At Winter Solstice your shadow will be the tallest it’ll be all year. I’ve been thinking about the language we use to communicate with others about ecological awareness for over three years now and I’m still puzzling it out. It’s arisen in a particular way for me currently as I’m participating in an Active Hope Facilitators Training course, using the spiral of Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. A small group of us from all over Europe are learning new and old ways of reconnecting with ourselves, the planet and each other – it’s powerful, moving work, full of light and shadow.
The spiral is a symbol of a process that is expressed in interconnecting stages – starting with Coming from Gratitude, Honouring Our Pain for the World, Seeing Anew with Ancient Eyes and Going Forth. When I begin trying to explain this in conversations with friends and colleagues, I’ve noticed people’s eyes glaze over – an invisible barrier descends between us. The language, intended to clarify and engage, like any jargon, separates and alienates. I feel the same when academics use endless acronyms. For them, they represent familiar structures and belonging but I can’t help feeling excluded from these enclosed, insider-only spaces. Language is deeply implicated in elitism and accessibility – it can either open, invite and connect or withhold, confuse or keep at a distance.
The interplay of these different possibilities is something you (I) work with semi-consciously when you’re (I’m) writing. A guiding principle for me always used to be: would my mother, who left school at 15 and didn’t read a great deal, be able to enter the world of this poem and have a real sense of it? This has shifted for me lately – my mother died in 1994 and I’m aware the world we live in now would make no sense to her at all so having her as my touchstone no longer feels valid. It was useful for a time, helping me honour my working-class origins and deep commitment to equality and inclusion. But now I’m not sure what my litmus test might be – maybe the Buddhist guidelines on skilful speech: is it true? is it kind? is it helpful? is it necessary? is it the right time?
As a way of testing my understanding and relationship to language, I usually have to translate anything I don’t immediately connect with into my own words, paraphrasing and exploring them from the inside out until ‘the right words in the right order’ for an adequate translation present themselves. It takes a lot of time and effort but it seems to be the way I locate myself in the world and find my own sense of belonging. I can track the same process occurring, perhaps not even consciously, in the writing of others for publication, and more casually in correspondence – figuring out what we want or need to say as we work our way through the words and their shadows. All language is shorthand, a signal of an unfolding process – although it gives the illusion of being fixed once on the page or the screen, a possibly illusory instance of certainty.
I recently went to see the marvellous Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, where all these thoughts and conundrums are represented spectacularly – in the logos of the illuminated gospels, literally illuminated in a dark space at the end of a winding pilgrimage through books, words and stones. Then you enter the section on art and spirituality, full of light – non-verbal and numinous. What words are there are puzzles, fragmented, revealing their power, evidence of absence.
I heard poet Kaveh Akbar, author of Pilgrim Bell, shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Poetry, talking on the radio about poetry as ‘a spiritual technology’ and how he used the image of the bell as a symbol both of the sound and the silence that surrounds it. He called silence ‘an architectural element that allows us to see the subject by what it isn’t’, declaring a poem is a compass pointing you towards whatever action you might need to take, rather than suggesting any certainty or closure.
The Pain of Others (No.2)
Idris Khan, 2017
An Active Hope Circle friend suggested we could change the stages of Coming from Gratitude, Honouring our Pain for the World, Seeing Anew with Ancient Eyes and Going Forth to Appreciation, Challenge, Perspective and Action. I can see the merits of his translations in creating more open access to the concepts and experiences, however they perhaps still fall short. These are abstract nouns and rather vague – so risk being interpreted in many different ways, losing their essential elements. (And I never heard my mother use any one of those words.) As signs though, they’re fine – the beginning of a conversation that might open something in the imagination.
For example, you might inquire what ‘appreciation’ means for you. What does it look like? If it were a sound, what would you hear? And in the silence after it? And so on, using all your senses to help you understand ‘appreciation’ as something that you can feel in your own body. Again, all this takes up a lot of time but learning, unlearning and re-learning is a profound and lifelong process, a better use of our time than many things we might lose ourselves giving our attention to. How quickly even a quarter of a hour passes looking things up online or checking Instagram…
Another collision with the subject of Time – the theme that runs through everything I read, hear and reflect upon around ecological awareness and our current dilemma. It is encapsulated in our use of language: when do the words come? Before what we experienced? Or after? During? Or alongside? The unfolding of being in the world is a messy patchwork, a loose weave of many colours and strands of a vast fabric we’re creating together, unravelling and mending as we go, earthing and unearthing. We are creating structures and spaces we need to trust but must also know them for what they are – not safety blankets or refuges. The only place we can truly trust is our presence in each moment, the connection between each other and our openness and curiosity for simply being here together at this time. Mary Oliver speaks of a faith in what she calls ‘eternity’, which is perhaps simply the other side of ‘the present moment’ – the light or the shadow side depending on where you stand.
In the face of our accelerating polycrisis, Active Hope – in its latest iteration as a new edition of the book and an unfolding network of practitioners – has moved away from an expectation of outcome towards an emphasis on process. This again honours time, recognising how much we need to create space for assimilating and metabolising all the impacts of living in this stressful period in human history. It also points towards the acceptance of our whole lives as a process – one which we have a responsibility to meet in the moment while letting the absorption and transformation take care of themselves, as we go on making haste slowly.
And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.
Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.