After a year full of bushcraft and on my second anniversary of being delightfully unmediated, I can definitely confirm:
Last week I posted a list of the books I read in 2013. Doesn’t it look wonderful on my website, next to the one I did in 2012? But I think that might be the problem…
Here are 3 really bad reasons for reading 50 books in one year:
- It’s an achievement that might be seen by others as impressive or admirable
- It looks nice on my website, gives it shape and continuity
- It makes me look like I’m actually doing something worthwhile with my time
3 ways to steal the enjoyment of reading and replace it with some anxiety-driven goal. A vanity project to help me approve of myself a bit more perhaps? My little exam result, my little qualification – aren’t I doing well! See – I’m not just slacking.
I caught myself over the course of the year counting how many books I had read so far, and seeing whether I was “on target” – maybe I need to speed up? Only 40 pages left in this one!
I found myself less and less able to quietly enjoy the books, and allow the messages and feelings to ooze slowly and imperceptibly into me. Several times I felt bad for not having read my book much that week. When something feels burdensome rather than liberating then it’s a flashing sign to stop and see if something beautiful is being made ugly.
Last year was great. I thought ‘Hey – I’ve read loads of cool books this year, why don’t I make some notes on them?’ Then I found to my surprise that I had read 50. As I remember it, the idea for a pre-Christmas book list was a spontaneous thing, partly due to a curiosity about what is involved in Amazon Associates (two people bought something and I made 14p).
But after seeing how nice my “2012 Book List” looked, it seems I decided to steal the magic out of it and aim to do another one for 2013 for those 3 bad reasons. I employed excellent methods for evaporating magic: measure it, monitor it and have a clever reason for doing it.
This book experience was at times a good exercise in how to ignore the valuable insights I thought I had been lucky enough to stumble across.
It’s not like I need a goal to motivate me to read lots of books. I love reading books, I’ll do it whatever happens. And what is the point in reading 50 books anyway? There are always more books to be read (maybe I could read 55??). The goal itself is utterly meaningless, as if the treasure lies in the act of reading, that a book will work magic for me if I simply gobble it up, another notch on the bookshelf. It spoils all the meaningful stuff that happens when I read something in small parts, like a sacred text, to be treated carefully and with the greatest respect.
There seems to be this underlying urge to look a bit clever. A common disease suffered by many people, especially those with websites. Or those who passed through formal education. Occasionally I see the cost of this.
It’s interesting to see it happen under my nose, but I won’t be too hard on myself about it. In fact, I’m already looking forward in 2014 to reading again for the sake of reading. Maybe after I’ve done that, I might feel like making a nice list.
Another year passes by, with another delicious pile of books.
Here is my 2013 book list (CLICK HERE), and snippets of what each of them gave me.
(Here also is my 2012 book list).
Ever get the feeling that we have totally run out of Stuff we actually need?
Businesses are selling every product imaginable. And recently I have noticed how many zillions of “workshops” there are now to attend, for any issue that a product purchase can’t solve. Perhaps we don’t really need things like this any more, but we have to keep inventing businesses and workshops, because our way of living requires us to make money, so we have to try our best to create needs and persuade others to spend their money on us. It’s like some big black hole of unnecessary money and needs that feeds itself until it collapses. And its gravitational pull can suck away all of my freedom if I’m not careful. How do I resist?
What saddens me is that this system forces the monetisation of things that just never should be. The word ‘monetise’ to me implies trying to drag something into the economic system that wouldn’t naturally be there. This process involves the outsourcing of everything imaginable until I am a mechanical unit, unemcumbered by the distractions of living, and able to focus purely on my own exhausting work of trying to monetise things.
I have the desire to “do good”, and I also realise I need to make a living somehow, unless someone quickly invents utopia. The holy grail is often portrayed as the combination of the two. The idea vexes me though.
I often hear grail-questers (including me) mournfully observe that “there’s no money to be made in good causes.” Rather than that being a problem, I am increasingly seeing it as a Golden Rule. What good will it do to chuck Good Causes into the black hole? In my culture, monetising good work seems to involve “scaling” it so as to be worthwhile, vomiting out endless marketing white noise to outshout others and make the news, and building an organisation around it to do all these things, which detracts from the very Good that is sought to be Done.
Monetising actually devalues things… there’s another delicious paradox.
And it’s not just the poor thing being monetised that suffers, it’s everything connected to it.
