Jul 092020
 
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I wrote this poem a couple of weeks ago. And I’ve been hesitant to share it, not knowing whether it would add anything of value to an incredibly fraught, complex and difficult conversation about gender, which the world is attempting to have on a medium which has little capacity to hold the fraught complexities of difficult conversation.

But I am sharing it, because in the end it felt like it wanted to be spoken. So this is an open poem to JK Rowling, dedicated with love to all my trans, non-binary and genderfluid friends, and to everyone who has felt unsafe in a brutal world.

Enough: A Poem for JK Rowling

 We are women,  
we have lived in strange
times, in
harsh, uncomplaining stories
that forgot our
bodies and
the lineated
strengths
of our own hope.


We are women,
shaped by
our invocations
old and new
and you
have called us in.
Given warrior women,
wonder names,
witches names.


And now you speak
for scars,
you name your own,
you speak
the pain
of blood and bone.
You stand alive
for womanhood,
the word
this world,
will rend and shake.


And yet,
more magics
rise to speak.
For we are more,
than has been spoke.
This our body,
this our blood
as womankind
we are enough
to know we are not,
simply
thus.


We are enough
to loose ourselves
hold circles
spilling
through the worlds
and call
upon
the ones within
Forbidden Forest
hidden names.


Yes you see us
now re-dream us.
Yes you wrote us,
now reprieve us,
from unseen us.
Yes we bleed, and so do others,
living voices,
standing with us,
mermaids
dragons,
giant-sisters,
dreaming brothers,
spoken others,
fighters
living,
now they breath us.


Those do not reduce us,
because they are not us,
nor oppose us,
but rather,
like a choir,
a returning space
of otherness
that falls
like rain upon
a name-burnt lawn.


In the centre
of your story,
is a boy
who dies
so he can live.


And what of us?
Can we not let go
of this fossilized
abbreviation,
this broken
sorting
that assumes
we are
defined
by shrinkage we are not
nor never have been?
We are women
and all other worlds.


Oh, we are your other,
wordlings of forgotten power.
In robes and dresses rise,
to look into the
flooded
bathroom of bullied
tears,
and stand with those
who rise against their Ghosting.


Oh, we are our others,
for these words,
have come in through us,
these commanding sighs
from breath to
wand we are
these witches.
You have breathed back
into our imaginations
branded our live incarnations
upon delighted worlds.


But this is our world.
Not dreaming,
nor mis-seeming,
we are living
in this keening,
strong enough
to speak our meaning.
Never think
we cannot understand
our being.
Never think
we cannot
speak the wonder that we are.


We are enough
to look outside a window,
made of fear
that did not know
that there are other names.
We are enough
to make
an incandescent exit
accompany
with fireworks
those who
break from
walls
that do not work.


So as you stand,
and speak for us,
do so and know,
we are enough,
to multiply
our forms
and love,
despite a world
live with untrust.


Thank you for words
you offered in,
may women live
in worlds of kin.
May discussion
succeed hate
may safety rise
and never shake,
may all who breath
be trusted with
their deepest make.
For still and still,
while worlds are rough,
give credence to
this changing us.
For still,
and still,
This is the trust.
For more than us,
We are enough.
 Blog  Comments Off on Enough: A Poem for JK Rowling
Jul 092020
 

Cross-posted from Wild Story Commons.

Image Copyright: Sam Cannon

What does it mean to stop?

For the last six weeks, I’ve been holding a story space (Zoomwise) for people to reflect on their experiences of this Now. One of the stories we’ve been wrapping and unwrapping is the story of the stop. Now, as governments across the world, advisably or inadvisably as you may think it, begin to start things up again, I wanted to share with you some of our conversation. What has it meant to stop?

Let me start with a fairy tale for, as Sabrina Orah Mark has recently reminded us, fairy tales are key for making sense of this vitally new, vitally horrendous, transforming and transmogrifying world.

