Love and Transgression



Love and Transgression: A Compass for our Times


You can listen here. (10 mins)

Love and Transgression: A Compass for our Times

My day starts with observances.

This morning: light bright; the shadows of dill seeds cast ornate against the white wall; a singular blackbird tweet, unadorned; heat low and promising; marigolds, the ones from grown from seed, bursting their orange domes towards the open space of sky; a blank page upon which to write this day into being.

I’ve been sitting in front of my house most mornings with my coffee and my journal, to write my list. Some days it reads like a poem, other days it’s more pedestrian. No matter, I try to stay close to the descriptive as possible. Noticing, seeing, sensing the small, incremental changes each day. The rhythm and ritual of the observances have offered a geometry of grounding, keeping me embedded to the forms particular to this place. When everything else feels in flux, the list-making has a gravity to it, holding me to account, and to notice.

The truth is, of course, that everything is always in flux, only at times it feels more intense and inconceivable, happening at a speed we are unaccustomed to. If ever a time I’ve felt oscillation, it has been now. Continually learning how to steady oneself feels like important internal territory.

Like so many of us, I’ve been trying to make sense of these times. But sense too has been illusive. Clarity rises for a brief moment, only to be blurred by some other insatiable news headline, some other murder or rampage on race, some incalculable atrocity us human beings seem intent on inflicting on this planet. How can one make sense, when so much of this should never make sense. Which is why, I seem to have abandoned any effort of attempt, and instead shifted some words around. Instead of sense, I have inserted reckoning, and instead of reaction, I have brought in response. So, the questions have moved, from ‘how can we make sense’, to ‘what is it we are reckoning with’, and from ‘what is the best reaction’, to ‘what is my most appropriate response’, and importantly, as a corollary, what is my own response-ability.

In a weird detour of memory I have been recalling a story from years back. It happened when I lived in Dublin, in an area of the inner city which had a bad reputation for drugs and community violence. I rarely experienced it as such, except on a few occasions, this occasion being a mild one. Walking down the street, out of nowhere, something hard hit the back of my head. It felt like a boulder. It turned out it was the tail-end of a raw carrot, which was surprisingly painful when thrown at speed. As I rubbed my head, I turned to find the culprit, only to see the eye of a young boy glaring back. He was about eight years old, scrawny, scruffy, looking like he was about to run away from me while holding out for something more. His body tensed. Here followed words from my mouth, which continue to surprise me. ‘Are you OK’?  I asked the boy, ‘Is everything alright? Can I help you? The boy was stunned. So was I. His attention seeking dramatics had backfired. He didn’t answer my question, but instead, as I walked on to the local shop, he followed, tracking a few feet behind. He waited outside the shop, then followed me home, like a stray puppy seeking solace and sanctuary. The following went on for a few weeks. Each time I saw him, I’d say hello, asking him how he is. He never talked, just followed and lingered. I’d smile. Eventually he made eye contact. I remember a smile in return. One day I bought him an ice cream. Everything eased.

I think now about that boy, and how our encounter still has lessons and reminders for me. What is it to respond out of compassion rather than rage; and what is it to remember that deep inside us we are like that eight year old, seeking to be loved, witnessed, cared for.

Stories return to us when we need then, so this one must have lessons for me now. Writing about it, I realise I’d like to be that person again, holding ground and space for another kind of outcome. Giving it time. Tending to the wholeness. Offering ice-cream.

Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of rants and reactions over these months. I have five half-finished essays, written over the last few weeks which essentially are long rambles attempting to craft a response to the current situation. I have needed to write these words, but I do not need to share them. They have been reactionary, not responsive. So it is that I have been coming to see that responsiveness is not a linear or singular act. It is not measured in numbers of tweets or blogposts. It is not about word count. But is about an inner orientation towards the act of dismantling, the act of loving compassion, and about curiosity.

To dis-mantle. To take off one’s mantle; one’s cloak. To examine. To question. To observe. It’s an act of transgression of ones own perceptions. It’s a way of saying: I don’t have all the answers; but I am willing to be open. 

I have been drawn back into the work and words of bell hooks, a Black feminist writer, activist and educator. Her writing around transformational education, in particular, holds such necessary wisdom for this time. As I move into more formal and informal educational settings, teaching more at the university and with my own workshops, it’s helping to ground my practices in a pedagogy of both hope and transgression. In her writings hooks reasserts of the role of education as a fundamental practice of freedom, and as a vital component to the restoration of our sense of wholeness. She speaks about education as a transgressive act which should be dangerous, and, in a word not commonly associated with mainstream education, she asserts it as an act of love.

Love and transgression: how about these as vital signs for the health of our systems.

These days, it feels like the world is our classroom, and whether we feel ready or not, the times we are in are offering us an opportunity to break some moulds, transgressing what we know to be true of ourselves. We are seeing the flaws, but to what extent are we tending to the possibilities? I think it would be such a shame to come out of this time of Covid and not be transformed in some way; not to have examined our set of beliefs, what we hold to be of worth, or what values we seek to live from. It would be a shame to emerge from this time, back to a normal, when normal was so far from what is just or sustainable for our planet. And so to be responsive right now is to be willing to put ourselves into the role of learner and undergo an inner transformation- our own transgression- in order to see more, and to tend to what’s possible.

So maybe it’s no wonder I find myself thinking back to that eight year old boy and the butt of a raw carrot. The response we both had; leaning into the space between us, for witness and for hope, is, I think, what is needed now too. Spaces to gently grow into our wholeness without fear of recrimination, or rage, where we can figure each other out, where we can hold the pain of our experiences, and give each other a chance.

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognising one another’s presence’, writes bell hooks, and as the poet Elizabeth Alexander similarly asks, ‘Are we not of interest to each other’.

When everything else feels in flux, the list-making has a gravity to it, holding me to account, and to notice.

So I make a list of new writers I want to read, and voices I want to get to know better. I list the ways I think I have been complicit in the systems I seek to reform.  I write down the values I seek to live by. I write out my commitments to my own transgression. I make a list of all the ways I seek to serve. I realise I am in this for the long haul. I look at the blank page, to write my dismantled self back into being. I notice the budding marigolds and now the sunflowers. My hope, for all of this, is wholeness; I do this for our earth.


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