9th July 2020
Image Copyright: Sam Cannon
What does it mean to stop? For the last six weeks, I’ve been holding a story space (Zoomwise) for people to reflect on their experiences of this Now. One of the stories we’ve been wrapping and unwrapping is the story of the stop. Now, as governments across the world, advisably or inadvisably as you may think it, begin to start things up again, I wanted to share with you some of our conversation. What has it meant to stop? Let me start with a fairy tale for, as Sabrina Orah Markhas recently reminded us, fairy tales are key for making sense of this vitally new, vitally horrendous, transforming and transmogrifying world. Before lockdown began, I and a group of friends were working with the story of Sleeping Beauty. We are in a Storytelling Choir, which means that we spend months diving deeply into a story before recreating it into a shared performance. But with Sleeping Beauty, we were paused already, before we were paused by corona virus. We had reached a strange stopping point in which we were struggling to hold a conversation with the tale. The impossible point, I think, was the fact that, in most of the older versions of Sleeping Beauty, the heroine is not wakened by a kiss, but is raped in her sleep and left pregnant. She gives birth in her sleep and is wakened by her child. In a number of stories from across Europe, she then rides out to find the one who raped her, rescues him from the ignominy he has been cast into by his treacherous brothers, and marries him. Whichever way you look at it, this is a story that mis-tells. It treats rape as an insignificant plot point of romantic narrative and assumes that if you are stilled and unable to defend yourself, you are fair game as the object of convenience and want. There are ways to work with this story, now, despite the incomprehensibility of its centre. Many ways. You can look to the versions (a few) in which this doesn’t happen. You can allow the trauma to be truly spoken and the rage to come through, interrogating the love story aspect and the happy ending. Or you can change the tale, as the Grimms and Perrault did, to make it more suitable for civilized ears and feminist times. But none of these were working for us. None of these seemed to hear what the story was saying. The way we left it, when we decided that the Storytelling Choir was one of the social activities that had no desire to be translated into Zoom, was that each of us would experiment with retelling – to ourselves, and to each other when we next met – Sleeping Beauty in a framework outside of Western patriarchy. For it was beginning to seem to us that Sleeping Beauty had a mythic energy to her that couldn’t be understood or comprehended at all when told within the framework in which we and our culture are embedded. Something else and something older was needed. My prompt for my own response came when discussing Sleeping Beauty with my online fairy tale class. I’d been talking about the power of sleep within the story. Many people find the tale problematic even before you dive into the deeds of its history, for the way it assigns activity and passivity so blinkeredly, the princess as “epitome of passivity” (Midori Snyder), awaiting her awakening by the valiant prince. But for me, the story is a space that invites us to unpack the very concept of activity / passivity, and to stay with the question of why, when, what for and how she sleeps. There is an old Irish versionwhere Sleeping Beauty is a golden queen in a golden tower, who sleeps, guarding the flaming well of Tuber Tintye, companioned by thousands of beasts of the earth and sea. A Scottish versionwhere she sleeps in a cottage, within which are magical objects of plenty and abundance. Often she guards golden apples of healing. There is an utterly joyful contemporary novel by Robin McKinley, Spindle’s End, in which the Sleeping Beauty character has the capacity to speak to animals, and, when sleep falls across the kingdom on her twenty-first birthday, she and her animal friends travel to the dreamlike kingdom in which the evil fairy resides, and take her tower down. For me, McKinley’s lighthearted novel holds a key to Sleeping Beauty, for it shows a young woman saving the sleeping kingdom by her connection to the wild. It tells a story of a girl capacitated by a birthright which keeps her always on the edge of dreaming, who learns from that dreaming to speak with more-than-human, and by doing so, has the strength, resources and power to travel in the dreaming world to where the inflated evil resides, and take it down. It tells a story, very simply, of a girl who saves the world while asleep. In doing so, it both echoes outwards, to spirit-journeys performed by tribal healers for the health of community, and resonates inwards, unpacking the tedious and tortuous, value-loaded Western binaries of passive / active, stillness / movement, sleep / wake. Anyway, I was rambling about this on Zoom one day, when what arose in the space was a conversation around how we no longer know how to recognize vulnerable power as power. If you are in a state in which you need protection, such as sleep, then you are seen neither as powerful nor as significant. How can you be powerful, if you can’t defend yourself? And why, says the subtext, do you then matter?
