We are on the ferry to Rathlin in Northern Ireland. The locals say it quickly and enunciate the ‘L’ so it sounds like rattlin’. Mum is telling me a story of my ancestors – Catherine McCaig was born on the island in 1821, she married Harry Begley and moved to Port Stuart, they had a daughter, Annie (my Grandma Bear’s grandmother) and several other children.
I am a fifth generation Australian settler and I am in the UK, in the lands of my ancestors, on a quest of healing.
It is a quest in the sense that the outcome is unknown to me. I do not know what, if anything, I will discover while I am here.
In the middle of last year I was going through a creative slump. It was well after Poetrees had launched and toddled along and I was burnt out from the effort of trying to put the work out there and engage people in it. (Turns out that marketing is not my forte.) I was very fortunate to receive an invitation to do a process called ‘Renewal of Creative Path‘ with a friend, Margaret Hogg and a group of women in her community. Continue reading
After the success of our crowdfunding campaign my partner and I headed up to norther NSW to learn bird language and nature awareness with American tracker, Jon Young.
My first day of learning bird language was difficult and confusing. We were sent out to find sit spots with a simple instruction to observe tension vs relaxation in the birds around us. It seems easy enough but the diversity of Australian song birds, the high activity of spring and the amount of territorial aggression made it extremely difficult to weed through the complexity to make any sense of the whole.
The debrief with my small group felt long and tedious, the blind leading the blind, it was hard to know what to share or what to listen for. At the end of that first session though I felt like I was beginning to get a sense of what is ‘baseline’ behaviour as opposed to alert or alarmed. It seems that in the Australian landscape it is silence that speaks loudest! The bush is rarely quiet unless there is some kind of predator nearby.
Jon was very clear that Australia is an unfamiliar landscape for him. He didn’t try to teach us about the specificities of the local flora and fauna, instead he taught us a process for engaging with the more-than-human and generating our own connections and understandings. In fact, I observed that he rarely asserted his own knowledge at all, preferring to tell stories that left us to join our own dots.
What we did learn though, after we had started making our own observations, was patterns for how birds communicate and what they might be saying. These patterns are not based on the specifics of bird evolution or biology but where birds tend to fit within an ecosystem. For example Australian birds will go silent when there is an aerial predator on the wing, just like birds in other countries.
I am already putting some of the processes we learned into practice. In my morning sit-spot (at Highfield Park) a pair of magpies landed 15 metres away and looked me over. Rather than staring at them like I usually do, I avoided eye contact and tipped my head away from them. The magpies walked closer, eventually crossing my gaze a mere 2 metres in front of where I was sitting. Having been a dog owner I am familiar with using body language to communicate with animals but I had never thought to try it with birds.
I feel like I have taken the first steps on a long and exciting journey! My knowledge and my sense of connection will only continue to grow.
I was inspired to start doing this by my girlfriend, Mel, who has been saying for months that she wants to find a sit spot and start a daily practice. Leaving work has allowed me sink into a different way of being where things like rising early to sit in a park seem like a perfectly sensible way to start the day.
Even in these short weeks I am astounded at how much I have learned just by looking and being aware. I love birds, I am in the habit of paying attention to them, I know the names of most of the common birds in my neighbourhood but there is so much I was missing.
One of my early ‘discoveries’ was a particular bird song that I admired. I initially thought this song belonged to the noisy mynah. I was hearing the call all over the place so I figured it must be a very common bird. I caught a glimpse of a grey bird flying out of the place where I’d heard the sound a moment earlier. I was pretty certain but I kept my eyes open for confirmation.
The next day I had an encounter with a butcher bird, I was pleased to see it because I had thought butcher birds were rare in the suburbs outside large regeneration areas. It sat in a small tree just near my sit spot. As I watched it lifted its beak and song rang out, the same song I had erroneously attributed to the noisy mynah.
This encounter shocked me. Not only did I discover that butcher birds possess a beautiful, melodic call but that far from being rare they are all over the place. There are a pair of butcher birds nesting near my sit spot so I have had the pleasure of observing them almost daily.
