In the northern hemisphere, December means winter. In Nottingham, where I am now, nights are long. Sunrise will come after eight, today, sunset, before four. This is truly the depth of winter. The world seems submerged at this time of year. Humans don’t hibernate, but like other animals, we slow down, stay indoors, eat plenty to keep warm. Turn on the fairy lights; tell stories.
This is a bleak midwinter. Two years on, Covid-19 still haunts cafés and classrooms, care homes and hospitals. Some of us have been hibernating for a long time, unequally vulnerable. Others, unevenly responsible, protest against the public health measures that our governments impose and then relax. Few of them enjoy wholehearted support: too many dubious decisions, communicated badly, after years of divisive politicking. In the UK, as many as a third of the governing party are expected to vote against their own side today. Meanwhile, hospitals have been told to discharge everyone they can to prepare for the ‘tsunami’ of the latest variant. And this is the rich North, with abundant health services and vaccines.
Behind this crisis lurk others, more threatening and more difficult. War and famine, always, and the undeniable prospect of catastrophic climate change. The young, inheritors of a wounded and destabilised planet, are naturally frightened, and angry. We made the mistake of talking about saving the whale, or the planet, when in reality it’s human life that is at risk.
In my small part of the world, where people make community art that speaks to shared needs and hopes, wounds and joys, there is exhaustion. At the best of times, this field is stony. Working conditions are poor, demands high and security rare. Few here want the wealth and glory found in other parts of the art world, but the pandemic has made freelance life unbearably precarious for many.
These were my thoughts at four o’clock this morning. Unsurprisingly, they kept me awake, but my purpose in sharing them here is not to do the same for you. Each one of us knows only too well the griefs and anxieties that stalk our minds in these hard times. We know what we have lost, and what we fear losing still. I’m always wary of straying into personal space in these blog posts, preferring to keep to the practice of which I have some knowledge. But there are times when it is necessary to abandon the formalities and defences with which I usually express myself. This bleak midwinter certainly feels like one.
For much of my working life, I resisted the suggestion that I could legitimately think of my own needs. It seemed to me that the lives of others, especially those I wanted to work with, were far more difficult than mine, so my problems were not important. (My retrograde English schooling has its part to answer for, too.) I was wrong in almost every way. There is no hierarchy of suffering: it is all bad and must be overcome. In imagining human relations like that, I also fell into the trap of seeing myself, however unconsciously, as somehow different from those with whom I work, despite my repeated insistence that human equality is the foundation of all my thinking. We all suffer, we all want to be happy. And, though it took me a long time to realise it, and I still struggle to act on the knowledge, anything I can do for anyone depends on my being well enough to do it.
During the Vietnam war, the zen master Thich Nhat Hanh responded to the cataclysm engulfing his country by combining social service with monastic practice in what he called Engaged Buddhism. In one of his books, he writes:
Every worker in a peace or service community, no matter how urgent [their] work, has the right to [a day of mindfulness], for without it we will lose ourselves quickly in a life full of worry and action, and our responses will become increasingly useless.Thich Nhat Hanh, 1976, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Ebury Publishing, pp. 27-28
So, in this bleak midwinter, despite the darkness and the circling wolves—or rather, because of them—I will try to take some time. I will try to stop a little, to see where I am and pay attention to the miraculous world. I will try to rest, and be a little kinder to myself. I will try to do that because, if I don’t, I won’t be much help in meeting the tasks to come. We all need rest and recovery; now is a good time to find it.