A Soft Armour

I first walked as an artist in Amsterdam, almost ten years ago. I was appointed to be the new bridge guard at the Bridge Guard Art & Science Centre in Slovakia. The bridge that was to be guarded symbolically was the Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting Slovakia and Hungary. A bridge that had been rebuilt recently. A bridge that, during its existence, had been destroyed many times to make it impossible for people to get from one country to the other. The Maria Valeria Bridge is 495 meters long — 711 steps. And before I travelled to Slovakia, for two months I walked 711 steps every day, starting from my doorstep in Amsterdam.

I never stopped walking afterwards. Short distances. Longer distances. Walking words. My own name. The amount of steps I was old on a particular day. But the first time I went on a really long walk, an absurd six-day walk following the exact border of a municipality in the east of the Netherlands, walking through fields, crossing canals, entering peoples’ houses, sleeping on the border in a small tent, I felt the way I had felt as a kid when I went out exploring the vast forest behind my parents’ house.

Some people would rather have wings but we don’t, we have feet. We were born to walk. Scientists say that walking gave us our brain capacity, walking turned us into the human beings we are. Walking made it possible for us to have the desire to fly and to come up with ways to turn our dreams into reality.

Walking made us fly. We can go anywhere. Still the easier it becomes to move through this world, the more disconnected we seem to get from it. We have to land again. Get close to the things. Be part of the world. Walking teaches us where we are, who we are. A slow speed makes our brain work fast. Makes us see more. Be more. And best of all: walking makes time disappear.

After my first long walk I was hooked. There was no way back, although I didn’t fully realise it until a year later. That year I walked from one end of Belgium to the other together with a group of artists. I was a Walking Librarian, I carried books. And I wore a suit. A business suit. A three-piece walking suit.

I figured that when something is called a walking suit, it must be meant for walking. I believe in words. And indeed in earlier centuries people used to dress up when they went out for a walk. You can see it in old photos, in movies. How people wore a suit doing their daily activities. Got married in it and buried in it. Painters, writers, farmers, noblemen. August Sander photographed three young peasants walking, on their way to a dance, wearing suits. Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ is dressed very neatly. Charlie Chaplin wears a suit as the Tramp.

I remember my grandfather wearing a suit everyday and wearing the trousers of his old suits when he was working in the garden. I heard stories about men hiding their best suits in the bomb shelter during the war so in case their houses were bombed, they would at least still have their best outfit. These days there is Anonymous, often symbolised by faceless people in suits. And the other day a man told me he had sold all his belongings but he kept his Armani suit. The French composer Erik Satie owned 12 similar suits, wearing one until it was worn out and then moving to the next one. The day he died there were still six unused suits in his apartment.

I call my suit my soft armour. It keeps me warm, safe, sound, it opens doors. It is my uniform, my costume, my house. It has many pockets. It is as comfortable as any outfit I can think of. I use it to collect stories in. I don’t mind when it gets dirty, torn, worn out, when the world leaves its traces.

The suit is my interface between the worlds I move through. Between the land I walk and the body I walk it with, the place people refer to as ‘the real world’, but which I consider to be just as real as the other world I move around in, the ephemeral world wide web. The stories I encounter, held in my hand, find a new home in the suit. From there they move into the other world.

There have been five suits. I wore the second one for 108 days, using it as my notebook. I embroidered drawings on the inside. I counted the days on my collar like a prisoner does, or somebody waiting for a special day. After 108 days I took it off. It wasn’t too long after I had read this in Thoreau’s Walden:

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.

I took off the suit. I walked the streets naked. I got myself a tattoo. I travelled to Sweden.

In Sweden I wore my third suit. I caught snails in it, I walked old pilgrim trails. I learned about slowness. I embroidered the suit with a neverending red thread, turned it into a map. I thought about the Chinese saying that all people who are destined to meet are connected by an invisible red thread.

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The fourth suit was somebody elses’, I found it in the closet of the room I stayed in when I worked as a pioneer in the Swedish woods. It was exactly the sort of suit you see people wear in old movies. The suit that accompanies somebody during his whole life. It had belonged to the man who once lived in the lonely house in the woods I was staying in. I wore it one weekend, at a secret rave party in the woods. I brought it back to Amsterdam. It is still there, waiting for something.