It worries me that I have failed to notice their entire species all this time. I suspect it is because there are a handful of birds that are known to me such as rosellas, magpies, magpie larks, mynahs, wattyl birds, ravens, or lorikeets. Viewed from below the butcher bird’s grey breast resembles a mynah, from above its black and white back resembles a magpie lark. I can only assume that I have been seeing what I expected to see rather than noticing the specifics of what is there.
What a wonderful lesson in humility.
In October Mel and I are travelling to northern NSW to learn from nature awareness mentor, Jon Young. One of the workshops is about bird language, understanding the pattern of bird interactions and calls as a gateway into understanding what’s going on in the more-than-human world around us. I can’t wait to learn some frameworks to deepen my understanding of what my local birds are saying to each other.
We are running a crowdfunding campaign to help us get up there and share what we learn afterwards, we’d love to have you join us – http://startsomegood.com/urbannatureawareness
I was really thrilled over the last few months to have had two invitations to do the Work that Reconnects at festivals. The first one was the Waking up the Spirit Skillshare weekend (with the Barkindji people north of the Murray River), the second was for the Toolangi Forest Secrets Festival (in the mountains past Healesville).
Neither event turned out quite the way I expected. I didn’t end up running full ‘Despair and Empowerment’ workshops. Instead I just stayed present and connected with people individually. On both occasions I had planned a variety of processes to share but when I got to the festival it just didn’t feel like the right ‘vibe.’
In between those two events I ran a truth mandala at my home for friends. I had about 8 people come and it was lovely, so beautiful to see people go from strangers to connection in two hours. It was also deeply satisfying to find that I am actually capable of following through on a facilitation commitment!
It feels timely to pause and reflect on these experiences. What does it mean that things didn’t go according to my plan at the festivals?
I really want to criticise myself. The difficult thing is that each time I chose to be present and be guided by what my instincts were telling me. In the moment I was fine with it and happy to accept the other connections I was making but now, in retrospect, I’m disappointed and wondering what the next step is for me. I really want to experiment with larger groups of people but I just don’t seem to be able to make it happen.
I’m not sure if I am not ready to facilitate in those situations or if people are not ready to participate, maybe it’s both. Not everyone sees the value in grief and I am not confident enough to force it on them. I seem destined to enlarge my circle one person at a time. Should I be content with that or am I keeping myself small?
Earlier this year at the Wild Mind festival I attended an embodied writing workshop with Maya Ward. As a poet I expected to write poetry. Much to my chagrin what came to me were some cheerful words and a snippet of melody. A week later it was still running around in my head so, even though I didn’t really like the melody, I took the time to sing it out and write some more lyrics.
The resulting song has been a prayer, an affirmation and a blessing. I have sung it to myself and to other people in my life whenever the reminder to surrender was needed. It has brought numerous people to tears (which I count as a good thing) and brought me enormous peace. Now I finally have the courage to share it:
Serenity, wonder and peace are yours
The infinite mystery of life
Wholeness, connection and balance are yours
If you surrender to strife.
Let go and let come
The earth will keep turning
The work will get done
Let go and let come
The universe is waiting for you.
Kindness, compassion and love are yours
Softness of a warm embrace
Happiness, humour and joy are yours
The laughter of children at play.
Let go and let come…
Silence and stillness and solace are yours
Because sometimes you must go within
Nurturing, comfort and weeping are yours
If you can learn to give in.
Let go and let come…
Envy and anger and greed are yours
Because they too have something to teach
Community, family and friendship are yours
If in your heart you make peace.
Let go and let come…
The universe is waiting
Your own heart is waiting
And we’re all here waiting for you.
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.
There are a whole series of articles over at The Conversation at the moment about various aspects of environmental crisis. This one is particularly pertinent in the sense that we can’t keep dealing with single issues and ignoring the root of the problem. Mind you it is a little alarmist. I get that there is a crisis and we have to do something but fear mongering seems to have limited effectiveness in changing people’s behaviour.
This video from Doing it Ourselves pretty much sums up the situation and also offers a vision of hope for the future.
I’m very interested in exploring the kind of society we could create together that is inherently sustainable. Ultimately it’s going to take all of us, many paths, one mountain so I’m not going to stop anyone from doing what they think is important. But I want to put my energy towards connecting people, building a resilient, mindful community. I’m not pessimistic, people will either change by choice or they will be forced to change by circumstances. It’s pretty clear that change is on the cards.