After a week of Heart Politics I was racing up to the top deck of the ferry, on my way from central Auckland to Waiheke Island. Aren’t ferries so exciting? The city fades into the distance, the great expanse of the sea horizon appears ahead, the wind and salt spray is in my hair. I realised that I’d barely stopped talking with people from 7am – 10pm at Heart Politics and it was time to draw a long breath in this blustery sea air and frazzling sun.
I’ve relished the many journeys within this long journey: flights, ferries, buses and walks are precious time alone, being with the fresh memories of what has just been. And then the movement, smells and visuals between each place set off many trains of thought, sparking memories from past journeys, weaving together past and present.
I’ve learnt to take care of this liminal space. If the ‘leaving and arriving’ is seamless, the experiences of the place left behind may become blurred or lost, like waking too quickly out of a dream. And how easily the last place can be romanticised when the slippery shadow elements slither out of sight. As I met each new place, with its array of colours, sounds and smells, I’d try and sense whether this land was welcoming me or not.
Awaiting the ferry is a rickety bus which winds around the north of the island. Everything is on a small scale, just 8,000 inhabitants. There is a feeling of trust here, people chat together on buses and in shops, things are often left unlocked, and it’s so easy to get around on footpaths or buses. I’m heading for Palm Beach where a friend from London, Rosie Walford, is living in one of these houses at the top of the hill below.
Rosie and I met through ecopsychology about 15 years ago, and she came on one of the courses that I ran with Dave Key in Scotland. Not long after that she moved here from Islington. Not a bad swap don’t you think?
My arrival wasn’t perfect timing as Rosie was due to leave in a few days for a 3 week working trip to India. One of those weeks she was co-facilitating a Be The Change Journey for those in the business and corporate world who are looking for more satisfying ways to make a difference in the world and unsure how to make the career change. They travel through India visiting pioneering change-makers, with career coaching on the way, integrating an ecopsychology perspective. A quote from Rosie just yesterday – inspiring or what?
“Our first visit was to Ghandi’s ashram and this had a hardened CEO in peaceful tears before 10am on day one. We all served in a pay it forward cafe, did playback about the most acute moments of connection with our humanity when visiting the slums, and, in quizzing a fearsomely competent woman running a huge mobile-health-learning programme funded by Gates Fdn and BBC, recognised that our skills and aptitudes could contribute to positive change if we wanted them to. It was hard to prepare people for the inevitable bump of their return to home. Many have made changes large and small already.”
I stayed in Rosie’s ‘sleep out’ behind the house, a tiny cabin with a view (below) over the garden and sea. What a treat, just a 5 min walk to the beach, swimming every morning.
There was much activity on the Monday evening when I arrived as Rosie and her partner Meggan were extracting the honey from their beehives. Each frame was a slightly different colour, taste and texture, some like dark Manuka honey, some lighter and sweeter – and some had already set.
They have a small garden with so much happening: they make their own olive oil from a few olive trees and grow plenty of veg and fruit, including lemons, bananas and figs, just beginning to ripen.
One day we walked over to meet her friends Bas Sharp and Louise Marra. Louise has designed a poetry walk around her garden with the intention of connecting people to place. She led us to 12 different spots and then read us a poem which had emerged from each place. And what a garden: the views are beautiful enough to weep for.
Louise commutes into Auckland for her work in the NZ government. She brings radical thinking and experiential exercises, some inspired by her Maori roots, into her work with government ministers. She also runs a business called Spirited Leadership through which she offers a course called Leadership NZ for general managers and chief executives. This includes her own version of The Council of All Beings, an exercise designed by deep ecologist/rainforest activist John Seed. This enables humans to step into the shoes of the other-than-human world and hold council about the state of the planet. Yet more inspiring work!
Two amazing women: Rosie left, Louise right.
Later in the week Louise took me to Stony Batter, a Maori sacred site littered with giant rocks from volcanic eruptions more than 8 million years ago.
On the way home we visited a therapist friend who had put her life’s savings into creating a beautiful round adobe house. The visit was tinged with sadness however. This woman had put so much effort into building an inspiring sustainable house and life, and into communicating ecopsychology over the years. Now she felt despondent that the many projects she had created to inspire had not made the difference she had hoped for. The NZ psychotherapy community was not interested in ecopsychology, she felt. Oh, the same story again, the disillusionment and losing heart of those who have been doing great work for the earth for a long time, and who are now achingly tired.
