Aug 312017
 

About ten years ago, when I lived in Liberec, a town to the North of the Czech Republic, I used to dance wildly in the mountains. It sounds romantic and a little odd, and it was. Where I danced was above great blue-gold rolling hills and beside a tall slender rowan tree, with smooth bark, arrow green leaves and red berries. In some druid traditions, the rowan tree is called the portal tree, and certainly there were times when I was dancing there that it felt as if place had an altered clarity, where the energy was safe and wild enough for me to be dancing of the world, rather than in it.

We have been thinking a lot lately about magic. What does it mean, what is it for, what does it do? I think a crucial question right now is how we make fabric magic. By this I mean, how do we make magic which allows us to pour our dedication, imagination and consciousness back into the body of our being and the body of the earth? I don’t know the answer, but I think a crucial method in finding it is play: creating a space in which we feel safe enough to fall head over heels with the madness of who and where we are. This is what fairy tales do, after all. The ones who do really well in the fairy stories are the ones who have fallen in love with the world, so much so that they appear to be disabled by it; the simple son or daughter who spend their life staring at clouds or into the flames. The niave ones who trust themselves enough to place both feet fully in the present, and take great massive breaths of the enchanted nature of now. Happy endings in fairy tales are not ways to forget reality. They are frames via which we allow ourselves to trust it and fall head over heels for it.

This September, Eurik and I are launching a series of new ritual-making spaces called Wilderment. The idea of Wilderment is for the rituals to be a co-creative space; co-creative as in made by all the participants, but also as in made in conversation with the fabric of body and world. We want them to be about wild consumption – how do we consume well the beings and livings that we are surrounded by? How does that consumption help to keep the world and ourselves in balance? Or, perhaps rather, how does consumption shift to conversation and intake of the world shift to interaction with it?

Our first Wilderment day is about the rowan tree, the red-berried portal tree, sometimes called “the wayfarer’s tree” because it helps to find the way. It’s also known as the Quicken or Quickbeam Tree, meaning “living wood” or the Witch Tree, for its protective powers. According to legend, the tree will never be struck by lightning. The god Thor once saved himself from a flood of giant’s urine by clinging to the branches of a rowan, and in Sami mythology, the thunder god’s wife was called Ravdna, “rowan tree”. As a protective tree it was planted near gates or thresholds, branches were placed over doors and twigs were woven into crosses with red thread and carried as charms. It is a tree of discerning divination and quickening clarity, and associated with Brigid and with Lugh Lamfadha. In the Irish legend of Fraoth, its berries were guarded by a dragon, and were said to nourish travellers, heal the wounded and add a year to a man’s life. In Scotland, the tree was once said to be so powerful that its wood could only be used in the most sacred of rituals.

There is a rowan tree in our garden, between the fence and the lines of bushes that guard our chicken encampment. It scalped me as I was coming back from putting the chickens to bed one night at dusk, a low twig taking a small gulp of my head. I stopped and put my hand on the bark, wondering if it was asking or telling me something. I had the sense of a desire for more space, and realized that the tree was pushed up to the fence of our garden, its light and air encroached by the ragged green bushes that grow next to it.

So the first act of our first Wilderment day is the clearing of space for the rowan tree, and then collecting some of its berries. In the afternoon we’ll work with the berries and do some ritual work around clearing and cleansing. We’d like to do some body work around dress, focusing on how to invite ourselves into a sacred space. We imagine it being filled with blazing berry-flame colours, with scarves and beads and robes as we explore how to make preparation magical and invite ourselves into the dance.

So my friends, this is a blog post and also an invitation. If you’re reading this and think this is something you’d like to be involved in, send us a message. Rowan day is September 23rd. The next Wilderment dates are 29th October and 17th December, working we think with acorn and ivy.

We’d love for you to join us. Let’s do some dancing.

Jo and Eurik

May 192017
 

There has been a lot of discussion around eating and ethical eating recently. Eating – what to eat, why to eat, who to eat and who to eat from is something that seems to be a huge issue for all of us at the moment. And the fact is that, for the past nine months as a mother, I have been eaten from for the first time in my life. I simply don’t have the words for how beautiful, bizarre and magical this has been. So I thought I’d share some of the story.

I’d like to begin with breasts. More specifically, with those keen dark spaces at the end of our breasts that humankind has dubbed “nipples”. The word, by the way, is probably a dimutive of Old English and Germanic “nebb”, from the same root as nose, or beak. Points on the body where the skin does not run smooth. Points where the zenith of the nerves exist. If our bodies were sentences, would nipples be the full circles that pause the words to life? David Abram thinks that shamanism is the capacity to meet others – other beings, other species, other worlds. He thinks that animals have it as well, so you may have one individual in a group who moves outwards and communicates beyond the boundary of the tribe. If our bodies were a collective of animals, a herd, or a swarm, rather than a body of cells, I wonder if nipples – and, indeed, other erogenous zones – would be the shamanic beings who mediate with the world.

I have always had issues with my nipples. Not because I don’t like them. As far as nipples go, they seem to be fairly run of the mill (which is: the grain that pours from the mill without having been culled for quality, which is: everything). The issue is that I don’t feel like I know them, or rather, I don’t know how to know them. When I pay them attention, I feel confused. Not able to fully be there. You know when you switch on a radio channel, and the majority of what you hear is static? Like that.

When I knew I was pregnant, and that I very much wanted to breastfeed, I booked myself a session with a wonderful and powerful bodyworker friend of mine, to talk about what was going on. We had a beautiful session full of gods and power. Partly as a result, and partly due to his own healthy appetite, when Arun arrived I was able to breastfeed without any problems. Nursing felt like a miracle. What more beautiful power can there be than the ability to soothe a fractious, hungry, needing being with the song that comes from your own cells?

So – everything was going fine. Arun fed alot – sometimes 12 hours at a time, and I was tired, but managing, like a full moon falling through the dark sky vortex, but there still and shining. But, I also felt on some level that the reason I could do this was because there was a part of me that was disconnected from what was going on. I knew there was a baby sucking on my breast. But I didn’t feel it. Not really, really feel it. Not tap into that flow. Most women can tell when their milk flow starts and stops, but I couldn’t – I just knew that he was on the breast and he seemed happy. The static had gone, but there was still a part of my mind that wasn’t willing to be there.

A lot of us mothers say that when we first breastfeed, we feel weird, dehumanized, a bit like cows. I think we exist in a broken matrix if making milk – the song between world and water – makes us feel less than we are. Why don’t we take our child to our breast, and feel, in that moment, that we share heartbeats with the wide-eyed seal, the elephant curling her trunk around her calf, the lionness lying on the sun-beaten floor with her cubs about her, the glair-white calf as she stumbles for the teat? We think of cows in stalls with machines attached. Is it any wonder then, that, so many of us can’t make our way into breastfeeding? We don’t know what it is.