Before lockdown began, I and a group of friends were working with the story of Sleeping Beauty. We are in a Storytelling Choir, which means that we spend months diving deeply into a story before recreating it into a shared performance. But with Sleeping Beauty, we were paused already, before we were paused by corona virus. We had reached a strange stopping point in which we were struggling to hold a conversation with the tale. The impossible point, I think, was the fact that, in most of the older versions of Sleeping Beauty, the heroine is not wakened by a kiss, but is raped in her sleep and left pregnant. She gives birth in her sleep and is wakened by her child. In a number of stories from across Europe, she then rides out to find the one who raped her, rescues him from the ignominy he has been cast into by his treacherous brothers, and marries him. Whichever way you look at it, this is a story that mis-tells. It treats rape as an insignificant plot point of romantic narrative and assumes that if you are stilled and unable to defend yourself, you are fair game as the object of convenience and want.

There are ways to work with this story, now, despite the incomprehensibility of its centre. Many ways. You can look to the versions (a few) in which this doesn’t happen. You can allow the trauma to be truly spoken and the rage to come through, interrogating the love story aspect and the happy ending. Or you can change the tale, as the Grimms and Perrault did, to make it more suitable for civilized ears and feminist times. But none of these were working for us. None of these seemed to hear what the story was saying.

The way we left it, when we decided that the Storytelling Choir was one of the social activities that had no desire to be translated into Zoom, was that each of us would experiment with retelling – to ourselves, and to each other when we next met – Sleeping Beauty in a framework outside of Western patriarchy. For it was beginning to seem to us that Sleeping Beauty had a mythic energy to her that couldn’t be understood or comprehended at all when told within the framework in which we and our culture are embedded. Something else and something older was needed.

My prompt for my own response came when discussing Sleeping Beauty with my online fairy tale class. I’d been talking about the power of sleep within the story. Many people find the tale problematic even before you dive into the deeds of its history, for the way it assigns activity and passivity so blinkeredly, the princess as “epitome of passivity” (Midori Snyder), awaiting her awakening by the valiant prince. But for me, the story is a space that invites us to unpack the very concept of activity / passivity, and to stay with the question of why, when, what for and how she sleeps.

There is an old Irish version where Sleeping Beauty is a golden queen in a golden tower, who sleeps, guarding the flaming well of Tuber Tintye, companioned by thousands of beasts of the earth and sea. A Scottish version where she sleeps in a cottage, within which are magical objects of plenty and abundance. Often she guards golden apples of healing. There is an utterly joyful contemporary novel by Robin McKinley, Spindle’s End, in which the Sleeping Beauty character has the capacity to speak to animals, and, when sleep falls across the kingdom on her twenty-first birthday, she and her animal friends travel to the dreamlike kingdom in which the evil fairy resides, and take her tower down.  For me, McKinley’s lighthearted novel holds a key to Sleeping Beauty, for it shows a young woman saving the sleeping kingdom by her connection to the wild. It tells a story of a girl capacitated by a birthright which keeps her always on the edge of dreaming, who learns from that dreaming to speak with more-than-human, and by doing so, has the strength, resources and power to travel in the dreaming world to where the inflated evil resides, and take it down. It tells a story, very simply, of a girl who saves the world while asleep. In doing so, it both echoes outwards, to spirit-journeys performed by tribal healers for the health of community, and resonates inwards, unpacking the tedious and tortuous, value-loaded Western binaries of passive / active, stillness / movement, sleep / wake. 

Anyway, I was rambling about this on Zoom one day, when what arose in the space was a conversation around how we no longer know how to recognize vulnerable power as power. If you are in a state in which you need protection, such as sleep, then you are seen neither as powerful nor as significant. How can you be powerful, if you can’t defend yourself? And why, says the subtext, do you then matter?

And I found myself inviting the double aspect into us, both the one who can rest, sleep and dream for the world and the one who stands and guards that dreaming, and as I did so I wondered: what if this were the myth outside of patriarchy? A story where the role of the prince is not to violate the princess while she is sleeping, but to stand guard as protector of that sleep. Perhaps the child she then bears would be not the child of his seed but the child of her dreams, so that in one way, she is mother-father and he is companion, and in another she is seed-bearer and he is the womb, egg, casket of deep creation. This is a story which might be both social, but also psychological, in that we need, more than ever, princes who guard the world-changing stillness, both within us and without us. 

