A Container For Humanity
Suddenly, from nowhere, apparently, there is a virus and this threatens our survival as a global species. Suddenly, now, we are to be contained. I could substitute the word container for containment, or confinement, or many other words. But some words will sound more political in their effect. These neutral words, like container, are archetypal in nature, poetic in their possibility to be received non- aggressively and their ability to create a sense of unity, or wholeness. Words like these become more interesting. Last night my life flashed before my eyes in my dreams. It was a beautiful nights sleep, in which all the symbolism seemed to make sense and opened me up to what I might be missing.
The first thing I remember is a body of water. I have travelled far over land to get here to this magical place. Water is supposed to be about emotions. This water is a beautiful turquoise. Sometimes I am in it, sometimes I am above it, looking at it from different angles. It sort of cascades, but not like a waterfall, it is smooth, in the way it flows, but there are different levels. The water isn’t necessarily being contained by gravity or by the things it is moving through, but it rises above the normal levels, similar to another dream I had recently where it was unclear what level the sea was at. The edges of the container, which I explore from an underwater perspective, are wild, like roots, like the sinkholes I explored in Mexico that have become a big part of my visual language. The watery scene seems to cascade down, like the Cornish gardens at Trebah, there is, perhaps a beach at the bottom, with a long rectangular, war- like building, the kind you get along the British coast line. It is light- coloured brick.
I am now in this building, this other sort of container. It is like a prison. There are bars on some of the sides. It has a few sections or cells. I will be locked in one of the cells, just until the morning, I am assured by a pleasant young man, for my safety. I am agreeing to this. It seems to make sense. As the man closes one of the barred gates to seal me in, he smiles at me, as if he is looking forward to seeing me when he comes to open the gate. I think he probably fancies me, but he is following some script laid out for him and he will never show himself to be deep enough in character for me to be drawn to pay attention to him. I feel a belated pity for him. As I get locked in, I see myself in a mirror at the other side of the cell. I am wearing a cool, slightly pointy orange dress and I am slightly surprised to see that I look very appealing, this must have been what drew the young man to me, I now understand. There is another woman with me in the cell, I am not sure who it is, but we decide to entertain ourselves for some of the time we are in there by putting on makeup.
We do the lipstick last and my friend chooses red, while I put on a shimmering dark pink lip- gloss, that reminds me of something I had when I was in my late teens. This would never have been one of my pastimes, putting on makeup with a female friend, and while my mum tried to spark my interest in makeup when I was in my mid-teens, it was a beautiful androgynous man, Brian Molko from Placebo that finally made me interested in makeup. But in this scenario the makeup isn’t being used in a gaudy way or to cover up our ugliness or imperfections. It is being used to highlight our beauty. We make ourselves beautiful. For nothing, for nobody, other than ourselves. We have nowhere to go, nobody to see us. There is a sad sort of beauty to this scene. It is a scene that would never have occurred when it should have occurred in my adolescence or in my early twenties, because I never ever felt beautiful. And it is a scene that would never have occurred with me and another beautiful girl, because of my shyness and the difficulties in being gay in that era. It is a scene playing out now in my dream and it is a scene being played out in my real life, as I live, what I am scared will be an all- too- short prime of my life, I finally appreciate my own beauty, and I nurture it in this time of confinement through yoga, through inner and outer work, but I do not really know what the purpose is, since nobody will see me. I must accept that there will always be this sense of sadness, this impermanence to any kind of beauty.