At the same time as I was adventuring into motherhood my sister Laura was working on her PhD on art and climate change. She began to read about the impact of food industry on the environment. She met Alex Lockwood, a writer and vegan activist, and brought his ideas into our lives. She started to cut out meat and dairy as much as she could, and one morning I said I would do it with her. She was reading, reading, learning and I – was feeding. I was doing the thing about which the vegan controversy was, at heart, all about.

Both of us struggled. As a breastfeeding mum I didn’t want to make radical changes to my diet which would effect both me and my child, so I cut things out gradually – which made it both easier and harder, as I didn’t have the warrior justification of drastic transformation. And what we found is that dairy isn’t just something that most of us eat. It’s intrinsic to our social language, the semantics by which we exist together. Cream, butter, cheese, ice-cream – these are foodstuffs that we use to signify joy. They are brought out in moments when we are well together. To go to someone’s house and refuse their offerings because of climate change and welfare concerns feels like shutting oneself away from a moment of xenia in which food creates an abundant home. As George Monbiot puts it, you become a spectre at the feast.

But because so many other people have been staying in the space recently – writing, creating, exploring it, I feel less lonely – and more responsible – to speak from this space. And what is there now is this.

When my baby drinks milk from me, he becomes utterly relaxed to being in the world. He regains, in part, the womb state in which everything flowed freely between him and the other. Milk is not just what we give to babies to keep them alive. It is the liquid bridge between being of the world and in the world, the free navigation of which is essential to being at peace.

The ability to imbibe the world like this is a power for which we have forgotten the words. The ability to respond – as a feeding mother does – is the same power. It is the physical experience of the revelation that all will be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Not because we are deathless, but because we are the world.

In both feeding and being fed on, we partake of this trust. Maybe milk itself is the trust, the prayer, the liquid space in which we promise each other not that we will always be there – but that right now, we are. The world is not a thing without hurt or lack, but that moment is, and the moment is never-ending. If someone was to take away my child, kill him and take my milk from me, I would not be able to live up to this trust. If someone was to do this to me over and over again, then I would not be able to continue being in myself.

To take this milk when it is not meant for us is something that we can only do because we are participating in a great and fatal misunderstanding about the nature of power. We think that if the other doesn’t fight back then we can more or less get away with it. We are the powerful, and the decision is ours.

The power of the feeding mother and infant is not the power to be active but the power to be open. Existing, as we do, in a system the consumption of which is predicated on the systematic abuse of this power means not that it comes, like a vengeful monster, to get us – it means that it will leave us. It leaves us through the heart of the animal who has lost her young so often that she can no longer be with herself. It leaves us through their bodies, and our bodies, and out through the fumble-grieving earth.

In Joss Whedon’s genius piece of work Firefly, there is a moment when the renegade crew of the spaceship Serenity are transporting cattle. As soon as the journey is over and they are back on land, the astute and damged River goes up to them and begins to communicate. When asked why she is interested in them now and not when they were in the ship, she says:

“They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.”

I don’t think that we can be human until we remember the nature of this power and our right relationship to it.

So these are my thoughts of today, and my answer to people who look at me askance when I talk about being motivated, by breastfeeding, into changing my diet. Veganism is about what we eat, breastfeeding is about who we love, and they don’t belong on the same page. But I didn’t want to be enacting the love of anyone while simultaneously lying about that act on Earth.

And no, I don’t think that veganism is a fix for our problems. I don’t think that cutting out dairy makes me in any way superior to people who make different dietary decisions for different reasons. I think that as far as food goes, until we address the more pervasive problem of our unwieldy appetites, lost in time and untouched by necessity, like children in a dark space and missing, the real depth of the change cannot occur. But I also don’t think that we can become living animals again unless we listen to the slow unfolding of the unspeakably powerful world.

Some inspiration for this post:
Simon Amstell, “Carnage”, 2017
Alex Lockwood, The Pig in Thin Air, 2016
David Abram, Becoming Animal, 2010

Featured image: Juan Romero, “Untitled”

May 112017
 

this is a world
full of strange errors
to which it is not
acclimatized.

even in the silence
patient dementing
makes its mark

if we stopped
would we see
disaster
and the footage
of ancient clowns?

for some forethought
I would appreciate
the wild ramblings
of an undone fate
and a tomorrow
cordial
of stoppered essence.

give me one thing
once
a field
of nettles and bluebells
very full of
their own codes.
If they know what is coming
they also know it will pass
and the sky, after all, is full of rocks and sunsets.

I would like to lie
in the sky
with my arms full
of playful sunlight
and clouds in my secrets.

it is quiet there
not that the future
does not matter
just that it can breathe in birds

this is a turning
and dissolving world.

 Blog  Comments Off on with silence
Feb 232017
 

IMG_20170220_134607As many of you may have gathered, we are in the house, and it is beautiful.

Yesterday saw two important events occur: one – we were finally connected to the electricity supply, the conclusion of a bitter, painful and nailbiting saga of determination, incompetence, maliciousness and generosity that, when the battle scars have healed, I may narrate. Two: Eurik and his friend built us a garden path, so instead of wading through a bog of mud to Bluebells, we can now crunch with deep satisfaction across amber and brown pebbles to get to our front door. We have light and heat and we have path – so that, I think, should be motivation for me to get down and tell you the next part of the story.

We built a house. I think I can safely say it is the hardest thing I have ever done, and that in a year of non-trivial actions like completing a PhD and giving birth. It has been atrociously good for me – for us, I think. But peppered with manifold mistakes. Cheerfully, all the mistakes we’ve made are now literally cast in wood and stone to reflect on every day – nothing like a house build to teach you about careful living.

The first post I wrote about this housebuild spoke philosophically and poetically about balance and compromise. If I could go back to the start of it all I would say to myself – wait, stop. Not good enough. There’s a place for compromise, of allowing the pendulum to rest and settle until it’s in the middle of the tensing possibilities that are accumulating around. And there’s a time for not compromising, for changing the status, for blowing and shifting and opening up so that the expanding possibilities in which you need to find a middle path are different than they were.

And, let’s be fair, compromise is about working between two different viewpoints, and its nature very much determined by who you have around you to compromise with. The compromises between husband and wife – yes, necessary for building a home together. The compromises between us and money-making contractors – er – not so much.

What I’m trying to say is that, if I could do things again, what I would do is begin by deciding what house we wanted to create, and then work very hard to discover who we needed to create it with. Some wonderful things have happened in the building of our house, and a wonderful place has been created. But I regret what could have been if we’d paid more care.

Much of the original carpentry is shoddy work, for example. The windows, while beautiful and warm, are still not as well glazed as they should be, particularly in a house that is aiming to be “eco”, nor are the walls as absolutely insulated as we would have liked. There are parts of the house that would have been better done, I feel, if I hadn’t confused gratitude with complacency and acceptance with resignation. Being struck dumb with the wonder of having people in our garden building a house for us, and not making sure that those people were doing a good job, for example. Taking painstaking hours over some things (see tiles, below), and making snap decisions over others because we were stressed and flooded with detail, and I told myself that these things in the big scheme of things don’t matter – when in fact each and every detail was an invitation to the complex soul of the house which we now inhabit.

