Over the last few years I’ve followed calls of the heart to immerse myself in the wonders of plants, a call that led me to this house in a bit of remainging ancient forest in Finistère. It began with a clinical aromatherapy course which I started while looking for the house in Brittany. Then came an apprenticeship in herbalism, which I’m following up this year with a community herbalist apprenticeship. Then, during a short course in herbal remedies for sleep, I discovered yoga nidrā and felt like I’d come home. Last year I trained as a yoga nidrā teacher. And this year I’m diving into some extra nidrā courses, as well as maintaining a regular practice with wonderful groups led by my mentors.
What unites these things? They are all ways of slowing down and paying deep attention (listening) to our hearts, souls, the land we inhabit, the people we live with, the communities around us, and the creatures in our ecosystems. They are all about connection — different ways of telling the earth’s story and being transformative stories.
They are all ways of making a difference
None of them demand that we have superpowers or push ourselves to destruction, rather they transform life with simple everyday rituals that we can do with conscious intention. Diffusing frankincense to slow the breath or rosemary to help us focus… Sitting with a comforting bowl of herbal tea… (My favourite at the moment is a blend of hawthorn leaf and flowers, Californian poppy, red poppy, passionflower and chamomile before sleep). Listening to a yoga nidrā meditation last thing at night…
They are all paths that recognise that we are fragile and that our species may be collectively exhausted, but we are still ready to savour and celebrate life in small but profound ways. They are paths that recognise that we need to be as kind to ourselves as to all those lives we interact with.
I love learning new things and discovering new ways to think as a result. I decided to use the year I turned 60 (2021) to explore something new, however small, each month. This felt especially important in a year when I couldn’t be with family and friends. And it opened up so much. I found mysef making so many new connections that I wanted to continue. So this year I set out to find a course that might stretch my conceptions of the world and our stories of it, with the proviso that it would need to be online, partly becasue Covid is still messing with our face to face lives, but also becasue I live in a remote rural area.
I spent a long time researching but time after time I had a niggling feeling that I was finding courses that were about making people more shiny or more productive. There were lots of offers of getting an upgrade to an-all new ‘improved’ me. But where were the spaces for facing how urgent it is that we find ways to meet the world as it is while still celebrating life? Where were the spaces acknowledging just how exhausted so many of us are by the relentless calls to be more, better and shinier in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing ecological emergency?
I couldn’t help feeling that there is a lot out there that will pretend to fix us while actually teaching us how to be more performative rather than more authentic. And at the end of such courses, we generally feel we need even more fixing that when we started. And meanwhile the world goes on burning.
There was a lot of guru speak on offer, but not much that mentioned ways of living with rhythms and processes that are self-loving yet also outward-looking and engaged with the world we find ourselves in.
Ways of resisting the darkness
I stopped searching and was journalling (a bit morosely). Ironically it was Epiphany time and I lamented that I hadn’t found a sense of my next steps along the path. Instead, I turned my attention to some practical work on our home, which still feels very new since we’re slowly renovating it. I needed to book an arborist to do some work on the apple trees in the little orchard. I needed to make plans with the neighbour who is going to flail the meadows before the Spring growth. And I needed to get in touch with the friend who is going to dig a swale and berm for us to manage the flood waters from the river in winter.
All this planning started a chain of thought about growing some veg this year. Last year we established some potted herbs and greens on the balcony and foraged a lot of the wild herbs already here. Dandelion has made salads and tinctures. Nettle has made soups and teas. Yarrow has made tinctures, teas and ointments. And the leaves of ox-eye daisies make the most delicious bruschetta…
We’d intended to grow more, but somewhere between the house rewiring, the saga of the bathroom and plumbing, getting a room built in the attic, having areas of the roof fixed, sanding floors and painting walls… the vegetable patch slipped off the agenda.
But 2022 is another year and I have a romantic (but I hope rationally so) notion that as arbitrary as a new year is, we can use it to ask ourselves what needs more and what needs less in our lives. So I started searching for online permaculture courses. We did a magical consultation last year with the garden activist and designer, Mary Reynolds, who founded WeAretheArk and we have her suggestions for being guardians not gardeners still carefully stored. And in my searches I discovered the work of Heather Jo Flores, founder of Freepermaculture and the Permaculture Women’s Guild.
The courses there are free, and the site runs on donations. I’ve started the beginners permaculture course and there’s a lot to learn, but it’s not overwhelming or presented in a way that makes me feel that I have to achieve five miracles before breakfast yesterday. And, vitally, it’s concerned, like Mary Reynolds and her Acts of Restorative Kindness to the earth, with deep observations of the patterns of nature in order to design in collaboration with her and create interdependent systems. It’s community-oriented and works towards spaces that are not only abundant, but also regenerative. There is an ethic of giving back to the earth, not simply taking. An ethos of protecting and cultivating in ways that help both people and land to thrive.
