HOPE IS DRAWN IN LINES
DAMS BREAKING & THE KEYS THAT UNLOCK THE AIR…
“hope is drawn in lines
as if there were some predictable way we could use
the forces of nature to take us
precisely to the place we want to be”
“This is a fairy tale” begins Ursula LeGuin’s beautiful short story, ‘Unlocking the Air’, “People stand in the lightly falling snow. Something is shining, trembling, making a silvery sound. Voices sing. People laugh and weep, clasp each one another’s hands, embrace”. It is set in a historically troubled land and is about the ways that people act together from love and solidarity and courage to bring political change in a world of trouble and a history of oppression and cruelty.
We live in difficult, broken times. We face big trouble and flail around for solutions. Activism. Polarisation. Kickback. Information. Disinformation. New visions and big plans. But we won’t get there with our habitual ways of perceiving, Nora Bateson tells us. Our stories, scripts, habits and ways of seeing hold a myriad of actions — some small and accumulative; some networked and unpredictable; some mythical, symbolic and archetypal.
The wisdoms we need come to us over time, and at a cost. Learning can be hard, and requires rigour as well as direction. I’ve been finding this out over the recent months. I have seen people I know die and fall sick. As Lockdown started to bite, though I was not living alone like so many others, my separation from family — my grandchildren, my daughters, my Dad in a care home nearly 400 miles way — started to do things to my mind.
I have always had hope, I think, that just as COVID had brought deep and unexpected change, so there will be change in the future that will take us to a new place. And I’ve read enough of Ursula LeGuin and other speculative fiction writers to know that the place we might arrive at will be very different from where we have been! That is learning that comes from deep imagination, and learning that comes from engaging earnestly and honestly with difficulty and change.
In our civilisation’s culture, hope is always drawn in lines; yet, the lines cannot be drawn: we cannot simply plan our way from A — B.
“We do not”, wrote Gregory Bateson (Nora’s father), over 50 years ago, “live in the sort of universe in which simple lineal control is possible. Life is not like that”. Or, to put it differently, as one of LeGuin’s student rebels says as they debate political tactics: “When the dam breaks? You have to shoot the rapids! All at once!”
The dam that has held our civilisation has broken — or is breaking — and the water will rush downstream, carrying us all. We cannot and will not choose our direction — but we can find ways of going with the flow. And, even though many of us want to make change — to save the world, whatever that might mean to us — we cannot ever know what our activism really means, nor be sure which actions will unlock that change. We can only trust the moment.
For Nora Bateson, life — and change — is in what she calls the Warm Data: in the unknown, unexpected, relational, transcontextual, loving and conversational meetings between people and the land and the story and the information and the moments of now and then and will be.
“This is a love story”, writes LeGuin and in her city’s story, the crowds meet day-after-day outside the Palace to quietly turn their troubled land towards hope: “This is the truth. They stood on the stones in the lightly falling snow and listened to the silvery trembled sounds of thousands of keys, being shaken, unlocking the air, once upon a time”.
In our culture, there are keys galore — multiple solutions to multiple problems and a growing plethora of opinions — but each opens only one door at best. Indeed, there may be as many keys as people — as organisms — and it may be that we can only ever unlock the specific room of our ‘self’. Yet even this won’t do — for ‘change’ exists only the relational spaces between us and each other and the world, and with what Gregory Bateson called ‘systemic knowledge’.
Hope can be groovy, in two ways. It be can be cool and surprising, carrying endless patterns and eddies as it flows downstream — or it can be stuck in habitual lines grooved into our lives and thinking (the new ‘normal’). The first carries potential; the second leads to more of the same, but with less and less energy and cohesion.
It is understandable that we want to make sense of the world — even to find some sense of certainty — but this is an unrealistic and ultimately hopeless task. It seems to me that LeGuin’s story tells us something about the way that change grows, in the face of fear, and enabled by love. We are surprised by circumstances, and surprise ourselves, perhaps, at what collective hope can generate.
So we can draw hope in lines and polarities which lead nowhere, and draw up plans and directional programmes that get caught in endless loops and disagreements. Or we can go with the flow and see the bigger picture; accept that the dam is breaking and that we have to shoot the rapids:
…”at impossible speeds in waves and rushes of impression
and facilitated diffusion
that are experienced in humans as exhilaration
and love and improbable impossible connections
and so we learn hope is never drawn, but surges forth”.
The poetry lines are taken from my poem, Hope is Drawn in Lines, published online in my COVID poetics series on Medium, and inspired by my work with Nora Bateson and others on the Warm Data Host Training, August 2020.
The quotes from Gregory Bateson are from his lecture ‘Conscious Purpose versus Nature’, given in August, 1968, to the London Conference on the Dialectics of Liberation, and collected in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Nora Bateson’s essays and reflections can be found at https://medium.com/@norabateson and more on her Warm Data work at: https://www.warmdatalab.net and her book: Small Arcs of Larger Circles, Triarchy Press, 2016.
The story, ‘Unlocking the Air’ by Ursula LeGuin is collected in ‘The Unreal & The Real, Selected Stories Volume 1: Where on Earth’.