There’s been so much to assimilate – on an individual and collective level – since Covid 19 grew to pandemic proportions and affected all of our lives, I’ve not written anything reflective about where I am with my work for some time on my blog. The coronacoaster has necessarily distracted vital attention and action from the Climate Emergency, while holding a mirror up to it and giving us in the global South a small taste of what living with disaster and deprivation is like. A recent Mori poll indicated that two-thirds of the global population believe Climate Change is as dangerous as Covid 19. The inadequacies of our support systems laid bare a chilling lack of preparedness and resilience. If we were in any doubt before, we are witnessing the old order unravelling and no one really knows what will come next.
As lockdown is beginning to ease, there is a chance to take stock and look closely at the threshold we’re now desperately trying to keep steady on, before deciding what threads we want to renew and carry across for life on the other side. We could jettison denial for a start. Not speaking truthfully about Climate Change, the pandemic and death itself – the pressure to always be positive and partisan – perpetuates an unbalanced, insecure system and an essentially dishonest culture. We are seeing many people choosing not to participate in it – a more welcome contagion.
Although it’s a vulnerable and dangerous place/time, this threshold is also one of great openness and possibility. Change – newly aware, informed and inclusive – needs to happen at a quicker pace than previously thought. We’ve all seen the alarming news from Siberia rapidly overheating, the Amazonian Rainforest continuing to be razed by fire and Arctic ice melting, creating a warmer, bluer ocean that reflects back the sun’s rays, disrupting whole weather systems and melting yet more ice. The UK government’s strategy to revive the pre-existing moribund, toxic economy, reinvesting in fossil fuels and harmful food supply chains, is a fatally lost opportunity when healthier, fairer and environmentally friendly enterprises and pathways are at hand, ready to be implemented.
I’m not the only one who sometimes feels angry, disappointed, fearful, confused and full of sadness. While it is important to feel those feelings and continue to work with our millennia-old twisted and tangled karma, we can decide what we want to take into our shared future. I hope our fears and wounds from the past might spark radical transformation rather than knee-jerk reaction and further injustice. Carved in stone in the Canongate Wall of quotations outside the Scottish Parliament, one from Canadian poet Dennis Lee makes a good, practical suggestion: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’.
The threshold can feel like a tightrope between hope and despair, pessimism and optimism, and transformation too much to ask. Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s sense of cultivating hope as a ‘mode of resistance’ might be more within our grasp:
‘I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful. I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic. Here’s how I would describe it. The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’ The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I don’t think it’ll be that bad. The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’ …Hope is…a mode of resistance…a gift I can try to cultivate.’
Every day I walk my own tightrope between different weathers in my heart and mind in response to whatever inner and outer work, interactions with others, physical well-being, reading, viewing, listening etc is acting upon my imagination and the space I occupy in the world from moment to moment. I’ve noticed how much I’ve been conditioned to polarise – to choose a position between two opposites – like the hope v. despair antithesis. The same binary dynamic skews any new thinking about other ways of framing the Climate Emergency. I’ve often found myself on a seesaw juddering between the need to digest the science, confront the ramifications of difficult-to-absorb data, and my default intuitive approach (via poetry and Buddhism as an interwoven practice) of cultivating judgement-free embodied awareness. As if these approaches were mutually exclusive, at odds with each other. I hope to expand my own capacity to integrate both, bring a sense of deep and kind presence to my reading of the distressing facts and let those facts in turn percolate into my more open, creative awareness. I don’t want to find myself paralysed and numb, ceasing to engage. One of my favourite Susan Sontag quotations (of which there are many) is ‘Writing well is the best revenge.’
I’ve noticed how much highs and lows have been magnified under lockdown, every small triumph or failure, ache and pain, gaining out-of-proportion purchase with none of my usual escape routes. This effect is triggered by the fight or flight response to stress or trauma – a primitive, reactive, self-protective mode, necessary for survival. I’m more contented and function better when I can go beyond simply surviving to an expansive, creative, sustainable thriving, taking others as well as myself into account. There’ll be a lot more fight or flight in the air if measures are not taken to mitigate and adapt to global warming and related environmental catastrophes. I know in my own body that I’d prefer to avoid that scenario. What would it look like if we could all adjust our moral compasses and find our True North, to help navigate our way through the times ahead? How can we expect integrity from our governments if we don’t commit to it in our own lives?
Lockdown has been an entirely different experience for everyone – even those in the same household. Across the world we’ve been united in dealing with a threat to our existence but major inequalities and discrepancies around poverty, race, age, class, gender and geography have been exposed. We all need to work with that, live from it at a personal and political level and redress what needs to be redressed. This requires a radical new culture of empathy and kindness. The Dalai Lama tells us: ‘Compassion is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.’
The regenerative power of multiplicity and diversity revealed itself in the way local action and mutual aid has worked so heartwarmingly in respect to the Covid crisis. Communities have shown their strengths and grown more tentacles. Everyone matters in the exchange between what is needed and what is offered at a local level. There have also been important lessons and new opportunities in terms of the local economy, particularly when it comes to food production and supply. Act local, think global is not just a clever slogan.
I’ve always felt a strong need to connect, collaborate and cross-fertilise around my work. I really appreciate the way I am changed by my interaction with others, enlarged and enriched by creative exchange. Post-Covid I’ve had more inklings of that dynamic simply being around others, strangers as well as friends, in the supermarket, on local walks, in Zoom conversations, over cups of tea in my garden (and I’m very aware of my great good fortune in having a garden at all, as well as plenty of outdoor space on my doorstep). Strangely, despite isolation and physical distancing, I have felt less of a solitary being, more sensitive to and appreciative of my dependence on others. My work requires great swathes of time spent alone – sometimes I feel that might be why I chose to be a writer, simply to ensure I have enough of the solitude I need. However, the Climate Emergency (of which Covid is only one symptom) is calling on me to override my preference for a quiet life. That ship has finally sailed. My deeply rooted needs and values around connection and community have risen to the surface, asking me to overcome any resistance to pushing myself out of my comfort zone and find ways of being real and creative with frustrating online platforms, challenge myself more (I’ve taken up running for goodness sake), have more faith in what I might have to offer and accept imperfection. That old number from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better…’.
I tell myself that most of the time it’s enough just to be present and honest, open to what a particular person or situation demands. I want to give what I can where it’s needed. And I don’t doubt it is. More reflective, contemplative strengths, usually associated with introverts, are crucial as we gather on this threshold, awake to ‘the wild beauty of the invisible world’ (John O’Donoghue, ‘For Belonging’). It’s time to hear more from quieter voices and less of louder ones. Going deeper might help us get to the roots of the problems we face. A new radicalism is already on the rise and that is something worth carrying forward.
Roshi Joan Halifax talks about Zen Master Dogen’s encouragement ‘“to give life to life,” even if it’s just one dying person at a time, one caregiver at a time, one child at a time, one life at a time’. I’ve also been pondering what she has to say about not-knowing and surprise:
‘…what I call “wise hope” requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to being surprised, perpetually surprised. And I think that wise hope emerges from deep inside the preconscious only through the spaciousness of radical uncertainty, of surprise.’
Recently I’ve had a chance to take stock of the poems I’ve been writing during my residency as Climate Writer. For my ten-minute slot on NCLA’s Inside Writing, I chose to take a snapshot of some of my thoughts about Time. You can listen to the podcast here, along with lots of other interesting work from these interesting times. How are you dealing with them? What do you want to carry with you across the threshold? You might be interested to see a wordcloud from the London Climate Action Week webinar on Post-Covid Climate Resilience I attended last week.
The jellyfish are from Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival, a wonderful film by Fabrizio Terranova.