In this last year I turned 60. With the Covid restirctions, there was no prospect of a family gathering, something that we’ve done as a family over decades for both momentous and cyclical occasions. And neither was there a prospect of slow train travel across Europe, landing somewhere to spend time immersing in a new place.
What I decided to do mark the year, inspired by a friend who had done something similar, was to challenge myself to new experiences and learning each month. This has included French language lessons; an online singing weekend with the Northumbrian folk singers, The Unthanks, followed by a four week singing course this winter; a herbalist course in herbs for sleep and, more recently, beginning a second apprencticeship in community herbalism with a superb Irish school; training as a Yoga Nidrā teacher; completing my portfolio of case studies for clinical aromatherapy plus a couple of short courses in aromatherapy including and excellent one in the use of hydrosols; two courses in foraging wild herbs; working on a haiku sequence tracking the micro-seasons in this bit of Brittany modelled on a Japanese system; doing a course in working with grief and taking some online cookery courses.
I’ve journalled a lot, read some amazing books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and had an extraordinary and rewarding time writing and delivering workshops and residentials for writers, mentoring writers, and editing collections of poetry and novels.
It’s been a year with so much to be grateful for but, of course, like so many at the moment, I’m missing family enormously and I’m acutely conscious that, for the last couple of years, a huge part of this life has been ‘virtual’ and online. I’ve tried to balance this with long walks in the forest, experimenting with recipes for new herbal teas, cooking, organising renovations and painting rooms in the house that still feels very new to us, and spending real life time with the two family members I share a home with.
But none of this negates the fact that we are living in interesting times — times of uncertainty, with major ecological questions becoming daily more urgent.
None of us can ‘solve’ all of this, certainly not alone, but each of us can witness and lament and add reverence and meaning to our sometimes crazy world, which is why I want to begin 2022 with a commitment to permeability and enquiry.
Being permeable to life
The temperament to which Art appeals, is the temperament of receptivity.
wrote Oscar Wilde.
And the writer and critic, Hilton Als, writing in the anthology, Rookie on Love, takes up this call to be receptive not only in art but in life.
How can we reverse the negativity that surrounds being receptive — to love, to someone else’s dreams? What are we supposed to do with this space? Stare down into it? Put flowers in it? Shout out to the less receptive among us that there is nothing wrong with saying what one wants, including love? I don’t know. Just don’t call me until you’re ready to receive, and I’m ready to give. One sees flowers growing around Montgomery Clift’s mouth at the end of that black-and-white masterpiece, A Place in the Sun (1951). The flowers grow in the earth of his receptivity — his openness to the scene, the atmosphere. In all aspects of his work Clift was, to my mind and eye, the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, largely because he jettisoned acting out for acting in. He embodied receptivity.
[…] Watching Montgomery Clift taught me that there is no shame in being receptive to a given situation or person; it is part of my job as an artist, and part of who I am as a man in search of love and its flowers.
This quality of being permeable to others is nothing to do with being easily manipulated, but rather in being deeply connected, going about the world with all our senses open. There is something essentially vulnerable in this. The writer or artist may be thinner skinned, more empathic, but this openness is not a lack of character or strong values. Rather its an unselfing that allows us to immerse in the flow of life itself and so write not just in the faked voices of others — humans, animals or plants, but from within a wider and deeper stream of consciousness. Read a poem like Louise Glück’s ‘The Wild Iris’ and such permeability radiates from the writing.
In this permeable state we write from who we really are, yet we also push beyond mere individuality and, in doing so, find ourselves delighted, awed, wonder-struck and alive with a million unanswerable questions at the extraordinary miracle of being part of life. Our writing becomes a constant enquiry into what is just beyond our grasp, into language and emotions that stretch our creative boundaries.
in a spirit of constant enquiry
We are living in an age of seeking for and clinging to certainty. In a world of fire and flood and ecological degradation that is also a world marred by a pandemic that is not the first zoonotic virus and unlikely to be the last, it’s more than understandable that people want answers, facts and security. People become intransigent or cynical not because they are monsters but because they are afraid. Sadly, though, this fear can also make us reactionary rther than reflective, entrenched in being ‘right’ rather than open to living with doubt. But when we stop being able to tolerate living with huge questions in favour of easy (and often false) surety, we also tend to become tribal, drawing lines of who is in or out, less humance and compassionate.
To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded. While our thirst for knowledge may be unquenchable because of the immensity of the unknown, the activity itself leaves behind a growing treasure of knowledge that is retained and kept in store by every civilization as part and parcel of its world.
Hannah Arendt said in a Gifford Lecture published in The Life of the Mind.
And in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit stresses the need to take creative and real detours in writing and life, to take risks and wander into unknown territory.
The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation… Never to get lost is not to live.
Being lost, being surrounded by questions is neither overwhelming nor an impediment to creativity for Solnit.
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, […] they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.
Living with questions is not the being lost of not knowing where to turn, but the joyful immersion into the unfamiliar. This is the ‘lost’ that Walter Benjamin talks about, that is not merely about not finding our way but instead about unselfing, getting out of our own way to immerse with the flow and the mystery:
Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.
Living with a sense of constant enquiry not only opens us to the unfamiliar and to empathy and compassion, but it also ensures that we value the process of our creative life as much or more than the outcomes. It keeps us bouyant in the journey as W H Auden puts it in the sixth stanza of his poem ‘Atlantis’:
Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Even to have been allowed
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.
keeps faith with life
Making a commitment to be permeable to life and living with enquiry and process instead of certainty and outcomes is a way of keeping faith with life. It acknowledges the vulnerability, the doubt, the fragility, but doesn’t give up the hope and compassion. My guiding principle over the last couple of years has been to
slow down, listen, connect, it is enough
Permeability to life and proceeding in a spirit of enquiry allow us to pause, pay attention, immerse in connections by getting out of our own way and to feel the gratitude and contentment of doing so.
Here’s to a 2022 of permeability and questions as we slow down, listen and connect, knowing it is enough.
Join me in kith in 2022
My passion is creating a safe space for writers to challenge their creative boundaries whether they are new to writing or have degrees, publications or teaching experience as writers. Great artists never stop learning.
Kith Community is an opportunity to take time for your creativity, providing moments when you can slow down to find the rhythms that nourish your writing through online workshops, connection with other writers and regular prompts and inspiration.
Kith mentoring will give you intense one-to-one feedback as well as a peer group of serious writers to share workshops and an online residential with and regular prompts and inspiration for your writing.