Breathing Fire

I’ve found it hard to breathe over the last months as I, like millions of others, watched my country burn. It was not just the ash and smoke clogging my airways. No, the constriction began deep in my stomach, wound its way through my chest and crept quietly up my throat. Breathing in brokenness, day after day, bruises a heart like an avocado squashed at the bottom of a shopping bag.

What to say? Words, spoken at times like this, somehow never seem to fit. I noticed it in myself – saying dumbly hopeful things trying to make others feel better, stating unfathomable statistics illustrating unfathomable loss in the same breath as discussing what to cook for dinner. Breathing in the full enormity of the bushfires in Australia this summer is not for the faint hearted or the shallow of breath. And yet, who are we, and where are we headed, if we don’t choose to breathe in this here and now as deeply as we can, regardless of how much it grates our chest and tears at our throat?

Make no mistake, we’re right where we were always headed. We’ve been marching, even running, towards this place. This here, this now. But like all mirages, where promise sparkles and shimmers like sun on a dew-laden leaf and reality rusts like old steel in the rain, it’s not quite what we hoped for. We’re confused, we’re angry, we’re sad. We’re grieving the loss and desecration of our present and mourning a future we can no longer take for granted.

We’ve grown ourselves a world where conformity is sold tarted up as freedom; where deprivation is concealed as happiness and agency is sacrificed for convenience. A world where personal responsibility is outsourced to those whose actions cannot truly be trusted, and the associated ‘something’s not quite right’ feeling is marketed away; where thinking small and scared is encouraged by those who lead us towards destinations built in service of their own petty lusts disguised as eternity. 

Put simply, we’re here because of a dominant western worldview grounded in disconnect and delusion. There’s many people and cultures who exist outside of this framework, of course, but the loudest, and most powerful and destructive voices come from within it. It does not serve life, this worldview. I don’t know much, but I do know this.

Breathe this here, this now, in. Breathe it in and tell me it all makes sense. Breathe it in and tell me we’re on the right path. Breathe it in and tell me we haven’t become the only species on this planet, ever, to shit in its own nest and be delusional enough to think it’ll miraculously clean itself up (it’d be laughable if it weren’t so tragic). Breathe deeply into this time and tell me we are not an existential threat, to ourselves, to all. 

It’s hard to describe, with any clarity or certainty, the space in which we’re living. It’s an ending, maybe. But by that logic, it’s a beginning too. Millions of species may become extinct, including ours. Millions might not, including ours. The only thing to say with any conviction is that things are changing rapidly and dramatically and we cannot find a path through the destruction we’ve invoked with the same map that lead us here. As poet Audre Lorde suggested, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We arrived here with hate and greed and ignorance tucked under our arm, stuffed into our pockets, buried deep in our backpacks. If we’re lucky, we’ll be allowed to leave. But to do so, we’ll have to compost our delusions.

Relationship. It is this word we need to truly understand if we are to weave ourselves a new/old world.

“The land knows you, even when you are lost”, suggests scientist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer. We are lost. And in the last few months, as the climate crisis transformed from ‘something that’ll probably catch up with us in the future’ to an immediate and terrifying lived reality, I can only hope we’ve finally realised it. We’re lost and confused and scared. And we’re donating, protesting, writing letters, doing things. This is important work. But the land is calling on us to dig deeper. To give more than money, more than time. The land, our home, is calling on us to give something of ourselves. To step into the truth of our inter-connectedness, our inter-being. To be in relationship.

We know, when it comes to our human relationships, that it’s very hard to love well and with any kind of longevity if we don’t give ourselves fully to another. We are – our imperfect, scared, tender and beautiful selves – the most precious gift we can offer. As Erich Fromm writes in his seminal book, The Art of Love, we give what is alive in us – our joy, our attention, our understanding, our knowledge, our sadness. And we do this not just in order to receive. No, we do it because “giving is in itself exquisite joy”. In giving, Fromm continues, we cannot help but to bring to life something in the other person, and this light is then reflected back to us, the giver. The generous receive, always, more than the riches they offer.

We give of ourselves to those we see, those we love, those we believe are worthy. And we do this in ways that are small and iterative. We give flowers, write a note, offer a kind word, a kiss, a touch. Our relationships might be affected by politics and corporations and world views, the way a plant might be affected by a hungry insect, but they don’t grow from these places. No, they grow from a much bigger space – inside us.

