Looking After the Blind – Life After Film

What follows is a longer than usual and more personal than usual post about the reasons why I left my academic career in film studies. The content of this post has been brewing for years, in a limbo of not knowing until now how to write it down. It’s helped me a great deal to commit this to words, and posting marks a definite feeling of moving on. It may not, however, be of general interest to readers of ‘The Place Between Stories’, so I thought to let you know what’s coming so you can decide whether to read on or not.

Dead Cinema, Kino Arsenale, Berlin, 16 May 2013Several years ago, when I still did what I used to do, I attended a talk by the English underground filmmaker Peter Whitehead. Best known for depicting the insider dynamics of the 1960s counterculture, in films like Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and The Fall, Whitehead, a polished raconteur, told of how his life became progressively consumed by his filmmaking. He reached a point where he found it impossible to be in any situation, any relationship, without the lens of a movie camera interposing itself, literally or in imagination, between himself and wherever, or with whomever, he was. Whitehead’s way out of this cul-de-sac was to become a falconer, a discipline which demanded of him a direct, immediate, camera-less connection with the birds he was training.

Several nights ago, from the thick of waking thoughts about whether and how I should finally write this post, I dreamt I was in an imaginary Hitchcock film. Close-ups, compulsively manipulated suspense and James Stewart, one of Hitchcock’s iconic lead actors, were all present. In the course of investigating something or other where he was not supposed to be, the Stewart character was blinded, when his eyes accidentally crossed the path of a laser. With great reluctance, I was forced to remain in an old, echoing mansion, and look after the blind man.

***

This post has been writing itself on and off in my head, and sometimes in words that I’ve quickly abandoned as not the right ones, since soon after I left my academic job as a lecturer in film studies, coming up to four years ago now. I naturally want to make some sense to myself as to why I wound up in that particular career and why I decided I had to leave it, but I’m torn about sharing my findings. The impulse to make some public, definitive declaration wrestles with the worry that my reasons and justifications are too personal, too extreme, too general and hysterical, to be of interest or use to anyone else. The idea and need to write this post have persisted, though, shifting shape and emphasis until here now I find a way forward into words that will do, if only to spell out a line that I can draw underneath what I used to do and its residues, and in some way, perhaps, have done with it.

The reasons why I left academia and stopped teaching film studies are several, and complicated, and intertwined. Some were personal: burning out, falling ill, hitting a professional plateau, feeling more and more like I was on the wrong track in life. Some were about having had enough of the intrusive, obstructive, managerialist culture of English universities in general, and the one I was working at in particular, and being fortunate enough to be in a position to quit. But a deeper and more inadmissible reason for leaving was that I completely lost faith in film. I was nagged by the kinds of questions, doubts and suspicions that go beyond the pale, the ones that violate the agreed rules of engagement.

Most of my animus was with contemporary cinema, a weary revulsion against constantly over-sold expectations of vitality, originality and cultural significance that the films I dutifully watched rarely, if ever, came anywhere close to fulfilling. Although this wasn’t something I would openly confess, or expect to withstand close intellectual scrutiny, I felt persist in me a belief that film was in terminal decline, having peaked in social and aesthetic significance around the middle two quarters of the 20th century, and that I’d finally stopped buying into special pleading on behalf of this or that exceptional director or landmark movie or brief talked-up flurry of renaissance. The hermetic world of international film culture – we filmmakers, distributors, marketers, festival programmers, critics, reviewers, cinephiles, specialist magazine editors, teachers, film scholars – came to seem to me just a mammoth conspiracy, all pretending that the emperor is sporting some jaunty number which he is not.

I see some explanation for my disillusionment in the fact that I basically wasn’t a native lover of cinema in the way that many of my colleagues and students were. Looking back to my teens, when I came by instinct to the things that fired me, films had virtually no significance. Yes, a few uncanny late night voyages with BBC2 into classic horror, and the troublingly adult emotional and sexual arena of European art films, did have quite a profound effect – one that when I hit the doldrums in film studies I’d keep harking back to, trying to recapture – but my formative world aged fourteen, fifteen, sixteen was all about literature, new wave music, modern art, and the shadowy brush of spiritual yearning. I came to cinema in my late twenties, on a detour back to the source of the critical visual theory I’d picked up fragments of during my first two degrees in art history, theory which was heavily informed by the celebration (or fetishisation) and analysis of film. So my attachment to film was always, on balance, and despite a tidy clutch of films that I genuinely adore, based more on intellectual aspiration than true love. This is doubtless one of the reasons why I persistently felt like a pretender teaching film studies, and why my repeatedly-aroused and repeatedly-disappointed film-going, videotape-accumulating and DVD-buying habits were always tainted by the hollow compulsions of addiction and consumerism.  Just one more must-see documentary, one more National Film Theatre retrospective, one more DVD purchase, and that will be ‘the one’ and I will get it, and finally be replete at home in love with film in the way that the others are.

