Sit with me: I am in a circle in the back room of a small pub in North Oxford, under the shelter of a giant copper beech. Spring is unfurling its leaves. A man is talking. His name is Edward and he is the oldest person in the room, the unofficial guardian of the ancient common land of Port Meadow. Edward is describing how at ‘rainbow gatherings’ people sit in council to come to a unified conclusion about how to proceed, how it differs from our combative democratic process.
‘What happens if they don’t all agree?’ I ask, rather defensively.
There was a pause.
‘They wait until they do,’ he smiled. ‘Sometimes it takes days.’
I am not in my usual territory. Yesterday I found a notice on a lamppost that invited people to meet and discuss ways to prevent the building of hundreds of new houses alongside the leafy canal and its wastelands. Join in! declared the notice and my curiosity got the better of me. I don’t know this yet but I am about to shift position, from being an individual seeker on the road to being a community activist, rooted in place, a move that will define my life for the next fifteen years.
Sitting with the trouble and waiting for a solution to emerge however is something I do know. I know it from being a writer, and from working with medicine plants and dreams. I have been sitting with this essay, this subject, since the goat willows went into bloom and now the elder and dog roses are at their height. I wanted to write something useful in these times of lockdown and uncertainty, to share practices from those years that might help others navigate this unknown territory. I’ve been sitting with this title, staring at the blank screen, or the pages of a blue notebook, as the cherry blossom drifts around this Suffolk garden. I used to be able to write as soon as my fingers touched a keyboard. Sentences would tumble beautifully out of nowhere. Now they don’t. Sometimes in my life, when words stopped coming, it signalled a move of position. So, even though I don’t like to admit it, I know something inside me is trying to shift. I can only wait and watch the spring.
There is a scene in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Kean where the famous 19th century actor faces an existential crisis but he cannot find the right way to deal with it. As he stomps around the stage, he strikes different poses and each time finds himself in another Shakespearean character: Hamlet, Lear, Richard III. All of them from plays in which he starred. He can’t get to the man because the actor is in the way.
When things shift you throw off the costumes, nervous that perhaps there is nothing beside the roles you have identified with all your life. You start new paragraphs but they all sound dead and disjointed. You wince at the sound of your own voice. In the absence of the script you know by heart, questions come in you don’t want to face: who are you, what is your value, what are you doing here? Do people care what you think? Are you even a writer at all?
THE DREAMING PRACTICE
Before I joined that circle in Oxford and began to campaign for the neighbourhood’s wild and feral spaces, I worked with dreams, exploring them using a method called the five levels. The practice is simple. You tell the dream to your dreaming partner, asking the questions: what does this say about my daily life, my biographical life, my self on the social level, on the mythological level and from the perspective of the Earth? You tell the dream out loud. The visitor to the dream listens and can ask questions but only to prompt the dreamer to go deeper into the dream. Not as an inquirer, but as a fellow explorer. As you do the territory opens out between you; you discover its language, its topography, its mood. Something catches your eye, you both look at it and it opens up like a flower. It could be an object, a detail, or a feeling. Mostly though it is a position. Mostly it is a position where you are stuck or held against your will.
The visitor keeps asking: why are you stuck in the jaws of that alligator? I can’t move, you reply. Except that now you can, now you are outside the dream, as well as in it. You are no longer six years old. You can open your mouth, where in the dream you could not. Dreams, you have learned, flee from analysis. Given time however, as you weather their difficulty and speak what you feel out loud, they reveal everything. Agency is returned.
Even though we were stuck in the ‘nightmare of history’, we realised if you placed attention on the underlying darkness of our collective lives, we could learn to free ourselves and the world. Each dream is carefully shaped to fit everyone’s personal legacies, and yet all of them at some point reveal a small child, the heart, stuck in the jaws of an alligator, needing your liberating gaze. Our lives are pivoted around these events and replayed over time. You want to know why you are trapped, what the alligator means, but you learn to quieten the mind’s inquiry. You’re waiting for another kind of intelligence to kick in. What matters is making the move from a stuck place into a fluid open one. Sitting within the dream means waiting until that move is clear, and then making it. The feeling is what invites the dream to reveal itself.
There was a point in dreaming practice with others where the dialogue often became stuck: the moment when your perception needed to shift from the biographical level to the collective level. People could explore the mythological and the Earth level, but when they were invited to see themselves as a social being, as one of the collective, they closed down. When I became a community activist, I realised that even though people were talking about community, they were talking from an individual position, from a small me, rather than a collective we. The circles we held were not about coming to a conclusion in a group but about listening to a series of individuals being paid attention to by others, sometimes for the first time. Invisibly, we were surrounded by alligators and terrified children. We were set on changing the world, the food systems, the energy systems, our governance, but no one was dealing with those snapping jaws. They were not even seen.