The fifth suit, the fourth soft armour, kept me safe all the way from Amsterdam to the Nomadic Village in the south of France. I had asked people to symbolically walk with me, pick a day, give me something to get me through the day and in return I embroidered their names on the inside of my jacket. I wrote a story every day. And in the Nomadic Village, a mobile art society run by and for artists, I opened a Memory Shop, embroidering peoples’ memories into other peoples’ pockets.

The suit kept me safe afterwards, when I harvested corn in a small mountain village in Portugal. On my last day there I filled my pockets with corn and I left a trail.

I knew I needed a trail. I know how easy it is to get lost in the modern world.

And I was right. Because here I am, back in the ‘real world’, wondering if I should go back to walking. Wondering if I shouldn’t get myself a proper job. Some proper funding. A house to return to. Stability. I know the corn trail I left has disappeared, the kernels have been eaten or trampled by goats. I knew when I was leaving them behind that it didn’t make sense. Just as measuring the corn sheds with my body and wrapping hundreds of kernels in red thread didn’t make any sense.

Here I am. Sometimes I don’t see the sky all day because my city apartment is on the ground floor. Sometimes I don’t see my friends for weeks because they have to earn money. Because I have to earn money. Sometimes it feels as if the only way I add meaning to the world is because I pay taxes. Sometimes I follow the rules and feel unhappy, I go through the motions and feel like I wasted my time. People tell me that this is how the world works. Some of my good friends even tell me that. And if that makes sense, then walking the world in a three-piece walking suit might make even more sense.

I’ll get my things together.

In April I’ll be leaving for a 99-day walk, again to the Nomadic Village, this time in the east of Austria. My suit will have an embroidered QR code linking to my blog, a lightweight solar panel attached to my jacket, I will carry my house with me, I will find and create new stories, publish them online and embroider them on the outside of my three-piece walking suit. More here and how to walk with me: asoftarmour5.blogspot.com and moniquebesten.nl

Analogous Structures

On the ridge, a shrewdness of apes. Against a red sky. Still black silhouettes, palings, menhirs.

You watch them. Were they moving before? Have they stopped, is it you they are watching now? They seem to have paused there, on the ridge, that stony moraine calved by ice and gnawed by lichen. High in these mountains, where no trees grow, why are they passing here? The sun has fallen below the horizon, the air is precipitant with dying light.

You watch them. They do not move, but this is deceptive. What do they carry? A long blade of grass? A shaft of bamboo, a spear? A basket heavy with desiccated fruit, a recalcitrant stone, a curled child?

You watch them; it grows darker. The wind shifts. The cold seeps from the granite, falls around your head. Your cheeks are burnt with darkness. The scent of minerals in cold water, algae, salt-carved wood. Then something else: warm hair, dry skin, sour milk. Sweat. Preserved flowers. Motor oil. Baking bread. Coffee grounds. Your tongue when you wake from a night of painful dreams.

They have not moved. They are waiting for something. They do not move, but almost beneath hearing, there is a sound. A paper cup on a glass table top. A piano string plucked by the curious hand of a child. A shoe falling from a shelf. The flap and decay of your tent fly. The huff of a steam engine. A distant rock slide. Gunfire. The bite of an axe blade. A glass cracking with heat.

The light is gone. You stand watching in the chill night. Shadows, ice in the wind.

In the morning you will climb the ridge. The new sun will paint the stones with heatless pastels. You will be alone with the boulders, the lichen. You will cross over into another valley, brimming with mist.

What’s Your Position As the Ship Goes Down?

  It’s the question the man keeps asking us, as he storms the stage and curses the thousand-year-old myth of exile that has wreaked havoc on the planet and the erstwhile robust psyche of the human race. Psychotherapy has betrayed us he thunders, it ignores the Earth, it takes no account of social justice and no longer speaks with the dead. We are divorced from our collective daemon and are paying the price. The gods are fed up! he declares. They do not fit in our heads. They want out!