So. What I would have done, if I could do the thing over, is to make sure – to the best of our abilities – that the house build was narrated in chorus. My story is about saving and respecting matter, but there are others – saving and respecting energies, avoiding the use of toxic substances – that did not get told sufficiently in the making of our house, because we didn’t call up the right other people to join in.

Put another way. To build a house, even a little one in the garden, is a great big, massive, potent, powerful act of doing. Trying to do it by buying as little new as possible is powerful in its not doing, A retrograde act, if you will, or a breath held rather than released. An imposed impotence. But because you’re already immersed in the doingness of the activity, all you manage to do is to take your balance sheet of impact down a few notches, when it’s rapidly going up. That’s all. Somewhat foolishly, in fact, when a far better and deeper retrograde act would have been to release the need for a new house in the first place.

However, what I have experienced in the learning of the whole process is that the retrograde act can become potent – can, indeed, change the meaning of potency, when what is built is not just a house but a system of links. What was beautiful about building Bluebells, apart from its walls, windows and doors, were synapses – the moments when our thinking connected with other people’s thinking to make tiny new electrical connections in the meaning of making house.

Examples. 1. It is October, Arun is three months old, and the house and garden are in chaos. The new house is all frame and plaster, and behind it lies what was once, long ago, a tennis court. Its tarmac is now covered in moss, half of the court is taken up with solar panels, and the other half with bee hives. We have finally decided to take down the netting, and re-use it to make a chicken run in the other half of the garden. So while David the incredible carpenter, one of the few contractors we never once regretted working with, is making our kitchen, the tennis court netting behind the house is gradually being unravelled. I arrive onsite, Arun in sling, with my customary offer of endless tea, and David is fizzing, in the same way that I fizz when I am hit by a sudden poem. What has come to him is the idea that he could make the handles of the kitchen units out of the poles of the old tennis court netting, rusty, paint-peeling and ancient as they are.IMG_20170220_134739

Now this is the same David, who, when he first arrived, said categorically that we could not have the innards of our kitchen units made of anything old. I wonder if he has caught my re-use mania. Eurik is not enthusiastic, and even I am hesitant to agree that rusty poles will make a good addition to our shiny, newly built cupboards. However, it’s agreed that David will take some back to his workshop to experiment with. The next morning he arrives to tell us that the experiment went so well that he stayed up all night and has finished handles. Somewhat alarmed, we all traipse down to the kitchen, and he shows us the handles on the wood. They have not been painted or altered, only lacquered, so all of the moss, peeling silver and rust is preserved, the dark green and rust red picking up the salty wood of the old scaffold boarIMG_20170220_134257ds kitchen units. He is right. They are perfect.

Later, David tells me that he appreciates working on Bluebells because we are up for creativity. And it makes me wonder about our interactions with so many of the other tradesman, which have been relatively soul-destroying in the sense that much of the work has been done without passion or care, but as quickly as possible for as much money as can squeezed out of us. But then I think – no wonder. The norm and the expectation is not for creativity, but a machine-line process of demand, deliver and destruct. How can makers of anything be expected to make creatively when we are coached to be dull in the demand – leaving no space for being, no joint creative forum, only a factory packaged catalogue of this and that to put together without choice or discussion? I’m not suggesting that Eurik and I as consumers avoided this – of course we didn’t. I’m just wondering how it is we are coached to approach the exchange of makings and matter, and how the process could grow – old, new, better.

2. On Tiles. (I promised you this story). It is May, Arun is a little swimming whale in my belly. Talking of catalogues, we have been given by the building company the catalogue of the house, broken down into parts – windows, floors, doors, frame, plumbing, etc, etc. At a loss of what to choose, I ask them whether there are any of these substances that can be reclaimed. The building company representatives are both enthusiastic and sceptical simultaneously. Roof tiles, for example, could be got second hand, but if we want good quality, they will be significantly more expensive than buying new. But fancy antique tiles, they tell me, would look fantastic. Fancy antique tiles are not in our budget. The new ones will cost 50p per piece. Surely the world must be full of roof tiles no longer needed. Is it really impossible to find some old ones for less? I finally pin the manager down to exactly what quantity and tile type we need, and spend the next two days on the phone with reclamation sites and online with reclamation directories. As I’m doing so, there is a constant, niggling doubt at the back of my mind about whether I’m wasting my time. Whether my last month before becoming a mother could not be more productively spent. Yet I am on a trajectory of tile hunting and cannot get off. Everybody local I speak to speaks proudly of their vintage, pound a piece tiles. But then I take a look at Salvoweb, a fantastic directory of reclamation sites recommended to me by the phenomenal Cat Fletcher, creatrix of Freegle. Some beautiful clay tiles are advertised from an enormous yard in Warwickshire for 30p per tile. I give them a call. They are fantastically friendly. Yes, I can have the tiles, yes, they are excellent quality, and yes, they would have the massive amount we need to cover our whole roof.

They send me photos, and I email our building manager. He says they look great. I panic. The overall cost of the tiles is over £5000. Should we drive up to Warwick to inspect them first? I am eight months pregnant and neither Arun-my-whale nor I relish the prospect. The manager tells me they are a reputable reclamation yard. Eventually, with much trepidation, I just send over the order and the money, and hope I have not just ordered 12000 pieces of junk.

The tiles arrive and they are lovely. They are installed, eventually, and the house begins to toss its head and open its eyes. On one rainy September day, the building manager and I walk down to the site. He stops by the Scots pine, and looks up at the top of the house. I wouldn’t have thought you could find those tiles, he says. But they look really good.

So whether I could have spent those two or three days more productively? I still have no idea. It would have taken me about 20 minutes to buy from the catalogue, it took me about a week, all organization included, to unbuy from the world. Like an unbirthday, an unbuying is nothing special. There is nothing particularly stunning about the tiles, nothing out of the ordinary to celebrate apart from the mundanity of covering our roof with pre-existent pieces of stuff. But who knows? Will the building company give a different answer when asked about the possibility of building with reclaimed tiles? At least I can imagine so.

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3. The Paints.

Quite early on in the research for the house, we come across the website for New Life Paints, a local company who produce “recycled” paints. It was started in 2009 by an industrial chemist, who, inspired by the half empty paint tins piling up in his garage, figured out a way to convert waste emulsion back to high quality paint. Given that DEFRA estimates around 50 million litres of paint end up in landfill or incinerated every year, this seems a pretty sensible thing to do. So, we bookmark the website and agree to think about it in that misty future time when we have a house to decorate. Life trundles along. Things seem to have a way in the building process of becoming very urgent very quickly, and before we know it, it is November, Arun is five months old, figuring out where and with-whom he is, and Eurik and I find ourselves with a few weeks in which to get the house painted and tiled before other important things, such as plumbing and kitchen, can occur.

