The UK Between Stories?

Exit in Three Languages, Abandoned Trennenpalast, Former East-West Border Control, Berlin, 24 April 2010

From the private Space Between Stories Facebook Forum this morning:

“My whole country (uk) just entered the space between stories, very interesting …”

As someone who voted Remain, I’m presently in shock, and in mourning for the European version of the UK which I’ve lived in for most of my life. I’m dismayed at the mandate which the result hands to the far and further right, to a wing of the political elite seeking to bluff and lie its way out of belonging to the political elite, in order to further its own power. I’m concerned about the unknown repercussions and complexities: political, legal, economic, environmental, constitutional, social, cultural, and – seriously – for the safety and peace of all UK citizens and residents not shielded as I am by a covering of white UK skin.

Next to this, I’m someone who spends a great deal of time staring into, as well as living in, the bigger global, cosmic and spiritual picture of crisis and transformation, and I know that this is how it happens. The containers that no longer serve get smashed, not tidily remodelled, when something utterly different needs to arise. You don’t get what you want, you don’t get to be in control, you don’t get the piecemeal reform option, the comfort of reason does not prevail. The immediate impacts are horrible, the longer-term consequences uncertain. Yet there is always an invitation to be awake and aware inside this process, to learn its dynamics, to surrender to what is happening instead of trying to resist and escape, to respond with love and connection rather than fear and withdrawal, and to become a big enough container for the new that is seeking to emerge.

My vote for Remain came from my mainstream realpolitik Guardian-reading eminently reasonable evidence-based self. I had positive reasons for choosing to stay in Europe, based on cost-benefit analysis of the facts, and personal experience of living and researching in other European countries with ease and for prolonged periods of time. I was also opposed to the right-led Brexit campaign, with its fomenting of racism and “dishonesty on an industrial scale”, and its tendentious reduction of the UK’s complex economic and social problems to one cause: belonging to the EU.

Even as I cast my vote, though, I was conscious of the negative responsibility of Remain: allowing business as usual to keep staggering on. While I don’t expect anything other than business as usual, with the gloves off and razor claws out, from those currently holding the political reins of Brexit, the result itself has – temporarily – shattered the status quo. In this shattering, I find myself stepping uncomfortably out of and stretching beyond my mainstream white skin and her version of reality, asking: what does this shattering reveal, what else is alive here, what are we being asked to see more clearly, without the preconceptions of our own preferred stories? Trying to see further than the frightening and dismal surface reflection of Brexit as xenophobic, backward-looking little Blighty wanting to pull up the drawbridge against Europe and the world, and look at the other energies at work in the Leave vote: like the working class communities at the sharp end of post-industrial decline and austerity, who experience immigration as a problem not a benefit, but for whom there’s no officially-accepted frame for that concern other than racism, or the advocates of a progressive version of Brexit who voted with their principles anyway. Not settling at the mainstream left response of trying to put Humpty-Dumpty – read: the Labour Party – back together again, but knowing that there is a call to far more radical positive transformation resounding here as well.

**

The call has landed with me in the urge to turn this blog, The Place Between Stories, into a book about facing and navigating a world between stories. The idea seeded and started taking root about a month ago – luckily I have my journal to hold me to account on the date – and circumstances around me have conspired to clear the decks and remove all excuses not to make a book happen. I’ve started mentioning the book to local friends, and when I do I instinctively put the palm of my hand directly in front of my face, to convey the decisiveness with which the idea planted itself at the forefront of my creative energies and sent everything else I thought I was planning to do – like nurturing a life coaching business – onto the back burner.

The referendum result has amplified my sense of why I need to write this book. To work out my own passage through this place between, while offering whatever I can in the way of inspiration and possibility to readers. Work out in two senses: to find, to fathom my way, and to pay my long-overdue dues to this upturning journey of transformation, in order to bring my life to where it needs to be, a next stage I have no idea whatsoever about.

