Florets #5: fast and slow

by Clara Potter-Sweet

i.

I have been measuring time by the deconstruction of things. Events only come to pass when material splits down under my hands. 

This means:

1. collage - I cut paper into shapes and then I stick it. I cut up an old calendar with a different Klimt print for each month. I make birthday cards from paper wrappings.

2. compost - I pick up the secateurs and I cut branches cross-section into discs. I take the cardboard box that my vegetables arrived in, and I cut these down into little triangles. The triangles all get scrunched up. These things will decay and become compost, ground-food, which I will put on the garden to grow vegetables. I will then cut up the vegetables for cooking: see below. 

3. dinner: I empty the vegetable drawer and cube, slice, dice and otherwise reduce them down into a meal. Seeds, leaves, flowers, and roots fall apart under my killing knife.

This breaking down gets me thinking about the exchange rate. I have been living at home these last six months. The place I have been putting my time is into feeding my mum and cleaning our space, and she converts that nourishment into energy, empathy. She gives that to her therapy clients in exchange for money, which pays for the groceries, and then I cook her dinner again. Weird loop. 

‘I should have kept a diary!’, she keeps saying, as if every time it hits her new. As if we’re out of the woods, and the point of recording is lost. 

fast: the speed at which the government were able to house most unhoused people when they tried

slow: the speed at which my brain takes it upon itself to form ideas, stew, percolate 

Unable to escape either my house or closed diurnal loop - I notice tempo. Specifically, I notice the pause. The window into the other reality. The grinding to a halt of a system that likes to tell us there’s no alternative. The opportunity to come up on stage and peer behind the curtains, yelling: hey! there’s nobody here! The Wizard stepping out from behind, just a man after all. 

I’m someone who really functions well with pause. It is the moments that I stop where I find my brain kicking into gear. Waiting for the kettle to boil, or staring vacantly in the mirror, or sewing, stabbing needle into fabric over and over again. It’s like I have to distract myself from thinking to get anywhere. 

Now, for the first time, I am learning to grow things. It is giving me such a sense of power and progress, and it is another kind of stopping that allows me to think. But beyond that, I am caring for something and it will care for me in time - seed to shoot to stem to plant to flower to fruit. All that stuff I read at school in Paradise Lost about ‘stewardship of the land’ starts to come into focus: a void of care, and an understanding that the objects I throw away continue to exist when they leave the boundary of my front door. Out of dead time, I found myself nurturing new life. 

This doesn’t mean the empty period did me good, but it did give me space. This sabbatical year. 

ii.

fast: my racing mind at night keeping me awake, and from the necessary processing of dream state

slow: my body in the mornings, unmoored from its timetable

In the pause, white noise subsiding, I heard the voices that I had never paid enough attention before. Ones that have long been shut out of my limited worldview, historically marginalised. In the tumble of intense domesticity, composting, the carless streets, it seemed that reckonings were rising out of the tarmac. All across the board: the fight against white supremacy, for climate justice, for basic income, for precarious workers’ rights. Rifts ongoing in the background coming to the fore as they anchor onto the bigger crisis for visibility, momentum. Ceaseless conversation about how to change, create better, fail fewer people. Stuck in the immediate but dreaming forward. Stuck at home cutting down bits of cardboard into smaller bits of cardboard, hoping hard that we might change the world. 

Maddy Costa’s WTF Next was one such online conversation. At this point, my brain was very full of online conversations. Head like a word processor. Lots of squiggly lines underneath what everyone was saying. But one thing makes it through: one week, under the heading Time, Pace, Pause, artist Toni-Dee Paul gave everyone present an invitation to stop

In Toni’s welcome to the group, she said many enlightening things about accessing the world as someone who is ‘unwell often’ and suffers fatigue. I could replace this whole text with a link to hers, because it chimed so deeply with what I’m feeling about this time of living and this time of working. Everyone in the breakout room said exactly the same thing and couldn’t tell Toni enough how it had tapped into something. What stuck with me most was a phrase that comes from Toni via artist Selina Thompson: ‘how things built quickly are easy to dismantle’. The speed of online response says act now or be complicit - my brain, my reflexes, my modes, work far slower. 

How deeply these tempos structure us. Without the man behind the curtain keeping everything ticking over, I have had more listless time than ever before - but I have had more brain space to consider where justice is lacking. To understand that my listlessness is a privilege, and to work out what I want to do about that. 

Part of that understanding meant actively pursuing the long-term. Because for every extra hour I was sitting in bed with my laptop, hearing things, I was out in the garden, tending things. In the predictable space of the green, I could process all the listening. I grew, alongside my new projects. I had the sense of things changing out there, in the world - somewhere I no longer lived - but I had a way to formalise it into something I could hold, touch, move around.

