Tag Archives: work in progress

Endings and Beginnings | Beginnings and Endings

After over ten months of thinking, reading and writing, my Climate Residency has officially come to an end.  In the spirit of honouring endings to make space for new beginnings, I wanted to spend some time here reflecting on where I’ve been with it.  Some of this you’ll know already – pandemic, lockdown, pandemic, lockdown: a jagged rhythm we probably haven’t seen the last of.  It changed the form and energy of the way I had to work early enough in the Residency that I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like under pre-Covid conditions.  I was glad I managed to squeeze in a couple of Climate-related gatherings right at the start – one with North East Culture Partnership in Sunderland and one with Julie’s Bicycle in London.  Both were wonderfully sociable events, packed with stimulating and provoking ideas about the role and potential of culture in response to the Climate Crisis.  Ironic, that culture-as-we-knew-it came to an abrupt halt just a few weeks later when the first lockdown was announced.

All my research and networking shifted online and I’ve lost count of all the webinars, gatherings and talks I’ve attended on various platforms.  I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of information, and no doubt forgotten just as much.  I’ve filled five notebooks with notes that started quite neatly but have become more and more erratic, teetering on the illegible.  I tell myself that I’m in revolt after the strictures of the PhD process, but I’m still not entirely sure what it’s ‘useful’ to keep a record of, never knowing where my own writing will come from.  Sometimes the origin of a poem is traceable, sometimes it stays hidden in the tangle of accumulated thoughts.  I probably need to be aware that in my notebooks I’m writing notes to my future self and I could try to make it a little clearer for her sake.  My process has always been gloriously messy, arcane, archive-unfriendly, untranslatable, and I can’t see that changing at this late stage.

I’ve missed the regular face-to-face human interactions that used to form the backdrop and compost of my writing, but feel even more deeply enmeshed in my patch of scruffy, windswept land held fast between the River and the Wall.  Although I’m thankful that I do still seem able to write, I don’t find writing ‘about’ Climate any easier.  Every single time I return to the blank page I have to start all over again trying to say something truthful, vaguely original, worth saying, possibly helpful.  I spoke a little about the process and read some of the poems in progress for Newcastle University’s Inside Writing Festival in the summer.  The poems are accruing slowly and all being well there’ll be enough of them to form a collection at some point.  I’ve noticed I’m using the ‘I’ voice more than I expected, needing the ballast of close subjective observation (Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’) to help cast them off into the vastness of the troposphere.  There seem to be quite a few poems about trees and unsurprisingly the weather comes up a lot, the consolations of place in the face of grief, sadness and longing.  I’m interested in the poetics of ethical dilemmas and solutions, energy and power, the confounding tangle of it all.

Alongside working on my own writing, I enjoyed curating the collective Murmuration project, and collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film for Durham Book Festival.  It was extremely heartening to hear so many positive responses filling the social void.  The Residency has been beautifully managed and supported by Anna Disley at New Writing North, who’s been a helpful and encouraging presence throughout.  Our Climate Book Group (open to all) read five books and has proved a satisfying, strong way to stay connected.  We’re hoping that these will continue in the New Year – there’s already a growing list of potential novels, poetry books and non-fiction titles.  This was one place where proper conversations could happen.  I had others in various online forums or one-to-one in the open air, but mostly, it has to be said, with myself.  Overarching themes which recurred in these conversations include:

Time

I talked about my preoccupation with Time on the Inside Writing podcast.  It’s key to the subject of Climate in multiple ways, not least the pressure of the fast-approaching deadlines for reaching carbon zero.  The concept of Time encapsulates the conundrum that the only moment we can actually change is this one now.  Albert Camus resolved it, saying ‘Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present’.  The blessing (and the curse) of Covid has been to remind us to stay in the moment – the future even more uncertain and contingent than usual.  Uncertainty is a fact of nature and, like death, one our culture would prefer us to deny or ignore.  Beginning afresh over and over again, staying present, staying patient, is something we must learn, like circus skills, tightrope walking or juggling.  If it has to be so, we may as well make it exhilarating, entertaining.

Hope

When the Residency started I was concerned the burden of focussing so thoroughly on the Climate Crisis might be too much to bear.  You have to become slightly obsessed with a subject, immersed in it, to write about it at all.  Is that what I wanted to spend all my time thinking about?  I doubted my capacity for scientific information, my resilience, my energy levels, my ability to transform what I learned into poetry.  It’s been a stretch, tiring and boggling, but, eleven months on, I’m feeling more hopeful about our potential for radical transformation.  Because of my reading and all the online gatherings I’ve attended, I’m now much better informed.  Knowledge brings power and hope.  The story portrayed in the media tends to be on the dark side because that is the language of the ‘news’, however it’s clear that we have all the resources we need to take us into a carbon zero society.  What we are lacking is unambiguous backing from governments and legal systems to keep the fossil fuel industry in check.  The steady work of countless inspiring individuals and projects goes unreported in the mainstream news.  We have heard about the US election result and that has brought more hope, an immense relief after months of fearing the worst.

