On pine cones and belonging

IMG_0895It is like a Buddhist temple in Thailand, this pine cone, the largest of the half dozen or so (it is more like nine) that I have collected. Its outer fringes flick up to the air like the eaves and tiles of those temples. But this pine cone is dark, light on the underside of each of its plates, which are designed like chairs in a theatre, set around from each other so the person behind can see more clearly the play, whereas inside, where the seed was, which looks almost as if it is open to catch rain, to wash the seed down into the earth, it is dark, a deep brown of the tree. The true skin of this thing is on its inside.

It stands against the smaller, fatter pine cones I have collected from other trees, other places. This long one came form Wiston and the pines there, whatever breed they might be, whatever species. Do they talk to each other? It has been found that trees do—they even give moisture to each other underground, when necessary, warn of predators and fungi, they open and close according to the weather, like flowers, the teeth of this cone. It is almost like a forest in itself, this glass plate I have filled with these small remembrances of the forest, of the days that I have spent outside, walking, running, and in Wiston, talking, writing poetry. The walk around the square three times with a fellow poet, our lives brushed up against each other for a small moment. There have been times in the last few weeks where I have thought about Wiston, the poetry weekend I went on. There have been plenty of times I have thought about less pleasant things, such as feeling outside the community here in Newcastle, such as my chance or choice for decisions of where to go next, what to do, of friends leaving, of leaving friends.

The pine cone knows nothing, or at least very little, of this. But it has been dragged away from its own family, its own place, and put together with a bunch of cones that are similar but still different, not exactly of its own type, and it sits here, in the dry, warm, elegant comfort, as I have called it in another poem, penned this morning, about my cat’s breath on the window pane (see below), and it wonders where the wild life it once led has gone. It has been displaced this cone into a foreign world, not one where it is at any risk, except of stagnation, of ossification, of a lonely loyalty to others in the same condition and situation. The pine cone stands up because I have positioned it to stand. The others around it bumble up, standing or rolling over, or lying down, one of them a similar kind, from Wiston too, maybe even from the same tree, but this one is lighter, thinner, it looks like a cousin rather than a brother, kin but not nuclear, and a worse reminder for being so.

What does one know of place and where one is taken? What does one think about when one thinks about home when one has not had one’s own home, secure and permanent, for, perhaps, ever, but certainly since the age of 18? One strikes out into the world and turns a back on family and inheritance, where one came from, even though this place, that place, is what they still dream of, too often, of the people and places that they grew up with, before the constant moving around, the peripateia, in the Greek, whatever it might mean. One thinks of a pine cone, perhaps, taken from its home and kept as a memento. One given, as well, to a friend who now cuts off from me, and whom I project onto cutting off, because I no longer want to hear about her travails or efforts after she took so much of my energy from me, who talks about poetry and work and life without now talking about the energies and emotions that are the source of those things.

It is not enough, and it is not real, fakery, a little like this glass dish on which I have perched the pine cones, an object made by a duo called Juo, two women who set up glass-making together at the National Glass Centre, one of whom I fancied, a little, didn’t I?, although the need to reach out and seek transformation through relationship is not now so strong; now I just buy their art! 😉 I have a few people here, close and loved, but have not found ‘community’ with the writers here, for some reason, not that closely, I wonder why, or indeed what my definition of community is, and how impacted that is by having no real family? This is, I guess, how I am getting into the question in Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul programme: ‘when I relate to a group, community or culture, what are my patterns? How do I become active and included? How do I hold back and feel more isolated? What do I DO in response to these energies? So what do I do? What are my patterns? (And be kind to yourself here… not only the negative). As they comes: some things.