Avocados take 5-10 years to fruit, and might never produce any at all. ‘A commitment to the future’, I write to a friend over WhatsApp. Daily routines of bringing my plants inside and out, rotating them around sun spots, looking up best watering techniques. By the end of summer, they might all be failures. That magic is well-known to those who produce our food for us year after year; here I am, dumb to their years of learned physical knowledge. 

Power always comes out of the wall when I plug in my phone and yet I am astonished by the generous power of life to create and re-create itself. It is a beauty to behold that seed-saving is an anti-capitalist miracle; those who sell you heirloom seeds tell you not to come back next year, they’re yours for life. I put on suncream and find myself thinking about the garden’s health: rain today, the flowers will have a drink; sun today, they will grow big and tall. 

I read about industrial agriculture (Big Ag), about the soil drying. I re-pot my seedlings, even though all my research tells me that because I’ve planted them from supermarket produce, their ‘self-destruct’ gene means they won’t fruit a second time around. It’s a profitable model that doesn’t look too far ahead into food scarcity and land erosion.

I start to wonder what is beyond the long and short. A theatre piece I made with my collaborator Ben is about mushroom hunting and draws on a beautiful book by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing about foraging for wild matsutake. There is much there about looking ‘around rather than ahead’ , the things you notice when you scan the forest floor side to side instead of marching straight on. 

Another echo: I remember this idea from queer theorist Annamarie Jagose about failure and ‘belatedness’ being key components of queer existence. Reading her a few years ago, I wondered about a time that moved ‘sideways’ instead of forwards or backwards. It falls in line with the conceptual standpoint in her book Inconsequence; outside of locked-in heterosexual past/present/future progressions, we might find a kind of sideways time that welcomes tangents, slow development, small failures. I find myself unthinkingly using it in messages to friends now. Over and over again: my day went sideways sorry! What a sideways time this is. Sorry, just feeling kind of sideways.

iii.

fast:

and slow: the ways i am controlling my body tempo, two cups of coffee for morning and afternoon bursts, cans of beer or short glass tumblers of wine to support wind down

Then August. In the space of one week, I go from empty time to everything moving at once. I have been stasis - living in the house where I grew up, projects on hold. Now I am pivoting industry, flat-hunting, job interviews on video call where I fill the moments of lag with a strange laugh that doesn’t sound like my own. I’m moving out of my childhood home. My cat dies. I take to panic-scrolling through LinkedIn, of all places. I have to push this deadline back, unable to write about slowness and space in their sudden absences. They belong to a different time, an upside down summer break.

In their place: immediate priorities wash back. The laptop tasks pile up. I’m halfway through three things that are all unfinished and I can’t sleep until they’re done. The slow of before was terrible in its aimlessness - but the spaciousness was delightful. I listen to a Spotify playlist entitled Expansion Pack #1, trying to re-find the air in the room. Each moment full of its own dimensions, of choice. 

We have felt, in our bodies and our bellies, long dormant seismic rhythms resurfacing. Both peaceful and violent: the seasonality of growing things, but also the shutdown of the global health crisis. All solutions are short-term: we must build slowly, lest we build something easily dismantled.

The bit that comes after those lyrics in Talking Head’s Once in a Lifetime, the version from the American Utopia tour in 2019: ‘Here comes the twister now. Here it comes. Here it comes.’

In the end, for all my deconstructions, I was making things new. Here, I risk sounding like every middle-class person with a social media profile and a pot of soil, but it works for me. It works its magic on me. I have never nurtured something from start to end that was so tangible and rewarding. When I make performance, I must invite in a photographer or maybe the show will never have happened at all. But every morning I water the tomatoes, check on the chillis, and they’re a little taller, stretching a little further skywards. The first flower brings a rush of anticipation, the first fruit a sudden reverse intel, seeing that object I recognise in a plastic punnet slowly take shape on the vine. 

I am not special - I am seeing many people experience the same rush. Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube has been writing about food and growing (her Twitter handle is currently ‘im a farmer now’, which, incredible). Food writer Rebecca May Johnson wrote a few months ago that 'The earth is a platform at which I stare for hours ... Dopamine release is triggered when small green shoots pop up in response to my activities, a vital feedback loop.'

The key ingredient in these new constructions? To paraphrase my friend Anna, time. I didn’t start growing things from access to teaching or change in means - I found a packet of seeds handed out as a freebie by a juice company, where they had been languishing in my jacket pocket since November. I had the luck, existed at the right time in the world, to catch the long view.