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2. Mental Health and Work

Having looked at mental health in general, now let’s address the challenges of mental health at work.

For example, how is it possible to maintain a healthy perspective when our jobs become excessively or unreasonably demanding, and we find ourselves working all the hours God sends and losing any possible work-life balance? How do we avoid becoming disillusioned or burnt out in a toxic or badly managed start-up or legacy-led company? And what about bullying bosses – how to cope with those? How can we learn to bounce back from failure or redundancy, and even thrive? Above all, how can we grow and develop our confidence and self-esteem so we can become more resilient, whatever the external economic situation throws as us?

Having experienced abundant ups and downs with work over the past decade – whether with start-ups, in full-time or temporary jobs, or as a freelancer – I hope relaying some of my personal mental health struggles and learnings may help those facing similar issues. Unless you have a completely stress-free, perfect job or no longer need to work, you will no doubt have moments where your own mental health is challenged in at least one or even several of these areas. In fact, having seen a wealth of responses from friends in all sorts of industries and roles following a post on Facebook about how a toxic work colleague’s behaviour was affecting my enjoyment of a job, it is clear such experiences are extremely common.

This blog is divided into sections and sub-sections, which include some take-aways for each main theme. While my experiences within media / journalism and freelancing may be less relevant to those working in other industries, I trust the more generic sections relating to – for example, bosses from hell, or some of the issues those now having to work from home are experiencing – will strike a chord.

The newsroom as we have known it: a buzzing, lively office manned with hard-working, dedicated reporters and editorial / production staff, all working 24/7 at locations around the world to ensure every breaking news story goes out on time and is fully accurate and well-written Source: Wikipedia

The ups and downs of journalism post-downturn: my story

In my industry (media and journalism – specifically production journalism), the sudden financial downturn of 2008 seemingly happened at the same time as a rapid conversion from print-based publication production to digital media-based production, which together signalled the end of any job security or permanence in the industry. The old traditional ways of working with a fully staffed newsroom were being challenged by younger, digital-only disruptors, and advertisers were also moving on, thus forcing media organisations to scramble for new solutions to stay financially viable.

Many already existing newspapers, magazines, journals and other publication types decided to shed their more expensive, older print staff and replace them with younger, less-experienced or knowledgeable, but presumably more digital-savvy millennials, or alternatively rely on a bank of freelancers. Those who wanted to stay on were either asked to take a massive pay cut or forced to learn new skills. It did not matter – and still doesn’t, considering the incredible amount of ghastly factual and typographical errors one sees regularly now on all kinds of publications – whether there was any advancement in quality, because once the bean-counters took over, the main driver became how many clicks each story got.

When the downturn hit, I was working (somewhat ironically) in financial journalism, for a large and well-established media company. It was a job I had loved and thrived in, having achieved an internal award and several promotions. However, in 2008 the company suddenly decided to axe half their staff, and my position was made redundant. While I could understand the management’s position objectively, it was still a bitter pill to swallow. What was I to do with all my now well-developed skills and knowledge?

The legacy journalism newsroom of yesteryear – while it is already a nostalgic, distant memory for most of us, many new media start-ups are still based on thisSource: Wikipedia

Ironically, when I first came to the UK, everyone said, “Don’t be a journalist – be a sub-editor. You’ll never be out of work.” While that sage advice was indeed valid for many years, it did not foresee this particular crisis in the industry, nor the issues many great, highly skilled and experienced print sub-editors like me would encounter once the entire news industry converted to digital publishing seemingly overnight.

Along with a sudden intense competition for the few remaining print jobs going, there was also greater pressure to develop entirely new, digital-related skills – search engine optimisation (SEO), coding, and other technical and social media skills, among others. Some, like me, managed the transition well, and are now flourishing as digital-only journalists and production editors; others less so.

The freelance life: pros and cons

As a result of this change, over the next 10–12 years, I have worked on and off for various digital media start-ups and creative agencies, also working as a freelance journalist, copywriter/editor, newspaper and magazine sub-editor for print and digital publishers, Americanizer/Angliciser, editorial manager and proofreader/QC (quality controller) (see here for a very few examples). I also edit various academic, fiction and non-fiction book, etc manuscripts by private commission, as I had also done for several years after leaving a role as an in-house senior commissioning editor for the Quarto Group and while I was also teaching salsa part-time locally.

At one point, I hit upon a fairly lucrative annual stream of work and decided to set up my own company (Creative Editorial Limited), which I eventually shut down, as having to file tax returns every quarter was infinitely tedious – it was far easier to remain a self-employed freelance sole trader and do my tax returns annually. But in addition to the need to file self-employed taxes annually, freelancing also has its own ups and downs. 

For example, fellow freelancers will recognise the adage that freelancing can be a bit like buses – you wait ages for one, and then suddenly three come all at once. While the busy times are exciting, filled with variety and fresh challenges, the quieter periods in between contracts, in-house bookings or commissions, when you might go for weeks or even months with only a few scraps of work, can be very challenging.

If you have another source of income or a spouse who can support you, such gaps may be fine and indeed welcome. But if not, it can be very stressful if you have regular bills to pay – particularly when there are issues with clients paying on time or even defaulting on pay, as alas can happen, particularly when/if companies go bust.

Today’s tools of the trade: for freelancers, working from home – or anywhere you can find a decent WiFi signal – was normal long before the pandemic. Source: Pinterest

Along with the delayed-pay issues, I’d often find – as again fellow freelancers will recognise – that companies only love you as long as they need you. As soon as their immediate crisis is over, they forget all about you. This, at times, impacted my self-esteem. Why, if they thought I was so great for several months, did they suddenly dump me or fail to answer my messages, or ghost me? At times I felt like all I did was kiss frogs: When would my prince – the promised land of regular, reliable freelance work I could just do until (if) I was ever in a position to retire and do all the creative work I longed to do – ever materialise?

As other freelancers will also recognise, when you are not working, you are always looking for work or promoting your business, which is itself a full-time job. Sometimes this situation got me down, at which point I would apply – and often interview, sometimes many times – for seemingly zillions of jobs. Some of those jobs I got – often working for new-media start-ups – turned out to have nightmare commutes or bosses, so did not last long. In these times of on-off, up-down employment, I had to fight to keep my mental health stable, through utilising some of the practices described below.

Wisely, I have always maintained my freelancing contacts as a fail-safe, and have improved my chances of remaining employed / employable by diversifying my skills and learning new techniques – for example, instead of letting the loss of print-based journalism defeat me as it did some, I did an online digital marketing diploma course with the Digital Marketing Institute (which by the way just published an excellent new year post on mental health and wellness – see here). This then opened up new streams of work via digital marketing copywriting, editing and proofreading.

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS

  • The switchover from print to digital news has vastly impacted journalism as we have known it. While some online news sites endeavour to maintain the legacy newsrooms values of old, this is a very fragile space. Would I advise anyone to get into journalism now? In a word, NO.
  • Although freelancing offers many positives – freedom from the routines of full-time work; variety; being your own boss – it is not for the faint-hearted. You must learn to make the best use of your ‘gap’ time and be disciplined with your finances, whether you are self-employed or a limited company.
  • Developing and diversifying your skills so you can add other streams of income is essential to staying financially viable, as well as mentally and emotionally resilient, whatever the work situation.
Most start-ups begin with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and even high-sounding, ethical ideas. It’s easy to get caught up in an entrepreneur’s vision – but what happens when the dream fails? – Credit: Auston Distel, Unsplash

Why some start-ups fail: burnout

While the total amount of start-ups around the world is unknown (some estimates place it at around 4.4. million), it is generally agreed that at least 90% of these will fail, with 10% failing within the first year and around 70% failing within the first two to five years. As regards mental health and work, it is necessary to note that according to recent research by private equity firm CB Insights, burnout is among the top 12 reasons why so many start-ups fail.

In my own experience of working for and helping helm several media and creative start-ups over the past decade or so, although I usually started out with tonnes of energy and idealistic enthusiasm for the project, inevitably this initial buzz was subsumed by feelings of mental and physical burnout. Usually this was due to unrealistic expectations and demands – both on the part of the start-up’s founders or management and myself.

According to an article by Elizabeth Scott PhD in Verywell Mind, the term ‘burnout’ was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, who described it as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results”. Indeed, one of the main symptoms of burnout is an overarching cynicism, a sense of ‘losing the will to live’. If not addressed, this can be fatal to any enterprise in terms of its effect on teams and individuals, as well as on external clients and customers, and ultimately on shareholders / investors. One of the most reliable indicator that a company is in trouble when one or more of its employees is off work due to stress-related exhaustion and burnout. Another is a frequent and rapid turnover.

One of the most reliable indicators that a company is in trouble when one or more of its employees is off work due to stress-related exhaustion and burnout. Another is a frequent and rapid turnover.

So what causes burnout in start-ups? One of the biggest reasons is that the effort needed to get these up and running quickly becomes an all-consuming mission. Everything is at stake, both economically and in terms of reputation, as most start-ups begin with only a small amount of seed funding, with those involved often using their own savings or even their houses or entire possessions as collateral. This intensifies the pressure to get the initial business plan right, to develop a sound and viable path for growth, and thereby attract further investment.

Such pressures are not only felt by the founders or others at the top, but also by all the staff employed to bring these plans to fruition – and with less available funding for more staff, some of the key or initial employees may find themselves filling several roles or performing several functions at once.

While many early-stage start-up employees willingly accept positions on a reduced salary or with additional time pressures because they believe in the start-up’s concept and believe their involvement will enable them to realise their own professional objectives and career ambitions. However, once the start-up begins to grow and succeed, and new appointments accelerate, some of the initial staff may find their own positions or goals remain undeveloped and their personal needs unmet.

Once the start-up begins to grow and succeed, and new appointments accelerate, some of the initial staff may find their own positions or goals remain undeveloped and their personal needs unmet.”

They may see others moved into or appointed to positions they themselves had hoped to obtain, or fail to get a hoped-for pay raise, and so struggle with feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, insecurity, anxiety, resentment and/or bitterness, or a feeling that their own sacrifices and commitment are undervalued and underappreciated.

Such thoughts or impressions – if left unchecked or not dealt with – can very quickly escalate into a mental health issue among individual staff or even within a whole team, as some will voice their frustrations and circulate a cynical, negative vibe that can quickly develop into a toxic environment, which also has more opportunity to flourish in an open-plan, shared office.

Perhaps worse, some will choose to suffer in silence, becoming progressively more disenchanted or aggrieved while outwardly keeping their heads down and focusing on the work. They may find themselves suffering from headaches and stomachaches as they inwardly churn. But over the long term, not voicing or addressing any issues takes its toll, as eventually the Herculean effort required to suppress or hide any negative feelings of disillusionment or grievance will lead to temporary or physical exhaustion, requiring the staff member to be signed off from work due to stress.

Image for Verywell Mind by Brianna Gilmartin

This is particularly the case with many dedicated, hard-working and highly skilled females employed in a senior or middle-management role in a start-up, who are often paid far less than their male counterparts. If you as a woman have a sympathetic boss who is willing to take your suggestions onboard and progress (and pay) you accordingly, as well as a supportive and non-competitive team, count yourself very fortunate – all too often this is not the case.

Due to the ‘legacy’ nature of male-dominated companies – particularly, or at least in my own experience, newsrooms and advertising agencies – many media or creative start-ups will seek to employ older, more experienced and knowledgeable (and thus ‘more expensive’) females to help mentor and train the keen but usually inexperienced or less-knowledgeable (and hence cheaper) junior or freelance staff, after which they may simply be let go as a cost-reduction strategy. In such cases, the females hired to fill these roles can easily feel they are being ‘used’.

For example, in one of the new-media start-ups I worked for, I was expected to train an in-house copy-editing team comprising five junior millennials in using the system, knowing how and when to check content and finesse the text, and to recognise the many subtle differences between US and UK grammar. I was also required to source, hire and train some 21 remote freelance staff around the world. However, I soon discovered that because of the company’s absurd freelance hourly fees (which were in fact below the legal minimum hourly wage), the work the freelancers delivered was massively rushed, rife with errors and containing some serious faults, eg plagiarism. The adage “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” was certainly true in this case.

Sadly, when I confronted management about this issue, the CEO refused to budge on the fees, and instead dismissed me without so much as a thank you for all the hard work and effort I had put into establishing its editorial style and workflow. I left feeling quite disillusioned, as many others also did. Although the company has continued to exist and is (superficially, at least) perceived a ‘success’, it has had a continual revolving door of exiting employees – not to mention a generally bad write-up on Glassdoor – which any investor worth his or her salt should wisely steer clear of. Employers should know that how their staff – including any disgruntled former employees – speak of them will inevitably affect investment appetite, not to omit the costs of having to advertise, hire and train new staff constantly, itself a very time-consuming and expensive business.

Employers should know that how their staff – including any disgruntled former employees – speak of them will inevitably affect investment appetite, not to omit the costs of having to advertise, hire and train new staff constantly, itself a very time-consuming and expensive business.

Inevitably, there will be many ambiguities and uncertainties as companies navigate their direction and cope with the additional challenges of growth. At such times, it is crucial for leaders and heads of companies to maintain clear and open transparency and accountability with their staff, as any failure to do so can introduce disquiet or discontent, particularly if uncertainties about the company’s direction or any ambiguities about roles continue over a long period of time. Prolonged uncertainty can lead to anxiety and symptoms of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual burnout among staff; in such times, many employees may simply lose the will to continue and quit, or be signed off sick with stress.

If you are an employee in a start-up and have begun to experience any of the symptoms of burnout, it is wise to embed some solid self-care routines into your working day – take time out to pray and meditate, spend time in nature, get some exercise, see friends, do activities you enjoy, and maintain a healthy diet and sleep schedule as much as possible. But if the situation begins to look like it is heading for a nosedive, polish your CV / resume and begin to look for a plan B. Life is really too short to put up with such abuse!

Massive boss screaming at a small employee: some bullies pick on people simply to make themselves seem bigger or more importantSource: Depositphotos

Bullying bosses and toxic teams

The saying is that “people don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses” – however, while this is certainly true, there is also the aspect of toxic teams whose behaviours can seriously affect one’s mental health at work. While I have indeed had some stellar examples of bad bosses (see below), it has more often been the unpleasant atmosphere created by ‘office politics’ that made me vote with my feet and remain a happily unburdened freelancer, regardless of any pay or perks that can come with a salaried role.

And apparently, I am not alone: a recent LinkedIn post highlighted the problem of toxicity in work teams, citing research from the BBC that showed that one in five American workers left jobs because of a toxic workplace culture, while a whopping 64% of British workers said experiencing problematic behaviours in the workplace – including uncensored / unchecked racist comments, abuse and bullying – had negatively affected their mental health.

Considering we spend a large proportion of our waking hours at work, it can be difficult to maintain our peace and external perspectives with the constant tit-for-tatting or one-upmanship that can take place in any situation where ambitious people jockey for prime positions in a company. Such behaviour can eventually wear down even the most otherwise sane and rational / objective individual and, if prolonged or abusive enough, can lead to frequent job-hopping or even mental breakdown.  

While there is nothing particularly novel about political infighting in the worlds of journalism (or any sector, probably), the increasing instability and paucity of media jobs makes fighting for work and ‘security’ through mistreating others on the team quite a common occurrence. Many seem to think that getting ahead or preserving their jobs means they must of necessity abuse or put others down to make themselves look good. Perhaps such behaviours served them well in the past – for example, when they were at school – so even as they enter the workforce they continue to repeat them whenever they feel insecure or threatened. However, such schoolroom-type bullying behaviour is exactly what it appears: the perpetrators may physically be adults, but in every other sense they are children, locked in an endless competitive battle for dominance.

I’m not sure about anyone else, but I certainly have no desire to revisit that kind of junior high-school bully-victim drama at work when I am simply just trying to do my job!

Quote from author Susan Abrams Milligan on Facebook source: Pinterest

Often the management either turns a blind eye or encourages such behaviours, meaning they not only proliferate but all too often lead to a revolving-door scenario.

One experience that particularly comes to mind was in my first job at the helm of a brand-new media start-up. Unsurprisingly, this was just after the downturn, and many were feeling insecure about the future – but rather than creating a mutually supportive atmosphere, this brought out the cynically cut-throat in some. I tried my best to hire a team of hard-working, talented people – some of whom I’d worked with before we were both made redundant by another company – who I thought would be grateful for a job.

Unfortunately, I had not reckoned on one of these hires being a snake. It soon became clear this ‘deputy’ was determined to get my job and title, and make me ill in the process. It was only later that I witnessed the full extent to which this scheming, back-stabbing, manipulative junior colleague would go, not only seeking to undermine me at every turn, but ultimately twisting circumstances to his own advantage so that he was left the sole survivor when the inevitable restructuring began. He had so thoroughly deceived and manipulated the other team members that they didn’t even realise they were also being set up to be let go.

Although I did try to bring this to my chief’s attention once I copped on to what was happening, I found this was fruitless. The snake had already wrapped his wiles around him, and in truth, while the chief was a very gentle, sweet-natured man, he was also a hopelessly idealistic and impractical visionary, who, while outwardly very supportive of my attempts to lead the team and work, did not offer any practical or personal support. Being that I was for most of the time the only female in all-male in-house team, he seemed to consider that my main function was to serve as his secretary, so any time I tried to discuss any problem with him, he would instead go on at length about his own problems (not that he actually had any).

Cartoon representation of a bully and a victim used to depict Western European powers and the United States bullying Serbia in the aftermath of the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence during the 2008 Serbian protestsSource: Wikipedia

Considering I was also putting in all the hours God sent to meet challenging international deadlines, and additionally faced a two-hour commute on either end of very long weekly press days, I inevitably suffered physical, mental and emotional burnout. Despite having initially been highly invested in the start-up’s high-sounding, ethical idealism, I concluded that this principled ethos was not matched by the in-office politicking, and thus my initial enthusiasm for the project evaporated.

Between the long hours I was putting in and the backhanded sniping adding grief to the daily grind, I found it impossible to cope with the demands of the job as well as the constant one-upmanship in my team and the complete lack of sympathy or support from my boss, so in the end regrettably felt I had no choice but to leave. Yet if I had only had proper support from the chief, or the wider management had intervened constructively in the inter-team issues before it got to that pass, it is likely I would still be there.

However, while that work scenario certainly had its poisonous moments, it paled in comparison with a subsequent job in which I was employed in a fraudulent, misleading capacity as editor-in-chief of another media start-up headed (unofficially, at least initially) by a narcissistic, bullying, security-paranoid, highly temperamental (and potentially manic-depressive, judging by his volcanic, unpredictable, yet regular temperamental mood swings), gaslighting, deceitfully charming and micromanaging boss. Compared to him, any other ‘boss from hell’ I ever had was a walk in the park – not only in his treatment of me, but also in his callous behaviour towards freelancers and the staff of the sister organisation he was also unofficially heading.

From the bullying.about.com website – image from Pinterest

Luckily, I was not often in the office – mostly because I was usually required to work until 2–3am on weeknights and often all through the weekend and even while on holiday to meet mysterious and objectively unwarranted online publishing ‘deadlines’. However, whenever I was in the shared office with staff from the sister organisation, the way I/we coped with the boss’s chaotic and unpredictable appearances was to joke about his shambolic management and ill-tempered outbursts. While this helped build a sense of camaraderie and ‘comic relief’ from our mutual suffering, it still did not fully eliminate the toxic atmosphere whenever he was there, nor deliver us from his vitriolic, mood-swinging diatribes.

One male colleague was signed off with stress and unable to work for well over a year, so badly was his self-esteem and mental health affected; others simply exited as soon as possible to escape the abuse. Others, perhaps sucked in by either his occasional charm or vain promises of gifts, ambitious projects or financial compensation, which was relatively generous (even if dubiously sourced), managed to develop a kind of resilient strength, or simply disappeared into social media whenever the office tension rose on the back of his sporadic and vitriolic appearances.

Those who succeeded in getting out and/or have since gone on to find better jobs and causes to work for are undoubtedly much better equipped to cope in future, as unless you were suffering under a regime with a truly crazed, despotic tyrant, it likely doesn’t get much worse than this, so your coping skills need to crank up several notches.

Title/cover of a recommended book by Gary Chapman and Paul White, from an image on Pinterest

How to cope with bad bosses and work situations

While there is some debate about the actual numbers of those who leave jobs they are otherwise highly skilled at or suited to because they cannot abide a nightmare boss or toxic teammate, it is indeed very common – whether the boss or colleague in question is insecure, fearful of failing or hopelessly ineffectual, or alternatively an out-of-control, demanding and unsympathetic tyrant or spectacularly narcissistic.

While the simplest solution may, in the end, be to leave, if you really do love the job and your team, or have other reasons to stick around – for example, you need the money or it is an essential step in your career path – how do you cope with bullying bosses or toxic teams and so safeguard your mental and physical health?

First, it is important to practise detachment, whether from any targeted personal negative vibes you get from a bullying, shouting or abusive boss or from any toxic, scheming colleagues. Take time out to put yourself first: focus just on doing what makes you feel good, on meeting your own needs and building up your own sense of self-worth – you are still a person and have a life beyond the day job, so make sure you use your free time to enjoy a hobby and see your family and friends so as to reinforce your sense of self and value outside of work. Practise mindfulness, prayer and/or meditation daily to shield your mind from negative self-talk or rehashing the work agitation. If it helps, compartmentalise – and by all means, at the end of a hellish working day or week, SWITCH OFF!!

Remember that a job is simply what you do for a living – it does not define or limit you. In the same way that you cannot take any earthly goods with you when you die, so, too, your ultimate purpose and identity exists outside of work – it is not what you do, but who you are, that is of value. As a Christian, I know that my true identity and purpose is that I am a child of God – and no human, whether a nightmare boss or manipulative colleague – can ever take that away from me, even if they might upset, obsess or derail me if or when I allow them to play havoc with my mind. Recognising and remembering that your life has a meaning and value outside of work is essential to maintaining good mental health, along with a healthy sense of self-worth and self-esteem – and bringing that to your work means you are better able to bring and do your best.

Second, remind yourself that whatever you are facing is just temporary – that “this too shall pass”. If a work situation or environment is that stressed or the boss is that bad, the business will eventually fail or be taken over. Or something else will inevitably force a change, because nothing in life – not least in business – is ever stagnant; it is always moving and changing. And while such changes may or may not resolve the issues in your personal circumstances, if you have chosen to stick around, you are still growing and developing personal skills and characteristics such as fortitude and perseverance – all of which will stand you in good stead in your next endeavour.

Take time out to put yourself first: focus just on doing what makes you feel good, on meeting your own needs and building up your own sense of self-worth – you are still a person and have a life beyond the day job, so make sure you use your free time to enjoy a hobby and see your family and friends so as to reinforce your sense of self and value outside of work.

Third, focus on developing an alternative income stream. Diversifying is the key to maintaining employment, as has been reinforced over decades in my own experience of on-off freelance work. Do you have a hobby or skill you could perhaps develop and monetise? Is there something you have always longed to do, but have never been able to find time for? If you have an overbearing boss you can’t leave because of finances, or feel stuck in a rut in your present job, now might be time to build your own escape hatch. Take a course, get an additional qualification, or spend a few hours each week developing your skills and building an industry-related network outside your immediate job – such activities will not only empower you, but may even lead to a brand-new career or dream job.

Fourth, it may be hard – and indeed it is never easy – to forgive those who mistreat or abuse you, who lie to, gossip about or malign you, who try to destroy your reputation, steal your job or even threaten your sanity. But you can’t really move on or be ready for the next challenge until you do. For the sake of your own mental health – which also involves your own growth and development as a person – choose to practise forgiveness until you can truly let it go. If it helps, use your imagination to see the offender as a silly animal, or perhaps imagine them parading in their birthday suit – anything that will help you view them as a fellow flawed and vulnerable human being, as in fact we all are (“there, but for the grace of God, go I”).

I confess I’ve struggled with forgiveness at times, particularly in situations where I was abused by bad bosses or colleagues, or felt cheated after expending considerable time and effort to build up a business. There were a few times I was promised a promotion, pay rise or the perfect opportunity to develop my career potential, but something or someone inevitably let me down. There were not a few times others took credit for or profited from my work and ideas, and many times I did not get paid or paid adequately for work I completed on time and to a very high standard.

But if I had dwelt on any of those things and allowed them to dominate me, I would not have grown as a whole person or developed other skills and talents in the ways I have. Eventually, through all the work ups and downs, even those days I felt nearly swallowed up by the deep, dark tunnel of my own – and perhaps the industry’s – making, shards of light began to break through, and I began to recover. Now, having begun to walk towards that light, I know that all I need to do is just keep walking, persevering in the practices I have learned along the way.

As the saying goes, circumstances will either make you bitter or better. So choose to act with grace so that your bad work situations can become your steppingstones to a better you – and a better future.

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS

  • No job or start-up – however much it may pay and/or seemingly align with your values – is worth sacrificing your own health and peace of mind for.
  • If a toxic, negative vibe develops, leave before it gets to you, or you may suffer from both physical and mental ill health.
  • If you are a woman in a place of seniority, make sure your boss is one who will listen to you. If not, you are probably better off deploying your skills elsewhere.
  • If you are a manager, strive to maintain an open, transparent communication with your staff, even if/when you yourself do not know what is going on.
  • Also, make sure you take time out to check up on your staff to ensure they are okay and are still on board. That is ultimately both time-efficient and cost-effective management, as you don’t want to be caught out if a situation blows up and staff leave suddenly in the middle of a project.
  • If you are beginning to feel burnt out and/or can’t solve a persistent problem, remember to take a break – sometimes the answers come best when we are rested and have “switched off”.
Meditation and detaching are key to combatting issues with toxic teams and bullying bosses – for your own mental health, you need to step away – Credit: Adobe Stock/stournsaeh

Along with the occasional burnout I suffered either with start-ups or full-time jobs, or as a freelancer, either juggling several jobs or clients’ deadlines simultaneously or having longer gaps between paid commissions, there were several other mental health issues I struggled with from time to time: depression, loneliness/isolation, a loss of a sense of self-worth/value (all the more so if your identity is tied to what you do for a living and you are suddenly described as ‘redundant’), and occasional social anxiety because of the stigma of being unemployed, or at least not employed in any ‘normal’ 9–5 Monday–Friday rhythm.

Now that most of the world has experienced all or some of these mental health issues as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns, with work from home becoming ‘the new normal’, perhaps it’s easier for others to understand how it feels to be stuck at home with little social contact – and yet this is something freelancers can struggle with regularly. Apart from full-time jobs or in-house bookings lasting one to six months or perhaps over a year or two – quite often during times everyone else is off on holiday – most of my freelance work over the past two decades has been from home. And while everyone else is shuttling off to offices daily instead of sitting down to their computers alone at home, it can indeed be very lonely, particularly for a natural extrovert like myself.

During such times, I have been grateful for social media as an outlet for human interaction. Yet social media is both a blessing and a curse: on the plus side, you can freely ‘chat’ with friends and colleagues around the world 24/7; on the minus side, if you are not careful, you can easily get addicted to it and waste several hours a day scrolling aimlessly. It can also trigger FOMO (fear of missing out), especially when you see friends travelling frequently or doing other things you can’t afford or aren’t able to do.

An upside-down world: social media has turned all of our lives around – but sometimes not for the best – Credit: Christopher Ott at Unsplash

“Social media is both a blessing and a curse: on the plus side, you can ‘chat’ with friends and colleagues around the world 24/7; on the minus side, if you are not careful, you can easily get addicted to it or waste several hours a day scrolling aimlessly. It can also trigger FOMO (fear of missing out), especially when you see friends travelling or doing other things you can’t afford or aren’t able to do.”

