Almost at the end of week 5 of the first lockdown (how long ago that seems!), life seemed to be a roller-coaster of emotions, shock and emotional fatigue, yet punctuated by extraordinary moments of connection, even of transcendence. Each morning our stranded-with-us house guest would sit on the slate wall outside, feeling the Spring sun and journalling. Some mornings I’d join him and, on one of those, a neighbour, talking from the breadth of the road that ran in front of our house, told me how his wife, an ambulance driver, had no protective clothing and had to buy her own face masks.
Anger came early with the pandemic. There was a lot of anger in the face of our lack of preparedness as a society. There was anger because we cared: about the dying and the grief-stricken, about those at much more risk than necessary while doing essential work; about the lack of testing or tracing; about all that planet-killing human behaviour that had led us from our former sense of what passed as ‘normal’ to this new situation.
A sense of calling
Our story on Earth needs to change. More and more of us know that. But most of us also feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the changes needed and unsure what part we can play or what effect we can have. And many of us are consumed by simply surviving. People have lost loved ones, faced sickness, seen jobs or businesses disappear, had their homes threatened. Others have managed to save businesses or freelance careers by working seven days a week. How do we change the world when we are besieged? How do we re-imagine our stories when we got to the end of 2020 exhausted, only to face new variants of Covid-19 and new rounds of restrictions and threats to livelihoods?
It can only begin with each of us. It starts with compassion, for ourselves, for our households, for whoever we have the power to touch or the privilege to connect with, for the bits of earth we have stewardship of. By self-compassion, I don’t mean fobbing yourself off with a new sweater or a big glass of wine. Compassion is radical, it is a sharing of suffering, it is sympathy so deep that it moves us to our guts. It requires attention: real focus, not a distracted nod in the right direction. Compassion listens.
I began 2020 with a question I wanted to ask of everything I do and am: Does it increase connection?
I can’t save the world. Not one of us can. But many of us together can make a difference and we do it wherever we deepen a connection (whether internally or by reaching out); whenever we show compassion; each time we pay attention and listen — to those suffering, to the earth, to our own bodies, to whatever is calling us.
Calling is not only a word that applies to those with a religious vocation. I don’t believe any of us has one essential pre-ordained purpose or destiny that we’re here to fulfil, but we do give our lives purpose by living with integrity, by constantly reappraising our values, by listening to what our guts and hearts, minds and souls are telling us.
Does it increase connection?
In the couple of years before the pandemic, I’d done a lot of thinking about the story I wanted to become. I’d managed to change how I worked and how I used time. It was a constant work in progress, of course, but there had been positive small steps along the way.
One of the things I’d been able to do in was to travel: slow travel, followed by spending time in one place for a period. I travelled with my husband, and each time we would muse about what it would be like to uproot and live in one of these places. We both loved Budapest, but we are not city people and it would be so far from family … and anyway, these wonderings were speculative — thought-experiments that we knew we wouldn’t act on.
Then Brexit shook us and opened up new questions and we began thinking more seriously about moving. Two places beckoned. We stayed in both in 2019. One of those places, a hamlet in a bit of surviving forest in Brittany, worked on us deeply. We felt a sense of calling that was both disturbing and exhilarating.
I’d lived on the edge of a mountain in Wales for nearly two decades, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I’ve loved the place and the house, a quirky perpetual work in process full of wonderful spaces and family memories. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with slate and with the rawness of the North Wales landscape.
What Brittany shares with North Wales, is a heritage of Celtic folklore and mythical narratives. Both have wild and beautiful coastlines and a language sprung from the same family-tree. So why move? It came back to that question: Does it increase connection?
We felt the UK was about to foreclose on many connections through the Brexit process and neither of us wanted to be part of that. But there were other, deeper threads emerging in this new story. I’d begun an apprenticeship in herbalism, and the wooded landscape, with its possibilities of foraging and space to grow a diverse range of herbs and food felt increasingly important.
Slow down, listen, connect
But above all else, there was that forest — it had spoken to us in powerful ways, ways that resonated with the values we wanted to live and embody:
Slow down, listen, connect — it is enough, the wind whispered through the trees during our month in Brittany.
It was the culmination of a year during which a new adventure had been suggesting itself more and more insistently. I love writing. I love working with writers. Mentoring, providing courses, engaging with a writing community, engaging with writers willing to dive deeply into their stories, gathering writers around my kitchen table, being able to walk alongside and support writers in their process and journeys … these things are a delight and privilege.
One word summing up these strands kept recurring: Kith.
As I’ve travelled; as I’ve worked with writers; as I’ve learnt from my herbal teachers and the peers learning with me, that word: Kith became a touchstone for a writing life that demands we slow down, listen, connect. Kith is a concept that stands against the myth of being ‘self-made’ or ‘self sufficient’. Instead, the notion of kith asserts that sufficiency must take us beyond the self. An abundant life is found by slowing down, paying deep attention and connecting, in a spirit of radical generosity. After all, true abundance is the art of knowing when there is enough.
Building an ark
So the vision for the move came from the urgency to find a place where we could embody some of this. It’s a vision of a place where we can forage and grow, make and create, where we can provide a space for writers, both a virtual and — when it is safe — around our kitchen table, at our hearth, around fires in the orchard besdie the river and beneath the stars.
I don’t know when those ‘in person’ meetings might be. But in the meantime, inspired by nature activist Mary Reynolds, I’m working with those in my household to make our patch of land (riverside meadow and a bit of ancient forest) into an ARK (Acts of Restorative Kindness); slowly making the house ready to be an Ark for writers, and developing an online space where we can shelter and connect.
2021 is going to be another challenging year, but it doesn’t have to be a year of overwhelm. Over this next year, I want to invite you to slow down, listen and connect, to join a writing community who are kith to one another and to all of life. We will begin together online and see where the journey leads.
Here’s to nurturing our stories of how we slow down, listen, connect.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses here on the site as well as the opportunity to join this year’s writing community, Kith, While you’re here, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.
Anne Bateman says
Hello Jan and other folks sharing this space, Thank you Jan for this wonderful, as ever, thought provoking piece. I take a while to digest and ruminate so here’s an unfinished poem I wrote about home…It’s a response to your last piece. Still needs editing though but by the time I’ve done that, it will no longer be relevant to this thread. I’d love to read some of your writing other people on this thread!
It’s the people
Home is not this house
viewed from the rear window
of a departing car, each mean
brick terrace coming in
under budget, paint peeling,
past ragged privet through the dark
entry to the laundry greying
for the hanging out.
It’s not even the big house
in the sun, electric gates, pool,
what have you,
– or a parasite life on the fringes
of someone else’s culture,
descending through the clouds
to the valley where shimmering
rice paddies follow, filling
the contours of my heart,
carelessly absorbing mantra
or the call to prayer,
– or recognising roots,
in peat-fire smoke and song,
till pushed off the land and restless
we finally stopped where we stopped
– realising this salvaged collection
of objects redolent with meaning
ranged along the mantlepiece,
tells you that this place and time
is where you are meant to be.
It’s the people,
– filling each room,
always room for another at table,
or the desert road at dusk, lamplit
lined with families, breaking fast,
gesturing welcome to share iftar
– and far-flung kin,
time-lagged or face to face,
leaning into heart space
where we are home,
separation only words,
or companionable silence,
we are a loved part
of each other, knowing
there is literally nothing we could do
that would not be forgiven,