  • That for a long while (2004-2010) I expended too much energy into quite intense and destructive intimate relations often at the direct expense of the community and friendships that I was building and could have built more solidly around me.
  • That I put energy into doing things for different communities I don’t necessarily want myself (e.g. the magazine for the running club; my new social enterprise) and only in doing them do I realize much of the real reason I am doing them come not from a soulful self’s love of the thing, but for a social self’s need for belonging and recognition, and so when these things become time-consuming and difficult I get frustrated with them, and react badly, and become full of negative energy, and do the things partially well rather than excellently, and so the outcome is not good: I ostracize myself a little bit as I am seen as a frustrated, difficult person, pushing away the thing I wanted (to meet the social self’s needs) and not feeding the soul or ecological self in the process, ‘wasting’ time and energy, not focusing on the things I love.
  • That for a long time (1998-2002) I saw my ‘community’ (my work, my friends) as antagonistic to the time I needed/wanted to spend alone writing, and was so frustrated with my trajectory (advertising, commercial journalism) that I often said that I would ditch all my friends if it meant I was a famous writer. I was living in some sort of Jungian fantasy where I saw myself as the committed artist without actually having to do this work, and without understanding the value of community or group.
  • I also saw (probably still see) friendships that have faded away as a failure, rather than perhaps as something natural. Perhaps that is something to do with the tone or manner of the fading. I had the idea a while ago to do a limited-scope blog project called 15 Friends, where I was going to write the story of the friendships with 15 people who I wished I was still closer to as a catalyst for re-igniting those friendships. Why haven’t I done that? I suppose because I then thought ‘I’ll wait for my book to be finished and published, that will be the great excuse to get back in touch, and I will have some form of social recognition and achievement with which to light the sparks’… and yet that hasn’t happened yet. There is also, I guess, some sense of understanding that times do pass for people, and we do move on, and that attachments are not always forever (in fact, of course, none of them are, and there’s a fear of death wrapped up in this too, as well as a fear of rejection).*

*There is much to be learnt from the wisdom of the dying, and particularly relevant here is this:

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. “Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

So how do I hold back and feel more isolated? I certainly don’t reach out for help when I am down—or not as much as I could (although much more than I used to). I also am easily knocked back, and see things such as age and lifestyle as a barrier. I don’t feel part of the writing community here. I feel on its fringes, and I have grown a bit resentful of what I perceive happening: favouritism, being ignored. But it is more than that, I know. It is circumstance (my work elsewhere, my part-time status) and my own needs (I’d rather go running than to the poetry group) and to personality (where age and type do come into it) and of the mistakes I’ve made with people, and of the sense of transience, of loss perhaps, of things already being ruined. There: this limiting belief, that if things are not perfect they are ruined. The addiction of perfection, although I realize I am misquoting Laplanche badly.

But… there are many things that have become very good for me.

  • The amount of effort, will, love and attention I have put into individual relationships. The friendships with DS and mostly KH that I initiated and, in one case, have fought very hard for, and are now some of the most nurturing in my life. I played a game with myself over the last year or so of looking at my text messages in my phone and going through the list and assigning to each person a status of either Old Friend, New Friend or Medium Friend. I’d say a large regret, perhaps my biggest regret, in the 2000s was not moving people from New Friend into Medium Friend into Old Friend status—so many budding and warm and nurturing friendships that, because (I perceive) of my restlessness and frustration and unhappiness, faded away. So now when I see two people in the last four years become Medium-Term friends, and knowing they will soon enough become Old Friends, is a great joy to me, as well as a relief. It means some of the worst of my younger patterns don’t hold true any more.
  • The rekindling of some older friendships, with AS, AT, AH and, in the case of CC, one particularly very old friendship. What happened here? Effort and time, but also softening and acceptance, forgiveness, openness, seeking, love. The wonderful thing about friendships is the paths they open up in your life, the areas that seem to become lit up again on a map when before they were in darkness, no-go areas, that could not be explored. With the friendship open and light and unbarred, the map of one’s life becomes more interesting, wild, unanticipated.
  • The finding and nurturing of a purely social (as opposed to intimate and deep) set of friendships through a local running group. That a few hours each week while running, mostly talking about running, camaraderie in the race, chats that last no longer than ten minutes, can bring joy and community and a sense of belonging that is as important, in its own ways, as the more intimate connections I am (still, generally) always looking for. It is a lesson in sociality and in what meaning is—not, as John Gardner says, “something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life.”

So, what do I DO in response to these energies?
Ah, a table. I was wondering when the table would turn up!

Energy What I do now What I could do better
The energy of feeling left out and rejected. Sometimes feel resentful. Project out onto the group and individuals, believe that the group is not for me anyway. Feel resentful of the effort I have put in and never seem to get back (measured, for example, in invites to dinner, which is heavily stacked on my ‘giving’ ledger)

Sometimes accept that we just don’t click that well individually, view the life patterns and our ages as different, reason with myself to enjoy the interactions when they do come, but rarely seek them out actively.