Therefore, inasmuch as social media helps combat mental health issues such as loneliness, it can also lead to whole new issues. Consequently, I have usually found it necessary to limit myself to logging on to Facebook or other social media channels for only brief periods or at set times a day – for example, during a morning or afternoon coffee break – as otherwise it can become a very unhealthy obsession and a drain on your time. [My Uncle Bob used to say about boats that they are a “hole in the water you throw money into”; I see social media as a hole in the ether you throw time into!]

At times being either out of or between work has occasionally brought on bouts of depression connected to a sense of purposelessness, particularly if a job I was formerly invested in came to an end abruptly or negatively for some reason – for example, mass redundancies or restructuring. When you are used to waking up every morning and having a job to go to where you are totally focused for a full eight hours or more on doing work you will get some recognition and sense of self-worth / value and /or identity from – if nothing else, in the form of a monthly or weekly paycheque – suddenly not having this can be very depressing indeed.

When you are used to waking up every morning and having a job to go to where you are totally focused on doing work you will get some recognition and sense of self-worth / value and /or identity from – if nothing else, in the form of a monthly or weekly paycheque – suddenly not having this can be very depressing indeed.

There can also be an unfortunate tendency during gaps of non-work of either worrying about the future (How on earth will I be able to pay the bills / make ends meet?) or nulling over the past: If only I had said or done / not said or done such and such, perhaps the result would be different. If the situation was outside your control – such as a company going bust – it may be easier to avoid such thoughts or come to a place of acceptance about the situation, but if it ended negatively in any way that could (or should – for example, with better management) have been avoided, it may be more difficult to avoid such thoughts.

However, whether the situation was something you could or could not have changed, you still have to choose to put positive disciplines (such as practising gratitude daily for what was, and then actively letting it go [I know, this is far easier said than done]) in place to safeguard your mental health.

In my own case, it so happened a few years ago that when I found myself in one of these very negative ‘if only’ mental loops, I suddenly received a very graphic ‘warning’ dream that made me wake up with a fright and realise I simply had to change my thinking patterns, or I really was in danger of losing everything. The dream went like this:

I dreamed I was driving a car down a very steep hill on a dark autumn day, where the hill was covered in wet leaves. As I descended, the car began to spin out of control, and I woke up with a start, knowing that if I did not do something to ‘put the brakes on’ that spiral of negative thoughts, I would crash. I literally needed to choose between life and positivity over the negative thoughts that would only lead to death.

After that dream, I knew that for the sake of my mental health, it was absolutely critical to make positive choices, to choose to engage with life instead of allowing the downward spiral of negative thoughts to drown me.

I did recall from former experiences that a good way to forget about your own issues is to help others – there is always someone whose needs are greater than yours. I therefore began by getting involved in befriending and helping local elderly and disabled people through a group called ‘Bucks Angels’ (it is no longer in action, but I do still visit and care for some of those I befriended in that time). I am very grateful particularly for an older lady named Trixie, who was herself writing a novel and inspired me to begin.

I also decided that rather than allowing myself to become depressed and defeated about the inevitability of climate change, the annihilation of most of Earth’s precious and unique species of flora and fauna, and the massive political corruption behind the destruction of our local Chilterns area of natural beauty (AONB) through the white-elephant high-speed railway project that is HS2, I would instead join other ‘rebels’ in my local Extinction Rebellion group and work alongside fellow Stop HS2 activists to do all I could to raise the alarm and bring these matters to light. Although such activism may or may not eventually succeed in changing things, what has definitely made a change for me in my own mental health – particularly in combatting climate despair – is not only actively doing something about it, but also meeting and regularly engaging with other passionately like-minded individuals.

I also joined a few creative MeetUp groups – specifically the Shoal of Art group and the Wednesday “Draw Each Other” portrait group, which helped me to connect with other visual artists such as myself. Although I chose to study English and Creative Writing and follow a career in journalism and media instead of becoming a full-time professional artist (being the eldest, I had much more pressure to ‘achieve’ something career-wise – although in fact I have never really been THAT career-oriented, as writing and art have always been my real dreams), I have actually always been torn between writing and art. Both are actually an essential part of my being, and indeed my mental health has also suffered through being a blocked artist (I will talk about this next in a forthcoming blog post on Mental Health and Creativity).

By connecting with other artists through these in-person and online MeetUp groups – and subsequently by joining other writers online in the London Writers Salon – I began to regain a sense of meaning and purpose outside of work, as well as developing new, healthier work–life rhythms based around my participation in these groups. I am indeed very grateful to my fellow creatives for reminding me of my true values, and for holding me accountable to fulfilling my other avenues of potential.

I found joining MeetUp groups to be a true lifeline during times of social isolation through working from home or being temporarily out of work

Engaging with these positive, supportive community-oriented social activities has helped to reorient my values and thereby improve my sense of self-esteem and self-acceptance. After all, “It is not good for man [woman] to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) – we are NOT machines; we are humans, and we do need human contact. Even if that contact is only online, as it has been during lockdowns, connecting with others is still vital to our senses of self, meaningfulness and value.

Having learned how vital such practices are to my own mental health, I continue to make time for these groups regardless of whether or not I am working. They have become a true lifeline. As a result, I have generally found that my mental health has actually thrived throughout the entire on-off Covid lockdowns – with a particular boon being that, having joined the online London Writers Salon group, I am now finally writing the novel I have always wanted to write.

So for me, having responded to that warning dream and chosen to become positively and creatively connected with others, the lockdowns have been quite a positive and productive time for me, with many new friendships acquired along the way. However, had I not already applied these practices, it would likely have been quite challenging.

So to all those who are still struggling with a sense of isolation, I urge you to find ways to connect positively with others, whether in person or online – of course online groups are not quite the same as being there in person, particularly for a physical activity such as dancing, but even joining an online music-listening group such as the online Co-Beat Party salsa DJ sessions or Salsa Lockdown Radio has helped me to maintain the sense of being energised through salsa-related social connection.

I have also frequently turned to nature for solace, which is often recommended for combatting mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Even before lockdown forced most of us to stay at home and be limited to walking near our homes as our only option for exercise, I began going out for regular walks in the woods behind our home, exploring local parks and wild areas in an effort to connect to nature. In the absence of human company, this was often my main comfort, particularly when my sojourn was graced with interaction with a creature in the wild or other walkers with their dogs. A brief “hello” or superficial chat about the weather at least broke the monotony of whole days alone at a computer, and reminded me I was still a member of the human race.

I also often found that simply focusing on one small, beautiful thing in nature – for example, a bug, a bird, a beautiful tree or a single strikingly coloured leaf – and silently giving thanks for that single beautiful thing, always helped lift my spirits. My husband always says, “If you’ve had five minutes of a day that was good, you’ve had a good day” – and there were plenty of days where those fleeting moments of absorption in a beautiful leaf or bird were truly the only good five minutes of my day.

“My husband always says, ‘If you’ve had five minutes of a day that was good, you’ve had a good day’ – and there were plenty of days where those fleeting moments of absorption in a beautiful leaf or bird were truly the only good five minutes of my day.”

Over time, the simple daily act of walking in nature and finding one single thing to give thanks for became rooted in my being, and together with the other practices mentioned above, it meant my heavy fog of depression began to lift.

However, I have also realised there are times our minds simply need to rest, and that I should not fear ‘down’ times any more than the good times for this reason. Just as the seasons demonstrate how the Earth itself needs a time of ‘death’ and rest throughout the winter before it can return to the exuberant busy-ness of summer, so do we as humans need such times of rest – whether that is taking time out for reflection regularly on our own as above or having a forced rest such as redundancy, loss of a loved one, or a period of illness or even breakdown.

In truth, it is during such fallow ‘resting’ times that the deep work of renewal and restoration beneath the soil takes place. As the book of that great Biblical sufferer, Job, says, “There is hope for a tree. Even if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail” (Job 14:7), so I have come to appreciate these times of rest or non-work as a gift from God and be grateful for them instead of endlessly striving against them, knowing that this ‘season’ will eventually change.

I also found that through thanking God in advance for work and the income I needed, verbalising and visualising it as already being provided even before I see the result, has been a powerful way to turn my anxiety and financial worries around. Speaking it out loud – even if only to a seemingly empty room or silent trees – also helped lift my spirits tremendously. Not only that, but it has always in the end brought results: usually after a few days or weeks of practising this, my situation would turn around and I would get a new commission.

However, if I ever get too cocky or imagine I can make it on my own without maintaining a humble, daily reliance on God, I usually end up right back on the ground with my face in the dirt until I remember to look up and restart that process of thanksgiving. As is often said, until we learn our lessons, we are usually doomed to repeat them – in my case, it may have taken several years, but now these practices are truly daily disciplines and effectively keep me grounded and always hopeful. Which is a heck of a lot better than the alternative, I can assure you!

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS

  • Find ways to get involved and interact positively with others, whether through helping out with a local charity or voluntary group, or by joining an online group with a creatively oriented social focus – it is infinitely more productive than wasting time scrolling on social media.
  • Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ – whatever your faith or belief system – will help you get through the dark times.
  • Take time out to meditate on nature – it can restore your faith when all seems lost, humans let you down or you simply feel overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of modern life.

Featured

Write-up on me as a featured writer with the London Writers Salon by Lauren McMenemy

I was very thrilled and grateful to be chosen as one of the featured writers in my online writing community, the international London Writers Salon group – see the interview written by fellow writer Lauren McMenemy below, herself an accomplished creative writer and copywriter/writer.

As I have mentioned previously, joining this group – and especially the Weekend Writers offshoot available to Silver patrons – has helped me to stay focused on writing my historical fiction novel all through lockdown, and even now with the new demands of a full-time editing job and things beginning to return to ‘normal’.

I am currently nearing the end of the first draft if chapter 12 / the first act of the novel, and have written at least 65,000 words – it is clearly turning into an epic! Because it takes in several geographies over a period of around 10 years, and features both imaginary and real historical persons, it is quite a labour of imagination and research – perfect for a fact-checking geek like me who is also an unabashed romantic!

It has been an ongoing process of research, writing, more research, more writing and revising as I discover new facts and work with a large canvas, all the while seeing a very rapidly changing and dynamic situation through the eyes of my chief characters – a young Dutch artist who is sent to early Edo era Japan in 1635 to become a silk merchant with the Dutch East India Company and the kabuki-trained Japanese courtesan who becomes his secret lover.

Amid the wealth of historical detail, I aim to keep the pace exciting and filled with lively characters, drama and action-packed sequences. At its heart, it is a culture-clash love story, an exploration of the first seeds of the multiculturalism we know today and how these very disparate cultures and peoples inspired each other, creating a rich fusion of artistic traditions. Watch this space!

Up Close With: Jane Cahane

Meet the wonderful writers and patrons behind LWS.

Lauren McMenemy

Lauren McMenemyOct 3·4 min read

Writer, journalist/editor, poet, visual artist, dancer and environmental activist: this week’s patron profilee wears many hats. As “une femme d’un certain age”, Jane Cahane has lots of experience in the writing world. She’s joined the Salon to get working on her novel, which focuses on a restless adventurer — just like Jane herself. We head just north of London to meet this Salonista.

Jane (Hurd) Cahane

  • Based in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK
  • “Je suis une femme d’un certain age”

What do you write, in general?

I’m a freelance journalist and copywriter/editor by trade; used to be a poet primarily, now focusing on fiction.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently writing a novel — historical fiction, with elements of worldview, romance and action/adventure. I also have a blog and write/pitch other articles as commissioned.

Where and when do you write?

I am a natural owl but have been waking early, so typically join the 8am UK Writers Hour session, sometimes the 1pm or 4pm (in the UK) sessions, and generally on the weekends, too. I usually use the morning session to do a half-hour of morning pages/journalling and then start work on the novel, which is good to continue with or return to later (work permitting).

How do you write?

I usually type directly onto my laptop; however, it is nice to switch to longhand occasionally. My journals are also full of stray dreams, ideas and conversations with myself regarding my novel — I’ve learned the hard way that if I wake up in the night with a brilliant idea, I won’t remember it in the morning unless I make myself get up and write it down!

Why do you write?

Apart from professional reasons — for example, to earn money — I would say my motivations for writing an article as a journalist or pursuing an investigation are very similar to my motivations as a novelist: it begins with a question, a ‘what if?’. That is what leads to research, more questions, and then ideas or threads start to appear, and you can then follow that line of questioning through your writing. Sometimes a character just appears to you almost fully formed — you can hear their voice and feel compelled to tell their story. When I was more fluent in poetry, I also often experienced that the lines also just came to me fully formed, but that was also about expressing something I feel in what I see or experience, even for a fleeting moment.

What inspires your creativity?

I’m an artist so visual images are very important, as are dreams and nature. As I’ve always been a bit of a restless adventurer, loving travel and exploring new ‘exotic’ things, I love the fact my novel’s main character is travelling to all these far-flung destinations that change him so profoundly. There’s definitely a lot of me in that.

Creativity for me is often about putting together seemingly incongruous things, people or situations — perhaps different art styles or genres — to see what new things can emerge from that process. It’s also about discovering solutions and seeing the impossible.

Exploring uncharted territories inspires restless adventurer Jane

What’s your favourite book?

The Bible; D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Poets: John Donne, Seamus Heaney, Dante.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about creativity?

It’s not advice, really — just the value of focusing on the process, of layering, as one does in art. Focusing on process rather than perfection is important. The journey is as important as the final destination, as it is a craft we are learning and perfecting as we go. I find that exceedingly liberating.

What’s the one thing you would tell other or aspiring writers?

Don’t be afraid to step out into unfamiliar territory. Life — and art — are an adventure of becoming. So enjoy the ride! And don’t quit.

How can we discover more about you and your work?

My blog (www.smallwriteratlarge.com) has examples of my professional and published work (some of which will turn up on a Google search of my name), as well as several articles and interviews I’ve written concerning a few of my other interests and passions (the environment, art, faith, dance, etc).

Here’s how we see Jane every day at Writers’ Hour

✍️ Write with Jane and hundreds of other writers each weekday at Writers’ Hour (it’s free).

Connect with fellow writers and build a successful, creative career with London Writers’ Salon.

Lauren McMenemy

Gothic/horror writer | Content marketer | Editorial leader | Creative coach | Pop culture junkie | Still figuring my shit out | wherelaurenwrites.comFollowLAUREN MCMENEMY FOLLOWS

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Featured

In the Limelight: Casting director, salsa performer and teacher Magda Sobolewska

I first became aware of Magda Sobolewska’s amazing talent as a performer when I saw her dance a very memorable and dramatic tango based on a scene in Moulin Rouge. I later learned that as well as an international salsa teacher and performer, she has a dynamic career as a casting director for films — including one of my favourites, Loving Vincent — and runs her own successful casting company, Limelight People. Here she tells me of her exciting journey in both careers.

Magda is a very ambitious, hard-working, goal-driven, dedicated professional; it is clear her successes derive from those attributes. She first came to London from Poland after finishing university 24 years ago. Originally from a town some 200km south of Krakow, she studied marketing managing, which at the time was a very new thing in Poland. While she had several interviews for marketing roles in Poland, nothing happened. Then her dad suggested she come to London for a year to do some English classes. Although she didn’t really plan to stay in the UK, she now considers it her home. “I love London!” she says. “I love the fact you can do anything here – there are so many opportunities.”

While studying English in London, she met a hotel manager through some friends who invited her to work for the hotel. Eventually she was promoted to supervisor and then to manager, where she also worked in hospitality. Through this, she began working in the events industry, and found she really loved the buzz of organising events. She did some very big events, some of which involved even being in very close proximity to the Queen. “No, I didn’t meet her,” she laughs, “but I walked past her a few times!”

While working in the hotel industry, she got to know several film crews staying there. Some were doing big Bollywood productions, with many films being done back to back. When they were short of extras and materials for the shoots, she helped them out by sourcing extra people and props for the scenes. Through this, she got to know the owner of a modelling agency who was supplying the extras for the films, and who was very keen for her to work for him.

Magda on set with her crew of royal family lookalikes – but she also worked in the events industry, including events where the real Queen was present!

Later, after she became pregnant with her son, she got a job in the marketing department of a Polish newspaper and worked there for a while, but she found she preferred the buzz of working in events. When the modelling agency guy asked her to help him with work on a film, she agreed. As soon as she started working on the set, she realised “I can really do this!” and decided to commit to this.

Creating Limelight People

In 2008, she set up her own casting agency, Limelight People, initially working with an American business partner. The agency focuses on supplying a pool of supporting artists, dancers and extras from a range of styles and disciplines, as well as other specialist performers.

Since then, Limelight People has become a fantastic success, although setting it up was initially challenging, since “there are no university courses in casting for being a casting director – you just have to learn by working with another casting director”. Although it was a steep learning curve at first, she was very determined. She thought, “If I am going to do this, I want to do it properly!”

The timing of films means work is often highly pressurised: “When I am working, I hardly sleep – only three hours when the film is on. Because of the timing and budgets for films, you usually only have a very tight time frame in which to film, so you have to get everything right – and if the extras don’t turn up, you have to think fast to find a solution.” She quickly developed excellent trouble-shooting skills – for example, making sure she wouldn’t be left with only 250 people when 300 were needed for a scene.

Magda on set with a film crew filming on Westminster Bridge

The film industry is very much about connections, so it helped that she had already developed many of these in her early work. The first film she did after setting up Limelight People was a psychological horror film (Fired); the second film (Housefull) was a very big Indian comedy film production with 3,000 extras, and it was quite challenging as they didn’t yet have the technology in place to help organise everything.

But with the money they earned on that film, she and her business partner were able to hire a space in Shoreditch that could serve as both an office and a dance studio, which they had built inside it. “This was also around the time I started teaching salsa, so it was a happy coincidence,” she explains. In the few years they were in that studio, they did two seasons of the TV series Luther and did X-Men, as well as several other films and shows (see her full filmography credits here.)

At one point, she and her business partner Ana were approached to help produce and stream a live show for seven days a week. At that time, they were swapping shifts – in the morning, they were doing casting; in the afternoon, producing; and in the evening, she was teaching as well as raising her son, with all the challenges of being a working single mother. “Thankfully, my mum has also been here to help look after my son while I was working. Although things are a little less manic now, it is still a challenge juggling everything – but I really couldn’t stop doing either job because they are both my passion!”

Soon, she was asked to do casting for feature parts, starting with small one-liners and going up to more involved roles: “I wasn’t that keen to get involved in handling lead parts because of the level of contracts involved. I work on a lot of foreign films and organise the secondary casting (supporting actors, dancers, extras, etc) – some of those are for one scene or only for a couple of days. I also don’t really do stunt actors, because they usually bring their own team – working with stunt actors is very specialised.”

A master of versatility, Magda excels in both her passions, being a highly successful female entrepreneur and casting director as well as a gifted dance teacher and performer

Q: How do you ensure the people you hire are reliable?

“I have a database of actors, and from this I can work out how they will do. I go on the set and sometimes even do the casting while there, so I learn to know all the supporting artists by name, which is quite unusual in the industry. Through this, I show my interest and respect for the artists, so they respect me too because I treat them as a person not a number on the database.

“The film industry is very competitive, with more and more people getting into it. All the elements of the film are important –  if you get one element wrong, the whole film can suffer. During the whole time of the shooting, I hardly sleep – my phone is always on in case people are letting me know the night before if they got sick, so then I have to be available to work until I can get a replacement.”

Finding a replacement at short notice can be very challenging especially with period films, because the costumes have to fit a certain size – for example, with Loving Vincent, she had to find actors who looked like the people in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. So that can add an extra layer of difficulty to the casting.

Poster for the extraordinary 2017 art-meets-life film ‘Loving Vincent’, which Magda had a key part in supplying extras for

Q: What have been the highest and the lowest points of the work so far?

“It’s always a buzz seeing every film I’ve worked on, especially to see that the artists I cast were a part of it. I love to see my people in the film and see how well they are doing. I also do my own research around the film themes and scenarios, reading the scripts to get the background, etc and to ensure the actors are a good fit for the film and are what the director wants.

“Last year, I did a film about cricket players called 83; it should be shown this year. It required 6,000 people. The work on the film from the beginning of the main casting to completing the shoot went on for nine months. The film was about the Cricket World Cup in the 1980s, so the cast had to have the looks and the skills, as well as availability. The film is called 83 and should be shown this year.

“It’s very challenging, but I love it – it’s such an adrenaline rush. On the first day I say, ‘I can’t wait till the last day’, but on the last day, I have a rest, and then the next day I am already looking for the next film. It’s the same adrenaline rush I had when I was doing events – there’s so much to do to organise it. And then after the event finishes you rest, and then you’re like, ‘What’s next?'”

Magda with her crew of dancers and extras on a set

Q: What advice do you have about getting into the film industry?

“You just have to keep trying to get into the industry. You have to do your research to know what films are shooting, and then get your foot in the door by starting as an assistant, being a shadow or a runner. It isn’t glamorous waking up at 4am, commuting to the site, doing a 12-hour shoot sometimes outdoors in bad weather, but that is all part of the job.

“Sometimes things go wrong – for example, I lost a booking sheet the day before and had no backup; you just have to find a way to make it fix it. Twice or thrice I almost quit, but I always persevered, and my producer helped me stay. I believe if someone offers you an opportunity, but you are not sure you can do it, you should say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it later. I tend to agree to things a lot not even though I don’t  know how I am going to do it, but I always find a way. I do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions.

“The perks of the job are that you get to work with some amazing people and see some amazing places that you normally wouldn’t have a chance to see. Seeing your name in the film credits is also great!”

Magda Sobolewska

The filming is usually in the UK, but she does travel a bit (France, Ireland, Scotland), and also sends actors abroad – including to India, as she’s still got a long-term connection with Bollywood. She has worked with all the big production companies in India, and laughs that she is probably better known there than in the UK.

She loves observing the whole project and getting involved in the project early because it does take time to get the whole film together, and she likes to get a feel of what the director wants. She casts extras a few weeks before the shoot once the scenes are all set up as they then have a better idea of what they need from the extras. “The casting process is really fascinating – there’s so many elements involved!”

Magda performing a tango dance routine on stage

Q: What about acting? Have you ever wanted to be in the limelight yourself?

“I have never really had a desire to be an actress – I love being behind the camera. The only time I would like to be in front of the camera is for dancing – for example, when I did Cuban Fury [for which she joined as a dancer]. I do have two acting credits though – for example, I played the mother of my son when he was cast in films.

“My dance performance experience is similar to my casting work, because when you are dancing on stage, you get into character – that is the bit of acting I enjoy.”

Q: So how did you get into dancing and teaching salsa professionally?

“Although I had done ballroom and musical theatre back in Poland, dancing wasn’t a priority for me when I first came to London. However, there was a dance company in the same building where I was working with the modelling agency, and the beginnings of a dance company at City Academy. After I became friends with them, I decided to check it out when they started teaching salsa classes there in 2007.

As soon as she had her first lesson in salsa, she was hooked. Soon she started assisting the teacher, Silvio, and within a year she was teaching her own classes. As Silvio was going away, and as she needed someone to teach with her, she met Dani K and in 2009, they started teaching together. They have now been teaching together for 12 years. Dani also encouraged her to learn to lead to help her develop as a dancer.

She has since learned a lot from other teachers – for example, she took part in Adolfo Indacochea and Tania Cannarsa’s student team in London, and honed her performance skills with Terry Allianz and Cecile Ovide. She started going to congresses and watching how teachers taught beginners. “This helped me a lot as I am now able to adapt myself to whoever I am teaching.”

In addition to teaching salsa, Magda is also Head of Partner Dance at London’t City Academy, where she teaches other partner dances such as Latin ballroom, swing and jive

Alongside teaching with Dani, Magda has been performing with Otra Danz since 2011, and is now a renowned and sought-after guest teacher at many international salsa festivals. She also became Head of Partnerwork (jive, swing, Latin ballroom, salsa, etc) classes for London’s City Academy. When she left Otra Danz in November 2019, it was to show her journey as a dancer. Cha cha is current love, and the project her heart is in.

For Magda, concentrating on the basics so she can teach everyone and explain how to do everything properly – all the mechanisms of the moves – is very important. She always tries to give her students something they can connect with, so it’s not just a mechanical thing but it becomes part of their soul, and they can feel the move as well as do it. “If you don’t have the soul when you’re dancing, then you are only half-dancing – you are just practising. To really dance, you have to have your technique and the feeling. Only when you have both together does it become dancing.”

But it was only when she found that connection in herself that she understood what to do to help others to learn. “I always try to give them something personal – just one small tip to help them to click – even when they are in a big group. It also is important to engage their minds. And when that happens – when they engage both the mind and the feelings – even those who only wanted to learn a few steps will start to see the possibilities of what they can do with it. And when they get hooked, it’s amazing!

It’s all about the smiles: Magda enjoys leading as a social dancer as much as a teacher, as here at the Teeside, UK salsa festival

Although she does have a rigorously perfectionist side, her goal is to ensure her students learn. “I love teaching – and now I have more patience and willingness to work with people personally to help them grow. I love seeing the smiles on the dancers’ faces when they start to get it and their movements improve.”

She also dances socially as a leader so people can see she practises what she preaches. Magda’s goal is to help followers know how to respond – not because they know what’s coming, but because they can feel the response – and teaches leaders what the follower needs to feel, too. Several leaders have said they’d never been taught those things.

Magda has since been offered to teaching of partnerwork classes as a solo female teacher at events and congresses – including Berlin – which she says felt like “a confirmation that I am doing the right thing”.

“Female teachers/dancers are a very important element in the salsa scene. Because it is a partner dance involving two dancers, a good female instructor can not only explain the follower’s steps, but what a follower should feel from the leader. They can also help the leader to improve the lead. For this reason, female instructors are so much more important to teaching salsa than just teaching ladies’ styling!” 

—Magda sobolewska
Magda teaching at the Luxembourg Unified Dance Festival

Q: So how have you managed in lockdown, both with casting and dance teaching?

“Being in lockdown has given me the time to think about what I want to do – I want to develop my own things, not in competition to City Academy but as a compliment to it. The cha cha is something I want to fully focus on, because I love it – I have started doing a Latin fusion thing for the ladies, with heel classes, combining the ballroom Latin thing with the salsa Latin thing. In ballroom, you’ve got the standard, and then you’ve got Latin American, whereas salsa is like the street version. So I want to combine some movements and techniques from ballroom Latin in what I teach.”

She is also interested in doing something specifically for ladies – especially older ladies, because it is difficult for them because they are often labelled and subjected to limits. She knows some older ladies are scared and don’t have the confidence to try, therefore she wants to try to reach those ladies and give them a second youth, to help them to feel young and happy again via dance.

“I got this idea from another friend in Poland, who was doing something similar. I believe this can be a good thing, a niche market. I used to teach elderly people in a community centre, and I recently taught a class of elderly people, even a lady who was 94 who joined in, and this gave her a lot of joy. So I believe dance can help you to keep your youth.” One of her challenges recently was teaching a deaf girl, by tapping the rhythm on the girl’s hands – and it gave the girl a lot of joy just being able to move.

Although some projects are still a work in progress, Magda’s confidence and determination are all the tools she needs to conquer the future

Being in lockdown gave her a lot – she bought a flat and has had a lot of time with her son. It has also meant she has had more time to work through her ideas for the future, which is still a work in progress.

Now that lockdown is easing and dance classes are resuming, so is her hectic filming schedule – so the time off has helped as she is now back to working 20-hour days. But, knowing Magda – who jokes that she has more energy than many people in their 20s, and is “like a prototype for a Duracell battery” – the demanding full-on schedule will surely see her thriving and truly in her element.

“I’m a fighter and an opportunist – I’m always looking for opportunities to create something new. If I have even the slightest chance to do something, I will do it. I approach everything with the attitude that I can at least try it – because if I don’t try it, I won’t know! Developing the confidence to try has given me the courage to look for opportunities and even create them.”