‘Each deed you do’, observes Ursula Le Guin, ‘each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again.’ This binding by repeated acts creates convoluted consequences, which, at least in my experience, are impossible to undo by any clean stroke of the will. Not least because they are never straightforwardly negative. Until the submerged half-recognition that I was on the wrong track worked itself loose and to the surface, I was good at my job, grateful to have it, and will die proud of what I learned and achieved by doing it. My binding record of success, though, only sharpens my need to distance myself from some (not all) of my old colleagues and associates, those who still from time to time – though thankfully this happens rarely now – drop me a line and ask or invite me to do something, in tone as if everything’s the same, our shared devotion to cinema is still intact, and I’m fixed securely in the mould they once knew me by. I can’t say I blame them; only that I’m not going to reach back across the distance now, and that I wish I could find in myself more gracious and decisive ways to express that refusal.

The ingrained habit of repeatedly faking a passion for film that deep down I didn’t really feel, affects to this day my ability simply to watch and enjoy films. Still the anxious flutter of over-inflated expectations, followed by inevitable let-down. Books are different, books I’ve managed to extricate from the bottomless tangle of scholarly obligation, by following my own nose as to what to read, and occasionally stumbling into grails of sheer breath-holding, page-turning pleasure. But with movies, I still can’t distinguish between what I want to watch and what I think ought to be watching, can’t get away from the internalised pressure of needing to have a fully-formed critical and analytical opinion in place by the time the credits roll, can’t shake off the tang of disappointment that once again this film is not the one that I have been waiting all my life for.

I’m painfully aware too that film never satisfies me because I allowed serial film-watching, and the controlled stance of film analysis and scholarship, to fill in the space of my own direct creative urges: those disreputable, terrible mysteries that I would not, could not permit myself. Although I’ve yet to uncover any thwarted desire to be a filmmaker – and never cease to be amazed at my remarkable capacities for self-deception, when it comes to noticing what I do actually want – somewhere in back of awareness I’m always waving a fearsome-looking gauntlet at myself that has ‘writer’ and ‘artist’ printed on it.  Film, though, is such a seductive medium of displacement. Sometimes it’s as if (or at least if you believe the marketing blurb), films shift the world on its axis all by themselves, or by virtue of audiences showing up to pay and watch them. I kept myself going for years on the friable belief that I was really achieving something, making things happen in the world, just by watching films and more films; a delusion especially pernicious because a lot of the films I prided myself on watching were documentaries about serious contemporary issues. As well as substituting for my creativity, film-viewing was my escape into phantom concerned citizenship. So another reason why I remain averse to seeing films – even and especially really good, considered documentaries and other engaged films about serious contemporary issues – is my susceptibility to that habit of displacement. I’d rather create something, however humble, or do nothing, however futile, than go to the cinema, and let sitting immobile in the dark for a couple of hours staring up at a screen allow me to pretend otherwise.

***

Shortly after I left my job I stumbled on the Dark Mountain Project, and into a head-on consideration of the multiplying ecological, economic, and cultural crises of civilization, and the hard realities of modern extractive societies heading into decline. My disillusion with film became heightened and inflected by considerations of long-term ecological sustainability, peak resources, and cultural complicity in denial. My doubts extended to the huge expenditure of resources that making film demands, all that it takes in raw materials, money, energy, labour and time to realise a vision on a screen; whether all this was ever really worth it, and whether in the longer term film as a medium could – or deserved to – survive the coming global upheavals and contractions.

This further extreme is the juncture where, I hazard, my personal crisis of faith in film patches into a much larger sense of intense cultural dislocation. I’ve come gradually to sense that being periodically assailed by irrational assertions and absolutes, although I’m ashamed to find it happening to me, and can list all the objections whenever my internal railing kicks off, is part and parcel of this crisis. Vicious, ill-informed polarization increasingly seems to have the upper hand in public discourse, seeming always to be more visible and to have more persuasive power than measured, reflective, curious and compassionate voices. This is certainly something to fear the consequences of and actively to oppose, but I wonder whether it’s also symptomatic of a much deeper fracturing, which can’t simply be cured by counter-argument, and that beckons for some other way into understanding.

As time has gone on, I’ve managed to arrive at a kinder, more realistic, sense of film as a medium in small t-transition, like so much else that is the entangled legacy of our extractive civilization. If in the long, hard overview, film as we’ve known it over the course of the twentieth century is probably unsustainable, in the short, implicated view – the place from where most of us have to negotiate the world in which we currently find ourselves – it can still be used to make a difference. Film can bear witness to the desperate realities breaking through the ever-widening cracks in the veneer that masks corrupt power and runaway exploitation, it can bring forth the shapes, colours, textures and possibilities of radically new ways of being in the world.

