Hopes and Fears 2020-2021

I have spent more time and effort than ever in this last year on attempting to understand what is happening to life on this planet and what we all need to be doing to protect and support it.  Trying to make decisions about who/what to give my support to in this.  Trying to understand what I can offer.  I am limited in my understanding – not really able to take in the immensity it all, but not wanting to break it down and reduce it to simply problems to solve.  This is some of what I have learned:

I am not separate.  I am, and I am not, an individual.  All beings, animate and inanimate, on the planet are totally unique and totally interconnected.  The whole universe is totally interconnected.  The wise have been telling us this since always.  Humans are not really able to separate themselves from the rest of nature on this rich and wonderful planet.  It is not our right or even a genuine possibility to dominate the natural world.  This is a dangerous illusion we have been living with too long.  Our efforts to do this have brought us to this point.

Power and control need to be replaced by responsibility and agency. Everything we do has some kind of effect.  We each have some agency and need to take on board our responsibility.  This is an immense shift in view – but possible.  It requires us to do without much of what we have taken for granted as our entitlement.  We must let go of power and control – of any thought of dominance.

It would be dangerous to think that technology can solve things – or economics – or politics.  All of these have hugely contributed and are continuing to contribute to the processes of environmental destruction that are now well underway.  Technology, economics and politics can be helpful, but only if the current views and approaches within them are radically re-visioned.  What is needed is a fundamental shift in how we view ourselves, others and our environment.

People tend to want certainty and simplicity – but will have to embrace uncertainty and complexity.  We will also have to embrace each other – all of us need to embrace all of us – human and non-human.  If this does not happen, then fear will take hold everywhere and I fear a frightening and violent future – global holocaust.   Them-and-us and nationalism need to be replaced by equality and community.  And as the eloquent voices in the Black Lives Matter movement have made it clear, for things to become more equal, those of us who have more will need to make do with far less – less privilege, less convenience, less comfort and even less food.

Nature can recover.  If given the space and able to take the lead, life can proliferate again.  But we will need to take less, make less and discard less.  We will have less of what we have strenuously created and accumulated in the last 400 years or so.  Less will feel like loss – but it will bring more.  Are we prepared to live with less?  Can we manage to open our hearts and minds to embrace what needs to be embraced?

Where is there to go?

Where is there to go?  Where is there to stay?  Going and staying.  What is place?  Can I stay in place? – or must I go?  If I don’t want to go forwards, and I can’t go backwards, and sideways feels like temporary distraction, where can I go?  It comes to me that I can go deeper.  But what does this mean?  Deeper into stillness and silence.  Deeper into thoughts and ideas.  Deeper into the hearts of others – if they let me.  Deeper into imagination.

I am walking along a path, aware of the ground under my feet.  A leathery oak leaf rattles up the lane in front of me.  I am moving in a circle – so going somewhere and nowhere.  I do this most mornings.  I love it.  I pass the same trees.  Are they the same?  Am I moving deeper?  Deeper into place?  I don’t want to appropriate this place – but deepen to it.  There is a place I have found where I might stop and stay – in a forgotten corner of a field where an old oak tree is lying on its side, slowing rotting and giving itself to the earth.  I want to go there – but not today.

Under my feet, under the wet layer of fallen leaves, there is a deeper place.  I have always been afraid of going down into the earth.  Caves, pot holes, mines, tunnels bring out real fear in my body – and I avoid them.  I feel tight in the chest just thinking about it.  I tried to learn to scuba dive once – but my ears became too painful, so I went back to the surface.  And then there is deep, unfathomable outer space, just beyond the thin blue line.  My body does not want to go deeper into any of these.  It could not live there.  I want to live.  And I want to go deeper.

 

The Place

 

Early morning sunlight

scatters silver coins

through quivering birch leaves.

A goldfinch eyes me

from the holly high above,

while the rest of his flock

flutter around him.

Over the pathway

hazel branches shake

as squirrels seek and squabble.

 

Tell me – can the place

where earth becomes sky

actually be found?

Between

We have gone into “lockdown” again.  Since the start of the pandemic, or at least since the effects of it first arrived here, we have been a liminal state – a place between – between before Covid-19 and after Covid-19.  There has been a lot of talk about what “after” might look like, but I cannot imagine it.  I am just in “between”.  There has been suffering in this place for many, but I have not suffered more than I normally would, considering my on-going, recurrent human condition of confusion and reaction, which I work at managing.