Like aromatherapy and herbalism, which work in collaboration with plant allies that bring well-being, and like yoga nidrā, which values the restorative power of sleep and dream, permaculture is about connection. It’s another of way of slowing down and listening to our hearts, souls, the land we inhabit, the people we live with, the communities around us, and the creatures in our ecosystems… It’s another way of telling the earth’s story and living a transformative story in our collaboration with the land. It’s another way of making a difference, which, however small it may seem, is an act of resistance against the dark.
Ways of becoming a different story
All of this in turn connects with our writing. Over the last couple of years the writers I’ve worked with, in the kith community and in mentoring, have shared a vision of ‘kith‘. This is a vision of living and writing in ways that do the good that we can, effecting small circles as we balance between our doorsteps and the planet, and trusting that in doing the good that effects a small circle, the story of the world changes, however slightly. This good that we do multiplies when we do it together and insists that whatever comes, there is still the chance of recreation. As I noted in a previous blog:
I can’t change the world, none of us can (alone) and yet transformation nonetheless begins 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. 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.
Radical compassion asserts that we are all connected, that all matter, that together we can change stories.
Asserting that we are kith is a a powerful story. And writing — the stories we weave into our poetry, essays, novels, memoirs, histories, philosophies — is a fundamental way to witness, to celebrate, to champion compassion… It’s a fundamental way to slow down, listen and connect so that we might become a different story.
Becoming a different story isn’t a Pelagian rallying cry to perfection. It’s a simple trust that whatever connects us deeply — from herbs that heal and support us to the restoration of sleep and dreams; from collaborating with the bit of land we find ourselves on to the alchemy of story — will also be our own journey of growth that leads us home.
Ways of encountering small epiphanies
One of the things I love about delving into new areas is how ideas combine and cross-fertilise when we open new doors. The theory of the adjacent possible works in this way. It was developed by Stuart Kaufman to desribe how in biological evolution a system doesn’t just randomly change but evolves by making new connections that are at the boundaries of its current state of being, combining elements into itself that are close by. Metaphorically, all systems, from biospheres to individual humans do the same — the adjacent possible is like a map of a building marking the doors we can open to discover new ideas that will transform us.
Stumbling into a course in permaculture felt random at first, but in fact it was something just on my boundary. I’m a writer and editor with a strong interest in herbalism and in restorative practices like meditation and yoga nidrā. I’m on a path of slowing down in order to listen more deeply to life and story and make deeper connections. Permaculture was not only an adjacent possible, but also offers balance. So much of my work, study and attentiveness is either cerebral or sedentary. Apart from a yoga practice that ebbs and flows, then ebbs again, and walking in the forest, I spend too much time facing a screen or in my head. Writers need to be bodiful and permaculture isn’t simply about reading beautifully illustrated books or watching inspirational videos. It’s going to take me into the orchard and meadow and put my hands in the earth.
When we open up to becoming a different story, the possibilities present themselves. And this in turn will weave back into the stories we live and write.
Ways to live a rhythm of kith
In last year’s blogs I developed an alphabet of kith from abundance to zest. This year I’m exploring an almanac of kith. Traditionally, an almanac is a calendar of correspondences between days, weeks, months and seasons, and natural cycles. It might include phases of the moon and its effect on tides, the rising and setting times of the sun and astronomical data such as eclipses. It will mark days of fasting and feasting, and give chronologies for planting seeds. And it may include recipes for remedies, snippets of folklore and information about rituals alongside predictions about weather, and a map of seasons, cycles, quarter days and cross days.
As writers these themes of seasons and time, cycles and rituals, how we live and the weather (actual and metaphorical) are rich ground for exploring our writing process and writing lives. I hope to write an almanac that is full of adjacent possibles, a map of doors that can be opened onto small epiphanies and that help us to become a different story.
Ways to connect with the first stirring of Spring
And this is a good week to begin. We’ve just had the festival of Imbolc. In the Christian liturgical calendar, this time commemorates the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple, a thanksgiving for birth, also known as Candlemas as candles are blessed to bring light through the rest of the year. In the Celtic calendar, this time is the first hint of Spring: Imbolc or as Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau in Wales. It is a time of protection and fertility, of blessing objects and wells and of feasting. Imbolc was originally associated with Brigid, goddess of fertility, who visited homes that welcomed her.
All winter things have been growing, quietly and hidden from view; small things — delicate yet strong, and intensely beautiful. It’s the long cold season after Christmas and New Year, light trickling back into the days little by little, skies grey, frost in the mornings, yet once again snowdrops and crocuses appear before any other sign of Spring is underway.
The impulse of life is irresistible, yet it can take a long time to germinate. And the same is true for writing. There are times when we think nothing is happening, when the germination is slow and hidden. And this secret life can be full of turmoil and doubt and changebefore we find ourselves in flow again and get into that stream where the prose is supple, the poetry dances and life floods every word.
