‘The lone and level sands stretch far away’ – Percy Bysshe Shelley

As days drag into months there is a relentless nature to 2020. For me, escaping that experience involves a rediscovery and recreation of my boundaries.

We had barely escaped the summer bushfires and their hunt of climate crisis when the pandemic surfaced. The pandemic led to ever tighter lockdowns, economic upheaval and working from home. It also provoked a series of mini crises, projects and responses. On top of these challenges we have had cause to reflect on devastating illness and death, racism, poverty and discrimination of many kinds. Meanwhile here and around the world our discourse and community began to feel fractured. 2020 has become a year of relentless shocks and relentless doing in a state of relentless liminality. This environment tires the soul.

Liminality exists because boundaries exist. As I have noted before 2020 has drawn some boundaries ever so close. It has also drawn into starker relief two boundaries that I consider less often.

Between Doing and Agency

I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

Tess Gallagher, from Choices

We do a lot. However not all of our doing is our choice of goal, approach, team or timing.

Agency is how we demonstrate and realise our potential. Not everyone has the privilege of making choices. In a year full of consequences, having choices without consequences has been a rare luxury. However it a luxury that feeds the soul.

I have leaned into writing in new ways, reading poetry and other small acts of creation to clarify the realms of agency. At the same time I have embraced the idea of needful work. Doing that is neither needful, a purposeful contribution to others, nor an exercise of my agency must be questioned. Work for distraction’s sake is a temptation in bleak times but contributes rather than relieves pressure.

Focusing on purpose and agency has been helpful. Seeing more clearly the boundary between mere doing and what I choose is a key way to shape a new boundary in the uncertainty and relentless efforts.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear that you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
—But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.

Joseph Brodsky, from 1 January 1965

Between Doing and Being

Reflecting on agency has also led me to reflect on the boundary between doing and being. The smaller and more pressured my world in 2020, the more urgent has been the need to have presence in it for me and for others.

Our busy busy lives can mean being gets lost in the day-to-day. We can distract from work doing and other doing like exercise, reading or more. We need to recreate the space to just be. One benefit of the restrictions of Melbourne’s lockdown has been time to walk each day. I have used that time to get out of my house and my head, appreciate my world within 5 kms and move to more presence.

Always on, always working and always connected presents challenges for us to find the boundary between doing and being. We need to treasure this boundary and find time to uncloud the mind. Just as agency helps realise our potential so does the clarity of who we are that comes with presence.

So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.

Edna St Vincent Millay

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