I’ve always tried to be honest in this blog, but for the past year I’ve been deliberately vague about some of the details of my life, for personal reasons*. It’s reached the point where a certain cognitive dissonance has crept into my writing, and left a lot of readers puzzled. I think it’s time for me to come clean. So I’ve updated the final part of my About the Author bio. Now you know. With that as context:
I sent a draft of this article to six extraordinary women, because I wanted to know if they would see its contents as an act of irresponsibility, as a betrayal, or even as the ravings of someone who’s coming unglued. Their response to me was overwhelming, as has been the response of all of you, dear readers, picking up on my “cranky” intro to my weekend links post. I am so lucky to have you in my life. I am humbled by your wisdom, your appreciation, your love for this wild and inarticulate stranger who has blathered on in these pages for precisely six years now, and I have learned so much from you. Namasté. Salute. Dayadhvam.
I feel as if I’m on a precipice. The other day I wrote a faerie story which describes this sense that, after all the changes that have happened in my life in the past three years, even greater changes lie ahead for me in 2009. Earlier this month I wrote about the desire to become light, as if (as my old friend Rayne picked up on) I was resetting, deciding whether I was “ready for the voyage”, setting my lands in order, just waiting for a sign. (For those who put faith in the wisdom of the I Ching, its counsel for me, poised on the precipice and asking if now was the time, was hexagram 14, TA YU, which would seem auspicious, a sign of sorts.)
For the last year I have been simply practicing, with no set objectives or intentions, these things:
1. exploring and discovering (people and places)
2. reflecting/imagining possibilities
7. sensing/being present
9. coaching and showing
11.building working models
In the process, and largely thanks to those I have come to love as a result of these practices (those in the Gravitational Community box in the right sidebar, and especially Cheryl and Tree), I have learned a staggering amount, about myself, about how the world really works, and about what I am intended to do and to be.
My instincts are propelling me forward, to make even more changes, to simplify my life dramatically, to become truly the space through which stuff passes:
… a part of the unfathomably complex dance of all-life-on-Earth, learning to improvise which of that passing-through stuff to touch, and which to just let go. “Ah, I know how I can make this better, or clearer, or more interesting, or more useful, or more innovative, or more fun — there!” Just being the space, and touching the right stuff in just the right way as it passes through.
I am filled with impatience, with fury, with a sense that my own fears are holding me back from this journey, from what comes next, what is meant for me. What underlies that fear is all the gunk that I have acquired over the years, gunk telling me what is the correct and incorrect way to behave, and live.
That gunk has a name: Culture. The very word, with its agri-roots, implies control, tending, keeping in line. Culture tells us what others have a right to expect of us, and what we must do to live up to those expectations. Culture tells us that the punishment for not doing these things is social ostracism — loneliness, unacceptability, unpopularity, reproachment, exclusion, abandonment, rejection and punishment. You must be obedient, says our culture, or there will be dire consequences. Without us, says our culture, you cannot survive — you will starve, freeze, wither away. You will be left alone.
It’s a compelling argument: Those of us who have studied how the world really works, and imagined better ways to live and make a living, all acknowledge that love, conversation, community, and collaboration are essential elements of the way forward, that we have to be together and work together. If our culture imprisons us, separates us, we have no hope. We have to stick together, stay within the culture, work within the system.
There is no reason, we might think, why we can’t create our own communities outside or on the edge of that culture. Yet we cannot. Our culture holds all the cards — it controls the education system, the political system, the economic system, the technologies and infrastructure. It is the author of the language whose structures and meanings wire the very neural paths of our brains from the moment we hear and speak our first words. We dare not walk away unless and until we have nothing left to lose — until the risk of trying to make a bankrupt, crumbling, crashing culture last a little longer exceeds the risk of starting all over, with nothing. And culture of course is all of us, our peers, our families, those we love, not just those with proportionally more power and influence, not just them.
And the counter-cultures lure us like sirens, telling us they are different, that if we join them we are fighting the system, when we are not. The counter-cultures are so steeped in the monolithic modern human culture that they can’t see that they are just a part of it, co-opted, inadvertent pawns that lull us into believing we have a choice, that there are alternatives, when there are none. Heath and Potter in The Rebel Sell:
Practices such as downshifting, energy conservation, eating organic produce, and engaging in local environmental activities are pretty much useless. Countercultural thinking has reduced much of the political agenda of the left to individual consumer activism. When someone mentions “environmentalism,” most people think of recycling, conserving energy, or riding a bike. Yet these sorts of strategies just promote “the exploitation of the moral by the immoral,” by making it easier for the majority of the population to keep throwing away whatever they like, leaving their air conditioner on all summer, and driving their SUVs. The only real solutions to environmental problems are ones that are compulsory for the entire population. And that necessarily requires using the power of the state to punish those who fail to comply…
Ultimately, the counterculture sees politics as a real-life version of The Matrix: it is a great winner-take-all battle between the totalizing forces of mass conformity and the revolutionary individualism of the enlightened rebels. This individualistic utopianism relies quite heavily on the idea of spontaneous harmony, which holds that social problems will all magically disappear once we achieve the necessary global transformation of consciousness…In addition to being impossible, this would be entirely unwelcome.
