Extra Ordinary Times: Notes from North London, March-April 2020
Carrie Foulkes writes:
…Until the bitter weather passes – John O’Donohue
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing – Finnish saying
A friend tells me about a time she returned from a trip to find her plants drooping and parched. Despite being charged with their care, her housemate had neglected to water them. How do you not notice things dying around you? My friend thought.
I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I listen to Tara Brach quoting Carlos Casteñeda. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, orif youcatchaglimpse of it, orif youjusthavethefeelingthat yourcompanion is there watching you. I sense my death watching me. I sense death at the bedsides of the people I love. This is why I can’t sleep.
It’s the middle of the night and Edinburgh zoo’s live camera reveals that some of the penguins are also awake. This comforts me. I have the company of other sleepless beings in captivity in the small hours.
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing,
And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep
– Theodore Roethke
A decade ago a friend said to me: keep death on your shoulder, it’ll remind you to love.
aspects of life under lockdown are deeply familiar. Being housebound, unable to
make plans, indefinite stretches of time alone – the hallmarks of chronic illness.
I was a ‘vulnerable person’ long before covid-19 segregated me.
My body – permeable, sick and yet – persisting – in pain, over years –
In a beehive sick bees often remove themselves from the colony or are otherwise turfed out to die. I’ve been thinking of this when contemplating certain media narratives. It’s not that bad because it’s only killing the elderly and infirm. A eugenicist’s dream.
Author, anthropologist and
Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax refers to a ‘fruitful darkness’ in which the
navigation of the shadow side of life leads to spiritual growth.
She writes that ‘poisonous’ plants and creatures can be invoked as protectors. As allies of human beings, they protect against drowsiness and insensitivity… they teach alertness and respect as we interact with place.
try to think non-dualistically. To cease thinking of the virus as a problem.
to simply perceive
a pathogen emerging from
a pangolin in China
What would it look like to invoke the virus as protector? To think of this disease as medicine, an x-ray, a dye injected in to the veins of the world, exposing the mechanics of economic systems predicated on the subjugation of people and places.
We’re compelled to confront the web of relationships, the permeability of our bodies, the interdependence of individual and public health.
I don’t mean to romanticise the virus. Only to posit that the real crisis is man-made. Or rather that this is not primarily an incidence of bad weather but one of bad clothing.
Overnight, impossible things became possible because they were necessary. But they’ve long been necessary.
Birth and rebirth
require sacrifice, writes Halifax. What is to be sacrificed? What is to be saved?
In his writings on Deep Adaptation, Jem Bendell would have us ask: What can I relinquish?
We learn that the kindest thing we can do for one another is to keep our distance. We see how our actions each day help to produce the circumstances of the next day.
It’s been a slow
emergency, like a slow-motion tidal wave, I say on the phone to a
friend in New York. Yes, or a sped up
climate change, he replies.
are many parallels worth considering. At first the virus is a truth too
inconvenient to heed. The most vulnerable are hit first, and hardest.
Structural injustices are laid bare for all to see.
We could get a more just world out of this…but in the meantime these times are dark and stupid, he says, after Foster Wallace.
It’s not at all like a war, someone says. All you’re being asked to do is sit on your sofa. Ah yes, but sitting on the sofa doesn’t feel like action but its opposite.
The Talmud states
you do not have to complete the work
but neither can you abandon it
For those of us passing these days at home, doing nothing is our contribution to the collective effort. Not that we are doing nothing. But you know what I mean. It doesn’t feel like enough.
People say this about meditation: I’m too busy to meditate. I have no time. And when they have time, there are always more important things to do. The hardest part of meditating is getting to the cushion.
At times I have a deep aversion to simply being. It boils down to not wanting to be with myself. Not feeling at ease.
After the first days of isolation I say to an old friend (again, on the phone, there are few conversations in person these days): this vast emptiness has opened up in me. She encourages me to spend some time with it. Something unexpected may emerge.
Postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay instructs Refresh, Refresh, Refresh. Her verbal cues invite a deeper awareness of unexamined habits and the interrelationship of body and mind.
is always partial. What happens when I turn my head? What has gone unnoticed? Towards what do you turn your face?(The words of a
mystic, but could easily be Hay’s.)
Each moment, renewed, renewing. Maintaining curiosity. A new freedom of movement is possible even in quarantine.
I return again and again to thoughts of fault lines and resilience. What it means to yield to circumstances beyond our control, our flexibility a measure of our strength.
Dancing the five rhythms, flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, stillness. The first two rhythms enabling you to find the floor and your motion, groundedness and responsiveness, so that when the chaos comes you can adapt quickly, intuitively, without losing your balance.
a St Ethelburga’s online talk with Bayo Akomolafe I hear him say: other colours may be hiding, stowaways, in
that space you’ve violently named as blue.
Do I misremember this? I apologise if so. But what I hear in these words is a plea for nuance. And the ability to be with not knowing.
Our era has been demarcated,
this difficult time
this strange time
these uncertain times
these unprecedented times
But these are extra ordinary times.
what’s happening is not
that the world is changed
but that we are confronted
with its reality
insecurity: these are the essential conditions of our lives. It’s just that
we’re often too busy and embedded in our routines to notice.
The whole world’s been plunged into a sense of fragility, says a friend. An existential crisis.