If you are interested in learning with Magda, you can see her full course and private session offerings on her website.

© Jane Cahane August 2021

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Writing… about writing

It’s been a while since I have added any new post here – although part of the delay is that I have been awaiting corrections from an interviewee (Magda Sobolewska) to the article I wrote some time ago about her, the rest has just been simple busyness, which is about to become exponential – therefore, I will simply have to write in smaller bursts than I usually do!

It’s not that I haven’t been writing, because I have been, every day. Some of my writing has been paid copywriting for a range of products and various start-up companies; I also recently wrote another piece for The Vegan Review on the challenges of trying to adopt eco-friendly food choices when you have dietary issues, which I’ve just been requested to give an interview on, and am now having to fend off other requests for further articles or commissions on a freelance basis, being that I’ve also just started an actual full-time job (subbing on financial news website capital.com). Yet even with a never-ending supply of fresh inspirations, there is, I am finding, a limit to how much time I can physically manage either sitting at a computer or even writing by hand.

Most of my current writing is daily journalling or morning pages (this is a reference to a stellar work by Julia Cameron called The Artists’ Way, which if you have never read, I encourage you to do so – it is a wonderful tool for creative unblocking, whether as an artist or a writer, or really for any other creative work) as a précis to continued work on my current creative work-in-progress, an historical fiction novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and Japan (I am now in chapter 10, which I hope will be the end of Act 1 and ready to be sent out to a few willing beta readers [at 48,000+ words, this will be a long one, but I am really enjoying it… more about that shortly]).

Occasionally I still write poetry, which used to be my main form of writing expression from the time I was very young, when I was typically either known as ‘Jane the poet’ or ‘Jane the artist’. That lasted until my early 30s, until my first husband’s insistence on the need for rhyme in poetry (he was a musician) had the unfortunate effect of killing my natural poetic voice, which wrought a deep grief in me – I don’t find it at all surprising that in the absence of being able to express myself with words that I next took up dancing as a way of expressing myself. I have still written a few; the sudden drought of poetry hasn’t stopped me getting the odd poem published, but they are far rarer now than they used to be – I do hope that at some point the poetic muse will return, but at the moment I am at least pleased to be writing fiction fluently.

I am also still interviewing potential whistleblowers, collecting evidence and collaborating with others on a planned investigative exposé of all the different aspects of corruption behind HS2 as a follow-up to my previous shorter investigative article, which most readers of this blog and personal acquaintances will know I am quite passionate about.

I am certainly finding this to be true – no matter how many voices my characters or other tones of voice I use in my various forms of writing, they are all aspects of myself, and do allow me to be more fully who I am. Thank you, Alice Walker!

Yet no matter what type of writing (or even editing, which at times involves substantial writing or rewriting) I am doing, I am doing my utmost now simply to just get on and do it – this is actually a huge step for me, since I have already had a lifetime of being blocked through being a perfectionist (a wonderful skill for an editor/proofreader, but it can be a real curse to any creative writer or artist). So it is a massive improvement for me that I now just focus on the process of writing. Because of my other creative work as a visual artist, I realise that writing is quite a lot like drawing and painting, in that you usually have to do an underdrawing or sketch to map out the correct positioning and perspective, and then begin to add other aspects such as shading and tonal layering to add depth and dimension. Sometimes you have to rework the whole thing, or do several different sketches to get it right, or spend a lot of time exploring similar themes – as, for example, Degas did in his many paintings of ballerinas, or Monet’s variations on the themes of waterlilies.

You realise when you work creatively that your first efforts may not be perfect right away, but that if you continue to work diligently, you will get there eventually – the important thing is not to focus on the finished product or be discouraged if it is not perfect right away, but to persist and eventually see improvement. It is the only way!

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”

Octavia E. Butler


As well as learning so much daily in my own writing process, I also learn tremendously via exchanges with other writers around the world through my daily participation in the London Writers’ Salon‘s Writers’ Hour online writing sessions (and also the Weekend Writers subgroup, which is presently a real life-saver). In these daily “50 minutes of pure, focused writing” sessions, multiple writers of all styles and persuasions say hi in the Zoom chat window, then we set our intentions for the session, listen to or share some daily ‘words of wisdom’ from other writers, and then get down to the business of whatever we happen to be working on. Some are well-established, published novelists; some are jobbing copywriters, journalists, academicians and essayists; some are poets and short-story writers; some are bloggers; and several are newbie writers working on a first novel like me (well, I did write a full-length fantasy novella – a Narnia story – for my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College in New York back in the 80s, but this is my first ‘serious’ novel attempt, and certainly my first attempt at writing historical fiction).

After the 50 minutes is up, we then report on our progress afterwards. I am always amazed at those who manage to write a 1,000 words or more in one session – my average is 400-450 – but you have to accept your own limits and not compare yourself with others. We are all running our own race, with our own end in sight – so even if I/we only manage to crawl a few inches per session, it is all progress towards our eventual goal. And this particular forum/writing group is always so encouraging – I am deeply grateful to Matt and Parul and ‘KK’ and all the other contributors to this group for providing an unfailingly encouraging writing environment – also to others like French poet and photographic artist Nicolas Laborie, who has provided me with so much help and inspiration for my novel, as well as guidance to other aspects of the different channels on the Slack forum we are able to access as patrons (although it is free to join London Writers’ Salon, becoming a silver patron for £15 a month enables access to the Slack chat as well as free talks with other writers every Tuesday, and a whole host of other benefits I have not fully explored yet).

Re my novel

In case you are wondering what made me take the leap to historical fiction, the answer is fairly simple: I thought about what I most like to read or watch as a film – and I suppose in my wildest dreams, yes I WOULD love to see my novel made into a film! – and that was that. I confess I did struggle a bit at the beginning with defining exactly which genre (and genre conventions) it would follow, especially being that at its heart, it is a love story, but it is also a world view story – and hopefully also a rollicking good adventure, at least in places (pirates! storms! sword fights! samurais! sexual attacks!).

Right or wrong, I am presently writing in the first person – and as my main protagonist is a young man, an artist sent against his will to work in the silk trade with the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), writing his first sexual encounter recently was certainly a unique challenge! – although I plan to introduce Act 2 from the perspective of his Japanese love interest, and perhaps intersperse their points of view(s) with that of a European and a Japanese observer – we’ll see.

As this novel is already quite long and there is still much more to uncover once my hero gets to Japan (he will eventually return to Amsterdam and then back to Japan again), it is possible it will end up being similar in length to James Clavell’s epic Shogun; I realise I may need to cut & refine it, which I will do at the second draft stage. At the moment I am mostly just focused on trying to get as much of the actual correct historical details (my real-life historical characters include Rembrandt, Hendrik Brouwer, Anthony van Diemen, Francois Caron, Joost Schouten, and Philips and Petronella Lucasz so far, to name a few) and plot structure + characters together as an outline, but I intend to go back to add depth to the characters while improving/fact-checking the language (some is Dutch, some Portuguese, some French, some Japanese and Balinese) and other historical details. It will take time to get it all write, but for now I am simply enjoying the adventure – both those of my character(s) and the sheer adventure of writing in a new genre.

The writing process for me – particularly for a historical novel, which just involves so much research – is very much like a cha cha: the rhythm is definitely a slow–slow–quick–quick–slow, as quite often I will need to spend time revising content I have already written. I do always make progress incrementally, but sometimes it is slower than others!

Meanwhile, as I now need to get on with the day job, I do have to say again that it is really thanks to the London Writers’ Salon that I have made as much progress as I have done so far with my novel – not to mention helping to keep me from going completely nuts during lockdown. Writing is generally a very solitary occupation, which is especially challenging for a natural extrovert like myself. In fact, I always fantasised when I was young about being in a salon, so the fact that this is part of its title makes it, ironically, a dream come true… and most certainly it has been one of the true gifts of lockdown.

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Grief Trilogy / A Grief Shared

After a week marked by prolonged social media discussions on how to deal with climate grief, a close friend’s profound grief and despair due to losing her mother to Covid, and an extremely moving vigil to mourn the loss of a uniquely beautiful, much-beloved and irreplaceable site of ancient woodland, the below is a meditation on these various forms of grief — climate grief, personal grief, and solastalgia (loss of place, specifically Jones Hill Wood) — and how to work through it.

Jones Hill Wood: a very poignant solastalgia

I recently attended a vigil at Jones Hill Wood in Wendover, along with some 30–40 people — or perhaps there were more in the trees, or huddled in cars and tents. Sadly, even as we sang, shared poems, stories, verses and personal remembrances, the chainsaws could be heard felling in the background, greedily destroying this incredibly beautiful ancient woodland, described even by its Government-authorised ecocidal murderers as “a habitat of principal importance”.

For all who have ever visited this wood — the inspiration for beloved children’s author Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox (the author lived in nearby Great Missenden, and one of the book’s principal characters is named Bunce, supposedly after farmer Kevin Bunce & Sons, on the edge of whose farm the wood sits) — Jones Hill Wood is a truly magical, irreplaceable site. For those of us who have been fighting long and hard to preserve it — even more so for the many who have been living here in the camp for over a year, as powerfully documented here — the beauty of this place has left a deep mark on our souls. The connection is so strong that its threatened loss leaves an overwhelming sense of grief and heartache — the kind of ‘homesickness’ now described as solastalgia, which is recognised as a key component of climate grief.   

Tragically, despite the endless hard work by a crack ecological team in recording evidence of the increasingly rare and threatened Barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus), supposedly protected by law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, for one), our hard-fought legal case against Natural England — which only recently resulted in an injunction being granted by sympathetic judge Justice Lang to stop the felling until 24 May — was overturned by HS2 ally Justice Holgate. This meant HS2 would be allowed to resume their deadly work with immediate effect, nesting/roosting season notwithstanding.

And so we gathered to grieve the loss of this precious habitat, a “mix of semi-natural broadleaved woodland dominated by beech”, and also home to oaks, ash, rowans, elders, holly, hawthorn, cherry, bluebells, foxes, glis glis, badgers, nesting birds, Natterer’s and other bats, and many other precious flora and fauna. We sat in a loose circle on the ground, near the fence HS2 workers keep moving (that part of the land belongs to Mr Liberty; they are in fact stealing an extra 1.5–2 metres all around it supposedly for ‘mitigation’ [their idea is translocate the ancient soil, a concept that is rejected on principle by the Woodland Trust and other leading ecologists — and don’t get me started on HS2’s ‘ecologists’, whom I have only ever observed arriving at a site, poking a stick in a tree or bush, shaking it around and then departing]; in reality, this further unlawful land grab is merely so they can destroy yet more ancient woodland to make way for a temporary haul road). Each person who wished to do so took turns sharing, all holding flickering candles. Local resident and bodging expert Stuart placed a crucified Mr Fox on the fence as a gentle protest.

One woman began by reeling off a few of her poems, hard-hitting rhymes that resonated with all of us. I read out the words of Psalm 24, which had echoed upliftingly in my head after a previous despair-filled episode in this year-long battle with HS2 (the infamous ‘Battle of the Beancan’). Mark Keir shared the good news that at least one protestor’s case had been dropped. Val and Sylvia led us in a few gentle songs. Ghost read a history written by a World War II child evacuee of a local farm, the owners of which have since been evicted and the farm is soon to be destroyed by HS2. Jo placed a small cross on a temporary ‘grave’ made with a few feathers, twigs and stones, thanking many significant people – valiant local reporter Ann of Wendover, the team of volunteer ecologists tracking the bats, the helpful food suppliers, and all of us who cared enough to come, whether locally or from far away.

But, take these several beings from their homes.
Each beauteous thing a withered thought becomes;
Association fades and like a dream
They are but shadows of the things they seem.
Torn from their homes and happiness they stand
The poor dull captives of a foreign land.

John Clare

A visitor from Hemel shared memorably about how he had realised our spiritual energy never dies, but goes into something else. He said he had been pondering which animal he would want to come back as, but had finally concluded he would want to come back as a tree – “because then I would be giving oxygen to the world – and maybe some of you would climb up among my branches, and save me so I can keep on saving you”. Nearly last, but not least, legal warrior Kestrel stated that “until the last tree has been cut down, we will keep fighting”. That is indeed what all present have been doing fervently for a year or more, ever since the camp at Jones Hill Wood (JHW) was first erected.

Jones Hill Wood — credit Imogen May

And yet recent conversations reveal that responses to ecocidal grief and loss vary widely. Despite those of us who were present at this vigil – some, like me, local; others travelling for hours from all over the UK – frequently shouting out tirelessly for witnesses to come and share our grief, to assist us in honouring this magical wood before it is nearly completely destroyed, we encountered the usual excuses from many – “I can’t bear to see it – it makes me too upset”, “I’ve already done all I could”, “You can’t fight it, the system is totally corrupt”, “It’s a done deal, you’re wasting your time”, etc etc. I have lost much time and psychological energy this week contending with comments on social media from some who sadly chose to take my pleas for support and physical presence at JHW as an effort to make them feel guilty. This at times has felt deeply alienating, as what I had mostly hoped for was empathy. Grief of any kind is always so much harder to bear when those we think will support us don’t, for whatever reason. It makes the loss so much harder to shoulder.

But as I and several other vigil attenders commented, out of all the horror of this abysmal ecocide and the shattering loss of our legal battle to protect this ancient wood and its creatures, the very best thing to come out of it has been the sense of kinship, deep empathy, fondness and connection we have all felt towards each other in our shared grief and purpose.

I remember once hearing a saying that has stuck with me ever since, particularly whenever I have discovered a kindred spirit after feeling alienated because of my views or beliefs: A friend is someone who sees the same things you do. I may not otherwise have much in common with everyone present — we represent a wide range of creeds, colours, ages, tastes, education levels, skills, geographies and even nationalities — yet here in this wood, sharing this moment of grief together, we were all indeed one, and the same. As Jo said, “You’ve all become my family now.”

Climate despair: Suffer in silence or galvanise in action?

This image describes well the sense of being plunged deeply into the despair of climate grief and how it is hard to shift out of such heavy feelings to take action

Probably one of the most profound things about grief is that it is a deeply personal issue – and being that we are all unique, one-of-a-kind individuals, we all have different ways of processing and responding to it. When our friends or loved ones are overwhelmed by grief, sadness and loss, we have to allow them to go through the process of grieving (as outlined below) in their own way and time. All of our good or best intentions, or efforts to cheer them up, can never make the pain go away — and in some cases, it may even make it worse. Therefore, if we love them, we have no other option but to practise “the radical act of letting things hurt”. There can be no moral judgement or standard, one-size-fits-all timetable for how long it takes to work through grief — it is not something one can simply ‘snap out of’ just because someone else says we have to.

The differences and similarities in the processes of dealing with grief are very clearly seen when it comes to dealing with the topic of climate grief, the emotional toll of which is now finally being recognised as a genuine psychopathological illness. According to a 2016 report on climate change and mental health, “perhaps one of the best ways to characterise the impacts of climate change on perceptions is the sense of loss”.

As mentioned above, solastalgia is the fancy scientific name for the sense of abject desolation arising from the loss of a significant or emotively charged place (such as JHW) — it is a psychological phenomenon most keenly observed in those forced to leave their homes or familiar terrain as a result of disaster, for example war, persecution, genocide, pollution, drought, famine, floods, avalanches, rising sea levels, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and deforestation. Alas, we now know this phenomenon will only increase and become even more pervasive the hotter the planet gets, the more unsustainable this Earth we call ‘home’ becomes.

Ever since climate change started making international headlines — perhaps beginning with Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg‘s decision to sit alone outside her school in August 2018 holding a placard announcing Skolstrejk för klimatet (‘School strike for climate’) in a concerted protest about global leaders’ refusal to address the looming climate catastrophe — the world has been deeply divided about how to respond to climate grief and anxiety. In just 16 months, Greta’s actions launched a global youth protest movement that inspired over 4 million people to join the global climate strike on 20 September 2019. She met the Pope and the US President (then the resolutely climate-sceptical Donald Trump), and also became Time‘s 2019 Person of the Year — pretty impressive results for a then-15-year-old girl with Asperger’s!

However, perhaps Greta’s most significant achievement has been her ability to give voice to the sense of rage, futility, despair and grief many of us now feel about the inevitable losses we will all soon experience as a result of climate change. “How dare you?” she thundered at world leaders gathered at a UN Assembly in September 2019, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She fearlessly and blatantly accused them of failing to act, of fiddling while the entire planet burns: “Sorry, you’re not doing enough!”

Greta’s courageous activism has also helped give birth or fresh impetus to many radical environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose catchphrase, ‘Love and Rage’, sums up the emotional status behind this global effort to impact corporate and political decision-makers to do more to combat climate change before it is truly too late. Motivated by a deep sense of alarm, rage and grief about the coming environmental apocalypse if sufficient measures are not taken to prevent temperatures rising above the pre-industrial level 1.5°C threshold, as outlined in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, XR has consistently demanded the formation of a Citizen’s Assembly that will enable climate-alarmed citizens to take action to avert disaster.

As with any large-scale, global movement of diverse human beings, there have been some disagreements and diverging paths within XR; it has now developed several sub-groups, of which HS2 Rebellion is but one*. However, XR officially espouses a welcoming, tolerant and non-shaming/blaming culture that seeks to balance occasionally provocative, militant and/or disruptive activism — such as the October 2019 Canning Town tube incident, which divided many members and is currently perceived by several of its leaders as misguided —with a loving, self-compassionate emphasis on regenerative culture (or ‘regen’) — practising deep levels of community, interpersonal and self-care in order to be able to recuperate from intense actions or long-term resistance, and thus become more resilient in the face of adversity and hostile reactions so as to be able to continue the fight.

While the effect of such divergent movements has perhaps been to lessen the unity and thus overall impact of XR — not least also significantly hampered by the Covid-19 lockdown, as well as UK Government moves to add limitations and restrictions to democratic rights to protest — there have also been simple, but occasionally marked, differences in the practices, tools and methods its diverse individuals have chosen as aids in processing climate grief. Some are perhaps more naturally inclined to direct or ‘aggressive’ political actions, whereas others prefer a gentler path of helping to heal the Earth through a range of nature-friendly efforts such as rewilding or other ecologically important and sustaining work. Others are more comfortable, skilled and effective in petitioning, lobbying — for example, attempting to persuade MPs to back the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill — or utilising social media in “armchair activism”.

Yet whether XR rebels are happily risking arrest by engaging in radical, potentially dangerous actions such as lock-ons and recently tunnelling under Euston Station to get their points across, or are patiently doing most of the time-consuming legal or political legwork behind a computer screen, the effect for all of any prolonged interfacing with the spectre of potential planetary annihilation is often severe burnout, coupled with an overwhelming and psychologically disabling feeling of climate despair. Aware of the capacity for this, XR set up an Emotional Support Network to help activists who are burned out or so climate grief-stricken they are unable to function. This resource, along with other regenerative practices such as simply spending more time enjoying and appreciating the very nature we are fearful of losing, is seen as the best ways for individuals to combat climate grief.

Along with our common mortality, another facet of being human is our need for social connection, even in the midst of overwhelming and often isolating grief. This very human need for connection is so deeply woven into the fabric of our psyches that even the most introverted or rugged individualists need that sense of connection to manifest somehow — for example, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, influential author of classics Walden and Civil Disobedience, who spent nearly his whole life living alone in a cabin in the woods by himself, still emerged with books eager to impart his story to society and ultimately change it as a result.

Unsurprisingly, XR itself arose from a small group of activists, friends and academics who all saw the same thing — the climate and ecological emergency — and, led by Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam, decided to do something about it collectively. Although ideas for something similar had been around for a few years, in October 2018, they decided to spawn a movement that could help empower others to “be (part of) the change you want to see”, and so officially launched XR.

Spending time in nature — even just focusing on a single item, such as a beautiful flower or butterfly can be an aid to combatting climate and other griefs

Yet some will still ask: Why act? If the world will all end soon, and we are all powerless to stop it, what is the point? Shouldn’t we all just stay in a place of grief, embrace what little time we have left doing the things we love with the people we love? And what about our need to take time simply to enjoy the beauty and glory of this precious yet fragile planet, while we still can?

Of course, this is all true — and, as XR’s experience and tenets testify, any programme of activism MUST be balanced with regen practices, which for those who experience profound climate grief should certainly include time spent in nature. As has been noted:

“We are only just beginning to understand the effect of nature on human health. One in six of the UK population suffers from depression, anxiety, stress phobias, suicidal impulses, obsessive-compulsive disorders and panic attacks” [not to mention addictions caused by over-reliance on various substance — food, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sex, etc]. Treating such mental health issues cost the National Health Service £12.5bn, and the economy up to £41.8bn in dealing with the human costs of reduced quality of or loss of life. Yet studies show that time spent in nature [even for hospitalised patients who have a view of nature form their windows] has the power to alleviate most of the symptoms of these disorders.”

So, for those feeling overwhelmed with personal or climate grief or stressed by thoughts of a potentially uninhabitable planet for their children and grandchildren, time out in nature is essential.

However, beyond the ever-present need for regen, the general consensus among the climate-concerned/climate grief-stricken (see below) is that the best tonic for the sense of futility and the ever-present guilt of “not doing enough” is action — specifically local, political or community-based actions that have a clear focus and an immediately observable, beneficial effect on the environment. Whether this will also involve more radical behaviours such as smashing windows, stopping trains or living in a treehouse in a threatened woodland is entirely up to the will, personalities, and mental/physical abilities of the individual — clearly, such actions may not be suitable or acceptable for everyone.

The five stages of grief: personal and climate grief

University of Montana profession Steve W. Running, who was part of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning team that put together the 2007 IPCC report, was the first to explain the stages of climate grief

For those who have either not yet made the leap from awareness of climate change to alarm to despair and then to activism — as per my own personal trajectory, and that of many other environmental warriors and XR members I know — the process of working through climate grief follows a very similar pattern to Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal 1969 work on grief, On Death and Dying.

Kübler-Ross’s outline of the five major stages of grief is now seen as a classic paradigm for counsellors seeking to help alleviate the depression and other mental health issues grievers experience. The received wisdom regarding these stages is that they tend to go in a cycle, and are not always linear — in fact, some may be repeated on and off as individuals process their grief. Some people experience all of the stages, occasionally simultaneously, while others may only experience a few — and some may experience none at all. However, as these are now accepted as fairly standard aspects of the grieving process, they are worth noting in any discussion of grief, as explained below.

I have summarised these and also made reference to the climate grief variation of this model, as first articulated by University of Montana professor Steve W. Running, who was a lead contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning 2007 IPCC report.

1. denial — shock, fear, avoidance, confusion, elation

2. anger — frustration, irritation, anxiety

3. bargaining — struggling to find meaning, reaching out to others, telling one’s story

4. depression — overwhelmed, helplessness, hostility, flight

5. acceptance — exploring options, new plan in place, moving on

Denial

Shock and denial are initially helpful in that they help to cushion the blow when you have suffered a really painful loss, such as the unexpected death of a loved one. You experience a kind of numbness where you can’t believe what has happened and how it has irrevocably changed your life. Denial is essentially your psyche’s way of saying, “I can’t handle this now”. But as it is only once the bandages are removed that the healing process in your body will begin, the same is true of how your psyche heals from grief. As the shock and denial start to fade, the healing process can begin.

When this stage is interpreted in the climate grief version, this is reflected as complete denial of the existence or reality of climate change. People simply refuse to accept that it is happening or to recognise the impacts of manmade greenhouses on a warming climate, and instead blame any temperature rises on natural processes. While there are many types of climate change denier and climate conspiracy theorists, typically this is intertwined with the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. For the most part, those who reject the idea that climate change is happening tend to do so because they are aware on some level that if it is true — as those of us now familiar with the science know it is — it will necessitate massive amounts of personal and systemic change. And we all know that change of any kind is a very scary proposition for many, hence the resistance to the truth.

Anger

After the initial shock and denial subsides, suppressed emotions begin to arise — with angry thoughts being a predominant feature: Why me? It’s so unfair! Where are you God! How could you let this happen? In the midst of their confusion and distress, grievers often misdirect blame onto others to avoid experiencing the painful sense of helplessness and frustration at not having been able to stop the loss. Yet while anger is not always healthy, the anger connected with grief is actually a vital part of the healing process. Giving voice to feelings of rage helps channel the griever’s awakened energies into making the painful but necessary changes that will ultimately help the griever move forward.

Anger is also an extremely significant aspect of the climate grief cycle. Once it becomes undeniably evident that climate change is indeed happening —far faster and with far more devastating consequences than any single country or group of leaders is presently prepared to deal with —sheer, incandescent rage is typically the first emotion most people feel as the veil of denial lifts and acceptance occurs. Greta Thunberg’s incensed “How dare you!” echoes exactly the feelings of everyone who has suddenly woken up to the fact that all the dire scientific warnings and climate change models — many of which have actually been around since the 1970s, with varying degrees of accuracy — have been steadfastly ignored, hidden or covered up by world leaders and a heavily fossil fuel-dependent society. It is often this anger that prompts people to join activist groups such as XR (perhaps quite logical, then, that its catchphrase is ‘Love & Rage’).

Bargaining

The next classic stage of grief is bargaining. This often manifests as an attempt to ‘make a deal with God’: Please God, if you can only do just this one miracle, I promise to be a good/better person forever. You falsely believe that by negotiating, by offering to make some major sacrifice or commitment, it will enable you to get your life ‘back to normal’ (eg before the event that caused the grief) or forestall the grief in some way.

Most of this bargaining is fed and empowered by guilt, and attended by endless ‘if onlys’: If only I had done x, y wouldn’t have happened. My loved one might still be here today if only I had been there to get him/her to the hospital in time. If only I had not gone back to get my keys, the accident would never have happened. If only I had listened to my instincts and got him to see a doctor sooner. If only I had left work on time, I might have been able to save her. The list goes on. And on. Depending on their personality, cultural background and personal capacity for guilt or ‘navel-gazing’, some grievers can get stuck in this stage for a long time.

For those who began their journey from a place of climate change denialism and have now (technically) accepted it as a reality, the bargaining stage tends to take some form of reasoning that perhaps it is not really quite as bad as scientists predict. The bargainer will likely attempt to put a positive spin on such predictions by asserting that, for example, the warming of normally frozen locations might be good in that it will open up new places (Antarctica, for example) to tourism or human habitation. Or they may place their hopes in their political leaders’ commitment to achieving net-zero carbon-neutrality targets by 2050, or in other greenhouse gas-reducing solutions such as renewable energy technologies.  

This image on Pinterest describes that heavy sense of depression that is the most common symptom of grief

Depression

The penultimate stage is the most common, immediate and well-recognised form of grief. Those who have suffered a profound loss of any kind may speak of having their hearts broken, of feeling they are no longer able to go on, of feeling life no longer holds any joy or meaning for them, of being unable to stop crying, or of feeling overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, but not wishing to talk about it. They may feel as though a heavy fog has descended on them, and they may not wish to get out of bed or attend any normal activities, but instead seek to withdraw from others.

Although depression usually has the effect of flattening one’s mood, it can also manifest in many ‘hidden’ ways, such as a seemingly out-of-character or unnatural elation. Sufferers may seem agitated, extremely anxious or fearful, or physically affected such that they are no longer able to eat, sleep or work. The simplest tasks seemingly become impossible. Often, suddenly bereaved wives or husbands may not live long after their partner’s death, whether through desire to be reunited with their loved one in the hereafter or a simple loss of the will to live.

At this point, some may try to alleviate these unbearably painful feelings by turning to drink, drugs, sex or other addictive substances or behaviours, which only work as a mask in the short run, delaying or preventing the person from dealing with or moving on from their actual grief. In some cases, the secondary problems arising from reliance on these methods can take over, causing far more severe long-term issues such as complete mental or marital breakdown, job or home loss, physical injury or illness, or even death.