The man is James Hillman, famous psychologist, delivering a lecture on Jung and classical mythology. Tall, erudite and very very annoyed, he beats against his chosen subject like an eagle caught in a snare.

Sometimes you are in a place and you are not sure why you are there. All around me the audience to this Olympian tirade are calmly writing notes for their essays and quite a few of them are making their way to the ‘bathroom’ and back. It feels as if I am the only person wondering how to answer the question, and another he mysteriously keeps repeating:

 What are we going to do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

James Hillman is dead now, but true to his profession and mine, I keep the unanswered questions tucked under my own wing. In 1999 I am looking at dreams in the city of Oxford and the Indian god Varuna has visited me. Dark-coated he strode down the aisle of a church and delivered a message:

Consolable grief we can help with, inconsolable we cannot, with the underlying information that Separation is arrogance.

Varuna is a primary, underworld god, ruler of the watery nagas, who carries a noose in his hand in the shape of a snake. He storms through the dark church because he is the keeper of the cosmic law, which is not the law of human beings or their religions. In his peerless ‘essay’ on civilisation, The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso outlines the relationship between the primordial god and his worldly counterpart, Mitra:

The civilising sweetness of Mitra, ‘everyone’s friend’, can only exist insofar it can stand out against the dark and remote background of the sovereignty of Varuna. ‘Mitra is this world, Varuna is the other world,’ the Satapatha Brahamana clearly states. Mitra is the world of men; Varuna is the rest, perennially around it, capable of squeezing it like a noose.

When the world only runs according to the laws of social contract, Varuna’s nooses tighten around ‘those who did not know these were the results of many sentencings under a law no one could decipher anymore.’

Varuna comes before Indra, before Shiva, before all the monotheistic gods and the myth of the Fall. He is akin to the classical Titans, kept trapped under mountains or banished to the oceans. But no matter how invisible these beings are made out to be, there are consequences to ignoring their ancestral laws. And a life lived knowing there are consequences to every action takes a very different shape to one that assumes, so long as Mitra’s laws are kept, you are free from any feedback loops.

And you may ask: why are you telling us this dream 15 years after you had it? Because,even though we might know there are consequences to our civilisation’s acts scientifically, which is to say with our reasoning minds, I am realising, as the storm advances, we need urgently to remember how to speak with the sea.

Console is an interesting word here. It means with soul, with sun. The gods can console the human being, Varuna tells me, but if he or she is inconsolable, this is not because the god cannot help, but because human arrogance will not let the spirit in. If you insist on separation and sorrow, you block the gods’ entrance.

The dream was preceded by two others: one took place in a church in which a small boy was possessed by the ghost of a woman who had hanged herself, and the other at the mouth of Hades where Second World War soldiers were wandering out, shouting ‘You are supposed to save us!’ In both these dreams I was trying to intercede as an intermediary, and failing because I was stuck a place of  inconsolable grief, among the furious and lost.

To get out of ‘hell’ we need to ask an underworld god for help. That’s a deal most of us resist because to let spirit in means undergoing radical change. It means taking on knowledge you would rather not have any responsibility for.  But, you know, forced to choose between increased consciousness or oblivion, there sometimes is no choice.

When you discover the world is not as you thought, the heart demands you make a move: when you stumble upon the reality of the abattoir, the maize field, the garment factory; when you take the red pill and look at the graphs of Arctic sea ice, financial bubbles and oil production; when you suddenly notice  the barn owl no longer flies past your window, or the hares leap in the field, you can respond in three ways: you continue to listen to the band and repeat to yourself I’m OK, the ship is OK; you can sit on the stairs and lament that it is happening; or you can head to the lifeboat. Obviously, you tell yourself, that is the correct position to be in when the ship goes down.