I had planned to be very organized about decoration. There’s an eco-decoration company in Brighton who promise non-toxic substances, and I was going to ask for their help, and do everything in a beautiful and creative way. But everything happens so suddenly that there is no time. Instead, we find a fantastic local handyman, Ivan, who says (thank god!) that he can start on Monday. And then I remember New Life Paints. I ask Ivan if he’s willing to use them, and he says, why not? We have two days to get enough for the mist coat (the first layer of white paint on all the walls). Luckily, I have a meeting in Chichester that day, and the company is based just outside Littlehampton, which is on the way home.

I ring the number on the website and the woman says absolutely, come round. New Life Paints is a family company, and their administration centre turns out to be their house, in a little gated community just off Rustington town centre. I get utterly lost on the way; Arun is unimpressed with our detour around West Sussex and I arrive at half past 5 with hysterical baby in toe. Linda, the woman I spoke to on the phone, gathers me in and cuddles Arun while I take a breather, then helps me carry the paint buckets to the car. At home, I give them to Ivan, who begins the next day and gives us the definite thumbs up for quality.

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The mist coat is done, other things continue to happen, and suddenly, with a few days notice, we have a slot in the schedule for the rest of the painting to be done. Unfortunately, Arun has by now decided car seats are the devil incarnate. It is a Wednesday, we need the full array of all paints by Friday. They have them in stock. Eurik is at work, and Arun and I could make the two hour round journey back to Rustington to pick them up. But we don’t want to. I ring Linda, and explain the situation. Do they ever, I ask tentatively, deliver? She says she will drive the paint over for us tomorrow morning, no charge. I almost cry. She comes the next day and I show her round the house. She has been reading my website and asks if I will use the space for workshops. That’s the plan, I tell her. We part with mutual friendliness on both sides, and it feels as if another connection has been made, another community synapse plugged in.

3. December, Arun reaches the six month mark, the new house is looking neater and more complete, and the garden is still chaos. There is wood everywhere. Because we didn’t want to waste the timber offcuts, we have collected a large amount of them. Treated and untreated, we have big chunks and small, in front of the house, behind the house, in the driveway and in the garage. Pallets, plyboard, chipboard, scaffold board, great timber planks and tiny door-stopper size pieces, cedar wood trunk and branches from the very first site clearance work. There is even one of those giant cotton reel things that our electricity cable came on. Needless to say, the other inhabitants of Lattenbells are less than enthusiastic that the garden and garage have become a home for unwanted ex-trees.

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In the midst of building chaos, Arun and I are invited to NHS postnatal classes in Newick. There we meet a very nice lady by the name of Lucy, and bond over the fact that both of us live with our parents. I defend the multi-generational lifestyle choice, and she is fascinated to hear about the house build. In the course of conversation she tells me about her husband Fabian, who trained as a furniture maker, and was in an apprenticeship in London before Brexit happened and the company lost a lot of its business and had to let him go. He then managed to find work locally, but because of complications with the birth of her baby Felix, lost the work looking after her and the baby. He is now working freelance. We talk about other things, and I go home and then message her. Is there any way, I ask, Fabian might be interested in working with offcuts?

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After negotiations, Lucy, Felix and her husband Fabian come round for tea Something great is released in my heart when we meet Fabian, because, like an animal-lover at an RSPCA site, Fabian is respectful to our unwanted wood. He does not see it as waste, but as potential. Whereas everyone else said: bin it, Fabian says: that’s a fantastic piece of plyboard for a corner cabinet. Would you mind bookshelves that match your floor? Because these floorboards could really work….

And so Fabian is making furniture for the inside of our house. He came round again today to take the measurements. We have not been able to use all the wood, some of it might just have to go to the tip, in the end. But the connection with Fabian and Lucy made a reason for saving what we saved, and made a flow of craft where it would not otherwise have been.

***

So these, and other things, too many to name. The house is here and has its character because of them. And what I want to say at the end of it all is that, in having the money to build the house we are by the nature of privilege set apart. Lines of possibility make gulfs between us and others who are struggling to find a place to be, a place to inhabit, a place to live. Instead of being deeply ashamed by this, building a house has made me realize that even if we feel independent, we are not. We are utterly dependent on the community in which we are enmeshed. And what I’ve learnt this year is that if lines of possibility separate you from the world, then you damn well lay those lines out on the ground, and make of them a giant canvas on which we can repaint our ways of being together.

In a recent article about ways to make things better, George Monbiot writes about the importance of community. “At work, he says, at home, both practically and imaginatively, we are atomised.” No wonder we are disengaged from society and its politics. The way to take back control, he says, “is from the bottom up”, that “through local initiatives we can regenerate our culture”. I don’t know about that though I feel it to be true. But what I do know is that this house build has been a long, confusing, traumatising and difficult process. Sometimes it felt dead. It felt like we were asking for more from the world, when the world has already given enough. More space in a wild garden. More paint on the walls. More plaster to be made, more insulation to be unwrapped. At other times it felt alive, it felt breathing. These were the times when it became a thing we did not do alone. And I’m not arrogant enough to think that our house build changed the world. But what it made me realize is that change can’t come by anybody telling their own separate story. Change has to come by making things different together so that the glue between us becomes different, and the whole world looks up and says: okay. I felt that.

We did it right in the housebuild and we did it wrong. But thank you for sharing the journey with us, my friends. I hope you will come and visit, because we have built Bluebells to be a community space. A house of being with.

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Dec 172016
 

arung

Morning world. It’s 7.30 in the morning, and I’ve decided that if I don’t write for the first hour of the day, when Eurik can look after Arun before he goes to work, then I will go insane. Thus follows:

Tightness and Presence: A Review of Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept

I’ve recently read Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept, which I would describe as a profoundly beautiful piece of work. I regret, in fact, that despite it’s having been recommended to me by a number of sources,  I’m only just reading it now, when Arun is five months old.  It has both helped and hindered my mothering, confused and clarified simultaneously.

Published in 1975, the book begins not with any reference to children or mothers or the South American jungles, but to a glade in a forest in Maine, which a child Jean Liedloff discovered while trailing at the back of a summer camp nature walk. In the beauty of the glade in the afternoon sun she felt she had “discovered the missing centre of things”. It was, for her, “a hint of that sense of Tightness”, her word for that which most of us wish for, but cannot find. Vowing to remember the sense of connectedness, when she was an adult she lost the power of the memory, until she found her way into the South American jungle, when everything came alive again. “The mysteries of jungle life, the ways of its animals and plants, its dramatic storms and sunsets, its snakes, its orchids, its fascinating virginity, the hardness of making ones way in it and the generosity of its beauty all made it appear even more actively and profoundly right”.

