Some new year thoughts on mud and resistance

For Christmas I got a book of short essays by the American poet Ross Gay. It is called The Book of Delights and was Gay’s response to a challenge he set himself – to write a daily essay about something delightful. Since Christmas I have been trying to read one of the short essays each evening and then write a few of my own scribbles about things which brought me delight that day. I am hoping that like Gay reported, this practice helps to develop what he calls a “delight muscle” or “delight radar: the more often you take time to notice, the more moments you experience because you are primed to be on the look-out.  

Today, New Year’s Day, I was delighted to wake to a world turned white with heavy frost and took these photos on a morning walk.

The mud in this part of Devon is rich and red and the track I had been walking on was full of puddles which had frozen over making these beautiful shapes.

Taking the photos and reflecting on the brief moments of delight that it brought me got me thinking more about delight and the way I hoped I would be able to walk through the new year ahead. 

I know a lot of people write gratitude journals, but I was thinking that there is something about recording delight which seems just slightly different to me. I was just thinking how light-full and free the thought of delight is. It is what comes your way as pure gift and unexpected loveliness; for instance, these frozen, muddy puddles that became my own private pop-up art gallery. These patterns will never exist in the world again exactly in these shapes in that particular place. By now, this afternoon, the ice will have melted back to water. They were such a transitory and fleeting delight and one that I don’t think I would have much noticed had I not been walking on my own. And we all have our own ways of finding delight around us – I am not sure how many others walking that quiet track would have stopped to admire the beauty held in the ditches, they probably had their own thing going on, finding delight elsewhere in their own style. 

I think what I am struck by most is how often delight comes our way – unexpected and unplanned for; it is often found in the moments when I am not planning and trying to control every moment of my day. It seems like it is easier to notice life’s gifts of delight when we lessen the grip of our clenched fists on the steering wheel of life for a while. And that is something we have all had less choice about since Covid came on the scene, isn’t it? 

I wonder as well how often is it my own attitude which stops me seeing what is in front of me. My own mixed-up priorities about what a the ‘good life’ constitutes? We’ve all got so much of it all mixed-up haven’t we? As Catrina Davies writes in her brilliant book Homesick, her story of struggle to find housing of her own: “Technology, work, furniture, – they had their place, but their place was a means not an end. It was the same with houses, they were supposed to facilitate living and not be the point and purpose of life.”  A sentence which leads, of course, to philosophy, as well as a longing for a solution to our current housing crisis. As we all make our own, equally valid stab at finding what the purpose of our lives is, I would make just one conjecture. Beginning with Davies premise that the purpose is not merely work, or housing or technology, somehow, I think, it’s purpose must be to simply enjoy delight. To enjoy those unexpected gifts. That which we more often than not witness or enjoy than consume. I am pretty sure that delight resists commodification; that it is more like trees or perhaps saplings, which thrive most readily in wild, untamed ground, outside of the neatly cultivated fields of the capitalist system. Delights are things which come to us often with zero value to the market. 

In fact, I may go so far as to say that to endeavour to develop our “delight radars” can itself be an act of political resistance. Seeking different values. Calling for a refusal of the way our lives, indeed our very value as individuals has become tied to our productivity, Jenny Odell writes about resisting in a way which is rooted in attention to the people and places of one’s local environment. She says:

 “To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means resisting the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of non-verbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal.”

How To Do Nothing p. xvi

 Thinking with this, we see that our priorities can be clear: we can seek out the experience of life, in whatever way we are able to do this (acknowledging the limits we live within). And to do this we need to resist being co-opted by a capitalist value system. Our own minds have been so colonised by it that we sometimes forget to value the free gift of unexpected beauty that quite frequently lands on our path, in the middle of the mud. The revaluing of what is delightful and not efficient or productive: what impact would this have on us and the future of our lives as creatures living within and not alongside the natural world?

And so, to keep these musings short, I finish, saying I am going to keep on trying to develop a stronger “delight muscle” this new year. I will try and remember that not being in control might not always be an awful thing. I am hoping to try on the idea of ‘resisting in place’ in new ways throughout 2021. We’ll see how it goes……

Just like the shape of trees in winter: interconnectedness in the time of Covid-19

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This morning as I was getting myself up out of bed, feeling again the shock of remembering that daily life is now about living through the Covid-19 pandemic, I got a text from a friend in Lebanon asking how we were over here. She apologised for being in touch again after a short time, but, she said, she was worried about us here in the UK. Not that Lebanon doesn’t have Corona, it does, there have been 4 confirmed deaths and 256 reported cases (as of the 23rd March) and they are staying indoors as we are at the moment. I was happy to hear from my friend but it did make me feel a bit emotional (not hard right now for many of us are pretty on edge I know). Partly I was touched by the care and concern making its way to me from a fair distance, from a friend who has been very loyal and committed to remaining in touch despite the gathering of years since we lived in the same city. But also, there was something of a shaking-up that her text brought about in me. She was someone from a country that I had been used to thinking was a place and people that was more in need of my care and concern than I was of theirs. In the time since I had been back in the UK  I was used to reaching out to friends in Lebanon on occasion to ask how things were there: I had heard for example about outbreaks of violence in the refugee camps in her city or of the recent mass protests. I wasn’t used to being the one in the country that others are concerned about- my white and classed privilege of normally making me feel immune to disasters happening ‘elsewhere’. As has been already been said, the Corona virus is no respecter of borders or the false hierarchies of value people often ascribe to the ‘West and the rest’.

