t know why he was obliged to make the rattle. He just knew he was supposed to make it.

He told me, “I have come to trust that the reason for the rattle and me dreaming it would reveal itself in time.” And it did.

He explained further, “There was a young man I met at a Native American gathering who suffers from a form of muscular debility. Dancing at Pow Wows is part of this young man’s tradition; and so, he dances. He is amazingly powerful. Focused. Intense. Dedicated.” When you watch the young man dancing, which I, too, have witnessed; he is the ONLY person in the circle. His devotion to his craft is evident. His body contorts. He struggles to do all the steps. His balance is shaky. Still, he dances. And he is beautiful in his struggle and perseverance.

Peter said, “When I saw this young man dance, I knew it was he who I was to gift the deer toe rattle to.”

If you were ever given the opportunity to see Peter’s work, I am sure you would agree that it is breathtaking, museum quality art. If it were for sale, it would be extremely expensive to purchase. This was no superficial message or gift. To recognize the young dancer in this way, spoke volumes about both person’s dedication and understanding of what matters and what is truly of value. For the boy, it is dancing despite a debilitating handicap; for the artist, it is to listen to the messages, do the work, and honor the dream, even if the purpose is not always, at first, clear.

How does this relate to the quote from Didion’s book or to our understanding of wellness?

I believe the connections we make and honor keep us from “the shallowness of sanity.” When we separate from others, we risk becoming lost. It’s that simple. Connection can be anything from slowing down to watch birds fly south for the winter on your drive home from work. It can be to visit an elder in a nursing home or spend time with someone who is homebound and bring them the gift of your attention. It can be to walk barefoot and feel the earth under your feet. It can be to choose a different place to sit in the cafeteria with a student or co-worker whom you don’t normally socialize with – older, younger, shy, gregarious, popular, or not. It can be to listen without defense or pretense; or, to speak with confidence and courage. Or it can be the dream of a deer toe rattle designed, crafted, and gifted to a person you’ve never met.

The point is, find a way to connect. Our sanity is sometimes held securely with the deepening and meaningfulness of our connections to each other and to the many gifts freely provided to us – as long as we recognize them in our midst.

September was suicide awareness and prevention month. For more information about how you can advocate for those who may have become lost in some way, contact NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill), Lamoille County Mental Health or your own physician, counselor, family or friends.  There are many ways to find help and support.


Mary L. Collins is the Marketing Director at Lamoille Home Health & Hospice. A 2014 Home Care Elite Top Agency, LHH&H is one of eleven VNAs of Vermont home health and hospice agencies serving Vermont. She also serves as Marketing Director at The Manor, a 4 star nursing home and short term rehabilitation facility in Morrisville, VT, and she chairs the Lamoille Region Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. 

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Live Well Lamoille
Live Well Lamoille

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