The Fire Bible Archive

40before40, Writing Blog

Writing a bible for the wrongness

February already. Life can be frittered away, S was saying on the phone last night, and as I was saying to H in my letter earlier yesterday. We need to challenge ourselves not to rest too long with the container we create in the first half of life, and think about what it is we want to fill that container with. The largeness of our actions is created not by the ego but by the soul. I realised speaking to S that I want to am challenging myself: to progress as a professional writer, to be an animal advocate. Not everything needs to be a challenge; but I am not content with having lived a passive life.

Passively curious. Passively engaged. The narrator in my most recent novel is passive. There is a great difference between passive and active curiosity/living. The narrator in my new novel is active. He wants something. And yet what he wants and what he needs are not the same thing. What he gets, something else entirely.

A friend asked me an interesting question yesterday. In the new novel I’m currently sketching out, my main character, David, is writing a secular bible for the future. What does this bible in the novel mean to me, my friend asks?

For my protagonist David, it means he is being active—actively writing, actively not giving up on the future. He writes in the hope (and sometimes despair) that words can change things. He writes because, like most writers, there is a compulsion to do so. But he writes as well because in his world, words are the posts of a fence that he is trying to put up around a safe space where he, his partner, and their animals can find safety. It is perhaps one of the reasons why people have always told stories and, later on, marked those stories down. What he discovers is the unpredictable nature of written words. They are never secure in themselves, not good as fence posts. They  always mean something else, there is always a gap in the border you want them to make. They  always make something other than you’d hoped for happen. Greater, lesser. You can follow a line, but that does not mean it is solid stone. That’s the alchemy.

For me, the author, I want to interrogate this idea. Because I’m often torn between beliefs that to write is to act, and to write is not enough. Not now. And yet writing is the only thing I do, as Gloria Steinem said, that “when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

It doesn’t mean one can’t be an advocate or activist. But then what one writes about is body, and writing is host.

The bible in the book. It is not so much about the religious connotations of it being a bible; that in the Beginning was the Word. And yet I am also interested in the power of ritual; as a secular society one of the things we have lost are the rituals that are so important to indigenous cultures and which mark and help us through the passages of life. Both Richard Rohr and Geoff Mead, if I read them correctly, believe we are a much poorer culture for the loss of meaningful ritual to help guide our souls towards largeness. Don’t become lethargic, as James Hollis says. Honour the rituals you have inherited, and keep your ancestors close.

The bible is also a means for my character David to work out what went wrong (the “wrongness,” as Margaret Atwood has put it in The Year of the Flood) with the world, and to think about how it could be better, how it could be put right.

For me it is about words as activism, words as change. Writing as an act of enough-belief. I do not want to create a parody, without any real meaning, as Atwood has done. I am not keen on her sci-fi books at all—certainly in comparison to Le Guin.

And yet I continue to struggle with this idea that writing will change things; that it is a valuable thing to do; I suppose I need David to wrestle with that idea so he can teach me something about it, the struggle. He writes out of… faith? Perhaps. And yet in the collapsed future he inhabits, what good will it do. ‘No cities,’ says Apollo in the very last episode of Battle Star Galactica when the wanderers, the refugees, finally find Earth. What he means is no civilisation, no institutionalising of beliefs. No books. No rules, no guides. They are always co-opted, always bureaucratized. But David has a compulsion to write, to do this. As I do. It is a risk that your words will engulf you.

And yet the calling to write won’t get any louder than this. This is the act; this is the calling. I write everyday, and so does David. It feels good (not always easy). To write feels to be in service to what I hope for the world. A world with less suffering, and a world where the Great Mistake of humankind—to think we are apart from and above nature—to think only with our egos—is overcome. To be a New Nature writer. To be an advocate for animals. To write stories that charge people to think of the present moment. Writing as beacon. David believes it is, and Esther believes in David, and together their animals and homestead trust them. So they must be doing something right.

*

And so how did I do this week, in the utopia of writer’s habits that is my 40before40 challenge? I realise that documenting the whole process will be rather boring for readers; hence why it may generally come at the end of something that seems to me far more interesting.

In commitment to active writing, I found pleasure in writing by hand, as I wrote letters to H (x2), Nish for her birthday, and to my friend Jill Clough, while also having an afternoon doing nothing. I submitted three pieces of work to competitions and submissions: a flash fiction ‘Soil’ to the Tube Flash project, and two extracts from the novel, noted above, to Myriad Editions and Unpsychology magazine.