If I have an ideal reader in mind for this book, it’s my mainstream self, and those who may identify with her. The side of me that knows things are changing big time, but doesn’t know how to make sense of this other than in the terms she already knows, by resting on reason and analysis and evidence and control, and to be honest is somewhat frightened and lost because it’s all too much. The book is an invitation, a bridge, a provisional orientation map, to help her step into the much bigger container of change and potential that is the global Place Between Stories, to plug into the streams of non-mainstream, expansive, connective, spiritual and restorative awareness that are currently emerging across the planet as a new evolution of human consciousness. She can let go and dive in, or she can wait to be pushed, but I don’t think she will be able to hold on forever to the option of holding change at arm’s length, separate from who she is and could be, a ‘nice idea’ to play with and then put away on a shelf. For what will become of her when that shelf collapses?

Ok, so now I’ve gone and committed myself, and removed the “going to hide quietly under a rock” option, I have to head off and write the damn dear book. This may mean that this blog goes quiet for a while, or that I post snippets of work-in-progress, or something of both and more.

It’s wait and see and step into the whirlwind all around.

Diving Into The Wreck

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we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

~ from Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck

Ok, I pick on The Guardian. It feels both futile and illuminating so to do, the illumination having come to me only recently. It is the place I keep returning to to observe the wreckage, to participate with the coming-apart. The Guardian is the only mainstream media outlet that I visit on a regular basis, and it informs, infuriates, bores, overloads, befuddles me. Skimming through it is like being handed a loud, colourful jigsaw puzzle – or several of them, jumbled together – with too many pieces missing and no guide picture, other than a misty illusion of informed global citizenship.

Yes, The Guardian does publish good articles: thorough, insightful and original, but they are no excuse. Excusing and defending The Guardian as ‘the best we’ve got’ (we of leftish liberal persuasion) is a hasty move to cement over the cracks, to avoid facing, and the fact that we’re abiding in, what is breaking.

The breaking runs deeper than the steady Internet-driven decline of print newspapers as a profitable business model for journalism. The breaking is also in the fact and illusion of continuity, that The Guardian carries on, projecting vitality and viability, even as it falls further out of step with emergent realities, and what those realities might eventually turn round and ask of its projections.

“The paper’s role, like that of its rightwing cousins, is to limit the imaginative horizons of readers. While there is just enough leftwing debate to make readers believe their paper is pluralistic, the kind of radical perspectives needed to question the very foundations on which the system of Western dominance rests is either unavailable or is ridiculed.”

The article from which that quote is taken is nearly five years old now. I could have done more research and doubtless found similar criticisms repeated countless times. The Guardian is exposed, and it remains functionally veiled. It stoutly upholds the role of cultural and political gatekeeper, when the gateposts have moved or rotted away. A significant section of the readership – those who would, on the evidence of their comments, probably punch anyone who dared to refer to them as Guardian readers – are routinely (and seem genuinely) outraged by stereotypical Guardian-isms (elitism, privilege, idealistic and cossetted middle-classness). Cynicism swallows and chokes on its own tale.

I’ve never been that media-savvy, despite pretending to myself that I am, in order to dodge the embarrassment. So it was a huge relief to read in (naturally) The Guardian, novelist Jesse Armstrong’s confession of the incoherence and fond delusions of his own news consumption habits: “like a lot of people’s … on the whole a mess.” He blows open that well-informed ‘good global citizen’ ideal, and exposes his own heady mishmashing of latest opinions and contrasting views, which rarely leads to anything beyond the iteration of itself, and almost never to changing the confirmation biases he already holds, let alone the world.

You can kick the submerging hull, cling to the pieces of the wreck that still float, jab querulously at the other writers and readers with broken spars of fact, opinion and assertion. A collective exercise in treading water – for we are only half-destroyed, remember. For myself, I neither support The Guardian nor rise beyond it. You can give me every good reason why I should, and still my heart reliably sinks at the proposition that I ought to subscribe, so I don’t. You can give me every good reason why I should, and still I can’t quite stop my skimming and reading, and sometimes playing at what it was like when The Guardian seemed to matter, seemed to make sense, seemed to carry pieces that fit together.

The city of great journalism that was built in the 20th century is like many of the cities that define civilisation: a place of vast beauty, culture, intricacy and felt necessity, that in the end has not been able one whit to prevent the disintegration of the worlds that support it, even if its worth is still measurable by how much worse things might have been without it.

