Have you been feeling weird recently? Like the world doesn’t seem to fit anymore? Is it you? Is it the world? And what is up with everyone else?
I’ve been looking around at the chaos, confusion, conflict and sporadic commitment and wondering: are our hearts really in this anymore?
In what? In anything? Or is there a collective panic we’re trying to keep under wraps? Because I have a sneaking suspicion, I am not alone.
I’m not really sure what I was doing before the pandemic; I do know I was busy. I remember that much. Too busy to notice, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had invested everything in a cultural myth that progress is of paramount importance. It’s a priority. More, more, more, please. Forward momentum.
As long as I was going onward, I was getting there. That I didn’t know where there was or whether it was worth arriving at, was beyond me, and so I bumbled on, assuming the pay-off would eventually come if I kept at it long enough.
I suppose it’s like an improv scene where we just keep adding more and more, cramming it full of stuff, until the scenario is so unrealistic we’ve lost any sense of grounding.
And yet somehow we hope with more, we can do whatever it is we need to do. What was it that we needed to do again? Progress.
But this chaotic controlling scene really started thousands of years ago, when an old Ancient Greek guy with a beard initiated by deciding we should care more about our minds than our bodies. Talking heads, we call it in improv when two improvisers stand facing each other thinking and speaking with their mouth-holes.
And so thousands of years ago that rotten seed was planted: we should be logical and rational over being intuitive. Ever since, other thinking guys have chimed in too, to suggest man must command nature and use the resources around him for his own ends. And that all other living things to man must be thought of as a resource.
It is a sobering thought how our most seemingly fundamental sounding modern-day myths in the West, leading us down the sliding slope to mass extinction, are based on the musings of a handful of dead dudes like Plato and Descartes who had deluded ideas about how it all ‘should’ work for the ‘benefit’ of man.
This is our inheritance. And for some reason that seems mindless, we’ve continued to accept it, even though we know deep down it’s no good. It’s rotten to the core.
I’ve been feeling for a long while something is wrong. I thought it was me because the myth of individualization taught me to do so. I have been throwing everything I have at putting myself right. The thing is, the more and more processing I have done to heal myself, I have still not been able to shift the feeling of being off-kilter. And if anything, my need for progress has slowed to a crawl.
And then it dawned on me what is happening… I am waking up.
“In every generation there are people who fall out of the dominant cultural myth, but today it seems that there are more than ever before. And that’s because our cultural myths are dying. If we cast aside the veil we habitually wear to shield us from our unendurable everydays, and look around with clear and wide-open eyes, it’s not a thriving, vibrant Western civilisation that we’ll see, but rather the consequences of the increasingly rapid disintegration of a morally degenerate guiding mythology. We might be richer but we’re certainly not happier, and the world around us is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket.”Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life
During Lockdown One, I started taking long walks in the woods. And it was time with trees that began to change me. The magnitude of them helped me feel small. Because we need that. We need to have that individualization awed right out of us. It was like coming home to the world. I felt like one of the doughy people in WALL-E, tipped out of my floaty chair. There was a big, wide expanse I didn’t see. Why didn’t I remember it was here?
By the time Lockdown Three rolled around, I wasn’t allowed to go so far as the woods, so instead, I ran around the streets in a tight radius of my home until I ended up in a large graveyard. This was the closest I could get to a wild space. Squirrels and birds and even foxes scampered about the tombstones. There were some beautiful old trees. Maybe I couldn’t feel as small as when in the woods but I could feel alive. And that was what I craved most of all.
I stood under the fir trees as it snowed. I saw the first of the crocuses. I met robins. And a thought dawned on me: maybe to feel alive isn’t a big exuberant feeling, after all. Maybe to feel alive is to feel small; maybe it is a quiet acceptance. Maybe it is to feel at peace with one’s nature. To feel truly with nature.
“Change begins with individuals, and it begins with imagination. It begins with a different story which succeeds in capturing the imagination more effectively than the now-crumbling old story.”Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life
Around this time, a friend sent me a link to a new course that Katy Schutte was starting: The Mythic Improv Journey. Three words that felt close to my heart. My friend knew that I, like many people during lockdowns, had been finding solace in nature. And this course aimed to harness that. She also knew I’d been feeling lost.
During the year ahead, the course met every six to eight weeks or so to coincide with the agricultural festivals and equinoxes. Katy would tell us about the mythology and traditions surrounding that time of year; we’d share observations of nature and we’d set intentions. We’d also connect through pair work using intuition, and we’d improvise as a whole group inspired by the imagery and stories for that season.