The answer does not lie in activism, in counter-culture, in revolution. Despite Heath and Potter’s wishful thinking, solutions “compulsory for the entire population” will only be forthcoming in a totalitarian state, and then not in the interests of that population. And certainly the answer does not lie in technology — as John Gray has argued so eloquently, every new technology creates many more problems than it solves.
The answer lies not in salvos from, or experiments on, The Edge, but beyond it, over the edge, the precipice. And, horror of horrors, we have to go over it, plunge into the abyss, alone. We have to walk away, and start over. Give up on everything we believe, everything we fear, scrape off all the gunk that is sticking to us, holding us back. Inviting those we love to walk away with us, knowing that they will probably decline, because they are still addicted to the culture, still believe that counter-culture, elections, revolutions, activism, collective consciousness, education, faith or technology will somehow work, transform the culture in time or allow some tiny new culture to survive in its nuclear shadow.
It is this cynicism about working within or against the system (it is all one and the same) that, perhaps coupled with my inherent laziness, has caused me to give up my ambitions to do the hard work so many people want me to start, to lead. Just damned well do something, they implore. When I put “building working models” on my list of things to do, my ‘intentions list’, my instincts cautioned me, told me there was something wrong. My sweet spot, they reminded me, is imagining possibilities, not realizing them. I’m a writer, a dreamer, an artist, not a builder. Like Colleen, I like to start things, but have no stamina for the shovel-work, the sweat, the waiting, the negotiating and problem-solving, the damned details. (Alas, I lack Colleen’s wonderful sense of humour about it all.)
So I’m crossing that item off the list of things I practice doing, and now the list of practices is entirely, well, impractical (or if you’re British, impracticable). So if you’re waiting for me to stop talking and do something concrete, something physical, better give up now. Other than words and ideas, my practices have no product.
So what does this mean, this walking away, this jumping off the edge, this starting over? While I’m still unsure, I think it might entail:
1. Letting go of my beliefs, my stuff, my responsibilities and obligations and expectations and all sense of control and power over people and situations.
2. Giving up on the illusion that language conveys any precise meaning, and using it instead as a purely creative and imaginative tool.
3. Being fearless. There is however a tension here between fearlessness (being free from insecurity), which is liberating, and recklessness, which can be hurtful.
4. Not belonging anywhere. This doesn’t preclude a reverence for place, but rather acknowledges I can be a part of any place that can naturally sustain me.
5. Trusting my instincts and my senses as much as my emotions and intellect, and relearning when to be guided by each. Jung love.
6. Understanding that we are all, even in crowds, even in the company of those we imagine we love and who we imagine love us, utterly alone.
7. Understanding that no one is in control.
8. Realizing that freedom to be nobody-but-myself is more important than anything else, even health. Even love.
9. Appreciating that time is chimera; it doesn’t exist. Animals live in ‘now time’, a time that stretches out forever, except in moments of stress. Time to be wild.
10. Giving up my ‘wants’, while being skeptical about my ‘free will’. Stewart and Cohen in Figments of Reality:
Living species, including humans, are emergent properties of the ‘pandemonium’ of the body’s semi-autonomous processes — We are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit i.e. we are an organism. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.
What might this ‘walking away’, this ‘starting over’ look like? Evelyn walked away, I think, a couple of years ago. Her blog was transformed from Silicon Valley marketingspeak to a nomad’s mystical, colourful explorations of meaning and declarations of wonder, and then, more recently, dwindled to a trickle. She gave away everything she owned and now travels, lightly, where her heart tells her, with no destination, no home. Cheryl walked away, last August, and is embarked on an exploration around Australia with her beloved Marlo. John Francis is an environmentalist who not only walked away, he took a vow of silence for 17 years (thanks Tree for the link).
The idea of living in a one-room cabaña or yurt in some warm rainforest (the one pictured above was where I stayed in Central Belize last year), near the beach, naked, eating local vegan food with a few nutritional supplements, blogging and writing fiction, saying nothing, and paying attention and exploring and learning about my immediate ecosystem, falling under the spell of the sensuous, really appeals to me. A footprint as small as humanly possible. Inviting people I love to come and stay as long as they like. Maybe that, instead of an intentional community, is what I should walk away to, where I should start over, and how I can be, simply, a model. And perhaps one month a year I should select and travel, by foot, around one area far from this tropical home, just to learn, to connect, to get new ideas to write about in my fiction. Sound familiar? Patti got me started thinking about this.
I don’t know. But let me know what you think anyway. Call me irresponsible. Call me lazy, romantic, nihilistic, escapist. Tell me this is not a natural life, because I’m using my savings to import a few things I can’t grow locally, or because it’s antisocial, misanthropic. I can take it. I can still be persuaded not to jump off the edge, not to do the ten things in the list above, not to start over, and instead to stay in our culture’s gravity. It’s pretty comfortable here on the ledge.
But it’s no longer such a long way down.
* Basically I didn’t want my ever-worrying father to know about the breakup, because he means the world to me, and he’s been so ill and stressed this past year I didn’t have the heart to tell him the relationship he thought was so perfect, and so good for me, is no more. Tonight I spoke with him, and he’s fine with it. Whew.