Kelechi Anucha, a PhD candidate working on the relationship between time and care in contemporary end-of-life narratives as part of the Wellcome-funded research project Waiting Times at the University of Exeter, discusses our December workshop focused on the theme of ‘Care’ in which artist and writer Dr Amanda Thomson talked to us about her artistic practice.
As we reach the end of an incredibly rewarding year together as a network, as well as the second anniversary of the national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to reflect on our December 2021 workshop on ‘care’ by focusing primarily on Dr Amanda Thomson’s talk, ‘where we are, how we care’. Thomson’s talk introduced her rich interdisciplinary artistic practice, which explores the interrelation of place, belonging, the environment and migration, and the connection between attention and care, often within the context of the Scottish Highland landscapes which surround her home. This practice formed the basis of a productive discussion in which we explored what I interpreted as the slipperiness of care as a research object, due to its many forms, changing definitions and in some cases, its proximity to violence. The moments in which care is needed are often moments of intense vulnerability. The affectual difficulties and tangles of caring for the self, for others, and for our environment involves navigating conflict, pain, neglect and lack of resources, while resisting a neoliberal logic which associates care with individualism and consumption. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic emphasised the urgency of the material and practical dimensions of healthcare and the gap between medical care and a caring ethic in an economic landscape wracked by government austerity measures.
In preparation for the session we listened to Thomson’s episode of the Outsiders podcast, Life, Still, part of a BBC series in which five writers reflect on how the pandemic changed their relationship with the outside world [i]. Life, Still emerged from a longer written piece titled Still, Life, commissioned as part of Prelude 2020, a series in which five writers and five musicians respond to events of 2020, taking inspiration from William Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude [ii]. Reworked constantly over his lifetime and published posthumously, The Prelude is an autobiographical poem which charts Wordsworth’s intellectual, spiritual and creative development. The poem begins in his childhood and focuses on nature as a key theme. As a literary studies researcher, I was interested by this return to The Prelude in the context of reports of a surge of renewed interest in reading, with many people rereading or reattempting historically long and challenging texts [iii]. Life, Still seemed to echo patterns and narratives of repetition and return that emerged out of the time restructured and redistributed by the pandemic. However, these repeated encounters with texts, tasks, places and histories provide an opportunity to notice what is new or different as much as what stays the same: an important reminder of the constant and ambivalent potential of change. Life, Still’s textual and aural shifts between multiple sounds – birdsong and radio news broadcast samples – stages the tension between familiarity and radical difference, exploring Thomson’s creative practice and cycles of her daily routine in the broader context of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and unprecedented environmental change. Balancing this tension was framed as a difficult and ongoing process. This work is what Joan Tronto describes in her oft-cited definition of care as any activity we undertake ‘to maintain, continue, and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web’ (Fisher and Tronto, 1991, p.40) [iv].
I was inspired by the way Life, Still, and Thomson’s practice more broadly, shifts between and attempts to hold together the multiple and clashing temporalities of lockdown, while capturing the sudden heightened significance of outdoor spaces and our improvised daily routines during those early months of pandemic-related restrictions. This focus on experiences of slowness, stillness, cyclicality and waiting overlaps with the central themes of Waiting Times, a Wellcome-funded, multi-stranded, cross-institutional team research project about the temporalities of healthcare on which I am a doctoral researcher [v]. Our shared attention to psychosocial concepts of containment and ‘waiting with’ suggests that most unbearable times of waiting are those that are emotionally and temporally ‘un-contained’ and feel particularly fraught with abandonment [vi]. In psychoanalytic theory, containment describes how the ‘mother’ (or the analyst) supports the process of learning to digest raw emotions and thoughts by acting as a ‘container’ for the projection of the infant’s (or patient’s) psyche, often in moments of distress. The therapeutic offer is to ‘sit out’ distress in a contained environment (in the sense of waiting without taking action until a particular unwelcome situation or process is over), the analyst ‘waiting with’ the patient during the time of ‘working through’ [vii]. In psychoanalysis, ‘working through’ describes a process of repetition: going over and over familiar ground in the attempt to get closer to ‘what is difficult and painful to know about ourselves and others’ [viii]. Similarly, Life, Still illustrates the potential of the process of ‘waiting with’, expressed through patient attention to structures of repetition and return. Life, Still begins and ends with the ‘Granny Scots pines and the leafless birches’, tracing the rotation of the seasons and returning to the same scenes and places as a way of processing the turmoil of lockdown.