The book itself is not so much an investigation of the way to care for your child, but an investigation of the concept of unhappiness. Profoundly struck by the way that the Yequana tribe, the tribe with whom Jean lived, were happy, she tried, from this, to understand the malaise, depression and general misery that seemed to her, in contrast, to pervade the Western society in which she was brought up. The adults were at peace, had a leader but did not compete, refused ever to tell anyone else what to do, and were at rest and satisfied while working in the same way that we may find ourselves at rest while curling up with in front of the TV. The children, as they grew, were gentle and respectful with an innate sense of their own personhood. As babies, their limbs were far more relaxed than the stiff Western babies, with their arched backs and underlying tension. They did not burp or throw up after every meal as if they were allergic either to their food or the stress in the eating of it, and none of them cried as if by rote.

Because Liedloff is a powerful and no-nonsense writer, the book does not come across as an idealistic piece of golden age writing which glorifies, but does not understand, that which we are not and cannot be. I acknowledge it’s description might, indeed it was this which put me off reading the book in the first place: Anthropologist spends two years in South American jungle and comes back with profound insights that change the history of Western parenting. Really?

But, as I say, there is a depth and complexity in Liedloff’s thinking which makes it obvious just why the book had such an impact. From her observations she developed her theory of continuum, essentially a theory of balance, which basically argues that the human body is designed by millions of years of evolution to fit with its environment. In her words here, she evokes for me the phenomenological ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty or David Abram, in the idea that we are not, without that which we meet. Our sight occurs because we have trees, grass and sky to see, our touch because there is that to be touched. One does not exist without the other.

For Liedloff, after observing the differences in the Yequana tribe, she developed the idea that babies are designed to be held by the body of the mother. The first six months to a year, what Liedloff describes as the “in-arms phase”, is a time in which, after spending nine months within the body of the mother, the child, unable to walk or move for himself, learns his world by being held. His role is of an observer, safe and resting. His energy field is passive, and he absorbs the active energy of his mother, as she works, walks, talks, dances, and sleeps.

The idea of lying a baby, immediately as they are born, on a non- living space of fabric, training them to be independent, letting them soothe themselves is, she argues, bone-shakingly ridiculous. When born, babies respond to the genetics of their continuum, which is fit to the environment of arms and body.  They don’t know that they’ve been born in this peculiar modernity, when our attempts to address and redress the broken gender politics of the last half millenia has led, like a twisting snake caught in a trap, to a profound devaluation of one fundamental movement in the opera of human being; being parent. They don’t know that, in trying to live in a rapid and mechanistic world, we ask for rapid mechanisation from them, and that we tell ourselves that if they do not conform to our rhythms they will be profoundly unfit to be adults.

There are problems with the book, and with the reading it. In describing so directly what Liedloff’s considers the impact of Western parenting and her assertion of how it can  be better she leaves little space to acknowledge the miracles of love and care given by parents endlessly, everywhere. It is not easy to parent, to be this in-arms being (and we all are, whether we breastfeed, co-sleep and baby-carry or not), in a society that has forgotten to acknowledge the value and miracles of person-making, of reeling out and sharing the essence of ourselves to make a rug for our children to grab, wrap, cuddle, chew and grow with until we who were one or two have made for the world a stunning other, and we don’t need to be jungle inhabitants to change the world like this.

And while the book blows me away with the power of its ideas it also seems to me reductive to equate child happiness with the absence or presence of a carrying, co-sleeping in-arms phase. Was it just being carried that changed the situation and make-up of these South American babies? What about the bodies by whom they were carried, and the places they were carried to? Again, without aiming to be reductive or niave, a Yequana life is a life far more drenched in the thing-ness of reality than a Western life.  The children in this tribe, presumably, were not carried only by their mother, sister, father, but also by the reaching trees and running water, compact soil and stretching mountains which, as a result of constant interaction, imbued both the energy and nature of the elbows, belly, hands and arms upon which they sat and clung.  Is a baby in the Western world more stressed because they are less lifted up, or because they are not taught the big-ness of things, not simply via the touch of their mother but by the constant and unending interaction with the demands of their close environment?

Nevertheless, for me, the book is an important one because it resonates with how mothering comes to me, and, in doing so, allows me to trust the decisions about how, with Arun, I am (as well as regret that which I would have done, if the book read earlier had given form to my instincts in a wider range of ways). About comfort. If my child tells me, by the wincing in his body and the thunder in his throat, that he would prefer to spend his sleep in the presence of another body, in the sling or in my arms during the day and in the bed at night, coaching him out of this is not something that belongs to me. Reading The Continuum Concept was powerful for me because it changed my estimation of my own behaviour, from something lax and over-indulgent to something basic and powerful. And while I’m  not interested in entering into a debate about parenting when parenting is as various as parents, I am interested by how much advice today has the capacity to alienate ourselves from our bodies. If we do things that may come to us naturally, against the advice we are given, such as allowing babies to sleep beside us, or allow them to settle to sleep in our arms as they are feeding, how persistent will be the whispers that we are depriving them of the capacity to be independent, and how, then, will we be able to access the glory that is inherent in being a being who carries a child? How is our relationship to our breasts that soothe and our chests that settle changed by using them thus with a guilty attitude of just this once, or god I’m so tired, as opposed to an intractable belief that by being body, with infant, we are right?

A note about debate here; before I read Liedloff I read Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s Gentle Sleep Guide. Ockwell-Smith does enter the debate, from a standpoint of attachment theory and with the impact of Liedloff resonating through the book. If you are interested in the discussion from a more scientific and 21st century standpoint, I would absolutely recommend Ockwell-Smith’s work. The following being entirely my opinion: much contemporary sleep theory is given the tag “gentle” as a misnomer, and results in a screaming baby utterly confused as to why you are “gently” making them, over and over, do that which they have asked, pleaded and begged you not to. In Ockwell-Smith’s case, gentle is also a misnomer, as she swiftly and caustically dismantles pernicious assumptions (a “good” child will sleep through the night at four months, for example) to create a sleep theory that starts from a realistic understanding of babies and allows parents to maintain their own sanity while respecting the personhood of their children.

There is much more to say, so it seems I better do this review in two parts – I’d like to talk about Liedloff and her attitude to work, for example. However I’ve gone on long enough for one post and I’d like to end with this thought. There are two French philosophers named Charles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose large and largely impenetrable tome, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia is the basis for much contemporary theory. One of their thoughts is that Western human society is based on debt; I’m sure this is based on a lot of economics that I don’t know. But as I understand it, one of the essential points  is that we live in a world in which we are kept away from the flow and fluidity of life by symbolic structures (langauge, money), which are based on the myth of not having. Money only works because it is not that which it stands for. So now I wonder how much the myth of not having begins with infancy. There are two things that these little people want most of all, it seems: milk and presence. We are no longer coached to restrict milk, but we are to restrict presence, particularly during sleep, so that our child may, as soon as possible, sleep well alone. But in fact, neither has to be lacking; in essence, what our babies want from us is just for us to be. We are, therefore we make happy. So while there is no doubt that a child has to learn the ins and outs of individuality and the sadness associated with not always having, it seems to me that we are far more obsessed with teaching this than letting our children reach out their hands and be struck by the incredible miracle of what is.