To come to a conclusion means you need time and commitment. If there is intention that you are doing something together, you can weather the storm that comes when people who sit in a circle in council decide to do something that is contrary to the status quo. This is not difficult in the sense of organisation, of making actions, even of getting on with several prickly strangers who think they have a better idea than you. What is difficult is negotiating with the invisible forces our culture has no ways of naming. Even though these threats of violence are felt palpably in the room, even though we know in our minds about the nightmare – our long history of servitude, the rulers who hold our hearts in their claws – we find it difficult to admit their influence on our human lives. We lack the language and the techne to deal with their dragonish behaviors, especially when they come out of our mouths in argument. When terror stalks the room and the children who might tell us what is happening fall silent.
Even when we sought advice on how to deal with the fall outs and ‘storming’ that befall all grassroots groups when the start-up honeymoon period ends, we were told to go to psychologists or conflict resolution experts, as if these divisions were a personal defect, rather than an encounter with the shadow forces of civilisation. But from the practice I knew that to withstand the push back from the conventional world, the feudal hierarchies that still rule the world within and without us, another kind of contract was needed.
Then one day I stumbled upon two books I had loved as a child: one of English fairy tales and another of Greek and Roman myths. In these old familiar texts, I found the lexicon I was looking for. And, as if my life were a dreaming practice itself, I found myself moving from the social to the mythological level.
THE BOY WITH THE STRANGE HAIRCUT
The boy is not a god but a daemon. But when he enters the room, the winds of heaven blow through your house, throwing your desk papers into the air. Startled, you look outside the window and feel the enclosing walls around you. You find yourself in time’s prison. He crosses your path at strategic points, a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, interrupting a line made by the old timelord Chronos with his relentless ticking clock and calendars. You stop, and time opens up, revealing past, present and future all at once. Suddenly you realise you can take a different direction.
Like all daemons, embodiments of the human condition, Kairos, the force of destiny arrives in a moment of crisis, unexpected. His moment of appearance is quick and you have to seize him by the forelock. If you hesitate, the time for that split-second all-moments-now encounter will be gone. You will lunge to grab him from behind, but your hands will slide down the back of his smooth shaven neck. You will fall back into linear time.
Afterwards you have to make time to realise what has happened and integrate that all-at-once time into everyday life. When the pandemic interrupted our Chronos-ruled civilisation, the official story of progress, by which we have measured our worth, was revealed to bear false promise, and although the forces of empire rally to continue to broadcast its all-powerful narrative, although these mortgaged walls still hold us, we now know there is a place outside this house of history and a road that leads to nowhere we have gone before, yet feels like home.
WHEN THE MERRY-GO-ROUND STOPS
Last summer behind the pier in Southwold one rainy afternoon, I heard a familiar tune and found myself following it. It was the sound of a merry-go-round, the old fashioned kind with gaily-painted horses and curly Victorian lettering. Two children in anoraks were riding the coloured wooden creatures, as they went up and down, as their parents called out to them and waved. The fairground hand scowled bitterly at the rain and his lack of customers.
I watched entranced for a moment, pretending it was merrier than it was. The song had pulled me somewhere wistful. A sadness washed over me. It sounded like an old Nina Rota film score, or the kind of plangent accordion music you used to hear in Paris, and maybe still can. Loss. Times I had and wouldn’t find again. A tear fell down my cheek.
Why are you crying, for no reason? I asked myself sharply. As if a force pushed me away, I turned and headed swiftly home. Something inside me had shuddered. The song was taking me into a dead end, into a timeless realm where everything keeps going round in a circle.
When Childe Roland goes widdershins into Elfland to rescue his sister, Burd Helen, he is given his father’s sword and instructions not to eat or drink anything there. If you speak to anyone you need to cut off their heads. When the boy asks the way to the Dark Tower from two herdsmen and a henwife, he cuts their head off – and in some versions, Burd Helen’s as well – and breaks the elven spell. In the old Scottish tales if you were lured by music under the fairyhill you were warned not to tarry, for you would never return to Earth. You had to leave a nail in the door of the hillside, so you might break out of the dancing ring and find your way back again.