When I worked in Lebanon for a while I learnt a bit about the situation of the many Palestinian refugees who live in a kind of ‘suspended waithood’ – allowed neither to become citizens of Lebanon nor to return to their neighbouring homeland 72 years after they were expelled from it. Something about meeting people in this situation motivated me, a few years later, to sign up to become a Human Rights monitor in the Occupied Palestinian territories with an organisation called EAPPI (currently taking applications for people to do the same thing in 2021). Having done that, my PhD research is now concerned with exploring the nature of the relationship between solidarity activists in the UK and the situation in Palestine. What is it that motivates us to go? How do we conceive of our role in a place subject to military occupation by a foreign power? What is it that connects us in the UK to the suffering of a people in a geographically distant land?

And so this pandemic is making me, along with everyone else, think more and more about how we understand the ways we are all connected; it seems to have highlighted things many have been speaking and writing about for a long while, but which now seem all the more stark. For an obvious starter, in the speed at which that the virus has travelled, we are struck by just how globally mobile some (not all) sections of our societies are. We have reaped the benefits of this, as well as the environmental disaster, but here and now the vulnerabilities of this mobility are suddenly obvious. P1030963

Dalia Gebrial (@daliagebrial) highlighted something of this, speaking of how London is constituted by racialised differences in labour and mobility. She tweeted a few days ago:

“The fabric of London are large migrant communities, who don’t have networks outside the city. They don’t have cars so they can travel to and from shops and work safely. They are also the workers that still have to go to work even though it is unsafe, because their work is the essential, invisible work that runs the city. They are on the front line.”

There are many of us who are able to work from home right now, and many who can’t. There are many who are run off their feet doing 12 hour shifts in intensive care, and many who suddenly have a whole lot of time on their hands and very little income, for a whole variety of reasons. The way our income, labour and privilege is connected is suddenly visible for all to see should we look. As I sit at a desk and study, I know that my work does not directly contribute to anyone’s survival. I am very much aware that there are people who spend their days and nights working in jobs without which I do not have food to eat, medicine to buy should I need it, and an Internet service which connects me to my family and friends. And, of course our collective dependency on doctors and nurses who are willing to put themselves on the frontline is suddenly all the more apparent and humbling.

The ways I have come to think about our interconnectedness, our interdependency, our reciprocal need for each other has been partly through some of Judith Butler’s writings. I quoted from this article in the New Yorker in my last blog post, and I go back to it again: She says

…..who actually stands on their own? We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things. Even coming to see you today—the pavement allowed me to move, and so did my shoes, my orthotics, and the long hours spent by my physical therapist. His labor is in my walk, as it were. I wouldn’t have been able to get here without any of those wonderful technologies and supporting relations.

We literally live with other people’s labour within our bodies, supporting our movements giving us grounding. Once you start being aware of all the people who have enabled you to just live a day, we know in our bones that the ideology of individualism is entirely missing the point. In fact, I would agree with Butler’s understanding of who we are as individuals. She says there is no such thing as ‘self’ apart from that which ties us to others. “I am my relation to the “you” whose life I seek to preserve” (Butler, 2012: 142). We are inherently social but also dependent on each other. Always. And not only in a time of crisis. But this is not necessarily easy news to take in. Although in happier times it is fairly easy to bring out the ‘no man is an island’ quote, now we are realising just how true the fact that we are all intertwined with each other is. And this can be a fearful thing. Ultimately, we realise we depend on others for our own survival and this vulnerability can make us feel weak. And there are a lot of people feeling the reality of vulnerability right now all over the world.

In the light of this global interconnectedness, this would surely be the worst time to close down the borders in our minds and hearts and focus only on ourselves.

I would agree with Sara Ahmed who wrote in her blog yesterday:

There is only so much you can take on as there is only so much you can take in.

And:

We can’t take everything on. We can’t take everything in.

This is true. And in this very challenging time we will all think about our interconnectedness in different ways, some of us more locally, some more globally. Right now I feel worried for my friend who lives nearby, sick, most likely with Corona virus up in her attic room, but I also feel worried for the situation in Gaza, a bit further away.

The Palestinian territory of Gaza reported its first two cases of Corona 2 days ago. It is only 10 km wide and 41 km long, but is described as an open-air prison. Israel has blockaded it for the past 13 years and a while back the UN estimated that it would be unfit for habitation in the year 2020. Here we are in 2020. There is very little space to self-isolate in such crowded conditions, there is a severe lack of infrastructure – basic things like a reliable electricity and water supply, medical equipment and hygiene facilities. The implications for this tiny strip of land with 2 million inhabitants could be devastating.