Why do I speak about this now? Because we have been stopped. Many of us. Not all. But many of us have been stopped and stoppered, closed up in our houses, shrunken in our worlds. If we have children, we have been hectic and frayed. Perhaps we have been frayed by work, or the incomprehensible, ridiculous combination of work and children, in the same space. Or perhaps, somewhere in that, we have been spacious. But whichever way, something in the speed and motion of us has paused. There’s a poem by Margaret Atwood, “Faster”, in which she describes the evolution of human speed-making. “Walking was not fast enough,” it begins, “so we ran.” Later, “Driving was not fast enough, so we flew. / Flying isn’t fast enough, not fast enough for us.” And then: “But a human soul can only go as fast / as a man can walk.” And so “where are all the souls? Left behind.” Well, we’re not flying anymore. We haven’t really been driving. Has something deep and solo been trying to catch up?

But what if you have had no stop? If, for example, you are one of those infinite heroes whose positions and places have taken you into the fray? What has it meant, what does it mean, to be fighting at the very edge of this mutating breathlessness? And what if you have been doing so with inadequate arms, and without armour? We’ve been thinking of the prince that is in that, the warrior-healer, holding the edge of life-death, guarding the trance, blockading, with your own body, as much of the isolate-terror as can be blocked, so that those in this fever-dream have attendance where they can. And wondering about your outrageous lack of arms and if the reason for this is that we have utterly forgotten that this caretaking of the sleeping fragile is the act that holds the whole world in its arms.

Whichever place you stand, there is a pause in humanity, today. Are we dreaming? The world has never been like this. We’ve all been alive our different distances, but we’ve never had a fear that spread across the skies and into our lungs quite like this, and most of us have never experienced a time when the skies were as living and lucid as they are now. We’ve never known a change in pitch quite like this, when feathered ones speak with clarity and joyful volume, no longer haunted by the noise of condensed hunger that outrages the sky with its metallic tubes.

So we’ve been asking: what difference does the volume control have?

In Jean Liedloff’s anthropological study The Continuum Concept, she describes the sense of Tightness, an “all-there quality”, that can be experienced when one realizes, viscerally, that one is in the world. In the Western world, it happens perhaps one or twice a lifetime, an instantaneous moment when a butterfly lands on your shoulder or you stand before a waterfall and feel it both out and inside.

For the Ye’kuana tribe of the South American jungle with whom Liedloff lived, this fluid connectivity is the very texture of life, not fleeting but unending. As she describes, their lives are embedded in and conversant with their environment in a way that ours have not been for a very long time. But does it also make a difference, we wonder, that the noise of the world is also, just, right there? Is one of the reasons we in the Western world are enshrined in funnel webs of confusion that we have such a muted relationship with the diversity of the living world? 

My sister Laura has written a book about her experiences in the Bolivian jungle, currently in publication. At first overwhelmed by the multiplicity of the jungle, terrified by the spiders the size of dinner plates, repulsed by the rats and monkeys sharing living space, she gradually, slowly, experiences the shrouded cloak of alien fall away, not from the world but from herself, so that proximity becomes an invitation to reality, and reality becomes a flame of honest unencumbered life, the intensity of which she has never known.

Most of us will never go to the jungle. We will never experience the volume of real, multiple life at that level. But as a society we have also experienced, in the past month, a turning of the volume control. “Right now”, as David Abram wrote recently, “the earthly community of life—the more-than-human collective—is getting a chance to catch its breath without the weight of our incessant industry on its chest.” And so we hear, if we have the chance to listen, “tuning our ears and our skin to the discourse of multiple other-than-human beings: each redwing blackbird or storm cloud or naked chunk of sandstone.” (“In the Ground of Our Unknowing“, Emergence Magazine).

Can a sudden drenching in the proximity of Others change our minds and soul, take off the rubber human skin, as my sister puts it, and allow us to walk in reality again? What does this moment – the pause, as Neil Gaiman puts it, between the in-breath and the out-breath –  do? And is it a pause? It may be a human pause. But in our group we talk about rabbits in leporine crowds on the grassy roadside, trees bird-louder than we have capacity to remember. I walked past a bush on which a blackbird was singing, and he didn’t fly away, he just carried on his song, not to me, but neither not not to me. I was allowed to be part of the web of the moment in the way that humans, for as long as we can remember surrounded by the interference of our ravenous haste, have not been allowed to be.