In commitment to what one of my favourite authors, David Mitchell, refers to as omnivorous inspiration (the only thing omnivorous in my life), I thought about sentinels, inspired by Stevie Ronnie and Susannah Pickering’s poetry launch, and saw John Challis’ debut as a playwright with The Next Train to Depart. I also listened to two new albums, William Basinski’s Garden of Brokenness and Jonsi and Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, without distraction, while seeing the RIFF/T exhibition at Baltic 39 with my friend K.

I finished two books on the mid-life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and Geoff Mead’s Coming Home to Story)—reviews to follow. And I read two poetry collections, The Point of Waking by Cora Greenhill, and the as yet unpublished manuscript What Things Are by Agnieszka Studzinska, coming out this April/May, I hope. Oh, and I’ve watched three short films – Aisha’s Song, Minka, and the work of Toronto Pig Save on their channel.

In commitment to my social self, I met a new person, a 74-year-old Pete Doherty, who’s a runner, and whose story that he’s going to run the Newcastle Park run on his 75th birthday has inspired a new piece of flash fiction. I’ve had three proper conversations, with my friend E on her plans to do a PhD, with K, and with my friend S on not frittering away your life. And I’ve removed one thing (old towels) from my home. I’ve also given five presents: a book on insomnia to a suffering friend, the found poem for Nish, candles for my neighbours to apologise for a noisy dinner party, and the collected short stories of John Updike for H’s birthday (belated). And a picture frame for K’s art.

In commitment to others, I donated $5 to the fund to pay for Bonny the dog’s medicine, to Sea Shepherd and Toronto Pig Save. And I had five friends round for a new vegan recipe (black bean burgers from Isa Moscowitz’s Isa Does It), made a present (a found poem, ‘Dolabella’) for my friend Nish’s birthday.

In commitment to my soul self, I gave up one fantasy of a different life, handing back some goods from a friend who lent them to me which were talismans for that misplaced life. I took one walk with the ecological self around the Newcastle Town Moor, I’ve gone eight days without alcohol, and begun meditating, and committed an hour to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul process.

Activism, Novel Writing, The Fire Bible, VB40, Writing

World Vegan Day (of the Dead)

“If you could plant one seed,” David asks Esther, “what would it be?”

He didn’t mean the seed of a vegetable or flower; but he suppose he might have, and that she would respond like that. She was always far more literal than he was. Her favourite joke was the one where a woman, after being with her boyfriend for two years, asked him, “Should we talk about the future?” And he replies, “what, you mean flying cars and things?” Even though for them it was the other way round. David was always the one worried about the future.

It was November 1st. It used to be the day before his birthday, when they remembered birthdays, when then was still a calendar. David carries an old almanac and records the passage of days in it. It was also World Vegan Day, he remembers suddenly, when there was collective action, when there were vegans, when there was something that resembled a world into which celebrations or commemorations could be brought to mind, with some conjuring of pleasure, peace. World Vegan Day. It made no sense any more.

“Any seed,” she says. She is thinking. She has crossed her legs and is pointing her toes. Beyond her the tall pines are swaying in a light wind that has picked up suddenly. He sniffs the air for scents, human, animal. There is only the sap.

“It doesn’t have to be literal,” he says. He is thinking all of a sudden of an article he read once, by an academic he used to like, someone who wrote about animals, he read it, he realises, exactly on this date, November 1st, many years ago. He was an academic then. He had begun to care. And then it all got fucked up anyway, and the world collapsed, but he’d been caught caring and it stuck, like that old childhood scare story of pulling a face one too many times and it sticking.

“The tasks we perform to reproduce our biological existence are all politically and culturally relevant,” wrote the academic James Stanescu, in his article. “What food to eat and how to eat it, what shelters to build and how to arrange them, what clothes to wear and when to wear them: these are markers or culture; these are all markers of the political.”

And he thought at the time–and what about who to love and how to love them? Who to communicate with and how we communicate with them?

“You know what today used to be?” Esther asks him, out of the green-blue sky that is still swinging, shifting behind her head. He is startled. He did not think she would know either what day it was in the old calendar, nor remember that they were once not the only two vegans on the planet. At least the continent.

“Dia de Muertos,” she says. He is confused. She cocks her head at him, smiles. “The Day of the Dead. In Mexico. Remember? They all get dressed up. Like Hallowe’en. They celebrate the lives of the family and friends they’ve lost.”