And I found myself inviting the double aspect into us, both the one who can rest, sleep and dream for the world and the one who stands and guards that dreaming, and as I did so I wondered: what if this were the myth outside of patriarchy? A story where the role of the prince is not to violate the princess while she is sleeping, but to stand guard as protector of that sleep. Perhaps the child she then bears would be not the child of his seed but the child of her dreams, so that in one way, she is mother-father and he is companion, and in another she is seed-bearer and he is the womb, egg, casket of deep creation. This is a story which might be both social, but also psychological, in that we need, more than ever, princes who guard the world-changing stillness, both within us and without us.
Why do I speak about this now? Because we have been stopped. Many of us. Not all. But many of us have been stopped and stoppered, closed up in our houses, shrunken in our worlds. If we have children, we have been hectic and frayed. Perhaps we have been frayed by work, or the incomprehensible, ridiculous combination of work and children, in the same space. Or perhaps, somewhere in that, we have been spacious. But whichever way, something in the speed and motion of us has paused. There’s a poem by Margaret Atwood, "Faster", in which she describes the evolution of human speed-making. “Walking was not fast enough,” it begins, “so we ran.” Later, “Driving was not fast enough, so we flew. / Flying isn’t fast enough, not fast enough for us.” And then: “But a human soul can only go as fast / as a man can walk.” And so “where are all the souls? Left behind.” Well, we’re not flying anymore. We haven’t really been driving. Has something deep and solo been trying to catch up?
But what if you have had no stop? If, for example, you are one of those infinite heroes whose positions and places have taken you into the fray? What has it meant, what does it mean, to be fighting at the very edge of this mutating breathlessness? And what if you have been doing so with inadequate arms, and without armour? We’ve been thinking of the prince that is in that, the warrior-healer, holding the edge of life-death, guarding the trance, blockading, with your own body, as much of the isolate-terror as can be blocked, so that those in this fever-dream have attendance where they can. And wondering about your outrageous lack of arms and if the reason for this is that we have utterly forgotten that this caretaking of the sleeping fragile is the act that holds the whole world in its arms.
Whichever place you stand, there is a pause in humanity, today. Are we dreaming? The world has never been like this. We’ve all been alive our different distances, but we’ve never had a fear that spread across the skies and into our lungs quite like this, and most of us have never experienced a time when the skies were as living and lucid as they are now. We’ve never known a change in pitch quite like this, when feathered ones speak with clarity and joyful volume, no longer haunted by the noise of condensed hunger that outrages the sky with its metallic tubes.
So we’ve been asking: what difference does the volume control have?
In Jean Liedloff’s anthropological study The Continuum Concept, she describes the sense of Tightness, an “all-there quality”, that can be experienced when one realizes, viscerally, that one is in the world. In the Western world, it happens perhaps one or twice a lifetime, an instantaneous moment when a butterfly lands on your shoulder or you stand before a waterfall and feel it both out and inside.
For the Ye’kuana tribe of the South American jungle with whom Liedloff lived, this fluid connectivity is the very texture of life, not fleeting but unending. As she describes, their lives are embedded in and conversant with their environment in a way that ours have not been for a very long time. But does it also make a difference, we wonder, that the noise of the world is also, just, right there? Is one of the reasons we in the Western world are enshrined in funnel webs of confusion that we have such a muted relationship with the diversity of the living world?
My sister Laura has written a book about her experiences in the Bolivian jungle, currently in publication. At first overwhelmed by the multiplicity of the jungle, terrified by the spiders the size of dinner plates, repulsed by the rats and monkeys sharing living space, she gradually, slowly, experiences the shrouded cloak of alien fall away, not from the world but from herself, so that proximity becomes an invitation to reality, and reality becomes a flame of honest unencumbered life, the intensity of which she has never known.
Most of us will never go to the jungle. We will never experience the volume of real, multiple life at that level. But as a society we have also experienced, in the past month, a turning of the volume control. “Right now”, as David Abram wrote recently, “the earthly community of life—the more-than-human collective—is getting a chance to catch its breath without the weight of our incessant industry on its chest.” And so we hear, if we have the chance to listen, “tuning our ears and our skin to the discourse of multiple other-than-human beings: each redwing blackbird or storm cloud or naked chunk of sandstone.” ("In the Ground of Our Unknowing", Emergence Magazine).