Is it possible that now – maybe only for a moment more, as our inane hecticity goes back to rolling its Sisyphus stone – we can hear a different volume, a volume that, like Cinderella’s ball dress, is less an addition than a reveal of things as they really are? We have been stoppered, stilled, arrested and enrested, and while we have been, people across the world have described an enhanced intensity of dreaming. And so, like Sleeping Beauty, I wonder what it is we are dreaming.  And what it is for?

It’s very hard to believe that this matters. I’m sitting here at my computer looking out at nettles and red campion of my springing garden and struggling to believe that this article matters. For another thing that has been rising for us in Telling Now is how hard it is to take that stand, standing immobile and loyal beside the paused one within us, when we know that outside of us, in other towers, in other stone prisons, there are people who need our swords. How do we strike a balance, if there is a balance to be struck, between allowing ourselves life-rest, and fighting for that right for every single body across our poisoned shores?

I saw on Twitter, when I was having a less than sacred pause, a thread about what Jane Austen characters would do in times of coronavirus. The heroes, like Mr Knightley, foster the socio-economic system of their community. The anti-heroes, like Mrs Bennet, steal antiseptic wipes from their neighbours in the process of checking up. I wanted to be like Mr Knightley. I joined the volunteer groups. But, in the end, my caring, as my breath, has stayed localized  – to my three year old son, both exhilarated by unexpected parental presence and wounded by the sudden shrinkage of his human world to two adults. To my sister and my mother. My aunt in the next town. The caregiving that’s happened to me has been a blessing, a sprouting, a rising of local, guarded and sanctified by the prisoners of pause – I’ve been making teas from hawthorn, nettle, bramble, sage, mint and thyme. I’ve been gathering cleavers (good for the lymphatic system). Making bone broth soups and stews. Gathering elderflowers and hawthorn blossom. I’ve been learning what I have not had time to learn and meeting green ones I haven’t yet had time to meet.

All of these – apart from occasional midnight gleanings – have been done with the enthusiastic participation of my three year old.  My body is utterly grateful for this new system of attention which weaves the webs of my wild garden into a spacious, caring possibility.  But as we turn on the news again, the prince looks to me and says – how can I keep on standing by your stillness?

And I say to him, wait. Wait and see this strange unrising, while you are doing what you silently can.  For the truth is, it isn’t just that we’re now needed. It’s also that our society has brought us up to believe that our stillness is not needed. Pause, rest, stillness, sleep are concepts our patriarchal and consumerist system has maimed. They are like prisoners of war, released after torture as shadows of their former self. If we speak them, they need a crutch, and apology or a justification. This may have been the first time in living memory that the world has been, simultaneously and in its near-entirety, struck by plague. It may have been the first time in memory that some people in polluted cities have seen such clear starlight. And it’s also been the first time that most of us have been told that the best thing we can do for the world is stop. Distracted by trying to negotiate a worldwide pandemic, capitalism’s leaders have opened the doors for these prisoners of pause, and asked them to be useful. And, as these pausing impulses come hesitantly out of their space of shame and silence, I wonder what would happen if we, instead of enduring them until we can consign them back to their prisons, opened our doors wide and invited them in?

It’s hard to find the right space for them. But we need to. Because urgency is spiralling out of control. As we are sleeping, forests elsewhere are ravaged, and worlds will continue burning. Is it possible that we cannot wake up to this unless we start to stand guard over our dreaming?

As the world swings between panic and blame, fear and fury, as many of us reel from a change to the proximity of mortality and we grieve for our sundered physicality, let us ring in this pause, long and loud. The pause that has been, and the pause that still is. Without it, we have little hope.

Joanna Gilar



Telling Now runs every Friday at 6pm for the conceivable future and is free. If you’d like to join us, please email joanna@fabularosa.co.uk for the Zoom ID.

Laura Coleman’s The Puma Years will be published with Amazon in winter 2021.

Mar 202020
 

Dear Tellers and Dreamers,

I hope you are all well and staying safe, as the world is tumulted into strange and unknown territory. I find myself cycling through different systems of reality at the moment; the strange reshifting of a world in which the unsafe has arrived, frustration and fear at my government’s handling of the situation, a vivid sense of peculiar blessedness at being in close company with my family more than I ever have been, and a sense – beneath and threaded through my own terror – of a relief that something has arisen to confront the human world.