Perplexicon

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“Anecdoche: n. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.”

“Exulansis: when there’s not an actual word for what you’re trying to explain. We feel more than we have the language to articulate and express, which is itself profoundly frustrating.”

Solastalgia: “a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.”

Stuplimity: “the aesthetic experience in which astonishment is united with boredom, such that we overload on anxiety to the point of outrage-outage.”

The first two are from 40 Words For Emotions You’ve Felt But Couldn’t Explain; the second two from Robert Macfarlane’s long Guardian article Generation Anthropocene.

Reading both, I reacted similarly: deep waves of relief and recognition at somebody else naming feelings I knew I had (and was often puzzled or ashamed at having), but couldn’t elaborate and validate for myself. Then, stubbing on the awkwardness, randomness and alien-ness of the new words assigned to these emotions: words cobbled together in the hope that what we expect Greek or Germanic or Romantic language roots to do will still do. Words of mock lineage and raw seaming, which have not worn smooth and easy from long usage and do not roll easily off the tongue in the way that grace, dwelling and pumpernickel do.

The stubbing is as it needs to be. As Macfarlane too writes, the new words are “ugly coinages for an ugly epoch.” Beneath the ugliness a gap yawns, between the pressures of new emotions and inklings, responses somehow to shattering and unprecedented global reconfigurings that are beyond the familiar reaches of everyday experience, and to our suppressed complexities as human animals, and the rush to make sense, to define and assign meaning.

But, Bayo Akomolafe helpfully interrupts, “the correct answer is no longer enough to solve our problems.” The trouble with sense and meaning and critical tussling over the neologisms (pit Anthropocene, pat Anthropocene), is that they don’t speak nearly enough of or to the predicament in which we’re enmeshed. They become ways of not admitting helplessness, inadequacy, vulnerability, uncertainty, complicity. Seemingly sensible words turn us away from what we don’t know how to face or deal with. Labels, statements, facts, opinions, campaigns, arguments, assertions and pseudo-policies proliferate and oversimplify, barely grazing the vast complexities and paradoxes of present planetary realities.

As long as the new words speak and sound ungainly, snag in our awareness, perplex and fail us, they open ill-fitting doors into the gap. Down there, or out there, or in the space of no-space, things, worlds, other possibilities persist imperfectly well outwith the grasp of reasonable human understanding. Not a dictionary; something like a dance.

Occhiolism: n. the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.”

The Empty Spell

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A king, with something to prove. Canute’s servants drag the heavy carved wooden throne down to the rocky shoreline, as the tide begins to turn, out in the afternoon distance. The king seats himself on the throne and waits, confident. Of course the sea will obey him. The tide draws closer. Of course it needs to be near enough to hear his command. When the lip of the water is about four strides away from Canute, he cries the words rehearsed many times in his head: ‘Turn back! Turn back!” The tide draws sharply closer, now licking around his ankles and drenching the hem of his robe, and the sun falls lower. “Turn back! Turn back!’ But the sea is deaf, or disobedient, or any other quality that still allows Canute to believe that it is paying him mind.

I wonder what happened next. Did the King flee when the sea reached his knees, or his neck? Did the first taste of bitter brine bring him home to the realization that the sea was not his to command? Would he drown rather than admit this, and did it fall to his servants to drag him gasping out of the water, leaving the carved throne to be shattered by the waves, then washed up as a mystery for some other shoreline to decipher?

Perhaps the mystery is simply that Canute wanted to die. As king, he could not consciously admit this wish, let alone see it through into suicide. As king, no longer magician or shaman able to bend space, time and matter at will, and pass back and forth through the portals of the Otherworlds (for the powers have long since been separated), he is bound to one span of life and the limits of the earthly realm. As king, his life and death are no longer his to command, he must wait on their ending. ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King!’

Canute carries the shadow memory of what kings once were: magicians and shamans. He crafts of this memory his ruse, his hollowed-out intention to command the sea, when in his secret heart of hearts he knows that the sea cannot be commanded (at least, not by kings). He will cast everything into the wager and drown in the attempt, and so have his wish at last, without ever betraying it to his kingdom, or himself.