I am aware that my friends and family in the US are not only in the “between” of the pandemic, but also between presidents.  They may also feel caught between the many factions, ideologies, identities and injustices that run right through the American “dream”.  Their outgoing president has altered so much in how Americans view themselves and how others view them that they don’t really know where this will lead them to.  Chris and I have comforted ourselves by listening to the American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Songs from Home as she sings to all those who are “in between” from her Virginian home each Sunday.  Her deep humanity, empathy and sanity reassure us.

I have been able to be still enough at times to witness the place of “between” in its potentiality – and it intrigues and inspires me.  I am certainly not always comfortable with it, but sometimes I quite like it.   It is possible to move in this place too.

Being Between

 

I walk along the beach

between tides –

the sand wet but firm.

My feet leave barely a trace.

There is no sense of sinking.

The tide line is drawn

with seaweeds, shells, tangled net

and ever present broken

bits of human litter.

I feel light and begin to move,

opening my body to

being between –

sea and sky, earth and air,

now and later, solid and fluid,

under and over, great and small.

Not caught between –

dancing between.

 

 

 

 

An Ancestor

This year it is 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620 to what later came to be called New England in North America.  Here in Plymouth, Devon, there has been a series of events and projects under the title of Mayflower 400 to commemorate this.  My friend, Stephanie Pratt, a local art historian and also a member of the Dakota nation through her father, felt determined to make certain an indigenous perspective would be included, showing the impact of this colonial event on the people already living in that place.  She dialogued with several of the organisers to ensure that this could happen, including the artists of the Speedwell Project.   You can listen here to an inspiring talk with Steph and the artists, Laura and Leonie, about the project and how her input influenced it.

Quite a while ago I had mentioned to her that one of my ancestors, Peregrine White, was the first baby born once the Mayflower reached the “New World.”  She wanted me to somehow be involved – as a Mayflower descendant – in what was happening.  By the time she asked me, the Covid19 pandemic was in full swing and I was not sure I could participate in person.  After some thought, I told her I would write a poem which could be used or not.  She was up for that.

It was quite illuminating doing the research for this poem – and often upsetting.  First, I looked at all that had been gathered by my mother’s cousin, George McNish, who had spent many years investigating the lineage of the McNish family.  He had shared his paper trail with others in the family, including myself, and it had been sitting in a box in the loft for many years.  Finally diving into it, looking for the connection with Peregrine White, I found that his break though in understanding the Mayflower connection was someone called Zachariah Green, described by George in a letter to me as “a highly respected and a distinguished gentleman” who was a Presbyterian pastor who lived from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th centuries.  As a teenager, he fought and was wounded in the Revolutionary War.  His position as an ancestor of the current McNish family is clearly documented.  In the documentation of the time, it states that his mother, Jane White, was a descendant of Peregrine White.  Looking at the dates, I guessed he had been her great-grandfather.  Her grandfather had most likely been his eldest son, Daniel, who had been conceived out of wedlock!

This was interesting enough, but I decided to look more into the actual events around the Mayflower sailing and landing in order to set his birth in some context.  This is where things became disturbing.  I had been fed a diet of Pilgrim Fathers and Thanksgiving Day by my American childhood education.  Although I knew it was not quite like that, I had never really looked into how it had actually been.  Mayflower 400 has made some contact with the Wampanoag nation, the people who the Mayflower pilgrims met when they landed, and who as they clearly state, “are still here“.  It is a terrible story, of plague brought by previous contact with Europeans, and of slavery – there is a reason why the Wampanoag known as Squanto was able to speak English to the settlers.  Peregrine White and Zachariah Green were both referred to in documents as “Freeman”.  This is partly because of the practice of indenture by the early English colonialists – but also because there were already African slaves being brought into North America.  And the peace that is so blithely celebrated in the USA on Thanksgiving Day soon deteriorated into catastrophic violence.

Below is the poem I wrote.  It was well received by the members of the Speedwell Project, but what now happens with it I have no idea, as a second pandemic lockdown has been imposed for the whole month of November when the group were hoping to create a ceremony on the Plymouth waterfront.

Traces:

To the infant Peregrine White, my ancestor – born 20 November 1620, on the Mayflower while anchored at Cape Cod

Born five days before me and

three hundred and twenty nine years,

there is a bloodline thread between us

I can run my finger along.

 

Innocent arrival in this “New World”,

brought into being by your parents’ desire.

Desire for freedom, courage to question

Established Church dogma and decree,

and pure Puritan resolve,

took them onto ominous autumnal seas

in a vulnerable wooden bark

to a land they felt uncultivated and unkind.

Your father died three months later.

Little is known about William White.

 

What did freedom mean to them?

or to you?  Freedom to worship

in your own way is what I was taught.