But what if you can’t make it to the lifeboat on your own? What if you find the lifeboats were sold off long ago to pay the shipping company’s debts, and you are not, you suddenly realise, a passenger?

restoration drama

A Good Day for Cyclists, Jeremy Deller

You can do physical things to mollify those thousand-year-old consequences: I have reduced my carbon emissions to four tonnes a year; I forage and cut my own wood, wear second hand clothes. I haven’t been to a supermarket in seven years. I don’t fly, or use palm oil or buy tomatoes grown by modern-day African slaves. But, key as those responses are, this is not the realm that Hillman was talking about on that warm spring night in Santa Barbara as the millennium turned. The place where Varuna lives in a dream.

To fully redress the balance, we need to live along the horizontal axis of feeling and spirit, in a world that only admits the vertical – body and mind. In order to be guided by our fiery spirits we have to feel, in a world designed to prevent you from doing anything of the sort. Rage, grief, despair, sorrow, are emotional states that keep us in lock down, wringing our hands and justifying our position on the stairs. The heart however can be consoled in time. It is consoled by the world that holds it dear, and because it is never alone.

Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Empathic Civilisation, describes how each age in Western civilisation consciousness expands, relative to its energy production and communications. At this point we are moving from a psychological age towards what he calls the dramaturgical. Empathy expands with our ability to play different roles and thus understand the shared mortality of all creatures. He suggests that unless we learn to empathise and feel together on a planetary level, our ability to withhold or weather collapse will be impossible.

When you track dreams you realise you cannot analyse them psychologically, or they disappear like deer into the forest. You learn quickly that the storyline is not important, or the fact that your mother or your ex-best friend are once again making you feel like a dishrag. The first key thing in a dream is your position within its drama, and the second key thing is how you move from that position out of the constricting space it holds you in. The third is that, when you make the move, you can see that things change in many dimensions at once. Your dream is not a personal problem, it is a collective state.

Civilisations hold us in repeat dramas, like Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. We are doomed to keep following the mechanics of the plot, unless we can break into the action, deux ex machina, and change its course.

Dreamwork is one way of seeing how to do this. Following the track of myths, as Hillman did, is another way, so long as we do not become more fascinated by our pathology than the world’s freedom. The gods, once our way-showers, become easily trapped by our clever ‘left-brain’ minds, filed under ‘Symptoms’  and ‘Syndromes’. They get mad in there, and we get sick. 100 years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, as the learned doctor once wrote.

When you face the consequences of your unexamined, civilised life, you make moves to restore the world and your place within it. You have a practice, adopt a warrior attitude, you prepare for the future with less energy and money, empty yourself so that you are flexible, free to respond without some ghost or untempered ego in the way, knowing that each small move matters on levels you do not always see. Most of all you can break out of your mind’s silo and initiate yourself into the tribe — become one of the people.

But however you move, you know you can’t do this stuff on your own. Somehow you have to decipher the law.

Our ways of understanding life in graphs and linear narrative are not cutting it at this point because the planet is not shaped that way. Its laws are not made of words or mathematics. Varuna speaks in winds and ocean waves and his law governs worlds of never-ending chaos and creativity. We can no longer peer into our human problems as if we were Freud, and our ‘issues’ a hysterical woman from Vienna. In a dramaturgical age, we are all actor and director and playwright, and frequently find ourselves waiting in the wings, spear in hand, woefully under rehearsed. The Earth, we realise, is our stage. Without it, we are meaningless.

finding our star, (not) following the wrong god home

Still from Life of Pi, director Ang Lee

Last night I went to Westleton Common and looked at the stars with a group of local astronomers. The Common was once a quarry and is famous now for its tiny heathland flowers and nightingales. The group has just formed and each month they hold a ‘star party’ and you can go along and watch nebulas, galaxies and the moons of Jupiter through a several large telescopes. We were invited by Malcolm who has a smallholding in the next door village and whose organic vegetables we have been eating for 12 years now.

There is something extraordinary about meeting strangers in the dark (torches impair night vision) and it seemed to me, only on a piece of common land among people who are keen to share their knowledge, would you find such a feeling of friendship and ease.