But there’s no going back. At one level, that’s just my personal decision: to draw a line under my former attachment to film, not to give it much in the way of my energy and attention any more, not to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, for all the reasons aired here, and probably others that I can’t yet articulate, for at least as much future as I can foresee. At another level, no-one can un-ask the questions that lie beyond the pale once they’ve asked them. I can’t shake off some crazy inkling that there are filmmakers out there who do their work in full light of the kinds of absolute doubts and suspicions that assailed me, and that they’re doing something very different with that light from the filmmakers who maybe sense those questions exist but don’t want to go near them – or only in a token way, like a government consultation exercise – because they get in the way of what they are here to do.

***

Every summer that I’ve been in Berlin, I spend time watching the swifts, who pass all day scything the air above the courtyard of the apartment building where I live. I’ve learned to be less startled by sudden whooshes as they fly low as dive bombers over the roof, and how to pick the metallic scream of their calls in the high ether out of the tapestry of evening bird song, some of which I recognise and some not. As I get lost sat watching them, there’s usually an evening breeze brushing my skin, the generous taste of cold beer in my mouth, and the background unfolding of a burnished sunset, of which there will be only one exactly like that in all of time.

Even if I was a filmmaker, I wouldn’t be able to record all the intricacy and fullness of this everyday scene, as it reaches me through the particular filter of my human senses, this experience so ordinary that I have to prod myself not to take it for granted. I wonder whether if I was a filmmaker, I’d still be tempted to try. My persistence in watching the swifts is an answer of a kind to one of the deepest questions I hold out towards film. I’d like to say that it’s not so much an answer as Rilke’s famous ‘living the question’, but I’m not sure I can claim that much. I know though that the answer keeps shifting, and that the question leads back to the fate of Peter Whitehead. It asks me how much time I spend being sufficient where I am, using only the resources of my own senses to reach out and meet the world around me, without the impulse to place a camera between me and here in order to mediate and record, and how much time I’m in front of screens that draw my attention to sounds and images of elsewhere and elsewhen, and towards a need to make those kinds of records myself – in my case, through photography rather than film. This isn’t a question with a simplistic good/bad answer built into it; at least for me, it’s about reflecting on where I place enough time and attention, and which act I see as primary, and what kind of a human being I’m becoming when I decide that for now, I’d rather watch the swifts outside my back door, and learn how to pay closer attention to all that is present, than rent a movie about penguins. This is no judgement on those who’d prefer the movie, or the people who cherish  their local bird life all the stronger for having watched the penguins on screen, and vice versa. But I’d become blind to something from spending all those years in the dark, staring up at a place where a thin beam of light spreads out to project an image bigger than me that was not mine, and where perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be in the first place.

Reluctant as I am to admit it, that part of me, for better and worse, will never be the same again. The lines that I draw blind will probably never stay put. But still I can come back to life, and look after.

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44 thoughts on “Looking After the Blind – Life After Film

  1. It’s my first time reading your blog and very much enjoyed your take on this. I struggle to engage with the majority of films in the way I do with books, graphic novels, theatre, and, more recently, television box sets and the like. I pick and choose, loving a handful of films I really feel get to the heart of a story, get across a situation and a character, but this happens rarely, and, rarely with contemporary releases.

    Upon reading it I did wonder (partly because I have recently grown more aware of how deep the problem goes) how the problem you describe may be affected by the dearth of strong female characters in film and the fact that women are so often the goal or the reward of male leads, incidental to the plot. I think hype and the shallowness of so much film in recent times, especially with the trend of the serious tackling of theme and events often going over to television in recent years, and with a desperation from the decline of box office perhaps leading to risk-averse studios, is a problem, but surely it must be far worse for a female viewer?

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rob, and glad you enjoyed the post.

      I was never a big aficionado of popular Hollywood type cinema, always more of an art house / world cinema / experimental / documentary follower. So the dearth of strong female characters in mainstream kind of passed me by; it’s also something I don’t identify that consciously with. But I do think part of my aversion is towards the whole titanic business of filmmaking being quite macho in orientation, certainly in the big feature film / big money end of the scale.

      1. I can understand that. That’s interesting. Obviously, gender roles are a clear problem in mainstream films. I favour world cinema and indie film myself but I wasn’t sure it was invariably so much better. Still, I find it a little reassuring that it could be something that could pass you by, even if I sympathise completely with those women who feel that cinema so often writes them out or demands of them that they identify with women slotted into a handful of restrictive types.

        The macho thing is there at every step, from how films are presented in order to secure funding through the whole process.

        I imagine that in a few years you’ll be freer to enjoy films, once you are less conditioned to demanding so much of them. I think I had a long period of disillusionment with music because I needed too much from it, it being the one thing I gave a damn about for a long time in my life. Now, having been near indifferent to new music for so long, I find I can come to it fresh.

      2. Yes, I’m open to finding my way back to a healthier attitude to film, or not. These dynamics of over-investment and disillusionment are interesting, whatever art form gets affected for each person. For me enjoying music has always been fairly untroubled 🙂

        I agree with your other reply too. Lately I’ve come around to thinking Ran Prieur has a point when he suggests don’t make a living from what you love, but find a way to make a living that leaves you enough time and energy to do what you love, so it doesn’t consume all.

