Let’s Gro- an Inspiration Festival

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A vegetable garden for everyone

Last summer,  I heard that Charles Eisenstein would be at Findhorn’s, ‘New Story Summit’ conference. At first I wanted to go, but the idea of attending a conference put me off. I’ve gone to similar gatherings only to experience a few intense days of inspiration, then being unable to maintain the ‘conference high’ back in familiar surroundings. The seemingly promising contacts also water down, and in a few months, I’m left wondering if I couldn’t have spent all that time and money more wisely.

From what I heard of the conference it sounded like I’m not the only one to resist this old way of orchestrating knowledge-sharing – despite positive feedback there were serious rumblings of rebellion and dissatisfaction throughout the week.

Mailing briefly with Charles after the conference, he understood my concerns, yet noted that this form of gathering was still precious in that it created a space where diverse people could meet and exchange experiences. But he, too, has been feeling the urge to explore more open-ended ways of doing this.

Well, last week I was very lucky to experience a fantastically successful alternative to the old conference form. And I didn’t have to go abroad to do so. I’m privileged to live just outside of Groningen- a culturally rich university town in the northernmost end of Holland. It has always been on the progressive side despite the Calvanistic influence, but now, things are really starting to hot up.

The Let’s Gro Inspiration Festival was a perfect platform for exploring transition. There were 122 events planned over 2 days in or around the centre of Groningen. The theme was ‘The future of the city Groningen’. All the events were geared to exploring alternatives to existing forms. The scope was huge: community greening initiatives, socially engaged art, repurposing buildings, recyling, upcycling, social work, new energy alternatives, rethinking transport in the city,exploring community in various forms, etc.

Here is a small selection of what was available to do, most of it free!

  • a masterclass in self organisation in the city, how to initiate citizen actions
  • a pop up restaurant using locally produced organic products
  • a talk about creating community green spaces by residents who did so successfully
  • a presentation on the ‘home of the future’ featuring new technology to enable the elder home-owner to remain at home longer
  • panels and events for young entrepreneurs in the creative industries
  • a guided tour around a garden started for low income families, to give them work and enable them to grow their own food
  • a ship container with a display of cradle to cradle projects, and a room where oyster mushrooms are being raised on coffee grounds collected from the huge Internal Revenue building’s restaurant.
  • a café run by volunteers, serving free meals, using only donated food slightly past hold by date, or surplus from restaurants and local farmers
  • a nature hike in the city’s green spaces
  • a vintage clothes swap event
  • a party for internationals- students and young entrepreneurs

There was music, dance, partying, art, theatre, film, and this water sculpture on the main market square. There were seminars on urban beekeeping, on providing a basis income for everyone, creative strategies for the city, safety in neighborhoods, sustainable entrepreneurship, a mini Maker’s Fair, and more.

What I loved about it was the free form way you could put together your own program. You could meet or not meet other people, you could choose where to linger, when to go, what to see, taste, hear, experience. The knowledge gained could be applied locally, which was the intention. And the people one met lived nearby enough, had enough common interests and networks to make keeping in touch realistic.

I attended several events on one day and though I didn’t come home on a conference high, I was quietly inspired and grounded in my neighborhood and in Groningen in a new way. Possibilities opened up I’d not been aware of before. This is truly a place where people are exploring new ways of building community together. There is so much going on!

As a result of contacts made there, I may be assisting a student project about social initiatives, and have since heard about some other socially engaged artists.

And speaking of community, I learned about the Community Lover’s guide to the Universe, which I hadn’t been aware of until now, were you?

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A radical and reckless act of faith

We still carry the old world’s conditioning- we want to rid ourselves of the burdensome habits of the old- not only do they no longer resonate with who we are and who we are becoming, but we recognize that trapped by those habits, we cannot help but create the world in their image.

To release the habits of separation is more than an issue of self-cultivation; it is also crucial to our effectiveness as activists, healers and changemakers.

Charles Eisenstein– ‘The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’

Elsewhere in his book, Eisenstein says that many individuals are discovering that the things they know how to get, they no longer want. This casual sentence has massive impact when translated into a life situation. It propels one into an identity crisis which, at first seems only work-related, but when followed all the way down, rocks the foundations of being.

When I, as an artist, am faced with questions of livelihood, the  issues no longer stop at, ‘Do I want to use my energy to uphold the old, money and status based gallery system’, vs., ‘Do I want to use my art in service to the community?’.They encompass the question of which story to I want to belong to and help create- the one of separation, competition and struggle, or the one Eisenstein calls, the Story of Interbeing which emphasizes the interrelatedness of all things.

I know how the old story works and what its structures are. I was successful within its framework and chose voluntarily to walk away from it. But I didn’t succeed in creating new sustainable forms in which to function as an artist whilst producing a viable income. (Eisenstein gives a bit of encouragement here by noting that those of us not working at converting nature into products and relationships into service, probably won’t be financially successful.)

