Bakewell, that small town in the Derbyshire Dales famous for its tarts which are in fact puddings, is approximately 24 miles from Macclesfield. Take the back roads via Flash and Longnor and you can add a further six or seven miles to the journey. It should take around three hours to get to Bakewell by bike. I say should, because I have never completed the journey, this despite several attempts. These repeated and ‘unsuccessful’ trips have not left me feeling anxious, mildly depressed or to chiding myself with one of those phrases, an all too common part of my youthful vocabulary: “can do better”, “should try harder”, “not good enough”, and the one word that lurked behind them all, failure. As a young man I had hoped that these words, applied like a whip, would drive me on to greater success. They did not. My ‘failure’, a word that now strikes me as anachronistic, to reach Bakewell has not lead to a loss of self-esteem. May I long not get to Bakewell.
In not getting to Bakewell; I always get side tracked by the particular lure of some lane, some single track, dipping down, turning fast. What’s hidden down there… I wonder? And off I go. A road runs along a ridge, a valley appears, looks green, looks promising. Perhaps it’s the village stranded in the mid distance? The needle of a church spire? There must be a road and the fact that I can’t see one makes it all the more appealing. Mystery? I cycle on but not for long. A side road appears more or less in the same direction as the village, the one I must now reach… on my way to Bakewell.
The village I discover is called Hollinsclough. Hollinsclough has a fine old school with an unusual tower. It also has a chapel, the inscription above which reads 1801. There is a red phone box, still working, no pub, no village shop, two roads. Of the latter one goes to Longnor the other falls off to the left. The road to Longnor is wide, freshly mettled and straight. It has all the attributes the other does not. I say ‘other’ because the other does not announce its destination. Too narrow for white lines, it disappears off to the left behind the old school house. Normally I would find this the more appealing of the two. But on this occasion, and I cannot say why, I find myself taking the one to Longnor. The road runs level before slipping gently downward. Freewheeling I straighten my back, plunge my hands into my pockets. There is something seditious and slightly undignified about a man in his 50’s riding a bike without hands. Not something you would want to be seen doing in grown up company. But there is no one around, no cars, no midweek hikers. I make the most of it and zig-zag my way between the white lines. The sun is shining and a warm breeze pushes up the valley, pushes up from Longnor, all the way from Bakewell. I do not know if this is the best way to Bakewell. Or even the right way. Certainly it is not the fastest. Which begs the question; what is the right way? the best way? Is it by time? by condition of the road? by safety? by scenery? by a combination of some or all of the above? by some pre-ordained route called ‘should’? Whatever it is, I am on my way.
Since leaving the ridge with its views of Chrome Hill, I have been on the edge of being lost. This ‘edge’ brings with it a sense of aliveness. The aliveness is infused with excitement. One road leads to another. In these sudden and unexpected moments of praxis the world takes on a preternatural intensity. The edge sits somewhere between paralysing self-doubt and exhilaration. I have learned by trail and error that when in doubt it is best not to give in to the mistake of attempting the internal retracing of our steps. That backward and uncertain glance is in my experience usually met with fear and with fear doubt, which is all too easily nurtured. In the moment of turning inwards, we unwittingly uncouple ourselves from our surroundings and in doing so become lost to ourselves.
In my country lane meanderings am I being that ‘idle man’ that flâneur who Baudelaire described as the “habitual loafer’, the "gentleman stroller,” with too much time on his hands? Or am I being the kind of flâneur which the French Situationalist Philosopher Guy Debora described as a person who: ‘lets themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’? Or is it Balzac’s, ‘flâneur as artist’, someone who uses his art to explore the world and in doing so is able to see it anew? It is this last which I believe best describes my not getting to Bakewell, a delicate and nuanced form of navigation, one which relies not on maps and fixed points of reference, but a willingness to engage in our surroundings and in doing so be in relationship with mystery. The result of these unexpected moments, if allowed to arise, give birth to a renewed sense of aliveness, vigour and discovery.
For the flâneur the getting to ‘there’ is not the be-all and end-all* With the goal removed as an all-consuming project or passion—an idée fixe, there is no longer any need for an overriding push to ‘put things right’. The judgement which accompanies any push – how well or badly are we doing made redundant, frees us from the anxiety and stress of failure. Our journey effectively cleared of that emotional fog, in the form of the self-critical editor that clouds right action, or any action, we are able to see things clearly which, in turn leads us back to the journey’s mystery. Mystery can only be enjoyed in the enjoining.