In fact, it is probable that depression is a constant throughout the grieving process; even when moving forward to the final stage, a sudden memory or reminder of the loss can trigger fresh feelings of depression or sadness.

The depression stage of climate grief will plunge some into a state of despair, alternating with panic about the inevitable and irretrievable doom of the planet. They often feel overwhelmed and bewildered by what seems an impossible situation, and find themselves unable to think clearly about or act to find any potential solution. However, even if they reach this state, they will eventually realise that it is simply impossible to live here forever — they must stir themselves to take some kind of action, however small, to feel satisfied they are at least ‘doing their bit’ to fight the situation. Doing so is a step forward, as it is effectively empowering them for the next step.

Acceptance

In Kübler-Ross’s final stage, the griever eventually works through the gamut of their feelings and begins to move into acceptance of the loss. While never admitting the loss as okay in itself, they begin to realise that life does go on, and so must they. They feel that despite the not-okay-ness of the loss, they themselves will eventually be okay — and they accept that that is what the person or thing lost would wish for them.

This time of adjustment will be marked by many ups and downs, by good days and bad days. Sometimes the sadness will flood them anew with fresh feelings of pain, but it will eventually lift. During this stage, people may find new friends or activities that, while never replacing the loss, will help provide a fresh focus and impetus to get on with the business of life. This process can eventually lead to a new direction or new purpose, for example remarriage or rebuilding one’s life in a new setting.

Those who have accepted the scientific reality of climate change and the present ecological emergency, and have begun to move forward from a place of climate grief and despair, generally recognise that they will need to make some necessary and radical changes to their own lifestyles. Frequently, having begun this process, they also seek to help and educate others, often by advocating for change through personal, local national or international policies or the political arena. They may become active in championing new technologies or even resuming ancient practices that seem to offer viable solutions, for example rewilding as a tactic to reduce biodiversity loss by the reintroduction into uninhabited landscapes of specific species such as bison, wolves or beavers.

For those at this stage, the only ‘solution’ that is non-viable is not doing anything — for them, inaction is simply unacceptable. As such, this final stage of activism, when balanced with understanding others who have not yet reached this place, acts like a resolution to the famous existential dilemma of ‘doing’ versus ‘being’: in this case, to be IS to do, and to do IS to be.

‘We’re only human’

Alas, the very fact we are human means we are mortal — we all, at some point, will die. So, too, will everything in this present world. Even if we had succeeded in preserving the injunction against HS2 — or even yet win a further appeal, as the legal team are still working on it — the trees and creatures we gathered at Jones Hill Wood to honour will not last; they are made of the same perishable materials we ourselves are. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, atoms to atoms, Et in Arcadia ego. Yet it is the very fleeting essence, fragility and transitoriness of life is what gives it its greatest beauty and poignancy — like butterflies who hatch and spread their gorgeous wings but briefly, only to spawn eggs and then die within days, weeks, months or a year at best.  

For those who believe in the resurrection as I do, who are persuaded that there is another life beyond this ‘veil of tears’, there is some consolation in knowing that death is not the final story, that indeed, “There is hope for a tree; though it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail” (Job 14:7). Yet even knowing that spiritually or intellectually doesn’t always immediately lift the deep sense of loss and distress we feel when something or someone we have loved and invested so much hope, tears and fervent prayers in saving leaves us alone finally and is with us no more.

For there is hope for a tree; though it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail.”

Job 14:17

Personally, I am deeply grieved by every single evidence of roadkill; it literally breaks my heart every time I drive past a dead bird, badger, deer or squirrel on the side of the road. While it is comforting to know Jesus said, “Not even a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing about it” (Matthew 10:29), it is less comforting to consider all the human injustice and corruption behind the destruction of our natural world, which is seemingly ‘allowed’ by God — not to mention the sense of betrayal occasionally felt because of unanswered prayers or unsympathetic humans. I have prayed fervently every day for HS2 to be stopped, for some kind of miraculous reprieve to save Jones Hill Wood; in this case, we nearly thought we had succeeded in stopping it, so the blow of the legal reversal and the imminent destruction of the wood feels incredibly disappointing.  

Yet here we are, still fighting, still hoping, still praying. As Kestrel had said, “Until the very last tree is cut down, we will keep fighting.” For as the grief model we have looked at tells us, this is really the only way forward for such a profound place of grief.

© Jane Cahane 2021

*As a movement largely populated by either relatively well-off youths inspired by Greta or older activists often characterised as ‘aging hippies’ — many of whom have continued protesting various ecological, humanitarian and military causes since as far back as the late 1970s — XR has sometimes been criticised as being “too white”. Following the horrific, racist-inspired murder of black hip-hop artist George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, XR began to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement in addition to the vegan movement now under Animal Rebellion, another XR division.

Someone in my writing group this morning shared this powerful poem by Maya Angelou – so sharing here:

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
dark, cold
caves.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

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Survival of the Wit-est? How Dance Competitions are Adapting for Covid

In this time of global social distancing and virtual everything, how are global dance competitions surviving? Here I review some of the challenges and opportunities

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, dance — that most physical form of creative expression — has been one of the hardest-hit creative industries, affecting performers, choreographers, teachers and promoters everywhere. Nowhere has this been more painfully seen than in the usually lucrative sphere of national and international dance competitions.

The traditional model of live events featuring scores of individual and group dancers in glittering venues packed with adoring fans and anxious families across multiple cities is now simply a no-go zone. Hundreds of events have been forced to cancel or shut down, resulting in massive financial loss or even bankruptcy as managers have had no option but to issue refunds. Some hoped to forestall financial troubles by offering partial refunds based on a future rescheduled event, yet even planning when and how to reschedule has proved a logistical nightmare, since no one knows how and when the pandemic restrictions will end, and physical competitions can safely resume.

Most competitions have attempted to adapt by adjusting live competition formats or by offering online versions — some more successfully than others. However, if — God forbid! — the pandemic continues to keep us all in a virtual limbo, it will ultimately serve the global dance community to use this time to discover what does or doesn’t work.

With that in mind, here are some of the more notable competition successes and failures, along with a few current online competitions whose unique approaches may offer fresh inspiration.

TV hits and misses

Amid initial speculation of a reschedule of NBC’s popular World of Dance Championship Series, Executive Producer Jennifer Lopez initially issued a statement announcing that the show would be “postponing or changing the dates of all domestic and international events based on the Centers for Disease Control recommendations and restrictions”, noting it is an “ever-changing situation”.

However, as of March 2021, World of Dance was firmly cancelled, blamed on reduced ratings and lack of a crucial viewing demographic following the final August 2020 show from Season 4. Although that show’s format was adapted significantly to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions, introducing new items like a “Blind Battle,” a “Callback Vote” and a “Qualifier Twist” in an effort to replace the missing live audience energy, it failed to fire viewers sufficiently to justify the show’s lavish production expenses and the whopping $1 million prize money.

As Lopez told Variety in an interview, “We were trying our very best to make it what it should have been for those people who fought so hard to get there… [but it was hard] without an audience cheering them on.” Co-judge Derek Hough had previously told the magazine, “It did feel a little weird in the ballroom”; while he had hoped “the magic of television to create that energy with pyros and sound effects” would still be able to “capture the energy”, it clearly wasn’t enough for viewers.

Likewise, So You Think You Can Dance? made headlines recently as the Fox TV favourite’s Summer 2021 season was also abruptly cancelled — a double letdown as it was hoped this year’s show would go ahead after the Summer 2020 cancellation. As Fox producers explained in a statement, “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic… we cannot meet the standards we’ve set for viewers and contestants in light of the show’s unique format, intricate production schedule and limited time.”

While other popular TV dance competition shows such as Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Dancer — which usefully featured its own creative version of face masks — did go ahead, one of the reasons So You Think You Can Dance was unable to proceed is that it has a strictly public audition process, which is impossible under the current government guidelines. This has also been a challenge for many other national and international dance competitions that rely on public auditions and audience reactions to help choose and eliminate contestants.

As for Strictly Come Dancing, the UK’s ever-popular version of Dancing with the Stars, despite reducing the show’s usual run of 13 episodes to nine, the 2020 season remained a huge hit as viewers flocked to their sets to receive the much-needed escapism the show reliably delivered. Clearly, the UK show’s tried-and-tested formula of celebrity contestants paired off with pro dancers is a winning theme even Covid can’t kill. As BBC Executive Producer Sarah James commented, “The passion and dedication for Strictly shone through more than ever last year as they all sacrificed so much to deliver an unforgettable series during unprecedented and challenging times.”

So, for TV competitions, it seems simply adding new variations on routines or relying on special effects doesn’t always guarantee the wow factor in these challenged times. There clearly must be something intrinsic to the content or format itself that makes the competitions work – and if that all-important je ne sais quoi can’t be a live show and audience, what elements are certain to deliver?

Salsa competitions — but not as we’ve known them

Thankfully, as those of us in the global salsa community know, the energy and fire of the best salsa shows can never be completely diminished by being a virtual-only offering — that at least eliminates one element of the risks of hosting competitions. Yet in a scene bursting with multi-talented, passionate solo, couple and group dancers, the main challenge for salsa and other dance competitions and contestants in transitioning to online is how to make these truly stand out.

Having made the move to virtual this year and partnered with Romania’s Fantastic Art Dance Company, World Dance Movement’s international virtual dance competition is highlighting the all-important aspect of having a stellar judging panel on board, giving aspiring contestants the extra incentive of an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of renowned celebrity judges for prizes including prestigious scholarships and contracts on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The celebrity judges providing crucial feedback include Brian Friedman, Tiler Peck, Medhi Walerski, Tricia Miranda, Bill Goodson, Dusty Button, Kat Wildish, Joshua Pelatzky, Assaf, Peter Oxford, Claudia Cavalli, Vito Cassano, Jessica Franco, Karine Newborn, Phineas Newborn III, Emily Bufferd, Ginger Cox, Damiano Bisozzi, Ashley Carter and a surprise guest judge.

With 25 participating countries and over 200 categories in styles including bachata, salsa, samba, tango, mambo and urbana, the renowned World Latin Dance Cup took the bold step to host a month-long, virtual-only competition in February 2021, with the final qualifying competition taking place in April 2021. The virtual show didn’t disappoint in terms of sheer dazzlement of the performances, but apart from their Instagram clips, the competition can only be accessed by using the Settle app, which may have limited some audiences.

Although World Dance Group’s World Salsa Championship’s 2020 event for ESPN-TV was cancelled due to Covid, it was relaunched as a virtual-only event in Puerto Rico with the $2,020 prize money still on offer. One of its specific emphases was on looking for the “most liked dance video of 2020” in a nod to the power of social media to influence popularity and dancer recognition, which WDG CEO Noel Roque said in a blog is an essential tool for dancers who wish to build a ‘brand’ and public awareness of their skills and personalities, as well as to monetise their offerings.

Fired specifically by the challenges of pandemic-required virtual competitions, the latest global salsa and Latin dance competition to arise is Agozar’s Like My Dance. With the stated aim of “locating the most creative and innovative salsa dancers for the television and movie industry”, this competition has added a new dimension to the online dance competition format by inviting contestants to “go beyond their wildest dreams” by utilising video special effects, with the videography skills themselves featuring as an element of the judging. The competition on 12 June (final results on 19 June 2021) will be accessed both via the Like My Dance website and social media channels Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Offering a first prize of 1,000 euros from sponsors Agozar, Burju Shoes, All Out Salsa, CoBeat Party, Salsa Y Control, Planet Salsa, V Dance Club and Fuego Shoes, it will be judged across multiple areas including musicality, timing, chemistry, technique and choreography by world-renowned salsa performers and teachers Nelson Flores, Magna Gopal, Steve Star Mambo TV, Ismael Otero, Rodrigo Cortez, Paula & Ricardo, Osbanis & Anneta and Cecile Ovide.

Elsewhere around the globe, other initiatives are striving to keep contestants motivated and signing up to compete by adding new enticements to the competition programmes. The Canada Salsa and Bachata Congress has launched a Choreography Contest that is levelling the competitive playing field by offering all dancers an opportunity to create a winning choreo with a prize of C$400 to a brand-new, nationally themed song, “A Bailar Canada”. The track was specifically created for the contest by legendary Latin musicians Marc Quinones and Tony Succar.

Meanwhile, Down Under, Doudoule Latin Dance Camp has launched a Dance Battle Australia 101 competition via Facebook. Seeking to provide a platform for salsa dancers to “take their dancing to new heights”, the event offers dancers an opportunity to improve their musicality, improvisation, creativity, performance confidence and dance ability through battling it out with other dancers for an AU $5,000 prize.

A virtual future?

As in everything with the pandemic, it is hard at this stage to say what the future will hold, and when – and how, and where — competition events will be able to return to “normal”. For those studios and dance teachers struggling to make ends meet or adapt to the medium of online teaching — as well as for the millions of dancers whose ability to experience their chief joy in life has been challenged — getting back to the true physical sphere of dance can’t come fast enough. And yet for those whose creativity has been stretched and resulted in the emergence of brand-new approaches, the challenges of Covid have also brought many blessings and valuable lessons.

As World Salsa Championship’s Noel Roque reminds us in his blog, pandemic or no, we are already half-living in a virtual world, with most of our connections — even in dance — dominated by social media. Therefore, whatever the future has in store for all of us, for those dancers and competitions that wish not only to survive but to thrive, it will require not only reappraising the tried-and-tested formulas that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, but also the wit and imaginative ability to create new formats, new channels and new methods for self-expression within the limits of a virtual-only space.

Beyond that, the challenge for both international competitions and the dancers who lead, judge and compete in them is how best to use social media and other tools to create memorable experiences and build a brand and platform. So here’s to all those channels that are presently earning their worth in cyberspace by keeping the competitive spirit alive and well!

© Jane Cahane April 2021

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GOD AND BUBBLES: What God and science say about climate change, environmental catastrophe and how to be prepared

The theme of this blog came to me following an inspired exchange with a friend (who happens to be a God-fearing and sensitive Muslim) about the fact most people go about in their own little bubbles, unaware of and largely unconcerned about what is going on in the world around them. The context of our conversation was the consequences of gross social and political injustice and environmental disaster, two items that have been highlighted during this time of lockdown and remain at the forefront of the news through issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time, I felt inspired to comment that if you think about it, the whole time we are in our mother’s womb, we are in a bubble, protected in “the secret place, where [I was] woven together in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139: 15). As we are born and continue our journey through to adulthood, most of us tend to remain in this same self-oriented bubble, generally only aware of or concerned about our immediate spheres, e.g. our own lives and circumstances, or perhaps we may extend our bubble to include our family, friends, churches, immediate communities or our individual nations. Very few of us, it seems, deeply or daily consider the lives and needs of other individuals and communities around the world, or are aware of how our individual and collective actions as a nation affect others — including the approximately one million species presently at risk of extinction, largely as a result of human activity — who share space on our planet. And yet we know our Father is constantly aware of and attentive to even the death of one single sparrow (Matthew 10:29). Shouldn’t we be likewise attuned? And where is the church’s voice in all of this?

This is what I hope to address in this blog — to understand what God has to say about the kinds of ‘bubbles’ He provides by looking at the promises indicated by Psalm 91 and reflecting on how Jesus read these, as well as to consider His call to us as Christians to imitate His Son, who as we know left the comfortable ‘bubble’ of Heaven to come to Earth, because “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16) — in which case this may mean breaking out of our own bubbles of self- and/or immediate-bubble absorption in order to make a loving, positive, just and lasting impact on our world.

We enter the world in a bubble of protective fluid in our mothers’ wombs — the amniotic sac where we were “woven in secret” (Ps. 139:15)
(Credit: http://nitidlife.com/)

Media: ‘fake’ news, bad news and selective inputs

It seems implausible we could still be so entrenched in our own worlds and positions, and remain largely unaware of what is happening elsewhere in the world when the resources we have available today through commercial travel and technology have truly made us all global citizens. While it might make sense if, as in past centuries, we still lived in remote, unconnected communities and were dependent on messages being delivered by horseback or carrier pigeon, that is hardly the case now.

Alexander Graham Bell, father of the
telephone (Credit: Biography.com)

Ever since Alexander Graham Bell first dreamed the telephone into existence, the revolution in communication has continued apace — now, even in emerging economies such as Indonesia, Brazil or Nigeria, up to 83% own a mobile (cell)phone, 60% use the internet (World Wide Web) and 49% use social media (2018 statistics); and now even the harshest and most remote continent, Antarctica, is being opened up for touristic exploration. Surely, if anything, we should be all too aware of what is happening outside of our own bubbles rather than remaining ignorant?

Unfortunately, being bombarded constantly with an excess of information — which, with the proliferation of ‘alternative’ digital news sources such as various social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, You Tube, etc), is unavoidable these days, unless you live in a desert with no Wi-Fi access — can have the effect of causing people to feel unbearably overwhelmed. Along with the tandem development of an increase in ‘fake news’, unsubstantiated rumours and non-fact-checked reports circulated both via unreliable news sources as well as on social media, many people elect to switch off entirely — or worse, only tune in to those channels that promote views and coverage of things that confirm their own biases, fears or prejudices. The facility for critical thinking, informed praying and general awareness is thus further harmed, often having the opposite effect of enforcing and even narrowing our bubbles to the point of irrelevance.

Yet the plain and uncomfortable fact is some of the things we have access to daily information and updates on — e.g. the impacts of climate change — have the potential to affect all lives on the planet drastically in a very short timeframe indeed, even within our own life span. We can try to tune it out, as many news channels appear determined to do, with frivolous information on celebrities’ lives or other less-challenging titbits, but we certainly cannot claim we didn’t have the ability to access the information and so become aware of what is happening, because we do. It is available 24/7, any time we desire to find out, on the Internet.

Extinction Rebellion protestors, whose climate anxiety is expressed in the motto ‘Love and Rage’, occupy London’s Oxford Street in October 2019

Of course, there are also those on the other end of the spectrum, for whom awareness of climate and other emergencies is indeed very real, and whose sense of rage, despair and helplessness to alter the world’s current trajectory is a very real thing. They are the ones actually reading the increasingly frequent scientific and other reports warning of impending climatic doom, and becoming activists (or, as some would have it, anarchists). To most people, they undoubtedly sound like Noah, constantly banging on with the negative news of potential flooding from massive sea-level rises due to melting polar ice caps. But on the whole, they remain a small minority, especially within the church. How is that? Surely if such things are indeed coming, we would all be hearing from God about it?   

But… perhaps He is speaking, even via these ‘negative’ scientific or secular reports, and we are simply not listening? Perhaps our personal theology or churches encourage a convenient climate denialism — or we believe that once things get near the point of no return (as, in fact, we are by most accounts already reaching), God will somehow intervene and rapture us out? Or for those who aren’t sold on the idea of a supernatural ‘beaming up’ of God’s people, surely our leaders will ensure underground bunkers will be available on the Earth when we need them, or perhaps scientists will yet figure out how small colonies of earthlings can restart on Mars or other habitable planets? After all, didn’t He give Noah enough warning so he could build a boat and rescue enough genetic material through the pairs of species he crammed on the ark to restart life on Earth after the Flood?

God’s terrarium

The Earth is like God’s terrarium as it is covered with a protective bubble, the atmosphere

In thinking further about the womb / bubble analogy, we can easily extend this concept and apply it to our planet as a whole. We know from science and Nasa pictures that our Earth itself is enrobed in a protective bubble, the atmosphere. This atmospheric bubble is what makes life possible on our planet; without it, we would not survive.

Our planet is the only known planet within our solar system with an oxygen-rich atmosphere that is capable of sustaining life. Whether you believe life exists on other planets, galaxies or solar systems (outer space), or perhaps once existed on other moons within our own solar system, there is nothing presently to substantiate the existence of life anywhere else but here on Earth. It remains unique, and we as beings who are capable of having a relationship with God are also unique.

With all of the other amazing diversity of flora, fauna, terrains, microclimates and elements on our planet, this marvellous biome we inhabit is effectively God’s terrarium — as we are told in Isaiah 40:22: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

Life on Earth would not exist at all without a set of very exact and unique conditions, which for believers are sure evidence of the handprint of God

On further consideration of the unique properties of our planet’s design, we can clearly see the very precise handprint of God in many other aspects. Astonishingly, life on Earth would not exist at all without a series of very exact conditions — for example, our sun is stable and its position in relation to other stars and forces in the galaxy renders it safe from other hazardous forces in the galaxy such as gravitational pulls, collapsing stars (supernovae) and gamma-ray bursts.

Also, Earth’s position in relation to the sun allows it to receive just enough energy to allow water to exist as a liquid on the surface; any closer and the liquid would evaporate, any further and it would turn to ice. But it is specifically thanks to our planet’s particular bubble — its fantastic, life-protecting atmosphere — that Earth is shielded from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, meteors and other space debris. Our atmosphere absorbs heat from the sun by using gases to trap the heat (a natural phenomenon known as ‘the greenhouse effect’), thereby helping to regulate its temperatures to the exact degrees possible to sustain life — just as you would ensure tropical plants survive in your own greenhouse.

Further, there are six layers of protective gases that comprise our atmosphere — roughly 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 0.93% argon and 0.04% carbon dioxide, along with other smaller trace elements of neon, methane, helium, krypton, hydrogen and water vapour. These make up our relatively thin atmosphere (the thicker part of it is 300 miles; some of the higher bands extend further, but most of it — specifically, the ozone — is only ca. 15–20 miles from the planet’s surface). These six layers are:

Layers of the atmosphere – Credit: Randy Russell, UCAR
  1. the troposphere, which is the air we breathe; this is the layer closest to the Earth’s surface;
  2. the stratosphere, where planes fly and where the ozone region lies;
  3. the mesosphere, which begins about 50km from the surface;
  4. the thermosphere, which is where the aurora occur, and where the International Space Station (ISS) and other space shuttles and satellites circle the Earth;
  5. the exosphere, which is the upper limit of our atmosphere, which extends halfway to the Moon or further into outer space; and
  6. the ionosphere — a dynamic, fluid region of electrons and ionised atoms critical to Sun–Earth interactions, which also makes radio communications possible.  

According to scientists, the high-altitude (roughly 15–35km above the Earth) ozone layer that floats within the stratosphere came into being through early plant-like organisms that emitted oxygen into the atmosphere. Typically, ozone is created when ultraviolet (UV) light strikes ordinary oxygen molecules and causes them to split into two oxygen atoms (O2); the O2 atoms then combine with unbroken oxygen to create ozone (O3). The ozone atoms then create a layer of UV ray-screening gas, which acts as a kind of blanket around the Earth, shielding us from harmful, cancer-causing UV radiation. The thickness of the ozone layer over the Earth fluctuates with the seasons and latitudes, with higher concentrations typically in the northern latitudes.

Therefore, we can see that even in the intelligent design of our home, God foresaw the need for a protective bubble to shield us from the impact of the sun — and without it, we cannot survive. The bubble He designed to protect us is secure and stable, and yet….

Holes in Earth’s bubble: warnings of warming

Sadly, this very unique bubble (atmosphere) that protects life on Earth is now seriously under threat — and even more sadly, from the very beings it was designed to protect.

Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903

The first prediction of global warming due to excesses of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere — and thus negatively impacting the protective blanket of ozone — was actually made as far back as 1896 by Nobel prize-winning Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who used the principles of basic chemistry to estimate the extent to which increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raise the Earth’s surface temperature. Arrhenius proved that even the slightest raises in carbon dioxide levels could upset the delicate balances our Creator set to control the atmosphere and temperatures on Earth, thereby causing a negative ‘greenhouse effect’ of heat-trapping gases and water vapour that could potentially redirect harmful radiation back to the Earth and result in an unstable and non-life-sustainable warming of the Earth’s global mean temperature.

This theory was picked up again in the 1960s, when American scientist David Keeling recorded a progressive build-up of levels of carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. He noted that carbon dioxide had become higher in modern times than at any other time in recorded human history, and was the first to make the connection between human-caused (anthropogenic) warming of the Earth’s atmosphere through the influx of manmade carbon dioxide-emitting instruments such as cars, airplanes and factories. Scientists agree that since the 1880s — after the Industrial Revolution had been in effect for several decades —Earth’s average surface temperature had already increased by 2°F/1°C, and that human-caused increases of carbon dioxide and releases of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere were the likely culprits.

But the excess of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions is not the only worrying chemical culprit in the global-warming scenario.

Scientists have confirmed the ozone shield is being
depleted well beyond natural levels

Since the 1970s, scientists have observed a steady depletion in the amount of ozone (O3) in the stratosphere, along with some sizeable pockets (ozone holes) of thinning ozone layers, specifically around the Earth’s polar regions. Although a certain amount of ozone depletion in the atmosphere occurs naturally as a result of sunspots, latitudes and seasonal fluctuations, scientific evidence has confirmed that the ozone shield is being depleted well beyond natural levels. This ozone depletion occurs because of the interaction of chlorine and bromine atoms with ozone atoms; one chlorine atom is able to destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.

Most of the chlorine in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) is a result of human activities, as the human-produced halocarbons frequently used in refrigeration, aerosols and cleaning chemicals — such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) —are not breaking down chemically in the lower atmosphere so ascending to the stratosphere, where they destroy ozone atoms, thereby letting in more UV radiation to the Earth.

While God did give man dominion over the Earth and all its creatures (Genesis 1:26), He did not give man dominion over the heavens. We may have discovered ways to launch planes, rockets and satellites into the atmosphere, thus disrupting what He intended to serve as our protective bubble, but this is precisely without His express direction — and, as we are now aware, there are grave consequences as a result of man’s careless interference with the atmosphere and perhaps through his attempts to gain dominion over it through space exploration, the impacts of which on contributing to our ozone holes are as yet unknown. We may have rattled God’s terrarium in seeking to be gods ourselves, but arguably this is now being reflected back to us now as a warning we have overstepped our bounds (or bubble).

Unfortunately, as ozone can be depleted much more rapidly than it can be created naturally, this has led to the increasing size of the ozone holes over the arctic regions. These are not really ‘holes’, but rather a large area of the stratosphere with very low amounts of ozone. Since 1985, the large gap or ‘hole’ of ozone-rich content over the continent of Antarctica has been observed getting gradually larger and deeper each springtime, with a corresponding increase in ozone depletion over the Arctic and more densely populated regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The thinning ozone, combined with the presence of carbon dioxide-loaded air pollution in this region, is letting in greater degrees of UV radiation, which is in turn accelerating the Earth’s warming and adding record heat waves in previously frozen northern areas.

The infamous Thomas Fire ravages Foothill Road in Ventura, California on 12/5/17 (Credit: Patti Antilla, via Pinterest)

Trials by wildfires

The traditionally frozen regions of Siberia saw a record heatwave on 17 June 2020, with temperatures reaching 100.4°F/38°C, sparking worldwide alarm among scientists and others. Simultaneously, the prevalence of forest fires in the region saw an unprecedented threefold increase, with a whopping 4.3 million hectares destroyed by out-of-control blazes in 2019.

Along the nine million square miles / over 23 million square kilometres of Arctic landmass, the rapid acceleration of climate change is radically altering the landscape and lifestyles of indigenous peoples. Animals such as beavers that previously lived in warmer climates are suddenly flocking to this newly warming and more habitable land. While scientists might have expected the tundra to thaw gradually, the fact is that it is thawing almost literally overnight — and the entire Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Not only is this abrupt change to a radically different climate profile truly alarming, but it signals the development of other problems, which are in fact all linked to global warming’s vicious cycle.

As more trees burn and the previously frozen areas of tundra in Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, Scandinavia, Canada and other Arctic regions begin to melt, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This phenomenon is not only occurring in polar regions, but across the world, as wildfires due to global heating are on the rise — in recent summers, much of California on the US West Coast has been on fire, and the Amazon rainforests has suffered some of the worst fire ravages, with 4.6 million acres of irreplaceable carbon sink destroyed in 2019 alone.