He is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the clearing. Below him he watches an ant, oblivious, walk across a grass stalk. Maybe she went to Mexico with other people, he thinks, before he arrived. But there were enough Mexicans in Santa Cruz to mark the occasion, of course. The students would have picked up on the theme.

“I remember,” he says. “You know it’s World Vegan Day, too. Was.”

She looks at him, and doesn’t turn away. “It still is.”

“Is it?”

She leans over and takes his hand. “While we are still here. Yes.”

“So it’s the day of the dead too,” he says. “Still.”

“And your birthday,” she says. She smiles. “Well, tomorrow of course. Did you think I would forget?”

He laughs despite himself. Why despite? Because, outrageously, there is the hope that she has made him a present. Even a cake? No, impossible. But a present. And for a moment he has a surge of pleasure in his gut, that rushes through into his chest, that it is all okay, that it is still 2014 or 2017 before they lost the sanctuary, and he has to turn away because there are at least two conflicting measures of hurt and love in his face and to be the spectacle of grief, all of a sudden, on this day, when she is being so caring, would drive him insane.

She sits back, turns away. It was too late, anyway.

“Mourning,” she says, after a while, after they have both listened to the absences of the forest for a little while, long enough. “Corpses. The seed of remembering the dead.”

So we don’t lose any more,” he says quickly.

“So we can get on with loving,” she says instead.

She stands up, and offers her hand. He takes it. She pulls him up, and then walk a little way, leaving their gear, but no-one is close, they have smelt nothing, heard nothing, they are safe here tonight. They walk a little way through the trees, the dead pine needles soft underfoot, and they find a small rise from where they can look back down over the valley they have passaged. And they are both thinking, he knows, of their flock and pigs, of Bruce and Django, of Pale and King, of Lucy, of each of the animals they had taken in and cared for before the raid happened, and they were all slaughtered, and he could hear the moans of the three cows, a sound people used to think was normal, but what was ever normal in that world? And for some reason he thinks of a woman who was a friend once, who became over-dependent, and manipulative, and how he spent weeks frustrated with her, angry, until he learnt the Buddhist trick of carrying around with him a spoon to pick up and put down again like unwanted thoughts and emotions, to wash the spoon when done with, in forgiveness. To forget. How much energy and life he wasted on anger. And yet if he met the people now who took his animals, who slaughtered them with no compunction nor grace nor compassion, he would kill them, still. Carve their hearts out with that spoon.

“I didn’t think you’d come up with an abstract noun,” he says to Esther.

She laughs as loudly as she had done in a long while. Doubles up, even. He laughs too. She stands, kisses him.

“And there was me thinking I was not the romantic,” she says.

*

Later, before it gets too dark, he begins to write in the new bible. He is recalling as well as he can the words he remembers from that article he read on this day however many years ago–seven or eight, he thinks. But no, he can work it out. Today is November 1st 2018. So it could have been, only… he was in Santa Cruz. Working. It must have been 2013. The year of the badger cull in England. The year Tyson Foods sold their production to the Chinese. The year he thought it had begun, this awakening to what they were doing. The year before he had the idea for the sanctuary. Or rather, he smiles, not the idea, but the compulsion, and the accident of Bruce, the feisty Toggenburg, a beautiful sage coat, once he’d recovered from the abuse, once they had fed him, and gained his trust.

So he recalls as well as he can. It is the right subject, full of earth, and soil, and sadness. It is a lesson he wants the future to remember that he remembered.

Earth Ch. 23 V.3: Seeds of Mourning
“Mourning sets up connections. The most obvious one is toward the precarious life we are grieving. But mourning also has the possibility of introducing a community, a social reality of those who also mourn the passing of that life. We who mourn other animals, particularly those killed by humans for humans, are going to have to risk much for our recognition of that mourning. The first hope is the more we talk about it, the more we risk our social intelligibility, the more we will find others who will mourn with us, we will find others who understand the loss of these others. As we strive to make ghostly connections to slaughtered animals real, we will also make connections with others. In this sense, the social intelligibility of mourning is never permanent, but exists at every iteration of mourning. It can be changed at any moment, and every time we iterate that grief is a possibility for that change.” – James Stanescu, Summer 2012.

Mourning is perpetual, he adds in his own coda to this Verse.

Can one live in perpetual mourning? He looks up, sees Esther whittling at another icon. He remembers the touch of her hand, the hardness of her skin. Her words from earlier. While we are still here. Yes.

(Extract from a work in progress, a novel about boy-meets-girl as the world collapses and their attempts to build a sanctuary for animals in the new future)

Image (C) Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals