On Earth Day, I’m experimenting with the first part of a triptych: Living in a River. Falling in love again and again with the world through my story of living in a houseboat, with different ways of being and knowing.
Totnes, United Kingdom & Lynedoch, South Africa
Living in a River
Part 1: A crisis in relating
Someone asked me the other day what I thought would change the world. I muttered and stuttered a bit, tried to dodge it, and then blurted out something about love. It sounded corny, and irritatingly earnest.
Asked again, I’d probably say the same thing - but feel into a little more space, to explore and breathe. I’d have said that I thought we were in a crisis of relationship. Not a crisis of imagination, which I used to think. But a crisis in relating. Imaginative relating. And, if all we are is relationships, then why is it just so hard?
I’d have said that perhaps relating is about breath, and death. We do both. We can’t not. In our breath, we connect our bodies with all life. And in death, we leave it.
I love that old word ‘crisis’: danger and opportunity. How would it be if we tried two things. One, what if every one of us do nothing but quietly heal our own contorted innards, and our own family? Ooof. That’s radical. So much easier to focus on the world out there. As if there is an ‘out there’.
And two, become the poetics of being.
And here we go. They should warn you at the beginning that life is really just one gigantic psychedelic trip. Instead, I learn decades later that it’s a feminine archangel who has a delicate task. From the moment we are conceived, she whispers to us day and night for the full nine months inside our mother’s womb. She sings into us our soul, spirit and story. Our land, ancestors and blood. She tells us of all there is to know. And then, as we leave this treasured space arriving through our mother’s vagina as portal to the world, this archangel touches us lightly just below our nose. In that soft little hollow. And as she does this, we forget it all. To begin the journey of becoming. And, forever they say, our answers we will always smell just under our nose.
Where I am in the northern hemisphere, it is spring. This time last year, I was emerging from the winter of my four-season living in the River Thames. Thirteen full moons. A tiny houseboat, called a narrowboat, moored close to Kew Bridge. The trees here, along with those by the river, have lives, messages and whispers of being all of their own. In an almost ghost-like appearance and murmur that only my slayed-open heart could hear. Sometimes people ask why I chose a houseboat, why the Thames. Well, I’m pretty sure it chose me. One of those things when the idea came from out of the blue, and it just wouldn’t go away. Something that drew my 95 year old mother’s joyous enthusiasm, and the unusually silenced awe of my sons. Mom, you are the coolest person we know. 29 minutes from London Waterloo on the fast train, with a walk up Regent Street to our Bertha Foundation offices. And then the main show: the irresistible magnet of the river herself.
It’s not that easy to find words for her. It may be feeling the first sway and ripple of the tide coming in, or the sighs and gurgling release as the little boat groans out of the sludgy clay to softly float in high tide. Twice a day. Gently hissing as the water leaves, back to the sea, sinking slowly into its muddy nest, waiting til the river rises again. It may be the way she is every full moon. Not always that obvious in the clouds of London. But present in the fullness of the river, the glimpses of pure silver on black water at night. Waking every morning cuddled in my berth, to watch the dawn over the old stone bridge. Sunrises splashed across the sky. A seal playing by the island, or swimming past silently at sunset. My ecstacy in that irreducible moment of recognition, the sweet moment of pure connection, just before my brain starts naming, describing and labelling. Sometimes, towards the end of the four seasons, that moment would stretch into a day, a week, and even a month.
I arrived into this haven, with a notion of small living. 20 square metres. Ten by two. Just perfect. And one small voice within.That voice that had the same sense as the one telling me to live in a river. It was to try living by invitation. Those were the only words that came .. ‘live by invitation’. I was a bit mystified. How was I to do that? My life-changing Bertha grant still needed so much work. I’m quite good at telling a story, and strategy. I’ve worked closely with funders for four decades. Co-creating stories that encompass both an intuitive sense and a mental framing. But I’ve not come across a benefactor with the kindest eyes who would say ‘do what you want. Be you.’ (He had no idea of my personal story, and I’ve no clue what he sensed.)
My fellowship inquiry is to explore silence. An inquiry into observation, presence, and wondering whether retreat and retreat-based courses may help build a different kind of capability in activists. A capability that is spiritual, soul-driven and filled with story. A capability that is soft and feminine, also deeply strong and powerful. Like the river. In a sense, a capability filled with heart, with joy: celebrating body, soul, community and soil.