      3. PS It probably doesn’t reflect well on me that I’m not concerned about the dearth of strong female characters in mainstream cinema. I guess though I have questions about constitutes ‘strong’ in that context; also that the boundaries of what’s permitted in mainstream narrative cinema have always seemed limited to me, so it feels to me a bit like phantom either / or choices in an already restricted arena.

  2. I think the key thing, as with any art, is to not over-indulge in it. I’m an artist but I don’t hang-out with other artists or visit galleries in my spare time. Similarly with film, I only see/buy work that I truly love – recently, The First Film, and, Position Among The Stars. If I can’t watch a film multiple times I won’t keep it. So, as someone who works in an art school, (I run a course), I have to be especially careful not to be overwhelmed but rather to focus on the life changing power of creative work in art, film or whatever. All the rest is a distraction. (Your post also made me think there’s a place for a new branch of therapy focused on those who become too deeply immersed in an art:-)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m slowly learning that this is a much better principle to live by; also that – as I mention in the post with respect to books – once I stop engaging with the manufactured treadmill of must-see, must-do, I am able to cultivate a definite instinct for the small circle of artworks, past or contemporary, that I do need to pay attention to at any given time. Following those hunches often leads me to things that I then love, they can also in retrospect turn out to have fed decisively into creative projects in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated.

      1. I guess the overindulgence works for anything – those who are lucky enough to be able to work with their obsession/passion often find that they smother it a little. I think this is not just about art but about having a passion from which you can retreat to after your working day. I worked for a time in the National Mountain Centre of England and Wales, and a lot of people found that they could tire of their love for the hills, for paddling and climbing, when they had to work with it every day. It’s true for some and not for others, but I think there’s always that risk.

  3. thank you cat, your thoughts on film resonate with my own relationship with books. very inspiring to read your reflections. over the last months i have been watching the birds out here in the summerhouse where i’ve been hiding away, and i agree, they are great teachers of presence and attention. i hope you are well and too see you sometime over the summer 🙂

    1. Good to hear from you Jeppe, and thanks for your comment with the birds 🙂 Hope all is well with the writing-up, and look forward to catching up later in the summer.

  4. thank you for this lovely reflection. It’s wonderful that it’s allowed you to draw a line under a part of your life that has been lingering with you somehow. Like Jeppe I have a similar relationship with books, and recall your post a long while back now, about your experience of abstaining from reading for a week. That too dwelled on our tendency to slip into using the arts as vicarious experiences, particularly in this age which encourages us to live in illusions.

    1. Thanks for your kind thoughts, cricket 🙂 It’s been illuminating reading the comments to this post and finding people who’ve experienced similar dynamics with a range of different media. I was going to link to my book post; too lazy though 😉 You’re right, although it was too wide an issue to cover in this post, there are larger cultural tendencies to substitute arts and media for direct actions and experiences. This post about intellectual consumerism from US Transition is often on my mind in this regard: http://transitionus.org/blog/intellectual-consumerism

  5. Cat, this is poignant, lyrical and beautifully open. There are so many threads to pick up on, so thoughtfully interwoven that I’m not sure I can yet make a meaningful response. I shall read it again, likely more than once.

    Still there are already resonances – and I suspect for others across all walks of life too.

    I’ve asked myself (and not answered) similar questions about writing for a living, specifically journalism – the art of putting transient subjections on soon-to-be chip paper while keeping in mind the likely reception of the ideal reader more vividly than the authentic response to the story of me as writer. It’s not the same, of course … but still there was much ringing true and deep in your descriptions …

    Happens I’ve also lately found myself able to enjoy guilt-free, quiet observation of nature, in slow time, and to appreciate the joy of stretching, beautiful moments of now-ness. I’m a novice still, but gaining enough of a sense of something to know that there’s a lot to be said for letting go of the abstractions, analyses and projections…

    “It asks me how much time I spend being sufficient where I am, using only the resources of my own senses to reach out and meet the world around me …”

    Yes, yes.

    Thank you, and congratulations on a line well-drawn. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Vanessa, for such a lovely and resounding response. It’s been very interesting, not to say moving, hearing here from people in different walks of life with similar patterns of deep questioning and sometimes disillusion.

      Yes, I think that gradual journey of coming back to touch the Earth and just learning to be present is the primal reorientation, in a way, and trusting that what we as humans then come back to making or thinking out of that sustained immersion is very different from what we do without it.

  6. Excuse the irony, Cat, but your post reminds me in a strange way of a film I saw this week, “The Mexican Suitcase”, which ostensibly is about US-based photographers covering the Spanish Civil War, but in the telling of the tale uncovers many and sometimes troubling facts and reflections from those involved as civilians and combatants on the ground. This sets you thinking about things like the importance of things like ancestors and memory in our lives, and the extraordinarily hard and sad lives that so many lived in the Twentieth Century. In telling your story you also bring into relief issues of wider concern to all of us: how screen interaction with “elsewhere and elsewhen” distracts from the real, the now; how our public conversation turns into aggressive posturing, rather meaningful discussion and enquiry informed by good intentions. And more.

