I have two grandchildren whose future I fear for – grieve for. So much grief. No wonder things sometimes feel as if they are crumbling!
It’s hard for me to write anything about 2019 without the memories being suffused in grief. The year started with the death of someone who I cared for, who was far too young to die and far too good, and ended with another tragic loss of a young person I had worked with for a number of years in my work as a counsellor. The stories of these two young women are not mine to tell; suffice to say that their families’ suffering is great, and has and is being held with enormous courage and dignity. Nevertheless, these are both people I miss, and their lives and deaths affected me deeply.
This bit of my story began the year before, when my own Mum died, and the years before that when she was ill with Alzheimers. It was her time (possibly well past…), and there was as much relief as tragedy in her death, though it started a year of decline for my Dad who had held himself in the tight habit of loving her, all through the years of her illness, and even (perhaps, especially) when she didn’t know him anymore. He’s OK now, as the year has seen him settle into a new home and sense of belonging – a move triggered by a crisis of grieving, ageing and loss of agency.
Grief didn’t hit me when Mum died, but crept up on me and, when the first of these untimely deaths came in January, I found myself sliding, until early summer when the feeling had become a kind of crumbling. It felt to me as if death was something I needed to face up to, and that doing this was a calling. For a psychotherapist, death (or fear of death) is always somewhere in the field, so I felt I owed to myself and those I worked with to face it more cleanly.
I’m used to working with what emerges in me; it’s part of my vocation, I guess, the responsibility I take on for my own healing and development – for me and for those I work with. And I’m aware that for all of us who choose to do it, this work of deep wellbeing – done honestly – provides a foundation for a good life and for effective activism (whatever that word means for each of us). However, like most people, I sometimes fail in this work, or forget it or let it fall away for a while – and while this is OK and is part of the pattern, it’s important, I think, to check in and make a pledge of renewal from time to time.
The other thing that has been creeping up for much longer has been the climate emergency. For me, like many others, the emotional fallout from this crisis has dominated the year, as XR and Greta Thunberg have forced the issue into plain sight, where it will increasingly be into the future. There is a layer of deep grief in this too, of course, which has been explicitly part of my life and activism for ten years (around the time the Dark Mountain Project started) and, more subconsciously, for many years before.
And I have two grandchildren whose future I fear for – grieve for. So much grief. No wonder things sometimes feel as if they are crumbling!
I’m aware that these personal feelings are part of a wider ‘field’ of grief and despair in our culture that won’t be healed by political incrementalism. And the only ‘revolutions’ that seem to be available at the moment are reactionary ones, responding with snarling fear and ‘othering’ projections to a liberal agenda that has – in the eyes of many – failed to deliver its promises of respect, equality and freedom.
I have been pessimistic for the future of our public life for some time, irrespective of the now dampened hope that arose briefly for some people around Jeremy Corbyn's project, and unless there can be a deepening of our psychological and spiritual culture, I don’t see things getting better.
If I am to be hopeful, then I see this spiritual and psychological work as mattering most if we are to restore our resilience and face what we will be forced to face with courage, love and compassion. As I’ve said before, it is the artists, writers and imagineers who will be telling the new stories through which this can come to pass – and my work with a host of seriously talented and creative people through Unpsychology Magazine – the periodical I edit with Julia Macintosh – has given me hope, and restores my faith in the best of humanity.
On a personal level, this year has also reminded me what I need for my healing. Facing grief has been one strand – and Stephen Jenkinson’s work in particular has been helpful to me in this. He fundamentally challenges the way we face death and connects this with the wider state of things. Attending one of his Nights of Grief and Mystery, way out west in the sleepy Pembrokeshire town of Fishguard was one of the strangest and wonderful evenings I’ve had this year!
At the base level, re-setting my foundational practices (yoga, breathwork, meditation, running) has been another strand of my deep wellbeing – with a challenge to me to hold on to the realism and self compassion required to live this life. And then there is that other layer that holds my creativity (the poetic image) and trying to keep this vibrant and emergent through my writing (which is sometimes a difficult thing!). And, holding all this together, my relationships and connections, close in and further out, that sustain me and remind me that love is at the. heart of all this.
For 2020, I imagine and hope that there might be a further encapsulation of all this. In my work, I am turning from individual psychotherapy, and towards more developmental work and teaching through my Deep Wellbeing and Soulmaking work (embedded firmly in the context of the climate emergency and the wider crises in our public life that we face) as well as continuing to engage with the Climate Psychology Alliance, where there is a community of psychologists and therapist working support and educate people in these troubled times. And I hope there will be more writing and editing to keep the creative juices flowing.
Last but not least, I discovered Campfire Convention this past year – and this was an unexpected joy. Through it, I have found the kind of connections I hadn’t experienced since the days of the Dark Mountain Uncivilisation gatherings (which sadly ended in 2013, though the books are going strong). We all need places we feel we belong, and it can be difficult to hold a flame for social, psychological and ecological shift in a culture that seems increasingly polarised and cynical. Thanks to all the Trailblazers, Firestarters and holders of the Flame for your love and support!
My 2019 Highlights:
Best gigs: Nights of Grief and Mystery: Stephen Jenkinson and Gregory Hoskins at Theatre Gwaun, Fishguard; William the Conqueror at the RAFA Club St Davids and Kate Tempest at the O2 Academy in Oxford. For the experience (and a lot of wandering around Cardiff) Elton John at Cardiff City Stadium was a once in a lifetime evening.
Best music: The Book of Traps and Lessons by the immense Kate Tempest; We're The Ones by the amazing Leeds outfit, Fold; Bleeding on the Soundtrack by Cornish band, William the Conqueror; Nick Cave’s haunting Ghosteen, Assume Form by James Blake and Cinematic Orchestra's To Believe. The playlist from Unpsychology Magazine’s issue 5, the Earthsong edition is also well worth a listen, and I kept coming back to old favourites like Jill Scott, Karine Polwart, The Unthanks and Underworld.
Best books: Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson; His Dark Materials trilogy (again) and the Book of Dust parts 1 & 2 by Philip Pullman; No Time to Spare, Ursula LeGuin's final book of short essays; Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta; How Long 'til Black Future Month? by the amazing N. K. Jemisin, the love-infused beauty of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous and poetry-wise: Love Makes a Mess of Dying, the beautiful first book of poetry by Greg Gilbert and Carrie Fountain’s. soulful and poignant Instant Winner.
Best weekends: the two Campfire Convention Trailblazers events at the Selgars Mill and, for my healing, The Big Retreat in Pembrokeshire where I did lots of yoga, pilates, breathwork and crying. Oh, and a couple of hotel breaks with my granddaughters.
Best TV: I don’t watch much but have really enjoyed His Dark Materials in the BBC, and the Marvellous Mrs Maisel on Amazon Prime. And Liverpool FC winning the Champions League, Super Cup and World Club Cup…