Awhile ago, I was scrolling on social media and I saw someone had posted a question along the lines of – if you could do one thing to change the world, what would it be. I was taken aback by how many answers were to get rid of humanity. We know that we are breaking this world at a rate so swift as to seem unstoppable. But the fantasy of our elimination seemed to me too glib and unthought. We are, also, made of world.

And what now? It’s one thing to fantasize about our cessation, and it’s quite another to be confronted by the reality of its possibility. It’s one thing to know that change is necessary, and it’s another to be on the raw edge of it, where we may no longer have the power to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. And it’s one thing to be aware of the necessary slowness that is now filling our bodies and our world, and another to be in mute company with those across the world for whom social distancing is not a possibility, or for those whom slowness does not arise as a luxury, who cannot step outside into wild spaces or feel safe with those with whom they are in forced proximity. With those multitudes – old and young – whose bodies cannot afford the blustering experiments of incompetent governments, but who need to be kept and to stay immediately and urgently safe. And all those on the medical frontline, who are choosing the world’s need as greater than their own, right now. To all those beings, in fact to all of us, I wish that you may breathe in chorus with the world and may it rise like the elements around you, and keep you safe.

I feel as if my mind keeps reeling upon finding itself here. Many of us have lived our lives with the slowly growing awareness that our systems, lifestyles and Western existences are like rotating vectors, keeping us relatively safe within them, but spinning out suffering in every direction to the more than human, multiple world. We have been rising to it as we can and we have been rising bravely, spinning out blessings alongside all that we harm by default, and gathering together in this strange centre, asking ourselves how to refigure it, and how to stop its vicious rotation.

Yet now it comes, it seems, something from the multiple world that makes us falter and the spinning begin stop. And how, then, do we reconcile a sense that it is, perhaps, time for this, with the dread, passion and fight to protect those who need us, reverence our safety, and keep life going for as long as we can? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think it should be spoken and held together.

I keep having a vision of a bridge of grassy light, stretching somehow through this time of darkness, not only of Covid 19 but of the anthropocentric system from whence it has sprung. And the bridge leads us to a world that looks the same as this one does, only every part of it is drenched in our awe-inspired attention, so that it is also that Other world of incomprehensible beauty that we have believed so long to be out of our corporeal reach. Today I read in the news that dolphins are now swimming in a clear, blue Venice canal, so perhaps it’s somehow, somewhere, coming.

For the foreseeable future, I’m holding Story Common Zoom sessions at 6 – 7 pm on Monday and Friday evenings, for people to gather and share their stories of this now. We are in the midst of story, and how we tell it together matters.

At 7.30 every evening, I’m going to dance in my house or in my garden. If anyone would like to join me, from where they are, then please do. If we can do nothing else, then we can dance and tell ourselves into the change. I thought, if people wished to, we could share on social media the songs that we are dancing to.

I’ve set up a Story Commons Facebook group to keep space for his. If you are not on Facebook but want to be involved, let me know and I will make a mailing list.

Blessings of love and safety to you all,
Joanna

Mar 192019
 

The last time I wrote about Brexit was in June 2016. Here we are, three years later, and we are in the midst of an unspeakably ridiculous spectacle of leadership. Where we need clearsight and vision we have backbiting and power politics. Where we need a leader to call out what matters, we have a bizarre pantomime of scapegoating and failure. When I’ve mentioned to people last week that I’m writing about Brexit again the overwhelming response has been, god, why? The actions of our government in the last few months have been so laughable that almost the only sane thing to do appears to be not to think in that direction at all.

But what should we do, when those who are supposed to represent us instead represent an empty embroiling in unmattering, and the country we love is in the midst of a collective act of profound self-harm? While some of my friends have responded actively to the insanity of the times, writing political blogs, going to marches, emailing MPs , I have stood by and watched, or rather, unwatched. My awareness of current affairs has plummeted over the last three years, as I have found myself unable to listen to the news, hurled, as I have been, into profound nausea and dizziness every time I’m subjected to an apparently serious conversation about how best we sunder ourselves from the deep nutrient network across the seas.