But your parents brought with them

their own dogmas of fundamentalism,

of patriarchy, of human dominance over

Nature and the unquestioned

rights of European race and culture.

The “New World” was yours to take

regardless of it not being new.

 

Will you question your freedom

when you lie with your love, Sarah,

without sanction of ceremony,

beginning a new birth that

will lead, in time, to my own?

Is it traces of the thirst for freedom

that will rouse your young descendent,

Zachariah, to throw himself in front of

musket balls in 1777?  Will either of you

question what a Freeman implies?

 

Once born, each will struggle, maybe grow,

eventually pass away, leaving traces behind –

some like gouges in the earth,

some like gardens – sometimes both.

I have a thirst for freedom, and question

all assumptions passed unquestioned to me.

Assumptions are deadly – fixed views blinding.

There are no new worlds –

except those of the heart and imagination –

no territories to take and hold on to.

 

May this poem leave traces in hearts

of questions with no certain answers.

Both on the shore and out at sea

there are many ways of seeing.

 

There is a gift there

 

This is on a blanket that my mother used to wrap around herself – and I still use when I am wanting warmth and comfort.  The heart stone comes from my friend, Julia, who died a few years ago and who used to collect heart stones – and the rose petals are from roses in ex-husband’s garden, that my daughter now cares for.  She brought them to me after my mini-stroke last year.

What is the gift?

On the 11th May, 2019 – a year ago today – I had a bad fall which precipitated a mini-stroke, leaving me helpless and housebound for almost a month.  It then took me several months more to slowly regain my energy.  A stroke nurse was amazed and fascinated when I told her it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  It opened me up in a way that I have been preparing for, and desiring, for a very long time.  Hallelujah!

A year later – and the whole world is changing through the pandemic experience of COVID19 coronovirus.  I have had to close down in the sense of staying at home – but my practice is still to keep opening.  Opening to death and loss is the theme at the moment.  Two people who have deeply influenced my life in recent years, including this enquiry into desire, have died recently – neither from the virus.  Javanese movement artist and teacher, Suprapto Suryodarmo died in December of heart failure – and Rob Burbea, Buddhist meditation teacher, died last week of cancer after an extended and brave effort to keep living.  Loss is heavy in my heart.  In his last recorded talk, Rob talked about death and dying and said it is not all about loss.  “There is a gift there.”

A gift came my way from my step-son last week.  He is writing an information leaflet on mental health to help inform mental health support workers who have little experience or training and he wanted me to have a look at the draft and comment on it.  In it he wrote that depression was a misnomer – that really it is a “depressive response”.   This slight shift in the way of looking has quite a strong effect – no longer seeing it as some “thing” that arrives and blankets my life, but as a way my psyche is responding.  The “thing” that needs to be understood is more whatever it is that I am responding to than the response.  This is such an empowering difference.  I have suffered depression on and off since my late teens.  There have been times when it has gone on for months and months – feeling like a whole mental landscape, a kind of empty desolation I am marooned in.  There is no desire felt in this place – although, from a distance, I can see a desire coming from the depths of my soul to change and to grow.  In time I began to figure out that my depressions related to having to fundamentally change in some way – and eventually I saw it more positively as some kind of initiatory experience.

In the last ten years, despite the losses and changes, I have not experienced depression in any long term way.  Yes, I can go down low and very quiet for a few days or even weeks, but I don’t seem to get stuck there anymore.  One of the main reasons I gave for my retreating out to Dartmoor for three months in the spring of 2010, after retiring from teaching, was to see if this could alter my usual depressive response to big changes – and it did.  I was proactive in my withdrawal from daily life, opening eagerly to the retreat if not without trepidation, and it was a transformative, beautiful time.  I gave myself a gift.

I have already written in this blog about the gift I received from my mini-stroke experience (Going deeper to be loved).  Now I am waiting, practicing opening, wondering what the gift might be from the recent death and loss.  I know I have already received it and just don’t yet see what it is.  My response, true to my nature, is a depressive response.  What is the gift?

 

 

COVID-19 Lockdown

Perception of time becomes clear.

Everything known is past, except

what is here right now.

The future does not exist.

 

Desire, too, sharpens into focus.

The lessons of Epictetus

never felt more relevant.

“Well, should I not desire health, then?”

No – nor for that matter, anything

outside the limits of your authority;

and whatever you cannot produce

or preserve at will

lies outside your range.

Don’t let your hands go near it,

much less your desire.*

 

I want to unfurl like a flower –

body, heart, soul –

every time I whisper the word,

“Open”.

 

*Discourses, Book IV (Penguin Classics)