As I finish this post I’d like to make clear that I’m writing as a maybe somewhat experienced thinker, but an utterly inexperienced mother. These ideas are smoothly carved, and then there is the messy reality of screaming baby and me trying to compound myself into still existence while being for my child a safe universe of is. The ideas I’m expressing are those that strike me after reading the book, but in the actual ins and outs of parenting, the difference is chaotic, milk-driven, nappy-flailing, red-eyed reality. Just so you know. I began this post by sharing my need not to be needed, not, for a moment, to make happy by being but to be happy by being me.  And so I shall end this post held tightly, as a writer, in the space of contradiction that let’s the reality come in.

 

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Oct 232016
 

bluebellsOur new house is looking beautiful. If you stand in front of the big house, and look down the garden, you see a small white bungalow, with silver, mossy tiles. It does not yet have a front door, so its central space is covered over with chipboard. It has windows, which get larger as you go from its south end to its north end, so that the north end is made mostly of glass. Its base is standing in the ruptured soil, still open, so you can see the breeze blocks on which it rests. Above it are Scotch pines, already dropping a coat of needles upon its tiles. It looks like a tentative, gradual construction, moving tentatively towards allowing life within.

A few weeks ago we were standing on the edge of our new build, looking at the pile of timber offcuts, plastic, plywood, chipboard, coke cans and assorted trash that had accumulated around the building like seaweed around the hulk of a ship, despite our efforts to reduce building waste. We were suggesting to our carpenter David that, as well as making the outside of the kitchen units from scaffold boards that had been left on site, he make the inside of the kitchen units from the plywood offcuts. He told us that he wouldn’t recommend it – they had been out in the rain too much (our own failure for not making an immediate rescue). Even if we had been more on it and taken them in as soon as they became part of the seaweed-style debris, he still wouldn’t recommend it, because there were much better options for the inner wood, options that would look better, smoother and be easier to work with. We respected his opinion and agreed to go for newly bought birch plywood. However, during the course of this discussion, he said something that struck me: “at the end of the day, you do want the best kitchen.”

Now I understand that in some senses it’s a question of practicality. There is no doubt that we would like a good kitchen rather than wonky towers of awkward shelving made from rotten wood and peeling board. As Eurik is constantly telling me as he dissuades me from spending all of our house budget at salvage yards, sometimes eco also means something well and purpose built that will last, work, and won’t need to be replaced six months down the line.

But David’s statement, and the implicit assumption of aestheticism within it, sent my thoughts spiralling out onto the nature of beauty itself (while David made our kitchen. This is maybe why I am a writer and not a carpenter).  How has our world become so divided that the comprehension of an object’s beauty has no relation to the interaction it has with the world? If the houses we build are now so “best” and so “beautiful” that they create great lumbering shadows of trash to be hidden away in other places, have we lost the meaning of the words? Timothy Morton argues that thinking ecologically abolishes distance. If we understood the nature of entanglement then the tip, with its rusty shards and steaming plastic stench, is an intimate part of our house, given that the other half of the beams and yards of timber that make up our threshould, corners, and walls are now lying within it.

So, to take my own thoughts more seriously, this is the answer I would like to give. No, I don’t want the best kitchen, if best means made out of a plethora of things born yesterday to satisfy tomorrow.  I don’t want the best kitchen – that’s too small a goal. I don’t even want the best house.  I want the best place on earth, that best placing upon the earth. I don’t just want beautiful kitchen units.  I want a kitchen that’s made the world more beautiful by conversing with it. My kitchen should not only have a beautiful presence in my house, but a beautiful absence, carving a space out of the massive accumulation of things we no longer need or want. What if, in a world that is being knocked off course by the amount of best things we think our best selves need, we made a decision only to purchase things that had both beautiful presences and beautiful absences? That’s what we should understand by best. A best with enough presence to have it’s own spacious shadow, not a shadow dragging material embarrassingly with it, like a dog with a can tied abusively to its tail.

floortouse

The floor has been laid this week – Eurik did the first sanding, and David laid and sanded it down. It’s beautiful but not best – the boards don’t fit together perfectly, there are hairline lines that lie occassionally between them. This is because it was not made for our house, but lived a previous life as a squash court in Bognor Regis. I found it on E-bay and then we picked it up from the back of someone’s garage. This involved one family trip to Bognor with screaming baby in tow, and two trips by Eurik and builder to transport 120 square metres of ex- squash court to our living room and subsequently down to the build.  Now laid, David has left seven bags outside the chipboard front door that wouldn’t fit on the floor, bags for us to use as firewood. Entangled with our pale, shining wooden floor is an absence of a dusty faded squash court in a garage in Bogner, and a series of nights in winter made warm. Not best. But maybe in moments good enough.

floor

Oct 052016
 

moonLast Friday, our son Arun was three months old. When people ask me how it’s going, I’m not sure what to answer. It is as if they asked me how it is to have a right hand. Not because I’ve recently acquired a right hand or have always had a child, but because both things are so basic and rawly habitual that words don’t reach so far in.

Motherhood is what it is. I don’t wake up every day filled with ecstasy, nor with despair. I don’t feel like I’m losing it nor do I feel suddenly solved. But I do feel larger, as if a particular Jo waiting on the sidelines of life has suddenly stepped on stage. The door of birth, and the essential, iterative tasks of new motherhood, are like magnets which pull new parts of me forth.

But being a new mother, it seems to me, is not a wordy thing. Maybe the words will come later. But other things flow. Attention. Affection. Milk.  And I like to think that Arun is too young to write about. Given that he doesn’t yet use this language, but speaks with his full body, in roars and smiles and grasping gestures, this written language that has been skimmed off the top of life is not his, and should not, perhaps, be about him either.  From linguistic reflection he should have a cocoon of  silence, waiting for him to become his own craftsperson in this weird magic that we speak.

So I cannot close anything in language about these three months. But I would like to share with you some open ragged fragments.

On exhaustion and milk.

With doom-laden relish, we were told over and over again about the exhaustion that would accompany Arun’s birth, like a monster waiting to consume our souls. But Naomi Stadlen, in her deeply philosophical What Mothers Do, makes the point that perhaps some of the exhaustion we feel as new parents is not so much associated with lack of sleep but also with our inability to value what it is we are doing. If we spend all day feeding the baby and wondering why we are not also feeding the cat, cleaning the windows, doing the dishes, looking for a new job, feeding will be profoundly and soul-shatteringly exhausting. But if we go with it, like a ship on the ocean, or a strange new lullaby of milk that our bodies or our kitchens are singing, and let our houses and our lives rest around us and watch wide-eyed at this weird miracle of mothering, then the tiredness will be of a different kind.

