Nearly a year since the first post on this blog. This time last year I was winding up a short-term job in Telford and jolting my easy heart with high voltage anticipation: Yukon midnight sun…wilderness roaming off the Dempster Dirtroad…sagebrush canyon yomping in British Columbian Sun Country…backcombing the beaches of Gabriola Island…becoming awakened by the silence of the Northern Rockies…being with friends from Vancouver to Whitehorse…and promises, promises, promises – the galore of the road.
No re-cap on the partial version of subsequent events meted out in these Maintenantman posts. Read ’em and leap.
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I do want to keep up a post per month, for many reasons (including the great interactions by email and comment). The two month gap this time reflects the fact that I am not writing at all, no development on the projects in hand, no pushing of the novel manuscript, no poems worthy of the name. I have been here before with a full-time job that absorbs the hours, the creative energy and the psycho-emotional attention span.
However, I have achieved certain things and it is not quite the same as in previous attempts to unicycle a balance between professional work and writing. I may be wobbling crazily in the saddle, but this time I do believe I am staying on the damn bike. I wonder if they accept unicyclists in the Tour de France? Now that really would make ‘King of the Mountains’ a title to be proud of! Loving the luminously lurid lycra too…
In particular, Monkey Puzzle Meadow is inspirational as well as draining. The realities of operational difficulties and hostile external circumstances have conspired to make January and February tough months. But the profoundly fulfilling and energising aspects still prevail. The stories that the guests embody, and the brief but intense chapters that are added in the house via the chemistry with the staff, are simply life-affirming. And I mean life-affirming in ways that go beyond the hollowed out, Disney grinning, New Age comfort zone gloss that the concept has acquired.
Most guests at Monkey Puzzle Meadow affirm life by choosing not to take their own. Many move on from extreme crisis in ways that show learning and insight and passion for simply continuing to be. Some need more time and more support. A few are so damaged that only strong chemicals and hospitals can help.
Recovery is as recovery does. The theme is summed up in the previous post on this site: whether we prefer equilateral, isosceles or scalene, we inhabit that unique triangle between our thoughts, our feelings and our actions. Maybe the point closest to the centre of our individual triangle is the safest, the most recovered, the most balanced between the three extremes. “Qui sas, qui sas?” as Nat King Cole sang, as brilliantly utilised on the soundtrack of In the Mood for Love (a great Wong Kar Wei film about what happens when two triangles attempt to overlap…).
One of the actions that Monkey Puzzle Meadow guests perform is the completion of an evaluation form before they leave. The responses are always thoughtful and interesting and occasionally thrilling in their creativity and humanity. Sometimes these documents contain the well of inspiration that gives the wherewithal to douse the stresses and frustrations. Recently we had a young would-be animation artist amongst the guests: her evaluation was covered in exuberant sketches; in the ‘any other comments’ box she had written – “Before I came to Monkey Puzzle Meadow I had not been able to draw for 6 months…’nuff said!”
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So what do I miss about the alternative (north-west chunk of the American continent) way of being that has flickered into my life at various points in recent years?
It would take more than the average length of one of these posts to answer that question. Some of the many points would come under the heading of ‘the experience of wild, spacious nature whilst alone’. If you live in a city, or live in a small, densely populated country like Britain, you know intellectually that your world is conditioned by the close proximity of teeming humanity. But you do not know it in your gut, in your heart, in your senses, until you experience the opposite. You can get a very diluted version of that hard-to-name opposite in little corners of your life (mostly called “holidays” or “vacations”) but the supreme intoxicant about Yukon / BC / Alaska for me is the sustained experience of wild, spacious nature whilst alone.
You might think that the ‘alone’ bit is optional. I also love being amongst mountains, lakes, forests, rivers, wild fauna and flora whilst with friends or lovers or acquaintances or strangers. But there is something extra, something both troubling and soothing, about spending time out there alone. Meeting fear head-on and dealing with it, not letting it dismay you and flood you is part of it. There is also the sheer primal ‘awakeness’ of taking in and appreciating everything around you with all five senses, and with your brain and with your heart. Learning to be alone in certain situations is learning to be fully alive.