Can a sudden drenching in the proximity of Others change our minds and soul, take off the rubber human skin, as my sister puts it, and allow us to walk in reality again? What does this moment – the pause, as Neil Gaiman puts it, between the in-breath and the out-breath – do? And is it a pause? It may be a human pause. But in our group we talk about rabbits in leporine crowds on the grassy roadside, trees bird-louder than we have capacity to remember. I walked past a bush on which a blackbird was singing, and he didn’t fly away, he just carried on his song, not to me, but neither not not to me. I was allowed to be part of the web of the moment in the way that humans, for as long as we can remember surrounded by the interference of our ravenous haste, have not been allowed to be.
Is it possible that now – maybe only for a moment more, as our inane hecticity goes back to rolling its Sisyphus stone – we can hear a different volume, a volume that, like Cinderella’s ball dress, is less an addition than a reveal of things as they really are? We have been stoppered, stilled, arrested and enrested, and while we have been, people across the world have described an enhanced intensity of dreaming. And so, like Sleeping Beauty, I wonder what it is we are dreaming. And what it is for?
It’s very hard to believe that this matters. I’m sitting here at my computer looking out at nettles and red campion of my springing garden and struggling to believe that this article matters. For another thing that has been rising for us in Telling Now is how hard it is to take that stand, standing immobile and loyal beside the paused one within us, when we know that outside of us, in other towers, in other stone prisons, there are people who need our swords. How do we strike a balance, if there is a balance to be struck, between allowing ourselves life-rest, and fighting for that right for every single body across our poisoned shores?
I saw on Twitter, when I was having a less than sacred pause, a thread about what Jane Austen characters would do in times of coronavirus. The heroes, like Mr Knightley, foster the socio-economic system of their community. The anti-heroes, like Mrs Bennet, steal antiseptic wipes from their neighbours in the process of checking up. I wanted to be like Mr Knightley. I joined the volunteer groups. But, in the end, my caring, as my breath, has stayed localized – to my three year old son, both exhilarated by unexpected parental presence and wounded by the sudden shrinkage of his human world to two adults. To my sister and my mother. My aunt in the next town. The caregiving that’s happened to me has been a blessing, a sprouting, a rising of local, guarded and sanctified by the prisoners of pause – I’ve been making teas from hawthorn, nettle, bramble, sage, mint and thyme. I’ve been gathering cleavers (good for the lymphatic system). Making bone broth soups and stews. Gathering elderflowers and hawthorn blossom. I’ve been learning what I have not had time to learn and meeting green ones I haven’t yet had time to meet.
All of these – apart from occasional midnight gleanings – have been done with the enthusiastic participation of my three year old. My body is utterly grateful for this new system of attention which weaves the webs of my wild garden into a spacious, caring possibility. But as we turn on the news again, the prince looks to me and says – how can I keep on standing by your stillness?
And I say to him, wait. Wait and see this strange unrising, while you are doing what you silently can. For the truth is, it isn’t just that we’re now needed. It’s also that our society has brought us up to believe that our stillness is not needed. Pause, rest, stillness, sleep are concepts our patriarchal and consumerist system has maimed. They are like prisoners of war, released after torture as shadows of their former self. If we speak them, they need a crutch, and apology or a justification. This may have been the first time in living memory that the world has been, simultaneously and in its near-entirety, struck by plague. It may have been the first time in memory that some people in polluted cities have seen such clear starlight. And it’s also been the first time that most of us have been told that the best thing we can do for the world is stop. Distracted by trying to negotiate a worldwide pandemic, capitalism’s leaders have opened the doors for these prisoners of pause, and asked them to be useful. And, as these pausing impulses come hesitantly out of their space of shame and silence, I wonder what would happen if we, instead of enduring them until we can consign them back to their prisons, opened our doors wide and invited them in?
It’s hard to find the right space for them. But we need to. Because urgency is spiralling out of control. As we are sleeping, forests elsewhere are ravaged, and worlds will continue burning. Is it possible that we cannot wake up to this unless we start to stand guard over our dreaming?
As the world swings between panic and blame, fear and fury, as many of us reel from a change to the proximity of mortality and we grieve for our sundered physicality, let us ring in this pause, long and loud. The pause that has been, and the pause that still is. Without it, we have little hope.