I should mention, in case you imagine me reclining on the bed in a holy aura of meditative nurture, that this wide-eyed witnessing is not my regular practice. And to be honest, quite often it is not what I need. I need to be sorting – the house we are building, the procession of life we are dancing, and Arun is balanced in the crook of my arm and I am trying to email the carpenter and the search e-bay for reclaimed doors. But when it happens, then the exhaustion of new motherhood becomes something different, an absence of necessity and a dancing heart of peace.

So alongside exhaustion, peace is what I am listing in the hallucinogenic experience of new parenthood. To understand this peace, instead of thinking about the bewildered parents, I prefer to think about it from the perspective of the baby, who’s been sleeping, and dreaming, and waking, swathed in amniotic fluid for the past nine months. And even though now alive, scoured by hunger and confused by weird bodily sensations, there’s little out of the present to fracture the peace of this child. When he’s drinking, he is utterly full of drinking, and when he is satisfied after, there is nothing other than this satisfaction. And when he falls asleep on my chest, and feels my heart beat, the quality of his peace perhaps resembles the peace he had in that amniotic fluid. Like a starfish, at the bottom of the encasing ocean. Lying into life. Stretching into life. Sleeping and growing into life. This is an intense quality of peace, and I think that even though we are exhausted, we couldn’t be the source of that peace, and not have a capacity to share it.

Time

It is impossible to get things done in a linear progress of beginning, middle and end when there is a baby in the house. Any task on which we begin to concentrate could be immediately shattered by a tiny being’s appetite or digestive system. In the first two months I seemed to spend most of my time when I wasn’t breastfeeding or changing a nappy wondering around the house trying to work out what I should be doing before I next had to breastfeed or change a nappy. It’s as if our linear progression of achievement is a gentle stream, and now this stream has stones thrown into it constantly, so that it is patterned not only by flow but rings, rings, rings of water changing our concentration into something other than it has been. Now, perhaps, we are getting into the rhythm of things. Repeated actions from day to day, like bedtime baths and afternoon walks, seem equally as important as individual day achievements. As if through the tunnel of days we are carving a corridor of depth-illustrated life.

Reality

This is a truly miraculous society in which we are given so much scope to individually exist. But if – as the philosophers intimate – there is no such thing as an individual entity, since, after all, we’re all blurred up with the rest of the universe, then all this concentration on self-satisfaction may have, indeed, a strange quality of unreality to it. If we get right down to it, we are just dreams of essence. Circumstantial knots of consciousness. To please ourselves is lovely. But pouring time into keeping the small one alive has a breathtaking quality of reality to it.  Does I + baby have a deeper resonance than simply I, like a larger bell ringing in the cosmos? Do the more conglomerates we have give us substance, gravity, rememberance of reality? Just thinking out loud. And I’m not saying that motherhood has any kind of exclusive capacity to endow reality onto life,  nor that this maternal multiplication doesn’t have the capacity to be as illusory as real. I’m only saying that – this keeping alive a child who is constantly struck by and newly immersed in the reality of the world is an intense shot of being here.

Nurture

Breasts. I knew they were a part of me, like chin or lips, but I had no idea that they had the capacity to become the fundament. David Abram says that birds think with their wings. If that is the case, perhaps I am intelligent at this moment via my milk. What if consciousness dropped down there fully, to that physicality of nurture, whether it be the hand that is holding the bottle, or milk-rounded breast. What would we see? What would we know?  A goddess in a terracotta valley? A grove of fig trees? The moon?

 

That’s it, my friends. Linguistic rags of three bright moons. When Arun was born, and it happened in its own way, in a own wonderfully uncurling riddle of blood and pain and achievement and need and agony, I repeated to him, once he was out and breathing, “I’m alive, and you’re alive”. And after three months of ridiculously intense discovery and nurture, about all three of us, I can say the same thing. “I’m alive, and we’re alive”. What wonder.

 

 

 

Jun 242016
 

IMG_20160624_233005A strange night last night. After dreaming all night of a clear Remain victory, with a sense of safety permeating my sleep, I woke at 4am and hauled my phone from under my bed to check the results. Nothing was decided by then but the leanings were clear. Dark doors seemed to open where they were not before. Utterly unable to fall back to sleep I decided to do some pregnancy practice breathing and as soon as I did so, contractions began, first gentle and then more intense. I woke Eurik up at 6am, mostly because I thought the baby might be coming, perhaps partly also because I didn’t want to be awake and alone with the news.

No baby has arrived today, and I am glad 24th June 2016 will not be his birthday.  But the contractions in the morning, and the calm that the breathing brought about, made the strangest patterns in my thoughts. Although, of course, things can go wrong in pregnancy, the very fact of being pregnant and about to give birth feels to me like a state of near-incomprehensible wellness.  Whether it is creativity, spirit, change or child, this capacity to draw things through us is what makes us fully existent. In this nine months, the ancient flow of ever-ning has been a physical manifestation in my blood and beneath my skin. So within me, breathing, there was that – pain of contractions and a sense of deep wellness, a sense of participation in the igniting new existence of the world.

And then there was the news, and that was something else. I don’t know if anyone else has felt this, but to me, all through the campaign, there has been a sense of bizarre – and wrong – inevitability. It makes no sense, and yet for some massive, cold and terrifying reason it is still happening, as if we are in a dream over which we have no control. It feels as if we are heading towards something historical and very frightening and this is a way-marker on the rushing way. And maybe we are all being pessimistic, and the UK will be fine, and the EU will be fine, but maybe not. Maybe this part of something larger, and darker,  a shadow that is also part of a very, very difficult change.

So the things I think today, emerging from the paradoxical state of rightness and wrongness that I experienced at 4.30am this morning are, let’s just count our blessings. The darker the world gets, the more necessary it is for us to contract down to the awareness of what we have. People to love. Bare feet on grass that blossoms colour underneath the sky. The ability to witness roses. Water, at least, still where we are, so life can continue in utter magnificence, including, even, ours.

And if gratitude, like the mockingbird in the lullaby, isn’t enough to gentle and allay the world then let’s go deeper.  In this contraction to the miracle of subsistence, what basic essence of ourselves are we gifted with? In times which change incomprehensively and in which the battering of angry voices seems to leave no space for hope, what delays and hesitancies can we be released from and what new encounters out of the darkness can we make with ourselves?

And, indeed, what new encounters can we make with others? One thing throughout this past week that I have both experienced and heard from friends is a sense of the result as incomprehensible. I do not know anybody, I am not friends with anybody, who would vote to leave. But why not? Particularly if that is 52% of the country, and that 52% is passionate, angry and desperate enough to want to.  It does not just feel as if the two sides to this referendum communicated badly – it feels as if they exist in separate worlds, worlds divided in some part by class, privilege and education. It’s easy for me to call for a blessing count when I am writing in a garden (literally) full of roses and can see the grass and sky like great vistas outside my skin. I have been taught to see that and live in a place where I can. How can we hope to live in a world in which others are welcomed across our borders when the country itself is trapped in a system of othering dependent on pernicious spirals of class, wealth and degrees of hope?