    For what it’s worth, I’m experimenting with applying the notion of “practices”, things that I do as a matter of course in my daily life that move my life more in the direction of “doing the right thing” and finding the way that I should be following. This means making routine getting your hands dirty in growing food, knowing and being in the rest of nature, having a creative practice, however limited, and being involved in community related things even though it can sometimes feel pointless and too hard. It’s a bit like the Ursula Le Guin quote in your post: practices of the good thing can bind us to the good, the right, whatever that means for each of us, and we learn in the process moving along what Tim Macartney has called “the invisible path”, the one we can’t see and frequently veer away from, to get lost and then find ourselves again, as we try to make sense of the world and our path through it. As Machado (and others, I think) put it, the “Camino” is made as we walk.

    1. Steve, if I didn’t remind at least one person of a movie I wouldn’t have done my job 😉 I love your insight that we can turn Le Guin’s ‘acts and their consequences’ to the good, by persistently practising our idea of right living in small daily ways, making our way as we go. Thanks for this, there’s something to cherish there 🙂

  7. I echo previous sentiments about this being a beautifully formulated, open and special bit or writing/sharing. Thank you. So much of this hit home for me, and so to see, others too.

    I’ve been doing this dance with the art world for years, specifically visual arts and galleries. the question for me came down to- where do I want my energy to go, into supporting this old system of elitism and art to hang on walls, or to helping birth ways to use art as a healing and transformative force? And I agree with you that there are probably artist who manage to dance with the system better than I’ve managed to.
    What Steve says about ‘practices’ and getting one’s hands dirty, and just living consciously makes the most sense to me right now.
    It is a hard thing you are doing, especially when it involves walking away from successes. But you are listening to your ‘Call’, and this is the most important thing.

  8. I wasn’t quite finished, and wanted to end with this quote, partially paraphrased from an interview with Joseph Campbell:
    ‘You have to keep going beyond traditional concepts…Not only for your own life, but because life keeps changing and the rules of the past are restrictive of the life process.’The moment the life process stops it starts drying up; and the whole sense of myth is finding the courage to follow the process.
    In order to have something new, something old has to be broken; and if you’re too heavily fixed on the old, you’re going to get stuck. Hell is the place of people who could not yield their ego to allow the grace of transpersonal power to move them.

    It is good to know others like me are ‘caught between stories’-although this place is also a story. Thanks for being there, Cat, and being brave.

    1. Hello Sarah,

      Thanks for your lovely comments; the shared experience and most of all the encouragement to keep going into the process. The Joseph Campbell quote is one to treasure and I’ve been thinking on similar lines quite a bit recently; that it matters to have stories and reasons but also to hold them lightly and let them go when they are done, because it’s all too easy to get stuck on something that might have worked in the past, but serves no longer.

      Again, I wish you courage in following your own Call wherever it leads, and in abiding in the place between for as long as life holds you there, before your time comes to walk on. Looking forward to discovering more of your thoughts and work as you go.

      1. Thanks Cat.
        I spent some time on some of the links I followed from yours on Lucy Neal’s work(specifically this one which you also may find resonates:
        https://itsvivid.wordpress.com/2010/02/20/divided-and-resolved-a-personal-account/ )

        And I gained further insights about this place where some of us are right now.
        Speaking for myself, I’ve landed in this in-between space periodically during my long professional life. But this time is different.

        The realisation that I don’t hold the values that this society is built on is not just isolating, but existentially scary. Where do I belong then, and how do I create a meaningful way to spend my days? Income is also an issue but luckily not pressing right now.

        Leaving the old roles leaves a hole which urgently shouts to be filled. I realised this time I need not to think up more goals or dreams to feel comfortable and useful, but I need more than anything to hold still with the discomfort and wait.
        Not passively but actively, with love and attention for the daily things in front of me which need doing.That’s my insight today.

        I’ll definitely be writing more on my blog, or perhaps create a new one for just this theme, and I’ll be following your journey as well,

      2. Hello Sarah,

        There’s a lovely bit of serendipity here: mainly through the strange magic of social media networks, I’ve got to know Vanessa who writes VIVID, and she is a very very good person to stumble upon! She’s one of those rare people who is completely down-to-earth and approachable, yet writes about tough subjects and difficult choices with that extra edge of honest insight, that bit more willingness to peer further down the curve, than most writers I come across who are pondering this time of transition, and what to make of one’s life within it.