 

Glancing through the on-line version of The Guardian, I’m often struck by headlines in the Opinion section that contain words like ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘got to’, ‘have to’. This being The Guardian, I’m usually in agreement with the obligations being invoked, yet I sag under the improbability of what ‘must’ happen coming to pass any time soon. ‘Really? By this government?’ I mutter to myself, rarely inspired to click through and read on, and commonly disappointed by the lack of actionable substance when I do.

I think of Canute. What are you doing when you assert that something ‘has to’ happen, with no real power to make it happen? What are you creating, or waiting for, by expressing an opinion which both exposes and seeks to disguise your utter powerlessness?

The spell of hollow words keeps on being cast. Impotence and paralysis are hypnotic (everyone is spared the risks and uncertainty of doing things otherwise). The mainstream press remains at the stage of default institutional resistance to the arguments of positive journalism (that it’s perfectly possible, and far more empowering for readers, to report on more of how people can and do make a tangible and beneficial difference to the world.)  Ritual participation becomes peculiarly compelling when the only effectiveness left is participation. Venture below the editorial line and into the comments: it’s like everyone knows that the game is up, and still we all play on.

 

“Something within us seeks destruction”, writes James Hollis in Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path. “Hubris involves the extension of human possibility beyond the humanly possible. It involves crossing the line, even when the line is invisible.” (p.13) Hubris, as bequeathed to us by classical Greek tragedy, is the fatal flaw of believing you’re in control of circumstances when you’re not. The flaw is fatal because it brings death, and because it irresistibly provokes fate. The protagonists of tragedy are never conscious that their confident choices are flawed and unwise, until the full consequences inevitably unfold before them. Changing course before it’s too late is never an option, because that would require a difference of perspective that is simply not available to them.

Hubris can only culminate in its own destruction (and the destruction of much else besides, which compounds the tragedy). The game must be played out to the end. The mystery is how this destruction can also be desired, and fulfilled only by allowing hubris to run its course, to repeat the hollow spells in complete sincerity until their death is consummated.

 

I think again of Canute. What if he survived? What if his servants did rescue him, or he decided at the last to save himself? Could he have remained King after the debacle on the shoreline, or was he quietly, perhaps spectacularly, deposed? In the aftermath of being King, or as King of the Aftermath, what became of him? Did he keep going through the motions, spend the rest of his days trying to find the right spell to command the seas? Did his hubris finally leave him, sorting through his pile of empty words on another rocky beach? Did some of them rearrange themselves under his fingers and prickle with new life, the first words of a power and a story free of the weight and earthly limits of kingship and tragedy and fate?

Did he stay silent, and wait for the mystery to wash up at his feet?

A Crack in the Light

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Going and coming back, the impulse to reactivate this blog has swelled, retreated, and now reached a tipping point where posting something every so often is a better use of the energy I put into wondering whether or not to resume posting.

Why return here, rather than start over under another header? Because the Place Between Stories won’t go away. It’s always present: in the moments that pass, expectant and unnoticed, between one breath and another. Because I haven’t left it, and it certainly won’t leave me, except with a mind-tangle of partly-thought thoughts that have no place else they want to belong. The question has arisen of who or what I am obeying by denying a home to this particular family of thoughts, these pressures of impression and experience that seek shape in writing.

In order to thrive, things have to exist in shapes you least expect. Before getting to here, the re-gestation of this blog has shed a number of skins of outdated formulation. Threads and patterns from before can indeed be left hanging there, gestures towards understanding generate resistance. Encompassing the world in a grain of sand, squinting at it from a distance, and passing judgment; that had to drop.

This much carries me on: that the world appears a stubbornly darker, crueler and stupider place since I last wrote regularly here. (Dark in the sense of mechanical destruction on repeat, not the fertile dark of rest, winter, the insides of womb and soil). It also appears, in the same momentum, stronger and lighter, as more intricate, just and joyful possibilities for living, deeper wisdoms, greater love, all stubbornly gain substance and traction.