Challenge

Although there is occasion for hope, many obstacles remain and much work still needs to be done to fundamentally rethink how we live in the world and create a new ecological civilisation.  Reducing emissions will help stabilise the impact of mass migration, resulting from drought, floods, poor crop yields and political instability.  Even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures will create around 30 million migrants each year; if it rises by 4 degrees, that figure will increase to around 150 million.  Open up any topic that needs political attention and Climate is an inextricable strand in the tangle – energy, ‘the environment’, transport, housing, finance.  Although attention has been, understandably, diverted towards the challenges of the pandemic (itself adding considerably to plastic waste, a downturn in public transport and adversely affecting people’s mental health and well-being), Climate Crisis is still the biggest existential threat on the planet, as Greta Thunberg so valiantly keeps reminding us.  The story needs changing to help us replace all coal-fired power stations with renewable energy.  The law and human pressure can make this happen, if we open our hearts and minds to the damage we’ve caused, feel the grief of it and step beyond it into the practicalities of what needs to be done. 

Transformation

Black Lives Matter has shown us deep-rooted change starts with ourselves if we don’t want to be complicit in systems that perpetuate racism and injustice, intolerance for all diversities and the destruction of nonhuman species and habitats.  This is a personal as well as a political dialogue.  To do any deep work, we need to be capable of concentration, not constantly distracted by the digital world. I’m fiercely dedicated to my practice and process as a way of harnessing my own power in relation to Climate action, staying in tune with my responsibilities as a citizen of my small republic in the North and of the world.  This finds expression in my work as a writer, inseparable from my commitment to an engaged Buddhist perspective on the ethics and ecology of what is real.  Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Sucitto, in his book Buddha Nature, Human Nature (available for free distribution), says we can ‘choose not to look away, keep our eyes open so we can make clearer choices about what to eat, buy, who to associate with, how to occupy ourselves and who to vote for.  Meet and share and help each other and participate in a positive spiral.’  We can choose to stay informed and make small adjustments every day.  Seamus Heaney always used to say it’s what you do, how you live, in between the poems you write that matters.  That is where all the potential lies.

Joy

A stray entry found in my orange notebook, undated but from earlier in the year, provoked by some (now forgotten) brick wall of joylessness:

Why is joy a dirty word?  Why does it make most of us cringe?  Do we think we don’t deserve it?  Are we superstitious, imagining we might jinx it if we say it out loud?  Is it just not British?  Not polite?  Or modest?

For a while in this work I kept on safe territory talking about hope (encouraged by Rebecca Solnit), while privately thinking about faith and my own idiosyncratic relationship with my ‘spiritual practice’ (too grand a term – basically how I consciously choose to live my life).  The collision of idealism and imperfection has given me many opportunities to unlock a felt sense of compassion (another more dangerous word might be love).  At the bottom of that, and on top of it too, is a palpable awareness of joy.  I can’t live or love, do anything without it.  It’s the positive energy I need to get out of bed in the morning and stay in touch with myself and have faith in my own creative fire.  This is what Christiana Figueres calls ‘stubborn optimism’ – the rebellion or resistance in staying true to your deepest values – not giving way to the doomsayers, the whirl of the world where everyone talks and no one listens.  There is joy in listening, as there’s joy in sometimes turning the volume not just down but off.

Sometimes there is an implication in environmental messages that human beings are the problem – the best solution stripping right back to zero, eradicating our footprint, our actions, our basic wayward energies.  This is an anti-life philosophy, promulgating old burdens of guilt and despair, associated with systemic ideas about dominance, violence and the myth of perpetual growth.  It is capitalism’s shadow played out in materialistic skin-deep environmentalism.  The truth is we are part of nature too.  We have a place among everything else on this planet.  All of us.

Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.

Donna Haraway

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SOME THINGS I’VE NOTICED

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Threshold

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’.

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Tightrope

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?

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Stepping Up   

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.’

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About Time

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.

Be well

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The jellyfish are from Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival, a wonderful film by Fabrizio Terranova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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More Light

IMG_6761Open the second shutter so that more light may come in.

Goethe’s last words

Every year the Institute of Advanced Study here in Durham adopts a theme to provide a focus for the interdisciplinary conversation and this year’s is Light so the Lumière Festival was a wonderful reflection of the various subjects we have been discussing in the past few months, connecting the history, science, philosophy, paleobiology and politics of light.  My contribution is an angle on the poetry of light, via my current work on plants, gardens and ecology.  I have a sense that making a poem is, like the germination of a seed, an act that takes place in the dark, leaves and language reaching for the space to open into that light makes possible.

IMG_6780 Boswell: Then, sir, what is poetry?

