Artist as Family

We made some new friends! The week after I finished up at work we travelled to Daylesford to ‘SWAP’ (Social Warming Artists and Permaculturalists) with Artist as Family. I can’t think of a better way to begin this new phase of my life. It was divine, too many thoughts and ideas and inspirations to share but this little poem captures some of the spirit. Continue reading

Back Creek yearning

There’s a creek, buried beneath
These houses and these asphalt streets.
There’s a spark within my heart
That waits and weeps for sweet release.

CHORUS
Oh mother, take me home again
Oh mother, where I belong
Oh mother, take me home again
Oh mother, where I belong

There are weeds, that meet our needs
Amongst these urban forest leaves.
There are trees of ancient lineage
That whisper truth to those who’ll hear.

CHORUS

There’s a soul within this land
That can’t be grasped by human hands.
I have eyes and heart to see
The nature round and within me.

CHORUS

and so it begins…

A European wasp

A European wasp, or vespula germanica. Wikimedia Commons: Richard Bartz

Climate change is a kind of creeping death, so gradual that I almost don’t notice it. It’s there in the back of my head though, whispering to me on hot days or big weather events. Climate change, climate change, climate change.

I haven’t ever associated it with anything tangible though. I don’t live close enough to the Earth, don’t spend enough time observing the more than human to notice any incremental changes. I’ve noticed no plants or insects or animals growing in new places or behaving strangely. Until now.

I can’t remember who first mentioned the wasps. I think my ex-wife told me they had to move our son’s birthday party indoors to avoid them.

At a cafe a week later I noticed them swarming over someone’s bacon. The waiter told the customers that he’d complained to council but there’s nothing they can do. Wasps can smell food over a kilometre away and it is almost impossible to track them back to their nest.

On a bushwalk in Daylesford last weekend I was struck by their ever-present hum. There were so many hovering around the mainstreet I had to keep the windows closed when I drove past.

My son told me that his kinder friend’s mother had been bitten on the lip while eating bacon and his friend had been stung too. It is a fear that looms large in his small world and is no doubt shared by his friends and their parents.

Via these small moments the wasps entered my field of vision. Then I saw this article on my newsfeed. It turns out the whole of Melbourne has a wasp problem. My attention was captured by one line in particular from the entomologist:

we’ve had a mild summer and a mild winter before that

Climate change, climate change, climate change.

And so it begins.

The wasps are harbingers. Their presence fills me with dread but it’s not the sting that worries me, it’s the myriad unknown changes to come.

Dancing with shame

Back Creek heading into a tunnel

The other day I got to meet some awesome new people who are living close to the Earth, growing vegies in their backyard and building community. Lots of big ideas were thrown around about worker cooperatives, festivals and financial collapse. It was exciting but, if I’m honest, also a little intimidating. Why is it that instead of being happy about people embracing new ways of living/being I turn it into some kind of judgement on myself?

They had boxes and boxes of zines from Doing it Ourselves and were generously encouraging my friend and I to go through and take what we needed in exchange for a donation. My friend amassed quite a pile but when I looked at it I felt sick. I imagined reading all those ideas and strategies and comparing it to the life that I lead now and finding myself wanting. A pile of what could be a gateway to inspiration and creativity was looking to me like a big pile of shame – some kind of indictment on my way of being in the world.

I work full time in a public health organisation, I get paid to look at the big picture of what’s going on in society and develop strategies that will change the way people think and act so that we all have the opportunity to be healthier and more connected. I work with awesome people who are genuinely passionate about the work that we do and care very deeply about making the world a better place. And yet, yesterday, in a bid to garner the approval of these ‘cool new people’ I found myself dismissing my work and the way I feel about it by calling myself a ‘wage slave.’

I’m not writing this post to get sympathy for myself or to beat myself up, I just think the strength of my reaction is interesting and I’d like to unpack it. At the end of the day I was exhausted and fuzzy headed,upon reflection I wonder if this was the result of ‘performing’ for the ‘cool new people.’ One of the topics that came up in conversation was burn-out. Apparently there are a lot of people around suffering from burn-out and I wonder if there’s a connection. Burn-out is a product of doing too much, of feeling driven to perform, perhaps I’m not the only one who can feel berated by a stack of zines I haven’t even read yet.