With the red herrings of ‘must,’ ‘should’ and ‘need’ removed any resistance to what is, or what is not happening, disappears. ‘Flaneurie’ demands of the ‘artist-flaneur’ something that comes close to a neutral curiosity. Trusting the process and not our educated head, enables us to inhabit the beginners mind: it provides us with space to be curious, open and delighted. Here is Annie Dillard’s edge, how to find it and in the delight, ‘the strength to climb it.’ **
To flâneur is to open ourselves up to an invitation to travel ‘somewhere,’ to have an experience that changes the way we sees things and in doing so change our lives. The road does not promise any guaranteed destination; it is not a means to an end. The road in itself at that moment is an unfolding of all that there is. One road unfolds effortlessly, one into another. Which road do you take? There appears to be choices. There could be confusion, with confusion doubt. Unless you allow yourself to be open to the flirtation, in which case there is no choice other than choosing the road that ‘chooses’ you. In the end the art of flâneurie like any artistic endeavour is an act of faith in that unfolding process which accompanies movement.
For the ‘artist-flâneur’ where too next is only reached in that moment when next is reached. All the information we need held in the moment. There is no need to bring in more information, for there is ‘no shortage’ of information. Any more would be excess to requirement and likely to lead to unnecessary confusion. In the moment of trusting that there is ‘enough’ there is no push, no shove, no my way, no my will be done, no need for correction. This is effortless effort. It is joyous, effortless effort. This is the art of the flâneur, the art of the poet, the jazz musician and, we hope, the art of the therapist. It is that necessary art for all of us intent on exploring relationships that are life giving, that nurture curiosity, that give rise to excitement and with it a love of mystery. For Baudelaire the artist-flâneur was: ‘The lover of life [who] makes the whole world his family.’
* 1605; fr Shakespeare's Macbeth, ''That but this blow Might be the be all, and the end all.’'
** How to set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it? Annie Dillard, The Writers Life
The major sticking point for many people in relationships is the belief that there is a problem that needs fixing, either with themselves or more often than not with their partner.
This mistaken belief leads to arguments* and recrimination. Unable to fix ourselves or the other at some point we tell ourselves that that is just how they/we are and the argument that cannot be resolved is best avoided. We create no go areas within the relationship in the hope that this will lead to fewer arguments. In doing so we rob our relationship of its ability to hold the full expression of who we are as a couple and as individuals. As the relationship grows colder our passion and energy for one another begins to die and with it the ability to maintain a healthy and vibrant relationship. Expansion and joy are replaced by feelings of claustrophobia and boredom. Rather than an expression of who we are the relationship transforms itself into an expression of who we are not. When this happens it is only a matter of time before we begin to look outside the relationship for the freedom, joy and vitality that we crave.
In attempting to fix ourselves or the other what we are really trying to do is make our relationship safe, to fit some preconceived idea, no matter how vague, of what the relationship should look like and how the other partner needs to behave in order to make that happen. All too often arguments are seen as road blocks to our creating the ideal relationship. Rather than nurturing the relationship and allowing it grow at its own pace and develop its unique and distinctive shape we restrict it with rules and fill it with unfulfilled expectations.
When we are free of the mistaken belief that someone needs fixing we are free to see arguments* for what they are; an essential part of a healthy relationship. Arguments provide the nexus through which the relationship can grow. Our ability to resolve them provides the relationship with the permission and safety to expand our compassion and empathy for one another, and in doing so create a new sense of closeness.
* Arguments - we include everything from the heated slanging match to silent resentments, things left unspoken, that find their true voice in how couples behave with each other.
My wife and I are addicted to the Netflix series Chefs Table. Each of the six episodes features a world renowned chef. The dishes are exquisite, many are improbably complex, all extraordinary: and yet… six months later there are only two that we now remember. The first, Massimo Bottura's, ‘Oops! I dropped the lemon tart*,’ is a delightful combination of mistake (the tart quite literally dropped) and improvisational genius; once dropped Bottura repeated the process and reframed it as a ‘work of art’. The second, Enrique Olvera’s Mole Madre is strictly speaking, not a dish but the ubiquitous Mexican sauce, ‘mole’ with a twist. While both chef’s share a flair for the improvisational it is Olvera’s Mole Madre that breaks almost every conventional culinary code; defying rather than defining what we would expect from a Michelin star restaurant. The Mole Madre you taste on a Tuesday will not be the Mole Madre you taste on a Wednesday. It is I realise, a recipe without a recipe; a metaphor for growing and nurturing ‘daring’ relationships.
Mole Madre has no prescribed palette of ingredients to choose from. The one rule is that they are indigenous and locally produced. The dishes success relies not on the chefs ability to follow the recipe but to follow the dish. With Mole Madre the traditional role of chef, that of architect and builder, is transformed into something that resembles that of a guardian. ’’The only thing we know’, says Olvera, ‘is that the seasons and the mole’s attitude on the day in question are going to determine the preparation.” As such Mole Madre reframes the relationship between chef and dish. To those of us who are used to following the formula and getting ‘it’ right this might look like a recipe for chaos. However a closer look reveals that Mole Madre has its own language.