It never satisfies me to weave, or be told, a story that makes too much anticipatory sense out of these two simultaneous growths. Some important wrinkle in reality is inevitably flattened out or overlooked, the encultured expectation that the heroine will make it to the other side of the abyss builds in only the gagged possibility that she won’t. Without a story, experience of the present world doesn’t file away so readily behind labels like ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ‘hope’, ‘despair’, ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’; words that are worth weighing, whenever you read or use them, for the extent to which they silence, oversimplify and police what is being admitted, and how far they allow the honest, unqualified movement of experience into expression.

Expectant and unnoticed, change waits between one breath and another. There is no point trying to force change to happen: as soon as you try to fit it to the pattern of what you already know, it slips away, and goes back to waiting. Waiting for the change that you already are, and that you do not know is possible, to ripen. Waiting for the light you have named inside you to crack open, and shine another light into the world. Another light which, until you know otherwise, it is better to leave nameless.

 

Over and Signing Out

For Catherine, for the future

photo: P. Rugani

The one year anniversary of my not posting on this blog came and went in March, accompanied by the expected flicker of good intentions to remedy the situation that quietly came to nothing.

Some time between then and this writing, the realisation settled in that it’s time for this blog to end.

I’ve tried to spin this realisation out into elaborate reasons and justifications, but it boils down simply to this: there’s no energy for me here any more. Blogs, and the creative cycles they offer platforms to, have natural lifespans, yet it’s so tempting when a cycle has ended to leave the blog hanging on, open and untended, in the event that one day, maybe ….

Trailing threads need to be tied off and snipped, or else they remain a subliminal tug on our attention. ‘It’s there, I really ought to be doing something with it’. For now, I don’t feel the need to have a public outlet for my writing that compels me to keep writing for an audience on my mental to-do list. So, there won’t be an immediate successor to The Place Between Stories.

Over the year that I’ve not been posting here my energies have turned elsewhere: to inhabiting my new home, to training as a life coach, and to the first steps of a shamanic healing course that I know is but the beginning of a far longer and deeper journey. In this time too, many things have been let go or fallen away for me, and I have both luxuriated and grieved in the empty spaces left behind.

I’ve also recently been taking Charles Eisenstein’s on-line course ‘The Space Between Stories’. One of the insights that has taken form for me through this course is that the space between stories is, received one way, itself a story; received another way, a salutary suspension of all stories. We go beyond it – or seek to get over it – and it remains with us, ever-present in its potential to interrupt the believed-in trajectory of a life, or a civilization. That space will have its way with us, and one of those ways is the realization that too many of our stories are too small. We – and it’s a westernized, rationalized, self-interested and in control ‘we’ that I’m invoking here – depend on stories, and make them too certain, too deterministic, too limited in the scope of their truth, too reliant on unacknowledged privilege. This can even be the case when we are trying with all our hearts to entertain and enter a new story.

Next to this, on the private Space Between Stories course forum, I’ve witnessed the tender, respectful accumulation of the stories lived by us course participants begin to pick away at these confinements.

A couple of the questions that have crystallised for me through The Space Between Stories are: ‘how to not know’ and ‘how to make a bigger container’. I think the spirit of those enquiries has always inspired The Place Between Stories in some oblique shape or form, but writing and illustrating a blog doesn’t currently satisfy me as a means of living those questions. My attention is travelling elsewhere, towards the admittedly pragmatic task of how to offer my coaching and, in time, my healing work to those who may need to find it; and towards emptying more space for myself in which to luxuriate, grieve and not know.

So I’ll be leaving this blog up on-line, archive of a sidestepping journey that it mattered a lot to me to take, and signing out for good with thanks, appreciation and blessings to those who have genuinely read, responded and travelled with me along some of the way.

Writing Process Blog Tour

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Something a little different this time (or not so …) Big thanks to Jeppe Graugaard for inviting me to take part in the writing process blog tour. This asks writers who blog to share something about their current works and creative process, and to invite others to take up the baton and do the same.

1) What am I working on?

