The pandemic over the last few months has forced many of us apart and located more and more of the work we do at home, working remotely, often on screens. One of the writers I work with wrote to me in the early days of lockdown, talking about how universities were transitioning to online teaching and how the students’ glee at not having to come to classes soon turned to puzzlement and frustration. How exactly do you learn theatre and performance in an online tutorial or from a book? Acting is bodily, reacting to the gestures and finest nuances of body language. And many other disciplines have some element of bodily involvement.
Yet while the virus has kept us apart, it also put many families (or parts of them) in closer, more sustained proximity. Households have been isolated in their nuclear groups for long periods. And the virus itself also demonstrated how physical we are. These tiny packets of RNA that rely on the host for replication, impressed on us how vital our bodies are; how interdependent we all are down to the shared air we breathe and everything we touch and leave a trace on.
Moving new stories from heart to hand to world
To tell a new story in which we all thrive together or perish together — trees, plants, oceans, deserts, races, communities, families, selves … — requires that we stop thinking we are disembodied brains; that we stop thinking in dualistic categories that oppose the rational to the physical; that we stop thinking that we can divide the world into ‘nature’ and ‘not nature’.
The Asora tribe of Papua New Guinea have a saying:
Knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the muscle.
Writers need to take this to heart and to gut.
I write this as someone prone to being all too cerebral and sedentary, but it wasn’t always so. As a child I made stories from the material of lived experience, by being in the midst of others and paying attention. As a child of not yet four I once wandered into a church because I heard organ music so powerful that it vibrated through my body and I stayed there, mesmerised not only by sound but by light and colour streaming through a stained glass window.
As a young adult, mothering was an intensely visceral experience — from holding and breastfeeding to bathing and reading books snuggled together, books full of some of the most beautiful art work as well as gorgeous sound patterns. Feeding, combing hair, going for walks, making dough, playing, painting, singing, lighting candles.
And in ministry I was constantly mindful of the interplay between liturgy and the physicality of every ritual and life passage. These rituals took human stories and imbued them with meaning, hope and connectivity. From the symbolism of sharing bread and wine to the baptismal waters signifying another kind of birth. From lighting candles as an act of remembrance for those we’ve loved to anointing the dying.
Whether this is our tradition or not, we all know of stories, from folklore, myth, religion or families, that are made more potent by the physical rituals that surround them. Clarisa Pinkola Estes puts it like this:
The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers. Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.
Muscles and mind atrophy together.
The creature who writes
Traditionally, this time of year in the northern hemisphere is the early harvest, known as Lammas; a time for gathering the abundance. The work we have done, the story we have lived, the planting and nurturing, begin to come to fruition.
This is as true in what we write as it is of the food we plant and harvest. We bring our whole selves to our writing. Whether we are writing poetry in another persona, a story set a thousand years ago, or an article about beetles, we are in there. Who we are and how and what we write are of a piece.
Thinking about harvest, about how things come to fruition, we know that it requires a combination of consistency (keeping promises to ourselves and others, giving attention and nurture to what we love and value); embodied attention to the world in which we are embedded, and letting our imagination soar. This is how we nurture our inner life with our physcial experience and vice versa. This is how we reach out in empathy to enhance the connections. We are not disembodied brains making up stories, but creatures who write to bear witness and provoke transformation.
When we write on paper, brain to hand to material, this process is perhaps most obvious, but however we write, moving new stories of hope from heart to hand to world demands that we involve all of our senses.
Does it increase connection?
Before coronavirus was part of my vocabulary, the intention I set at New Year was to focus more on being rather than doing. Specifically, being bodiful, attentive, slow, more nourished and nourishing of others, living from abundance, not scarcity, living with gratitude, vitality and generosity. The thread drawing this together, I decided, would be to constantly ask this question of all my actions: Does it increase connection?
In one sense, this is an artificial question because the truth is that we are all so intimately connected that dualisms, fragmentation, talking about being ‘self-made’ or ‘self-sufficient’ are delusions. Yet we also know that we live in a world where myth changes how we experience life. The myth of more, more, more… can make us feel poor when we have plenty. The myth of dualism can make us feel alone, fragmented and in search of someone or something else to blame. The myths of being self-made and/or self-sufficient can make us feel like individuals standing against all of nature and context.
But the question was not there to change reality, but to change perspective. And changing perspective can be a huge act of transformation and healing.
We are all connected: to flesh and matter, to ritual and daily rhythms; to passion, energy, food and earth; to kin and kith; to spirit, heart, mind, story and senses; to bodies — our own and all those that inhabit ours or whose we take in through breathe, through nourishment, through existing.
‘Does it increase connection?’ is the question of how we own and live this truth.
Resisting the obsolescence of the body
In The World-Ending Fire, Wendell Berry writes about the dangers to the body inherent in modern technology and lifestyles.
For many centuries there have been people who looked upon the body, as upon the natural world, as an encumbrance to the soul, and so have hated the body, as they have hated the natural world and longed to be free of it.
We have seen a blossoming of this in social distancing and online working. Whilst such strategies have provided physical safety to some extent and were a responsible course of action in order to protect the most vulnerable, there is a danger that we will now be more likely to see isolation as a new and ‘normal’ good in itself.
But we are not machines that can sit in discrete spaces. We cannot afford to hate the stuff that we are. As Wendell Berry puts it:
The hatred of the body … is of concern to the artist because art, like sexual love, is of the body … art is of the mind and the spirit also, but it is made with the body and it appeals to the senses. To reduce or shortcut the intimacy of the body’s involvement in the making of a work of art … inevitably risks reducing the work of art and the art itself. […]
At first glance, writing may not seem nearly so much an art of the body as, say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths … we shape it with our hands … the words are immersed and steeped in the senses of the body …
Mind without body is nonsense. Life without boundless and boundaryless connection is a lie.
For Berry, this means living without computers and limiting technology of all kinds. But even for those more comofrtable with technology, his arguments for resisting the obsolesence of the body remain powerful. He adds:
But writing is of the body in yet another way. It is preeminently a walker’s art. It can be done on foot and at large. The beauty of its traditional equipment is simplicity. And cheapness.
Disembodied, disconnected life is not a higher state of being, it’s frangmentation, illusion, grief and loss. We are kin and kith with all of life. Artists of all kinds, and writers certainly, do well to embody this. If we don’t tell the stories of muscle, gut, the matrix of all life, of Matter-herself, we will accelerate the time when there will be no story to tell.
Move your stories from world to heart and gut, through spirit and mind and back to muscle, tongue and hand, as writers always have. This is what makes you and your writing part of the stream of witnesses and healers, transforming the world with a different story.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.