Another old friend has been in the
desert. He says: it was good to escape
this mono-imagination of the world as market. He tells me there were many
colourful flowers in the desert. Not
quite a superbloom, he clarifies.
This is the first time I hear the word superbloom. A rare botanical phenomenon in which an unusually high proportion of wildflowers whose seeds have lain dormant in desert soil germinate and blossom at roughly the same time.
I’ve taken to riding my bike at night. Gliding down quiet residential streets by lamplight. I’ve only lived in this neighbourhood a few months. I’ve been experiencing moments of profound unfamiliarity, the uncanny sense that I don’t recognise my own life.
Thinking back to our Radical Resilience retreat in Sussex in January – how we walked the paths of collapse – through food insecurity to riots, starvation, violence, death. How only months ago we deployed our imaginations to envision those things that we now trace the edges of.
Our group has been meeting for the past few months, contemplating the nature and cultivation of resilience, asking ourselves what it means to embed climate justice principles in our lives and work.
the standpoint of Bendell’s conception of Deep Adaptation there are certain
things that can’t be undone.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope and the lack of it. What it is, what it means, what it prevents, sometimes.
Physicist David Bohm says the inward work and the outward work go hand in hand. He writes of how our thoughts produce our realities. The point is: thought produces results, but thought says it didn’t do it.
the stories we tell about the virus the most harmful is that it is neutral.
That all are affected in equal measures.
The virus illuminates relational geographies, the global flow of humans and capital, spectrums of privilege and peril.
I am hesitant to speak of the ways
in which life in lockdown may be a form of respite, knowing that for many,
perhaps most, it is not.
For me this is a contemplative time. This says much about my position in the world. It also reveals something of the everyday troubles of living with a body in pain and a mind hard-wired to fright.
virus, unlike a bacteria, is not a living thing.
I learned this in a massage therapy training class, where one of our first assignments was to answer the question What is Life?
classmate introduced me to the Danish word hudsult.
I knew what this was before knowing its name. The need for touch.
After the corona there will be trauma and grief and hudsult lodged like bullets in the bodies of those on the frontlines. And should I live to see this time I’d like to be among those who attend to their healing with my hands.
I’m allowing myself some hope for a cultural spiritual superbloom when we emerge from this weather.
April presents itself. The birthday of a dead friend comes and goes. Sometimes I sense him very close. In the corner of my darkened room, blue eyes watching me. and what i want to know is / how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death (E. E. Cummings)
It’s Passover and my Jewish neighbours are singing in their gardens. I read the Book of Exodus in the moonlight and listen to their songs.
Earlier this year I started
attending Sacred Harp singings. People congregate to sing four-part a cappella harmonies
from a red songbook. Trained and untrained voices coalesce in raw rhythmic
We sing for each other and ourselves
rather than for an audience.
I think of the birds
that sing not to be heard but to continue. (Zach Savich)
The voice is the sacred harp – each
person has / is this instrument. The collective of voices is also the sacred
harp – each person is a string and a hand, plucking.
In my solitude I sing my favourite tune, Idumea. But it’s not the same without other people’s voices humming in my body.
The Book of Psalms revives with its
poetry. I recite the words and bathe my cells in their syllables.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea (Psalm 46:2)
A crate of facemasks sent to Italy by a Chinese company is embellished with the words of Seneca: We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.
I came to Buddhism because of pain, a woman once said to me. I remember this because I feel the same way.
I have a fever for a week and barely
leave my bed. I think it’s just my lupus flaring up but can’t be sure. During
this time I watch a scene in Jonas Mekas’ Sleepless
Nights Stories over and over.
His film is shot from the hand-held
subjective, foregrounding the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary. Which of
course isn’t ordinary at all as soon as it’s over.
The scene I have on repeat sees Jonas recounting a moment in childhood. He’s in the woods, lying on the ground looking up at trees and sky, contemplating the green – very fragile … leaves … spring… I was part of it – the trees – the greenness – something very real very fresh very fragile – sensual … how can I return to it … be – again … it’s impossible… that was the greatest, the most beautiful … moment … of my life…
I have my own green sanctuaries in memory.
remember how our bowls and baskets overflowed in the Finnish summer – the
abundant forest kept giving and giving.
how in adolescent autumns I’d gather the apples in Somerset fields, take them
up the road to the farm for a pressing, return some months later with empty
bottles in hand, fill them with cider – strong scrumpy, mystical, somehow
medicinal, like mead.
Or how on a farm picking fruit one September I’d stoop for the apples and pears and each day awake to a fresh falling of sweet flesh from the trees – these scattered seeds – I carried them in my arms like children.
There is no sweetness like that of when the sickness lifts.
I hear that for the first time in
years the water is clear in Venice and you can see the fish swimming.
In my week of fever I begin compiling a list of Venetian fish – those tempting narratives of nature returning.
A writer I know in South London looked out her window one morning to a surprising view.
Even the mountains have returned to London.
I try to write something true and
find that I can’t.
The most truthful I can be is in admitting I don’t know what this means.
Carrie Foulkes is an artist and writer based in London. Her interests lie in the meeting places of artistic practice, spirituality and ecology. She is currently participating in the Radical Resilience programme at St Ethelburga’s.