The lockdown was that nail in the door, it was the quick boy at the crossroads, the sword that can cut us away from the enchantments we are trapped in: the nostalgias of nations, of lost times of Blitz spirit and suburban post-war paradises, when victory was assured, when our status as superior human beings shone with an Olympian light. You could dismiss the merry-go-round as a mere glamour or entertainment, but that would be to ignore the power of the music’s spell, the desire to be somewhere apart from this present moment, away from the tedium and threats of an industrialised life. It would be to forget the manufacturers of fairground rides and their scowling mechanics. Those who warp time and take it out of the realm of the heart.
In this pause, alongside the death and suffering the pandemic brought, there was also the possibility that Kairos awakens. For months the borders to our neverlands of celebrities and stars, of parties and festivals, theatres and concerts, of cruises and holidays in the sun, were closed. Instead, partners and families spent time together and had to make their own amusement, while the pressure to be somewhere else at all times disappeared. The time of the heart, where all things can be considered, replaced the rush of 24/7 culture where nothing can be. Our fellow workers became the people we cared about, we heard birdsong as if for the first time. Goats and deer and sheep roamed through the empty streets. On laptops and phones, we realised we were all ordinary people in ordinary rooms, sharing the same crisis. As politicians still strove to divide and conquer us, to push their nation’s illustrious story ahead of everyone else’s, we still felt for the people we did not know on the other side of the world. We still longed for mountains when we could not climb them, enjoyed the quietness of a spring without traffic, and the blue untrammelled sky.
As everything is rushed to return to ‘normal’, you feel pushed to get back on schedule again but something in you hesitates. Something in you has stopped. Once where there had been a great noise now there is a kind of silence.
In my community activism years, I was part of a small theatre group in Norwich. One day, rehearsing for an Earth Day performance, we picked different futures out of a hat and improvised who we were and what had happened between 2010 and 2110. Some of the futures were already mapped — the dystopian, the techno-fixed – but some were not. Mine was Unknown Quantity. When I took the stage I found myself saying: one day people just stopped and started to do something completely different.
For thousands of years the merry-go-round of civilisation has whirled ceaselessly – the wheel of fortune, the wheel of karma, the wheels of commerce and capitalism. It whirls generations round in a frenzy of speed, music and colour. It seems like everything happens at that funfair: everything fashionable, interesting, important. Relinquish the wheel, advises the Buddha. Don’t linger in fairyland, warn the ancestors. It’s all an illusion. But no one takes any notice. The pace of our lives is tempered by that glittering speed. We are compelled to go faster, bigger, buy more houses, more clothes, more holidays, more movies, more machines, more cake. If we step off the ledge for one moment we can’t wait for our next turn on that great production line.
The world is made of that speed and that drive. The drive of the will to succeed, to overcome, to conquer. The force runs rampage over the globe, through all our lives like Alexander. We drink to keep up with it, always late, on a perpetual deadline. 24/7. We cut corners, skip facts, betray our friends, forget the green world outside the window. We are restless, never satisfied, never sure what we want, looking over our shoulder for the powerful people, to be invited to the right party, to wear the perfect suit, to walk with the gods. We fight time and nature with that drive, with our passionate intensity, our desire to escape into all the fun and fantasy of the fair.
We are holding that drive, that inhuman artificial energy, in our bodies and sometimes those bodies, those minds, break down.
Sometimes Kairos crosses our path and we real human beings break through. A moment when we align ourselves with everything else on Earth and powerdown. The drive stops suddenly, the way going to night-clubs once stopped when you were young. You wake up and you can’t do it anymore. It’s not that you decided to. It just happened: it happens because something else has begun to go on in your house, in the neighbourhood, something our unkind minds and ruthless wills had not considered. A harmonious way of doing things, of engaging in the world, that affects our inner and outer lives in ways we never imagined. Focusing on the small things of daily life and the kindness that can exist between people. Remembering what really matters about being alive on the planet.
THE UNEASY CHAIR
There is a writing class I teach called The Uneasy Chair. The Uneasy Chair is not about becoming a professional writer, but about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, involving collaboration and time and imagination. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, in this chair, which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to find their true material. You don’t want to sit there of course, but you don’t get the story if you don’t. This is the dual position where you sit in the chair and experience everything going down in the room, and also stand behind the chair, directing and making sense of what you-in-the-chair are experiencing. All chair, and you lose the plot, all observer, and you lose the reader.
The lockdown interrupted our lives like a koan and discombobulated time. We still hold its hermetic effects within us, even as the doors open, as children run out to play around the deserted fountains and broad walks of European cities. It has begun a process past seekers might recognise as alchemy, not of the individual soul, but of the collective. We live in small spaces, like battery hens, but feel more connected to the people and planet outside than ever before, to the birds and the mountains showing their snowy faces for the first time in decades. The more we are held tight in our crucibles, the more our imagination reaches out, the more we remember, the more we reach out to touch others in our longing. The paradox of the hermitage and monk’s cell. Of not moving and yet moving.