Reported in the Guardian yesterday, One Gazan woman posed us this question:

“we have become used to isolation” said Ahlam al-Madhoun, “…..will the world understand that the isolation they live in for 14 days is the same as what we have been living under for 14 years?”

Most of the Palestinians living in Gaza today are descendants of the 200,000 refugees who fled other parts of Palestine during the 1948 war which resulted in the birth of the State of Israel as Jehad Abusalim reminds us. They had no idea at the time of fleeing to Gaza that they would never be allowed to return home, that they would be prevented from doing so by barriers and walls, and that, 72 years later they would be living barricaded in like this. The war of 1948 was the same violence which lead to 750, 000 Palestinian refugees being expelled to other parts of the world, including those who fled to Lebanon and some of whom now live in camps like the one in the city where my Lebanese friends are; one of whom texted me yesterday to ask how I was in this time of Corona.

It seems that at the same time that we are being asked to physically withdraw ourselves from one another to contain the spread of this virus, we are being reminded of the fact that we are, like it or not, all interconnected. There is a vulnerability to this mutual dependency and yet, just perhaps, with hope, this strange time will teach us to better to respect our entangled togetherness.

If you would like to donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians, they are providing hygiene kits for Gaza, along with continuing with the rest of their work in the region. I am sure they would certainly appreciate financial help at the moment. See here.

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Refs:

Butler, J, 2012, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy “Precarious life, vulnerability and the ethics of cohabitation” Vol 26: 2

Cherry trees, a help-yourself cupboard, and what I think about leaders

Someone set up a little cupboard, like a book-swap but for food, at the end of some friends’ road one morning this week. I love it. I have no idea how long it will last un-trashed, no idea whether people will run with the idea and donate and take, or whether it will exist in the world solely as a nice idea that came and went over night. But I love that someone bothered to have the idea and then make it real. And I love that the carrots you can see in the picture made up part of the curry we ate for our dinner that night -somehow it connected us to this lovely little project as we sat down to eat.

You can see a photo of the cupboard here

Thinking about eating, I also had lunch with some other friends earlier on this week, folk with grown up children and a good number of years in full time work behind them but who, in the past few years, have given up full time work in order to live a different type of life, one much less dedicated to earning and spending and much more angled towards (among other things) hosting and being hosted by members of the international couch-surfer community and following their intuitions into seeing what different styles of living are possible.

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I mention just these two social events as occasions from which I went away, well fed yes, but also with a lovely sense of having been inspired. Inspired by other folks’ courage, creativity and ways they made connections with others. Inspired simply by something of the lives of others that I had seen. It got me thinking about leadership.

What happens in your body when you even read the word ‘leadership’ these days? There are so many reasons to feel let down and angry about those in power and the decisions they are making at the moment. There is so little of inspiration in our leadership right now. Actually, it is hard to think of anything; a sentence which resounds with as much bleakness as the weather has lately.

And then this evening I found myself watching the Channel4 Labour leadership debate. While I admit it feels quite easy to like Keir Starmer’s approach, standing as he is as the man who’ll bring the party unity, it’s also a stance which projects his strategic desire to win support from all corners of the Labour party. As the ‘front-runner to win’, I feel like he is being presented as the reasonable, reliable choice, overall the one we can trust to bring things together in these difficult, unpredictable times (and is there also a gendering of the ease with which we trust that a man is able to do this?). Maybe, who knows, perhaps, this would give the party some kind of stability right now if he is able to do it. But somehow, and call me an idealist, I was vaguely hoping to hear something more than just that from a leader of a party I want to support. Something perhaps that instilled an excitement of well-thought through hope for social change rather than just a notion of safety and reliability. Something more akin to what I think Judith Butler was talking about when asked for her views on non-violence in an interview recently. She admits support for such a notion can easily be dismissed as unrealistic. She uses the very relevant example of electability to highlight the need to embrace that which is often relegated to a place beyond the reach of reason. For example she says:

“If one takes the view that it is simply not realistic that a woman can be elected President, one speaks in a way that seems both practical and knowing. As a prediction, it may be true, or it may be shifting as we speak.”

She goes on to say that even just by dismissing something as unrealistic we give even further fuel to our belief that it is unachievable. For example, we could never have a four-day working week we scoff, we could never go back to the days of free university education for all – it’s just not practical. Maybe we’ll just always have a society that is riven apart by huge inequalities.

And yet what happens to us if we continue to trample the inspiring, the truly transformative ideas underfoot, in favour of what seems safe and known? Would we ever have had the NHS? We miss out for sure:

“to stay within the framework of Realpolitik is, I think, to accept a closing down of horizons, a way to seem “cool” and skeptical at the expense of radical hope and aspiration.” Butler says.

