2023. Looking back at the socio-political chaos of 2022 here in the UK, the idea of a new beginning seems oddly unreal. But then the past three years have been rather unreal for all of us, haven’t they? For me: I spent 2020 making a hugely stressful relocation back to the UK from Ireland at the beginning of a major global pandemic, which I paid for with 6 months of intense pain and immobility following a very sudden-onset inflammatory arthritis. I spent 2021 being diagnosed with and treated for an aggressive lymphoma. And 2022 slowly recovering from all of the above (whilst launching a major new book, Hagitude). Ach well. As Goethe said, in his poem ‘The Holy Longing’: ‘As long as you have not grasped that you have to die to grow, you are a troubled guest on the dark earth.’
So all of that added up to quite a bit of ‘dying’. But as a consequence of it all, I’m not nearly such a troubled guest on this beautiful, animate earth. A friend asked me the other day how I found it possible to simply keep going, writing, creating, in the face of such a fractured world. And all I could do is repeat something I’ve said at several talks and workshops over the past couple of years: once you feel as if you’re really aligned with your calling, really embodying your own unique gift, your own unique expression of what it is to be human in that fractured world, everything slots into place. It’s not that you become smug: far from it. But you – in a sense – lose attachment to outcome. By which I for sure don’t mean that you no longer care what happens to the world, or the humans and other-than-humans who inhabit it. It’s just a recognition that the ultimate outcome isn’t ours to change. The world isn’t ours to save. It doesn’t serve us or the world if we’re constantly bowed under the weight of a burden of godlike responsibility for it. All we can usefully and meaningfully do, in service to that world and those beings – and to ourselves – is to carry on doing what we were born to do. Keep on working. Keep on creating. With joy, as well as hope and perseverance. And trust that that is enough.
So yesterday morning I was delighted to discover, on my Facebook feed (which I look at on average twice a week for five minutes at a time, so this was an unusually great find!), a link to the latest episode of my brilliant friend Manda Scott’s ‘Accidental Gods’ podcast. Rather than offering a conversation with someone else who wants to help transform the world for the better, which is Manda’s usual podcast format, this episode took the form of reflections on her work with Accidental Gods over the past three years since it was launched, and her thoughts and plans for the year ahead. (Listen to it, or read the transcript, here: https://accidentalgods.life/three-years-on/)
Manda explains here, as she did in the conversation between us which I included in Hagitude: ‘Every year, Faith and I sit with the fire at the dark nights of the year. I have done this from long before we met – several decades ago now – and ask of the fire “What do you need of me?”’ Like Manda, every year at this time – for several days, throughout the period between Solstice and the New Year – I also ask myself precisely this question. What exactly am I contributing to a challenged planet and a fracturing human culture which seems to be hurtling with desperate inevitability towards collapse? Is my daily work still in service to these things? Am I using my gifts – my writing, my creativity, my connectedness to this world through image and story – to serve it in the best way that I can?
Once upon a time I would’ve asked a different question: How can I do more? But I’ve learned the hard way that constantly striving to do more, out of feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, only breaks you. And so now I ask: Could I be doing this work better? – because ‘better’ means not killing myself in the process. Means not agreeing to do things I don’t really want to do because I think I ought to, or because they matter deeply to someone else who I don’t want to say no to. It means trusting that guiding light inside: that inner wise woman. Doing this work better means that ‘Does this bring me joy?’ is as important a question to me now as ‘Does this serve life?’ And so when I ask, as Manda does, ‘What do you want of me in the year ahead?’ I’m really asking, ‘What will allow me to flourish and grow and be joyful, while serving the world to the fullest as I’m doing it?’
Manda speaks during this podcast episode about the work of Richard Bartlett, who, she tells us, ‘... has looked at responses to the transformation we’re currently undergoing, and he’s sifted them into a progression of four steps, rather like the steps of grief and loss.’ Bartlett’s fourth step resonated with me very profoundly: ‘Stage four is joyful and relaxed, and this is characterised by: “I know my piece to work on, and I’m in relationship with many other engaged peers working on theirs. I couldn’t imagine a more meaningful life. We have such deep support networks that civilisation could collapse and we’ll still take care of each other.”’
And that is the missing piece for so many of us, I think: being part of a community of others working for the same thing. Those of us whose work is by definition solitary – and writing certainly is – might find that hard to achieve. For me, in the past, that sense of being part of a community of others working for the same ends and with the same passions has mostly come through teaching, which allows me to engage more directly with likeminded readers and seekers, as well as with fellow teachers. Well, I find that teaching too much drains my energy these days – but nevertheless, nourishing collaborations, in a couple of different ways soon to be revealed, will be a focus of mine for the year ahead.
