A year and a day
Solidarity dissolves uncertainty
Welcome to my first anniversary post. You’ll find today’s essay below the first section, plus a poll regarding the audio and written versions of my work. [Excuse audio background noise this week. I am assisting at a leather clothes making course and you can hear the students at work in the main room, in the background.]
Photos this week are by my friend WP except the glowing hut window photo, by me.
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A year and a day
In old tales we often hear the phrase ‘a year and a day’ to denote a magical, significant period of time, or a poetic way of saying that a year has passed by. Thirteen lunar months of twenty-eight days (13 x 28 = 364), plus one extra day is 365 days, a regular solar year. That is how long I will have been writing publicly here on Substack by Tuesday 21st November 2023. It feels far more magical to me than the bare figures signify, as over this year, my first book was published, I’ve earned over half my income from writing, and almost 3000 of you now subscribe to Uncivil Savant and regularly read my work here. I’ve been overwhelmed with the support and interest you have shown my writing. Thank you, especially to everyone who supports my work by being a paid subscriber. You are personally enabling me to work on my next book which, if all goes well, will be published in spring 2025.
I have always written. When I was at school, as well as dreadful poetry, I wrote a serialised story lasting 3 years, as I remember, mainly featuring Duran Duran, a fictionalised version of myself, (with far cooler hair and no spots) and a plot involving glamourous foreign travel and True Love. By my first year at senior school (high school), I had become a Goth, and with differently awful poetry now filling my notebooks, formed my first bedroom band with my then boyfriend and began writing what would become 600 song lyrics over the course of the next 33 years and half dozen music bands. A few published (and almost-published) short stories were followed by regular articles in Bassist Magazine and other music and T’ai Chi publications. I wish I could show you some pages from over the decades, but I lost all my archives in the fire.
Sketchbooks were usually filled with written notes and notebooks often sprouted drawings, as thinking in shapes always seemed to complement the text. But apart from a couple of essays and one dissertation, my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Painting added little to my reading, critical or poetic thinking and writing. I found the required Postmodern reading list depressing and stifling, but I dutifully worked my way through it. As I have written here before, this led to ten whole years where I neither wrote nor drew a thing. Music saved the day, the collegiate creation of sound together with others also tempered and educated me in a way the top-down institutional schools, colleges and universities of my previous 19 years never could.
I list all this here to remind myself that this storied tale began at least 40 year-and-a-days ago, not out of the blue in 2022. More recently it was propelled - exactly 6 years ago to the day - by an email to a friend who had been pestering me to get writing. I sent an email to him saying that there was now a folder on my laptop called ‘Writing’ and that I had started typing something sprawling called ‘Uncivil Savant’. That I didn’t know what it was or would become, whether essay or memoir, poetry or fiction, but that I was sure that at some point it would become clear to me. Well, I am still not sure exactly what this is, but I know where and when it is, and that’s enough for me for the time being.
Having a self-imposed Monday morning 7am deadline for a year has given a rhythm and discipline to my writing life which I am keen to continue. Moving to a fortnightly publishing schedule, with occasional or even frequent extra interludes and shorter posts will allow me space to finish Found and Ground 2 by the deadline my editor has given me. I love constraints, they make deeper creativity possible. Even self-created deadlines work. The infinite blank page, and endless allotted time, are no way for me to get anything done.
Now it’s time for me to accept that writing is a large, and growing, part of my life, fed and balanced by the physicality of my craft and teaching work.
What lies ahead?
I’ve been abroad for a month and will finally be home at the end of November. I had planned to record the final chi kung video for paying subscribers and upload them all, as well as set a date for a winter online session for anyone who’d like to go through the exercises with me so they can better practice them at home. Instead I will invite all paying subscribers to an online session, which I will record, which I think will be of more use. The early videos will remain as an archive for those who find them useful. The chi gung I have learned and still practice is very simple, and not at all specialised, and I make no claims for it other than that is has helped me stay fit, healthy and calmer than I otherwise would have been. I sincerely hope it does the same for you.
From December, paying subscribers will get occasional paid-only posts and fuller versions of some public posts as well as invitations to occasional online gatherings and discussions. Founder members also still get a small artwork from me as well as my sincere gratitude. If we get to ten founder members, I think we should have an online meet up and open discussion time. Both paying and founder subscribers can comment on all posts.
I have created a 20% off special offer that will last for the next month as I hope to tempt you into subscribing to Uncivil Savant for all the good things I have planned for the year ahead, including pieces on prayer, initiation, being a villain, and more from the dream worlds. From this week, public posts will move to a fortnightly rhythm so that I have more time to write in depth about the Way, the springs and the woods, about pilgrimage, inner and outer, and the path of connection and embodiment that brings us true sense when everything seems atomised. I’ll also be creating and sharing more original artworks and photos for the posts to give a richer visual setting for the written word.
If you’ve been reading these posts this year then I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the essays and pieces I have lined up for the coming months. I plan a few conversations and interviews, videos and more. But if you can’t afford a paid subscription yet wish to leave comments, then you can still send me your name and email address and I will comp you a year for free. Money should never be a reason to halt a conversation.
And now it’s time to stop writing about writing here.
If you’re here with me, thank you.
Below is this week’s piece.
Solidarity dissolves uncertainty
In May 2020 I was in conversation with my dear friendabout our work - both his A School Called Home and my barely describable peripatetic teaching life. Below is a crystallisation of some of what I wrote about what we discussed which seems relevant today, given the daily inhumanities we all witness both in person and via our glowing screens.