Not to say we should seek out the unrealistic, but I’d suggest a bit of radical hope and aspiration in a leader is pretty important; along, of course, with the ability to work with others to put what is hoped for into action.

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But if, having found a candidate who inspires us, we then in time find out that they didn’t actually inspire many other people enough to win the vote, perhaps we need also to think about other types of  leadership.

A writer I find interesting is Parker J. Palmer who talks about how we all have a “common call to leadership”. Before you, like get me, get scared of the idea and run back to bed, actually he is not talking about anything too demanding. He is making reference to the many spiritual traditions which have something to say about both the spiritual and the material aspects of life. He says we all “help make the world by projecting our spirit on it, for better or worse” (p 77 Let Your Life Speak) and that basically, we all help grow the world as what is inside us interacts with the external world, projecting either shadow or light as we do so. Sure, we live within restrictions; our class, race, gender, sexuality, abilities sadly dictate a lot of how we interact with and are received by the world at the moment. This is not talk of a society where we can all create policy or enforce the law, or where we are all listened to in the same way and given the same amount of respect for our ideas, because we know that is not quite how the world works right now. But nonetheless, we all take part in creating the world we live in in some kind of way.

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Growing the world, in ways often not tangible, often not in ways that are measurable or countable or put-able into any kind of box. But within each of us there is some kind of energy for change, for good or bad or shades of grey. This is a fairly awe-provoking thought. It makes me think of times when I just need to be a bit more confident to be me in all the different kinds of spaces in which I find myself, because it is then, somehow, that the lives we lead seem to speak out to others.

I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that this means we should give up fighting for and voting in inspirational leaders that are needed to help bring about the social, economic and political transformation this country and also the world needs right now. But I am writing and thinking about this to nudge myself to stay grateful for those many people around me who do actually grow the world towards the light in so many hidden ways every day……………..

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………Actually, and also grateful for the trees: the cherry trees on my street are doing a great job at heralding spring at the moment. I’ll try and be open to their inspiration and remember that we all, along with all the trees, also have our own part in growing the world.

 

 

 

 

Traveller’s joy (And UCU strikes, birthdays and Labour’s election manifesto)

Journeys have been a lot on my mind in the past few weeks. I recently returned from a month’s PhD fieldwork out of the UK, and not long after my return I turned 40, a landmark along the ‘journey of life’ which surely makes most of us who get there just a little reflective.

In an attempt to clear my head from the previous evenings’ birthday celebrations I went for a walk the next day and enjoyed seeing these wispy balls of fluff adorning the hedgerows, made all the more obvious by late autumn which has now mostly left branches in a state of undress.

 

On my way home I texted a friend (who knows these kind of things) to ask what this plant was and she sent me this link. Old man’s beard, of course, it was a name I knew, but obviously had forgotten what it actually looked like. I then saw that the same plant is also known as traveller’s joy. How lovely. The name lodged itself in my thinking for some reason.

The day after this I this I had an appointment with a career’s advisor at my university.

Having spent 10 plus years teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) in both charities and Further Education institutions, I had become fed up of the insecurity of trying to work in a sector that was in a 10 year downward spiral of funding cuts, and decided to go back to do a Masters and a PhD as a ‘mature’ student. The careers advisor said I was therefore heading towards the section of my life that her A4-paper scribbled chart labelled as my ‘second career’. Beyond second there was also a section for a third. I am not sure why three is the magic number or what happens if you try and fit a fourth in.

I had wanted to do a PhD mostly because I thought a career in Higher Education sounded like not a bad idea. I could teach, and if I could also prove I could do an OK piece of research maybe I would make the move from F to H. Further to Higher Education; yet it seems it is literally beyond our reach to be able to manage these sectors well in this country. I had quit working in FE at the end of a five week strike with University and Colleges Union (UCU) at my college disputing proposed contract changes – a reduction by 10 days of summer holiday with no change in pay in the midst of years of the public sector pay freeze. I didn’t leave because of the strike, I was proud to be a part of it, but the end of it coincided with our department being offered yet another round of redundancies, this time voluntary. I took it.

This week, at 60 universities across the UK, academic staff are again out on an 8 day UCU strike protesting pay cuts, worsening working conditions and pensions.

According to the UCU “46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero hours contracts to deliver teaching”. I began my career teaching in FE trying to work my way off zero hours contracts and onto a permanent one. I don’t like the idea of being offered another one. Who does?

So, I was at a career’s appointment at my university just to consider what options there were outside getting a job as an academic after my PhD. Never before have I felt quite so much like a bag of sugar that needed remarketing to get it back out on the shelf, just in order to track down a job in that elusive second career.

I was told to “get yourself an online profile and work out your identity”. Was I a results-driven person, I was asked? I fumbled over answer and said I wasn’t sure that’s how I would describe myself in everyday speak. I had forgotten for a moment, of course, I had landed slap bang in the centre of planet neoliberal, just by walking through the door of this office. In producing a CV, my selling points had to be listed as measurable, quantifiable achievements, just stating personal qualities do not cut it in today’s job market, I was told.

