It’s the last day of the residency. The previous night, each of us had, in our own ways, reached out and made gestures, verbal and physical, to continue to restore harmony. And we accepted the gestures, understood them for what they were, and reciprocated. We were creating space for kindness, if not forgiveness. And late into the evening, we had lingered in collective company, conscious this was our last night at the residency.
This morning, rather unwillingly, we mull over the conflict and anger from the previous day. It’s one thing to read about how people ‘lean into’ the difficulties and challenges they face and be inspired by their courage to do so from afar. It’s quite another to see it happen in front of you and learn whether you have the stomach to follow. This is not about being thin- or thick-skinned. It’s about consciously dealing with pain head-on. In revisiting examples of conflict, disagreement, displeasure, discontent, and/or misrepresentation among us, the underlying question was simple: How could/should we act in these circumstances? In our own way, we became the subjects of our own ‘breaching experiment’, a sociological concept referenced in the reading we never made it to from the previous day, namely, ‘Human After All: Auto-tune, Technology, and Human Creativity’ by Ed Ledsham. A breaching experiment is ‘where a social rule (such as queuing) is broken (queue-jumping), provoking a reaction from the subject. After the rule is broken it is possible to study the breach, identify the unspoken assumptions and then consider them.’
We turn, eventually, to the analogy of wounds and healing. That whereas some of us are inclined to rip off the plaster, others are more mindful of the need to let it heal before exposing to air again, or allowing the scab to be picked at.
How we say and mean things are not always heard and received in the spirit we intend. The greater the trust and faith we have worked to create, the more expansive we are to the idea that we all mean well. And so the analogy developed to make clearer that the intention was not to hurt further, but to ensure that the piercing thorn was indeed removed so as not to fester unnoticed. Again, intention and reception.
Harking back to the previous day’s observations on the need for building consensus around the rules of engagement, what we wanted, and how we could get there, we agree that our primary expectations for this last day, are ‘to end on a high note.’
We recognise that we have come away changed in many different ways. For many of us, Culturistan was not merely the readings, or authenticity, or the food or the castle or the grounds. It was all of this, and more. And sometimes, less.
Iason noted, for example, that ‘this place is extraordinary!’ And added that if there was one act of authenticity of Culturistan, it was that we had rejuvenated a defunct castle. This same sentiment had been expressed earlier on in the week by the owner of the Château de Grillemont, M de Saint Seine, when he and his family had graciously hosted a dinner in our honour late into the night. ‘Thank you for coming here,’ he had toasted, ‘You have brought life to the castle!’
‘Culturistan is this!’, said Greg firmly, as he drew out a circle with his finger, indicating that it was us, together, at the table. I was suddenly reminded of the Mantiq al-tayr, Farid al-Din’s classic, twelfth-century Persian tale of spiritual search. Commonly translated as The Conference of the Birds, it narrates the arduous journey of a community of birds searching for their purpose. Led through seven valleys and seven hills by the hoopoe, many turn back, or give up on the way, or die. Only thirty remain. When they finally arrive, spent, at the Great Hall, they wait to be graced by the presence of the Great Bird, the Simurgh. And wait. And then again some. Only for the realization to dawn upon them: they are the ‘si-murgh’, Persian for ‘thirty-bird’. What they were searching for outside themselves had always been inside them. But the light of discovery could not have taken place without the trials of the journey.
One lesson, among many from Culturistan, is that we may need to let go of some parts of ourselves to arrive at others that we are still becoming. But is our resistance to letting go of them a measure of those parts most real, innate even, to us? Perhaps the things we must be most careful to be certain about are our uncertainties. And that being in a safe space does not mean avoiding discomfort. I don’t think we came together to agree. But we may have done so to understand. Singly, we can only do so much. Together, we can do so much more. Will we take the chance?
And so the 9-bird-culturistanis moved on to our final readings. ‘What Will You Do?’, by Rainer Maria Rilke was suddenly more profound than it had been at first reading:
‘What will you do, God, when I die?
I am your jar (if cracked, I lie?)
Your well-spring (if the well go dry?) I am your craft, your vesture I —
You lose your purport, losing me.
When I go, your cold house will be
Empty of words that made it sweet.
I am the sandals your bare feet
Will seek and long for, wearily.’
When the poem, redolent of some themes from Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, ends with ‘What will you do, God? I am feared’, the relationship between human and divine, the exoteric and the esoteric, what we see, and what is seen, what we hear and what is heard, what we do and how it is done — all these become richer, more complex inversions and subversions of the questions we had started the residency with — what is reality, truth, and authenticity?
Our last reading was ‘I Stopped to Listen’, by Leonard Cohen, which brought us full circle. Natural, (Divine?) order restored, a fitting transition back to the ‘real’ world.
I am in awe of the life, work and personalities of the eight extraordinary individuals I have met at Culturistan. Sure, they deal with doubt and uncertainty and change and fear and insecurity, as I do, but they are an inspiration for their resilience, their ideas, their strength of character, their joy of living life and giving wholly, fully, of themselves, to work that is beyond themselves, for others.
From quiet and solid courage to determination, grace, and flexibility; from kindness, care and musicality to unbridled positivity and unrestrained honesty — throughout the residency, each one of us became a reflection of these attributes for the others, as well as a repository for the memory, thoughtfulness and ideas of the others. We were never a support group, mercifully. But we were, for the most part, a supportive and enabling environment to be ourselves, and crucially, test out other ways of being and thinking about self, work, and play.
One amazing castle. Nine incredible people. Ten extraordinary days. I think we’d all do it all over again.