Sometimes seek out interaction actively, and for the right reasons—that is, a care and interest in the person or the activity, and awareness of the social self’s needs, rather than tricking myself into thinking some other reason or benefit for the action.

Consider each moment new. Consider myself a valued part of a community. Recognise the efforts of others, and also the pain and suffering of others, and also the preferences of others, and interact with them on an honest and open basis. And be good to be with! Enjoy the thing itself and the interaction.
The energy of feeling shy and intimidated Sometimes not get involved; hold back. Do I remember that conference where the last session round table was a group of 20-something girls and I, the only bloke in my 30s, literally ran away, ashamed of my age and my interests! Ha. I laugh now, but it wasn’t a pleasant feeling at all.

Often rationalise that I cannot get involved or commit myself (it’s an excuse, yes) because I already have so much to do… in some way it’s  a very clever excuse, because it’s true, that I have a lot to do. The next question is: why do I have a lot to do that seemingly isolates me further from the things I say I love? As Derrick Jansen said on the Terrain.org blog recently, “if you’re in love, you act to defend your beloved. If your beloved is threatened and you don’t do whatever it takes to defend your beloved, then what you’re feeling isn’t love.”

Sometimes take the step to overcome this feeling by meditating, taking a step back.

Sometimes don’t feel this at all, and usually because I am doing the thing for the right reason. Going to Wiston, meeting a new group of people, didn’t feel shy at all, both because of the group and the facilitation but because I was going for the right reasons, and I wasn’t split.

Be mindful of the reasons why I do things, and of the emotions and openness and fragilities of others. See myself as a leader and giver, rather than someone who is there simply for himself.Be curious!
The energy of sadness at failed or drifting relationships Often feel they cannot be rekindled. Mainly believe they are my fault for their failing.Occasionally find courage to rekindle. See each moment as new. Think less of the past and more of the present. Meditate for that.Commit to less things in life and therefore only do the things you love which further nurture you and open you up to others.
The energy of zealous love Often (in the past) make rash decisions that while not directly about friendship and community impact heavily upon them in a very negative way. Have worked very hard not to get into these situations. Now a much more stable, kind and less fickle attitude towards intimacy and others, which allows me to consolidate energy and accumulate good feeling and good standing.

There is one other thing that I want to throw into this. That is: the world is sometimes set to make community work, but community is hard, in fact, when one has come from many broken communities and families (two broken families, is that double or squared?), and one always has the advertised and mediatized ideal of community (think: Guinness advert of beautiful people together on a softly lit New York night meeting after hard work in the great city, now down the bar, friendly faces, everyone you love, time is stopped, life is now and joyful and everyone belongs) to which to live up to, and life is not like it is advertised to us, and even when it is close, it is never the same, never enough. And when the world is precarious, and the ecological world is dying, and in those times many people close in upon themselves further, even some of my friends, who cannot see beyond their own families of the care the world desperately needs.

Community and belonging, though. They, as with all things, I suppose, come from within, from how one responds and acts in relation to the energies ones feels, where one is at home, where one is within the places and spaces that foster and support your beliefs and choices? That is, the North East of England, for example, is a terrible place to be a vegan, as compared to the North West of America. But it is not impossible, and the energies that hold me back from finding a vegan community are outlined above. Things might be harder here, but not impossible. It’s still a thorny question though, and one that plays out in the questions put to us here in the 21 Soul programme and around the Dark Mountain Project, of the ideas of unpsychology and uncivilisation—what is structural, and for what are we responsible, in our loves and lives?

Cat’s Breath

It is odd to see my cat’s breath on the window pane,
As she caws at the nesting starlings in the eaves above the house.
Before settling down, still half-calling
As if to herself, as if to her lost wildness.
Cosy on the blanket that I’ve laid out for her on the sill.

The breath that heats up the window pane
That reminds me she is a living thing. No,
I already know she is a living thing. But now I see
Her aliveness, her aching, her immutable laws,
And ours. You trapped me in elegant comfort, she sighs.


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