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This week we bring you an intimate, personal letter of how to live and rediscover yourself during lockdown. It is close to our heart as it was written by U.Mi-1 friend and journalist/writer Allyn Gaestel, about how she learned to rediscover herself. This took place where Allyn lives and works, where U.Mi-1 has its soul: Lagos. Enjoy!
For those blessed to have a home they feel safe in, the pandemic is offering something essential to our personal and social evolution: Quiet. Rest. The real kind. The kind where we lay in bed indefinitely. We don’t ask ourselves to get up (where would we go, anyway?) and we rest so long that we blink and find ourselves standing, cooking, writing, photographing, dancing. We’ve moved past effort to the modality of effortlessness and flow. We sleep so long that we don’t need to anymore. And from this space we have the beautiful opportunity to observe ourselves.
If we relinquish all ideas of what we should be doing, what do we do? This might teach us what we are meant to be doing.
It is in Lagos that I learned how to rest. Lagosians rest. They talk about the need to, about the irresponsibility of not resting. They know about the interweave of physical, spiritual and mental exhaustion. That if we are too tired we can fall ill. That if we are depressed, we are tired. That our anger can break our selves and each other. From shopkeepers to luminaries, when there is free time, and we are tired, we rest. After major creative growth, artists here rest.
I am American. I grew up in Los Angeles in a home I did not feel safe in, so I never rested there. My feet, my wings, my mind took me as far as possible from that dark interior. Other people’s homes felt warm, but I was a guest, so I couldn’t fully rest. Otherwise I danced myself to freedom outside.
As I child I figure skated from five in the morning until I went to school. In high school I took extra seminars on ethics and religion in my free periods. I worked at Starbucks from the day I turned 16. I had three jobs in college. In my twenties I was a freelance journalist, so I traveled constantly. I spent years with no home, so my life was a mosaic of projects, few of which had a living stipend, which means I was always working. As long as I was working I was alive. This was the system I lived within. It sounds, on a micro scale, not unlike capitalism.
But, Lagos is a strenuous city, and and also, time is different here. So after I moved here I found myself confused to find myself reclined, often. My friends encouraged me to rest. From that supine position, incredible revelations occurred. Resting turns to writing very easily for me. But resting can also be scary; as this pandemic period is scary. We have to face the void, the absolute uncertainty that is in fact constant but that we build entire structures to defend against—especially in America—and, we have to face ourselves. In the quiet, all of our demons can surface (why else were we running all the time?)
Though I know it sounds heartless, when I look at the pandemic on a macro scale I think it is good. In the years I was a journalist I was constantly moving: from country to country, project to project, human rights crisis to war zone to cholera clinic to maternal death emergency. I saw pretty much the whole world, from the gilded quiet opulence of European streets paved in Colonial gold to the mines they were stolen from and the people living shortened lives in poisoned bodies. I saw the perpetual apocalypse of our present system. And our estrangement from our own humanity. I was annoyed at first to read Americans hand wringing about the apocalypse, now, when anyone who was looking was aware the way of life we built and chose has long been perpetually catastrophic.
But sometimes it takes a breakdown for us to face ourselves, to slow down enough to see and feel ourselves. I only stopped my perpetual running when I was forced to. A few years ago I was in a degenerating abusive relationship (again), my best friend was moving countries, my work was in chaos. The pain in my psyche made me rash and I broke me. I was running on just my tendons, and finally one snapped.
In that slow time, resigned to recline, the pain I had been fleeing enveloped me. I thought I was drowning. Everything I believed in, everything I built felt like it was crumbling. And so I began to excavate my underworld, to study my self, my shadows, and the cracks in my own system. Psychoanalysis and acupuncture and tui na and reflexology and meditation and yoga all surfaced wounds so devastating they cracked the roof of my mouth. I found grief, trauma, hypocrisy and violence on a devastating scale. Traumatic fugue states lasted days. Pain wafted off me like fumes. I had no sense of time at all. The past drowned me, the future looked terrifying or unimaginable, and my present was only pain. I’m describing my interior, but it sounds like our present social context.
So this is a love letter from Lagos to anyone suffering in physically comfortable interiors. A whisper that : there are other ways of organizing absolutely everything. From the calendar to our psyches to the economy itself to food distribution to how we care for each other. Everything can change, and, as I learned from my own profound healing process: when we heal our wounds we transform. The breakdown, if we work with it, can be the pathway to liberation.
As my spiritual center shifted to Lagos, I experienced time bending and stretching, histories layering, the future becoming visible if we learn to look closely at the present. (Clairvoyance comes from the French: to see clearly). My sense of time changed completely. So I was relieved when I learned about chronemics, which is the study of time. It is a concept I became obsessed with as I, reclined, encountered different time zones in my self.
Monochronic time is the way of telling time common in the US. It was created in the industrial revolution to regulate time codes. The clock, the calendar, the work week are constructs that started as tools and ended up controlling us. In the monochronic system time can be wasted, spent, and used. But the idea that time is a commodity is just one framework for reality. Polychronic time is different. Time is infinite. There are seasons. Many things are happening at once, and they land at the right moment. Another alternate system of time is kairos which means “the right time” and is contrasted with chronos chronological time.