These wildfires not only destroy the trees that act as the Earth’s natural filters for removing carbon dioxide and ensure we have cleaner air to breathe, but the carbon dioxide released through the fires also unleashes other harmful greenhouse gases which, in addition to further carbon dioxide, continue to warm the planet. And as a warmer Earth is also a drier Earth, this contributes to the escalation of further forest fires — thus becoming a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.

But the worst may still be yet to come. The wildfires and thawing frozen ground are exposing wide swathes of long-dead ancient matter such as frozen plants and animals, some of them remnants of the last Ice Age that have lain buried under the permafrost for millennia (or perhaps longer). As these hit the warming air and begin to thaw and then decompose, they release other destructive, climate-warming gases, including methane. Tundra is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks; it has effectively trapped huge bubbles of methane gas under its permafrost, which scientists warn further warming and thawing could unleash as much as 240 billion tons / 243.85 billion tonnes of carbon, or 1,400 gigatons, into the atmosphere.

What’s more, many as-yet-undetermined pathogens and bacteria also lie dormant under the permafrost — if we thought the Covid-19 pandemic was alarming, we likely haven’t seen anything yet.

What is certain is that if these harmful gases continue to escape into our atmosphere, they will accelerate warming to an uninhabitable degree for man and the other creatures on Earth. Our planet could ultimately become like Venus — at 900°F / 465°C, it is the hottest planet in our solar system, with a runaway greenhouse effect caused by clouds that trap the heat in a dense atmosphere composed mostly (96%) of carbon dioxide, with nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfuric acids and other gases, and only trace amounts of water — although some scientists consider it may at one point have been habitable. However, if you were looking for a literal manifestation of the Biblical descriptions of Hell, Venus would surely fit that!

Is global warming how God will judge the world by fire?

We know that God, through His promises, which cannot be broken, made a covenant with Noah after the flood, assuring him that “Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the Earth. I will put my rainbow in the sky as a sign to you and every living creature of my promise, which will last forever” (Genesis 9:11–12).

He also promised that “As long as the Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22) — so even during any of the former ice ages and times of global heating, there will still be seasonal fluctuations in temperatures on the surface of the Earth, as these are regulated by Earth tilting on its access at an angle of approximately 23.4 degrees (note: Earth’s tilt may vary slightly every 40,000 years; it is possible some variation in climate conditions affecting glacial rebound and land mass may affect this further).  

If we choose to take God at His word, that means even with scientists claiming that climate change is melting ice caps and raising sea levels that could ultimately swamp low-lying coastal regions, flood cities and wipe out many islands across the world (and God only knows what will happen or be released when the 400+ lakes or “springs of the great deep” [Gen. 7:11] hidden on the frozen continent of Antarctica, and under the Ross Ice Shelf and Thwaites Glacier are released), that isn’t going to happen — at least not as the final judgement / apocalypse that will wipe out the Earth. Instead, 2 Peter 3:7 makes it clear that “By the same word, the present heavens and Earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men”. So those of us who know and believe in God and the revelation of His word know that when God decides to judge the Earth, it will be destroyed by fire rather than by flooding.

I confess that, having grown up in the US at a time when the collective fear of nuclear bombs wiping us all out featured heavily in the news and in popular culture, and was being circulated as yet another excuse for yet another war, it seemed a given this would likely be the way the world would end. To quote a line from the Kingston trio’s ‘The Merry Minuet’, “And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away.” Perhaps more relevant to today’s growing recognition of the impacts of climate change are the last lines of the son, which go on to say, “What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.”

The End is Near Due To Global Warming/The End is Near due to Nuclear Winter (© Harley Schwadron)

When I later became a Christian, I considered the Earth’s destruction by nuclear war was clearly what was meant by the passage in 2 Peter 3:10 that says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the Earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” Although the threat of a human-caused nuclear apocalypse is objectively still very real (apparently nine countries — China, India, the US, Israel, France, the UK, Russia and North Korea —now have a combined 16,000 nuclear warheads, which is enough to destroy our planet several times over), the pace with which the Earth is heating and the impact on the ozone in our polar regions is happening so rapidly, this seems to be a far more likely cause of our planet’s fiery demise.

If the present thinning ozone around the poles — those gaps in our protective atmospheric bubble — continue to increase, the chances of Earth being struck by a meteor or other space debris, or burned up through intense UV radiation heat and noxious gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, are very high indeed.

Man and nature: a warning about stewardship

As the lines of the Kingston Trio song cited above indicate, while we may be experiencing a temporary hiatus from the kind of man-made disasters that can obliterate the planet, nature — or God through nature, if you will — is doing plenty to us at present: we have increasingly unstable weather patterns, a rapidly changing climate, an increase in devastating hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and, of course, our current global pandemic crisis.

Make no mistake about the coronavirus pandemic: there is an exact correlation between our out-of-control killing, eating, exploiting and abusing of wild animals, and the pandemic we are now experiencing, along with others that may soon head our way, which are typically zoonotic in origin (e.g. spread to humans through wild animals). Studies have shown coronavirus is linked to one of the most commonly illegally trafficked animals, the pangolin.

A frequent victim of the so-called ‘wet markets’ in Asia, where they are sold for meat and their scales for use in traditional ‘medicine’, this shy, scale-covered creature — a primitive form of anteater, but in fact their own taxonomic order — is now among the world’s most endangered animals, with all eight species variations (four in Asia, four in Africa) on the red list, and two on the critical list. And if all of them go, there will be nothing like them left on the Earth.

All eight species of pangolin in Africa and Asia — the creature thought to be behind the coronavirus crisis — are at risk of extinction (Credit: Wikipedia)

Surely our God, who created all of the wonderfully unique and fantastic diversity of species such as the pangolin, cares about the fact a full one million of His creatures are now threatened with extinction (some estimates put this at one-quarter of all species), with several of His most beautiful, unique and oldest animals on the critically endangered list? And surely, He will also hold us accountable for the death and decimation of these creatures at our hands?

Before the Fall, man was only allowed to eat from fruit-bearing trees in the garden (Earth) God had commanded man to look after and tend (Gen. 2:15­16). Yet post-Fall and Flood, God gave dominion over all creatures to man, and all creatures were now allowed to be eaten for food. As God told Noah in Genesis 9:2–3, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

Most Bible commentaries suggest Genesis 9:4–5 (“But you must not eat meat that has its life blood still in it”) means we are to respect the fact that it was only because of sin that He now allowed animal meat consumption, but we were still to ensure that no animal was consumed alive or cruelly, and to respect the soul of the animal that was contained in its blood — so as not to partake of its flesh lightly.

If God is aware of and concerned by the death of a single sparrow, surely we should be alarmed about species extinction (Credit: Dreamstime)

Despite the above, there is no Biblical indication that man has ever been excepted from the work of looking after God’s creation, including all of the animals that share the Earth with humans. As the ‘Second Adam’ and as our Redeemer and model of being free from the curse of sin and death that was set in motion by the Fall, Jesus told His disciples that “not one single sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing about it” (Matthew 10:29). While Jesus then goes on to speak of how God has numbered every human hair, this does not in any way detract from the previous statement’s revelation of His care for every single tiny sparrow. Therefore, we must believe that God cares for every single animal, bird, fish and insect on Earth — and He expects us to do so also.

As others have suggested, the presence of pandemics such as coronavirus may well be nature’s — or at least the threatened pangolins’ — revenge against humans for taking animals’ lives cruelly and with their blood still intact, as in the wet markets where they are sold and often consumed alive. If we humans have broken this law, and have so grossly failed in our calling to be stewards of the Earth, it stands to reason that all of the other laws on which our Earth depends for its stability may also be shaken — and we know that God has promised in several places in both the Old and New Testaments, most notably in Hebrews 12:26 and Haggai 2:6, that He will “yet once more shake both the heavens and the Earth”.

Therefore, it seems our present situation, along with all the other radical climatic changes taking place on our planet, are in fact God’s messengers shouting at us to wake up before it is too late — before the bubble of His protection is removed and the Earth enters into the time of His final judgement.

Christians and God’s protective bubble

In view of all these things, how should believers — those who know Jesus, are redeemed by His blood, and are part of the Bride Jesus said He will be coming back for — supposed to respond in the face of such imminent potential catastrophes? Should we simply believe in and trust in God’s protection and ultimate redemption, and get on with the business of living our lives as faithful witnesses? Or should we remain informed, watchful, praying and actively preaching and witnessing, trying to wake others up to prepare them for potential hardships and hopefully to lead them to repentance and a saving knowledge of Christ?

Although there are many passages in the Bible that speak of God’s supernatural protection and deliverance in times of trial, Psalm 91 is perhaps one of the best-known and most relevant, particularly during this current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic:

3"Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
1You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent."

As the psalm states above, God does indeed promise to protect His faithful flock from plague and pestilence — defined in Collins dictionary as “any disease that spreads quickly and kills large numbers of people” such as Covid-19. This passage assures us that if we look to God in faith, and take refuge under the protective ‘bubble’ of His wings, He will protect us; the plague will bypass us and not even come near us, even if scores of people around us become infected and die, as we are aware is presently happening all around the world.

As wonderful and reassuring as this is, it does not mean that Christians should become complacent about God’s protection, which shows a deep lack of respect or proper fear (as in awe) of God — or is even foolhardy. Considering some American right-wing evangelicals have reportedly died after refusing to wear masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) because they claim they are covered by the blood of Jesus, this has only given the world yet another occasion to mock God because of what some unwise followers do or advocate doing.

Yet Jesus Himself, when He was being tempted in the wilderness by Satan whispering the above passage in Psalm 91 and trying to incite Him to prove God’s word by jumping off a high temple, responded by quoting back the commandment, “Do not tempt [or: put to test] the Lord your God” (Matthew 4:6–7). This demonstrates that along with the need to use common-sense precautions, it is offensive to God if we arrogantly presume on or recklessly test His provisions, including His protection.

Furthermore, we are exhorted to exercise prudence, caution and wisdom, be alert to dangers coming, and to anticipate and be fully prepared in advance for any coming disasters. Both Proverbs 22: 3 and Proverbs 27:12 state plainly that: “The prudent [or wise, sensible, shrewd] see danger coming and take refuge [hide themselves], but the naive [simple, thoughtless, fools, the inexperienced] proceed [pass on, go ahead, keep on going – presumably in the same faulty direction they were heading] and suffer the consequences.”

In other words, in order not to be caught out when danger and disasters come, and to ensure we can truly avail of His divine bubble of protection, we need to be alert and watchful — because in fact, if the wise man wasn’t occupied with looking ahead down the road, he wouldn’t see the danger approaching on the horizon and so be able to avoid it. Therefore, God does indeed promise to protect us if we trust in Him, but He also expects us to do our part by being alert and watchful, and by being prepared.

The resurrected Jesus, as depicted in the Church of the Holy Saviour, a mediaeval Byzantine Greek Orthodox church in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey (Dreamstime)

In terms of the dramatic climate change our planet is already experiencing — which anyone can easily observe if they are not too involved in their own little bubbles of work, church and family life — God is giving us very clear signs that we are indeed entering into a period of great tribulation. Whether or not we as Christians will also go through the Tribulation first or be raptured out before it transpires, we still need to be ready and prepared to cope with either eventuality. This requires both remaining steadfast in our faith and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, as well as being aware of and prepared for all of the effects climate change will bring.

Unfortunately, as most of the worst effects of climate change will disproportionately hit poorer and ethnic minority communities around the world the hardest — as highlighted in a recent UN report, among other sources — we should certainly as agents of God’s compassion focus on how we can help others who have less resources to deal with these.

As we know, Jesus Himself commended the wise and faithful servant who was busy doing his Father’s will — which we know from John 3:16 is that no one should perish but come to a saving faith in Jesus, so that means continuing to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and tongue and nation”(Matthew 28:16–20), as well as reaching out in compassion to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed. Therefore, we should be not only concerned about ensuring our own relationship with God is solid and we are ready to meet Him, but we should also actively seek to reach others, particularly to help them prepare with the trials and tribulations a dramatically changing climate will bring.

Moving the church out of its bubble

Sadly, except for the typically small minority who respond to the call to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and tongue and nation”(Matthew 28:16–20), and those who actively work for social justice for the poor, it seems most individual Christians and churches are still ensconced in their own local or national bubble, remaining either unintentionally (or perhaps even intentionally, considering those who are resistant to becoming involved in anything remotely political, which might appear contentious or controversial) unaware of the looming environmental emergency. In effect, most Christians are either vastly unaware or vastly unprepared — or both.

Worse, some may even be in complete climate denialism, or unwittingly supporting fossil fuel industries that are destroying many poorer communities around through their investment portfolios. On an encouraging note, Pope Francis has urged churches to divest from fossil fuels, and at least 20 churches and Christian organisations in the UK have agreed to divest at the start of 2020). Yet in terms of the scale and acceleration of climate change we are presently witnessing, this is effectively a drop in the ocean.

While we know God’s heart extends to all peoples and all of His creation, including the now-feared one-quarter of all species currently threatened with extinction due to man’s activities on the planet, there seems to be little active response from the church in terms of our calling to be stewards of God’s creation. Apart from a handful of radical Christian environmental activists and Christian environmental groups (Operation Noah, Green Christian, A Rocha, Pray and Fast for the Climate, European Christian Environmental Network, Catholic Climate Movement Global and Extinction Rebellion’s Christian Climate Action, among others), compassionate Christian actions or activism is rarely ever mentioned in the news — although other faith leaders have spoken out boldly, even risking arrest (such as Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Newman) for their convictions.

However, as groups such as Extinction Rebellion are now more actively highlighting the intense spiritual crisis that comes with climate anxiety and awareness, surely this represents a massive opportunity for Christians to become involved and address this climate anxiety with God’s message.

One thing is certain: in view of the times we are in (and even if this is out of Biblical context), we must take Jesus’s words to heart: “Whatever you do, do it quickly” (John 13:27). Because if we fail to act now, the door of the ark may soon slam shut, and we will miss our narrow window for redemption.

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A meditation on unity — Psalm 133 / Ephesians 4

Psalm 133

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!

2 “It is like the precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.

3 “It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord commands His blessing — even life
forever more.”

New International Version, slightly amended with reference to other versions

Unity in the body of Christ has long been deeply important to me. I’ve often joked that if you want to get a burden for unity, go live in Ireland — it’s not just the fighting in the north between Catholics and Protestants I witnessed as a student there in the 1980s, but also in the south, between the various denominations and charismatic groups, the house churches and independents, all of whom at times have seemed deeply divided on doctrinal matters and styles of worship.

As I began to pray for revival over the years, I felt God distinctly sharpened the point about unity to me — Jesus cannot return for a divided bride, so we urgently need to “put our house in order”. It has therefore been my constant prayer and intercession, and frequently the theme of my meditation as I have read and studied the Bible, read up on church history, and witnessed countless divisions and misunderstandings among many otherwise well-meaning individuals who appear hopelessly unable to walk or work together. So, how can we both understand and achieve unity?

I believe that while God has revealed His will and His command for unity, He has also given us the answers to the vital question of how to achieve it. This is what led me to meditate on the symbolism in this wonderful psalm in the Old Testament, as well as other relevant passages in the Old Testament, the gospels (specifically Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:20–23) and New Testament epistles — particularly Ephesians chapter 4 — which I will also discuss later.

For now, let’s look at this very short, but deeply meaty, “psalm of David” to unpack a little of what it says — I have referred to others’ notes on these from the Israel Bible commentary online, among other sources.

Symbolism and significance of the ‘song of ascents’

First, this psalm is described as a song of ascents — which means ‘going up’. It was typically applied to the Jews’ pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Holy City, to worship God in the Temple, because Jerusalem is set on the top of a hill and the temple stood on a mount crowning the hill. Therefore, the 12 tribes of Israel traditionally ‘go UP to Jerusalem’ to worship God in the temple.

In addition, ever since the time of Abram/Abraham, who built his first altar and called on the name of the Lord on the hills of east of Bethel (Genesis 12:8), worship was traditionally offered on hills or high up on mountains, as these were seen as being nearer to God or a place of closer communion with Him. The physical, geographic depiction of ‘going up’ to a high (or higher) place to worship reveals the truth that the highest act of commitment and devotion we can give to God is to worship Him, particularly in challenging times or when we struggle with doubt, can’t understand what He is doing in our lives, or feel unable to hear His voice. This is when our act of worship is most truly a ‘lifting up’ or ‘going up’ of our souls.

The ‘high places’ also represent places of difficulties or struggle. Elsewhere in the psalms and in Habakkuk, God is the helper who “makes my feet like hinds’ [deers’] feet to walk upon my high places” (Psalm 18:33, Habakkuk 3:19) — in other words, as the psalmist and prophet express, it is God Himself who provides them with the strength and graceful ability to manoeuvre the steep, rugged, mountainous terrain of their struggles. Only a very skilled and agile creature such as a deer or mountain goat can navigate some of those incredibly challenging, near-vertical places, as was so delightfully depicted in Hannah Hurnard’s allegorical classic, Hind’s Feet on High Places.

Our ‘high places’ can also represent the steep divides and seemingly intractable clashes we experience in human relationships, where misunderstandings, strife, wounded spirits, griefs and temptation to seek revenge can be rife. In such times, we may feel helpless to change the dynamic, and so must learn to rely on God to give us this same ‘hind’s feet’ grace to deal with our own ‘high places’ of pride and selfishness as we seek to restore our broken relationships, knowing we cannot do this in our own strength.

History is filled with evidence of mankind’s inability to solve deep, longstanding rifts created by centuries of conflict in places such as the Middle East and the US, where tribal and racial tensions teeter constantly on the brink of explosion. Here even the greatest skills of human diplomacy, statesmanship or political manoeuvres fail to wrest the kind of lasting peace and justice humanity longs for, with often tragic consequences. Yet disunity and division in the Body of Christ — whether from the past historical conflicts between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic or Catholic and Protestant traditions, or between individual Christians in the church — also breaks God’s heart.

It is therefore all the more significant that Jesus described His disciples as a “city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). His unified body, the church, is called to triumph over the world’s ‘high places’ of darkness and division by demonstrating unity, peace and love — which, indeed, “is life forevermore”. The powerful light emitted when this is present is one our broken world is desperately crying out for.

David and disunity

Second, Psalm 133 is described as “A psalm of David”. While we don’t know when it was written, we do know there were several times in David’s life when he had problems with disunity — for example, his own brothers did not treat him very kindly when he was growing up, although he is recorded as bringing them food when they were at the battle front (I Sam 17:28). But his greatest heartache was the toxic relationship among his sons, especially when his son Absalom killed his other son Amnon because he had raped his sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:28).

Michelangelo’s famous statue
of David

He may have been reflecting on those bumpy moments between Moses and Aaron, as described in Numbers 12:1. Or perhaps he was instead thinking positively about his close, brotherly bond with King Saul’s son Jonathan, as described in 1 Samuel 18:3. Such deep love surely provided a sharp contrast to the murderous hatred and jealousy he experienced daily from Saul — either way, David had experienced enough disunity in his own life to realise exactly how “precious’ and rare indeed true unity is.

Now, note that the word “behold” means “Stand aside, look at and give your full attention to this amazing thing!” God is trying to get our attention here to the awesomeness that is revealed when His body is fully functioning in unity. He wants us to observe how significant it is because this reveals His heart for us to be one in love, in Him — as a Father, He has no greater joy than to see His children loving each other and living together in unity .

Such unity is “good” because it reveals the WILL of God; we know it brings joy to His heart. It is also “pleasant” — it is always much more enjoyable for us to be at peace and harmony with our brothers and sisters than have to deal with constant strife and friction.

The Jews who were on their way to worship God in Jerusalem had to make a pilgrimage by camping (“dwelling”) in tents along the way. This surely brought many opportunities for conflicts to arise as their differences were brought into sharp relief. Some were old, some young; some families, some single; they represented all walks of life and occupations, and came from different tribes and regions, possibly with different dialects and customs. As they travelled and dwelt together in tents along the way, their relationships would have been sorely tried and tested. Therefore, part of their journey in going up to worship in Jerusalem would have been about learning to be at peace with each other, in much the same way it’s both preparation for the act of worship and part of our calling as believers to learn to dwell, walk and work together.

Going with the flows

Now, the next descriptions concern the opposite direction — this time it is not about something or someone that is going up, but instead the flowing down and extending out of two types of liquid: oil and dew. This in itself is significant, as it is the very essence and nature of a liquid to flow. Therefore, the choice of these two ingredients is in itself a message to us about how to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3): it means we have to stay liquid — to “go with the flow”, literally, by remaining yielded to and in tune with the Holy Spirit.

Oil symbolises the blessing and glory of God being poured out and flowing down, as well as symbolising the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s desire to pour out His Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28), but also on and through us as His first fruits (Acts 2:17) so that the rest of the world will be blessed and come to know Him through us.

The oil being poured out on Aaron’s head signifies a few things: first, it is symbolic of Aaron’s priestly anointing, calling and ordaining; second, it is symbolic of Jesus — the high priest of the new covenant and the Head of the church, the Body of Christ. Note that Moses and Aaron were both anointed and called of God to minister, but whereas Moses spoke face to face with God as a prophet and leader of the people, Aaron stood in the Holy Place, received from God, and ministered to the people as a priest. They were both significant callings, which together completed God’s work among the people.

Fragrant oils were also poured on guests’ heads as a form of welcome

Oil was also used in the Middle East as a common form of blessing for visitors, as it was poured on guests’ heads as a welcome as they entered their host’s abode. The oils used for this purpose would have been perfumed or blended with aromatic spices, which would have been both a soothing and sanitary way of refreshing guests who would likely be weary, sweaty and probably quite smelly after travelling through desert lands in the hot sun.

When the oil is sprinkled on the robes, they become holy (Exodus 29: 21) — so the oil running down from the head and flowing down onto the collar and then on down the robes is symbolic of how the presence of the Holy Spirit works in and through us to purify and sanctify us. That it begins with the head is symbolically significant, because in order to be holy, we must have a truly renewed mind. And just as the head directs the body in actions, so we must remain connected to the Lord by keeping our eyes on Him. It is by being jointly engaged in maintaining our focus on and connection to the head that we as a body can achieve unity of purpose and effect.

The outflowing of the oil onto the outer garments and then onto the feet and ground pertains to our commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Matthew 28: 16–20). That is why the apostles were told to wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; it was the New Testament version of the ordaining and consecration by outpoured oil.

Mountain ‘dews’

The other significant liquid here is the dew. Note that dew is a common symbol of the Lord’s bountiful blessings (as seen in Prov. 19:2, Isaiah 18:4, Hosea 14:5, Micah 5:7). While rain is always traditionally seen as a sign of God’s love for mankind because it makes crops grow so we have food, dew is related to divine blessing because it forms from condensation of atmospheric water vapour, which does not form if there are clouds. Therefore, God’s dew can only wet the earth if we do not harbour any ‘clouds’ of grievances, bitternesses or unforgiving attitudes towards each other. 

The geographical location of Mt Hermon is to the north of Jerusalem (eg where Mt Zion is), rising up above the Upper Jordan Valley — so the melting snows from the mountain were referred to as ‘dews’ because they flowed down from the mountain to refresh and revive the parched desert landscape. Such dews were often the only water available for crops and drinking etc; they were a vital source of sustenance as they flowed in to feed the Jordan River and the oasis of Jericho. In a dry land such as Israel, the melting snows or ‘dews’ became very precious indeed.

A snowy Mt Hermon is a significant source of water, or ‘dew’

Unity is our command. The place of unity, then, as described here, is where the Lord “commands” or “bestows” His blessing — the blessing of eternal life in Him (“life forever more”) .

We are in fact ‘commanded’ in the New Testament to seek unity. We know that we have eternal life in Jesus and have become part of His resurrected body as members of His body; yet all the members of the body need to function in one accord for any movement to take place. In the same way a human body would get nowhere if its arm and leg went in separate directions, so too does God need the members of His body, His church, to act in one accord. Only then can He achieve His direction and purposes.

God’s will for us to be at peace first with Him, and then with each other, is revealed in the symbolism of the cross: it points both vertically, heavenward and horizontally, from side to side, along with Jesus’ outstretched arms. Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed earnestly for His disciples to be one: “My prayer is not for them alone, but for all those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20–24).

Likewise, in Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes this will and plan of God “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”. He reminds of us of the command to seek and preserve unity: “Live in harmony with one another… insofar as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) and of the royal law, the law of love: “Love your neighbour as yourself… love does no harm to a neighbour.” (Romans 13:9–10). So, as his disciples, we know that unity is God’s will and His plan; it proceeds from his nature, and is also His command.

So how do we achieve unity?

Yet how do we, practically speaking, achieve unity when we are so different and so easily misunderstand each other, disagree, and fail to see eye to eye on matters of doctrine or principles, or judge each other harshly while omitting to ‘walk a mile in another man’s moccasins’? Well, this is where, in Ephesians chapter 4, Paul provides the answers:

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:2–5, New International Version). Humility — and honouring each other — is the foundation stone of unity.

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the whole body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11–12, italic emphasis mine). Just like Aaron and Moses had different callings and functions as prophet and priest, together they were anointed and appointed by God to lead and serve the people of Israel — so too in valuing and humbly receiving from others according to their different gifts and ministries, we may all become mature and grow in grace and spiritual wisdom.

“Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body… do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those that listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander [gossip], along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:25, 29–32, italic emphasis mine.)

I understand from this last passage that we are called to be absolutely real, open and honest with each other, not to wear masks or pretend to be something or someone we are not. That is how we can learn to truly understand and empathise with each other, and therefore build each other up rather than tearing each other down.

I call on all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, whichever your denomination or doctrine, to endeavour to practise these behaviours and ways of speaking with each other. In these days of deep division and despair across the world, we must urgently seek to shine that light of unity, so that indeed we may fulfil Jesus’ earnest prayer that the world may know and see his love and the Father’s love, and that we may be one and mature or fully formed in grace, even as they are one.

An Irish blessing

My good friend Shay Phelan in Dublin, Ireland

As I began this meditation by referencing the troubles of division and disunity among Christians I had witnessed as a student and young Christian in Ireland, I’d like to close with a few quotes from my dear friend and brother in Christ, Shay Phelan. Shay, a trained and gifted actor, singer-songwriter and compelling speaker, has made it his life’s mission to memorise the entire book of Ephesians, and to preach and share from this wherever he goes. He and a fellow Christian have walked across Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles to share the gospel and display the bond of unity in the Spirit they share.

Here are some quotes from his own meditation on Ephesians 4 that are specifically relevant to what I have been sharing; if possible, I will add the entire PDF for download, or please message me at jane@smallwriteratlarge.com for a complete copy.

“We need to be open to receive from all God’s people in the wider church, when they have something God wants us to learn from them. And it may well be that we have something God wants  us to share with them. Do you see the abortive nature of our divisions? If I cut myself off from you, then I lose the gift to me that you are in God’s scheme of things. And I rob you of the blessing God has given me to share with you. No wonder there is so much immaturity still in the Body of Christ.”



“There is something about the word mature that suggests to my mind all the perfection of a glorious summer’s day. The mature person has poise and wisdom;  he or she knows how to measure what they hear with the truth, and how to graciously and respectfully, and with confidence, speak the truth, yet the mature Christian humbly accepts that they may not always get it right. The mature Christian is diligent in the Lord’s work and yet maintains a deep, inner rest, an unswerving trust in God. He or she knows how to give and receive love in the joy of Christ.”