        What you write about the need to stay alive to the discomfort, to attend lovingly to what needs doing in the present, and not to set yourself another round of goals definitely strike chords. One of the key things that being between stories for so long has brought me to learn, is that I need to work out who I am first: what I honestly love doing, how my energy ebbs and flows, the kinds of circumstances in which I thrive and those in which I feel ‘off’, and so on. This is still work in progress (when is it ever not), but I needed to wean myself off the habit of keep filling that hole you mention by replacing the ‘oughts’ of my old profession with fresh ‘have tos’, that deep down I knew also weren’t mine, and which fortunately have been the plans that backfired when I tried to put them in motion. It feels important to me now to deepen that familiarity with myself, and let that in time lead me outwards towards what I can do best, rather than rushing into yet another life that never quite fits properly.

        Sarah, if you feel moved to write more about your experiences of being between stories, I would be honoured if you would like to write a guest post for this blog. It could also be the start of your own blog on this very theme 🙂 As I mentioned in my WOWO comment, I think the between place is a somewhat neglected part of the transitioning experience, as most of the visible stories come from people who’ve found where they are moving on to, so I’m all for encouraging more reflections from here.

    2. PS This just popped into my Facebook feed, and was so apt that I’m moved to share it. With respect to those, myself included, who are with it all apart from the Christian god aspect, I’m still tempted to rename this ‘A Prayer Between Stories’:

      “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
      We are quite naturally impatient in everything
      to reach the end without delay.
      We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
      We are impatient of being on the way to something
      unknown, something new.
      And yet it is the law of all progress
      that it is made by passing through
      some stages of instability—
      and that it may take a very long time.

      And so I think it is with you;
      your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
      let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
      Don’t try to force them on,
      as though you could be today what time
      (that is to say, grace and circumstances
      acting on your own good will)
      will make of you tomorrow.

      Only God could say what this new spirit
      gradually forming within you will be.
      Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
      that his hand is leading you,
      and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
      in suspense and incomplete.” ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

      1. Cat,
        first of all, I hadn’t thought to look at comments on my story on the WOWO site until you mentioned having left one. Thank you for that, I’ll definitely reply there as well.

        Strange magic indeed! I saw what you wrote to Vanessa in support of her plan and that is just great. That is so much what one needs when sticking one’s neck out with yet another idealistic impulse. (Not to put it down, but I am full of them, and like you, must admit I’m grateful that many of them backfired.)
        One lament I have, having lived ‘in between’ for years on and off,(luckily interspersed by periods of wonderful professional engagement) is ‘I have to do it all myself!!” No one can keep that up long, as one thing after another gets shot down, or fizzles out altogether. Anyway, help and being ‘seen’ from outside is so precious.

        Deepening familiarity with oneself and letting it lead you outward, is beautifully put. It flies in the face of everything contained in our current goal-setting and go for it paradigm-including having a ready elevator speech for ‘What do you do?’.

        I think few people who have not risked this kind of authenticity know how much guts it takes to just hold still with it and nor try to fix it.

        Campbell again says something like ‘Wasteland’ is where people are living inauthentic lives, the way to heal that is to live an authentic life.’

        I love the Teilhard de Chardin poem. Thank you.

        And thank you too for the invitation to write a guest blog here. I’d be honored and would love to.

        I must say, reaching out to Aerin at WOWO (and having her reach back!), coming into contact with you, and Vanessa, and the work Lucy Neal is doing have rocked me. I am happy but shaken to start to acknowledge the implications of the kind of transition I’ve entered into. I’m not sure I’m ready for my own blog on the subject, but will definitely enjoy sharing part of this process in a guest post on yours.

        You are right, most visible stories concern the outcomes.
        Whereas they were all preceded by the period we are in which is messy and chaotic, and the perfect ground for serious creativity and transformation!!And not always easy to capture in words.
        So glad you are attempting just that, and doing it well, it is so valuable.

    3. Thank you again, Sarah, for these words of affirmation and encouragement. I’m going to drop you an email, mainly so you then have mine and can get in touch directly when you feel ready with that guest post, which I’ll be delighted to host.

      Moved to mention one more serendipity, though: I met a relatively new friend here in Berlin last week, who I’ve come to know through taking a Way of Council course, and it turns out she’s grappling with a very similar experience of deep between-ness: on the one hand feeling a deep instinct to go slowly and just be with the process, on the other struggling with the ‘ I have to do something now!’ syndrome. It’s wonderful, this sudden interconnectedness among a dispersed group of people who find themselves on this common between ground.

      1. Cat, and Sarah – how wonderful to find this fascinating conversation developing here, and to see the magic of these three- (and more-) way connections taking shape. For starters, thank you both for your supportive words about my own articulations and ventures. And thank you especially Cat for your compliments, which have made my day.

        You both make so many valuable and poignant observations here. I too love the Joseph Campbell quote and the Teilhard de Chardin poem and will turn to them again. Sarah’s comment about resisting the urge to fill old holes while dealing with the discomfort of not belonging any more, or at least not knowing where to belong, really strikes a chord; as does Cat’s point about the importance of working out who we are, what we love doing, how our energy ebbs and flows. These things take years to unravel, I think – I still have to remind myself to listen to those inner responses and try not to make decisions unless absolutely necessary! We are so very deeply programmed by those oughts and shoulds (in fact I’m not 100% sure that my embarking on a “project” doesn’t come from some echoes of that programming now, even; but I’ve got to the point where it’s asking me rather persistently to do it, so I’m going to listen :)).