Viewed through the lens of second-generation cybernetics, Mole Madre provides us with a useful metaphor as to how relationships change and grow in ways that are both unexpected and endlessly surprising. Mole Madre is a relational dish, recursive in nature and enfolded within an infinite number of recursive systems that are at once autonomous and related.
Mole Madre is a relationship between what might ordinarily be viewed and therefore defined as autonomous systems: the raw ingredients, the regions climatic changes, geography, socioeconomic history and the chef no longer exists. The emergent dish, cannot be traced back to a single controlling source.
Like the best of relationships, the ones that feed us and help us to grow as individuals and as a couple, Mole Madre does not strive for consistency, or change for change sake. Nor is it some ‘thing’ to be controlled and shaped but rather to be respected as a living entity. It is at once independent and dependent of those responsible for its ongoing development. “I think,” says Olvera, “it’s beautiful to have something that we have nurtured for these past few years and will continue to nurture in the years to come. It’s like a tree branching out in many directions we could never have imagined.”
Mole Madre’s main ingredient is corn and when I hear Olvera speak about that most humble of Mexican ingredients I am struck, not so much by Olvera’s culinary expertise, but by his sense of awe and wonderment. For Olvera, corn, of which Mexico has over 50 different indigenous varieties, is far more than a staple ingredient, it is a sociological roadmap to Mexico’s past and its future: the history of corn is intricately and inseparably intwined with Mexico’s culture and people. Olvera is in love with corn, in love with its unfolding mystery. And it is in this quality of listening, one filled with respect and reverence that allows the Mole Madre to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Held within an ecological context, rather than a culinary context, Mole Madre looks both infinitely vast and infinitely small. It’s continuing development and maturation embodies the greatest and most daring adventures of all. Daring because mystery cannot be reduced into a theory with its constituent parts. Loving because relationships, offer no guarantees, they unfold in the cooking and refuse to be explained.
* Brent J. Atkinson Ph.D. Anthony W. Heath. Ph.D
Further thoughts on Second-Order Family Therapy
Family Process Vol. 29, June, 1990
‘I have a theory that theories are destructive.’ Carl Whitaker
Despite Carl Whitaker’s iconic status, and his success in challenging psychological orthodoxies, nearly half a century later we find ourselves no less mired in theory.
For many, theory and increasingly formula, in the guise of theory, offers the hope of a prescribed way out of the uncertainty and anxiety of a disintegrating relationship. That we should find ourselves reaching for such formulaic devices is not surprising. In times of increased anxiety our natural inclination is to crave peace through the safety of the known.
However if the theologian Bonhoeffer is to be believed, we are unlikely to reach peace through safety; for peace, says Bonhoeffer requires, ‘the opposite of security [and is] itself the great venture and can never be safe.’ As a family therapist, Carl Whitaker like Bonhoeffer, was committed to the cessation of war with ‘another.’ Whitaker while widely admired for the efficacy of his work was a maverick. It was this embracing of the unconventional that lead the family therapist Salvador Minuchin to describe Whitaker’s approach to family therapy as ‘dazzlingly creative’, and ‘unpredictable.’ Which is to say unteachable.
Unfortunately today, as in the 1960’s, most therapeutic modalities are, to a lesser or greater degree, taught, copied, repeated and held in a way that robs them of their original vitality. In other words they lack the vital spirit of adventure that would have them bring any real and meaningful change. The result in its most brittle and dead(ly) iteration, the formula, usually takes the form of painting by numbers: seven ways to, nine steps to… Which surely explains, if not in its entirety at least in part, the woeful state of therapy and its ability to improve the lives of others.
If then, the formula’s promise of the ‘known’ and by inference the ‘safe’ will not save the relationship, will not take it and us toward a peaceful and loving relationship, what if anything will? Are we to simply cross our fingers and hope that somehow things will work out for the best?
The good news is there is a recipe to peace and with it the cessation of war with another. Unlike the formula, this recipe requires us to step out from under the safety of theory and into mystery.
This stepping out is an invitation to travel somewhere we have never been before and in doing we open ourselves up to an experience that changes our lives. I say ‘our lives’ because the recipe requires the active participation of both. The relational dance, if it is to provide any meaningful change, cannot be choreographed. In a meaningful relationship no two dances are ever the same.
The degree to which we can embrace and hold a loving relationship with mystery determines the extent to which the relationship can grow and change. When this happens we give ourselves permission to move from being good partners to loving partners. In doing so we embark on that loving relationship, one which is in Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘‘itself the great venture and can never be safe.’