But there is someone who will see me. My wife. I am in a big Georgian- style house with big sash windows. It’s the kind of house, in size, grandeur and beauty that our baby- boomer parents tried to contain us in. Our parents went all out in providing these beautiful containers for us, worked themselves to the bone for this material security. But, as in Ibsen’s A Dolls House, they could not protect us, or make us feel safe from the underlying sense of darkness, the ghosts from their past, their parents’ past and the state of collapse that we were all exhausting ourselves towards. Labelling us “The Disaffected Youth”, they did not know how to handle our rebellion, the self- harm that we inflicted upon ourselves, the mental breakdowns we took the time to have that they never had time to have. We needed them to somehow know that no matter how ok they tried to make things out to be, we were sensitive souls and we did not feel like things were ok. In this house it is peaceful, it is dawn or early morning. It is green outside. In the corner there are some photos. One of them is an enlarged photo of my wife, Leah, in her wedding dress, it is the morning before our wedding, and the composition gives a sense of her, taking a few moments, in the space she is in, as herself, with her emotions, during that short period when we didn’t see each other, preparing ourselves for our wedding. She looks so beautiful. And I need to see this, to remind me of how lucky I am to be being contained with her, by her, at this time.
In other wedding scenarios, there is a sequence showing my mum, getting married to a handsome man, I think it is Antonio Banderas. It seems like a good idea, on paper, but as soon as he gets the paper in his hand, he gets up and leaves. My view cannot see where he is going, but I have a sense he may be just leaving for good. Marriages in and of themselves, as a container for people are limited in their efficacy.
I am in a bedroom at dawn and I hear the phone ring. My mum answers. I am just waking up and there is no urgency to go see if it is for me, though I suspect it might be. I go out to see who has called, Leah has been outdoors, but she has come back. The phone call was from the girl that Leah and I have fallen in love with, she has called to speak to us, asked us to call her back. The stuck energy seems to be becoming unstuck, as she reaches out to speak to us and we are joyful. It seems like an unlikely thing to happen now in our real life, since this girl has escaped the chaos of her life to self- isolate. This opportunity for containment, for isolation seems to have come at precisely the right moment for her.
But right now all bets are off and there is everything to play for. It is nice to re- contemplate the possibilities for joy.
I have to take my time before contemplating calling this girl back and I am transported on the back of a truck, like in Mexico, like sometimes when hitch-hiking in Greece. Then I am walking along a path, in a high up place. I look behind me and there is a native family walking past. I am shocked, stunned and outraged to see a tiny child, about a foot tall, with a round form and a red t-shirt: he is smoking. His parents, or elders walk on in front, beckoning him along. There is a mother, looking encumbered by the layers of clothes that are wrapped around her and carrying a basket on her back. Then I see, what I presume is his brother, a boy a bit shorter than me, I think he is smoking too, he is long and skinny and in a green t-shirt. I can’t believe that the state this family are living in is so wild, or so alien from my culture that this tiny child, the size of a toddler, would be allowed to smoke. Where is the containment? The older boy has many wrinkles on his face and I am suddenly struck by the idea that I am not sure whether these smaller people are kids at all, or whether they could be adult pygmy people. Maybe my initial judgement or shock was misplaced. I am confused.
A little later, I hear that this smaller child is going to be sent to jail for a few months or years, for a misdemeanour, presumably smoking. Although generally in waking life I do not agree with prisons and punishment, I somehow am relieved in this situation. Why should that be I ask myself on waking up and contemplating this part of the dream? Because I felt that this was a good solution in this situation, where there wasn’t enough containment. And perhaps also, there is an element of me needing to feel like, in the end, my initial judgement was correct, or needing some satisfying resolution. I learned yesterday in my morning breathing workshop that there is a chemical in the body called Resolvin. Apparently, Resolvin helps cells return to a healthy state of functioning, providing a satisfying sense of resolution, after a situation of inflammation and stress, but it is rarely given an opportunity to function in this high- stress situation we live in, this modern society. Perhaps I liked the sound of this because it gives the impression that there is the possibility for a temporary sense of resolution.