- Small acts for neighbours have been devalued, often in favour of saving anonymous lives on the other side of the world instead. It’s clean and crisp, and avoids the messy responsibility that comes with being directly involved in real people’s lives (but hang on, how am I linked to that anonymous person’s poverty, I wonder…)
- For many years, housewives’ unpaid house-work has been devalued in favour of husbands pursuing their valuable careers. I have been a housewife quite a lot in the past couple of years and would resent being told that it is of little worth. I have been told that it is self-indulgent to not do paid work, but from my housewife point of view, nothing seems more self-indulgent that pursuing an all-consuming career to pay for things that aren’t needed, leaving someone else at home to pick up the pieces behind me
Mixing “good work” with making a living might actually be the crafty black hole talking, which wants to expand to occupy the whole space in the form of careers and economies, and workshops. Would it result in something beautiful, to ask the devil and the saint in me to collaborate? Perhaps as well as being undesirable by turning sacred things into cash, heaping everything together might simply be too much to expect.
Why not split them? Participate sparingly in the black hole to earn enough money for what’s needed, and leave the rest of the time for house-work, self-work and good-work, unburdened by the distortion of economics.
Sounds simple, but in order to sufficiently resist the all-consuming pull, I must face two big questions:
- What do I actually need?
- Who am I actually doing Good Work for?
If my needs are endless, and if I’m working from a place that’s really All About Me, then I must take up permanent residence in the vacuum of the hole.
Or I can think again, and start valuing other things above paid work, and act accordingly. This might let me approach life like Art – chaotic, unmeasured, surprising and free, rather than Business – structured, analysed, controlled and fretted about.
Ultimately, I strongly suspect ‘work’ lacks the magic to actually address the things that really matter, so it seems important to resist its destructive monetising force field.
The misty mornings of autumn have revealed the sheer number of spider webs thickly covering bushes and trees like decorations. How can so many millions of creatures be capable of such works of art? Where does that knowledge come from? You don’t see web-spinning workshops, or even apprentice spiders watching clumsily from the edge of grown ups’ webs; they just know. It must be in their bones, or at least their exoskeleton.
Elsewhere, a few weeks ago I was at the Deen City Farm Harvest Festival. A friend had asked me to run a whittling stall. Not to sell wonky spoons, just to extol the delights of going into the forest, cutting down sticks and carving them into shapes. Sometimes I just stood and ate cake, but quite a few people came along to talk, especially tennagers. What struck me was the number of people who said “I’d love to do that but I never could, I’m not creative”.
I know how they feel; I used to say the same thing only 2 years ago. How easy it seems to be to lose touch with our own innate creativity. Are we so intelligent that we have reasoned ourselves out it?
Spiders don’t seem to psych themselves out of webspinning. So my only response was inspired by what the average spider would suggest: ‘pick up a stick and try’. One “uncreative” girl was delighted with the mushroom she promptly produced (also highly seasonal).
She was equally proud of the bleeding wound she gave herself. My hobby involves sharp instruments, but all creative pursuits involve risk. Creativity is a primal thing, and I have repeatedly noticed how primal experiences are recoiled from in the modern way of life. The invisible magical creative force that makes a spider a channel for a web, or a girl a channel for a wooden mushroom, is for some reason considered scary. Perhaps the medieval peasant in us thinks we’ll be burned at the stake for witchcraft. Or maybe we’re afraid to reveal something of ourselves. Or maybe we are taught to steer clear of being crap at anything.
But something tells me that spiders don’t even cock up their first web, probably because they don’t think, they just spin. Thinking gets in the way. Creativity surely is not a brainteaser, its source is more instinctual, like any other magical force. And in small, unremarkable acts of creativity I discover buried parts of myself - parts that, when given some daylight, make my heart sing.
The nice thing at the whittling event is that it only took the most minor piece of encouragement for a couple of those young people to get out of their heads and have a go. No-one’s life was changed that day I suspect. But the fact that only a tiny coax was necessary made me wonder how absent such sideways nudges must be in the narrow alleyways of modern industrial life. I know for sure that my experience of mechanical offices, where rational results rule and messy instinct is avoided, fed my belief that I wasn’t creative.
Sometimes my sophisticated brain can put me at such a disadvantage to those clever spiders, who haven’t had their magic educated out of them or been outwitted by their own creativity.
Is it truly possible to be a “changemaker”? Or are they incompatible words that should not be stuck together like that?
Sometimes, something happens that makes the world change. This might be an invention – say the camera or the atom bomb or the internet, an idea or concept - perhaps numbers or farming, a tumultuous event like the French Revolution, or an individual event – perhaps like the desperate Tunisian who set himself on fire 3 years ago, or Martin Luther King’s speech. Or it might be on a smaller scale: a village near me is still reeling delightedly from a visit by John F Kennedy in 1963, a few months before his death. Life there has never been the same somehow.
Some people are very concerned about the direction (and speed) the Western way of life is hurtling, me included. Out there now are armies of changemakers, from the highly organised to the chaotic, seeking to influence this trajectory. It is very healthy, I think, to have voices like that out there.
