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Reflections on 2020: the value of time

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Pablo Neruda

Reflecting on this year of years brings me into a state of silent awe. We’ve been met with a set of circumstances that weren’t even imaginable nine months ago. The human tragedy of loss, loss of liberty and loved ones, of physical and social connection, of security and support has hit hard and sustains itself even now ….. as Christmas is cancelled for many. Add economic crisis, political polarisation, murderous institutional racism, the US democracy floundering, the lingering stench of BREXIT, and it might seem like the mainstays of our Western social structures are under threat. Even the ‘truth’ – or at least a coherent uniting narrative with which to understand the world and our experience of it – no longer exists. How do we cope in the face of these “unprecedented” challenges?

Well, for me, a good soundtrack helps! Here’s my Freddy Fever DJ mix to reflect the intensity of the times. I suggest slapping it on now! Unless you’ve only got a three minute window in which case get this poetic DnB anthem on and take a well-deserved sonic victory lap for (almost) completing 2020! Kae Tempest and High Contrast’s Time Is Hardcore.

Ok, back to the matter at hand… The pandemic and accompanying evils have pitched me, I imagine you, many of my clients, family and friends back and forth between horror, relief, rage, anxiety, grief, spaciousness, despair. The stats on mental health and and anti-depressant prescriptions are pretty terrifying. And, within, perhaps because of, the destabilisation there's been something of a restoration to that which is important. Like a jagged knife through the butter of 21st century living to that which is “of the essence”, as my late, beloved father would say.

He died in February, pre-pandemic. He timed his life perfectly. Born a year or so after the end of the second world war, he enjoyed the rise of post-war cohesion, of youth culture, of market deregulation and baby boomer abundance. Made, as he was, to work and play with equal aplomb, he flourished, especially with the aid of my mother’s exceptional support and attention to the less gratifying aspects of life! Reduced to tearful giggles at the merest hint of humour he spread his infectious energy far and wide and was greatly loved. It is a huge loss to his family and friends that we couldn’t come together to celebrate his life. Perhaps the opportunity will still come.

A remarkable thing happened to me in the wake of his death. Within the grief I felt as if his zest for life, for fun and for the love of the game came pouring into me. The things which stood in the way of our connection appeared to dissolve just like that. Love was free to flow unfiltered, and many of my more cautious and conflicted doubts about who I am and how I should live were washed away. That blissful experience, alas, wasn’t everlasting but it has stayed with me as one of his greatest final gifts.

As is the case with many of his generation the major existential threat of the ecological crisis seemed far enough off as to be fiction (aided and abetted, of course, by information fed to the public by institutions for whom widespread awareness of humanity’s contribution to this crisis would be a highly inconvenient truth). Besides, wasn’t emerging from the horrors of the two world wars enough incentive to live, and live for now, making hay while the sun shines?

But it would be hard to deny that this year has delivered a piercing blow to our faith in policy built upon a model of endless financial growth. The pandemic, itself emerging from a destabilisation of the climate systems upon which our lives depend, has brought society to a halt and invited, at the very least, fierce debate on what is important. Economic arguments to continue as before are losing their lustre, as the potential cost of financial growth at the expense of a more wholistic model of wealth and wellbeing become increasingly unconvincing. At last environmental policy and climate change are part of the political conversation in earnest, determining electoral outcomes for the first time. Of course the realities and dangers of greenwashing are as prevalent as ever but this time would seem to be affording us the opportunity to look beyond our immediate concerns and ask ourselves what kind of society do we really want to create moving forwards?

This question has of course been resounding in the personal as well as political sphere. My own spellbound adherence to that story - that more is more - has been equally punctured. I have found myself profoundly challenged and nourished by the space which has arisen in which to reflect. I have been lucky enough (which many have not – especially those on the frontline or in financial free-fall), partly because of my father’s generosity, and partly because of my job’s adaptability to the new online work culture, and a lack of school-aged children to contend with, to have had the time and financial security to be able to reflect. I have found myself pitifully grateful for this extended opportunity to stay at home, connect with my immediate family, resume a deeper connection with place and work on the Hearth.

Not getting in my car for, literally, weeks brought about a shift in my appreciation for a slower, more localised pace of living. I have given up my Exeter counselling practice – the extra time afforded to me and my family by not commuting for an hour each way has enriched us enough to make going back non-sensical. I have begun cycling back and forth to Totnes (with the aid of an electric bike!). This autumn I decided to cut back on the number of clients I see in favour of more time to practice what I preach – prioritising emotional wellbeing and the pursuit of a larger work and life vision over income, privilege guilt, and an insatiable - though lamentably unfocused - protestant work ethic!

Time in the garden and on the land has yielded progress I never quite managed beforehand. With the help of our beautiful clan of Hearth-dwellers (Will, Kate, Amerie and Sophie we salute you!) a “poo-manger” (humanure system), massive and abundant vegetable beds, a chicken coop, sweat-lodge, almighty wood-stack, welcome shed and our newest accommodation ~ The Apple Wagon ~ were brought into being. That was in the wake of planting 500 odd trees at the start of the year. Perhaps more importantly a sense of community was established that gave us camaraderie and connection over those initial, groundless months.

