Friday 17 April 2020

The Cloud of Unknowing - Reflections on the time of COVID-19

On 23rd March, just 4 short weeks ago, the UK went into official lockdown as part of a nationwide response to controlling the spread of the Covid-19 virus. To mark this first month where life as we knew it changed beyond recognition, we were moved to write a very personal response through one of our semi-regular Emergence blogposts:

Machynlleth in lockdown
Fern: The new Emergence website launched on February 1st  2020, a new vision for Emergence offering nature-based rites of passage, art projects and facilitation, all ready for early Spring and our fledgling ‘2020 Vision Festival’. Our offerings of ‘Space for Change’, ‘Summer Vision Fast’ and the ‘Bardsey Autumn Equinox Retreat’ were out in the world, ready and waiting to be filled. We spent time designing beautiful, eye-catching publicity, getting the word out, talking to potential participants and advising those already signed up on their next steps.

Five years ago, I had a kind of five-year plan, a dream of what I wanted to seed as an artist committed to ‘the art of living’. Since that time, I’ve been working steadily and emergently towards a sense of what I might want to be offering in 2020. For me, 2020 was to be the year for a new vision, for bold action and for ‘stepping into my work in the world’. My work as an artist, my work with Emergence. It was all meant finally to be falling into place…

We were looking forward with excitement and some trepidation to a busy and intense March, working with the Scottish and Welsh Governments as part of Margaret Wheatley’s team to offer ‘Warriors for the Human Spirit’, a residential retreat programme for self-appointed ‘change agents’ and leaders working in the public sector. One week was planned for Perth, Scotland and one week for Nant Gwrytheyrn in North Wales. Hot on the heels after finishing these, the final day of March was to be spent with those working in the Welsh environmental sector and Natural Resources Wales helping to develop a ‘community of practice’ to support ‘across the sector collaboration’.

Helen Williams, Simoon Fransen, Meg Wheatley with Phil & Fern in Perth, Scotland
On 1st March, St David’s Day, we travelled to Perth in Scotland ready to meet the team and begin our contribution in support of Meg’s training programme. Phil spoke about the BBC Television documentary he wrote: ‘8 Days: To the Moon & Back’, looking at NASA’s Apollo program through the lens of ‘Warriorship for the Human Spirit’. I brought into the room two decades’ experience of theatre activities and shared the story of alchemical transformation in the Birth of Taliesin within the context of the Celtic tradition and the indigenous wisdom of Britain. We were looking at leadership on this retreat through a completely different lens. The invitation to our participants was to join with one another to help create ‘islands of sanity’ within uncertain and potentially overwhelming times.

Fern - centre left in the purple dress - teaches on the Warriors for the Human Spirit program in Perth

As our week together progressed, Covid-19 increasingly entered our awareness. One of the team was from the Netherlands, one of the earliest epicentres of the virus. She was concerned about her family, one of whom had developed Corona-like symptoms. Attendees on our retreat were increasingly having intense work and family conversations in between learning how to ‘let go of outcome’, and ‘take nothing personally’. Each individual was being encouraged to ‘take their seat’ as a warrior for the human spirit, doing ‘what they can, with what they have, where they are’. For some, this was within the Scottish health service, for some, education, conservation, others planning and policing. It was a bold vision to be working with this group on this material. It felt radical and timely.

By Friday morning, participants were readying to leave and return to a world entirely different from the one they left when they arrived in Perth just five days earlier. Within the next two weeks throughout the UK we saw food queues and panic buying, social distancing measures put in place, infection rates increasing, the death toll beginning to mount up, an NHS stretched to the limit, schools closed, calls for a universal living wage, and a complete lockdown in place.

The Warriors for the Human Spirit training didn’t even get off the starting block in Wales. Meg returned to the US and the program was postponed until some uncertain date in the now vague and distant future. Our workshop with the Natural Resources Wales folk did happen online along with pretty much every other conference, meeting and Pilates class. The word ‘Zoom’ suddenly began to take its place as one of the most frequently uttered since the superhero comics of the 1970’s.

April 1st came and went with a gamut of surreal ‘Fools Day’ Covid-19 offerings, online videos and celebrations. Activity for half the population ramped up with a transfer to online working, living, shopping and socialising. Activity for the other half dropped away in a matter of days to a trickle and then an absence. Emergence’s grand vision for 2020 fell away in the process…

My own Craniosacral Therapy Practice at my clinic in Machynlleth, mid Wales halted a month ago. No social proximity meant no practice, let alone hands on contact with the client’s body which holds the power and potential to transform and heal of Craniosacral work. No television writing work for Phil. Nothing currently being commissioned. Suddenly there is no point in advertising nature-based rites of passage, although there is much talk on social media about this pandemic, being a kind of ‘global rite of passage’. The momentum of activity, making stuff happen, visions, potential – everything comes to a dead stop…

As I write this, we’re in an April heatwave with empty roads. Easter has come and gone. Good Friday - the dying, Easter Sunday - the Resurrection. Easter Monday and beyond, school holidays are all happening without happening...

View from Cader Idris on the last day before lockdown

A key practice at the heart of the Warriors for the Human Spirit training is to become intimately familiar with one’s own mind. To become an observer and chronicler of one’s own thoughts and patterns so that one might be able to loosen the mind’s grip on the ‘self’ and simply be, not reacting but present. The idea being that this might enable one to better serve others and the times we live in by being a calm ‘island of sanity’ for others…

When the coronavirus hit and the lockdowns began, both Fern and I responded in a very similar way. Our initial reaction was that we should do something, anything… We talked of offering Way of Council sessions online, we talked of online retreats, spaces to meet, supportive practices to bring people together… and then, individually and together, we pulled back from that energy and we… stopped…

This is not to denigrate or devalue the amazing work that so many are doing right now to support and help each other across the literal distances between us. This is simply to share what happened to us and how we are reacting.