I heard a similar story from an ecologist friend of Louise. He was so in touch with the loss of species and the changes in habitat due to climate change, overwhelmed by the scale of the task ahead. He didn’t see much chance of us getting through this, with a serious, if not terminal, diagnosis from climate scientists, the doctors of the earth. “Where do I find hope?” he asked. This was a question I was asked many times on my travels and a difficult one to respond to. Excuse me if I go on a bit of a ramble here, as I find this question very compelling.
I agree the situation looks hopeless. To take the radical measures to cut carbon emissions everyone has to move extremely fast, now. The interesting thing is that it’s technically possible, but psychologically impossible – ie we’d need global agreement and enormous collective will and effort and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
But despite this hopelessness, I don’t feel hopeless. Maybe ‘hope’ isn’t even the right word? From a Buddhist perspective hope is building an expectation for the future and distracts from the present. Whatever the future holds, the place where I find hope, (or maybe solace?) is in the many stories about facing death that I have heard in the last few years.
A friend I met recently told me that her teenage son had died very suddenly. As if the grief were not bad enough, she became very isolated when those around her simply couldn’t bear to be close to such unbearable loss. But she somehow found in herself an unwavering trust in her own process of grieving. She wasn’t sure where this came from, she said. She sobbed for months, going on years, often shaking in convulsions. After about 3 years a deep joy began to rise up inside her which gradually began to grow – and I could see that from the moment I met her. Something in her eyes, I think, told me that her joy had come out of suffering, compassion, and that she had earned an enviable fearlessness.
Thanks to my friend for this story about what grows out of the dark night of the soul. It’s what all the spiritual teachers say: facing death is what brings awakening and I fondly imagine what might happen if we were to collectively face into the possibility of our species death. Collective grief and awakening?
Another story: a friend of mine was given six months to live. After the initial shock and grief, she set about putting her affairs in order – not only her practical affairs, but unfinished business with friends or family, making amends where she could. What does it mean to sort out our unfinished business with the earth – to make amends, to apologise and to repair? This gives me solace: if we get it right in the present, both practically as well as in our relationship with the earth, the future will take care of itself.
In her book ‘Dying to be me’ Anita Moorjani describes her struggle with lymphoma, until she was in the very last few hours of life, her body riddled with tumours the size of lemons, with her family gathered around her. She spontaneously had a lengthy out-of-the-body experience in which she learned the root causes of her cancer; she then chose to return to her body, astounding the doctors with her complete recovery in the following months. Here is a brief version of her story.
Nothing is certain. Who knows what miracles may happen in this highly complex web of life. I find this a comforting thought, although perhaps living with the unknown is harder?
And then one more thing: the Paul Hawken speech at Bioneers conference is one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in a long time, reminding us that there is a grass roots movement that does not get seen in the media, but is rising all over the world.
So I wonder about the relationship between hope and death. And I wonder about your responses to the question ‘Where do you find hope?’
The photos here make it look as if the Waiheke was all sun and blue skies. In fact the weather was very changeable, with high winds on many days. So I took that rickety bus again to various spots on the island and enjoyed some very gusty walks alone by the sea. The coast path reminded me of Cornwall, through woods, along beaches littered with large tree limbs tossed out of the sea, and the occasional bench in a sheltered spot overlooking the green-turquoise ocean.
On my return home one day I got chatting to a woman on the bus, as you do. She had moved to Waiheke (north of North Island) from Christchurch (South Island) as she could no longer bear the trauma of the ongoing rumblings of the earth. But she also told me about the community that had spontaneously sprung up in response to the chaos in that city, so many innovative and interesting ways in which humans are helping each other cope in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Heartening.
After Rosie had left, Meggan (another amazing woman!) and I had long conversations about her work with the elementals of the land as well as speaking with plants: her work is moving in the direction of herbalism. She also took me to their community cinema – a large room stuffed with old sofas – is this groovy or what? We watched ‘Philomena’, what a brilliant film, very highly recommended. But an odd experience to enter the cinema in bare feet, out of the heat, and be taken into the dark and cold of the UK and Ireland, a prelude to my imminent return.
One of my last experiences on the island was an ayurvedic massage from a friend of Rosie & Meggan. After she finished, Nicole asked me how I was getting home and I told her I would enjoy walking the 2 miles, even in the cool drizzle. “No that’s impossible after such a long massage” she said. “I’ll move my next client and take you home”. I did protest very hard……. but in the end she insisted on bundling me into her car and I gladly accepted the Great Generosity and wonders of living this island life.
It was a wrench to leave this magical island and the friendships that were beginning to form. The weather helped: as my final day progressed it became cold and rainy making it easier to say goodbye. I retreated into reflection inside the warmth of the cabin on my last ferry ride back to Auckland.