How would this ‘following the invitation’ do anything at all? What if my battered being was all totally wrong? And then it hit me In a big rock of the boat, in the middle of the night. I’ve always known that small voice inside. I’ve always known not to do something until it clicks just here, below my navel. It’s a body thing. Could it be that from the utter destruction of the last years, of all I knew, of all I had created, there was really, truly only one way out? And that was to do absolutely nothing. To resist nothing. To be in a river. To be receptive to what came. And, to quietly receive. Keep steady, sometimes impossibly patient, get up each morning and make my bed. No need for a plan. And no will nor action. To observe, and take time.
Here was the river saying, it will come to you. Like each phase of the moon, each season, the tide each day, the goslings every spring, and the cacophony of Canada geese every morning. It will come. Just wait. Be still. And, in the surrounding beauty, it did.
At Christmas time, my first-born stayed over - somehow we make place for both of us to sleep. He is mesmerised by the water, amazed by a sense of being. When he leaves, we cannot possibly know it’ll be 18 months before we even think of being able to be together again. Winter saw me terribly ill. Shaking, feverish, desperately tired. Alone. Icy on the river, with all the cracks in the old boat letting in northern winds. In the crazy shapes of dark, leafless trees silhouetted against grey skies, my South African body became thinner and yearned for the sun. Almost imperceptibly, a strange, hibernating depth also started creeping in. Building up the wood fire, cuddling into the fullness of solitude. And then, the initial shock of the pandemic and our first lockdown. It felt as if I’d been horse-kicked in the solar plexus, yet again. As if the tiny invitations I had been so diligently following, were a joke. As if this ridiculous small voice inside me was a terrible mockery. That I would never get well. That healing was a misogynistic myth that the well sell to make us try and believe in something. When everything I’d imagined for this precious fellowship was obliterated - like what was happening in so many lives around me. I have known dark despair in my life, but never like this.
Emerging from six years of the underworld, living in the river helped me look back and see that then I just did whatever it took to stumble through the darkest forest. Where there are no paths. And if there are, there’s no logic to them. One foot off and the path disappears. I think now that it is supposed to be like this. You’re supposed not to know if you’re going to make it. Not knowing if something so bad has happened that recovery simply isn’t possible. To know deeply, ungraciously and with every limb in my body screaming, that I lost. I simply lost. In my beloved family, we don’t really lose. I mean we do - but, as my ancient mother says, in our family we change things. She’s right. We do. All five of her children change things. Only in the underworld, came the obliterating reality that I couldn’t. I had been so very ready for change in my own life, yearning for it in fact. Never could I have predicted in a million lifetimes though that it would come in such a relentless myriad of monster-like forms. Marriage and family dismantled in the monotonous, dull banalities of broken trust. How on earth did I land myself up in that? It brought losing my work, finances, creativity and beloved women-led work community. Then, attempted murder, rape. Someone I love selling everything in my house as he stole me blind. Three close deaths and navigating another country. I couldn’t undo any of it. I lost, hands down. What a relief to say it. To lose. Public humiliation, shame, aching from the aftermath of each attack. I lost - and, inherently shy, every time I tentatively and anxiously put my head back up, the next blow arrived. Bang on cue, pushing me ever further into the back of the cave of the darkest nights of my soul.
The big one. I’m not sure that we all live with a sort of underlying curiosity - wondering whether we would make it if something really terrible happened. I know I did. If something really bad happened to me, would I actually make it through? Everyone gets something. And we don’t all make it.
In the river, I dream into imagining the violent attack as a kind of massive rite of passage. Like with all rites, I’ve come through it knowing differently. I just know things differently. I try writing it from nature’s heart.
This is a story from the point of view of sea, sky and land. I want to write it from light to dark. And then back again. To create a poetics of being about violence.
It is the most beautiful day. South African days are just like that. Crisp. Sun blazing on a white, clear beach. As if the day itself is calling. Sea, sky and land: water, air, earth and the fire comes from my belly’s screaming. The elements gather their call, making a quickened response inside me to walk. The sea feels cool between my bare toes. The ripples of the waves, my feet sinking a little into the wet sand. A feeling of something else calling too. It’s not just the sea. As if I am summonsed by the land, and by an endless sky, a light breeze. There’s a kind of dark shadow as they pass. My body shivers in the sunlight. The sea pulls me in more, sensing my ripple of fear. The dark is closer. The waves are small, lapping. The sea swirls around my knees, come deeper she whispers. The same blue sky, the land behind me now. I can’t move. The violence is on me, the attack, the knife. ‘Satan’ tattooed on his neck. All the fire in me erupts in my screaming and the ferocity of my fight. Fighting for my life. The sea is making it hard for him. I’m pushed into her. If this is my end, the sea is my home. I surrender into her. She is making him stumble. As he kneels on my chest and neck, holding me under, I am melting into her, into her sandy floor. I can’t see. Her salt water is blinding me except to the light way above my drowning head. I can’t breathe and he is kneeling on my neck. The dark is unknowable, and I am no more.
