In Christchurch New Zealand, earlier this year there was one day which was so hot that many, including two of my daughters, headed for nearby rivers.
I didn’t go, but during the day I pictured my daughters’ exhilaration and joy as they plunged into the fresh from the mountain, clear, dappled (because of sunlight through the trees) water.
However, I found out at the end of the day that they hadn’t swum in a river after all. They said there were signs at the rivers saying it was dangerous to swim. There were also warnings not to let dogs drink river water. I looked up the internet (Scoop News) and presume it was a problem with toxic river algae. Two dogs had died the previous year, and people suffered allergic reactions and skin disorders (Environment Canterbury 16 February 2009).
My daughter Rebecca came by my place and expressed strong feelings about the fact our rivers appear to be poisoned. She found when she told her friends they seemed to want to change the subject, and when she got more upset and loud, people were obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed and wanted her to shut up.
I’d like to have been able to comfort my daughter, because I have been feeling similarly distressed about what is happening with our precious water. I was also feeling uncomfortable about my part in the subtle, and not so subtle ways of ensuring people such as Rebecca, don’t create a disturbance by publicly expressing any fear and anger
I turned on my computer, feeling a bit out of sorts. I found I’d been emailed a link to a film with a message about gratitude which I’d been told would inspire. I clicked on the link and watched a film with wonderful pristine rivers, such as seen in New Zealand, and the basic message was to enjoy this picture post card scenery and be grateful.
The timing was bad. I had trouble being grateful and I was sick of being told to be grateful.
Yes, there is much beauty, especially in the natural environment, which I appreciate, but what happens when much that appears beautiful and harmless is found to be ugly and toxic – does our gratefulness then need to turn elsewhere? What do we do with our feelings of despair and fear? We need water to live for goodness sake!
I was reminded of the modern poets who tried to focus the public from romantic scenery out there, to the ordinary, the gritty reality faced by most people right here.
I found myself googling T.S. Eliot’s poetry – on Youtube and, with the click of the mouse, I found myself sitting beside Eliot himself reading his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (first published 1915).
In the poem, Prufrock describes, in effect, how he would like to like to speak with an authentic voice, and in so doing, disturb the socially accepted order, but he is fearful of exposing himself to rebuff. Like many of us, he doesn’t feel confident, so instead of the big questions (like toxic waterways), he ends up turning is attention to the small things, like where to part his hair and whether or not to hide his bald patch. I then click on Dylan Thomas reading in a more expressive and defiant emotional register, “do not go gentle into that good night … rage, rage, rage …”
I felt a bit better after that. I realised I desperately needed some reality, some authenticity.
It doesn’t seem right to me to live in a world where it is said that there is ‘free speech’ but we can only feel really free to talk about safe things, like feeling and expressing gratitude and positive thoughts, and whether and how to part our hair or cover bald spots.
I turned off the computer feeling resolved to do more to progress my methodology for local development that included discursive spaces where people such as Rebecca could feel able to publicly express their own most hopes and fears – where Rebecca could comfortably express her wish for rivers which are enriching of human and other life, and express her despair if, as is the case now, they are toxic, without feeling diminished, without needing to be grateful. I’d like a season for discordance, unhappiness, grittiness to be okay, at least for a while, to give us all a chance to work together with creativity, and collaboration for new, robust and enduring forms of concordance, togetherness, and celebration.
I think we need poets and storytellers to help us find ways of finding new balances – acknowledging the ugly and sublime – the toxic, the difficult, in order that we can open up to many new prospects than those now facing us.
The positive thing is that an artist can juxtapose the sublime and the beautiful, the suffering and joy and, they can do this in a way which is engaging and satisfying. Rebecca could find her personal cry of despair, artistically framed, could be one that finds much shared resonance, and perhaps could even lead to a happy resolution.
The other positive thing (for which I am grateful) is with accessible screen technologies, it is now possible for human beings to connect with one another in so many new ways, including, with the artists to create their own narratives of the kinds of Village development they want, and the many challenges and opportunities this project can open up.
I’d be very interested in your views, especially about freedom of speech and the value of artists.