Relationality of rest

Learning from the sick

By Justine Maxelon

This text is written as a stream of thoughts following three different personas of the writer: the past self, the present self and the oracle self. The oracle self is the voice of the writer as part of a collective practice. The text elaborates on how sickness of oneself and the caring of and working with sick collaborators can teach us lessons about how to incorporate rest in our ways of working. It claims that rest is never only an individual desision, but asks for collective responsibility.

present voice

past voice

oracle voice

I’m currently forced to rest. Corona. After two years of trying not to get it, it finally got me. My sick body has to slow down and allows me to dwell on rest: on periods of rest in the past, the present and on rest in becoming.

Last year, while preparing the rest event for SOTA, I was writing my reflections on rest while forced to rest due to a health emergency as well. Somehow sickness and rest seem intertwined with me: Am I allowing myself only to rest when I’m forced to rest?

I’m currently forced to rest, while working on the upcoming almanac session on rest. A strange, almost comical situation, but maybe a blessing as well.
This change in my health condition appeared suddenly. There was nothing in place that could take care of this unplanned emergency in a communal way; I needed to be my own guardian of rest – often failing and sometimes getting angry at my colleagues, but ultimately at myself for pushing myself beyond my current abilities. How could we organise work so there is always room for sudden changes?
My mind goes wandering in different directions with a body required to be still. Thoughts fluctuate. The stress of the preparation is partly lifted from my shoulders. Not because there are suddenly other people that can jump in and take over. No. I simply can’t do more than I can now. I try, but i fail. My health situation confronts me with limitations, and all I can do is to be in negotiation with them. Working with ‘the sudden’ occurred, allowing ‘this sudden’ to change the outcome. ‘A sudden’ that brings a sudden calmness of mind. What does this have to do with my horizontal body position?

It brings me back to a period where working with our sick collaborator taught us a lot about sustainable working methods, collaborations and subsequently also about rest. For five years, oracle was working with and accompanying their terminally ill co-founder, colleague and friend, Michel Yang. While there was an external rhythm to be followed, we knew that this rhythm needed to adapt to present needs and possibilities. Changes from one day to another were not uncommon. Carefully planned events and presentations might have been rendered ‘useless’ just a few hours before, due to the sudden non-presence of our colleague. Our work was and is not about sickness – it’s about improvisation among other things – but we had to learn to work with sickness, following periods of work and rest as they came, or finding ways to work restfully. And there working with improvisation, a practice that sharpens the ability to respond to unknown factors in a framed setting, can be a source of inspiration. Within oracle, the body was unavoidable. A body that was unpredictable, always in improvisation. How to work with this uncertainty in a spontaneous, yet responsible way? Yes, we questioned that. I don’t want to say that we found the answer, but we practiced; practiced and improvised together. Maybe that’s part of an answer.

How could we have planned for the uncertain collectively, as SOTA, before the uncertain happened? How can we recognise ourselves as beings with varying, unpredictable limitations over time and let this unknown parameter guide our planning? My health condition is whispering in my ear, asking me, again and again: Can you work, yet rest at the same time? Can work ultimately be restful as well? I’m finding myself in a self-imposed experiment: Preparing a rest-event in a restful manner. It will be different than initially imagined, but it will be.

It was hard in moments and painful and often work landed unforeseen on someone’s shoulder, creating stress. But we practiced and stayed in this messy trouble together. We learned to prepare for the uncertain, the sudden, the spontaneous. Not in a way that we could predict the future. No, oracles are known to leave ambiguous prophecies. But we didn’t take the future and our plans as stable entities that could be predicted and had to be followed as envisoned all the time. Did this mean less planning or more? I can’t tell you. You’ll have to find out for yourself. In any way, our mind was set on allowing for change, even when painful.

Rest is often not taken because we don’t want to let our colleagues down or put additional stress on them, or we feel we can’t adapt our commitments and engagements as we fear the consequences. Though inside, we feel a desperate need for rest. What structures would we need to create to allow for moments of rest when needed and not only when unavoidable?
Collaboration is a great resource to learn from, shared responsibility theoretically leaves room for uncertainty. Hold on, does it really? Collaboration alone not; and definitely not all collaborations do. It matters how those collaborations work; how one works to make those collaborations work. Care is moving into my vision, into my thought vision, bringing me back to the past oracular years…

Going on a residency, we had to make sure there is always a bed or a place to rest in the workspace, so that rest would be possible whenever it’s needed. We learned to incorporate rest in our work schedules, by this I don’t necessarily mean lying down and seemingly ‘doing nothing’. No, quite the opposite sometimes, but we rested in making sure that joy, slowness, celebration and healing were present while working. To ensure this, we went on three monthly retreats to care for ourselves, our practice and our ecology, but also to allow the practice to care for us.

I never wanted to prepare this event on rest in the first place. From the beginning, I knew I’m too busy in January to do it well. “We only need someone who takes the contract for now, and then we’ll find someone else or do it as a bigger group”. As it turned out, there was no bigger group to be found, and my preparation-colleagues had very busy schedules as well. All of a sudden, I found myself in a commitment I knew I didn’t want to take. Was it on me to say “no”, knowing the prediction to find a bigger group will probably be unrealistic. Subsequently meaning also what we say to each other is not to be trusted? While interested in rest, rest started to feel heavy. What went wrong here? Time pressure? For sure. Following an external rhythm without listening to our group and our individual rhythms? Yes. Overworking as our normal modus operandi? Also. We forgot to hold still for a moment, listen, really listen, and re-consider. We forgot to plan for the uncertain. How often do we find ourselves in similar situations?

Healing didn’t happen in the sense that Michel survived, but in the sense that we realised how we want to work. To be honest, without her with us anymore, it’s not easy to follow what we discovered: We bounce against many structural problems and cultural habits. Also the time where I could work solely on oracle is long gone by now.

Now, my reality is many different projects and collaborations; one day this one, the next day another one. In each project, the amount of people involved varies as well as the way of working. Even when most projects are aware of or deal with care, fair practice and sustainable work, it still requires adaptations to those different project ecologies. Adaptation needs time. This time is often not given or, let’s say, the in-between is not taken seriously – structurally, culturally and also personally.

I could have said “no” many times. Now, I definitely can with the privilege (it feels like this to me) that comes with the artist status, but I didn’t. Now, I’m starting to. I don’t know where this will lead me or what the outcome will be. But I know that my “No’s” won’t be sufficient alone. Individual rest seems not enough in our entangled web of commitment and modern lives; and the past has proven that it often wasn’t an individual decision to be made alone. To give space in our ecologies for rest; to give rest a purpose on it’s own, we need to think of it collectively, collaboratively. Rest as a communal effort.

oracle is a body-voice improvisation practice reading diverse spaces. It interacts with these surroundings through instant sound and movement composition and expands the boundaries between individual emotional expressions and shared public space. The practice can offer space for grief, angst, doubts, ancestral or unconscious knowledge; making audible what usually remains hidden, but is nevertheless carried in the voice. oracle was created by Caroline Daish (BE/AU), Justine Maxelon (BE/DE) and Michel Yang (BE/US) in 2015 as a need to collaborate, vocalise and heal. Michel passed away in August 2020, accompanied by oracle, friends and family.*