This kind of thing I had half expected, but what surprised me most now I think about this conversation was the amount of calm certainty that was expressed when I was told no, of course most of the jobs I would be applying for later on would not really need a PhD at all, PhDs are as common place as Masters these days. –  Is this the only careers advice being offered to PhD candidates from within the very institutions which are so happy to take students’ fees for these courses? In the logic of this system we are told that we enter the job market with is ourselves as ‘product’, and that the label better be good. Our selling points which give us value added (aka the PhD) for which we have been sacrificing time, money and probably a good deal of our mental health to acquire is not even expected to be required per se. It can be repackaged, and then be seen as useful, but it won’t directly be required, necessarily.

Luckily, I also had other interests in doing a PhD other than just getting a job out of it, and so far, I am actually mostly enjoying it, but that is not the point.

So I acknowledge and commend the struggle current UCU strikers are engaging in, those who are fighting for a better work-life within Higher Education, and in the upcoming election say please vote for a political party which does better by our education system than what the current one is doing. Labour’s manifesto acknowledges that under the previous government “adult education has undergone 10 years of managed decline.” And so, among other things they promise to “restore funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses and restore and expand the Union Learning Fund, giving workers the right to accrue paid time off for education and training” .

For HE, Labour says they will “end the failed free-market experiment in higher education, abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants.” In addition, they will end the casualisation of staff.

I for one would love to see all these things happen.

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And so I return to traveller’s joy. I don’t have so much else to say about it, other than I love the fact that someone in the past decided to give a name to a thing which brought delight to those who travelled down muddy paths and alongside prickly hedgerows. Naming it as a joy for travellers means also alluding to, but not over-stating, the fact that sometimes travellers need small moments of grace which help to alleviate the difficulty or the challenge of the path being taken. So – Solidarity to UCU strikers this week, and solidarity also to any other PhD- ers at whatever stage you are along the journey. What is it that can be named as traveller’s joy on the various tracks, paths and roads we take?

 

 

The other way around – can we rethink our relationship?

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More and more of us are interested in finding a different way of relating to this earth we live on, I am sure. The buzz around movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the call put out by school children to join them on next month’s climate strike express a new level of anxiety and concern for the future of our planet, but also, I think, demonstrates a deep dissatisfaction with our current relationship with it.

In a previous blog post I quoted Robert Macfarlane who, when walking and writing about ancient pathways, asked himself this question:

“…. what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” [1]

Since writing that post some thoughts have been rumbling around in my belly (-yes, I am sure thinking doesn’t only happen in our minds) about the way we connect to both the places we live in and those we just pass through or visit regularly. I often feel a strong pull to seaside places even though I currently live inland, and, doing a slow, long-distance walk along the south coast of England has certainly been feeding into these thoughts about transitory but strong connections to places I pass through. (So far I have covered Ramsgate to Brighton see photos here).

A desire for connection to place seems to become more intense the more transitory life is and, as buying property is becoming less and less possible for more and more of us, we definitely need to do some rethinking about how we connect. Recently I have found inspiration in a few different places. One is Brenna Bhandar who writes on colonialism and property law saying that we need to  embark on “radical acts of imagining how we might relate to and use things that we usually expect to own, and how to collectively create the conditions for turning away from property as we know it.”[1]

Within this radical, and importantly collective imagining, perhaps we can begin to think about holding and relating to both land and bricks and mortar in a different way. And perhaps a more mystical take on our relationship to land could also help us if we are willing to go there. For example, what does it do to our attitude when we reverse the normal grammar used to talk about us and land? What happens when we place the earth as subject and us as the object?

“…. what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” (Macfarlane 2013:27)

Humans who are ordinarily assumed to be all-knowing become those who are vulnerable and open to being known, whilst place is revealed to be that which is able to read us like a book. The poet David Wagoner put it like this:

  “Stand still. The forest knows where you are”

 

Another example of reading the grammar of ‘us and place’ the unusual way around came to me at a lovely photography exhibition I saw recently – the story of one Derbyshire Hill by Kate Bellis. The following words hailed from a wise soul in the Derbyshire farming community featured in the exhibition:

“This place belongs to none of them, but they belong to it. “

Belonging. Not belonging to us, but us belonging to it. The other way around.

Living as I do in a country like the UK, a country with a history of conquering and colonising its way around other parts of the globe, I am not sure we can even imagine not owning and not controlling, not being the coloniser. I think we desperately need help to be able to collectively claim our belonging to the land instead of claiming our ownership over it. But I begin with imagining what it might do to us if we really started to believe we actually belong to this thing so much bigger than ourselves – this place, this earth, both global and local, places where we both live and pass through.