In the midst of all these dreams, I see a full view out of one of these big Georgian windows, but it is also like I am looking at a screen, because someone has posted on social media a photo, or artwork that has been made, through using an app. It is a woman, who has recently retired, but has been a stable person in my art career that has posted these images. The application takes all of the photos that you have shared on social media and composites them into a larger image, a gimmick that is often used in the art world, for example many pictures of women’s breasts from pornography will be used to make up an image, for example, of a cartoon character. This woman who shares these images obviously had lots of lovely photos of daffodils and irises from her English- style garden and the compositor app has converted them into an image of these flowers being viewed through a Georgian window. It is a strange dynamic of outdoors vs. indoors, screen reality vs. real reality, art vs. gimmick. I am struggling to contemplate the fact that technological corporations, which thrive on data and our need for efficiency and convenience, are seizing this moment to become all- powerful and to push our lives to be as online as possible.
With my interest in fitness, yoga and meditation classes I have been particularly struck by Move GB, which started a few years ago, piloting in Bristol shortly before we left the city. I assumed it was a government- sponsored organisation to get people more active. Not so, this is a private company, as I discovered through my research yesterday. I had been struck by how seamlessly, almost as soon as the lockdown went into effect, all the technology seemed to be already in place for the fitness providers to move their classes online. Move GB have now changed their home page to sell themselves as a hub where you can get all your fitness needs online from the “safety” of your own home. They were quick to contact all their “fitness providers” and convince them that going online was going to be the new thing, even if and when things do go back to normal. They also contacted them all to tell them that they were slashing the money that they were all going to be getting paid in half. This is the story I hear from one of my yoga teachers, who is now taking time to figure out what her next steps should be. 5G is also being piloted in Bristol, interestingly.
One can’t help but feel like there are and are going to be some very fishy things going on, as Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo and all these data- based companies consolidate their power and need to keep us online as much as possible in order to do so.
“The universe is exactly the way we think it is and that is why”. John Woods.
And so I have a responsibility to not see the world only as fishy. But I also have a responsibility to question how things work.
But what has struck me the most in everything that has been going on, is how keen to be contained the people who I know in this civilization have been. The way many of them seem to be containing themselves in an above- and -beyond kind of way, as if they had been waiting for this opportunity to “do the right thing”. I suppose I should view this as sweet in the caring nature it reveals, if only this caring nature will have the time to fully blossom into the kind of caring we now need. But I am also a little disconcerted by it. I have always struggled with containment and frequently resisted attempts to confine me wherever possible, as in when being told to put my seat belt on as a child in the car. I did not want to be in that car, the car smelled of diesel, I had seen cars that had driven off the edge of the cliffs and on top of this I was being made to put this confining thing across my torso that world stick into my throat and press onto my gut, exasperating the feelings of motion sickness I would feel on those windy roads. My parents probably saw this as demand avoidance behaviour, or as “being naughty”, as, apparently, I often was. And they got angry with me, which was the only obvious way they saw to deal with this behaviour, especially when there were schedules to be maintained. My pattern is to resist containment at all costs. But my language is getting political.
Nearly all the people in my life seem perfectly happy that the government is taking over and telling them what they should do. They are taking it as literally as they possibly can. This virus comes at a time when our society’s primary values are safety, security and comfort. Where can we end up, when we are all so scared of death, of the unknown and have such a need to block it from our consciousness? Leah’s black mother is elderly and lives in an old people’s social housing complex. She is not allowed to leave her flat, apart from to go in a small garden, in which you can only go one at a time. She is struggling to get hold of fresh food. She gets up, watches telly for a few hours, then gets bored and goes back to bed. She doesn’t know how much longer she has to live. She can’t see anyone. I would not want to spend what, you never know, could potentially the last months of my life like this. But it is maybe too soon to have these discussions.