Johnson: Why, sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.  We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

IMG_6808When a friend sent me a link to an online word frequency counter, I discovered that light was the fourth most frequent noun in my new collection-in-progress (after garden, home and tree).  Other frequent nouns, in descending order, are flower, flowers, earth, love, leaves, heart, dark and world.

IMG_6896Light plays itself out in various layers of my recent investigations.  The simple fact of it is reflected in the difference between the Northern and Southern hemispheres and suggested my itinerary – from North East England to Sydney, visiting Singapore en route.  I wanted to experience summer in winter, an up-ending associated in my mind with the disorientation of so-called certainties in relation to place, climate and culture.  Always drawn to examining the nature of polarities – north/south, city/country, male/female, home/away, self/other, static/dynamic – I was keen to explore the possibility of writing from that queasy spot experienced as insecurity, tension, paradox, groundlessness.  It’s definitely been a case of Be careful what you wish for as I have indeed found myself occupying this open zone and – surprise, surprise– it is not entirely comfortable.  Maybe that is the concentrated point of risk and inquiry (a certain degree of darkness) that poetry arises from.  I’ve appreciated the support of this small tribe I’ve become part of in Durham while I continue my navigations.

IMG_6798We’ve never, no, not for a single day,

pure space before us, such as that which flowers

endlessly open into.

From Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy

IMG_6819Light occurs implicitly in these new poems, acknowledging the biological process of photosynthesis, without which we would literally have no air to breathe.  No plants, no life on earth: something most people take utterly for granted, instead of remembering to celebrate the joy of interdependence and exchange.  There is great intimacy and compassion in this deep sense of ecology, which has the potential to change the way people choose to live.

Joy and wonder are inevitable consequences of an awareness and appreciation of the natural world.  Sometimes I think I am just ‘singing the flowers’, like an Ethiopian herdsman sings the praises of his cattle, one by one, his greatest wealth.  This year I have been fortunate enough to have seen so many wonders, such delightful and astonishing plants and trees, how can I not bring back traveller’s tales, share the fruits of my explorations?

IMG_6811On this journey of discovery, light has given me access to the unknown, otherness.  Through the light of awareness, I have begun to penetrate the historical (and contemporary) darknesses of exploitation, prejudice, exoticisation, colonialism and capitalism.  Close observation, reflection and articulation shed light on these areas that thrive in shade and silence.  Light contains within it its opposite – and so my work also inevitably touches upon grief and melancholy; within the cycle of life, there is death, loss.

Human beings have always harnessed the healing, regenerative properties of light.  In relation to plants, this medicine is both literal and metaphorical.  It also pertains to the transitional – the time of necessary change in which we find ourselves where we are being encouraged to consume more and more of less and less to redress the balance of decades of over-consumption.  The gesture is one of letting go, shedding – particularly relevant perhaps for those of us getting older and needing to move more in tune with the time, the season of our lives, as well as the time of the increasingly burdened planet.

IMG_6944Imagine a walled garden, the hortus conclusus, as a vessel of light.  It is the body of the Virgin Mary, a mythic Eden or Paradise (honouring birth and death), the blessings of light held safe within its boundaries.  I have opened a door in this garden, letting the light spill out, making a track to follow and see by, illuminating the ground to be covered and creating a sense of path or journey.  I was amused to learn that the ‘random meander’ strategy I instinctively evolved (of having no fixed goal or destination and responding to whatever I encountered along the way) is an accepted ‘scientific’ research method.

IMG_6913Light has been part of my methods in other ways relating more directly to poetic technique.  I see it in my consideration of the white space around the individual poems, allowing the form to mirror the diversity of plant physiology I find so fascinating.  Achieving this degree of ‘engineering’ requires clarity of mind, incisiveness and discriminating awareness (what to cut? where? how to create an authentic texture of light and presence, absence and shadow?).  A poem also needs a lightness of touch in the voice and address to persuade the reader it is worth reading or listening to at all.  I am keen that these new poems with their ecological concerns should never be worthy, in danger of putting a reader off rather than making a connection with (and for) her.  Doesn’t every poet want to be able to direct their own light, illuminating their ‘subject’ for a reader, and so leave her changed by it?

IMG_6878I am pursuing a line of investigation around the Nine Muses as sources of inspiration – Art, Science and Culture, and their mother, Memory (and ‘stepmothers’, Earth and Harmony).  Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that the first muse was Health and there seems no reason to contradict him.

IMG_6890These final thoughts have led me to start thinking of my collection-in-progress as something growing, a healthy, vibrant, though unfinished, garden, with the working title Heliconia.  This is a reference to one of my favourite plants I first ‘met’ at Moorbank and followed across the globe, beyond the limits of glass, to Singapore and then Sydney (you can see an example of one variety in the banner at the top of this blog), as well as pointing to that mountain in Boeotia, traditionally home of the Muses, surely a source of all manner of light.

What is to give light must endure burning.

Viktor Frankl

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