'Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.'
I have followed the work of Joanna Macy for decades now, so when my dear friend Simon emailed me this morning and included the idea, as in my title today, that this may be the first step towards a new era ('The Great Turning' is a concept of Macy's), I was reminded of two things.
One is that nothing is ever in vain. We live in a world where everything appears to be born, to live and flower, and to die, but that cycle is never finished. Everything is composted, everything renews.
The second thing is how easy it is to forget that we are part of this huge cycle and that in our smallness, from our smallness upwards, in our imagining, our thoughts, our words and our actions, we can help the process of renewal; we can be part of the Great Turning; we can also remember the vocabulary of active hope (the title of one of Macy's books). I have revisited her website to boost my own belief in her life-affirming model of The Work That Reconnects.
And how important that is right now.
The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way
our umbilicus. Is it a consolation
Wherever you go you can never totally disappear -
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
If you tune everything else out
the silence you hear is the white noise
of the singing spheres: the voice of the universe.
© Roselle Angwin; in Bardo.
Three things might help us through this strange time (in addition to poetry which, as Adrienne Rich famously said, can save your life; see below).
One is consciously to challenge our own impulse to close down, and open up instead, emotionally speaking, to the pain and the beauty of it all, and the tiny things we have to offer that might make a difference to someone somewhere. I'm struck by the generosity of people right now. And I've been particularly grateful for acts of kindness in my own tricky situation. We are not alone in our small homes on this beautiful planet, even if we're practising social distancing or self-isolating and it feels like it.
Another is to celebrate, despite everything, the possibility that this time might also represent the dying gasps of the monstrous capitalism on which our consumer society with its many injustices and inequalities is founded; the myth of perpetual and infinite growth on a finite planet might at last be seen for the Trojan Horse it is. What that means, who knows; but that it is unsustainable is indisputable.
And the third, even in the midst of fear and illness, or anxiety about lost work and income, is to continue to bring our presence to each moment. Every second is very precious; and see how the rest of the natural world continues to do its thing – still, and mostly, despite all our destructiveness. This moment, and how we live it, is what counts, given that 'how we live our days is how we live our lives'.
Have you ever seen so many clustered primroses as in this early spring? Have you listened out, even in town, for the blackbirds first thing? Have you noticed the creeping quiet and absence of noise with fewer cars on the road? I'm noticing, too, how people are warm to strangers, even at the requisite six-foot distance. I'm always happy to interact with strangers, but somehow I particularly enjoy a conversation over a hedge with a young guy I haven't met before who is laying, carefully because it's a bit late in the year, said hedge, bending the hazel carefully and pegging it in place. Perhaps it's the fact that it's a small act of hope that uplifts me so.
I really recommend, if you can get out and walk, noticing what's out there, and foraging a little. It's very healing.
RECIPE (for 2-4)
I've been collecting the wild garlic and nettle tops to make a healthy immune-boosting soup. Even in this 'hungry gap' time of late winter/early spring in the UK, there is food out there. We still have leeks, that mainstay of English winter veg, and frozzen pea beans from our crop last year, and to my delight at last a patch of wild garlic in our woodland edges, so all of those things, with a potato or two, get sautéed together.
One fat leek
A can of butter beans, or haricot beans, or whatever you have
A handful of young nettle tops (pick with a plastic bag over your hands, or gardening gloves, and you might want to use scissors so as not to rip the whole plant out, and wash them well)
A handful of wild garlic, washed (or you can use cloves)
Salt and pepper to taste
Yogurt (optional) – I use Coyo from coconuts
Wash, slice, dice, tear as necessary. Sauté potatoes and leeks until soft. Add the rest and stir. Add enough stock (or water + yeast extract, or water + soy sauce) to cover well. Bring to the boil then simmer for 30 minutes or so. Whizz if you like; serve with a dollop of yogurt (I use non-dairy) and crusty bread.
My friend Dan is a medic and poet. He sent me these words this morning:
I work in the NHS. I also read poetry to make sense of my life. Poetry will change nothing, yet I am reading poetry daily.
We are going to lose a lot of people. Quarter of a million of us. Quarter of a million. Each one storied and unique.
Death happens everyday. That is one of the gifts of being a doctor. Daily, we receive that unfathomable reality. But this is death rampant, death with his war-time face.
Most of us will be lucky. It will mainly take the older, those for whom, perhaps, their ending has been imagined already.
In the NHS, we are putting on our uniforms and we are going out there. Society is putting on a serious face and quietening before what will happen. Our hands are raw from washing.
I sit in a GP Surgery, one of our outposts amongst the well. We are the dividing line between the land of the sick and the land of the well. I am preparing myself to be redeployed, to walk towards those who are dying, to care where care is needed.
Every morning, I am listening to the scientists. Everyday I am listening closely. This is the time for science. We are all working as a team. We make sure that we are calm, attentive, kind, responsible and we listen to the scientists. If we want to save as many of us as we can, we need to listen closely to science. This is no time for poetry. We need to use brave scientific words. They are pretty stark.
But when I come home from work, as I unwind in the rest of the evening, on my own, my family away, I need poetry to make any sense of this all. To find the lessons that others have won hard. Or to delight… Or to laugh… To get on with living.