It’s funny, I’m just starting to come back to writing after a long hiatus over this past winter, which I spent immersed in an intensive visual arts course in northwest Scotland. In the initial excitement that came from discovering fresh media to play with, and from giving myself permission to take up visual art seriously, I became quite distanced from what I felt to be the fixity and abstraction of words. There were also practical reasons to do with time, and not having fast reliable internet constantly on tap at home, that made me disinclined to write. Yet writing is now finding its way back to me, and so I’m pondering how to travel between, and combine, visual art and writing. Currently I’m playing with a visual art project inspired by ash trees, and suspect that words will find their way into that. I’m also gradually returning to some of the inklings and ideas explored elsewhere in this blog, ‘The Place Between Stories’: taking them deeper, refining and clarifying, and making further connections with others for whom those explorations resonate.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t approach my writing in terms of genre; my heart sinks when writing or any other kind of creative activity starts being slotted into some category or pigeonhole or another – especially when I catch myself compromising and doing exactly that! For the last few years I’ve mostly written short essays with a poetic bent, accompanied by photographs, and I’m interested in probing edges, what lies between stories and definitions, those inklings or textures of experience that arise somewhere in the wilds beyond what passes for normal, straight-up, culturally-defined and enclosed reality. My writing certainly isn’t unique in this respect – most of the writing, making and doing that excites and inspires me these days is coming from edge-probers of one stripe or another. But I guess (to anticipate the next question), I write to articulate something that I need to find words for myself, and that makes the difference.

3) Why do I write what I do?

As well as writing because of a need to articulate certain things for myself, I do it to connect with readers who might share similar patterns of experience or resonance. My writing comes most to life for me when I find the right metaphor (or, rather, when it finds me), to give form to something that someone else has been sensing or pondering, without having the words for it. The best fulfilment of all comes when that recognition triggers or nourishes a reader’s capacity to describe and express things their own way, whether in writing, a drawing or photograph, as music … Because I’m interested in things on the edges, between stories, fallen down the cracks in whatever the official (or unofficial) version is, I feel both responsibility towards, and affinity with, others who are provoked by similar insights, urges and questions, the kind that don’t have ready-made shapes and answers.

4) How does your writing process work?

I write when the germ of a piece of writing takes hold of me, and work at it until it’s done. From time to time my ego decides that I ought to have some kind of regular writing habit, regardless of inspiration, but this invariably collapses after a day or so. Writing only when inspired goes completely against the grain of all wise advice about becoming a writer, I know; my excuse is that I worked as a university academic for 20-odd years, and that was my writing apprenticeship. So  much of that work involved writing, for different audiences and in different registers, whether I felt like it or not, from the published fruits of my research to lectures, grant applications and feedback on student assignments. Although the writing I do now is about breaking away from the constraints of academic style and mindset, it’s still rooted in that ground of experience and basic confidence that I know (approximately) what I’m doing.

My actual writing process is up-and-down, unwieldy and ruminative, because I edit, process and push my writing as I go along. This makes me the kind of writer who’ll effortlessly knock out 1,000 words one day, then the next day spend five hours re-reading and re-writing a single sentence. As soon as I hit a problem, or reach an edge where I sense that the writing needs me to take a leap and do something fresh, I have to grapple with it until a solution or breakthrough comes,  before I can go any further. So I generally work best by creating enough space and open-ended time to resolve a whole piece of writing, because if I have to stop and turn my attention to something else in the midst of a messy patch, I risk losing the whole thread and getting so discouraged that I give up.

For next week, I’m bending the blog tour rules somewhat, firstly by having just one other writer to take up the baton, and secondly by widening the creative process remit, as next up from here is someone who works across visual art, gardening and community-tending alongside writing.

I’m delighted to hand on to Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris, born in Ireland and raised in the USA, and now living with her husband and their fox terrier Lucy in northern Holland. Sarah has had a long and varied career in fine art, calligraphy, period instrument decoration and as an art healthcare practitioner: she is the author of Chocolate Rain, 100 ideas for a creative approach to activities in dementia care, (Hawker Publications, 2011). Sarah is currently focusing on her oil painting, gardening, walking and local community, taking time for a path away from the pressures of the commercial gallery system.  Visit Sarah’s blog Art Calling next Monday, for her reflections on creative process.