The insanities of our world, with its enormous structures of political regimes that can ruin peoples lives with ease and its corporate greed that can enslave whole sections of populations or wipe out habitats in a blink, can leave us feeling that nothing we do can make a difference.
Yet so often we never know what impact an act of kindness or a piece of writing or just the direction we took on a walk on a certain day might have made.
Every one of our lives is an unlikely small miracle. The chances of our being here is as remote as stars 500 million light years away. Yet here we are and here we are as writers. And writers are those who take small miracles and make these tiny things—events, observations of the world, relationships and so much more—into one of our many shared languages. This is not egoism or about us, but about connection and witness and no matter what those large structures of global corporatism and colonisation would have us feel, we can and do place our hand-prints on the universe through the words we write.
We do it with the raw matter of who we are. Recently at a launch the poet Omar Sabbagh talked about how words are everything to him—how he feels an embodiment of language. We weave our stories and poems and essays from our own bodies, like the spider weaving her web. Life is the clay we sculpt into something of beauty and meaning and to do so is a responsibility.
A responsibility to ease
This is an enormous responsibility but it is not an overwhelming one. None of us as an individual writer is responsible for changing the world. Rather, it is simply by being true to our art and faithfully going about our witnessing of the world, without any grandiose schemes of salvation or didactic designs on our readers, that the story of the world changes.
Another poet whose work I love, Edward Ragg, speaking at the same launch, talked about how in the midst of climate change, a pandemic and loss, we can become present to our lives in ways that preserve the joy and gratitude that we have in simply being alive. What he said resonated with something my yoga nidrā teacher, Yoli, had said the evening before about how we so often introduce struggle and complexity in place of this joy and hope. She talked about how instead we can practice paying attention to the inner world and then take this relaxed awareness into our relationship to the world at large.
What would it be like, Yoli asked, to hold this inner attentiveness and outward attention at the same time? Listening to Edward introducing his poetry, I thought that’s what it’s like—it’s the quality of being present. It’s not about ascending to some abstract, abstruse state, it’s not about being perfect or being able to solve the world. It’s about the attention of being present, being who we are with integrity and offering what we can.
Yoli had gone on to say she is holding those spaces together by finding the route that is the most easy. By this she wasn’t advising we go for an easy life or one that shuts our eyes and ears to injustice or the terrible wounds being inflicted on the earth. Instead, she was saying that how we practice our arts and how we embed our art in our lives can go hand in hand with finding the route that isn’t about struggle and overwhelm.
Imagine you have a river to cross and you come to the river at the point where its waters are raging. You can risk your life to cross it or you you can relax and wait. Will the waters subside? As you pay attention to the river do you notice a spot where there are stepping stones that seem to present themselves to assist you? If its all raging water, can you find another way or return on a calmer day?
A responsibility to lingering
These aren’t questions that sit easily with a world constantly pushing us to be bigger, aim higher and do and achieve more. These are not the questions that will promote ego-driven achievement but they might just be the questions that help us to practice being soulful human beings with some integrity. They might be the questions that allow us to be present—to pay attention and truly be—here and now.
Lingering puts us into another time frame, one that is less linear but more open to kairos. A time that resonates with the natural world that humans too often forget we are a part of.
Hundreds, no thousands of millennia before our species inhabited Earth, an unthinkably different world was populated by lizards and primitive plants. It wasn’t until the Cretaceous period that flowers evolved, transforming the world. Pollination was no longer a matter of chance winds. With flowers came fruits that tempted animals to spread their seeds for them with the promise of sweetness. The same sweetness also transformed the evolution of species and in the fullness of a very long time led to warm-blooded mammals. Flowers led to fruit and fruit meant animals would help plants to propogate—they benefitted from the sweetness while spreading the seeds. And this sweetness could be converted to energy that enabled warm-blooded mammals to emerge.
We owe the unlikely miracle of our being, with all the wonders that humanity has brought as well as all the suffering, to flowers. And the flowers in their turn were just as unlikely. Darwin called their development an ‘abominable mystery’. Later, it was a German marine biologist, Ernst Haekel, who called this chain of interdependent events ‘ecology’, from the Greek for ‘house’, oiko, and ‘study’, logia. The house of life is a unity and we forget that all our perils.
A responsibility to connection
We have so many models of writers who do not forget that every life is connected and who make it their art to witness to this connection. Emily Dickinson began keeping a herbarium while still at school. It has 424 specimens that she hand-labeled with the plant’s Latin name. She took botany courses and at the age of fourteen wrote to her friend Abiah Root:
I am going to send you a little geranium leaf in this letter, which you must press for me. Have you made you an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; ‘most all the girls are making one. If you do, perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around here.
But for Emily this wasn’t a fad for middle-class girls, but a deep paying attention to the life around her in New England—some of the plants are now endangered and others extinct. It was an attention that required a great deal of lingering and the kind of observation that blossomed in her poetry. And one of those, ‘Bloom’ celebrates the extraordinary power and fragility of the flower, on which so much life rests.
Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian —
To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —
Obtain its right of Dew —
Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day —
To be a Flower, is profound
The flower bears so much weight, yet does it with ease. The flower is not only beautiful, but vital—an essential link in the connection of all life—as are we all, as are all those who make art that connects. Like the flowers, we have a responsbility to linger and to connect, and like them we can practice doing so from the integrity of who we are, with the responsiblity of ease in a world where there is far too much struggle.