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Gemma, Winter Solstice 2022:
solace and encouragement

Gemma marks the winter solstice, and the tilt from darkness towards light, tucked up at home after a dawn foray into the Dartmoor squall. Reflecting on the year passing out and the one to come, she finds solace and encouragement in Six Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Livable Planet – the work of David Schenck and Larry R Churchill – one of the many wonderful things shared with New Constellations during our journeys (thank you Peter Macfadyen for this one).

Made by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


Well, that didn’t go quite to plan. I’m now back home tucked up under a duvet and it’s all snug and cozy. And it’s rather nice, I have to say. Best laid plans and all that.

But there was something very cyclical about this morning because we live in this tumbling down house that we need to fix. And when we first moved in there, the first time we met our neighbours was… we walked up to the Stone Circle, which is this Bronze Age stone circle about a aouple of miles from our house up the hill, up onto the moor. And it was freezing cold. And that day we also huddled together like penguins, and we went back to our neighbours’ house and got worn by the fire and that was the moment that we started to get to know them. And three years on now, a pandemic sandwiched in the middle, and we went up again this morning for the solstice dawn, walked up through again, incredibly cold, rain and wind those biting icicles of rain to the stone circle. A few drenched people huddled around some playing drums. Sounded a bit damp this morning and there we were all together again.

It’s also the day in some ways that we are moving out of the house in order to fix it up. And we’ve moved into a much smaller, much warmer, much cozier place in the middle of the town or village that we live in. Not so close to the moor, surrounded by people rather than trees and rivers. And that very much feels like the end of one cycle in the beginning of another. At least a chapter. And it was sad to leave it, but it was ready. It was telling us it was ready, it was falling apart to the extent that it was not safe to live in anymore. And so there’s something quite satisfying about knowing that there’s no more eking out of a phase or a chapter. It’s done. And so we’re starting a new one.

For New Constellations. Um, it feels like it’s been, this year, a big cycle. It feels like we’ve done some really meaty pieces of work and we’re not the same people coming out of this year as we were when we went into it – in a good way. Not in a way that’s always been easy, in a way that’s seen us challenged, has seen us experience radical uncertainty in the way that we all are a staple of the world at the moment. But in a way, that has felt good.

Those elements of growth and growing pains that might not always feel comfortable or straightforward, but feel really good, feel really developmental, really evolutionary. And we’ve now had the chance to really hone the journey methodology, this idea of casting out into the unknown to consider what guides us, you know, what principles guide us at present and why they’re leading us in a perilous direction. And to look at what we want to replace those… how we reorient towards a set of principles or code that we can build the future in a way that will enable true flourishing, both of human life and other life on this planet.

I’m sure everyone will relate to that feeling of a burst of, you know, activity, a lot of doing and trying and experimenting and adapting. And so now there’s a real need to bring that back to see what ingredients, you know, are there to see how we can remake and remould in many ways, bring things together in ways that we haven’t tried, deepen our understanding of each stage of the journey and the kind of intellectual, and practical underpinnings of each bit. And in a way rework it for the next phase so that there’s something which is, a new and deeper version. Something that builds off what we’ve done this year, but attunes it even more deeply to the times that we’re living in and what we are understanding is needed from those we are engaging with across all those different, you know, very different groups and aspects.

And there was something that came up actually in the, uh, in the last retreat of the Bold Dreams journey. It was raised by a lovely man called Peter who, amongst many other things, is a passionate composter, lover of the soil and also one of the founders of Flatpack Democracy. Which was a movement to bring local government, local administration back into the hands of people who cared passionately about bringing about transformative change on a kind of hyper-local, hyper-community level. It’s a really, really interesting thing to look into. Anyway, Peter, shared this, article with us. And the article was written by, I think two medical doctors or academics, practitioners, from the United States, both of whom had considerable experience working with people who were dying with end of life and looking at this from a medical ethics point of view. And they applied their professional and academic background and perspective to the question of how to live in a barely habitable planet. And they came up with five maxims, which Peter shared with us. They’re really sticky. They keep coming back to me and, I think they’re really, really helpful as a way of thinking about what’s been so rich in this past cycle and thinking about how we can go deeper in the next.

But the five are, number one: work hard to grasp the immensity. So in a similar to what, in a similar way as people who are nearing the end of their life, what that means in terms of the depth of profundity, the depth of awareness of a life lived, a life coming to an end of love, of regret, of loss, of all of these things. The completeness of that awareness. They are both saying that in this moment with the interlocking crises, the polycrisis that we face, we have to continue to work hard to grasp the immensity of it. I love this. It’s something that we’ve tried to do in the journey with the different groups that we’ve worked with, to provide a space or create a space in which people can help each other to work hard to grasp the immensity of it. It’s a really hard thing to do. There are glimpses. Some days you’ll feel it and it feels as if you are holding the true immensity of what we are facing. But often it’s impossible to contain that or to feel it, be it, think it. And so often we vacillate between an alive awareness of that immensity and something that is more subliminal, working at us sometimes in a good way, one that’s motivating and cuts through and sometimes in a difficult way one that’s saddening and alarming and brings fear, anxiety.