Up above us the constellations burn in the vastness of space and time. They have scientific names like M57 and the Trapezium, and also older mythic names, conjured by civilisations that came and went before our own: Aldebaran and Pegasus, the Crab Nebula, Orion the Hunter, his Dog and the North star by which we set our course. Thanks to the telescopes I now know that the Seven Sisters are in fact a host of luminaries, and that Betelgeuse who shines red at the tip of the cosmic bull’s horns is old and dying. The sun will become a planetary nebula too one day, says Malcolm, as he describes the fall of our home star into its final form as a white dwarf. ‘And then what?’ I ask.

‘It becomes a black dwarf.’

‘And then?’

‘That’s it!’ he declares and we laugh and go in search of the Orion Nebula.

In some ways you might say that we are short of modern stories to explain our position in the universe: we have looked so far into deep space that we cannot see the blueprint of the heavens so they might parallel our lives, or the drama of the solar system in which our planet, Earth, plays a distinctive role.

Maybe we need to know that the ship is always going down because that is the fate of all things in the universe, and that our struggle and desire to hold firm and burn brightly in the night sky, in spite of our inevitable mortality, is what makes sense of everything, whether we are a 4-billion-year-old star or a butterfly who lives for three days. That is what gives us meaning and dignity and frees us from Varuna’s noose as a people.

To shine means we have to deal with the darkness of ourselves and our collective, which is the ‘sacrifice’ described by all mystery and spiritual traditions. We have to lose our untempered powers and pleasures, so our hearts may weigh as light as Maat’s feather. Civilisations fall because, as native and archaic myths tell us, we fall into matter and neglect our light and fiery natures and our connection to dimensions beyond the one-dimensional here and now.

Though the astronomers can give us facts and the mythmakers and astrologers stories, our life together under this night sky is always a mystery, something unknowable, something you cannot pin down with word or image, number or symbol. But, if on a clear night you can let that mystery in and let it move about you, you might discover everything that ever needs to be known. That’s a paradox only the human heart can handle.

Sometimes I do not know entirely who I am: there is a lot of space and time now, where there used to be history and culture and closed doors. I am more actor than storyteller, and so perhaps in this brief role as messenger I can enter and answer Mr Hillman’s question at this point in the play:

What do we do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

Open your mind; set the gods free. All hands on deck.

 

Images: We Sit Starving Amongst Our Gold and A Good Day for Cyclists by Jeremy Deller at the Venice Biennale (photographed by Susan Eyre). Deller’s English Magic is now on tour in London, Bristol and Margate; still from Life of Pi, director Ang Lee (2013)

 

Charlotte Du Cann is a writer and editor and part of the core team behind The Dark Mountain Project. charlotteducann.blogspot.co.uk

 

Sky Burial

We cut off his fingers
Joint by joint and then at the wrist as well

Then cleaving from sockets and sinews his elbows and shoulders
His flesh was tight against our blades and our hands were
Greasy with blood and viscera and gristle after hauling up the fresh
Death upon our backs to the peak above the village where
Amid dry weeds mummified by endless winter
The bare steep face of the mountain looks over the valleys
Which surround these empty wastes

Fingers greasy with his death and his body and sinews
He whom we knew so much of or at least well enough to mourn
And thangkas drape awnings of lashed bones and stretched skins
Rich with colour glowing under the funereal blaze
Every design an imitation of the view
Though does the sun die for him
He our friend in a binding of vines
Dry like his fingers would be three days hence were it not
For our practice which we’ve undertaken
He of golden skin muscled in memory
Thangkas like national flags of the handfuls of houses in our village
Scattered like the digits and segments which we cast
Strewn about these cliffs which we know so
Well and which know us far further than any of our memories permit

The thangkas
Flags of a nation fivefold and individual they bear
The patterns of the family which made them
They flutter in the wind
As we pass with calloused hands which smell of iron

We tattoo ourselves with sharpened bone-picks
Inscribing and instructing those who
Must cut us up as we have done
For our friends those most dear

For they will not know
Those who come after
They will not know the methods so we demarcate the lines and
Joints and diagram the sinews of ourselves and indicate
As best we can over fires and alcohol to
Allow tears and the clarity which follows as we indicate
With ink of macabre origin the places a blade must navigate

We are cartographers of the corpses
We must eventually become.