I have never fully understood what is meant by the term “feeling lonely” or “loneliness”, but perhaps the learning that comes from appreciating solitude includes lasering “loneliness” out of one’s consciousness. John Vaillant, in The Tiger, quotes a Siberian poet called Solkin: “The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation…a human being is a very social creature, and 90% of what we do is done only because other people are ‘watching’. Alone, with no witnesses, I start to learn about myself – who am I really? You have to have something, some force, which allows and helps you to survive without witnesses. Once you have achieved this, you have absolute confidence in yourself, and there is nothing that can seriously damage you afterwards”.
I do not mind his use of the word “terrifying” in the first sentence. The existence of danger makes small events and intuitions precious. Danger enhances awareness, it gives every moment significance.
So here’s to the danger of some of the things I love: the risk of getting lost; the consequences of sustaining an injury in a very remote place; the sounds and the unexplained shadows in the night beyond the friendly fire; the bears; the chanting of the wolves and the coyotes; the dicey river crossings; the possibility of falling asleep when life is so much more fun awake!
And, to demonstrate either my holistic being or my sheer contrariness, I also miss my Friends on Gabriola, in Vancouver, Ashcroft, Whitehorse and elsewhere. Oh yes, and the way that you can get a great mug of coffee even in the most out-of-the-way communities!
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One strange aspect of being around Monkey Puzzle Meadow is the renewed exposure to television. The tv in the lounge area is usually on in the evenings, even if guests are having 1-to-1 talks with a staff member in another room, or playing board games or whatever. There is also a tv in the staff sleep-in room.
I haven’t had a tv for 5 years. I am occasionally aware that I may have missed something interesting, but this recent, limited re-exposure has made me realise that I am very happy to live without television. There is something alienating about the way the whole package is presented, the narrow range of what is expressed and what is seen as acceptable, including routine humiliation and cruelty. The news seems to be about 5% reporting and 95% emotive commentary. Drama and documentary, comedy and sport – it all gets processed and homogenised and fed out in shiny fast-food morsels. And it is relentless, remorseless, ever available to lull and to anaesthetise. A machine to sanitise desire and control envy.
It’s also amazing how much of what we don’t want simply enters our consciousness without us even making the effort to watch tv or engage with the media or communications machinery in any direct way. The airwaves are throbbing with signals and beams and tsunami waves from and to mobile phones, radios, televisions, consoles, computers, satellites, relay towers, i-this-and-thats, trains and boats and planes. I swear that some of this gets in unbidden and unwelcomed! How else can anyone explain the fact that give or take an obvious face-mask or two, the cast of Coronation Street and the front benches of Parliament are just as familiar to me as they were 5 years ago??
Up to less than 200 years ago the only hidden traffic that human beings had to cope with were the occasional electro-magnetic pulses sent out from distant life forms on planets in the far reaches of the ever-expanding universe. I’m with The Ramones on this one, “We want the airwaves” – and we want them de-toxed!
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Some random proverbs arising from Monkey Puzzle Meadow thus far (for further discussion and testing):
*A sense of humour, especially if it includes the ability to laugh at yourself, is a dividing line between good and bad mental health.
*When women are in psycho-emotional crisis they still seem able to attend to personal hygiene. This is not always the case for the male gender.
*Some people who are mentally unwell will still be functional enough to use their condition to manipulate people around them. This is not a judgemental observation. Such manipulation is learned survival behaviour.
*When you enter certain rooms and certain beds as a child, you never really leave them.
* Society’s fear and denial about mental health problems are often embodied by the close family of the sufferer.
* Big healing steps can be made on a path to recovery without knowing why illness occurred.
*Being ‘unwell’ can easily become a fixed identity, with much to lose by leaving it behind.
*Beware claptrap about being negative or pessimistic about things. Sometimes the world really does shit on you. Pretending it’s not shit makes you an idiot not an optimist. So you are in crisis. The question is, what are you going to do about it?
*Nicotine is probably about 58th on the list of medication that can help you right now, though it might pass the time in small, regular, redundant chunks.
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I Crawl, You Caw
Rib me, rag raven, razor eyed
black laser dyed
on hard ash flint.
Mock my white knuckle rock-face stance
show off your prance,
spring-heeled crag hop
dance on stone-crop.
Pointedly, your jet-thatched coal beak
labels me weak.
Take flight! Swoop! Soar!
Crow in my craw!
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Miss the northern BC and Yukon ravens…but there are some fine ones here too.