I don’t live in London anymore and it must have been years now since I walked past these stone fountains at Lancaster Gate. My parents' ashes are scattered among the horse chestnut trees at the water’s edge and I have come to touch base in a hard winter, when it seems my world has come to a grinding halt. Your parents can give you good reasons for being here, so long as you don’t get waylaid by happy family stories and too much psychology. My father was a lawyer but he dreamed of being a travelling writer, my mother was a secretary and a wife, but dreamed of being an artist and living in a community. I have lived out their dreams.
I can write this because when I walked down to the statue that day I saw a heron waiting on the dead poplar tree and I heard a mistle thrush singing in the undergrowth. The fishing bird that was my father and the singing bird that was my mother. It was one of those moments where the mystery of life touches you and shakes you to your core. And as I walked across the park I saw there were birds everywhere: parakeets in amongst the London planes, a bevy of swans down by the round pond being fed by children, a crow hopping warily at my feet. And underneath the sweet chestnut trees there were ghosts of wild flowers and long meadow grass that would never have been “allowed” when I was young. This was bird London, wild London. Something coming through the cracks you do not expect.
Afterwards I went to join Lucy at the South Bank for a meeting about the book we are working on called Playing for Time. We stood on Waterloo Bridge and Lucy told me how once she organised a huge pyrotechnic show on the river; how many officials behind those grey stern facades she had to negotiate with to allow this fiery theatre to take place. And then she took me to supper at a little Lebanese restaurant in Covent Garden before I caught my train home. Mezes and a glass of rose wine. I haven’t eaten a meal on white tablecloth for a long, long time. It was a big treat. It was a good day.
WellbeingI am not sure about the word wellbeing. I know about treasuring the good days. I understand destiny, living true to your solar core, aligned with the earth that gives you life. I understand honouring your mother and father, and the hard work of creators, what it takes to bring the fire through and hold it in the dark times. I understand walking out this equinox morning to greet the sun down the frosty lane with Mark. I understand about having a warrior attitude and a medicine attention, about finding your material, undertaking the hard inner work, turning the bad karma of empire and the dross of materialism into some kind gold for the future. But wellbeing as a measure of life?
Being at leisure, feeling comfortable, feeling OK about ourselves, like those well-serviced magazine women who do yoga, eat superfoods and find solace in novels? This feels like another kind of consumerism, a convenient barricading out of the hard facts, the reality that nothing we do in this industrialised culture is kind or good. Everything we touch or put in our mouths requires some other being’s suffering: from people, from forests, mountains, animals, fish, children, birds. How can you have wellbeing at the expense of others, without going into denial?
I have experienced a state of happiness, a lightness and ease with the world, which comes sometimes out of the blue, like a butterfly: floating like a starfish in the sea, lying under the goat willow on a spring day and hearing the return of the bees, countless mornings in the desert when I lived there, a morning in Venezuela when we woke up and found ourselves in a tropical seatown with the whole day in front of us, a long long road in Arizona edged with sunflowers, a long long beach in California, with sealions in the surf and sanderlings running in and out.
So many mornings full of space and light and beauty when I was on the road, when I had money in my pocket and knew nothing about peak oil.
How do you have wellbeing in Transition when the moments of white tablecloths are few and the road is no longer open, and 2013 looks unaccountably harder and colder and poorer than 2012? When it has been grey for months on a damp, crowded island, and you have been in bed for weeks? How can you live well in times of unravelling, your own unravelling and the dear earth’s on which all happiness depends?
Will you be there?Here is a moment I had in Transition: One of the most successful meetings in Transition Norwich in fact in the early days when we were setting up the Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group. It was the one and only meeting we had on wellbeing.
Among the ten people who came that evening five were working or had worked for the NHS, one was a chemist and two of us knew about medicine plants. Each of us had brought an object to introduce our medicine stories: Mark brought a horse-chestnut tincture, Richard brought a quote from The Glass Bead Game and a small volume on homoeopathy. Alex brought a daisy. He had been at a seminar in the Schumacher Institute when the deep ecologist Arne Naess, then in his eighties, had surprised everyone as he leapt through the window with a daisy in his hands. It was the medicine of vigour, Alex said.
What made this meeting vigorous and deep was the reality we brought with us. Suddenly our discussions, which had been abstract workshop encounters, full of spiritual possibility and solace, had allowed our gritty experience of the world into the room. When some of us exchanged opinions about the modern medical system, Angie, who had been a nurse on intensive care for 19 years, said quietly:
“I hope when I need to be turned some of you will be there to turn me.”
And there was a silence in the small room. As we realised what it would mean for us to take our own health, our lives, into our own hands.
We don’t live in Never-Never land. We live in a place where we are all going to die. And because all living things die on Earth, change is possible. We have physical limits and the reality of time, and against those limits and time, all our greatness and nobility is tested. As modern people we are no longer initiated into the mysteries of life, where this kind of limit has meaning, and so to get to a realisation of our true path, we need to tap into those moments that come out of nowhere. I understand this as making space to honour the ancestors – the ones who went before – our lineage and making time to greet the sun on an equinox day, to light a fire around which we can gather and listen to each other’s stories. The work of the artist and the writer is to remind the people of those moments, so we do not follow the wrong god home and miss our star. So we set our sails in the right direction. The measure we have is not our personal wellbeing, it is an alignment we hold inside us that can help put a crooked thing straight.
We are the ones who carry the fire, even when it looks as if it has gone out. We know how to bury the dead, we know where the medicine plants grow, we know the meaning of dreams, we know how to speak to the officials, so a fiery show can happen on the River Thames, we recognise the bird when it sings, the warrior when he stands by the land. We honour the people who suffer themselves to undergo change, who give their gifts and do not give up. We are in all places, in all rooms. We are in Transition. We live in the towns and cities and down the lane. We are here. We are not going anywhere. Because there is nowhere else to go. This is what we remember. This the moment that matters. Right now, right here.
(Originally written for a week looking at wellbeing on the Transition Network)
Photos: the memory of sweet violets; on the tumulus with daffodils; with Beth on the beach; guerilla garden hellebore; equinox sun.(CDC/Mark Watson)