Now things draw to a climax, both in terms of urgency and lunacy, and the country feels collectively terrified, confused, and exhausted. Though I admit that, when I say country, I’m talking about my own echo chamber of storytellers, parents, mythologists, sexologists and academics, not one of whom thinks that Brexit is a good idea. Of the country as a whole, I have to admit that I don’t know, for the polarity of this tearing, the apparently unbreachable split between those who believe that Britain should go it alone and those who believe profoundly in the fundamental need to respect and nourish her embeddedness is too great. So great that at the centre, where there should be movement towards resolution of oppositions, there is only a pantomime of madness. And, in the midst of this madness, that which does matter, like the urgency of responding to a rapidly dying planet, goes unresonant and untended within the space of rule.

Is there any way we can respond to the ridiculous charade which claims to speak in our own voices, apart from with shame, nausea, and petrified horror? It seems to me as if the young people have the right idea right now.

Because what I’ve been wondering is, what if the ridiculous itself, which prances, swollen and swaggering, at the centre of our contemporary politics, has meaning beyond its own empty senselessness?

Marie Louise Von Franz says that in fairy tales, when the king cannot resolve oppositions, he is at his end. So what if this petrification at the centre of our governing is not just horrendous, but also a rising to the surface of the impossible, which is the precursor to utter change?

And what if the impossible that is rising to the surface is the anachronism of behaviour in which we are the only ones who exist? As a class, or a race, as a country, a people, a species. It’s not just the case of this classist, racist, anthropocentric vision being about to kill us. It’s the case that this vision has given birth to a leadership so divided that it cannot function, so petrified that it is about to shatter.

It’s a dangerous thing to mix myth and politics. But it’s an equally dangerous thing, in mythic times, to be so disconnected from our politics that we simply laugh at them. What if ridiculous isn’t just ridiculous? What if ridiculous is the point at which we are invited in? Our system has birthed, we have birthed, a leadership structure, which, across the world, is becoming petrified in its divisiveness. But, much as we may be ashamed to admit it, we are also our leaders, and if the centre of us is petrified, then the outwards of us need to move, and call in change.

I’m not much of a marcher. To be honest, I’ve only been to a couple in my life. But I went to support the children at the climate change march last week, and I’m going to go to the People’s Vote March on Saturday. When our children are standing up and asking us to act, I wonder what strange detachment is within us that we applaud them, and continue to watch them, as if we are watching a television screen, rather than our futures.

So this is to those of us (including me) who have spent the last few months applauding our youth for taking climate action, and not joining them. To those of us (definitely me) who have spent the last few years turning off the radio when Brexit is mentioned because I am so deeply embarrassed at its wrongness and I think there is nothing I can do. There may be nothing we can do. But let us rise up and now, and call for doing. Will it ameliorate the rising tempest of political insanity? Probably not. Will it help shape the river of difference that begins to flow from the banks from the frozen abyss? Perhaps. Because perhaps all we need to do right now, as our core systems of power become more and more incapacitated with their own senselessness, is, from the edges, to move.

 Blog  Comments Off on On Myth, Marching and the Ridiculous
Sep 282018
 

It’s a Saturday morning and our kitchen is alive. Three toddlers and I are sitting on the floor rolling out puff pastry. At the kitchen table a group of children and adults are chopping apples. My two year old son and my sister are standing at the kitchen island peeling the apples. In front of me, three other children are painting cardboard fruits. A five year old carries an egg carefully through the doors, extracted from our chicken roost. Outside the house, a circle of chairs and benches surrounds an old copper cauldron, filled with bits of grass, leaves, and decorated stones.

I have not begun a nursery school, nor an infant Hogwarts. What I am describing is the first ever Giant’s Garden, launched with apple-jubilance on Saturday 15h September 2018. This is a project I have been brewing for awhile but have struggled to write about. I think this is partly because its concepts are ecophilosophical, and its reality is a kitchen full of sticky toddlers wielding coconut oil, paint sticks, safety knives and pastry brushes. I did not know, when considering the ecophilosophy, whether reality would survive it.