Reflecting on the train this morning I wondered what would happen if I ran a workshop that deliberately created that sense of shame. Delivering to people a list of criteria for the ‘perfectly sustainable human’ and then inviting them to reflect on how this list makes them feel. When I think about shame in terms of the impact on our community rather than me personally I can see the insidious ways that shame operates to keep us small. Marketing is all about encouraging a sense of shame of ‘not enoughness’ that we must buy our way out of. When we are measuring ourselves against the standard of ‘perfectly sustainable human’ we are perpetuating a cycle that prevents us from opening up, connecting with others and creating the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Activists, radicals and other idealists have the courage to see what is wrong with the world and dare to hope for something better. They carry the shame of humanity on their backs, but if their action is borne of shame it will inevitably lead to burn-out and if they are judging themselves they are bound to judge others and create disconnection along the way. We need to name this shame collectively, to bring light to it, and support each other to operate from a place of love and care. As one of the ‘cool new people’ pointed out to me, in practice our actions may look very similar but when the feeling that drives us is love, our lives can be gentle, peaceful and nurturing as well as revolutionary.

The magic of empathy

Last week I posted about tears so it seems fitting that this week the theme for me is empathy. I came across the above video last year some time when I was completely obsessed with Brene Brown (note: I am still in love with her ideas but I tend to mention them weekly now instead of every hour). The way people respond to our grief, vulnerability and emotions in general can have a profound effect on us.

For me there is a very clear link between numbing our emotions and a host of environmental issues from problematic consumption to our inability to respond appropriately to extinction. There is also a positive aspect, that when we are connected with our hearts we are more able to come up with creative solutions and cooperate with our fellow beings (human and otherwise).

The first step in becoming empathetic with people around you is learning to sit with the discomfort of vulnerability/strong emotions. Being able to genuinely support someone else through tough times requires an ability to be uncertain and avoid slipping into the trap of ‘fixing’ what is going on for them. This is something I have been guilty of many, many times throughout my life, I have written poems about my addiction to ‘fixing’ people. Who doesn’t love the ego trip of knowing that you’ve sorted out someone else’s life for them and the hook of knowing you are needed?

This week I have had the privilege of witnessing a number of precious humans in varying states of vulnerability and it has brought home to me again and again the power of being present, of witnessing and reflecting their words from the heart. In practice these things don’t feel like much, I often feel quite helpless as I reflect someone’s difficulties a response like “Wow, it sounds like you are feeling really vulnerable.” or  “Oh it must be so scary that your mother could die any day now.” seem kind of lame. Even as I write those words I am feeling a little teary at the enormity of what some of my friends are going through and as I listen to them I am regularly speechless. Instead of rushing to avoid my anxiety I have learned to sit with it, to name it (as the video suggests), to be comfortable with my own silence or to name my deeper feelings.

What I also see in my friends though, as well as their pain, is an opportunity for love and openness. “You are feeling this grief right now because you love your mother, that’s a beautiful thing.” “You are feeling uncertain right now because you are daring to take a different path in your life.” Being able to reflect that larger context is an important way of holding them in the discomfort of the present. I am aware of being very delicate with this though because it is a short step from here to ‘silver lining.’ It’s important not to use the larger context to negate their feelings or rush them through it.

The final thing I offer, and this is taken straight from Brene, is ‘me too.’ Advice is terrible but stories are brilliant. Advice says “I know better than you.” Stories say “I have been there and this is what happened.” Stories allow space for other people to take what they need from your experience, sometimes you will know what they are going to take but sometimes it will be something completely unexpected. You have to be open enough and humble enough to share your experience and let the other person make meaning from it. You can tell them what it meant for you and what you feel you learned (the deeper and more honest you can be the better) but you can’t tell them what they should learn.