Shay Phelan, Excerpt from Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians

“Speaking the truth in love is a key phrase for how we may proceed to grow together in the church.  How many times have I won the battle but lost the war, as it is said, because of the tone of voice or the attitude behind my words?  I may be correct in my point of view, but completely wrong in my attitude to the person with whom I am in debate.

“In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he gives him much advice for his role as pastor.  In chapter 2 verse 24 – 25 he says: “…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth….”

“Every time I forget to apply these words in a difficult conversation, I find I lose my sense of peace. If I have become defensive or arrogant in tone, I am better off shutting up, even though I may be correct in what I am endeavouring to say. Though not a pastor, as a son of God I am called to speak the truth in love and that is what brings real growth.

“As we mature and grow together in Christ we are interlinked and connected, just as the various parts of a body are connected, and we are built up in love”

 “Let’s finish this message with those verses from Psalm 133 we quoted earlier:

     “How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity…
For there the LORD bestows His blessing,
even life forevermore.”


N.B. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots across the US, UK and elsewhere, I have been seeking the Lord in prayer regarding how we, as believers, should respond. I felt the Lord spoke two simple words to me: ‘feet’ and ‘brothers’. As I prayed about it further, I felt He was saying that those of us who are perhaps unintentionally (or even intentionally, which of course is another matter) guilty of any sense of a racist kind of white privilege urgently need in this time to demonstrate a real servant heart towards our black brothers and sisters, both through doing active listening to them as they share their experiences of ill-treatment and racist abuse perpetrated on them, and so metaphorically help to ‘wash their feet’ of all those festering scars and pains inflicted on them — even as Jesus did when He washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to wash one another’s feet. Perhaps even a public foot-washing ceremony, which all churches of all denominations all around the world could be used as a symbolic act of love, service and healing. May God lead us all into His ways of peace. Amen.

N.B. As a further addendum to this, I spoke recently with Andrew Philips at Premier Christian Radio about the recent Black Lives Matter protests in High Wycombe and Marlow on his Faith, Hope and Love broadcast – I was on at around 11.30am; you can listen retrospectively here: https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Weekday/Faith-Hope-and-Love/Episodes/Faith.-Hope-and-Love25


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Art — for Sanity’s Sake

In this time of Covid-19 lockdown, many are finding relief from the isolation tedium by rediscovering forgotten hobbies and long-held interests, as well as connecting with others who share the same passions via online tools such as Zoom. The UK and other governments may downplay the necessity of the arts in terms of their willingness to fund them, but at times of crisis, they are necessary to our health and wellbeing. Indeed, where would we be without art?

Over the past few years, one of the things that has helped keep me sane, positive and creatively productive is developing my drawing and painting skills through joining various Shoal of Art Meet-up groups run by Mark Lovelace, as well as other working artists and teachers such as Debra Collis and others. This practice has been vital for me as much in my occasionally sporadic freelance journalism, etc career as during the current lockdown situation, as it provides a very welcome opportunity to break the tedium of working from home on my own by meeting up with fellow like-minded artists or artists-in-progress (as in fact we all are — Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote, “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places”, which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”, should perhaps be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist).

Most of the Shoal of Art-run groups focus on producing portrait sketches and paintings from life – e.g., with live models – also drawings and paintings based on old and recent masters at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London. The groups are open to all artists in various stages of developing their skills; some are professional or ‘full-time’ artists, while others are serious or semi-serious dabblers.

As for me, I grew up in an artistic household, and so learned to consider the practice of art and creativity in general to be essential to life and wellbeing in the same way others value team sports and developing athletic skills as vital to one’s social, personal and physical development. My mother — a professional fashion illustrator and a lifelong craftswoman and quilter — raised my sister Betsey and I to express ourselves creatively through visual media; in addition to doing art projects at home, we studied it in school and were known for our artistic talents. But whereas my sister continued to focus on art, specifically ceramics, into university, eventually becoming a professional fine artist with a specialism in equine art, I was torn between studying art and writing at university as I was also interested in English literature and creative writing, so perhaps naturally gravitated towards publications work — for example, I created and edited an illustrated literary magazine during high school that featured stories, poems and artworks from myself and other colleagues, and edited the school [and later, Bard’s] newspaper.

Perhaps Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places” — which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” — should be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist

Left: Me in high school editing the literary magazine I also designed and contributed to

So while art may be one of my ‘roads not taken’, since in the end I went with English Lit/Creative Writing (I also excelled in writing about art when I studied Renaissance art history), I have continued to study and write about art, visit galleries regularly, maintain friendships with other artists, and draw, paint and take art classes on and off throughout my travels and living abroad – which is why I realised how much I needed to continue to practise this in London during my ‘time off’ from freelance engagements. To me, indeed, art is life as life is art.

I also find that as a somewhat extroverted artistic type, I’ve always enjoyed sketching people as it provides the perfect opportunity to tune out, reflect and observe others while simultaneously being around them, as occasionally I just need a balance between being around people 24/7 and total solitude. But another obvious benefit of being in a group with other artists is that although the process of drawing and painting is itself a solo activity, there is the valuable aspect of peer-learning in that you can see and learn from others’ techniques, processes and practices. It’s also nice just getting to know the rolling group of eclectic regulars and visitors/newbies from around the world who join the cafe- or pub-based life-drawing sessions, as well as those who meet at the National Gallery — if you are an artist or artistically inclined, it is a wonderful way to add to the richness of visiting London as one of the world’s leading cultural cities.

For the National Gallery meet-ups, we usually meet in the reception of the Sainsbury’s Wing at 10.30am, then decide which room(s) of the Gallery we will focus on. If you ask nicely at one of the information desks or in the cloakroom – and of course only when they are available – you can usually borrow a stool to sit on too. We then go off to sketch for a couple of hours before finally meeting downstairs in the Espresso Bar to chat and exchange views of our work over a coffee.

Above: a few of my sketches from the National Gallery – not all my best, perhaps

There are a few other artists who come along to join for a coffee and chat and then go off to continue drawing on their own, as well as others who seem to sketch in the cafe regularly. Now, during the lockdown, we are making use of the gallery’s extensive online catalogue while we are working from home, which at least allows for more diversity in materials. Occasionally Mark or whoever is leading the session will urge the group to focus on a particular theme or technique — as in a recent online National Gallery session, where the focus was on capturing spring light as it was reflected on a figure and landscape.

Although I struggled with the particular problems of working with a variety of soft/hard and chalk-/oil-based pastels on plain mixed-media paper (I was advised later by another artist in the group that I should have used a special pastel paper, since it absorbs and smooths the colours better), the two hours I spent trying to replicate Seurat’s Morning Walk were nevertheless a joyously glorious — if deeply messy — challenge.

The portrait and life-drawing sessions, on the other hand, usually involve working with a professional model for a small fee (typically between £7–£15 per person attending). The model will hold timed poses for periods ranging from 10–40 minutes long; some of them are happy to have their image taken if you need to carry on working to finish a drawing, whereas others are not — it’s always best to ask rather than assume.

The life-drawing sessions with a model are held at various evenings or days throughout the week — with some on the weekend, too — and at various pub locations in London, although most are now functioning just as effectively online, typically at the same times as the London sessions ran. I have infrequently attended the paid-model sessions at the Archduke pub near Waterloo station on Sundays from 2–4pm, and once or twice produced drawings I have been quite pleased with. However, I find working with the model online from home at least allows for more opportunities to explore using a variety of media.

But now that we can join these paid sessions online from home, it is so much easier to mix paints to use in our sketches – I’ve only just started experimenting with adding watercolour to my charcoal or pencil sketches, or even working directly from my paintbox, but this is an area I do wish to grow in (so far, I have mostly used pen, pastels, charcoals, graphite pencils, etc, but now in addition to using watercolour, I would like to try using a brush with ink, as I have observed others using in portraits and see this can be quite effective and expressive).

There are also several free ‘Portraits in the Cafe’ sessions involving drawing each other in quick 5- to 15-minute poses. In non-lockdown times, these sessions are usually held at the Roman Road site of the Muxima Cafe in Bow – a Time Out ‘Best Cafe in Bow’ for two years running. It’s a friendly, relaxed and quietly bohemian venue, perfect for an evening of social portrait sketching – if a little out of the way for me (however, I usually head into London to dance at SOS on a Sunday night, so the timing – from 6–8pm, is actually perfect). Of course these are also now being done online, again at the same time as the Muxima sessions. Below are a few of these 5- to 15-minute portrait sketches from the live Cafe sessions, as well as some of our more recent online sessions.

I’ve also benefitted occasionally from joining Mark Fennell‘s workshops at his studio in Henley-on-Thames, which involve portrait painting in oils. As this is a new or less-familiar medium for me, I still need to work on mastering blending the pigments, but I am pleased with some of my results, which were included in a local art exhibition last year (see below).

Most of the artists who attend are very experienced – some are also professional artists – and bring their own canvases, oil paints, spirits / mixers, brushes and other materials, as well as their knowledge of how to use them; if not, Mark kindly helps out by providing materials some hands-on tuition, as well as the photographs of the subjects and materials if needed.

Above: Inside Mark Fennell’s studio in Henley-on-Thames; my oil painting of one of the characterful subjects Mark presents in his class sessions; my first two oil portraits, both done in one of Mark’s workshops, were included in an exhibition of local artists’ work in Micklefield, put together by Reverend Wendy Bull, vicar of St Anne’s and St Peter’s parish in Loudwater to showcase work by fellow artists in her parish. Below: another ‘Portraits in the Café’ session in progress at Muxima Café in Bow Road, London.

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The Lowdown on Salsa Lockdown Radio

Interview with Sassia Michel, Creator of
Salsa Lockdown Radio

As I said recently, one of the best things to come out of this global shutdown is the tremendous burst of creativity and innovation it has prompted from the international salsa dance community in an effort to help keep us vitally connected while we’re apart. Here I talk to London-based DJ Sassia Michel about what led her to create the online radio station Salsalockdown, the benefits this format provides for both dancers and DJs – including from her own perspective as a DJ – and whether there is a post-pandemic future for the channel.

JC: So Sassia, what was it that inspired you to set up the Salsa Lockdown Radio? Have you worked in radio before and was it always your plan to create an online radio station? Or did it only happen because of the virus?

DJ Sassia Michel

SM: No, I never worked in radio before. I was always interested in streaming live video and audio and about 10 years ago, I found some software for streaming straight to Facebook. But the idea for the radio actually came to me right after the lockdown.

On Friday the 20th of March they announced the lockdown, and my first thought was, ‘Oh no! We are not going to have any salsa!’ Then on Saturday morning I woke up with the idea of making a radio station to help keep people going. I thought if they can’t go anywhere to dance, at least they can listen to music any time through having access to a 24-hour radio. The idea was not to stop that salsa momentum and passion while we are locked down.

So I got up at 8am and started to think about how I was going to do it. I took my laptop and tried to work out how I was going to get the radio going using that streaming software. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be even better if we can have a chatroom so people can literally come and talk, and still stay connected by talking and exchanging ideas. If they are at home alone and feeling lonely, it will be a nice place for them to come and chat.’

After I found the software to stream, I realised I needed to create a website and then find a way to get the radio software on it. I found the artwork for the site, then a platform I could put it on. So then I spent the whole day working on it, about 7–8 hours. I wanted it to be available that night, straight after the lockdown, so we could keep going with salsa. I also knew I had to do it right away, because I knew if I waited, I might get lazy and not get it done. So I decided to do it in one day and then take more time to decide what to do with it.

DJ Sassia with her salsa-mad mum Yolette, who asked her for help to find a way to keep listening to salsa during the lockdown

That day, my mum – who is alone in France – texted me asking, ‘How can I listen to salsa? Can you send me some salsa tracks I can listen to while I’m locked down?’ And I was like, ‘Wow! That’s amazing – that’s exactly what I’m doing! So now you will be able to go to this website and listen to salsa 24/7. And rather than just having a few tracks, you can have it running for the whole of the lockdown.’ I was so happy my mum asked me to do this as it was exactly what I thought dancers would be saying – ‘We need salsa! How can we do it?’ So it would be great that Salsa Lockdown would be right there.

As soon as I had had the idea, I messaged a friend in salsa, who said, ‘Wow! That’s genius! Go for it!’ So as soon as I had made it, I shared it with my friend. She came back and said, ‘Yeah change this, do this that way’, and then boom! Salsa Lockdown was born.

JC: So what about the different DJ sets? The CoBeatParty is doing that too, with lots of sets from DJs around the world 24/7; how is it different on Salsa Lockdown?

SM: On the day I created the radio, I thought, ‘You know what, it’s not going to just be a 24-hour radio – I will get DJs to play on it too. And it’s not going to just be me playing, it’s going to be other DJs playing too, because they’re also probably missing playing for people.’

It also seemed like this could also be a way for people to get to know the DJs better too, because dancers don’t usually care about the DJs when they are just standing there playing a set. You might get a few dancers coming up at the end and saying how much they liked a song or songs, but that’s it.

So my idea with the live radio is that it would be a great opportunity to create that friendship and community thing, and to get the DJs interacting with the people listening to their set as part of that community. For most of the DJs, apart from Tuli maybe, they haven’t ever done a proper radio show, but from a DJ’s point of view, this is different from DJing on the floor because first, you don’t see the dancers.

“DJing online has been a new and exciting experience since it gives you the chance to interact with the crowd on the chat on a more personal level – you can share thoughts, anecdotes and opinions while listening to the same music we usually only dance to, which you can’t do in a social situation. I loved that it gave me the chance to explain details about the music and the history behind certain rhythms, and to engage with the crowd in a less-superficial way.” [If you missed Alexistyle’s set on Salsa Lockdown, you can also catch him here on the CoBeatParty Online Salsa Congress]

Alexis Ruiz, London/Guatemala

I usually say to the DJs, ‘You don’t have dancers in front of you, therefore you’re not trying to make people dance. But I want you to take them on a journey – on your journey.’ So I am challenging the DJs about speaking on the microphone, and having people interact with them – and the result is that they love it!

I did the DJing myself that first Saturday on the radio – I think we only had about 10 people listening, some of whom were close friends – and although I actually played for them, it was more like a talking thing as I was asking them, ‘What should we do with Salsa Lockdown? How should we make it work? How often should we do it?’ Because I wasn’t playing for them like the other DJs on the CoBeatParty, I played a bit of Haitian music. And I realised after that first night of doing this that it wasn’t about me, but it was working with the dancers and the DJs in the best way to keep everyone in the salsa community together.

But I also think it gives the opportunity to DJs to really show a bit of themselves – like when you have those people in the chat room, it’s not about making those people dance; it’s about helping those people to understand about the music a bit better, or discovering something interesting that they didn’t know before. So the DJs on Salsa Lockdown have the freedom to play anything they would not play in a normal set.

“The first thing I noticed was I didn’t have immediate feedback like you get on a dancefloor, where you know straight away if the dancers like it – instead, all you had was the live chat. But once I got used to it technically, I saw that even though it was not immediate, you get a lot of detailed feedback where people are explaining what it is they like in the music, which was much more interesting. If you’re DJing at an event, you may get some people coming back and saying, ‘I really liked that track’ – but here they are telling you why. So it wasn’t immediate, but the quality of the feedback was so much better.”

Sebastian Mamborado, Czech Republic

I know as a DJ I have so many tracks I love, but I don’t feel like it’s going to fit with a salsa party or work on a dancefloor, so I think that’s what the difference is – as a DJ on Salsa Lockdown, you have that opportunity to really be yourself and take people on a musical journey wherever you want, because those people who are coming to listen are the real music lovers. I usually tell them, ‘Be you! If you want to play something, play it! It’s not for dancing, so you can tell people more about your music and why you choose to play that.

So I think this is what makes it a real different experience for the DJs – at least, that’s the way I see it; you should talk to some of them and ask them too.

JC: So what about your own musical journey as a DJ and the Haitian salsa you played on the first night? You mentioned your mum was into salsa; is that what led you to become a salsa DJ?

SM: I come from a musical family. My dad was a famous musician in Haiti where I grew up. He didn’t play salsa, but he played the piano and a few other instruments in the popular national music known as konpa [otherwise spelt kompa or kompas, from the word compass]. So I grew up in music, really, and that’s how I got my love of music. I was also a musician – I played the saxophone and used to play with jazz bands in France after we moved there.

Sassia and her twin sister Tassia with their musician father in Haiti

When me and my twin sister were little kids, our mother loved to go and dance salsa and bachata, to go to the shows and classes, and to listen to salsa music from the Dominican Republic. As she often couldn’t get a babysitter, she took us with her – so we were exposed to salsa from a very early age.

When I moved to London from France and was exposed to the DJ world in London, I just kind of fell into DJing. It wasn’t something I really planned to do, but it just came to me, and I embraced it. I am really happy now that I often get to share my music at some of the best events in the UK and also internationally, as it says on my bio on the revised website.

JC: You mentioned you played some Haitian music on the first night of the radio – I remember listening then and thinking that was really cool that you were playing that as I didn’t really think of Haiti as a place for salsa music. So it’s great you could share that with us and educate us about that since it is your background.

SM: Yeah, I also thought the Salsa Lockdown would give the DJs the opportunity to bring more diversity to the music we are listening to because it is not just playing for people who are dancing in a club, so they can bring things we haven’t heard much before – including in my case the Haitian music.

Normally, you might get one track in a night from a Haitian band that sometimes plays salsa; I tend to throw in one every few sets I do, and in salsa parties around the world, they might include some Haitian salsa or you might get some traces from Haitian bands, but no one actually knows it’s from Haiti because it is sung in Spanish and sometimes in Creole. I remember as I was growing up, although most of the music was sung in French, you would always hear one song in Spanish.

Back in the day, those Haitian bands had a close relationship with Cuba and Dominican Republic as these islands are not far away from Haiti, so the influence was there in some of the Haitian bands and music, especially in the konpa – but I do need to research it myself more to really know the history.

“Haitian bands had a close relationship with Cuba and Dominican Republic as these islands are not far away from Haiti, so the influence was there in some of the Haitian bands and music, especially in the konpa

On that first day when I played the Haitian salsa on Salsa Lockdown, it was because I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t have any dancer in front of me, so I can play what I like’ – and it did make me feel really good to play that music because it is something I know and it is from my country, so I was showing a bit of me that I don’t normally get to share with others on a dancefloor. And it really surprised me that so many dancers who were listening to it on the radio were really into it – now I think I could probably do a whole set just on salsa in Haitian music!

But that’s really the idea of the radio: it gives DJs a chance to be who they are, share a bit about themselves and do something different.

JC: It’s a bit like the DJ version of that ‘Share Your Salsa’ initiative Toan and Tina set up ages ago at TNT – but here it’s DJs sharing their musical journeys, which is really cool. So what’s the plan and the schedule for the other DJ sets on Salsa Lockdown?

SM: Well, at the moment, I try to have live sets on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday nights – a lot of us were used to coming to Funky Mambo on that night, and I wanted to keep the momentum going for the dancers. So I am working with Funky Mambo to do that for as long as we are in the lockdown, and they also recommended some DJs.

DJs that have played already:

  • DJ Rupert, UK
  • DJ Alexis Ruiz, London/Guatemala
  • DJ Mari, Prague
  • DJ Vincent, Paris
  • DJ Erick the Saint, London
  • DJ Tuli, London/Venezuela
  • DJ Martina, London
  • DJ Jeff, London
  • DJ Mamborado, Prague
  • DJ LaFuriosa, Lyon
  • DJ Mario, Italy
  • DJ Duste, Sweden

I’ll also look around and see what’s going on with other DJs on the CoBeatParty or elsewhere, so depending on that, I might also add something on a Sunday so we can have a relaxing night – for example, I just decided to have some special starting this Sunday with Magna Gopal sharing her music and talking live on the radio.

“Ah, I loved it. I loved it so much I thought I have to start a radio station myself! Music is one of my favourite forms of expression, but verbal communication is another — and if you mix the two at the same time, well, that’s paradise for me! For each song I could explain why and what I liked about it and any memories attached to it — that level of sharing was so fulfilling at a time of limited human interaction! Through the questions I asked, I could feel people were also craving that same feeling of sharing as they would engage with me in many different levels. And of course, getting live feedback on specific parts of the music… you never get that level of detail playing for the dance floor!”

Martina Petrosino, London/Italy

In the next couple of weeks, we have some fantastic DJs coming… this Saturday (25 April), we have DJ Ajad from Japan – I’ve heard he’s the best DJ in Asia, from what I understand, so I’m really excited about getting to know him. We also have some from Spain and one from Greece coming, so that’s fantastic. And when they come, they also bring new listeners from all over the world, so that’s fantastic, and I really feel so blessed to have that I have all these DJs from around the world that want to do this.

DJs that are coming soon:

  • DJ El Nene del Bronx, Spain
  • DJ Ajad, Japan
  • DJ Mortin, Romania
  • DJ Khoos, Australia
  • DJ Paolo, Spain
  • DJ Sam Sleek, London
  • Magna Gopal

So far, we have some people tuning in from everywhere – but it’s mostly 10 countries or so, with the majority coming from the UK, Slovenia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Estonia, the US and Spain, which are usually the countries the DJs are coming from. The most we’ve had tuning in at any one time is around 70 or so, but it’s usually around 30–35 – which is fine for now, as it’s often the same people who are the regulars listening, which makes it feel like a small party and community, and that is how we get to know each other. But every time we have a DJ from a different part of the world, they also bring people from their own countries, so that makes it really interesting.

I also have the radio on all the time, so I can see who is tuning in and connecting from all over the world to listen to it, so I think this is really great to have this available all the time. Most people might tune in and listen for an hour or so each day, which is great as they can access it whenever they like.

JC: So what about the future? Do you plan to keep going after the lockdown ends? If so, will you keep the radio the same, or do you plan to do anything different?

SM: Well, yes, I would really like for it to continue. Maybe not exactly in the same way or at the same time, because once the lockdown finishes, people will want to go back to the parties, and they might not have time to tune in. But I think we could certainly have some special radio shows, maybe every two weeks – for example, some interviews with artists, dancers, performers and promoters coming and talking about themselves, so again we can feel closer as a community.

We can also have some live sessions with people debating things with DJs and other guests, so we can keep that sense of community and the educational thing going with quizzes and talks and things, because there really does seem to a real hunger for learning these kinds of things among the dancers.

Coming soon: Magna Gopal

There’s so many things going on online now – you can go and listen to CoBeat or do online dance classes every day, but I want Salsa Lockdown to be really about growing the sense of community. It’s about listening, learning, understanding and getting to know people better – the dancers, the DJs and the musicians – everyone really.

So far, we’ve had so many great chats, such great quality with the music and so much wonderful education from people like Alexis, and I really don’t want that to go to waste, so I’ve just added a podcast section on the site so people can listen to those talks any time. I’m also making some other changes to the site with new graphics as well as the original art. I had a lot of help on the graphics from Marian from Prague, who did all the Photoshopping of the DJs onto the graphic, so I’m going to keep that.

As for other changes, well I just really need to put the time into it to promote it – that’s not really my thing, but I do need to put the time into it. I like the intimacy of the small community listening to it now, but it would great to get some more people tuning in from all over the world, and really to grow that diversity element. I don’t want it to be just about the DJs coming to do the show, but to really grow that diversity element, so we as a community can continue to learn and grow. So many people have come back to me and told me how much they appreciate this initiative, so I think most of them want this to continue. I know I do! 

Eventually I would also really love to have some live concerts, to have live music streamed onto the radio. It would be great if a band was playing live somewhere in the world, and we could stream it straight onto the radio so anyone anywhere can enjoy it.

JC: Wow, that sounds great! I certainly look forward to it continuing in that way! One last question then: if you can get it sorted out so you can get a live concert or band livestreaming on the radio and website, who as a musician would be your number-one dream band to play first?

SM: Believe it or not, I am listening to a lot of Cuban music now, and there’s a band I really love – it’s called Havana de Primera. I saw them play in London once and I just fell in love with the singer’s [Alexander Abreu Manresa] voice. So I’ve been listening to them a lot because I love his voice – you can really hear his soul in his voice, and that is wonderful.

I’d also like to have Tromboranga playing on the radio, but for my very first livestreamed concert, it has to be Havana de Primera! [She sent me this link so I could hear for myself]

…Lastly, a big shout out to:

I’m really grateful I’ve had so much help and support – including a little donation (a big thank you to those people who did that) – from so many people who have been behind me and really supportive of me. First, I want to say thank you to my family – my twin sister Tassia, my mum Yolette, and my other half WJ for always believing in me. I especially want to mention the two ladies who have been my other eyes on this project, Katja Kliewer and Polina Levontin – thank you for your friendship. And thanks to Jana Kleineberg and Alexandra Bailey for their help with the new logo.

Of course, I am also thankful to all of the DJs who were on board straight away and played for us, and for everyone else who has been a big help and support to me on this project from day one – Toan Hoang, Ovidiu Suciu, Alex Shaw, Marian Grocky, Jamil Bacha, Rupert Boyle, Helen Sweet, Phil Marsden, Martina Petrosino, Loïc Thomas, Vincent Amiche, Julien Arnaud, Ulrike Silberkuhl, Adele Minniti, Dustin Hogg, Coco Jacoel-Robertson from the Agozar team, Miho Miha Shigematsu and Cliff Joseph from Funky Mambo, Karen McGuire, Hannah Galbraith and Alex Buckley, Ashwin Mannick, Sofi Cook, Jane Cahane, Rachel Naunton and Stefan Dosch.

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Connection in the time of social d(ist)ancing

Thanks to the abundant creativity, generosity, vibrancy and innovation of the international salsa community, keen dancers like me have been able to get our fix 24/7 during lockdown, with round-the-clock sets from some of the world’s very best salsa DJs streamed live on via the CoBeatParty Facebook page – including the world’s very first online-only salsa congress, which featured some amazing dance and music workshops from Eddie Torres Jr and Princess, Joel Domingo and Maria Palmieri, Alexistyle Ruiz, Joaquin Arteaga from Tromboranga and others.

Other initiatives have arisen almost daily ever since the global lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic began, with an explosion of online dance-oriented exercise sessions, classes and workshops in salsa, bachata, kizomba and other popular partner-dance styles offered for free (mostly).

While various London radio stations have hosted salsa sessions for a while (e.g. DJs Tuli and Hughie leading The Latin Explosion on Colourful Radio and DJ Del Salereo offering Cuban vibes on Back2Back FM, for example), radio seems to have found a new lease of life online through DJ Sassia Michel’s excellent Salsalockdown channel. Featuring various UK and international DJs on rotation, this online radio channel offers dancers a chance to chat with each other and interact in real-time with the DJs, some of whom have delighted in the opportunity to explain their musical preferences, introduce some unusual offerings (DJ Martina Petrosino, especially), or quiz the listeners with fascinating snippets of musical history and explanations (thank you, Alexistyle and Jamil, for the fun quizzes, and for sharing your wealth of knowledge about musicality, the instruments and the history of salsa! We have all benefitted greatly from it).

While this plethora of dance and musical offerings online has indeed been very welcome at this time of social distancing (which of course means not dancing socially), it has also sharpened the distinctions of what it actually is that truly keeps us connected as dancers: it’s the music.

Whenever someone asks me why I like dancing with partner X or partner Y, or what it is that makes a truly great dance, I’ve tried to explain that in my opinion, the best dances happen when both dancers are simultaneously feeling and expressing the music in the same or a responsive way. They don’t necessarily need to be doing exactly the same steps, patterns or movements – in fact, the dance is often like a conversation, in-joke or flirtation between two consenting adults – but they do need to be responding to the same elements in the music, and also correctly within the timing and style of that music. And unless both dancers are in tune with and truly connected with the music, they won’t achieve a perfect connection when they dance together.

Social distancing has revealed what it is that truly keeps us connected as dancers: it’s the music.


