Your One Wild and Precious Life

For me, the pandemic has felt at times a bit like an uninvited guest, an old acquaintance who arrives unexpectedly, someone with whom I have a long history, mixed feelings about and who I had begun to wonder if I would ever see again. The fire and brimstone lessons of my strict religious childhood prepared me on some level to expect the end of the world in my lifetime. Leaving Christianity behind in my twenties, this frightening story about the future was nonetheless recapitulated in much of the entertainment I enjoyed consuming, and eventually transferred onto my ideas and beliefs about climate change and ecological break down. After a lot of work I’ve done in more recent years to rewrite this “life script” so it didn’t have such a hold on me, by the end of 2019 I was starting to consider the idea that maybe the end of days wasn’t just around the corner after all, that maybe I could relax and enjoy life a bit more.

For this reason the pandemic, with it’s apocalyptic atmosphere at times, was not an entirely unexpected interruption of my plans for 2020 and my new year’s resolution to focus on building stronger foundations in my life. Instead what foundations I already had got a good firm shaking. In reflecting on my rich and difficult emotional life over the last four months I’m reminded of Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Thanks Rumi, but it’s easier said than done to welcome and entertain all of my unexpected emotional arrivals. It’s extremely frightening to bear witness to a global pandemic sweeping illness, insecurity and death across the planet, even for those of us who have been lucky enough to hold onto our health, our jobs and our loved ones. It gets to you, the daily repetition of waking up not knowing if today is going to be one of those days that sadness, fear or anger will violently sweep your house empty and leave you incapable of doing much more than stare into space or faced with the prospect of a Zoom meeting feeling sick with anxiety.

But in the midst of the fear and uncertainty have been the daily joys of experiencing spring and summer unfold without the usual hustle and bustle of humanity activity and industry, and I believe that these joys have been all the sweeter because I’ve sometimes succeeded to honour and to integrate the more difficult and unwelcome emotions I’ve felt.

What has also helped me is to see the experience of lockdown as a rite of passage with three distinct stages – severance, threshold and incorporation. In the first stage of a rite of passage we sever our ties to an old story. In the second stage we stand at a threshold between stories, neither in the old story or a new one. In the third stage we begin enacting a new story with the help of the deeper awareness that our time in the threshold has provided.

My time in the lockdown threshold – in the space between stories – has taught me quite a bit about myself. I self isolated alone so I have had more time to be with myself than many. One of the things I’ve learned is that there’s not as much difference between solitude (which I’ve always craved) and loneliness (which I’ve rarely felt strongly) as I thought. One of the gifts of this time is that now loneliness is a feeling that is more alive for me, more real, than it was before, and that solitude seems less romantic.

I have mostly kept myself company, in the dark times and in the joyful times, when I relaxed into the peacefulness of my lockdown world and recognised that the life I was living before was not serving the part of me that struggles with the pace and intensity of modern life. As some of my conditioning to ignore the stress caused by, say, the angry beeping of horns in rush hour traffic, the shock of a car passing my bicycle too fast and too close, or a beach teeming with people, I began to realise I’m not evolved to live in such a fast paced world as the one we left behind, and the one that so many people are now feeling a desire, compulsion or requirement to step back into.

The quiet of my lockdown life on the edge of Brighton has given me the space and time to produce a new mix. Don’t Go Back to Sleep features some of my favourite music and poetry and is inspired by the Rumi poem A Great Wagon. I have a very special relationship with this part of the poem:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Last year, during a weekend on the land where I quested in 2017, I was woken just before dawn by the faint, eerie sound of drums from somewhere down the valley and a nearby owl who called to me, “Don’t go back to sleep!” Perhaps it was the same owl who woke me at dawn on the eve of my quest two years previously with the command “Surrender!” repeated again and again. Still half asleep, I climbed out of my sleeping bag, put on my boots and went to search for the drums. They stopped and I never found them, but I didn’t go back to sleep, and in those magical hours before anyone else stirred from their sleep, I had one of the most profound encounters with the more-than-human in my life.

This might all sound very strange to some readers. Not so to Carl Jung, who said:

As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanised. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved with nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications… no voices now speak to man from stones, plants and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied.

C. G. Jung, Approaching the Unconscious

The pandemic has compelled all of us to step across a threshold into a space between stories, a time to reflect and re-evaluate what is important to us, an opportunity to ask ourselves what it is that we really want. Now that we’re out the other side, for the time being at least, there’s an incredible opportunity for all of us to look at the world in a radically different way, to stay slow and listen to the voices of owl and fox, blackbird and robin, and hear their invitation to participate in a deeper conversation with them, and with ourselves.

It’s possible now, in our own unique and individual ways, to wake the parts of ourselves that have been sleepwalking through our lives, look in the mirror and ask the beautiful and unique being we see in front of us the question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver – The Summer Day

The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.