So it feels somehow appropriate to be starting the new year, at the end of this week, as a speaker at the very wonderful Oxford Real Farming Conference. ORFC is the largest gathering of the agroecological movement on the planet, dedicated to transforming food and farming systems for good, and bringing together speakers and delegates from over 100 countries in its online and in-person programs. As always, its focus is on agroecology, regenerative agriculture, organic farming and indigenous food and farming systems – but I’m there to participate in two rather different panel sessions: ‘Folklore, Custom and Ritual’, chaired by Andy Letcher from Schumacher College, and ‘Ego to Eco: Restoring peoples and places to each other’, chaired by Satish Kumar, founder of Schumacher College and Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine. These sessions recognise that placemaking is an intrinsic part of this process, and that placemaking incorporates storymaking and mythmaking. If any of you are planning to be there, I look forward to meeting you. Find out more here: https://orfc.org.uk/
And on that note, as always, I wish you all a very Happy New Year, and a 2023 full of richness and restfulness.
Hagitude program – reduced price for the rest of the year
My intensive yearlong program, based around Hagitude, began in October 2022 and was originally priced at £260 for the full year (ending on 30 September 2023). However, we are finding that people are still interested in joining, catching up with existing written and recorded material (all live sessions are recorded for later viewing), and enjoying the remaining months of the program live. And so the price of the program has been adjusted so that it is now £195.
For full details about the program, the team members and guest teachers, and to join us, please go to: https://hagitude.org/the-program/ (At the end of this structured yearlong program, participants will be invited to continue the journey with us, in community, for a small monthly fee.)
I’m delighted to say that my lovely friend Caroline Ross has launched a Substack publication, and I highly recommend it. If you’ve read Hagitude, you’ll find Caro in the final chapter, talking about ‘grave goods’. Dark Mountain followers will likely have read her work here and there around that movement, and many of you will likely follow her popular Instagram account, where she’s @foundandground. Caro’s Substack is called ‘Uncivil Savant: writing on Tao, the embodied life, and art where earth matters’, and you can find it here. All her posts are currently free for readers, though as always, if you’re able to support her work, there’s a paid option too. Caro also has a book coming out in June, from Search Press: Found and Ground: A practical guide to making your own foraged paints, and this is also highly recommended. It’s available for pre-order via all the usual suspects.
I’ve always read a lot of fiction – I just can’t settle unless I have a good immersive book on the go – but I’ve increasingly found myself profoundly dissatisfied by much of the fiction that is published today. This seems to be especially true in the fields I love: mythic and fantasy fiction. So many of the books have plot (well, mostly) but no heart: hardly an idea to be found and nothing which transforms your way of looking at (some aspect of) the world – which, in my opinion, is what all good fiction should do. The notable exception for me this month was Celeste Ng’s brilliant and moving Our Missing Hearts, which I can’t recommend enough. Its themes aren’t entirely unrelated to my opening words at the beginning of this newsletter. The publishers say:
Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in Harvard's library. He knows not to ask too many questions, stand out too much, stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve 'American culture' in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic – including the work of Bird's mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.
Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn't know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn't wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is drawn into a quest to find her. His journey will take him through the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
Our Missing Hearts is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilised communities can turn a blind eye to the most searing injustice. It's a story about the power – and limitations – of art to create change in the world, the lessons and legacies we pass onto our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact.
This month’s poem
We are gatherers,
the ones who pick up sticks and stones
and old wasp’s nests fallen by the
door of the barn,
walnuts with holes that look like
eyes of owls,
bits of shells not whole but lovely
in their brokenness,
we are the ones who bring home
empty eggs of birds
and place them on a small glass shelf
to keep for what? How long?
It matters not. What matters
is the gathering,
the pockets filled with remnants
of a day evaporated, the traces of
certain memory, a lingering smell,
a smile that came with the shell.
The Art of Enchantment with Dr Sharon Blackie is a reader-supported publication. To receive new articles twice a month, access to the archive, and to support my work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Loved this. You’re right: it’s been a deliciously hard, trudging, grotesque few years for so many, myself included. And yet such simultaneous joy! A teenage niece’s suicide attempt. My father’s terminal cancer. Moving to and then leaving Manhattan. The pandemic. Near suicidal depression. But: Falling in love. Starting my Substack writing journey. Banging out a memoir about NYC during Covid. Learning to let go. Turning 40.
Life is a gift. A sometimes dark, odd, mysterious gift. But a gift.
‘Sincere American Writing’
Love this, Sharon: "The world isn’t ours to save. It doesn’t serve us or the world if we’re constantly bowed under the weight of a burden of godlike responsibility for it. All we can usefully and meaningfully do, in service to that world and those beings – and to ourselves – is to carry on doing what we were born to do. Keep on working. Keep on creating. With joy, as well as hope and perseverance. And trust that that is enough." These words are so refreshing to read and desperately needed by so many of us who are simply attempting to 'carry on.' Best wishes for a peace-filled New Year!