In truth, while I can’t deny missing the buzz of face-to-face and skin-to-skin encounters, and indeed like many others at this time, I am craving physically connecting in real-time on a dance floor, I’m also deeply grateful for the chance to practise other forms of connection at this time – nature, art and writing are all things that are actually best practised and enjoyed in solitude; so is listening deeply to and really understanding and feeling the music. The ability to do that is absolutely essential to excellence as a dancer, so this time is in fact a real gift to anyone who really wants to be a good and certainly a great social dancer or performer. And that is one reason I can truthfully say that, even as a dancer, this period of ‘inactivity’ is truly a blessing in disguise, as it will enable us to take time out to listen more deeply to the music we all know and love to dance to.

But even on a social level, this time out we are experiencing has benefits. Being an undeniable extrovert as well as a long-time social dancer (I first began dancing salsa 23–24 years ago; I was also teaching a full syllabus of Salsa and Related Latin Dances and writing about salsa for over 10 of those years), I can’t say I don’t feel connected to other dancers, thanks to the above initiatives. Given my dedication to going out at least a couple of times a week to dance, and attending at least a few major international or London-based salsa festivals each year, it is hardly surprising that everyone who knows me expected me to feel quite bereft or at least deeply challenged by not being able to go out and social dance, but truthfully – for the moment at least – I’m fine, even grateful for the break.

When life hands you Covid-19, make a CoBeatParty!

Admittedly, I’ve missed having a reason to get glammed up, but even that has had its moment online, thanks to the Agozar team inviting me to join them in a ladies’ version of the men’s ‘Brush’ routine, which was a lot of fun (I’m near the end, transforming from my high-vis Bucks Angels volunteer jacket to a congress-ready look).

Although these do have their limits compared to being there in the flesh, at least we now have a range of social media and real-time meeting apps such as Zoom allowing us to connect and chat with each other in real time via text or video. Occasionally, when we’re chatting online, the actual social connection is surprisingly better than the real-life situations it is temporarily replacing, as for one thing, you can actually hear what others are saying. Online chats mean you don’t have to compete with the noise and distractions of a crowded club, dance class, bar, dance festival, or even a boozy congress party, and so and are able to appreciate all the quirks of your friends’ unique personalities.

Will the close physical contact we as dancers are used to enjoying at international congresses (as here – Vienna Salsa Congress, December 2017) become consigned to the dustbins of history? That is the burning question on many salseros’/as’ lips at this time

I’m sure this is the main reason for the popularity of pre- and after-parties at congresses: people just want to get to know others and also be known more intimately, as that way you can make deeper connections and lasting friendships – which of course we can’t really do when we are all too busy dancing. So, by eliminating the background noise and distractions – as well as the desire to run off and dance as soon as we hear a great tune – we can truly focus on what the other person is saying, enabling a deeper, richer understanding and more genuine personal connection.

It’s hard to imagine how we would be able to remain connected without these online channels; we’d probably all feel like we’re hiding out in a dark cave on some deserted island. Which, if this situation drags on interminably – as some suspect it will do, given the virus’s rate of global multiplication – we may well effectively be doing. But right now, it still seems like a gift – a challenge to the most creative among us to make the best with what we’ve got – so perhaps a salsa-relevant version of the saying should be, ‘When life hands you Covid-19, make a CoBeatParty!’

As for me, I’m still feeling grateful… whether I’ll still feel like that after another few weeks or months of non-physical lockdown isolation remains to be seen. Watch this space!

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Fashion sense and sensibility: getting out of the fast-fashion trap

As the global fashion industry comes under increasing scrutiny for its carbon footprint and contributions to social and ethnic injustice, is it time to give high-street fashion the boot?

Increasingly these days, I discover I am not the only person – and notably, not the only woman, since most fashion advertising specifically targets us – who is beginning to the see the connections between the fashion industry and the environmental catastrophe we are facing, and to feel a kind of moral nausea about the whole idea of shopping.

I find myself in a very strange place, having seemingly morphed overnight from someone who used to love to shop, whose eyes glittered magpie-like on the latest shiny, bling-y thingy, into someone who now finds the whole concept of shopping completely uninteresting – even to the point of being physically repugnant. How did this happen?

This sensation inevitably flares up after glimpsing shop window after shop window in shopping centre after shopping centre, all boasting the invariable pre-, mid- and post-season sales racks, with heaving ‘fashion’ items piling up like so many Ghosts of Christmas Must-Haves Past. Following hard is that sinking feeling that comes with knowing that eventually, most of this once-coveted mass is only going to end up swelling landfills in much poorer countries that are already overburdened with the task of cleaning up the West’s discarded seas of plastics.

Therefore, if I/we are ever going to have any hope of getting away from this mindlessly devastating consumerism, we will have to start by asking hard questions that will make us more conscious about what we buy, where (and how) it comes to us (eg the supply chain), what we value and give our attention to, and – more pressingly – why.

Fashion vs. food: how cotton threatens life

My personal queries about the fashion industry began after I watched bubbly investigative reporter (and latterly Strictly Come Dancing star) Stacey Dooley’s BBC production, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Are your clothes wrecking the planet?. Here, Dooley reveals the direct cause-and-effect links between the fashion industry and environmental disaster, showing, for example, how cotton-growing in the Caucasus region had caused the Aral Sea (originally the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake) to shrink to a mere tenth of its original size, bringing devastation to the land, health, lives and livelihoods of its communities.

Sadly, after decades of growing cotton for export, this huge and once-abundant lake had almost entirely dried up, leaving the surrounding communities stranded without any fish for food or income from fishing. And with less fresh water to drink, the people were forced to drink the heavily chemical- and pesticide-laden water from the dried-up lake, resulting in multiple cases of cancer and lung disease.

While I had always considered cotton to be a more sensible, Earth-friendly, natural, breathable and ‘sustainable’ fabric, cotton is actually about as far from sustainable as it gets. It is not at all a ‘nice’ fabric – at least not to anyone who has to grow or produce it.

Cotton – which grows naturally in warm climates in the US, Brazil, Asia (including China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan) and Turkey – is in fact a very thirsty plant. It requires 20,000 litres (5,283 gallons) of water just to produce one kilogram (2.20 pounds) of cotton. According to a Refinery 29 report, “it takes 2,720 litres of water (as much as you’d drink over a three-year period) to make one T-shirt, and 10,000 litres of water went into making your favourite pair of jeans.” That is an awful lot of water, especially considering many countries around the world are already contending with problems caused by severe drought, water shortages, pollution and erratic rainfall. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides, despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land.

Fashion may be fun – but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!

But cotton production is not the only factor in environmental damage. The article quoted above also points a glaring fistful of stats at the fashion industry in general:  “A 2017 report revealed that, in 2015 alone, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic metres (nearly 20.9 trillion liquid gallons) of water – enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That figure is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.” Considering how much water goes into producing a single garment, the environmental footprint of a simple pair of jeans and T-shirt becomes truly unsustainable. In addition, the fashion and textiles industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, and is second to oil as the world’s greatest air polluter.

Therefore, if we care at all about the future of life on our sorely abused planet, we must seriously evaluate the true costs of the clothes we wear – and stop buying anything we don’t actually need. Our planet simply cannot endure much more abuse in the service of our dedicated following of fashion, which typically results in acres of landfill once consumers have tired of their insta-fashion garments and discarded them. The average consumer today buys 60% more fashion items than in 2000, but discard half of these garments. Such blind consumer behaviour is ultimately suicidal: if we destroy our drinking water, air, soil and other resources in the process of creating and following fashion, we are lost. Fashion may be fun, but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!

Textiles exhibition, Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina, US

Fashion and slavery: a fundamental evil

Along with the environmental destruction wreaked by excessive cotton-growing as cited in the Aral Sea example, a recent visit to the Charleston Museum highlighted how this seemingly pure, natural fabric is also deeply intertwined with the grave social injustices inflicted during America’s shameful history of slavery. Just as today’s fast-fashion brands rely on the nimble fingers of children in sweat shops to keep consumers queuing to buy their brands, so the colonial South relied on the dirty business of slavery to build its empires of water-hungry cotton, indigo (a plant that produced a sought-after blue dye) and rice.

During the height of the transatlantic cotton and textiles maritime trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, the US became the third-largest producer of cotton after China and India. This was thanks entirely to the unscrupulous US slave traders who purchased and enslaved billions of Africans, and then sold them to plantation owners. The owners then forced their slaves to work in the blistering heat, digging and planting their cotton fields, harvesting their crops, then spinning, weaving and tailoring their fabrics into the fashionable garments craved in ‘polite’ society parlours on both sides of the Atlantic.

Enslaved Africans working the cotton fields of the American South

The enslaved who were captured and dragged from the wetlands-rich west coast of Africa – an area steeped in centuries-old cotton- and rice-growing knowledge – brought with them the exact skills and experience needed to turn the plantation owners’ swamps into profitable land. But instead of being recognised and rewarded for their skills, they were brutally manacled to the holds of ships bound for major US slave ports such as Boston and Charleston, where they had to endure horrifically cramped, inhumane conditions for 2–3 months, with few surviving the notoriously dangerous ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic (typically one in six perished per voyage). Throughout the journey, and continuing into their lives as slaves, they were frequently sexually and physically abused. Those that survived were ripped from their families on arrival at port, and then bartered for according to their age, sex, strength and skills.

Once the buyers claimed their purchases as ‘legally owned’ property, the slaves were then subjected to all manner of base cruelty and oppression, without any basic human rights or dignities – it was illegal for them to learn to read or write, as their owners greatly feared an uprising if the enslaved had too much knowledge. Yet without the knowledge, skills, expertise and back-breaking labour – often in malaria-infested swamps – of the enslaved, none of the South’s opulent mansions, exquisite silk and lace garments, and graceful antebellum plantations would ever have existed.

A comparison with today’s slave workers

While we may retrospectively deplore this treatment of slaves as barbaric, is today’s society really any different? Especially when high-street fashion moguls such as “unacceptable face of capitalism” Sir Philip Green of British fast-fashion retail giant Arcadia Group (owner of Top Shop/Top Man, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Evans, Wallis, and the controversially now-defunct British Home Stores) have built their fortunes on the backs (literally, in some cases) of the presently ca. 260 million under-15-year-old children employed in slave labour in impoverished areas of countries such as India, Nepal, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Colombia?

Although cotton is not, strictly speaking, a ‘fast fashion’ fabric (which usually refers to synthetic materials like polyester or poly-cotton blends) because of the amount of time (and growing conditions — including the vast reserves of water required) it takes to produce it, pure cotton still accounts for 39% of all fibres worn today, and 58% of all non-synthetic fibres worn by people around the world.

Sadly, the treatment of slaves in the cotton fields of the South foreshadows today’s global fashion industry and its reliance on cheap labour, which specifically exploits the most vulnerable peoples in poorer regions of the world – women and children. The working conditions, threats to health, and lack of basic human rights such as education and a living wage – not omitting frequent evidence of physical and sexual abuse – female and child workers endure are a near-exact parallel to the damning situations African slaves faced.

Above, clockwise from left: Disgraced Arcadia chief Sir Philip Green; children work cotton fields in Uzbekistan; African woman sifting cotton buds; a cotton gin (Source: Wikipedia)

Because of their size and agility fashion chains cynically exploit under-15-year-old children, who are forced into the hard labour of cross-pollinating the cotton plants, harvesting the crops, and then put in further long hours working in cotton mills. There they spin, weave and dye the fabrics subsequently mass-produced as the clothes we buy from high-street chain stores. The children are paid a pittance for their labours, and frequently threatened with expulsion from school by their governments if they do not work the cotton fields during the summer months. Children also rarely benefit from their wages, as these go straight to their parents. Many become ill and malnourished; most have very little freedom to play and enjoy a normal, healthy childhood.

Women in supply chains also suffer gross injustices. A 2018 article in the Guardian cites two reports by Global Labour Justice highlighting 540 incidences of gender-based sexual and physical abuse in fast-fashion favourites Gap and H&M’s supply-chain factories across Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, Indonesia) over five months. The report also found the female workers were often forced to put in excessive hours of unpaid overtime and work at an incredible pace due to underbid contracts.

Female workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh (Source:

From 2017–2018 in India alone, female workers using cotton gins in 4,000 mills processed 37.7 million bales of cotton – that’s a whopping 8,550.2kg (18,850 lbs – based on a standard bale at 500 lbs / 226.8kg). The cotton was then mass-produced for high-street consumption in the fast-fashion chain stores, where it is sold for competitive prices far above the production costs and pay rates for this extensive labour.

How fashion enslaves us all

While we may lay the blame for such harsh conditions and exploitation on the profit-hungry high-street retail bosses like Sir Philip Green, they are not the only ones who are culpable – such onerous supply chains exist purely to accommodate consumer demand. And if it is was not for our seemingly endless lust for new things, to be in step with the latest fashions, such a toxic, abusive and oppressive system would not flourish.

Let’s be clear: the demand side of the fashion supply-chain cycle is NOT driven by the need to clothe an exponentially growing global population. Yes, human beings do need clothing, however the fashion engine is driven purely by human greed, further accelerated by fashion marketing and advertising, and the scores of celebrities and models who endorse (whether wittingly or un) such environmentally and human-destructive brands. The sole purpose of fashion advertising campaigns is to make us feel we are missing out if we are not seen or snapped wearing the latest fashions. It is no surprise that one of the most popular social media channels carries the prefix ‘Insta’ = instant (fast) fashion.

One of the definitions of fashion (according to Collins Dictionary’s American usage) is “the way in which something is made or done; manner” – except that we are more often not actually the creators or choosers of what we make, do or wear, and the style in which we do or wear it; we are in fact the followers. The leaders are whatever the Vogue or In Style or all the other fashion mag editors and bloggers tell us we must have or do in order to be on-trend, to fit in, to look cool, to be popular, desired or successful. When we feel a compulsion to buy something merely to fit in, we are no longer our own masters, but slaves (as Grace Jones put it, ‘Slaves to the Rhythm’ – but in the case of fast fashion, the seasonal changes are what dictate its rhythms).

Black Friday shoppers in London (Source: Money Talks News)

It is one thing to follow fashion, to be interested in trends or ways to subtly adapt our style of dress and appearance to be in vogue, and yet another to be completely enslaved by it. That compulsive, all-consuming ‘need’ to be the first to own or wear a garment – that fiercely competitive streak behind the queues of ‘Black Friday’ shoppers lining up outside stores and shopping malls every year after the US holiday of Thanksgiving (an irony in itself) – is symptomatic of a deeply dysfunctional, blindly self-centred insecurity. We won’t be happy until we get that item we believe is essential to our success, status, fashionability or desirability, and we demand to have it now.

And sadly, it is our selfish, ego-driven demands that are feeding the cycles of oppression and abuse in the supply chain; our need to have it now that puts workers under constant pressure to deliver faster and cheaper goods. That is the other reason it is called ‘fast fashion’ – because of the pressure required to deliver it, borne by the workers.

Fashion and capitalism: challenging our beliefs

The capitalist economy underpinning our most obsessive consumerist behaviour is founded on the belief that the purpose of life is to create and perpetuate wealth, and to be able to demonstrate the outward trappings of success – always being one up on the mythical Joneses. It is an inherently toxic and destructive ecosystem purpose-made to accommodate a survival-of-the-fittest, law-of-the-jungle mentality that relies on the cruelty of consumption to remain at the top of the food chain. Yet the same system that so violently oppresses and enslaves female and child garment workers also keeps us slaving away at our desks, neglecting our families and abusing our health, just so we will be able to purchase our much-craved items, stay in fashion, and be recognised and admired by others. Instead, we should ask:

So why do we do this to ourselves, to our only home, and to others who share our planet with us? Can we not simply choose to be content with what we have – or better yet, learn to share?

With all the evidence stacked against fashion, we need to evaluate our part in the cycle of greed that drives environmental devastation, socioeconomic deprivation, injustice and oppression, and ask ourselves why we are so easily manipulated into supporting something so obviously unethical. If we care about making a different and better world – both for ourselves and our children or those we will bequeath it to, we must step away from the cycle, refuse to get on it. We must somehow say no to fashion’s siren call, to the desire to jump on the latest bandwagon to feel included.

We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives. We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives.

Other bloggers have published their own remedies for avoiding the above issues, including guides to the top brands to avoid; both Attitude Organic and the guide above on US chains, from Vanessa Adams, as well as several others, name H&M, Zara and Gap as the three worst offenders.

Other companies that figure high on everyone’s list of worst offenders include: Amazon, Primark, Mango, Uniqlo, Target, ASOS, Top Man/Top Shop, Forever 21, Monsoon, Matalan, Benetton, Wet Seal, C&A, American Apparel, Pretty Little Thing, Esprit, Dorothy Perkins, TK Maxx, Urban Outfitters, Nike, New Look, Esprit, River Island, Missguided, Sports Direct, Adidas, Boohoo, George, Pull&Bear, Victoria’s Secret, J Brand, Massimo Dutti, Armani Exchange, Peacocks, Charlotte Russe, Next, M&S, Old Navy, Express, Muji, Louis Vuitton… the list goes on.

So how to look good without harming anyone/anything?

First, while de-cluttering is certainly good for our souls as well as our overstuffed closets and drawers/living spaces, the problem with discarding clothes is that unless we know for certain they will be properly recycled to those who need and will wear them, we may simply be adding to the already serious problems of landfill (57% of discarded garments go to landfill; only 10% are actually recycled and 8% reused. The remaining 25% are incinerated). In Hong Kong alone, 253 tons (2013 figures) of textiles and discarded clothing are sent to landfill each day, with 15 million tons of textile waste (of which 12.8 tons were discarded) recorded in the same year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Remember: true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear
your clothes as what you wear

Therefore, we should: 1) hang on to our garments for longer – and concentrate on taking better care of them so they will last longer. That means employing the ‘Make do and mend’ strategies used by our ancestors in wartime.

Second, if hanging onto items is important for all the reasons above, then surely that also requires us to 2) be much more choosy about what we buy. Along with consciously investing in more sustainably and ethically produced garments (see here for suggestions of European-based brands, and here for US/UK brands), we should be careful that we only buy clothes that are made from durable, natural fabrics, fit well and not too snugly to accommodate weight fluctuations, suit us and are something we enjoy wearing.

If you are unsure what suits you, ask a friend to help you sort through your wardrobe, and consult an online version of the original book such as Colour Me Beautiful to help you work out your colours. That will help you to determine and to 3) stick with a colour palette that suits you, with a few seasonal adaptations.

If you find you have unsuitable colours in your wardrobe, consider 4) hosting a swap or ‘swish’ party with similarly fashion- and waste-conscious friends so that you can swap or recycle your unwanted garments. Alternatively, if you and a friend both like a certain style or colour, and wear similar sizes, you could try sharing items of clothing to get the maximum amount of wear from them.

Along with making do and mending, swapping or sharing with friends, you can also ty to 4) recycle items from your own wardrobe – sometimes clothes you haven’t worn for a while can give you a ‘new’ look, particularly if you try pairing them with different items or accessories, or wear them in a new way – this is actually what fashion magazines should help us all to do. After all, true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear something as what you wear. Channel your inner Audrey Hepburn – that insouciant scarf around the hat, turned-up shirt collar, or multi-stranded jewellery always looks fresh, feminine and stylish no matter what decade it was first worn, so any look modelled on her style is likely to have a reliably classic nous.

Last but not least, try to 5) buy ‘new’ clothes from vintage, consignment or charity shops as a first port of call. If you live in or near an expensive area, you should always look there first as charity shops in these areas are more likely to hold high-quality, better-lasting goods that should also stay in style and in good shape for much longer.

And as we sign off on January’s resolutions, let’s all aim to make this year the year we finally and fully divest from fast fashion in all of our purchasing decisions.

1. What is mental health?

As anyone who has ever suffered from a temporary mental health issue or on-off mental health condition such as anxiety/panic attacks, depression, insomnia, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), grief, feelings of isolation/alienation or even suicidal thoughts – all of which I have suffered with in the course of my life – will tell you, despite the fact such things are very common, they are generally greatly misunderstood.

Quite often, sufferers are surrounded by well-meaning but impatient friends and relatives who expect them to simply ‘snap out of it’ or express annoyance at the sufferer. This is not only harsh, but can be virtually impossible – for example, no amount of well-meaning advice or ‘normal’ self-help remedies for sleeplessness (for example, counting sheep) – will work during periods of mental issue-induced insomnia.

Mental health issues often arise from a combination of various factors, some of which may be entirely externally imposed (such as the Covid crisis, economic crisis or the sudden loss of a loved one), or may in fact be physiological in origin – or example, a lack of sunlight and vitamin D, side-effects from a drug regimen or other dietary/physical health conditions. So, the causes and interlinked symptoms need to be looked at as a whole and treated in a complementary way, which is why, if affected by any of these issues or conditions, your first port of call should always be a visit to your general practitioner (GP).

There will always be some sufferers (frequently men, because of the long-term culture of denying or not owning up to any perceived weakness) who tend to brush off any experience of depression or any other temporary mental or emotional imbalance because of the social stigmas around it. Sadly, this generally has the effect of prolonging or worsening the affliction. This may be because of previous experiences of attempting to share about problems socially or with family, who might have responded unhelpfully – for example, by being too busy, not listening to or hearing the sharer’s words, tones or body language adequately, or even backing off out of fear of being triggered by the sufferer’s problems as a threat to their own wellbeing with any issue that is “too negative”.

Again, this then compounds the sufferer’s problems by adding a feeling of being rejected and/or excluded, making it harder to get help as they might conclude that either no one cares, or can or will help them.

If you or a loved one is facing this issue in the UK, and perhaps your/their suffering has become so bad you/they are despairing or tormented by suicidal thoughts, please call Samaritans on 116 123 or see the numbers on Support Line – both are confidential and the Samaritans phone line is manned 24/7. (Please see other resources listed on the NHS website.)

Another problem with social perceptions of sufferers’ issues is that this may arise out of mistaking a temporary issue or condition for a long-term, chronic mental illness – which it is not, as clarified below. Also, many people appear to be confused about what mental health actually is.

So first, what is mental health – and how is this different from mental health issues or illness?

How to categorise mental health issues, conditions/disorders and illnesses: the list is very long , but each are different– Photo: Shutterstock

Mental health vs mental health issues and illness – and the problem of stigmas

As Routledge said: “Currently, mental health is often viewed only as mental health issues, and is seen as a sign that we’re ‘broken’ and need ‘fixing’. It shouldn’t be this way. Mental health issues are an incredibly important part of the mental health conversation, but they aren’t the whole conversation. And working on our mental health shouldn’t be a sign that we need fixing, but about us growing as individuals in the ways and areas that we want to grow [in].”

So, first there is mental health – this concerns our minds as an integral part of our overall make-up as human beings, which comprises our bodies, souls (mind, will/heart and emotions) and spirits. Therefore, proper mental health or mind functioning is intimately related to the health of our bodies, souls and spirits.

As the wise writer of Proverbs said, “As a man [woman] thinketh in his [her] heart, so is he [her]” (Prov 23:7) – in other words, how you think will affect your actions, your health and your entire being/purpose in life – so if your thinking follows a pattern of, say, worry, and you don’t make a conscious (as in, mentally determined) choice to replace that mental pattern with healthier thinking, your temporary mental health issue can lead you to experience further or more lasting effects.

Second, there are mental health issues that occur temporarily when our minds become plagued by unhealthy, out of balance or ‘unsound’ thinking – for example, when we are dominated by a sense of failure, devastated by grief, when an inability to sleep distorts our ability to think clearly or sleep, or when we are temporarily ‘bent out of shape’ by financial or work worries. Or it could be that our minds have been so intently concentrated on something for so long that we eventually burn out, despair, ‘lose the plot’ or the will to live, and struggle to make what would normally be simple decisions.

Third, there are several mental health conditions or disorders that are habitual, on-off or persistent. Most of these have been written about and studied exhaustively so as to confirm their characteristics, providing a wealth of objectively identifiable medical or other assessments.

A very few examples of these (please see the extensive list provided by UK charity Mind) would include children displaying behaviours associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); the deep shock from the after-effects of a major trauma such as war, now labelled as post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]); or an annual depression caused by reduced amounts of sunlight during winter, referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Many of these conditions are categorised as a disability since they can affect a person’s ability to behave or function normally, and may also have physical impacts, as our minds and bodies are intricately linked.

Lastly, there is mental illness – according to the gov.uk website, this is when a long-term (more than 12 months) mental health condition is a permanent, chronic or genetic disability – meaning a person is not able to hold a job or function as normal person in society, and their condition or disorder may not only be a danger to themselves, but to others. Among these, it lists dementia (Alzheimer’s), bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and depression. Please note, this more severe level of depression is often accompanied by psychotic elements (hallucinations, delusions or paranoia). Such conditions usually involve treatment with specific drug regimens, being hospitalised or treated in a psychiatric ward for periods of time (or as a permanent ‘solution’).

You may have heard the ‘joke’ version of some of these distinctions in Jerome Lawrence’s quote as: “A neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the air; a psychotic is a man who lives in it; and a psychiatrist is a man who collects the rent.” While we all know someone who we would describe as “neurotic” because they are constantly worried about things – often to an abnormal, seemingly ridiculous or unwarranted degree – a neurotic is someone who has a permanent inclination towards unreality, which is in fact a form of psychosis.

Otherwise, ‘neurosis’ is described as a mild mental illness not caused organically, with symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, obsessive behaviour or hypochondria. Such conditions do not constitute a disability, as most sufferers are still able to function

normally and hold down a job.  I hope this has helped to clarify why, for example, a person who is suffering with depression should be understood and receive compassion and proper care, rather than being stigmatised by their family, friends and work colleagues – or even fellow Christians, as sadly happened to me when I suffered bouts of depression and/or insomnia due to work stresses and burnout (or alternatively, as a freelancer, being out of work for long periods), SAD or occasionally feeling isolated and lonely when freelancing from home for long periods.

Now that most people have been forced to experience some of that sense of isolation through Covid, I trust their capacity for sympathy (“to feel for”) or empathy (“to feel with”) for others has increased. Yet for those of us who have, through other circumstances – such as caring for a terminally ill family member or the social isolation of freelancing and working from home as a normal state of affairs – such mental health impacts have been a regular feature of our existence.

Yet, having learned valuable coping techniques and practices such as explained below, some of us have even flourished during the lockdowns, no doubt aided by the knowledge that others were likewise sharing their circumstances.

Just a few of the issues contributing to a plague of mental health issues today – Photo: Shutterstock

The prevalence of mental health issues

When it comes to depression, according to the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 16.2 million Americans (6.7% of the entire population) had at least one major depressive episode in 2016; the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression, which is also seen as the world’s leading cause of disability.

Note, these statistics were largely done pre-Covid, where many more than that have suffered immensely due to the isolation and pressures of lockdown, including the additional health and financial worries and anxieties this brought. According to the medical journal The Lancet, during the widespread Covid lockdowns, “We estimated an additional 53.2 million (44.8–62.9) cases of major depressive disorder globally (an increase of 27.6% [25.1–30.3]) due to the Covid-19 pandemic, such that the total prevalence was 3152.9 cases (2722.5–3654.5) per 100 000 population.

“We also estimated an additional 76.2 million (64.3–90.6) cases of anxiety disorders globally (an increase of 25·6% [23.2–28]), such that the total prevalence was 4802.4 cases (4108.2–5588.6) per 100,000 population. Altogether, major depressive disorder caused 49.4 million (33.6–68.7) DALYs [disability-adjusted life years] and anxiety disorders caused 44.5 million (30.2–62.5) DALYs globally in 2020.”

To conclude, the main difference between mental health and mental health issues is that while mental health is indeed good and vital to our overall health and wellbeing, if we neglect to care for the health of our whole beings – including our minds – and fail to heed any warning signs or symptoms, our overall mental health can soon become a mental health issue. The good news is that, as with any other physical illness, any temporary mental health issues or longer-term condition can be rectified if caught soon and correctly diagnosed.