In this thinking about belonging to places, I am very aware that there are many people in Britain who feel a lack of belonging to the place they live due to classism, racism or the many other ‘isms’ which are part of the structures in society which work to undermine our connections to each other and to place.  This makes people who hold an inner sense of belonging even more remarkable. There is something strong about stating the truth of belonging to a place, even when it is only a whisper you murmur to your own soul. Whether they felt strong or not, I thought I heard this strength in the attitudes of Sarah O’Connor, Anthony Bryan, and Judy Grifftith, people caught in the Windrush scandal and interviewed in this insightful BBC documentary. It told the stories of those the home office had re-classified as illegal immigrants, regardless of the decades of life and work in the UK and their right to be here. Despite the awful way they were treated, and the continuing hardships of their lives, they seemed to know they belonged here; it seemed possible that they knew their own belonging as a truth which flew in the face of what others were telling them, and revealed itself as a quiet, tenacious determination to cling to what they knew.

In an entirely different setting, I read of a ninety-year old woman who also clung tightly to the knowledge that she belonged to a particular place. Nan Shepherd mentions her in book The Living Mountain which is a most intimate and beautiful account of a life spent walking the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, a place Shepherd loved and knew well from an early age. In it Shepherd writes of an elderly woman who lived alone, high up in mountains long after her husband had died and refused to move to live further down even as she grew old and somewhat frail. Shepherd explains the woman’s refusal to move simply saying: “She belonged there, and knew it” [1].

Such confidence in declaring and knowing ones belonging to a place – I don’t think I know much about this type of certainty. For Shepherd, it was clear this sense was also rooted in a love for the place in question. For me personally, feeling often quite rootless yet, also somewhat in love with the earth of this planet we live on, I will continue thinking about how we can nurture our connection to it as part of our “radical acts of imagining”. New relationships with each other and with the earth must be possible, as must be change, if we could embrace a different, more interdependent, less colonial relationship to the earth.

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Global day of action for climate change and strike on the 20thSeptember

References:

[1] The Old Ways (2013:27)

[1] Brenna Bhandar Colonial Lives of Property Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (2018:200)

[1] Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (2014:86)

 

Can a bit of darkness help me with my PhD?

I spent the last 10 days of December up on the edge of the Cairngorm mountains where twilight begins around 3.30pm and the sun so long rising in the morning so that it can be at least 9am before it feels properly light. Although I am someone who loves the summer and finds these long winter evenings challenging, lately I have been wondering what we might be missing out on because our lives have become so out of tune with the passing of the seasons with their natural rhythms of light and darkness.

The writer Alexander Shaia, in his interview with Rob Bell, reminds us that in the Jewish tradition the day begins at sunset, that the day first rests in an extended period of darkness before it gets busy with its first streaks daylight; so, what is new is birthed out of that which first dwells deepest in darkness. Shaia, speaking here as a spiritual guide, therefore encourages us to develop a practice of what could be akin to mindfulness, where we try to sit quietly with the present darkness rather than wishing ourselves into the future where we hope for sunnier, happier days. In this way he encourages us to respect what the darkness is able to teach us now in this present moment, indicating that this could perhaps help us reach the point where we notice the darkness has sacred and most beautiful qualities.

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But even if we do not feel the pull to venture into a realm where the language of the sacred is used, Shaia also notes that science can offer a complimentary way to appreciate the benefits of all things dark, dim and twilight-like.  

Research results showed that working in dim rather than bright fluorescent lighting helps encourage creative thinking because it nudges our brains to enter ‘exploratory mode’. “The idea is that dark places suggest a freedom that loosens our thoughts” says Eric Jaffe, whereas too much bright lighting inhibits us and keeps our thoughts from straying off the conventional, well trodden path of thought (see previous blog post on footpaths and thinking).

Think about these expressions:

That is an insightful idea, The argument is clear. I see what you are saying. Could you please elucidate your remarks? It looks different from my point of view…..

Why would we ever question the connection between light and enlightenment given how often we use these expressions of this kind? Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By note these examples. They argue that that metaphor constitutes both our contemporary language and thus also constructs our reality. One of their examples is how in the English language metaphors construct ideas as light sources, understanding becomes seeing clearly and discourse becomes a light medium (p.48-49).

As creatures who generally enjoy understanding things and often need new ideas it is perhaps then unusual to chose to sit with the long nights of winter, not to curse them, but to try welcoming the darkness they bring. Common sense (which takes up residence in the linguistic idioms like the examples above) teaches us to think that we need light to see and understand and that ideas are light sources, thus to be stuck in the dark, is exactly that, a place we get stuck in rather than somewhere we chose to rest in for a time, a place to be revered even. 

I wonder what it is I am trying to say here then.

In practical terms I am at the start of this 4 year PhD journey and at times am tempted to react in anxiety feeling that the way ahead is unseen and unknown at the moment. At the moment having to submit an upgrade paper in May is pretty much the only thing about my project I am sure of.  A reminder that the day begins at sunset followed by a good many hours of darkness before we see dawn break over the path that needs to be trod is a reassuring reminder then.