        I look forward to hearing more as the places between your respective stories open, shift and evolve, shine new lights on old things and perhaps bring new things in time. How strengthening it is to make these connections between us!

        Vanessa

        P.S. Sarah – I didn’t check the Resilience site for a few days so have only just seen and replied to your comment there. Thank you for that 🙂

      2. Thanks Vanessa 🙂 It is a strength, isn’t it, to suddenly find these connections and common resonances flowering at this point of shared transition. All threads to weave anew with. I can understand your flickering of doubts about your new vision – is this really it, or just another ought to? – but it does feel like you’re on the right track in following its persistence! Looking forward to following as all unfolds.

      3. Cat, great that you met yet another friend in a similar place to yours/ours. And I’m so glad for you that she is where you live. Face to face friends are vital.

        Before Aerin gave me the link to your post, I honestly didn’t know what to do next – other than nothing. This discovery of others in similar inner circumstances, as well as actually being able to name this state has turned it around for me. So yes, it is wonderful!

      4. Vanessa, this converging of the three of us is so heartening, and as I said to Cat, for me, has already been so supportive.

        I think you are right that these things take years to unravel. And I think it is wise of you not to make decisions, I guess one could also say commitments unless absolutely necessary.

        I understand your feelings about not being 100% sure if your new venture isn’t somehow influenced by that need to Do Something. But if it is persistent, then listening to it sounds right. And whether or not it pans out as you hope, looking back on my various successes and missteps, not one of them was wasted, they were all steps to becoming who I am now, and the process keeps continuing.

        I was just reading in ‘Trust the process’ by Shaun McNiff, that significant creative acts are always an accumulation of small steps- seemingly unexpected and insignificant gestures. I think that sometimes doing something is just the right response to go against paralysis and feelings of disempowerment. So I will be following your process on this with interest and holding thoughts for deep fulfilment for you with it.

        Gosh, there is so much to say on these issues. I’ll try not to go on too much, but one more relevant thing about choosing what to commit to was revealed to me in an exercise I recently did in one of those books I said I’d never read again- but it was by a friend so I did.- ‘A woman entrepreneur’s book for realizing her dreams’ or something. The gist of it was to start with the kind of work you wanted to do, then answer ‘What experience are you looking for?’. Through an interesting question and answer process you finally came out not with a job, but with the essence of the way you’d like to feel from whatever work or project you are doing. Mine came out at feeling loved and connected, and being able to give love. If you are interested in the details, mail me and I’ll describe the exercise in detail. It shifted how I see whatever project I either think of or comes on my path, if I know beforehand that what I really want is community.

  9. The powerful realisation that you were following a path of intellectual aspiration rather than true love says it all! You are on the road to the latter and I hope you fall head over heels x

  10. Wow! This is an incredibly moving and resonant conversation. I am tingling (for so many reasons). I am so happy, Sarah, that this piece by Cat resonated for you… and to the beautiful connection in synchronicity and solidarity that has arisen.

    But more than simply feeling glad that you two connected, I am so moved and feel incredibly aligned with the conversation that is taking place here in these comments. My name is Aerin and I work with an initiative called Walk Out Walk On (http://www.walkoutwalkon.net/) where we talk a lot about the process of consciously choosing to “walk out” of that which no longer serves (which could even be a successful career) and then choosing to “walk on” to a new way of living (or thinking or acting) that actually is life and energy-giving. And we talk about this place in between the walking out and walking on, and we call it “the trembling.”

    And well, this is all well and good, but the thing that is calling me into this conversation at this time is that I, too, find myself very much in the trembling right now. And as I read all of your comments, I feel that they are giving expression to these feelings, thoughts and experiences that I have EVERY DAY! And I guess I am just astounded that all of you are going through something so similar to my experience, so emerged in the same deep inquiries. And, yes, just knowing that you are out there is transformative somehow.

    I guess it’s sort of strange for me because I do this work supporting people on the path of creating the life that they want to live… and yet I feel so impatient and stuck in this place I am now and am full of doubts and frustrations with my present.

    I wanted to tell all of you here that (ideally) Walk Out Walk On is sending out a mailing with reflections on just this space of in-betweennees that we’ve been exploring here. I would love to link to this conversation that has unfolded here, Cat … I hope that this newsletter will come together, but I’m finding it hard to write, simply because it is a tender, soft subject in my life… the words I’ve so far written just don’t seem adequate. It is hard to be clear and expressive from this trembling. Sarah, Cat, Vanessa and others here… thank you for your vulnerability and willingness to dive down into this conversation that I actually feel I haven’t been able to have in my “real life” with others. I’ll let you all know if the Walk Out Walk On mailing comes together. And I look forward to seeing how we can stay connected.