Wile E Coyote realising he's made a huge mistake...

That forward momentum, that energy to ‘do’, to ‘help’, to continue, to make ‘normal’ at all costs, was so strong and compelling that, like Wile E Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, we very nearly ran straight off a cliff without realising that there is, in fact, no ground beneath our feet… But for some reason we pulled back at the last second and found ourselves standing on the edge of that cliff, our toes dangling into the cavernous space of the new reality, wondering what we should do…

Personally, I found myself collapsing inwards, falling into a very familiar pattern of dark and dangerous thoughts. My work had gone, my purpose had gone, my value as a human being had gone. I’m not a frontline worker in the NHS or the caring professions. I’m a storyteller, a maker of meaning. And, in this new reality, I find myself utterly reluctant to make any meaning at all. It feels too early… too raw… too disrespectful… to somehow leap to what this all means and where we might be going. Not yet, at least. If this truly is a rite of passage for mankind then, like all such rituals, it requires an enormous letting go of old ways and a stepping into a space of deep uncertainty without any clue where it all might lead. I can’t speak for anyone else but I know that is the space I’m currently living in.

So, after our grand plans ground to a halt and we screeched to a halt on the edge of the cliff, we found ourselves asking – what now? If we truly are in this liminal, threshold space, then how do we best live our days? How do we best serve? In short – what do we do?

The veg beds take shape...
Fern: The weather has been kind. We have a garden. We live surrounded by fields and hills on the outskirts of Machynlleth. The local community has been amazing. We now have a WhatsApp group in our local village. In our little community at home, we have spent time digging, pulling out the weeds, raking out the stones, preparing the ground. Like many lucky enough to have access to outdoor space, we have been planting and tending. We have dug a big vegetable bed, we have created a fruit bed, we have even made a rock garden with all the stones we have heaved out of the earth in the process of tilling the soil. There feels something good about this. Pulling out the weeds, hands in the earth, planting seeds, watering them; pulling out the weeds, hands in the earth, planting seeds, watering them…There is much birdlife in the garden. The primroses are in full bloom. The leaves of the foxgloves are getting fatter ready for anchoring the great pink wands of May.

Primroses in bloom
I am reading a 14th Century Gnostic text called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ written anonymously during the time of The Black Death and the Hundred Years War. I was drawn to the title and felt it prescient for the times. In it the author writes about what he calls the ‘Actives’ and the ‘Contemplatives’...

“Actives, Actives! Be as busy as you can…But don’t interfere with my contemplatives. You don’t know what is happening to them. Leave them to their ‘sitting’ and ‘resting’…”

The author seems to be implying that something important is going on beneath the surface with those who do not or who are not necessarily able to be outwardly active. If you can carry on your work and livelihood online, fine. If you are called to the front-line to serve, I thank you. If you are minding and looking after the needs of those in your care, this is important work. And if you are called to, or are able to do ‘nothing’, then this too is important work which needs doing on behalf of all of us during these times. Watch, witness, plan nothing, be with uncertainty, welcome the Cloud of Unknowing.

I have been meditating on what it means to have a productive day in these times. We are advised by many psychologists to put structures in place to support mental health and well-being. I also feel it is important to honour the broken shards of a life which had or held meaning. If we are in a rite of passage, this is the Severance not the Incorporation. If we are in a Descent Myth, we are in the dark.

I do not know what will happen with my ‘2020 Vision’. I anticipated that this would be a successful and productive year for Emergence of being in service at these transitional times. I imagined that ‘Space for Change’ would be sold-out with a small group of participants having a ‘transformative experience’; our ‘Summer Vision Fast’ would be likewise full to capacity; the ‘Autumn Equinox Retreat’ on Bardsey Island would be filling up nicely. None of this is happening. I am instead, simply with my ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. I tell myself: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’ even if this just means slowing down, contemplating and digging up the roots with your hands…

Spring lambs in mid-Wales
Phil: And so we go on, learning to become ever more comfortable with uncertainty. Trusting that, as each day unfolds, we will do what we can, we will be available to what is needed of us, and we will be present to each other. Before all this happened, I had mused to Fern about how a populous living ever more of its life online needs to learn how to be together again. After weeks, or potentially months, of forced social distancing, that need will be even more acute. And if, as seems likely, Covid-19 will be a part of all our lives going forwards and that repeated outbreaks will call for repeated lockdowns, then our ability to do what humans are defined by – being together – will become a rare and precious skill and ever more vital and necessary.

At this moment, we don’t know what we will be offering in the future. We don’t know what it will look like. And we don’t yet know who it will be for. It feels vitally important to us to wait and to listen for what is needed before offering what we think might serve. If this truly is a rite of passage, then we are being forced to pass through the ‘threshold’, in which every molecule of our beings is dismantled and put back together in a new, unfamiliar way. We will need to learn to do many things afresh. We will need to learn to do many things we’ve never done before and never imagined we would.
The uncertain road to the future...
Truly embracing the uncertainty of this time, for us, means letting go of everything we dreamed of doing and being, and opening ourselves to whatever might come next. It’s painful. It’s sad. And yet… isn’t it life? Isn’t this what life is? Change? Constant and unceasing change?

So. We’re still here. We’re still committed to our ‘2020 Vision’. And we’re still open to offering spaces for people to come together. We know that one day we will be together again. We look forward to seeing you there.

Keep safe. Be well. Stay connected.

Fern & Phil 

A new day dawns