Rocks aren’t Lonely

by Jennifer-Lynn Crawford

A small meditation on a few questions that came up at the very start of this last phase of ITAWL research:
‘what are the things that make me ok’ and ‘things that make me feel I belong’

These two questions were given by Charlotte as part of the forest residency back in the summer, and after going to see George Monbiot’s Loneliness Project in Leeds a little while ago, they resurfaced and…

What is OK?

OK is a great metric. I like that it expresses a general satisfaction – a kind of resting state between not-good and good. Just sort of regular. Not exceptional in either a positive or negative direction. I feel much of life is happening in this in-between place – that much of life looks for this quality of OK. It’s pretty stable.

I also appreciate that this was linked to ‘belonging’ in the task. I struggled with this association, as I’m sure many might and also many might not. On the basement level of my being, I notice a profound OK-ness when I am not contemplating belonging… a little like the refrigerator hum, or other sensory events you don’t notice yourself as noticing until they cease, I don’t normally notice the sensation of belonging unless I am not. This shows up on the surface level of me as a kind of anxious murmuring and muttering over the gap where belonging isn’t part of my assumption about the world.

I don’t always know that the gap is in the belonging area – I just know that something isn’t ‘OK’ and as is my wont when not-OK, I put on one of my favourite costumes: that of a single, solitary rock in a wide empty space. Of course, that tends to make the not-OK-ness bloom in the most vibrant colours not-OK-ness comes in.

It’s funny-ironic that I’ve never quite been able to grasp that that gap is relational. That I turn in on myself to examine something that can only be seen in the light that other people carry with them… I’ve always thought it was something I was needing to do in myself, and all the time, it turns out, I just needed to remember that I’m not a rock, but part of a tribe called people.

I mean, sometimes the rock is a wonderfully functional costume – particularly when joining/being joined by other rock-types. Sometimes the tribe I need to remember I’m part of is bigger than people, or needs to be other life that isn’t people. Whichever way I play with the wording, the sensation of belonging, rather than having a gap somewhere (where belonging should be) is a bit like having a home. The sensation of I-am-where-I-should-be is physical, a deep satisfaction that doesn’t beg questions. It doesn’t demand anything of you, and in fact, it allows you to just get on with whatever it is you were up to (which probably involves ‘other’ in some way).

I find it interesting that I have an idea that it’s possible to exist by ‘myself’ – that when I think of ‘self’ I tend not to think of how that self is a palimpsest of all the other selves, the other people and lives, it has ever encountered… I mean, it’s not as if I got here alone. But when faced with a question about belonging, I tend to answer as if all the others who I’ve lived alongside – my family, my friends, the various and changing communities I arrive in, live in, and depart from, in short, all the lives to whom I belong – are somehow not part of my OK-ness. I tend to answer as if only I, alone on the me-raft, circling the island of self, am responsible for my own OK-ness.

The Me-Raft

A lecture given by Sandra Noeth prompted the following:
“…one body is no body – spectating is a kind of co-habitation – I live in you for a bit, or at least, with you… ‘just’ a body does not exist – it’s totally abstract – we’ve simply adopted it in the same way that we separate everything from everything else and then think we’ve got a ‘thing’ (because we’ve removed it from its context and set it out by itself) – we are of the same material”

If anybody did ever exist solely by themselves, ‘we’, all the others, would probably never know about it. One body = NoBody.

I can’t imagine what that life would be like. Except for….

This me-raft is a received idea – it’s one you learn through experience. Rebecca Solnit, in her very on-point piece The Ideology of Isolation discusses the disconnection that epitomises right wing ideology: ‘yourself for yourself on your own’ I can trace the reception of this idea in myself to my 1 family and a particular sort of privacy insisted upon by my father. This wasn’t something ever questioned because there was also a very clear and fixed hierarchy that existed between us. My father was a firm supporter of the euphemism that children should be seen and not heard.

He was also an extremist in some ways and had no qualms about making a point (his point). If I moved too far from my position in the family-tree, he tended to refer to larger hierarchical structures outside the family-tribe such as the police, the medical system and the educational system in a very direct and practical way. This served a dual purpose – I had the impression of his authority being upheld, and also, that the only ‘others’ outside the family tribe were generally much taller hierarchies which loomed with much larger shadows over my lowly position.

So, I discovered the me-raft at a very young and impressionable age and I also discovered through the very private family-tribe that there wasn’t anyone ‘else’ around. Or at least, no-body who was going to intervene in the hierarchy and the sanctity of parent-child relationships. It left me in a bit of a quandary – I clearly didn’t feel OK in the hierarchy, but any moves to change it left me outside of it, in a land where I had even less resource as a minor. A minor who doesn’t have ready access to ‘others’ in the guise of extended family or family friends gets ‘systematised’ scarily fast… testing the waters there had me re-tracing my steps fairly rapidly.

I grew up a bit scared of mostly everything, convinced that anytime I didn’t make good of my bottom feeder role in supporting the top of the tree, I would be cast off into the cold cold world.

Tribes

So why, apart from common human interest, would I be writing this in relation to this project?

I guess, in many ways, family is both the first environment and the first tribe we have. I’m not sharing my story here because I’m seeking acknowledgement for it in and of itself, but as an example of how simple it can be to pass on and hold on to a sense of disconnection or isolation borne of fear. Of course, it’s obvious that our first sense of connection or disconnection, our first sense of belonging, of the world as safe, scary and totally new, comes from the familyenvironment-tribe. Equally, the obvious is often the realm where the barriers arise. The family-tribe either helps us find the world as an already-there-with-me place or a-place-we-keep-at-a-distance.