I also like the idea that sitting in the dark does something to our brains to nurture creativity. Maybe I will hesitate more often when I next automatically reach out for the light switch in the dull grey of a January morning, waiting for my kettle to boil. There are probably numerous ways to experience a bit less loud electric lighting throughout our days.

But I as well as this, I wonder how if we see darkness as a metaphor for not ‘seeing’, not understanding, and I apply my experience in Scotland to thinking about the actual labour of thinking and writing, I wonder what then I can learn.  

Maybe some ideas take time to emerge in the darkness. Maybe we do need to allow ourselves to say ‘I don’t know’ more often. Perhaps grasping the dim outline of something is more than enough for some moments in time.

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Patricia Thomson writes on Giorgio Agamben’s ideas about studying in her wonderful blog on the challenges of getting to grips with theory. She reassures us there it is perfectly normal for there to be quite a time lag between the act of reading and then proceeding to understanding. In this in-between stage of not understanding, things may appear hazy, a bit like when you are trying to make out where the track curves and winds its way through a pine forest at dusk Scotland. This is the moment, Thompson says, when we students are often tempted to give up and stop making an effort but in fact this in between stage is a part we must make our peace with if we are to continue well. Agamben describes this effort saying the “shuttling between bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient, is the rhythm of study.” (quoted in Thomson’s blog, my emphasis).

I wonder if it is possible to entertain or even enjoy a certain amount of bewilderment in my study? And if I can feel free to accept a certain sort of lostness, maybe it helps to believe it is surely part of this rhythm of learning; a rowing back and forward between knowing and not knowing; a rhythm as sure, let’s hope, as the way our new year in the the UK begins in darkness, as that the earth always tilts on its axis and as sure as the fact that long summer evenings will eventually turn up again soon.

In the meantime it is January here and now. Present tense. And it will be with us for a little while yet. 20180302_174748

Thinking on….walking, learning, bodies and borders

As an attempt to balance out the idea of four years of academic study, most of which I imagine is going to happen from behind a desk, last year I decided to start a long walk of the coast path from Ramsgate to Lands End, in stages of course and I will find out along the way how many miles it is! Photos from this walk may appear here from time to time.

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Having been thinking more about walking as a consequence, I was delighted to find Robert Macfarlane talking about the intimate connections between learning and route finding in his wonderful book about walking The Old Ways. In it he takes us through the etymology of the verb to learn. We see that leornian in Old English means to get knowledge or to be cultivated, which links further back in time to Proto-Germanic, and the verb liznojan meaning to follow or to find a track (2013:31).

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I love this idea of learning as a route finding ramble or a hike, an embrace of the curiosity of seeing where a path takes us, a searching for a way that is physically clear enough for us and those interested enough to follow us to actually travel down.

There is a good deal of physicality in this understanding of learning and I don’t think the links between paths and knowledge should be limited to a metaphoric usage, as much as I love, although probably don’t understand, the way the term “the garden of forking paths” is used in statistics. I think instead that learning should both physically take us to actual places we would not have gone before and also that by physically taking our body with us in this process of acquiring knowledge, we discover very different but important new avenues of thought and paths of insight. Having swum and written her way to producing an ethnographic study on long-distance open water swimming, Karen Throsby reminds us about this physicality, referring to “thinking as an inextricably embodied practice“ ( 2013:13).

And being that we cannot separate our learning from our bodies and that our bodies are normally found either in a land or city scape, Robert Macfarlane, (again), continues to inspire me in his musings on the connections between learning and place. He challenges us to ask these two demanding questions of a landscape we might find ourselves in:

“…..firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” (2013:27)

For me, both questions teach me to want to stay in a posture of humility in regards this embarkation on a PhD; not only are we to learn from others but also to learn from places. They too can and should be our teacher. I am taught much by time spent hiking along a coast path, land on my right and sea on my left, always an unpredictable and immense stretch of green/grey/blue ‘otherness’ reaching to a horizon,  which somehow liberates my mind to make connections and percolate ideas that would never find form in the enclosure of a library.

At other times though I remember that this immense stretch of blue/grey sea is a border, the horizon it forms for me brings space and freedom of thought, while for other people, it forms a border which no matter how strong the longing, is nigh on impossible to cross.

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This reminds me of another way place can teach us. A few years ago I spent five weeks teaching English in a shelter in the (now non-existent) Grande-Sythe refugee camp near Dunkirk. At the end of this time I experienced the crossing back under that same stretch of blue/grey English Channel of water in a completely different way to ever before. Sitting in the camp on the edge of France, from the confines of a shelter I had heard people tell tales of dangerous, difficult journeys which they had undertaken to reach France from mostly Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. I also heard about the attempts they made most nights to get from Calais to the UK, the lorries, the waiting in the dark, the police, the dogs, the arrests, the daily disappointment of not making it and having to return to the camp to sleep the day through in order to try again the following night. These are not lives people live just for fun.