The land is the very land the witness fisherman walks his quiet way home. The beach bears this witness. As he passes, my neck is released. The sea bullets me through her surface, and I can breathe. Air. My lungs are bursting. The sea heaves him off and out. Away. I am alive. I crawl out of her sweet waves lapping at my wound. I claw my way through the sand into the blood of the land. The blood of all women. I can’t stand, and I lie flat on my naked tummy. The land holds me, untiI I no longer fall. I have a long walk back. The witness helps me. I stagger. The same sun. The same land, and the same sea. I am another woman. Somehow the light of the elements is pouring through me. Making me translucent. The sea, the land, the sky and me - we have all won. The rite of all passages, the might of all passages. There is somehow only a lightness of being. Of spirit, of soul, pulling me forward, finding my way home.
When I read this essay to my mother she says that by writing about the attack artistically, it sounds almost beautiful. But that it underplays completely what happened. You know I hate melodrama, mum. Yes, she says, I know. But, she continues, it’s not possible to exaggerate what happened to you. In deference to my mother, all I add is that the young man was arrested, and sentenced to 15 years for attempted murder and rape, commuted to ten. The details take me into a place I have long left behind. It’s simply not where I place my gaze, and is more physically and psychically violent than can be described in words.
To have reached an abyss of unknowing and uncertainty, and then eventually quietly just letting go. No great achievement - no spiritual claptrap - yielding only because there is literally nothing else. Making fire every night in the tiny woodstove, becoming slowly well by walking each day as a mini-pilgrimage next to the river and between the giant trees. Unpretentious ritual, gentle ceremony. London’s silence in lockdown. No planes overhead. Just the harbourmasters’ boat on the river, checking all is well. Listening. Writing. Being. Doing nothing. Resisting nothing. Attached to nothing.
And then, round about spring, seemingly without effort, the cohesion of the small invitations and openings I’d followed so obediently shyly started squirming out of this weird birthing canal into full view. Joining the dots over the past few months: Renata, creating a dream of women, spirit, activism and the more-than-human world. Meeting Anne and Be the Earth. Together, midwifing what becomes our Aura Fellowship. Talking to someone in a coffee queue at a medicine festival, connecting again to her through a young astrologer-poet from five years back led to an invitation to her retreat next to a river in Kent, to another invitation to meet two unbelievable women on Trafalgar Square offering retreats midst the first extraordinary XR Rebellion. All these randoms started joining, morphing into incredible surprises. Things started coming together in ways I never ever could have dreamed nor invented. Energy poured right into me, and I knew something was happening. Mystery, spirit, call it what you will, but that rumbling in my belly, like when the tide comes in and the birds are calling loudly to let us all know.
British Telecoms puts wifi into my boat. No problem, ma’am. Just tell us how many gangplanks our engineer has to cross to get to you. My second-born rides his bike across London to have breakfast together. He is bemused by the outrageous beauty and wonder. My brother’s head hits the ceiling. Spring on the Thames is extraordinary. The green of leaves goes right into my heart. A hundred different greens. All new. Canada geese create créches of goslings, the most I counted was nineteen. Black-headed gulls wiggling and dancing in the shallows to surface their breakfast. Baby Egyptian goslings tweet bravely as they sally forth into the depths of this river that knows no end. I’m walking three hours a day. And, as the weird beauties of everyday river life pierce a frozenness inside me, I can feel it all starting to thaw. Slowly at first, and then quickening in a kind of exponential curiosity. In between lockdowns I find myself on the 8.16 am train into Waterloo with Siya Kolisi. Are you our rugby captain? Soft gentle smile, yes ma’am, I am. He takes us a selfie. There’s a shout of joy at the next station as he is recognised by a group of commuters astonished as I am to find him on our train. Wot you doing on our train, Cap? Why aren’t you home guarding your trophy? He laughs, and so humble, tells them about raising money for early childhood development, and sport. I watch their faces melt - awestruck. Just like me.
Spring rolls into summer. The days become long, stretching late into the evening. Lockdown prevents all my travels, all my usual ways of working with groups, endless face-to-face conversations. Instead, I am faced with myself. No mirrors surrounding me to bounce back, feed back, provide outlets. No circles of humans. I’m amazed. My whole project is about the subversiveness of silence as the most radical thing we can do. And suddenly it seems most of the world is plunged into a kind of retreat.