I must admit that I have indulged myself in imaginative fantasies of being a changemaker. Not in any tangible way, mostly in the same way that I like to pretend it’s me performing when I listen to Jay-Z. But even the fanciful crusades I have in my own head carry a touch of caution.
As far as I can tell, in none of the examples above did a person originally think “I’m going to change the world / nation / town with this”. I suspect that if they had, I wouldn’t be talking about them now, as the vital ingredient would have been absent. No matter how openminded I try to force myself be, I hate being actively influenced by someone (especially salespeople, but sometimes also changemakers). Such experiences feel a bit like my view is being conditioned, like a bunny in a behaviour experiment (except bunnies are immune to shame). However, when I come across someone immersed in something fabulous, quietly but with vision, I delight in being influenced by it, and it could quite possibly change my view or my life somehow.
Just as I am unlikely to knock Jay-Z off his perch, most changemakers won’t fulfill their wild dreams; the nature of things is typically that the timing is not right or the idea is all wrong to capture many imaginations. That’s OK, as long as that person isn’t staking her happiness on its success.
The “changemakers” I really like are the people who are doing important things without really realising it, when their outward efforts inadvertently bring subtle or unexpected positive change, normally because they love something. Perhaps cultural change does not start from a changemaker on the fringe and work its way in, but springs up right under our feet, seemingly disconnected from its unwitting catalyst.
So that just goes to reinforce for me that it’s wonderful for people to feel free to do their thing, as long as magic and chaos is equally free to slowly and uncontrollably pick and choose whether any of it makes any change.
I am certain the world needs lots people operating on the edgy fringe, but perhaps the true contribution of a changemakers might be slightly different than they think. (That’s not a paradox, for me it’s just how magic works).
A mystery of wild nature discovered but not entirely solved… So here I am walking through Ashdown Forest, deserted from a human point of view, but teeming from all other perspectives. I’m walking through the waist-high forest of bracken under a canopy of beech and oak. Not going anywhere particularly, just kind of following this track.
Is it a track? It’s not on the map; I’m in the middle of nowhere. But it definitely looks like a footpath.
Maybe my tiny mind is telling me that only humans can make tracks, and I’m forgetting that there’s lots and lots of life in the forest that I don’t notice, as I crash through the undergrowth. Fallow deer, fox, rabbit, badger all live here and have feet and weight that can flatten flowers and leaf mould to make paths. But they’re so light-footed, and why would they be as interested as me in cutting through from here to there?
It has occurred to me to stop and look properly at the ground. Now I see that it is absolutely wriggling with life… Wood ants! Enoromous things with big black arses. Billions of little feet – I can hear the rustle and clatter if I stop and listen. Can ants make a trail by themselves, rather than lumbering humans or hippos? Surely not.
Ten steps further and there it is. A mountainous ants’ nest, as high as the bracken. Worker ants, flying ants, bouncer ants, and a big queen in there somewhere. Sticks, pine needles, leaves and bright green caterpillars all being dragged inside to build extensions and feed the babies.
If they can build a castle, they can definitely build a highway. I doubted but now I believe. It was a different type of engineer who made this after all.
Wake up, Chris! There is much more to the world than meets your muffled senses. There are a million other mysteries that will never be explained (thank goodness). Open your eyes, sure. But open your ears, flare your nostrils, touch what you find, and if you find it beautiful, give it a lick.
Nature will most likely lick back.
_ _ _
Nature experiences are very important for children of all ages, I think. To raise awareness of the urgent issue of the lack of them these days, a film – Project Wild Thing – has been made. It is super. It draws on this event I found myself at last year, as well as other antics by the film crew, and it will be showing at these cinemas around the UK at the end of October. Watch and support!
My culture is full of contradiction. Paradoxes have been swallowed so thoroughly that they now unquestionably make sense. Meanwhile, routes to happiness and wellbeing are presented as impossible paradoxes.
But occasionally these mythical routes don’t seem that confusing to me. Sometimes, when the real contradictions are finally acknowledged they can be undone, and what’s left seems remarkably aligned.
Some examples of the many contradictions I have readily lived with in the past:
- I must be genuine, but I must also fit in at all costs
- I am so anxious to strive for happiness, I can’t ever touch it
- The more I focus my efforts on the future wellbeing, the less I can enjoy the present moment where pleasure actually resides
- The more I desire to BECOME something, the less I am likely to ever BE anything
- The more security I get, the more I need
- The busier I get, the more there is to do and the less I feel I get done
- The more I attempt to protect myself and my loved ones from things I fear, the more isolated and anxious I become, and the less capable we all are to face them
- I can work 60 hour weeks to give my children the best start in life I can, and in doing so deprive them of the best thing I can possibly give them
- The more I drink, smoke or guzzle chocolate to make myself feel good, the more it fills me with illness
When I look at this list I see some clear features. Firstly, they are all about CONTROL: the struggle to bend the world to my will. Secondly, they are all about MORE: there is never enough. Thirdly, they are all about SEPARATION: the world is made up of ‘this’ and ‘that’, and more of ‘this’ means more or less of ‘that’.