We truly love by way of presence and generosity, attention and heart. It is exactly this that we’re being called to offer our land, our home, our more-than-human neighbours. It is love that needs to underpin all actions we take right now. Love and protest. Love and lifestyle change. Love and engagement with political process. And, and, and.

Note: Our western worldview will tell you it’s irrational to talk of love for trees, for rocks, for birds, for soil, for our planet. Remember, though, that this is the same worldview that prides itself on rationality whilst believing the laws of cause and effect somehow don’t apply to human action. Don’t be fooled.

Generosity

What can we offer to those who have given so much? What of the rivers who quench our thirst? What of the trees who offer us their fruit? What of the soil from which we grow? Robin Wall Kimmerer answers this question in a way only she can, in her brilliant book, Braiding Sweetgrass:

“The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defence of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath.”

To be in relationship with this world is to give praise to the trees for allowing us to breathe, to give thanks to the microbes for making the soil, and on, and on, and on. It is to listen, touch and be with all beings, sentient and other. It is to be gracious and humble, to offer gifts of action and care and words of gratitude and respect. It is not hard. In fact, it’s pure joy.

Attention

We cannot know what we do not see. We cannot love what we do not know. Blindness breeds indifference and indifference permits violence. It’s not possible to give something of ourselves to the world from a true place of relationship, without taking the time to physically see and know and understand what it is we think we love.

Conceptual ideas of an idealised ‘Nature’ are not love. They’re lust – short lived and often delusional. Good relationships are nuanced and complicated and flawed, and are grounded in knowing, and wanting to know. Not just knowing of the mind, but the deep knowing of the body and the heart. This knowing cannot grow from a computer screen or a phone. It cannot grow from an office suite in the CBD. It can only grow from physical interaction, from paying attention to the world outside our heads, our homes. Opportunities abound.

Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.  

The late poet Mary Oliver’s words say almost everything:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention,
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Imagination

Stories frame how we see the world, how we are in the world. Our own stories weave together with those of whom we love, and soon new ones grow, shaping our lives in ways we had never once imagined. This can be said of both our personal and planetary relationships. Our world turns on stories.

It’s easy to think that breaking a worldview is an impossibility, as is building a new one. But what, really, is a worldview other than a collection of stories? It’s an imagining.

A story told often enough, loudly enough, becomes gospel. And so, the task of creating new worldviews relies on the stories we choose to tell – the ways we choose to imagine our world and our future. This is no small task.

Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk suggests that the role of the artist might be to give a taste of something that could exist, “thus causing it to become imaginable.” Being imagined, she writes, is the the first stage of existence. 

“Creating stories means constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world”, she continues, writing of the role of tenderness – “the most modest form of love” – and how it informs storytelling. “Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and co-dependent on itself.”

Wendell Berry, in It all turns on Affection, similarly connects care and imagination:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place… As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighbourly, kind, and conserving economy.”

Now is a time to watch our words, watch our thoughts. What we imagine will come to pass. This is power indeed. If we tell ourselves we’re in The Apocalypse, we’ll act like it, and soon enough we’ll be there. Our world is calling us to tell love stories of tenderness, of transformation, of compassion. Of new times, not end times.

Know this: We cannot create worlds we can’t imagine.

Action

Relationships don’t just happen. Love is a conscious choice and a very definite action. It is bloody hard work. Our world is calling us to step into the true work of being human and in love and this means doing all we can to honour, protect, serve and grow.

This is not easy work. In fact, it’s heartbreaking. Many of us are grieving. We grieve because we love, and from my experience, the only salve for despair is care. I go to the trees, I talk to them, I sit with them, I apologise to them. I call those I love. I garden. I try to identify bugs and birds. I write. These are my actions of love and despair and these actions offer me a perspective I can’t access if I stay in my head.

Robin Wall Kimmerer again: “It is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”

Whilst for now, the flames have eased and the smoke has cleared, breathing hasn’t become easier. My heart is still broken. For the plants, animals, rivers, forests. And, for us. For what we’ve done to ourselves, what we’re doing to others, and the suffering we can’t seem to see beyond. We are here, still, our bags full of hate, greed, ignorance. We know love, we know connection, we know what’s true and right, and all I can do is imagine we can find the collective strength to let go of what has been so destructive, what is still so destructive, whilst we still can.

And so I write from love, with love, about love. Because my heart is in pieces and I can’t breathe and there is so much about being alive at this time that I don’t want to know and yet I have to know and the only way I can breathe it in, is not with anger, not with hate, but with love.

It doesn’t make it easier.

Somehow, though, it makes the air a little clearer.