It’s a slow turning back to longer, lighter days and sometimes our writing creeps just as slowly from pen or fingers, inching towards fertility and the blessing of a rich flow of words and images. If you have anything like my lack of patience you may find yourself wanting to (figuratively) pull up the bulbs to see how the growth is coming along before the shoots begin to show through, but of course, that only stunts the growth or kills it entirely.
It’s so easy to subvert the creative flow with impatience and internal doubts, or by overwhelming ourselves with unrealistic expectations so that whatever we create never feels ‘enough’. It can be difficult to trust that the process is working away beneath the surface, but it is.
When we get to feeling like this we often need to look in another direction, let the subconscious mull over the words while we go for a walk or cook a meal or scrub a bathroom. And this brings us full circle to all the ways in which different areas of our life can come together to feed the writing as we move towards the Spring. For me, when the words don’t flow I put some essential oils into the diffuser and see where the scent leads me. I make a herb tea blend or walk into the forest and try to listen to lives that are so utterly different than mine. Or I listen to a yoga nidrā practice to shift my mind into a liminal space where dreams and waking meet. Or I read the amazing words someone else has found to express a something truthfully in a poem, a story, an idea…
What do you do? Your ways of making a difference might be meditation, tai chi, yoga, parenting, playing an instrument, gardening, prayer, painting, swimming in the ocean… There are so many ways of making a difference, resisting the darkness and becoming different stories. There are so many ways to put ourselves in the way of encountering small epiphanies, to support the rhythms of our lives and connect with each season of our writing and our hearts. There are a myriad adjacent possibles and I invite you to explore them with me this year in an almanac of kith that nurtures the stories we write and the stories we live.
Jeremy Worman says
Really enjoyed this, Jan. Your ideas keyed into something I am writing at this very moment on my desktop. I met Jane Austin last month whose new novel will be published soon by Leaf-by-Leaf. I think Jane is going to join our writers’ group. Excellent!
That’s wonderful Jeremy and would love to see writing for the Kith Review magazine when we open for submissions later in the Spring 🙂
Marina Sanchez says
Such a rich and fertile blog! Heartfelt thanks Jan! I am with you on the radical connectivity and compassion we need to embody and share as well as deepening that sense of belonging to this beautiful earth, our mother, and being her stewards.
The first crocuses have come up in my garden and they make me smile though remind me I planted them during the first lockdown, for my daughter, in the hope she’d see them soon. But we had to wait four months, till the summer for her to come home again…
But the good dark earth awaits us to nourish her and celebrate her as she in turn is always willing to look after us.
For me fear is the darkness and more than ever, we need to stand strong in our light.
Bless your light, Jan, as always
Thank you Marina — that image of waiting for loved ones is very powerful — still waiting here, but the primroses are out and the earth keeps giving 🙂
Helen Hill says
Your words give me comfort and inspiration, Jan. As a writer, I find these are dark days and I am very much looking for another story in life as well as writing. I belong to a small Wisdom Circle of Women, which has made a difference in my life. May I share some of your thoughts with them?
Thank you Helen and please do share the blogs with others–we need all the positive connections we can build 🙂
Lizzie Eldridge says
Loved listening to this, Jan, and thank you. The Brecht poem connected very deeply with a novel I’m working on right now. A bit ago, I’d written about how in the agony of despair, one form of resistance is to sing. My novel is set in Malta but the chapter I’m currently writing takes place in Berlin so Brecht’s words have a particular and double resonance. In fact, thanks to you, they’ve gone into my novel x
It’s such a simple and powerful thought from Brecht, isn’t it? And I love how fragments that we need come along as we’re writing. xx
Gill McEvoy says
Thank you for this Jan, and everyone who responded. I am going to do some deep mulling over the Wild Iris poem as the last 2 years have felt really dead. A struggle to keep going in many ways, and I know I’m not alone in feeling that.
Thank you, Gill
The wild iris poem is one I go back to repeatedly. The whole collection of the same name maintains this depth and resonance throughout too.
The toll of the last two years is hardly beginning to be fathomed and it is so widespread, as you say. We need poets who help us emerge into something renewed and alive more than ever.
Paula Greenwood says
It is easy for me to fall into the realm of, “this isn’t good enough.” I usually walk the dog, remind myself I write because I love it. That writing doesn’t have to ‘fit’ into a certain box because that is what others expect it to look like. Writing is, for me, an exploration, that I am slowly learning to trust.
I think trust is key, Paula
And walking is so often the space where we find the clarity to hear that voice of trust. Writing is an exploration is a wonderful path.
Jane Austin says
For me, writing is living with uncertainty and doubt, while seeking the connections beyond the randomness of everyday life. I love the metaphors you draw from nature, Jan, showing the possibility of universal connectedness which stops the sky from falling in,
Thank you, Jane
I think that balance of doubt while making connections is really important — it’s like an edge that we walk as writers and yes — remembering the earth holds us from above and below makes the navigation more possible.