Frustratingly, I was unable to use my practice room in Totnes to see psychotherapy clients. But this forced an unexpectedly beneficial solution for how to manage those who were suffering from the lack of embodied therapeutic contact: to begin my nature-based “ecotherapy” practice in the woods I had been intending and trained to do for some years but never quite managed to manifest! Now the fire crackles under the shelter of the tarpaulin. The wind whistles through the trees around us. The fallen leaves rustle under our shifting bodies as we talk, enquire and feel. It is a blessed sanctuary, not just from the drama of the current human realm, nor just for my clients, but for me too from the heady intensity of concentration required when working online.

Zoom fatigue notwithstanding, working online has opened enormous possibilities up. With Rhonda Brandrick from the Natural Academy I launched two talks on Addiction and the Natural world, focusing on how to manage the effects of social isolation and restriction within the context of the pandemic and the wider cultural context in which we find ourselves. The wonderful charity Write to Freedom has elegantly and industriously surfed the change of circumstances, developing varied and rich offerings to support the wider recovery tribe. To Know The Difference is an inspiring, short film illustration mix of the nourishing concoction of creativity, mindfulness and nature connection that W2F brings to the addiction recovery experience, through the generous sharing of Laura Hamlyn and skilled film-making of Caspar Walsh.

I am so grateful to have been able to continue the Facilitator’s Development Adventure with Joanna Macy collaborators Chris Johnstone, Jenny Mackeown and Kirsti Norris. With our gang of trusty co-conspiritors we’ve become familiar with the spiral – a highly adaptable map designed to empower people to work with challenging feelings around the ecological crisis. It facilitates resourcing, catharsis/expressing, insight/new perspectives and direction. I am really excited to bring its potency to the Hearth and plan to offer some workshops next year – online, in person or both. Watch this space for developments. In the meantime here is a link to the inspiring “Active Hope” work of Chris Johnstone. The subtitle is “how to face the times we’re in without going crazy”… Relevant to us all, I’m sure you’d agree!

Personally the experience of enforced stillness has facilitated a much-needed return to my spiritual roots. The parts of me that so willingly lose themselves in busyness have been gradually relinquishing their urgent yet needless control. Space for mindfulness, physical exercise, early nights, solo and group self-enquiry and time together with family has had a subtle but powerfully restorative effect. The imminent arrival of our second child has provided further incentive to return to the essential. To quote my father fully he would say “Time is of the essence”. And this truism has been amply reaffirmed by the extraordinary atmosphere of this year. It is the time that has opened up and then given me the courage to intentionally allot towards other traditionally unsanctioned needs, that has made all the difference.

Sometimes, often, I don’t know whether to despair about the state of the climate, politics, technological impositions exacerbating the erosion of our connection with the natural world and indeed ourselves - not to mention our freedom of choice - or to take heart in the dissolution of business as usual and the opportunities that are emerging as a result. This dynamic has been reflected in the felling of the Ash trees on our land – a heartwrenching loss to Chalara Ash Dieback disease - and simultaneously an opportunity for new life to emerge in their place.

As ever I have found sustenance, understanding and consolation in the ceremonial, cultural and artistic spheres. Here’s a brief list of standout moments:

· Melissa Harrison’s podcast “the Stubborn Light of Things” offered a soothing, literate and exquisitely observed weekly description of the rhythm of the natural world around her in rural Suffolk, peppered with gentle but universal philosophical insights – a panacea.

· Charles Eisenstein's essay "The Coronation" provided a rational but wholistic position in the debate around how to discern truth in response to coronavirus, conspiracy theories and such

· the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma laid horrifyingly bare the extent to which we as a global society are being manipulated by big tech.

· Sault, a mystery UK musical collective, found a strong and immediate response to the death of George Floyd and for me provide an inspirational soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not one but two all killer no filler albums released this year. Wildfires is one of many standout tracks.

· The Surrender Experiment details Michael Singer’s experience of miraculous serendipity when truly surrendering preference to the intelligence of intuition over the course of an entire lifetime.

· Brene Brown interviewed Barak Obama – a masterclass on holding the tension of opposing, impossible truths, thus facilitating empathy and efficacy in the real world

Finally, should you feel depressed about the seeming lack of progress in aligning progressive and ecologically informed agendas with mainstream commercial ones I recommend listening to this year’s newly imparted Reith lectures. I understand very little of what is being said(!) but am heartened to hear serious enquiry into how we have ended up in this position of “Knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.” (as Oscar Wilde quipped). Given by Mark Carney, financial heavyweight and former governor of the Bank of England, I was astonished to hear him talk with such a breadth of historical context and humanitarian understanding about How We Get What We Value.

If great minds and figures within conventional power structures are acknowledging the disparity between what we value and what our current industrial growth economic orientation affords us perhaps the possibility of genuine change is within reach? Perhaps this dissolution in consensus reality is not a scourge but the very conditions required for the profound and radical change needed for humanity's successful negotiation of cascading multiple systems failure? After all, we’ve managed to reach a semi-coherent global narrative and therefore rapid collective response to COVID19. Why not, then, in time, our place within and urgent responsibility to the living system which sustains us, and all life on this planet?

So, with the words of Pablo Neruda, I return to this state of silent awe.

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.”

– Pablo Neruda

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