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I know my immersion in this liminally positioned camp life for a mere five weeks was absolutely nothing like the same as actually having made those journeys or living with that kind of precarious existence myself, yet it was enough to teach me about borders in a profound way. While returning on the train in the dark, travelling between France and the UK, my body suddenly felt bombarded with fatigue, tears, despair, and mostly rage at the unearned privilege which had allowed me to present my white face, followed briefly by my passport, to then be allowed through to board the Eurostar. Travelling under that short stretch of sea with such ease taught me a lesson in both national and white privilege which somehow invaded my body and I think perhaps has stayed within it in some kind of way.

As for my musings on Macfarlane’s second question “what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” I think I need to do a whole lot more thinking before I come to any kind of understanding of its mysticism. Perhaps, given that the weather isn’t so bad today, maybe I need to head out for a walk and see what the sea says to me……

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What refugees in Calais showed me about hope and joy

When you know that the UK is far from utopia how do you respond when you meet refugees willing to risk all to reach its shores? Do they need their dreams to be tempered with our warnings of the possible hardship of reality? Is hope a waste of energy, a well-marked path to disappointment for those stuck on the wrong side of the Channel, desperate to get across? Conversations with refugees in Dunkirk, Brussels and Calais have made me think a lot about hope, joy and survival for those caught up in the hardships of migration.

Last week I went back to Calais two years after I had spent just over a month teaching English in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp near Dunkirk. Since then the situation had changed a lot, there was no more ‘Jungle’ in Calais or camp at Grande-Synthe, instead refugees huddled in varying sized groups wherever they could hide in makeshift dwellings, ready to up and run when the police came to slash tents and rid the area of their presence. Despite these changes and the passing of two years, the refugees I met had such similar stories to tell, bore such similar lines of weariness on their faces, held on with such the same tenacity and grit to their dreams that all the UK would be the end of their travelling, the much longed for destination: the tantalising white cliffs, visible yet so out of reach.

Along with other volunteers from Care4Calais one day we went to a patch of wasteland near the auto-route outside of Calais and set up the generator, connection points for phones to be recharged, tea, coffee, biscuits, hair clippers and a football. Such basic items to help make their lives some sort of life. About 30 men from Afghanistan, Iran and a few other countries who camped nearby emerged from the trees when they saw us arrive. Annoyingly pretty much simultaneously the grey clouds that had been lingering around all day picked that moment to begin to empty their contents on us with a fair amount of force. Whilst cutting hair and shaving beards was quickly abandoned, hot drinks and phone charging both seemed worth braving the cold and wet for and so people stuck around looking miserable in their sodden clothes, trying to keep less wet under a few bushes and trees. After some time I think the cold, depressing atmosphere of the afternoon started to get to me and I thought maybe the football could cheer things up. It was a long shot. I threw the ball to a few people and tried to suggest a game, at least three of them threw it back at me and said this was no time for having fun. When they reached the UK they said they would be able to enjoy themselves. Now, they were just fed up. I walked away feeling foolish, feeling like I had just rubbed salt in their wounds by trying to cheer things up. But the football had been left with the guys and someone else was passing me the ball even as I walked away. In minutes, with the rain still dripping off our noses, with one man wearing Crocs, another still clutching his bag of supplies we had distributed earlier, another volunteer wearing her flipflops, a small circle of us volunteers and refugees ended up playing piggy in the middle kicking the football around for a good half an hour or so. There was very little chat, but a good many smiles.

Another afternoon that week I found myself back just across the road from where I had spent those weeks in the Grande- Synthe camp near Dunkirk. Now about 600 mostly Iraqi Kurds, men, women and children were camping under the trees. This time the sun was almost shining and it was dry enough to sit on the ground and do some activities with some children who had gathered around us. We had taken some picture cards and somehow a couple of girls and I began teaching each other the names for the pictures on the cards, exchanging the English for the Kurdish. They loved it and spent ages writing them all down. Result is I now know the Kurdish for ‘flamingo’ and can say I did once know, but have now perhaps unsurprisingly forgotten, the word in Kurdish for unicorn. The very next day at 6am 200 French police raided this camp, slashing tents clearing them out of the area, leaving them to begin again.

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Photo by Summer Li on Pexels.com

Flamingos and footballs struck me as moments of joy in the middle of tough times. I don’t just mean to suggest that only we volunteers can bring such moments of joy. Not at all. The day following the clearance at Grande- Synthe it was the young guys who started up a Kurdish dancing session in a carpark, using an old plastic crate as a drum and dragging us volunteers into join the crazy dancing circle. We who had so much more to be thankful for in life were the recipients of their sense of fun in that moment, we were the ones who went away cheered by their ability to dance in the face of difficulty.

“Hope is a song sung when everything else says you shouldn’t be singing…..Hope is what helps us survive” writes Pádraig ó Tuama.

Maybe those who receive a window of grace that enable them to embrace joy and nurture hope at certain times along such tough paths as they traverse the globe in search of security and a better life, have been given the best hope of survival.

References

O Tuama, P (2016) In the shelter, finding a home in the world, Hodder and Stoughton