In my own experience – particularly as a long-term and very active social dancer / ex-professional salsa, etc dance teacher, which has benefitted me immensely by giving me youth-enhancing energy, but has also left me with numerous physical scars in the forms of feet, knee, hip and other physical injuries – I have unfortunately had to learn the hard way that if I fail to listen to the whispers in my body when I am overdoing it, I will only risk further and potentially more debilitating injuries.

The ‘black dog of depression’ is something I know all too well – Photo: Shutterstock

Therefore, I have had to learn how to pace myself, and to be aware of and stop when or if I feel any painful twinge. I only wish, with hindsight, I had been as quick to pace myself with work and other commitments in the same way, instead of overdoing it and ending up being either physically ill or mentally burnt out, both of which have at times left me prone to periods of the ‘black dog’ (a term for depression usually attributed to Winston Churchill).

While the simplest explanation for my own mental health issues was a prolonged lack of rest, there were also other factors that affected me – for one thing, after some 30+ years of living in England, where it gets dark at 3.30pm in winter, I know that particular SAD black dog very well – every autumn, I can feel him lingering outside my door, and hear his howling to be let in. Unsurprisingly, the lack of sunshine also contributes to physical symptoms, largely connected with vitamin D deficiency. [Note: if you like me suffer from SAD, a good aid to combatting this is a specially designed SAD light – a lamp that will help to reproduce the quality of diffuse morning light lost in winter. See here for lamps.]

So, if listening to our bodies is important for protecting our physical health, shouldn’t we also learn to ‘listen to’ what is going on in our minds to protect our mental health? If the ‘solution’ is really that simple, then why do so many people – according to Mind, one in four people experience a mental health issue of some kind each year in England – suffer poor mental health? And how has this become such a problem in our modern-day society, particularly within our work environments?

Let’s take a closer look.

Bust of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, in Amsterdam – Photo: Shutterstock

The mind-body-spirit connection vs machines: the brokenness of modern life

The truth is that the mind-body-emotions-spiritual ecosystem that forms the whole strata of our beings as humans is so intimately and dynamically connected that, like the complex network of roots beneath the ground of a tree that are connected underground to all of the other trees in a forest, if there is anything that is unsound, disturbed, unwell or out of balance in one sphere, it will by nature impact the entire structure, ultimately also affecting all the other trees in the forest.

As our minds, emotions, spirits and bodies are an integral part of our make-up, each must all be healthy in order for us to flourish and be whole, and thus be as successful and fulfilled as we are capable of being – the true goal and state of mental health.

One wonders why, if a holistic concept of the mind-body-soul-spirit connection as advocated by Hippocrates was such common knowledge to the ancient Greeks that a concept of the connectedness of the head and body would have been immediately understood by their audience, it is such a foreign concept to us now? Why do we persist in compartmentalising our lives so that we ignore or neglect some parts, only to find ourselves overwhelmed, under-soul-nourished and dangerously out of kilter?

It seems that in our endless quest for achievement, self-fulfilment and success, our lives are increasingly busy and frequently fractured – as per the German word zerrisendheit – ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’. Rather than seeking a whole-istic (holistic) approach to life, we have invented a whole slew of dichotomies and compartmentalisations that unbalance us and disturb our peace, mitigating against any wholeness or connectedness, and ultimately disrupting our mental health. No wonder the health and wellness industry – which emphasises the mind-body-spirit connection – is now worth over $4.5trn!

Although there are various theories about how and why this split occurred historically – and God knows, the worst culprit behind both relentless capitalism and workaholism is undoubtedly the Protestant work ethic and its tendency to make a god (idol) of work – these days we as humans are competing not only with each other, but also with machines.

An artificial intelligence (AI) robot: these days we are under increasing pressure to compete with machines – Photo: Shutterstock

We are under increasing and effectively dehumanising pressure to validate our worth to our employers by proving that our productivity is justified in economic terms. As a result, all too often we attempt to function like machines, which we are not – and never can be. Yet if even machines and computers need to be repaired and shut down for a time to be able to continue to function properly, so we also need to ‘shut down’, take time out to rest, reflect and recharge.

Some 11–12 years ago, I was working as a chief sub-editor and production manager for a B2B media start-up – a weekly international newspaper for the renewable energy industry, ironically – where, as a result of regularly working 16-hour in-house shifts in the City (an additional two-hour commute each way), I inevitably burned out. I remember once going outside for a cigarette break (I have joked for many years that if I didn’t smoke, I would never get a break) on a particularly frantic press day. When I looked at my smartphone and saw “Switch off’, I took it as a ‘word from God’ or warning I needed to do that.

Sadly, at that time I was so engrossed in resolving the ever-evolving tech issues and issues within my team that I neglected to heed that warning – and indeed had so neglected both my spiritual practices and my physical health that in the end I not only became mentally, emotionally and spiritually burnt out, but also temporarily lost the use of my right arm due to the beginnings of a repetitive strain injury (RSI)-like condition. I then experienced an overwhelming depression for several months, worried I would never be able to work again – or even to do the art and writing that I had long known was my true ‘calling’.

Some months later, my husband and I were travelling in France and could not find accommodation as all the hotels were booked for a conference. Suddenly, we noticed a sign for Taizé – an ecumenical Christian community I had long wished to visit. We ended up staying there for about a week, during which time I joined in several group discussions. At one point, a wonderful Albanian nun said: “We are not machines, and were never meant to work non-stop. God designed us for rest. That is why He created the Sabbath, and blessed it and called it holy – because we cannot truly be holy [or whole] if we do not rest.”

That was when the penny finally dropped that I was indeed trying too hard to function like a machine, and I had to accept I simply could not – and certainly should not – continue in such an unnatural manner.

Spending time in nature, focusing your mind on being in the present, ‘zooming out’ from your problems to get perspective – all are essential aspects of mindfulness – Photo: Shutterstock

Practising mindfulness: key to a healthy mind

I mentioned earlier the need to pay attention and learn to our bodies, and the need to do the same thing with our thoughts so that we can keep our minds in a healthy place. Slowing down from our hurried, frantic lives and being still and quiet enough so that we can listen objectively to the conversations in our minds is an essential discipline to ensure we do not get “bent out of shape” with fear or anxiety, burn out and “lose the plot”, or become engulfed in streams of negative or even suicidal thoughts. 

One of the best tools to ensure the proper functioning of our minds is the practice of mindfulness. As stated on the Mindful website, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Mindfulness involves tuning out all of the distractions, worries or thoughts that can obsess or plague us from time to time and just focusing on the present. Some people do this by practising meditation, prayer or yoga, for example; others by actively focusing on the rhythms of their breathing. Others concentrate on the immediate physical sensations of a rhythmic or repetitive manual task – say, washing dishes or knitting, or engaging in a creative act such as making art or playing music.

Spending time in nature and listening to your breathing as you walk, simply studying the structure of a tree or leaf, or observing a bird in flight, is also a wonderful way to recover a sense of being fully present and alive to the immediate moment. Such practices of ‘zooming out’ from the world and all its problems and ‘zooming in’ on the present is an excellent way to experience calm, focus and mental clarity – it is similar to the experience of perspective we have when we climb a mountain and can see a whole city spread out below us.

I personally find it helpful to look up at the stars at night and meditate on the massive grandeur of the heavens, to ponder my own / the world’s ultimate insignificance in contrast to the cosmos. In the light of the vastness of space, my own puny problems or whatever else is going on around me or in the world suddenly appear ridiculous. It reminds me that the God who made the heavens is ultimately in control.

When I focus on that, I find it quite liberating to realise the truth of my position as a creature, ultimately created and ordered by the same God (or Intelligent Designer, if you prefer) who made the heavens as well as all the tiny creatures that live in the unseen places in the soil or the depths of the sea.

It is also reassuring to think of Jesus’s words: “Look at the birds of the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? And who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

So, if I take the time to zoom out from my problems, and just zoom in on my breathing or, say, a single tree or bird in nature, it will help me to gain a perspective and a distance from whatever problems are troubling me and causing me to lose my peace. I can then choose to give those problems to God and experience freedom and clarity by focusing on my current issues one by one or one step at a time, rather than becoming overwhelmed by them all or allowing my thinking to become unhealthily distorted.

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS:

  • Mental health is part of our entire make-up as a humans and is essential to our wellbeing.
  • Mental health issues, conditions or illnesses are not the whole story – positive mental health also includes our growth and development as people.
  • Even machines need time out to ‘shut down’ – so take time out to rest, reflect and recharge.
  • Listen to your internal conversations to observe any negative patterns, and choose positive ones.
  • Above all, learn to practise mindfulness by zooming in on the present moment. 

Mental health: A personal journey

Recently I attended a London Writers Salon-hosted online interview with entrepreneur and author James Routledge, founder of Sanctus – a start-up he set up due to the mental health issues he struggled with as a result of his first failed start-up, having found there was nothing in place to offer the help he needed.

I found myself relating deeply to all he was saying – including his identification of himself as a fellow ‘intense creative‘ on the Enneagram personality spectrum, since I am innately aware that being both intense and intensely creative comes with its own unique mental health challenges. Also, having had quite a bumpy ride with several start-ups, etc myself, which, along with the changes in my sector (journalism/media), the ups and downs of freelance life, and a few really bad bosses/work situations, these inevitably triggered my own mental health issues and eventual recovery. I too have struggled at times because of a lack of resources to deal with these, as well as an occasional sense of being stigmatised through others’ misunderstandings and ignorance.

After I posted a few comments in the Zoom chat window, several of my writing colleagues urged me to write about this – so here I am. As Routledge’s own writings, which led to his creation of the now wildly successful Sanctus, clearly struck a nerve, I hope my reflections as below will help those who may be dealing with similar issues, or who may simply want to have a better understanding of mental health.

However, as this is a massive topic, I cannot possibly cover it all – I have only written about various experiences and included helpful tools, links and key learnings from my own personal journey. I have also written with diverse audiences in mind, so you may just wish to read the most relevant section/topic or simply review the main take-aways at the end of each section.

I have split this into the following four themes, which will appear as separate blog posts in due course:

  1. What is mental health? – breaks down the differences between mental health, mental health conditions and mental illness, and discusses stigmas and why mental health problems are so prevalent today; refers to the practise of mindfulness;
  2. Mental health and work – focuses on the ups and downs of start-ups and freelance work – in my case, in media/journalism, with the switch to digital and other issues since the downturn –and dealing with bullying bosses and toxic teams;
  3. Mental health and creativity – shares my own story of being a blocked writer and artist and my journey towards recovery; how being blocked affects the mental health of creatives; tools for unblocking; and how even non-creatives can use the same practices and disciplines employed by artists, writers, musicians, etc to achieve their own positive mental health and life goals; and
  4. Mental health and faith – looks at the connections between spirituality and mental health, the theme of suffering, and how mental health and spiritual journeys are innately connected (please note, as I am a Christian, this is my personal point of reference, though I have alluded to learnings from other spiritual disciplines).

Please note, although my own experiences and observations are valid, balanced with research and recognised resources, I am NOT a doctor nor a healthcare professional – for proper help and guidance, please refer to the links embedded within the body of the article or in the resources section at the end.

Deforestation and Flooding

Deforestation – the intentional eradication of trees by felling to clear land of forested areas to make way for other human-created uses (eg houses, buildings, runways, motorways, tunnels, trains and agricultural) – is a major contributor to climate change in general, and to flooding in particular.

Between 1990 and 2016 alone, the Earth lost a staggering 1.3 million square kilometres (502,000 square miles) of forests, according to figures from the World Bank. Since humans first began cutting down forests, 46% of the Earth’s total trees have been felled. Woodland comprises less than a third of the Earth’s surface (30%), but this is disappearing fast as a result of deforestation – in the past 50 years alone, at least 17% of all rainforest has gone as a result of intensive tree felling, with the past 12 years alone accounting for record highs of deforestation in the Amazon.

A significant factor is also the types of trees needed, and why. Although some have argued there have in fact been recent gains in total global tree canopy due to melting polar regions and the growth of man-made forests through timber plantations, mature palm oil plantations, and zealous tree-planting programmes in China and other countries, man-made forests can never compensate for the loss of primary forest – specifically primary tropical forests and savannahs, which host a wealth of unique flora, fauna and vital ecosystems that are irreparably lost when the land is cleared.  

Tropical forests, such as those found in the Congo and Amazon river basins and Indonesia, are particularly critical to life on Earth as they are store the most carbon and are the most richly biodiverse regions on the planet, with some 90% of all species on Earth. Tropical forests are also home to many hardwood tree species that have no dormant period, and as such are vital to regulating the Earth’s atmosphere.

Amazonian rainforest fire in Brazil’s indigenous territory in 2017 (Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

The UK is one of the least-forested (13%) nations in Europe (the total landmass of Europe is covered by 37% woodland), thanks to historic felling by the Romans and other invading peoples to clear land for roads and agriculture; further stripping of woodlands to provide ships during the height of Britain’s colonial and naval supremacy, and during the Second World War; and subsequent relentless felling for agriculture and building – including the current felling and irreparable destruction of 108 ancient woodlands to make way for the highly contentious high-speed railway (HS2) project, which some have referred to as ‘Britain’s Amazon’. Of this, most of the UK’s trees are in Wales and Scotland, with only 6.5% tree cover in Northern Ireland and 9.9% in England.

There are many impacts this substantial loss of tree canopy and forest cover will have on our planet if allowed to continue, not only because of their essential link to climate change and biodiversity loss, but because trees are also a vital deterrent to other ravages of a dramatically changing, overheated and destabilised climate, such as sea-level rise, water scarcity, drought and flooding. In this article, we will focus particularly on how deforestation contributes to flooding, both in the wider global picture and within the UK.

Deforestation and climate change

Deforestation accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – to put this into a proportional geographic context, this comes third below all of the emissions currently produced by the US and China.

Forests serve as the Earth’s temperature regulator and pollution filter. They not only provide shade, material for building and food for creatures including man, but they also act as a vital ‘carbon sink’, meaning they absorb carbon dioxide and monoxide molecules from the air and lock them in, re-releasing them as oxygen through the process known as photosynthesis. Thus, they are effectively nature’s air-conditioning units and weather regulators, as they recycle water, which then forms clouds and later rain, thus helping to cool and water the Earth and enable to plants to grow.

“Without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat.”

–JANE CAHANE

Therefore, without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat. Without trees, the presence of the harmful carbon emissions and other noxious gases that have intensified through human fossil fuel-burning would make the air unbreathable.

If the pollution alone did not kill us, the heat would. Without vital tree cover, incremental temperature rises would diminish the protective layer of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby exposing our planet to the sun’s harmful radiation. The entire land surface would become a scorching, uninhabitable desert, where nothing could grow – as is currently the case in regions of the world that are covered in desert, whether hot or cold (note, at 33% of the Earth’s total landmass, there is already more desert than forest).

Map showing global forest cover density with percentages in 2010, reused with permission from research organisation Our World in Data

The lack of trees would also mean the planet would be unable to internally regulate weather patterns; coupled with the impact of the ozone reduction and rising heat, Earth’s weather would rapidly plunge into a wildly destabilised, crisis situation – as it is already showing signs of doing.

We are all increasingly aware of the problem of climate change; we now know that if we do not act soon to reverse the ravages of climate change, our planet is on course for imminent untold disasters due to increasing wildfires, sea-level rise (SLR) and flooding, as well as decimation of vital plants, soils and species. The rise in global temperatures has accelerated the process of evaporation, which in turn has caused global wildfires to intensify in frequency, duration and prevalence, with some 8,100 wildfires in California alone in 2019–2020 and the fire season there now lasting 75 days longer than in the 1970s. Global SLR is also accelerating beyond predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2013 report, with more recent data showing SLR could reach up to (or even over) 2m by 2100.

“Along with sea-level rise, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher oceans and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation… this then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding”

— JANE CAHANE

Along with SLR, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher ocean and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation, which further increase the moisture content in the air. This then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding, with many regions already experiencing higher-than-average rainfall ­– for example, in October 2019, more rain fell in areas of the UK within a single span of 48 hours than would normally occur over an entire month.

Yet while forests could provide more than one-third of the total CO2 reductions required to keep global warming below 2°C through to 2030, mankind unbelievably continues to chop trees down at an unprecedented rate. In the relatively short period between 2001–2015, over 300 million hectares (nearly the size of India) of tree cover was lost. Such short-sighted behaviour is essentially suicidal – if we continue chopping trees as we are, we will be unable to survive.

Deforestation and flooding

One of the biggest single causal factors in the devastating impacts of flooding is deforestation or de-vegetation. Deforestation contributes to the severity of flooding in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, as described above in terms of the relation of the absence of trees to the overall impacts of climate change. Indirectly, forests also hold and use more water than agricultural lands or grasslands, which means some rainwater remains on the leaves and may evaporate directly into the air.

The most direct ways deforestation increases the impacts of flooding are by:

  • increasing the speed and amount of sedimentary run-off;
  • decreasing the amount of rainfall that is intercepted, as there are simply less leaves on trees and surrounding vegetation to absorb rainfall and reprocess it through photosynthesis; and
  • the simple fact there is literally nothing physically present to stem the tide of a fast-flowing flood, which may or may not contain additional sedimentary elements.

The top two impacts are connected to the mechanisms by which plants absorb and expunge water. The process of photosynthesis means water is first absorbed via tree leaves and then transmitted to the roots beneath the surface of the ground, which in turn release nutrients into the soil. The water that is not used then travels up along the underside of the leaves and is re-released into the atmosphere as oxygen via evaporation.

Flooded areas with with dislodged soil (Source: Rachman Reilli on Unsplash)

When there are no trees and vegetation to absorb the precipitation, the quantity of water continues to increase, yet has nowhere to go. Also, roots absorb water from the soil and make it drier and able to store more rainwater, thereby making the surrounding lands less prone to flooding. Without the roots of trees and other vegetation deep absorbing precipitation deep below the ground, the water will remain on the surface and can more easily become a flood.

Deforestation also results in the top layer of soil becoming dislodged – a process known as erosion – because without the roots of trees and other plants and vegetation to anchor this topsoil in place, it becomes unstable and is no longer able to retain or reprocess any of the water that falls on it. This loose soil then becomes run-off– rain that is not absorbed by the soil. The increased surface run-off in turn increases the risk of flooding, because there is no soil layer to stop or absorb the flow of water. It therefore becomes a fast-flowing stream, with the loose sediment mixing with it to become a mudslide.

A flood of fast-flowing water or mud can also be more dangerous if the force of the current is strong enough to uproot and transport rocks or heavier items. Such items would have more likely been filtered or intercepted by the network of branches, roots and leaves of smaller trees, shrubs, hedgerows and other low-lying but substantial vegetation. Further, the movement of sedimentary run-off can shrink river channels downstream, thereby constricting the flow of rivers and causing them to overflow and burst their banks. Without forests and vegetation present to stem the tides of rising waters, the flood waters surge and move faster, ultimately becoming uncontrollable.

According to Janet Abramovitz of WorldWatch, deforestation in the Yangtze river-basin area played a major role in the massive flood of 1998, which occurred as a result of the region losing 85% of its trees. Although the Chinese government blamed El Niño and denied any complicity due to its logging activities in causing the regional devastation, it subsequently launched a $2bn plan to reforest the Yangtze basin. Says Abramovitz, “[This was] certainly… a very clear sign from the government that deforestation was [the] problem.”

Flooding in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province, China (Source: Jéan Béller, Unsplash)

Deforestation and flooding: the case against HS2

As previously stated, the UK is one of the least-forested nations in Europe, with less than 13% of tree cover. Therefore, any programme of deforestation for building, infrastructure and large-scale agricultural projects threatens to increase both the levels of climate change-related air pollution and the risk of flooding in the UK – not to mention severely impacting fragile wetland ecosystems and many unique, rare, threatened and protected species.

One of the UK government’s most ambitious, expensive and deeply controversial infrastructure projects is the high-speed railway (HS2), phase 1 of which is currently being built, with an escalating cost to taxpayers of some £106bn. The HS2 railway scheme proposes to connect London and Birmingham (and, at a later stage, areas of the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland). To build it, engineers have drawn straight lines bisecting large swaths of countryside, including several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), such as the Chilterns; HS2 officials have also contentiously seized houses and farms and evicted families along the proposed route, citing a World War Two law that allows the government to grab land and houses for ‘a national emergency’.

Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Wildlife Trusts, the work will destroy or irreparably damage 108 irreplaceable ancient woodlands (these once covered Britain, but now only 2.5% remain), plus 693 local wildlife sites, five internationally protected wildlife sites and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest (SSIs).

While some see the proposed train route as an advantageous – even ‘green’ – development, both for facilitating business and reducing the amount of car traffic through ostensibly providing faster connections between major UK cities, the journey from London to Birmingham will only be 20 minutes shorter, which hardly seems to justify such excessive expenditure and destruction.

Perhaps the flooding in
areas already deforested
for HS2 is a sign that
if even if the government
refuses to halt this work,
nature herself may have

the final say”

—Jane hurd cahane

Also, HS2 will in fact add carbon dioxide (1.49 million tonnes of carbon emissions) rather than reducing it over its projected 120-year lifespan. And then there is the fact that overall, rail travel is down – the pandemic has proven that remote working not only could become the norm, but for many workers, is preferable. Indeed, even long before the pandemic, train use was in decline; it is hardly likely demand will ever justify its construction.

But despite the risks and the clear lack of viable green credentials, the project poses an even greater risk: increased flooding. This is because several areas across which HS2 is being built are floodplains, and without the farmland and forests – which HS2 is commandeering all across the route – to soak up the surface water and serve as a natural flood defence, this leaves these flood-prone areas even more exposed to the freakish extremes of the weather and precipitation patterns, which have clearly increased in recent years.

Understandably, many residents, particularly in the Midlands and areas of the North of England along the proposed HS2 route, are fearful that its construction will put their homes at even greater risk of flooding. Some critical MPs and reporters such as BBC News Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith have even suggested that HS2 itself will be a casualty of flooding. Indeed, a map produced by the Environment Agency revealed that areas already severely hit by flooding run an almost indentical course to the proposed rail line, including a 45-mile section of Staffordshire and a large area around Leeds station. In fact, had the rail line already been built through this section, it would likely have been submerged several times over.

While various spokespersons for HS2 have claimed, and continue to claim, that drainage systems near the construction locations will be put in place as works continue, recent flooding of what was formerly the South Cubbington Woods – home to ancient woodlands and the beloved Cubbington 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ pear tree, which were recently felled to make may for HS2 – makes such claims vastly unreliable. In view of such evident increase of flooding in an area that would have otherwise been soaked up by these woods, local residents are justifiably angry that money being spent on what many see as a ‘white elephant vanity project’ has not instead been directed towards erecting greater flood-prevention defences.

Speaking after the major flooding incidents caused by Storms Desmond and Eva during the Christmas 2015 holidays, which saw record-breaking rainfall hit Lancashire, Cumbria, southern Scotland and parts of Wales, former UK MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber Mike Hookem said: “Flood defences are not something that the government can palm off on charities and communities… rather than pouring billions of pounds into projects like HS2 – while at the same time cutting the flood defence budget, as it did in its recent spending review – the government must get its priorities right and make protecting the homes and businesses of hundreds and thousands of people from flooding an absolute priority.”

Boxing Day floods 2015 in Bingley, Bradford (Source: Chris Gallagher, Unsplash)

As an island nation normally subject to intensive rainfall, it is clear flooding is about to become even more intense for the UK due to rising sea levels, increasingly erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and the other issues of climate change-induced flooding made infinitely worse through deforestation. While the government has recently agreed to new 2050 targets for achieving net carbon neutrality and becoming a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases, its continued support for the HS2 project is in direct opposition to these goals, due to the fact the project itself is adding to rather subtracting carbon emissions.

Perhaps the flooding in areas already deforested for HS2 is a sign that even if the government refuses to halt this work, nature herself will ultimately have the final say.

This article was originally written for the Earth Fast 2021 website in relation to this year’s theme on water – please see here for further articles and information about how to join the fast, and how to fast safely.

Recent artwork

Like many of you, I rejoice that creativity in all forms is not in lockdown – and as I posted previously, I am very grateful to remain a connected, active member of a number of groups, including the Shoal of Art Meetup group, which I first got involved with a few years ago when I joined the Meetup group that usually meets at the National Gallery in London, and also for various portrait sessions likewise based in London.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, I am also writing an historical novel, and grateful for the daily discipline of joining the Writers’ Hour sessions at the London Writers Salon to aid my progress in that. Being connected with other artists, writers and creators online during this time has been a huge part of the reason I have rarely, if at all, felt lonely, and instead have remained upbeat, fulfilled – even excited – throughout lockdown.

So, here is a small sample of artworks I have created since lockdown began – mostly in order of creation from most recent to shortly after lockdown began in 2020, they include: various portrait and landscape sketches (charcoal, pastel, watercolour, pencil); watercolours, pastels and acrylic paintings of animals (birds, particularly, as well as some animal-themed banners and sashes I created for the HS2 Rebellion March in June 2020 [I have also made countless effective placards, some of which have been lost while en route to protests in London and elsewhere]); contour pen and pencil drawings of live and static models; a few autumn-themed acrylic, watercolour and mixed-media landscape paintings; and interpretative copies of works of known artists (Monet, Rembrandt, Matisse, Gauguin, Bonnard, etc) from the National Gallery and other sources. Most of the portrait sketches were 15–30 minute poses.

Sitter from the #draweachother sessions from the Wednesday night Meetup session led by John Pipal
My watercolour of professional model Sassetta in a recent Sunday afternoon Meetup session organised by Mark Lovelace
Christmas pomegranates – watercolour
Recent pencil sketch of Ana Lucia from the Wednesday #draweachother session; below, two views of a model in a similar session, watercolour and pastel
Pastel from a photo of my friend Gemma Rogers on a wintry local walk
Several sections of Monet’s Giverney paintings, above and below

From a Gauguin self-portrait
Pastel landscape, section of a painting by Bonnard (?)
From Rembrandt, Portrait of an Old Man
Two charcoal sketches focusing on aging; below, three pastel landscapes
A combination of a #30-daysketchbook challenge exercise and a National Gallery group focus on winter scenes
Above, Kingfisher – watercolour; left; colourful bird in South Carolina

Below: various images of sashes and placards I created to highlight specific species threatened by HS2 for the June 2020 HS2 Rebellion March

Charcoal – sketch from a black and white still
Above: two views of the same live professional model, both charcoal
Autumn tree, watercolour, from FB photo by Denise Hutchison
Pastel landscape, from my own photos
Above, two mixed-media autumn landscape paintings from Debra Collis’s WEA course
Watercolour 15-minute sketch of Debra Collis (not a great likeness, however); below, two acrylic paintings of a professional model
Above, two charcoal, pastel and pen countour drawings from a recent figurative drawing session
Two charcoal views of a professional model
Above: 1. copy in charcoal of a Bonnard (?) painting and 2. copy in pastel of a Matisse painting
Colour pencil combined portraits
Autumn landscape, London – watercolour
Above and below, sketches of live and stationary life-drawing models
Another section of a Monet Giverney painting – pastel
Pastel of George Floyd, shortly after his death in relation to the Black Lives Matter protest

I certainly have a long way to go yet in developing my skills, individual style and knowledge of various media; while I have been drawing and painting all my life (and only with a small amount of university, etc art training), I am unable to say whether much of the below constitutes improvement.

However, I do consider that, as God has given me some measure of natural talent and/or artistic ability, the only way I will ever really improve is through practice – and so I continue to do just that. Thank God for lockdown giving us the time and space to do it!