The second is to cultivate radical hope. There are many thinkers that we love, whether Rebecca Solnit or adrienne maree brown or Joanna Macy, Margaret Wheatley… There’s, there’s lots of thinkers and practitioners who are, who have written a lot, thought a lot about the importance of radical hope and the fact that, if we only operate from, and work from a place of fear, we are going to end up with a future that is far from the one that we need that can sustain us, certainly that we dream of. And so to cultivate, not just practice, but cultivate that feels more generous. It feels more proactive. It feels like it’s something we do with and for others.

The third, and this one I found the hardest actually, to kind of truly comprehend, is to have a line in the sand. And the way they describe this is that from their experience of end of life care and, people who are terminally ill and coming to terms with the end of their life, that one of the most important things is for people to understand the point at which they believe that life is no longer worth living, that their quality of life is no longer enough to sustain a conscious life. And so here too, they suggest that one of our maxims should be to have a line in the sand to ask us what is the point at which we would all choose actually that a certain kind of life would be untenable, unliveable, whether that’s for us or our grandchildren. And that actually if we were to set that line in the sand and to realise how quickly it’s barreling towards us, perhaps that would enable us to act with more decisiveness, to actually stay with that immensity more frequently, more deeply, not to compromise so much, not to sublimate what we really feel to the chug, chug, chug of the every day. but it’s a tough question. Where would we, where would you, where would I draw a line in the sand?

The fourth maxim is to appreciate the astonishing and unique opportunity. It is an astonishing and unique opportunity. It is. And as things are breaking apart, there is also an opportunity for renewal and to correct the things that we have been doing that have been innately brutal and harmful to each other and to the planet to bring our way of life back into sync with the other living systems of the planet. That is a unique and astonishing opportunity. There’s a lot at stake and nothing is for granted, but it’s there and it feels alive.

And the fifth maxim is to train your body and to train your mind. This idea that to cope, to be able to function, let alone thrive, to be able to have agency in this time of radical uncertainty, a flux of existential threat, we are going to have to become far more adept at, or attain far greater mastery of our bodies and our minds, and the relationship between those two things. Rational intelligence can only get us so far now, we need to be working constantly with our cognitive mind and with our body and the interplay between them, and get far more sophisticated at practices that weave almost like an infinity loop up and down between the two, all the time. And that’s something that personally I’ve been learning much more about from a number of amazing people, that we’ve worked with, that we’ve come across, and been deeply grateful for those lessons and those learnings.

So those five maxims seem to me to neatly reflect some of the things that we’ve been trying to do – imperfectly, obviously – over the course of last year, and which really, really ring true to me in terms of what can animate this next cycle as well. And that’s exciting.

I’m excited looking forward with a little team with a growing kind of constellation of collaborators, of beautiful, talented people that we’re starting to work with around us, with people that we’re partnering with more frequently, with those that we’re learning from this rich web. And it’s exciting to be part of those interconnections and to be able to see that process of reciprocal enrichment that happens of support, of holding each other up when there’s a feeling of depletion and of the opportunity to take stock and to say that was an attempt, that was a shot at it, but there’s so much more we can do. And how to take things apart again and learn again and look at them afresh again and put them back together in ways that feel fresher and deeper and stronger and have more potential to truly meet this moment so that we are not just talking about what’s needed in terms of transformation in abstract terms that could relate to anything, but we are really meeting that. We are really staying with that trouble. We are really working hard to grasp the immensity we are looking at straight in the eye. And we’re doing our best because it won’t be perfect. It won’t be steady. It won’t always be consistent, but we are doing our best to meet it and do what we can.

What’s come up in a lot of the conversations that we’re having is the importance of family and community and friendship. And of weaving those relationships of love and joy and support as the bedrock to everything. And so on this winter solstice tucked up out of the hail and the wind and the driving rain, having trodden in those footsteps that so many thousands of people must have this morning up to that stone circle on that same morning. To see a son that may or may not have been apparent all marking the end of one cycle, all celebrating the point at which the light begins to return. All understanding that the cycles of life are such an enormous part of us and something that will be blessed if we’re able to reconnect to and return to more.

Wish you all a beautiful solstice.

An end to one chapter and all the possibility of a new one.