Can I confess that I am much more scared of the ongoing implications of confinement, of what could become the “new norms” than I am of this virus? I have always known how vulnerable I am and I feel relieved the wider world is now getting to look at this state of insecurity and vulnerability that is our nature. Most people in this culture spend most of their time indoors and so, for the most part, their lives will not have changed all that much in that sense. I almost sense that most people are relishing this opportunity to be confined. Or, at least the people who get to do this securely in their own homes. Leah knows of a girl who works for the NHS and lives with an elderly grandparent. Safe isolation is a luxury that many do not get to have. Should I even mention the homeless here, who have probably never had a sense of safe containment in their lives, except, perhaps through chemical dependency? These street people, we like to think are now being safely contained somewhere, but are not at all and now have nobody to beg to. I needed to stay here, in this city to try and witness what is going on. And it is very difficult for me to make out what is going on. On some days the homeless seem to have completely disappeared. On others they are being patted down and questioned by police. On others they are back in their usual positions. But one thing is clear, that they are not being “safely contained”. This is not political, this is an issue of compassion, or of omission.
We are put on hold. It is a great archetypal moment of collective pause and that pause will sink in at different times for different people. Last night’s dream seems to have given me the permission to finally take a day off. I allow myself the pause to recover… something. Friends ask Leah questions about permaculture and how to make their gardens work better for the wild life.
For how long will people keep on board with being contained, confined or isolated? Can it go on indefinitely? Will our attention start turning towards the wild, towards the outdoors, towards the fresh air that stimulates our immune systems? Will hugging and all touch, the intimacy that is so lacking in British life, be permanently off bounds, or require the same level of consent or negotiation as sex? Will we all wear masks in the street as a sign of respect, as many do in China? Will we finally start to become more aware of the constant bombardment of hysteria we allow into our system from the media, as we simultaneously try to control whether unseen organisms will enter our system? The buzz- word of the moment in progressive circles is resilience. Resilience seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, subsumed by safety, security and comfort. Resilience and relaxation are twin sisters, one of my yoga teachers tells me. Do you think we need to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable? My friend Jessa asks. Did she realise that this is a Buddhist teaching? Resilience requires the ability to look with open eyes at the situation we are in, whether it be emotionally, biologically, ecologically, politically, socially. Resilience is about cultivating a balanced degree of porousness. It requires the strength and bravery to process the grief of trauma, collective and personal. It requires a holistic view. I plead with you not to let safety consume or subsume a holistic vision and not to contain or repress your spirit.
And please don’t tell me to “stay safe”, as my nature makes me recoil from this. It tells me that I am a thing that you are trying to cling onto and that is not what I am. I am reminded of a scene before we went on our last adventure with the wild woman Lynx, where her partner admits that he hadn’t been able to organise the consent forms, through some failure of technology, or through some failure to engage with technology. Lynx steps forward and puts her hand in the air. She makes a gesture as if she were writing in the air.
“Here is what I like to do”, she says. “This is the contract, in the air”, she starts writing”, “We are all gathered here today, to acknowledge the fact that Life is fundamentally dangerous. And, as such, we all take responsibility to watch out for ourselves, and each other. Agreed? Ok.”
We all sign in the air. And then go off to spend a week sleeping amongst bears and wolves. Her wisdom is refreshing. And, coming from the society we do, one can’t help but feel a sense of fear of recklessness. The fear of recklessness stands out as being bigger than the fear of danger. There is supposed to always be someone there to protect us. Because we, the vast majority, are not adults who can be trusted to look after ourselves.
I am more scared of confinement than I am of a virus, that could kill me, or could make me stronger, but could I be convinced to be more scared of being responsible for making someone else sick or dead? Could that overwhelming sense of responsibility keep me confined? I had a dream that I believe dealt with that issue the other night. There was a danger in the corner of the room that we were letting lie still. A tiger. Leah went over to the other side of the room, I am not sure she has realised there was the tiger there, as she went very close to it. Remember, there is a tiger there, I say to her. She gets startled and, in her startled movement, startles the tiger, who gets up and chases her across the room, bringing her to the floor and mauling her. Leah is the only person that I can really directly have sole responsibility for harming in my situation. As I watch on in horror at her, basically being killed in a horrible way, by a wild thing I have no control over, I am powerless. I don’t necessarily feel guilt, but I wonder if what is happening is due to my negligence in some way. As I let out a “No!”, the tiger turns and starts coming towards me. I wake up with terror, as it reaches my feet. I also identify with the tiger and my own potential for conducting wild, destructive behaviour.
When do we start negotiating what degree of confinement is appropriate? Can we be trusted to have such an adult level of conversation, when we are unused to even talking about our feelings? I do not want to offend anybody by seeming to have a reckless attitude, or by appearing to question the virus as the thing we are being told that it is. I know a few people who have been quite ill lately, including my wife and that has been worrying. If you have been affected, or think you have been affected, or people you know have been, it is not that I am uncaring. It is that I need to acknowledge that, I don’t know and don’t currently know if I ever will know if what these people I am close to have is or was this virus. I need to acknowledge that I don’t really have any direct experience or knowledge of this thing myself, and not knowing if I ever will, is a very difficult thing for me, for most of us, to conceptualise, and yet we are being forced to care a great deal about it, unquestioningly, with nothing other than blind faith, with nothing more than numbers of ill or dead that come through on the radio. I want to take time to point to that lack of real knowing and to have compassion for it, it is a big deal, for, as Charles Eisenstein opened his great essay about the virus:
“For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point”.
We have lived so long in a paradigm when we thought it was possible to know things about the world, to know “facts” and we are discovering, over a relatively short span of time, that this fundamental thing we believed was true, is not. And that takes courage and bravery to look at, because, it is such a big change in thinking, to discover that there is nothing concrete. I want to also quote Eisenstein’s next paragraph:
“Covid-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. None of the world’s problems are technically difficult to solve; they originate in human disagreement. In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless. A few months ago, a proposal to halt commercial air travel would have seemed preposterous. Likewise for the radical changes we are making in our social behavior, economy, and the role of government in our lives. Covid demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important. What else might we achieve, in coherency? What do we want to achieve, and what world shall we create?”
Alfred Adler believed that all problems are interpersonal relationship problems. I think we are starting to see this is true.
Perhaps I am missing an opportunity for gratitude, when someone tells me to “stay safe” and I recoil. Perhaps I am even missing an opportunity for gratitude for the politicians that are looking out for me. “We have to trust our leaders at this time”, my friend Tom says, a staunch labour supporter. And he is right, in the sense that we have no other option (or do not see that we do). But this has never been my default position. Which is why I am getting an opportunity for a new perspective. I have loved having more contact with my family through this thing that is happening. But I cannot live my life virtually and it scares the hell out of me. Perhaps others feel they can. Maybe I am not yet grounded enough, maybe I have not opened my mind enough to see how a life online could be grounding. We, the civilized, have been going all over the place. I can accept some containment. Perhaps we will even start getting paid to be contained, if that is not what many of us were already doing.
I remember a conversation with my mum a few years ago, in which I said that I felt that something big was going to happen soon and that many people wouldn’t be able to survive. She asked me what I meant, but I couldn’t describe what I meant. And I don’t know that I was even talking necessarily about a specific literal event that would take place, more about an awareness of big changes that were going to take place, that were already taking place within myself, a compassion for how things would suddenly hit everyone else, people who would not be prepared for such big changes and would not have cultivated the necessary resilience for them. Or, perhaps a compassion for what I was going through, that I found difficult to explain to anyone else in my life. We are all equal in our vulnerability, though some, like our monarchs and politicians are more equal than others, as we see when they get to have blood test before everyone else. But what is really needed now is the grounding, the emotional containment and safety that only our healers, sages and the intelligence we find in nature and can offer us. This planet earth is our container, our ground for focus. We must start with this in order be able to expand out, set out on this steep learning curve and revise all our ideas about everything. And then, perhaps, eventually we can start to honour and to experience the eminent groundlessness, the exhilarating fundamental insecurity of our situation. This life is a container for that which cannot be contained.
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Fine artist, writer, musician Abigail McDougall, based in Thassos, Greece and Bristol, U.K.