The old gods and governments of course, do not want us to sit with the trouble, to consider this paradox, to reach out to our fellows in what Jeremy Rifkin calls the shift towards an empathic civilisation, where we become biospheric, in tune with the planet and all its denizens. When the individualist ‘psychological’ dynamic of the 20th century cedes to the ‘dramaturgical’ age of the 21st, and we are able to step into another’s shoes and feel their joy and suffering because we have not denied our own.
Even if these controllers of our destinies, push us back towards the factory lines and depots and the merry-go-round cranks up for its summer season, we have stepped into those pivotal roles already, seeing ourselves as players within a global plague tragedy, whose small scenes are enacted each day on screen in our kitchen-sink theatres. The chorus and spear carriers, all who have been standing in the wings, have taken the stage. We cheered them from the balconies.
Once you have seen, you cannot unsee. Once you have sat with the trouble and withstood the drive that forces you out of your heart, out of that uneasy chair, you do not rush to ride the carousel again. You can see what lies outside the door. You remember how it feels not to be alone, even when you were alone.
ONE FINE DAY
I have sat with this essay since the lockdown began, as if trapped in its very title. It wouldn’t move, the door would not open and the sentences did not tie up. Then I remembered how it is when you visit a plant or a place and try to discern its dreaming, You can’t do that until the visit is over, when you look back with what the writer about history and myth, Roberto Calasso calls, the douceur of time. I was still in the chair, experiencing what it felt like to undergo the uncertainty I had been writing about from behind it for a decade. Then today a scene came back to me and I realised that the door was already ajar. Because there is a third position in the uneasy chair teaching that can make writing protean, which is to say, connected to life beyond your self. I call it the eagle’s position, where you fly up and perceive those small moves you make in your practice and see how they affect the fabric of the world.
Follow me: I am cycling one early May morning across the harbour bridge, over the river flowing seawards, towards the sleeping village of Walberswick. Along the ridge path towards the marshes, barley fields either side of me, and the sea dark blue in the distance, listening out for nightingales in their thorny gorse fastness, singing up the dawn. I am walking towards the sea, through the wavy reeds, toward the sun rising and the light glancing off the water like a mirror. I am running into the bone-cold salty waves, into the light. There is space all around and singing, immense blue sky, horizon. I open my arms and breathe deep.
I am imagining the people I know in lockdown in London, dreaming of the wide spaces of Montana, of swimming places they cannot go, the lidos and lakes, of the artist who stood in the crematorium alone with her dead husband, without mourners or celebration, of the sick women who struggle to recover, of all the people I don’t know in places where I once loved to go – in Venice, in New York, in the city of Guayaquil by the Pacific ocean. I am remembering how it has been down at the harbour for the past months without visitors, with only the local people walking along the river, towards the bluebell woods in the evenings, the fishermen and boatmen working in a landscape you have only seen in an 18th century painting, standing in the deserted town streets, like a 1970’s sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. How everyone has been greeting each other and waving in the lanes, how a part of us doesn’t want this present moment to end.
I wish I had learned when I was in those gnarly grassroots meetings that what really matters is not how we deal with power or find reparation (which we never could) but how to be able bring this space of light and air into those constricted spaces. Because exposed to this sunlight and fresh air, in this sense of expanded time and connection, the invisible forms that have governed our every move for aeons have no power over us. We thought for years our enthusiasm, our well-meaning natures, would be able to bring a different future into play but we forgot the will that drives the ancient machinery forward, that fuels the whirligig culture: our unconscious snarling dragonish selves. Our hearts were not strong enough on their own. We needed our free wills to make that move.
There is a deal you make with life. We made it a long time ago with the beasts and the plants, only our civilisations buried it in sand to further their own interests. For a long time I was not sure how we could remember this deal together. I was waiting for the perfect group, the right time, the right place. And then I realised it didn’t matter. Because I was already in contact with the people. They were just not on the beach standing beside me.
What I wanted to say in those classes and councils and never could, was that we endure the uneasy chair, the exigencies of the crucible, to remember this deal. How this remembering can cohere the fragmentation of the collective we see and feel all around us – its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. We do it to remember what was embedded in those ancient stories, once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. We do it to liberate our fellows, trapped in the small places. We do it for the luminous planet that hosts us. So we can finally all find our way home.
Teaser photo credit: By Agnostizi – Own work, Public Domain