In fact, it was that very tension between ecophilosophy and real life with a toddler that began the Giant’s Garden in the first place. My PhD was on stories and ecology, and one of the books that influenced it was Spell of the Sensuous, by traveller and philosopher David Abram. Here, Abram argues for the deeply rooted wildness of language and imagination. In fact, he suggests, it is storytelling in indigenous cultures which often provides the crucial bridge between ourselves and the world, “a mode of discourse that continually weds the human community to the land.” Another book with a profound impact was Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept, in which she describes her experience of parenting and community in the South American jungle. Liedloff writes how, with no word for “work” and no concept of “recreation” as we have it, the Yequana tribe with whom she lived pay full creative attention to their day to day tasks, and everyone is invited to participate. For small ones, this mostly involves wandering in, having a go at chopping a vegetable and wandering off again. But the invitation is there. And, as Abram talks about, imagination weds us to the world in which we are.

One of the things I have found hardest about being a mother is that there are so few community spaces where my son and I can work with the world together. Home-making, i.e. management of the wild-civilized intersection that allows us to exist at all, is not where community is held and stories are told. Rather, home-making is the frantic thing we try to do on top of everything else that needs to be done. My son is two. He wants to do. The things that most delight him involve helping me or his father or grandma handle the fireworks of reality, watering the plants, chopping the potatoes, picking and eating the raspberries on the bush. But I don’t often have time, space, or resources enough to engage him with my work. Today, we try and keep our lives going smoothly and we try and teach our children the wonder of the world. We are no longer held within a community of interactions in which it is possible for the two to become one and the same. Our children are taught from the beginning that good time is occasional, and antithetical to the rhythms that keep us alive. So in this one-to-two-year-old year of his exploring, tasting and testing out the world, my son and I have moved from soft play centre to dance class, playground to library, from toys to books to painting to teddy bear tea parties, and a weird voice inside me keeps saying where’s the work?

The Giant’s Garden project is running in our garden, but it’s not our garden, despite the fact that Arun keeps saying to me in excitement: “Our garden is the giant ’s garden!” It’s not a place, because we don’t live any longer in those places where stories are told with the bear, the squirrel and the otter, and community is strong enough to have collective homes. Instead, the Giant’s Garden is an experimental method that we have begun teaching small people (and big people) about the interaction between imagination and attention. At the start of every session we gather around that old copper cauldron and wiggle our fingers and stamp our feet in order to open a door to a different world. Not a world that isn’t here. Rather a world where magic, children, play and work are invited to exist together. And, hopefully, the space that is-isn’t of the Giant’s Garden will wriggle its own fingers and stamp its own feet and begin to spread across public places and garden spaces of the county.

The Giant’s Garden team consists of me, my husband (a therapist trained in outdoor education) and Arun (an expert in dragons and wonder-magic). Joining us is the fantastic Lucinda Warner, a herbalist and forager who, in the second Giant’s Garden session took us on a quest for hawthorns and taught us how to make hawthorn fruit leather. Next session (which I am very excited about) she is going to teach us how to make himalayan balsam and nettle seed pancakes with rosehip syrup. The project is running under the auspices of  HKD Transition, the Hassocks, Hurst, Keymer and Ditchling branch of the Transition Towns movement, which seems appropriate given that the movement is about building stronger communities to respond to climate change, and the Giant’s Garden is about transitioning ourselves into, rather than out of, the world in which we live.

On Saturday morning, when stories had been told, apples picked, and all apple puffs devoured with great satisfaction, I gathered up my tired son, and began a conversation with Lucinda about berries. We were discussing whether the rosehips were ready – earlier than they normally would be – and Arun joined in. “The rose hips are still green,” he said, seriously and excitedly. “They’re growing red but they are some of them still green and growing to be red.” “I agree,” said Lucinda. “I think they probably need a week or two more.” We all wandered off to have an inspection of the rose bush underneath the Scots Pine tree. Something about this encounter made me deeply happy. While Arun is full of words, when he joins conversations he normally does so with two year old non-sequitars about his day, his emotions, or experiences he wants us to recall, “remember when we went on an aeroplane!” when we are in the middle of talking about stew ingredients, for example. I think this was the first time he had joined in a conversation for the conversation. And perhaps it was because he felt as if he had been invited.

The Giant’s Garden

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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.

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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