Six years of deep retreat, and I have only been able to see parts of it now, into my seventh year. My year of return. Ah, there’s the golden thread. Love in the eyes of my sons, willing me with this and all they did not know how to say, to live. The deep listening of my mother - and only a mother who knows can hold that grief. My sister, leading me through when I couldn’t see ahead, just holding on the way I always did from when we were small. My elder sisters, like lionesses. And my brother - the one I always tell first. My women: Aura. Friend-funders. Daughters of witches who were not burned. Making a circle around me. Finding my ancestors in their ten thousand strong. Then, parts of the thread I cannot see, that here and there are quite invisible, sometimes for long stretches. I think those are faith.
There seems to be a strange truth in this faith. Well, there are many, but there is one that seems consistent. That as I let go, even just a tiny bit, there is a little ripple that happens pretty much instantaneously. It starts with a flutter of relief inside me. I can feel it in my body. As that quiet feeling comes of being just a little bit better, there are signals back from the world. As if the world talks back. She is talking all the time - I just can’t quite hear when I’m in a jam. I’m pretty sure she never stops. When she seems to have stopped, it’s actually only me who has. When I release my little knot, or gigantic ache, she flashes back. So quick.
There comes a lanquidity in summer on the river. Warmth seeps in, boat people have emerged from below deck like bears from hibernation. It’s soft, quiet and very slow. I find my rhythm in solitude, in hermitage my old friend Satish calls it. A very deep, very long vigil. The seal playing, herons piercing and eating crabs. The cormorant and river eel as a weaving dance in the eel’s futile struggle to escape. I’ve learned the sound of swans flying, and watched 200 Canada geese go by overhead.
I found the tallest London plane tree in the city. The old oaks. Copper beeches that go up to God’s eye. Each unique. All with a quietness that has enveloped me. I’ve learned to listen differently. To be still. To pay attention to the change in winds, the tiniest gurgles as the boat welcomes the tide back in, day in and day out. To sleep rocked in the river’s loving arms. To watch for hours the full moon’s reflection in a series of ripples.
London is so vast, and lockdown makes even my family who live in this city feel very faraway. Present, but very faraway. The summer of solitude brings simplicity. No trappings, no stress, a light tan and time. Time, or rather timelessness, where it seems to fold in on itself. I have a sense of longing for this never to end. I read, create, and work my way into an international offering with Advaya called A Journey Home. By autumn, with leaves turning the brightest of reds, yellows, oranges and then falling, we set off into our stride. 52 extraordinary teachers, 120 participants, 34 countries and six continents. I’m talking into an entire world from a houseboat, next to a woodstove, and the only sign of it is sometimes my face rocks on the screen from a ripple of waves in the river.
As if in the river below the river, the most beautifully creative work has found me. Renata, Anne and I move from ‘curators’ to ‘midwives’. A midwife helps birth. And that’s who we are. Midwifing the Aura Fellowship: a two-year process immersing ten women activists from India, Lebanon, Brasil and South Africa. Creating space together for ways of being effective in the world while simultaneously tending to their inner being. The feminine principle. Radically questioning ways that unconsciously replicate patterns of control, competition, martyrdom and scarcity. And so often result in burnout and exhaustion. Our gift is to accompany these women in further developing their spiritual pathways. In a world geared towards speed, so-called progress, deadlines, endless work, fixed outcomes and monitoring, we are deeply curious as to what happens when there is a shift towards intention, intuition, our bodies, knowing differently, nurturing and love: the ancient feminine. Present in us all, partially obscured, and even forgotten in conventional and multiple exploitations. Held in a circle of women.
I learn that following the invitation, trusting the flow, unhurriedly sitting in the pace of the more-than-human world, the invisibles, watching the turbulence of the Thames calm every single time she rises, has brought me soft ways of seeing and acting. Other ways of knowing. Different ways of being. Bayo says approvingly that I’ve become more strange. And, weirdly, it’s all brought simply far more in my fellowship that I ever could have imagined myself.
Perhaps part of the crisis of relating is one of imagining we relate only with other humans? As if the more-than-human world is somehow separate.
Also, I’ve watched millions of litres of water go under the old bridge. Now I know what that means: water under the bridge. Both my shoulders have rotator cuff injuries and the pain has been almost unbearable. Put the burdens down, urges my sister. Nothing matters, just put it all down. And I do. I surrender, yield and completely forgive. For me, not for anyone else. Just for me.
Rivers are like that.
By the end of autumn, my year is almost up. A new winter is beginning. The beauty has nestled deep inside me, and I have the feeling of one of those very first beings emerging from the water about 400 million years ago. As if I’d been swept into a speeded-up evolutionary process, now tentatively ready for living on land.
This essay is dedicated to my mother, Barbara Annecke, thank you for your life, and for mine.