My experience of the world through most of my early years and adolescence was fear-based – even if fun and interesting stuff happened, it happened in spite of a threatening, disconnected world that I was forever in danger of getting cast off into. I went through a period of depression when I was 12. The world already seemed sad and burdensome and I was still in grade school. Writing that seems hilarious, but… it sucked to be me at that time. I’m sure it also sucked to be my teachers and grade school friends and my parents, wondering what the problem was.

And if this is my fairly tame white, middle-class suburban childhood version of the kind of gap an isolationist, fear-based and hierarchical power structure creates… what else can happen in that gap if it were to be heightened by circumstances that have nothing to do with much apart from geography and genetics? It isn’t even a ‘what makes me belong’ question at a particular threshold – there is a point where the notion of belonging is such a distant glimmer that the question itself becomes a fantasy. Belonging becomes a species of experiences that applies to ‘others’. I imagine many children right now who are entitled-to but prevented-from joining relatives in the UK/other countries with increasingly obstacle-strewn borders as suffering a gap in belonging that is so big it might be broken.

George Monbiot’s Loneliness Project

George Monbiot is a dose of sanity every few weeks in the Guardian. I appreciate how his ecological approach, the accessibility and openness of his writing and his surety about our okness, our mutual belonging as humans, generates hope in me.

The construction of the evening is simple, but it works. George speaks mostly of content that he’s addressed through his online writings, but I’m still happy to hear it again, Ewan McLennan plays (very beautifully), and at the end, they ask us all to sing together. Along the way, I’m finding that I’m moved, the images and characters of the songs and stories finding their mark in my own life. Before they finish for the night, they invite us to turn to the person next to us and introduce ourselves. I meet someone who works for the Campaign to End Loneliness. We chat for a bit, he has very sparkly socks, fabulous shoes and shares a bottle of prosecco with his date…. and then… I need to go. I’m not at the event with anyone else, and the resonance of loneliness and old age through the songs is a bit of a soft squishy underbelly for me at the moment and I’m feeling overwhelmed. Ironic response to Monbiot’s intent I think.

It’s interesting to witness a direct approach – Monbiot is literally making a project of dispelling loneliness – and to see that it seems to work for many people. He’s pointing at it, naming it, and then doing something about it and inviting us in to that. It’s great. I wonder what the legacy will be? I’m hopeful that for some people, they just needed a little nudge, a little wave and sign-posting to find a way towards greater belonging and greater inclusivity.

“Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together, or we fall apart.”

I like the image of the vertical – that we can find our strength together there, in our stance – and the dissembling of our selves and the iconic ‘fall’ as the other term of the dualism. It is clever and a nice turn of phrase. And I’m reminded of another favourite writer, Jeffrey Maitland, from the land of Rolfing, Zen and philosophy:

“In the end, there is nothing unique about being unique. The power lies in what is common.”

Although I like Monbiot’s phrase, I get just a little bit stuck on the ‘or’ – it’s a classic tool and one we’ve been saddled with as a culture for far too long. The binary opposition pattern is part of the 2 Guardian 3 p xvi, Embodied Being winners v. losers structure that has us believing in the island of self and constructing me-rafts. Plus, I think we fall apart anyway, it’s part of what we do from time to time – the bigger question is whether we have enough between us to help each other regardless of where we are in the standing/falling cycle.

Of course we do… We’ve got a whole tribe called ‘life’ in common.

Sometimes it’s hard to point at this, name it, if you’ve been given a specific kind of costume by circumstances in early life or if you’ve had to row the me-raft hard for a long time. Maybe making a project, like Monbiot, is a help. Joining a meaningful art-process, like the one this blog is written around. Making a practice of OK-ness through the varied events of everything. Charting your palimpsest for all the other selves to whom you belong and remembering that one body is no body. That in watching or noticing each other, we co-habit: I live in you for a bit, and you live in me. I think that last can be called empathy. And that although it takes effort to do this in a politics and economy that would still have us believing in one-or-the-other, it is possible for us to engage in what Rick Dolphijn refers to as the ‘relational nature of difference’.

Post Script: Obviously, everyone’s childhood memories are extremely personal and contingent. My parents were two people doing what they felt they could around my mother’s ongoing ill-health and my father’s desire to inject some normalcy into the land of illness (which is entirely abnormal and unpredictable).They each had their own personal contexts that contributed to family structure and politics in ways I’ll never know about.


¹ p1 The ideology of isolation
² Guardian
³ p xvi, Embodied Being

Written

Dolphijn, R. & van der Tuin, I. (2012) New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Open Humanities Press.
Maitland, J. (2016) Embodied Being. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books
Monbiot, G. (2016) Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart. Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/ neoliberalism-creating-loneliness-wrenching-society-apart [accessed on 7.11.2016]
Solnit, R. (2016) The Ideology of Isolation. Harper’s, [online] Available at: http://harpers.org/ archive/2016/07/the-ideology-of-isolation/1/ [accessed on 7.11.2016] Verhaeghe, P. (2012). Capitalism and Psychology – Identity and Angst: on Civilisation’s New Discontent. Vermeersch, W. (ed.), Belgian Society and Politics 2012. Available at: http:// paulverhaeghe.psychoanalysis.be/artikels/Identity%20and%20Angst.pdf [accessed on 7.11.2016]
Verhaeghe, P. (2014) Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us.Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/29/neoliberalism-economic-system-ethicspersonality-psychopathicsthic [accessed on 7.11.2016]

Other

Childhood and other life-changing experiences
Monbiot, G. and McLennan, E. (2016) The Loneliness Project [Performance] All Hallows Church, Leeds [21.10]
Noethe, S. (2015) Symposium 2015: Dispositives of the Body [Lecture] Haus der Kunst,Tanzwerkstatt Europa, Munich [02.08]

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