The act of naming stands out as a particular way of noticing and a pathway to attention and care in Thomson’s practice. Engaging with Thomson’s work introduced me to Granny Pines, ancient Scots pine trees over 200 years old, remnants of the Caledonian Forest; snags, which are dead or dying trees vital to the health of the forest ecology; and the Bladder Campion, a common wildflower beneficial for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, named after the bladder-like sac behind its petals (and apparently also a favourite food of wild hares). Scots dialect plays an important role in Thomson’s work. For example, her book A Scots Dictionary of Nature (2017) illustrates how a vocabulary can be shaped by the environment itself, and how dialect can reveal unique ways of seeing and being in the world [ix]. The unknown or unfamiliar name can offer insight into something new or existing, or perhaps give form to something developing, or even recall attention to something old and passing.
How does ‘where we are’ relate to questions of caring? In Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks writes ‘many folks feel no sense of place. What they know, what they have is a sense of crisis, of impending doom’ (hooks, 2008, p.1) [x]. The connection between displacement and an absence of wellbeing seems to suggest that reconnecting with environments might counteract the pressures of living under conditions of endless crisis. While the benefits of spending time in ‘green’ spaces are well documented, our discussions during the workshop also addressed how our collective desire to experience and reconnect with nature has been co-opted and commodified. Interventions which frame being in nature prescriptively, a ‘dose’ to be administered as part of a neoliberal logic of self-care, fail to address the structural issues which underpin ill health and unequal access to green space. Such interventions are reductive at best, and at their worst actively reinforce disharmony between communities and environments. Engaging with nature should not mean disengaging politically. As hooks writes, ‘naturally it would be impossible to contemplate these issues without thinking of the politics of race and class’ (hooks, p. 3).
Perhaps unexpectedly, returning as Thomson does to a discussion of Wordsworth’s The Prelude reinforces hooks’ perspective. At first glance, Wordsworth and other poets in the Romantic tradition are associated with the kind of care found in the natural idyll as a space of retreat. Lines 208 – 261 of The Prelude detail Wordsworth’s well-known theory of ‘spots of time’: epiphanic moments immortalised in memory through which ‘our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired’. However care is not synonymous with retreat as a form of political disengagement for Wordsworth and his peers considering their revolutionary commitments. While ‘spots of time’ occur within natural landscapes, they are not exclusively idealised. Instead, they are often deeply ambivalent experiences, signifying a dawning consciousness of social conflict as well as the themes of change, loss and the passing of time. The ambivalence of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’ invites us to recognise the complex but potentially transformative potential in attending to the natural world. Thomson’s artistic practices, involving patient observing, recording, noticing and naming in local natural environments, emerge as alternatives to idealised, elitist or apolitical constructions of nature-as-cure. In the introduction to the landmark anthology Black Nature, ecopoet and scholar Camille T. Dungy writes ‘there is no place in the land where one can idle inattentively or harbor romanticised views. Interactions with the natural world demand respectful, honest attention and vigilant care’ (Dungy, 2009, p. xxvi) [xi]. Moving the emphasis away from a logic of ownership and consumption works against an often racialised contraposition of the rural and urban, which, in a rehearsal of Victorian attitudes, positions the countryside as a retreat from the increasingly ‘dystopian’ life of crime and ‘poverty-ridden’ metropolitan centres, where populations are typically more racially diverse and less economically privileged. This distinction has only been re-energised by the pandemic, as reports of cities ‘abandoned by those with money’ amply demonstrate [xii]. Focusing on practices of attention, noticing and naming enfolds a far wider range of subjectivities and experiences, expanding the scope of possibility for useful encounters with nature.
The other workshop sessions led by writer Jacqueline Roy and film academic Dr Clive Nwonka also addressed the question of care. Both demonstrated how the act of naming relates to an appeal to attend and care more deeply. In our creative writing exercise and discussion, responding to Roy’s novel The Fat Lady Sings, we considered how non-western names are encountered in medical and institutional settings. I was struck by the way in which seeking the diagnosis of a condition is often an attempt to delimit a set of physical and psychological symptoms, giving these symptoms a name which will allow them to be talked about, treated, managed or rehabilitated on the one hand, or stigmatised or rejected on the other. Our discussion of the representation of Black injury and trauma in Nwonka’s session, centred on two films about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, also called attention to the role that the naming of the dead plays in mobilisation against anti-Black violence and the deep ambivalence that such strategies might produce.