That is what our culture is all about: the meddlesome quest to assert human will over nature and each other, the anxiety of scarcity and never enough, the relentless drive to grow as people and organisations and nations and species at the expense of the competition. It should be no surprise that, in a culture that lacks any sense, I learn to swallow the contradictions and see them as simple facts of life.
In this lamentable position, the standard answer is obvious and universal: TRY HARDER!
This futile conflict is a dehumanising and accelerating spiral which sucks the magic out of life and the land, making ourselves, our race and our planet glossy but very brittle, busy but increasingly empty. It fuels itself dangerously – much like I imagine happening in a nuclear reactor, only there is the important difference that the colliding particles in our culture are each endowed with choice, whether they know it (or like it) or not.
So I have found that maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, when choice is acknowledged. This is a very encouraging thought.
Here are some things I feel lucky enough to have experienced in brief flashes:
- Embracing uncertainty and insecurity brings me clarity and hope
- Love and pain co-exist. Accepting one lets in the other. Seeking to eliminate one eliminates the other, leaving me with numbness
- Doing something for love, and not for any functional reason, infuses it with deep meaningfulness
- Spending time in nature, in the more-than-human world, brings me closer to my human-ness
- Seeking to experience peace in myself and in everyday, ordinary things is my primary and most effective contribution to world peace
In a culture of isolation and scarcity, each of these examples can appear to be a paradox. Through that lens, where everything is adversarial, how can love and pain, human and non-human, me and them, ever be seen as part of the same thing? When contradictions are seen as normality, it makes twisted sense to see things that go naturally together as contradictory. Our culture seems to occupy a parallel universe, parallel to another place occupied by happiness, peace and reality, to our great detriment and suffering.
These experiences, rather than from trying harder, arise from letting go. There is little trace of letting go in my surrounding culture at the moment, so I must first look inside to nurture an alternative culture, along with other comrades interested in a similar thing. As I continue watching myself at work every day in my contradictions, the brief flashes become a little brighter. The fool who persists in his folly becomes wise?
So that’s it – I’m going to try really hard to let go.
I often mistake an internalised cultural voice for my own voice. In many ways we live in a free society where the code is that, within what’s legal, every individual has the right to do whatever he or she wants. It’s a liberating concept that gets vigorously defended.
But what I have noticed is that freedom only tends to exist within the boundaries of the cultural fences, so it’s a very limited version of freedom. What happens when someone questions the prevailing authority (usually in the form of that cultural voice)? The person who is supposed to be free to do what they want is suddenly disobedient.
“What gives you the right to be different? What makes you so special?” I have heard this said very often… where does it stem from?
Freedom and submission are mental states. Submission is when I put an outside authority ahead of my own. It seems to me that much of my upbringing was centred around this. “Manners” applied to a very wide range of meanings. Respect for authority is the first thing that school made me learn, mostly in the nicest and most well-intentioned way (otherwise it wouldn’t happen). It continued from school into the office hierarchy. After repeated instances of obeying someone else’s authority, I began to forget my own authority. Obeying orders, whether explicit (“do this”) or implicit (“I ought to do this”), which run against my (barely recognised) values, is modern day slavery in full effect.
For me it has happened more than I like to admit:
- Giving weekends and evenings over to work at the expense of my family or friends
- Not sticking up for a vulnerable person for fear of rocking the boat
- Letting other people’s judgments determine my level of self-esteem
- Respecting conventional wisdom above my own intuition
But cultural obedience is also disobedience – disobedience towards my own inner authority.
I used to see disobedience as defiance, a negative act, born of dickishness or dissatisfaction. Now I see it as the opposite. It can be the noblest of acts, the source of human-ness and creativity (assuming that I’m not actually just trying to be a dick).
Given the lack of obvious alternatives, it is easy to follow a widely accepted authority; I can’t be criticised. When the act of obeying a personal source of authority is taken as disobedience rather than authenticity, then personal authority will tend to get ignored very quickly, since we have a deep-seated fear of straying from the tribe. But the modern day results of this are devastating: the concept of responsibility can become limited to simply obeying the law, making it feel OK to do lots of legal, harmful stuff. Individual essence drains, leaving people emptier.
I don’t admire the moral champion so much any more. I am more interested in the people who disobey with dignity.