I’ve been thinking so much about security, and how people crave respite from uncertainty because they are so atomised. They outsource their uncertainty and it is suffered by others via the usual mechanisms of capitalism and colonialism we know well. Gated communities, othering, and scapegoating of low status people in all our societies, cheap, low-welfare, overseas manufacturing... Wherever I look, the main flows are not only of money or goods but also uncertainty and risk. Or rather, the experience of suffering the uncertainty. As the uncertainty remains, though occulted, and accrues, gaining interest, as does capital. They are in fact two sides of the same shell, one convex, one concave.
Trouble, like water, rolls off one side, but collects in the other.
So I am asking myself the question, or perhaps have been for a long time now: am I willing to experience my own uncertainty, risk, insecurity-of-situation, and not foist it onto others, not fortify myself against it with misuse of religion, psychological jargon, money, goods, status or other shiny accretions of certainty? To answer ‘yes’ to this, seems right now to be another way of saying I am a Wayfarer1. Or maybe just a human. 'Things change, get over it', as they say.
Yet, there is more. The Taoists of old seemed a solitary lot, or sometimes grouped together in monasteries, (but mainly because Buddhism was on the rise, and it was the way to survive as a Way in China at that time). Some of these schools succumbed to the quest for longevity, huffing and puffing with their secret energy techniques… to me just another form of resisting uncertainty. The best old writings I find are by those who maintained their practice, humour and wayfaring, whether on a mountain or at home with the family, whether serving at court or drinking wine and playing lute with a friend on a boat. Thinking one has everything sewn up in a theory of everything would be my particular hue on this spectrum of uncertainty-avoidance, but menopause has deepened the colour a little, and reminded me in no uncertain terms about shit happening, as Covid has for others. Perhaps people mistaking the map for the territory is a similar attempt at, or at root is identical with - 'not dying just yet thankyou very much'. It is a great yet not uncommon irony to find Taoists who espouse change, really hating it when it happens to us.
In T'ai Chi we have a posture called in English 'ward-off'. It is a round shape in the arms, the legs and indeed the whole body eventually. It is the shape which best seems to absorb, distribute and transfer energy, blows, pushes, weight, etc, in action, leaving the best result: no harm done. However, the Chinese word for this 'peng' (sometimes pronounced 'bung'), doesn't mean 'to ward something off' at all. This is an English term for what the colonialist British chaps who first described it saw. They saw someone keeping something at bay. Ha! That tells you everything about them (and Britain at that time) and nothing about the real qualities of peng, which are lively, soft yet firm, round, elastic, yielding, a meeting place, relaxed, responsive, subtle, and when formed masterfully - almost imperceptible as a 'shape' at all. A non-T'ai Chi person watching my Grandmaster stand in 'ward-off' would have seen an old man just standing there in no particular stance. Reminding me of a favourite Taoist Classics line: 'What is looked at and cannot be seen is called the subtle.' Of course, it is entirely possible that early Chinese T'ai Chi artists meeting westerners showed them some wooden-looking shapes just to get them to go away thinking they had stolen secrets. Who could blame them?
So, there is an upright, flexible, turning, anti-fragile, open, expanded way to be, that is helpful in dealing with change, yet not deflecting, denying or seeking to control it. This, in movement, takes many forms, T'ai Chi, butoh, parkour, certain improvisational methods, aikido, indeed many forms of natural movement... It exists in music, theatre, sport, craft, art, gardening... In the realm of words, actions, indeed living a life, there is also a way to have peng and to be yielding.
But what is not spoken of so much in the Taoist Classics, or the T'ai Chi Classics, is the aspect of community and solidarity. There is much in the Tao of interspecies care and reciprocity. There are many great stories of Taoists and creatures, trees, rocks, whole mountains, in deep conversation and dialogue. But in popular culture 'Tao' is obscured by the 'lone wanderer' veneration of Lao Tzu. It almost fits too well with the awful Atlas Shrugged crew in Silicon Valley. Well, only a fraction of Taoist writings have been translated into English, and I am only versed in a fraction of those. Still, 'the principles are few, yet the permutations are endless'.
If I seek to assume responsibility for all my own uncertainty and risk and not farm it off to others, I need to become fully aware of my circumstances, privilege and the mechanisms of the world. I need to discover and practice the inward and outward 'postures' (ways of being in the world and in the heart) that best nurture life, preserve the diversity of its flourishing, and see how utterly interconnected everything and everyone is. In contrast to the hyper-individualists and their toxic fortifications of identity and self, I suggest that humans have always known best how to mitigate risk. We know how to provide balm for uncertainty and create the rockpools and side-tributaries of relative safety so that we are not always buffeted like salmon swimming to spawn, fighting the current at all costs to do one important task.
Community. Solidarity. In families, sure, but wider, starting where we live, and where we spend our time (including online). These are the rock pools and side streams, where we can catch our breath, feed, shoal, school, rest, sleep. They are not where we can live our whole lives, as life is in the great river, and in the sea. And this life, as Helen Keller so rightly said, is an adventure, or nothing at all. The rock pool is a great analogy though, as at some point the tide will cover it again, and return all those still living to the wider sea.
I am seeing your Homeward Bound as a rock pool and am heartily looking forward to meeting the other crabs, minnows, slugs, mussels and fish. I am personally feeling quite nudibranch today.
aka, a Taoist.