What mushrooms can teach us
Musings from a writing workshop
During a recent summer writing workshop at GenWise, I had the opportunity to work alongside some exceptionally talented, remarkably grounded and profoundly influential teachers. I'll write about those interactions separately because it's genuinely worth sharing.
Summer programs have that special ingredient where people we don't know, we've never met and perhaps will never meet again become part of our lives in a manner where we draw on those memories for comfort or succour years later.
Today though, I'm writing about mushrooms, and no, I'm not referring to the magical kind. Ah! Perhaps the thought has already occurred, and you are thinking, "but that's an odd topic to write about after a writing workshop." Well, everything is connected to everything in this world.
During the writing workshop, I took my group of students on different writing excursions. I specifically chose these locales for how they lend themselves to building connections, especially with oneself. Considering there are no material or artificial distractions, I'd call it the perfect setting for anyone who wants to simply meander into their innermost thoughts, slow down and allow the warmth of their thoughts and feelings to soak into any stiffness built up over the years. I'm yet to hear from a student that this approach simply did not work! We consistently arrive at the aha moment when they put pen to paper.
So why mushrooms of all things, you wonder?
When we began, the depression in the Bay brought on some torrential rains. Some parts of our excursion actually happened during these rainy days. Our paths were always laden with these beautiful, almost spectral stairways of mushrooms when we set off. During one of our coffee conversations, when I shared with my colleague how fascinating these finds of mushrooms were, she said, "very recently, where I live, the tar road was split into two, and we thought some old tree was trying to assert its presence, but it was mycelium when we looked closer. Perhaps, a preexisting crack in the road helped the spores find a way to make the most of the moisture within. Just thinking about the pure white mycelium against black tar wants me to break into poetry.
In fact, one of the first signs of life after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (1945) was a mushroom: the matsutake. The most expensive and odorous mushroom in the world.
To me, mushrooms are about building connections. If we observe them, we get to see and understand how they use their network to survive, and it isn't just for that moment, but it's something that's worked for millions of years.
The technique of connection.
There are some profound life lessons in how they behave and thrive alongside other species. About 90% of vascular plants have a symbiotic mushroom partner, and as a human species, I'm not sure we can claim that type of a symbiotic relationship with any other species, let alone ourselves.
To me, we are here because of connections. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The ability to feel connected is neurobiological. We are wired that way, so there is no escaping what we are naturally programmed to do, I think.
At some level, I wanted to see if this capacity for connections can be upended when a pandemic tsunamis its way into our lives. The answer was a resounding NO. We have such immense capacity for connections that it's just staggering, to say the least.
So during this workshop, I wanted my students to explore their limitless capacity for connections, something we are already programmed for. Typically, when I ask people to write about love, they write about something else like lack of love or trying to find someone or something they truly love. IF I ask, they explore resilience, they tend to write about adversity; about community and I get isolation.
Having done this for some time now, I framed my ask differently.
Since my students have been learning online, spending unimaginable amounts of time on screens, and building friendships in a metaverse where the only things making connections were backend servers, I asked my young writers to look inwards, and so began these walks, conversations and tinkerings with sound, silence and stillness.
They reaffirmed my faith in the limitless human capacity for connections, especially with ourselves.
Here's what we took away from our long mushroom laden walks:
Find a good source
In the mushroom world, finding the appropriate source of water is crucial. Fungi need an adequate water source to propagate, so the first thing spores do, like plants, is drill wells with their mycelium.
In the world of writing, setting up shop very early in one's life; sometimes, as early as when you are ten makes all the difference in the world. Because building an acute sense of the world requires clarity and a truly perceptive vision. Good writers find the right sources to replenish their fount time and again. Do you have a source?
Be ready to move
While there are no wheels or feet in the mushroom world, they cast their spores to the wind and start living where conditions are more favourable. But notice too that mushrooms remain still, and the stillness is rewarded.
In the world of writing, movement and stillness are like counterweights. You cannot have one and ignore the other. If stillness unnerves you, then you need to make space for it. If you are rooted in something for far too long, you need to pry at the roots to move and find more resources. Do you need stillness or movement?
Change your diet
If mushrooms don't find sufficient nutrients, they tend to relocate.
Change your writing diet if you stagnate as a writer or don't know where to begin. Switch to a whole lot of unrelated things. Read. Go on long walks. Talk to absolute strangers. Read.
Steer clear of flood zones
In the mushroom world, while water is crucial, too much of it causes devastation. They are wise to locate themselves in places where those occurrences are rare.
In the writing world, it's just so easy to be flooded with things. Books piling on the desk; ones that you bought in the hopes of reading but never did; distractions on the screen; a world of social media that carries you away into so many different worlds and away from your writing. It's easy to be inundated with distractions, but place yourself where these opportunities are rare or best absent.
Be open to vulnerability
Mushrooms are the most resilient yet the most vulnerable. They've lived on for millions of years, and with each passing generation, we've known their capacity to feed us, heal us, provide us with psychedelic experiences, and even kill us.
Open yourself up to vulnerability. There is no shame in it. Yes, it will mean others will see you warts n all. They'll learn you are not perfect, but that will lead to authenticity. As a writer, authenticity is what your reader hopes to find, hoping to connect with your text, with you and inevitably with themselves.
Here's something that one of my students had to say:
Initially, while writing, I was just skimming. No details at all, but now I write with an acute sense for details, and my writing is more intricate. I've leant to observe and stay still, and I can now connect the real world and the imagined one—between the inanimate and the animated.
As I watched the intricate world of mushrooms unravel every day, I saw my young writers opening up to others, to themselves and to me. They became the embodiment of togetherness.
All our relationships are wired for deep and lasting togetherness, for connectedness. Like a soothing chant, it echoes and reverberates inside us all.
When we step away from it, we turn towards a certain numbness. The numbness percolates to so many other aspects of our lives--how we are with each other, our children, our colleagues, and the world around us.
I'll end with what Prof. Brene Brown said, "To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee — and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive." And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough"… then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves."
I hope you will write and find yourself as you do!