Though we don’t know chronologically what date on the (constructed) calendar the pandemic will be over, if we believe in it—if we are open to experiencing other modalities of time—we can know that it will over at the right time. It will be over when it’s finished. And we can choose to suffer and resist the crumbling of our constructs, or, we can take this moment to face ourselves.
If this period is painful, if it is difficult to be with ourselves, we are offered the opportunity to encounter our interiors, to unspool ourselves, to take off our masks, and be with whatever is broken, whatever is perpetuating our suffering. If we are frightened, perhaps we can just feel frightened, and feel it all the way through, let it rip us, convulse us, shake us, until we’re done being frightened. Then we can investigate that fear. What are we afraid of? Here in this limitless, liminal space, what have we built our house of? What have we brought inside?
Everything that is bleeding in the world was already broken. The fissures in society, capitalist health care, bodies forced by inequality to be unfairly exposed. All of this was ever present in our deadly systems. But we were running on fumes; averting our eyes, or, devoting our lives to bandaging incessant bleeds. Suddenly the tendon snapped and now we see how broken everything has always been. The only way out is to face it, feel it, study it, and then release it so we can imagine something else. All of this takes time, but we have plenty. The silence might be the most productive thing on offer.
From a cosmological perspective, from a transformational perspective, it’s not our duty to get through this period, but to let this period do what it is here to do. To grow, to transform, to accept the medicine this pain is bringing. This too, is what this interior time offers us. Time to consider our structures, to see the ways they are not serving us, and realign them to allow us all to be nourished and cared for, free, and able to rest, always.
Years ago I wrote a note in cursive and left it on my desk: embrace the void. My first encounter with the void was fear, emptiness and loss. I walked along dark canals in Berlin with a poet who loved the void. He said that emptiness is like a womb, full of potential. I had no idea what he was talking about. Even my womb I had met in loss. The void felt like uncertainty which felt like nothing.
My first notes to self about the void started from that unease: do not fear the void. Later, as I met it, I graduated to embrace the void. And then, as I started leaning into all that is possible in the unknown, the unseen, I wrote demand the void. Protect the void. Those wide open hours in my office became full of things much broader, wider, freer than I had ever imagined when I constrained my future with all my plans.
I later starting telling my friends: if you’re wondering if there’s more, the answer is always yes. The void became not emptiness, but infinite, unspooling ideas and destinies and projects and expansion wider than I could have envisioned. My relationship to the world became much more supple and receptive. Pain became something not to fear, but something to study and untangle, something that softened my rigidities as it passed through and out of me.
In my uncomfortable early forays into leisure I realized that I had an underlying presumption that if I lay in bed as long as I wanted to, I would lay in bed forever. Why else would we force ourselves to get up? But in my explorations into unlimited reposing I discovered that in a life of no obligation, I still did things. I actually still did everything – I filed my invoices, I worked, I took care of my community, I took care of my body, I meditated. I ate well. All without force or effort. I discovered that I have the natural urge to do all of the things that society forced me to do, and I could just do them, without the force. As I followed my every inclination, every wonder and wander, I didn’t lose my mind, I found myself. I healed.
So when I watched the virus send everyone home, I smiled. As I watch the US straining with overrun hospitals facing bankruptcy without elective surgeries, and Nigeria tussling with the question of how to feed the masses so they can stay home. I think: what excellent questions, what useful skills we’re developing. People were already hungry. Our health system was already broken. That’s why we are facing a catastrophe. Because our systems don’t work for us. Journalists and scholars have been reporting, explicating and illustrating our social ills for years.
But sometimes it takes a breakdown to face what was already broken. And sometimes it takes many months of pondering to get past terror and into the dreamscapes, to allow ourselves to design future utopias. The future can be beautiful if we let it. Perhaps the revolution is reclined.
The home I built in Lagos I selected, curated, designed, and loved to be a space for thoughts to fly. A home to grow in. There are wide windows, golden light. The library is intentional and rich. When I returned this year I pruned it, and composted the books that offend me. It is a space in which to ponder and to practice what I call “the already extant other world”. There is a world within our world in which we are free. We find pockets of it: spaces, relationships (with others and with ourselves) in which we are allowed to be whoever we are right now.
Our definitions and identities stem from our own explorations into ourselves, our inclinations, histories, choices and desires. They shift as we do. They are multiplicitous, fluid, expansive, specific. All of our needs are met. We are nourished: spiritually, intellectually, physically, emotionally. We must live in the world that we want to create for all of us. Spread it outward from the strength of our center. This too, is what this interior time offers us. Time to consider our structures, to see the ways they are not serving us, and realign them to allow us all to be our full selves everywhere.
When Manny Jefferson moved in, I was out of town, but he could feel my house: its expanse, its energy. He loves the place more than I do now. I’m outgrowing it. I’m quarantining elsewhere, in another artist space across the city. Artists are in residence, all over the world. Manny calls his series “Home.” His photographs are intimate, slow and embody the other time zone inside.
The house offers him what it offered to me, and what now we offer to you. Something soft, something loving, something freeing, something luminous, something growing.
With love from Lagos.