Towards the end of the workshop, our discussion touched briefly on microbursts (2021), a collaboration authored by Thomson and writer Elizabeth Reeder. microbursts is a collection of lyric essays, reflections, artworks and photographs that address themes of death and dying, kinship, temporality and environment: themes I am also grappling with as part of my PhD thesis. Afterwards I learnt that a microburst is a meteorological event, ‘short-lived, usually lasting from about 5 to 15 minutes…relatively compact, usually affecting an area of 1 to 3 km’[xiv]. Microbursts have the potential to cause tremendous, albeit localised, damage. The microburst functions as an analogy of the experience of death and loss as a kind of crisis. I am interested in how the last few years have affected our collective understanding of crisis, and how this shift might relate to the permanent state of crisis Eric Cazdyn describes as characteristic of systems of global capitalism [xv]. This temporality of ongoing crisis adjusts our relation to time, forcing us to live in an eternal present, unable to organise or plan towards better futures. If crisis is anathema to slowness, reflection and rest, then practices of slowness, reflection and rest present themselves as an antidote to the temporality of ongoing crisis. In the work of Audre Lorde and in the wider tradition of Black feminist thought, rest is a central part of resistance, empowering individuals and communities to go on resisting, but also as a form of resistance in and of itself [xvi].
Thomson’s talk, ‘where we are, how we care’, prompted a reflection on creative practice and creative choices – for example, interdisciplinarity and intertextuality in form and method – in the context of the pandemic and wider forms of social, political and environmental challenges. Does the call to name, to notice and to attend always result in a deeper and more expansive practice of care for ourselves and others? The crisis discourses of the pandemic, of climate change, of racialised violence and institutional misconduct create fatigue, are overwhelming and can cause deep ambivalence about the future, even as they have galvanised and mobilised communities to organise for social justice and change. Care, in its fullness, integrates cycles of retreat and engagement. I valued the opportunity to frankly confront the conflicts around care brought to a head during the pandemic. Ultimately, our discussions during the workshop reinforced the ways in which care is an ongoing process of negotiation and balance.
[i] Thomson, Amanda, 2021. Life, Still. BBC Radio 4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000tfkb
[ii] Aerial Festival, The Quietus, The Willowherb Review, 2020. Prelude 2020. https://aerialfestival.com/prelude-2020/
[iii] See The Guardian, 2020. “Book sales surge as self-isolating readers stock up on ‘bucket list’ novels”. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/25/book-sales-surge-self-isolating-readers-bucket-list-novels, also The Guardian, 2020. “’It had been on my shelf for years’: readers share their lockdown reads”. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/06/it-had-been-on-my-shelf-for-years-readers-share-their-lockdown-reads.
[iv] Fisher, Berenice and Tronto, Joan C., 1991. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Care,” in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives eds. Emily Abel and Margaret Nelson. State University of New York Press.
[vi] Baraitser, Lisa and Salisbury Laura, 2020. “‘Containment, delay, mitigation’: waiting and care in the time of a pandemic” [version 2; peer review: 2 approved]. Wellcome Open Research, 5:129, p. 9 (https://doi.org/10.12688/wellcomeopenres.15970.2)
[vii] Freud, Sigmund, 1914. “Remembering, repeating and working-through (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II)”, in Standard Edition, 12. Hogarth Press.
[viii] Baraitser, Lisa, 2017. Enduring Time. Bloomsbury Academic.
[ix] Thomson, Amanda, 2020, Still, Life. https://aerialfestival.com/amanda-thomson-2/
[x] hooks, bell, 2008. Belonging: A Culture of Place. Routledge.
[xi] Camille T. Dungy, ed., 2009. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. University of Georgia Press.
[xii] See The Guardian, 2020. “Dystopia or utopia? The future of cities could go either way”. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/25/dystopia-or-utopia-the-future-of-cities-could-go-either-way.
[xiii] Thomson, Amanda, 2019. A Scots Dictionary of Nature. Saraband.
[xiv] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2012. microburst. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/microburst
[xv] Cazdyn, Eric, 2012. The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Duke University Press.
[xvi] Lorde, Audre, 2017. A Burst of Light: And Other Essays. Dover Publications.