The act of empathy feels sacred to me, it is holding space for others to unfold. All humans are empathic, if they don’t demonstrate it it’s because they have learned to shut it down. The only way to open them up again is to create safe spaces for them to step into. Everyone has the means within themselves to overcome what ever they are facing. All this week I have witnessed people coming to a place of calm and finding that they already have the answers they seek. To me it feels like magic because what is required of me is actually very little, as though I’m just standing next to them while they fumble with their keys and open the door. They just need to feel safe enough to trust what they already know.

Wild at heart

I love this article from the Huffington Post UK. It’s an elegant articulation of a number of complex ideas that seem to be coming together in the human psyche at the moment. I have noticed though, that there tends to be an othering of nature that happens as part of this narrative of reconnection. 
wpid-imag0718.jpg
I agree that it’s easier to see ourselves as part of a greater whole when we are overwhelmed by the more than human. Going to places that haven’t been obviously rearranged by human hands can be a humbling experience and that humility is crucial to the shift in consciousness that is needed. But unless we can bring that humility and that recognition of our place in the larger whole into our cities and human communities, our work will be fruitless.
 
This is a critique borne of my own frustration. The conditions of my life require me to live in the city and give me very few opportunities to ‘escape’ into the wilderness. I need to be nourished and nurtured by the more than human world as much as anyone but I can’t do it in the traditional way of ‘going bush.’ I am slowly developing practices for myself that help me ground my sense of connection in the places where I live, work and play. Perhaps the judge sits in my own heart but I feel these practices are overlooked or undervalued by my deep ecology friends and by the broader narrative of ‘nature connection.’ As though they are merely stop gap measures until I can get out into the ‘real’ wildness again.
 
If we are truly to see ourselves as part of nature rather than dominating it we need to radically rethink the dichotomy that says ‘nature’ is in our national parks and not in our cities. We need to take our hearts, awakened to wildness and use them to see the land where we live. Our great teachers in this could well be our children, the young ones haven’t yet learned to pay more attention to ‘human’ objects over non-human ones. Those of us who don’t have children may have memories of the way we used to play, the trees and flowers that drew our attention. The things that fired our imaginations and filled our hearts with joy. As Mary Oliver so eloquently put it we need to “Let the soft animal of [our] body love what it loves” and we need to do it wherever we are. 
 
The day after my walk along Back Creek, a gathering entitled “Rewilding the Urban Heart” was advertised on Facebook – to say that I am excited would be a massive understatement.

Introducing Back Creek

About seven years ago now I discovered that I have lived by a creek for most of my life. Back Creek is a tributary of Gardiner’s Creek (formerly Kooyongkoot Creek) which is a tributary of the Yarra River (also known as Birrarung).

1871 Map of Boroondara Shire with Back Creek highlighted

This map of the Shire of Boroondara circa 1871 confirms the original path of the creek (and a number of others besides). The green line is Kooyongkoot/Gardiner’s Creek, the light blue is Back Creek and the purple lines are Canterbury, Riversdale and Toorak Roads (from top to bottom), they should help to orient you if you live locally.

In environmental circles it’s widely recognised that connecting with ‘nature’ is important. Most people tend to think that the only way to do this is to go out into the wilderness where the human is dwarfed by the more-than-human. But what if it’s not?

The environmental crisis requires us to live more efficiently, with smaller footprints. It doesn’t make sense for all of us to go and live in the wilderness so we can stay mindful of our true place “in the family of things.” We need to look with new eyes, to see the wildness in our own backyards, our cities and suburbs, to see that we are part of a greater whole no matter where we are.

To this end I am planning a walk along the length of Back Creek. This journey is significant because the reason I didn’t know I lived near a creek is that it mostly runs underground in barrel drains. I’m not sure what it will be like to walk it, whether the land still gives clues as to the creek’s location.

Much of its length is now parkland and walking trails, a few short sections are open to the sky. It is cared for by council staff and ‘friends’ groups made up of local residents. I am in the process of collecting stories and information, if you have any to share please get in touch.

I invite you to join me on an adventure, on Sunday 27 July 2014, into the history of land, people and home. Come see the wildness in our streets. The creek may be covered but traces remain for those with eyes and heart to see.