I really came to look forward to the sessions. They were magical to me. I enjoyed check-in much more than I did with other classes as we had more time to devote to it and I enjoyed making meaningful observations about where I was at. It was hard to shake the idea of progress but as time went on I realised that each of us ebbed and flowed. There were seasons where we’d be struggling, like when I shared I’d been having trouble with fatigue, and other times when we could celebrate our joy, like when I was excited to discuss my daily yoga routine.
It all helped me acknowledge, like the moon, how we too waxed and waned. And that comparisons at any given time were futile because we all had a different tide chart to our lives. Constant progress came to seem ridiculous. Of course, it couldn’t work. It doesn’t exist in nature. And we are nature. We are not an exception to the rules, however much we strive to be. We are not machines. We are life.
“It’s the people who I think of as the ‘mythical misfits’, then , who kickstart the transformation of the world, and who begin to imagine more sustainable and meaningful ways of living. Today’s mythical misfits… are rejecting a culture which values neither intuition or imagination, which values neither the living land nor its non-human inhabitants. They’re deserting the stagnant institutions, and creating communities which celebrate life rather than destroying it. When the great blazing bonfire of a culture goes out, what remains are a few individual flames. When those individual flames come together, we can kindle a new fire.”Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life
Reading Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life inspired me in lots of ways but this particular section really made me think about how we come together to improvise, how we bring our own creative spark to meet with the sparks of fellow improvisers. How we honour intuition and imagination. For me, improv has really helped me rekindle these quashed parts of myself.
The Mythic Improv Journey gave us the opportunity to celebrate nature – something more expansive – nature in ourselves but it also gave us the chance to celebrate each other, ritual, and community.
And it is still going on. Now in its second year. We create improv sets that are supportive and that celebrate life and its many stages and cycles. For me, the quality of the improv isn’t a priority here. It is about having fun with storytelling, transforming folklore, and finding light and dark in every season.
I do believe modern myths about individualization, constant progress and continuous growth are crumbling. They are unsustainable. What we have been through in recent years has shone a light on the cracks. How we live is no longer working – not for the whole, not for each of us. We have lost our way.
I am no stranger to losing my way. Even last week I tried to take a train to meet a friend but it was cancelled. So then, was the following one. I realised I’d have to walk. I didn’t know the streets as well as I thought I did. I took a wrong turn and ended up journeying a substantial distance in the opposite direction. It took a while to accept I was lost. I didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want to observe how much ground I’d have to recover, didn’t want to lose face.
Eventually, though, I had to acknowledge it was the only way to get to where I needed to be. I took a turn along another path. It led me to a road I recognised and I then had to walk back. I was frustrated and tired and cold. A man appeared on the pavement ahead who also seemed lost. Was everyone now lost? Had I stumbled into a land of the lost? I became frightened. How long would it take me to find my way?
But the closer I got to where I needed to be, I realised that all I’d really lost was a bit of time and that bit of face that I didn’t know my way as well as I thought I did.
Getting lost takes a toll but it is part of the journey.
We get lost sometimes in scenes, in shows, in life. It’s okay to admit when we are lost, it’s crucial in fact to finding our way. We cannot take a turn if we can’t admit we are lost.
There are times in improv scenes when there’s so much going on, that you can feel your head spin. We can lose sight of what this is really about or why it matters. I used to ignore that instinct and bumble along, hoping we’d eventually find our way. I didn’t want to admit to being lost. But now I just call it out or I accept it and let myself take the turn.
I recently did a scene in rehearsal where my scene partner and I were not only in conflict but also strangers in a transactional scenario. The two characters both had strong points of view and it was hard to see how they’d ever meet in the middle. They had such opposing life philosophies and I knew my character wasn’t going to back down because she was trying to protect her child. It seemed we had a stalemate situation.
Suddenly I had the urge to hug my scene partner and so without further ado, I did. It gave my scene partner the opportunity to present a change in their character’s emotional state too and we instantly knew why this scene mattered. We knew why these two characters were meeting here together. And we knew why they needed each other.
Both characters were lost. Mine was lost in desperation to keep her son from becoming the lost grown-up child in front of her. My scene partner’s character had lost all connection with where he came from, absorbed in a technology that told him what to do so he’d lost touch with his own instincts.
Although the scene ended shortly after the hug, I knew that my character was going to invite my scene partner’s character into her life and they would both find their way because they’d got through the hardest part: admitting they were lost. Their conflict was a cover-up for their fear.
I’ve been lost. I was lost. And I still get lost now.
What I have loved about the Mythic Improv Journey with Katy Schutte is it provides a space where we don’t judge being scared or lost, sometimes in pretty dark places. Instead, we ask: Where are you now? Where do you want to go?
Where are we now? Where do we want to go?
And what stories must we tell to get there?