So if gratitude is not enough, let it be a beginning, like an oncoming rush of consideration for the place in which we – still – live, and let it, then, spill outwards, wider and stronger, into a great fearlessness of being within it. Of doing the work and having the conversations. Of doing the work for conversation. Work for making the world – all over – a place in which we can hear what the people who walk beside us say.

Midsummer 2016 feels a hard time to be bringing a child into the world. The space into which he comes is as beautiful as I could wish it, but the times are tremulous and threatening, and I hope that he will also come into a time which is eventually rushing towards repair.  All I know is that it is, still, summer, the sun does rise and is at its peak, as is the green in the fields. By having things grow within the grass and sky we are still surrounded by wellness. May they continue to come through us, to sharpen and brighten and soothe us, and to remind us of what matters and who we are.

Jun 222016
 

This is not a time for closing doors
To keep, and reap, and sleep,
With nearer laws.
When all is change, proximity,
Climatic space, infinity,
And all we open, eases
All we are.
 
There has been a time,
When land came on,
Towards us,
And we bled for it,
As ours, and all our sons.
Now “ours” is a word
Not helpless, hopeless,
But a space,
Conducive, endless
And the land,
We tethered, ranged,
Comes towards us,
Bearing change.
 
We are no climate of amenity today
And nothing shut upon the world
Can force the world to pay.
We are owed nothing, only space
To stand within our homing place,
And make a hole, still out of grace,
And watch the flow, the hope, the pace.
These are the doors today –
Sun-fingered
That request our time
To see beyond the strange,
Dig deeper,
Change our living rhymes.
 
We are their prophets and their guards
These doors that mass towards the stars
And earth’s tremendous turning now
Sounds in its porous ways
A great disparate churning
Or an upswell of all days.
From here to there
The valleys sound
And dreamers flow
And lives abound.
There is no lock
Nor gracious wall
To keep us sleeping well
Only to stand
Beside the gate
And bid the bearers
Bear us well.

 

 

 

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May 042016
 

In our garden, about 30 metres away from the house in which we currently live with my mother and sister, my husband and I are building a house. It is a small house, though not too small, and will be built in a patch of land in one corner of the garden, where there used to be an intensity of wild bluebells. I am hoping that the bluebells will allow us to move them elsewhere.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to build a house, in the garden which we both love. Originally our building plans were to create a straw-bale round house. We would have put it in the field at the bottom of the garden, where little else sits but trees, wild rabbits, and himalayan balsam, and it’s invasion would have been quiet, like a sound made at dawn.

The complications of planning meant that we would have spent years fighting for permission to build this house. We sought advice from within the complexities of building and planning law, and discovered we could build something else. For multi-generational situations like ours, it is possible to apply for permission to build an “adjacent dwelling” next to the pre-existent building, for which one doesn’t need planning permission, but rather a legal certificate much simpler to obtain, and, most importantly, thoroughly possible. The details of this require it to be close to the main house, and to be “a static caravan”, which is essentially a bungalow that is built in two pieces. We found a firm that creates these, and their building techniques are excellent, and thorough.  No gentle straw bale house sung with the land of Sussex, but a well built timber and beautifully constructed mobile home on a cement base, with all the things that are necessary to be inside it, inside it.

Now I find myself in strange locations, with strange methods. Had the round house been possible to create, it would have been created by two wilderness builders who create houses of hobbit style with straw and local wood and reclaimed resources. If that house ever had come into being, it would have conversed with the places and spaces from which it was forged. Into the bluebell patch will arrive a brand new house, in pieces, like jigsaw. The house will be built from excellent and ecological resources. It will be a good space and a good house, and will not, we hope, take years but rather months, so that the baby might be able to spend his first autumn there, and his parents have their own brand new space beside the family home. The fact that we are able to build it at all, both financially and legally, has come upon us like a white-horse flamed miracle.

But I still find myself in strange locations, with strange methods. For every five houses we build in the UK, the equivalent of one house in waste goes to landfill. While our new building company is wonderful at sourcing the best resources and creating houses nearly passive in their energy use, they are not fluent in that other thing – the knotted not of pausing before consumerism happens at all. The former is an eco-living that flows with the tide of today’s economy, the latter is not. But if the latter doesn’t become so, then we will, of course, build, produce and consume ourselves out of existence within a fairly short space of time.

So I negotiate. Is cement a necessity? (Yes). Are there ways of making it more gentle, less pernicious? (Yes). Are there things which may come into our house from junk yards and not factories? (Yes). How much and how many? Can I source them? Can we use them? To their credit, the builders are open-minded, but given that the motivation and resourcing comes from me, trained as a story-teller and comfortable dealing in fairy tales, I fear both for my sanity and our house. This is not my fluency. These planks of timber and straight measurements, these architectural conversions of sketch to world, their unerasable corners and severe edges require dedication to a disciplined accuracy that makes me want to laugh and turn aside in panic.  In negotiating – about windows, doors, floors, drainage, gas, electricity, roofing and all else, I feel not so much that my ground is shaky, but rather the ground, and my feet, are not on the same plain.

But we want to live there, and we want to live there well. We want to build an efficient, possible, warm and real house with minimum invasion and assault upon the world in which we live. So we are in the midst of compromise; we are living in the heart and heat of compromise. Invasions, which we didn’t want, are necessary. The garden must be compromised, and trees sawn down. Cement on bluebells. We give things up, in the name of time and efficiency. The timber is not from Sussex and new trees cried. Wood was shipped in swathes of plastic across long seas. Things were made, for our house, while things which could have made it lie unused in junkyards.

And we continue to negotiate for things. Is it possible that the cement base be mixed with recycled ash, so while our foundations may not speak with the earth, at least they whisper of an acknowledgement that everything we produce continues to pester, bother, celebrate and exist? Is it possible to find floors, roof tiles, doors, beams that are not perfect and not unnecessary, rather pre-existent, shabby and exquisite? Is it possible to enjoy our budget, to have control of it, to purchase not in the compulsive rhythm of pervasive novelty but in conversation with what realistically exists, so that we might, perhaps, have money left over at the end for other things – less physical – that we need and long for? Of course it is possible. But whether we can achieve this in the midst of lives that demand rapidity, practicality, dedication and massive effort in a hundred and one other places also, as every single modern life does, we don’t know.

This is me, now. I have a first child coming in less than two months and three as yet unpublished manuscripts, one of which, at least, I wanted to finish editing and send to a publishers before becoming a mother. But what needs time, really? A published book is a magical transmission of secrets that can change a destiny and open doors. A house, you just live in. It’s construction requires a patience I have not been schooled to give. Yet also a time that, if given, like pouring thoughts upon a field, may perhaps make time different. More careful. Fuller.

What is time? Do we have time for the massive stasis of the clumsy incumbent materials with which we live? Do we have time to see beyond their stasis and acknowledge their outrageously, incomprehensively, fundamentally essential and endless existence? And, if that is time we take, how will our conversations with the world differ? How will our homes?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’ll update you about the roof tiles.