    In solidarity and sisterhood,
    Aerin

    1. Hello Aerin,

      Thanks so much for the depth and honesty of your comment, and for joining with this conversation in such a heartfelt way. I’m touched that the experiences shared through this thread have resonated so powerfully for you.

      It’s great to hear about the planned WOWO newsletter on the trembling, because it’s very much this unspoken aspect of the walking out and walking on process; I can also understand how difficult it is to write! Speaking from my own experiences of between-ness, there are long stretches where it’s impossible to know, let alone articulate, what’s going on. Even when phases of clarity arrive, well, I’m looking back at the old posts I’ve just re-archived here, and notice a lot of metaphors trying to convey what’s happening but not much in the way of direct description.

      Still, what’s inspiring me all over again reading your comment is this strong sense of common experiences among us, of stages, patterns and feelings that are shared enough to make it worthwhile finding ways to articulate them publicly, in the interests of helping others who are grappling with the same doubts and anxieties. I very much look forward to developing this connection, and if I can offer you any help along these lines, I’d be delighted to.

    2. PS – Aerin, I forgot to mention the essential, which is that you are very welcome to link to this conversation in the WOWO newsletter; that would be an honour.

      Also, on reflection I think perhaps metaphors aren’t such an evasive substitute for direct description of in-between states as I make out. Sometimes that kind of poetic image is the best, or only, way to get at the process – or at least that’s been the case so far for me.

      1. Hey Cat… thanks for these responses. I absolutely believe that metaphors serve well in this in-between time. I have always relied heavily on metaphor in my writing and in my way of expressing myself. While sometimes I know that this can be confusing for people, or too abstract, sometimes it is the only way we can hope to illuminate our state of mind or heart. As you mentioned, this also reminds me of poetry: some things can only be expressed poetically. Prose just doesn’t cut it. It looks like the WOWO newsletter is going forward and hopefully we’ll send it out this Thursday. I think we’ll certainly link to this conversation/blog post as it is an inspiring example of just the kinds of connections that make us so excited to see unfolding. Right now, I can’t think of anything I really need from you or the rest of these amazing women that also find themselves in this trembling time. Simply knowing that you are out there is so heartening for me. Thank you for this space between stories! – Aerin

    3. Aerin, thanks for writing so beautifully from the heart.
      I believe I understand your discomfort in finding yourself in a role helping people find a true path while yours is in confusion at the moment.

      When I wrote to WOWO (Walk Out, Walk on), it was the only thing I could think of to break through the isolation I was feeling at the time. When a real person – you!- wrote back, with understanding and companionship, it literally turned the whole thing around for me. So don’t underestimate the value of just being who you are where you happen to find yourself now. This is wonderful, worthwhile work.

      Honestly, I don’t think people need ‘answers’ or even a role model particularly. Certainly in this vulnerable place, I just need to be heard and to know I’m not the only one feeling this way.

      I’ve read in various places recently that it is a profound human need (to the point of prolonging life when it is met) to belong. For me, when I found that every cell in my body resists making myself and my art into one more consumer product, I fell out of step with an entire paradigm. And wherever I went with these convictions, despite some successes, I was made to feel wrong, lazy, spoiled (‘Your husband earns so you can afford to have your pure ideals’) , and a failure.

      So having stumbled upon this new community of people sticking by their ideals despite the prevailing hysteria urging us to market ourselves to oblivion, I feel healed and soothed. And able to focus on what is really happening for me and how much promise there is in this period.

      And I’ve discovered, as you have, how difficult it is to write from this ‘tender, soft’ space in one’s life. Cat answered that well in her reply to you, I feel. I’d add only that, these periods are hazy; I think the left analytical brain is put on hold as the right brained functions take over- intuition, connection, emotion, a sense of the sacred, a movement toward wholeness. It is hard on the ego for sure, as there isn’t any real certainty about the value of where we’ve been and where we are now, and where we might be headed.

      I’m just so glad to have you and Cat and others as travelling companions.
      love Sarah

      1. Beautiful, Sarah. And, yes, there is something so moving about this longing for belonging that so many of us feel. Your reply has once again brought me to the edge of tears. And your courageous path of walking out of commercializing yourself and your art is incredibly inspiring. I love some of the words you use here, as well … they feel right on… things like “hazy” “hard on the ego” “people don’t need answers” and questions about the “value of where we’ve been and where we are now” … all of this resonates so very much. Be in touch again soon on email.

        Warmly,
        Aerin

      2. Thanks, Aerin, for commenting on my walking out of commercialising myself and my art, it feels good to have that named and seen.
        Looking forward to hearing more about your own path. hugs from here, Sarah

  11. Dear Sarah and Aerin,

    Thanks for your lovely replies. It’s good to be reminded by you both that just offering a space, and listening, is sometimes all that is needed. No need to do, or answer, or fix anything more.

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