Caught in the space between stories, much of my recent writing has been to explore the feelings of failure (old story) and renewed inner purpose (new story)  that seem alternately to battle for my attention. I’m trying to make sense of my choices, how some of them have empowered me, and others seem to have had the opposite effect. In certain company, I feel as if I don’t count, am talked over, ignored, and I feel invisible. Yet, in other contexts, I feel alive, powerful and on track. We need to ask ourselves what kind of values are we measuring our self worth against, and are they relevant to where and who we want to be?

Eisenstein points out that we cannot hold a deviant story alone, we need allies.

Books certainly help. ‘52 flowers that shook my world, a radical return to Earth’, by Charlotte du Cann, and ‘The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’, by Charles Eisenstein help because they are personal stories of individuals grappling with the transition from one story to another. Not as an abstract concept, but in life-shaking, crisis making, and identity threatening ways.

Eisenstein’s book doesn’t document his personal journey as much as du Cann’s book does hers, but the former is extremely helpful for bringing clarity and compassion to the process.

Du Cann forces you to travel with her into uncomfortable places, and she is still angry. Both books carry power enough to fuel one’s own tipping process if one is ripe for it.

Reading of du Cann’s ‘time of ashes’, was particularly enlightening for me. I experienced a similar ‘fall’, from being a privileged child and successful professional, to finding oneself in a world where one is alienated, demeaned,and invisible.

Du Cann found out that there can be a terrible catch in walking away from privilege and success. You may slip their trappings, but by putting yourself outside their influences, you remove yourself, too, from the power and credibility they bestow- forces which could help you more easily achieving your new goals.

But these are only problems in the old context. In the process she describes, of coming to terms with humiliation and powerlessness of being treated as a lesser member of society,, an alchemy took place.

Her book may be  about intimate communication with the plant kingdoms, and activist journalism, but above all it is about finding one’s personal power and identity outside the old systems. And reuniting with the part of oneself who is and always has been on purpose, not alone, and deeply rooted in nature.

This knowledge is not easily gained and costs everything. Both du Cann and Eisenstein speak about the need to traverse real despair to get to the other side where hope is- not a naive hope in some new age visionary promise, but a hope deeply rooted radical consciousness change and in small hands-on, acts.

It is hard living in both stories. Eisenstein acknowledges this repeatedly- it is lonely holding the new story alone especially when consensus reality says you are crazy or stupid to do so.

As an artist, I’ve progressively realized that exhibiting not only is a goal I no longer believe in, but one that actually negates the things I do stand for. But that continuing to make work still brings up old conditioning- ie, it is stacking up here, so it must not be – I must not be good enough. So underneath the powerful conviction that selling art in the old ways is not my path, there is still the niggling closet entrepreneur (plus the entire society) reinforcing the idea that if I can’t earn with my best efforts, I have failed.

I think that this kind of split is unavoidable in a time of transition. Until there is some kind of new vessel to channel my creative energy where there is also a flow of return, or until there is a working gift economy, these questions will always remain.

Neither Eisenstein  nor du Cann have arrived at some perfect place of resolution. They are both still in process and transition, thank goodness! If they keep documenting their journey with the same passion and honesty they’ve shown so far, they will continue to provide me and others with at least the coordinates of this new land where we find ourselves. Where nothing I originally wanted or was trained for seems to make sense anymore, and both moving forward and holding still require a most radical, reckless act of faith.

There is a time to act, and a time to wait, to listen, to observe. Then, understanding and clarity can grow. From understanding and clarity action arises that is purposeful, firm and powerful.

Charles Eisenstein,The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’

Into the tipping machine

I’m deep into Charlotte du Cann’s, ’52 Flowers that shook my world, a radical return to Earth’. So far, it is a good and unsettling book- makes you think:

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, in the light of this book, looking at my own life, what is working what isn’t.

On another track, but related: In an attempt to come off my extreme anti-marketing position and try to work with the channels available, I had a gallery owner here looking at my oil paintings. He liked the work, but it isn’t unique enough, and I myself don’t carry enough of a reputation to enhance the gallery’s ambiance.

I realise that if, at this stage, I want to show my work, I would need to put a huge amount of time and effort to building up an image of my art and myself as desirable and exclusive. Unless, of course, as I did when I first came here, I  go around to libraries and community centres, and frame, hang and show the work for free, then take it all home again- having supplied them nice no-charge wall decorations for a month. the path of exhibiting in galleries, as I felt, is not tenable for me.

Then this: recently I read an article about the new transition type art- mostly shamanistic, conceptual, often with a social message relating to shifting paradigms. And realised that my art isn’t directly about that either!

And while I was digesting this, my husband showed me a wonderful article by the director of a Dutch bank working with alternative values. The author was taking a look at transition and associated terms- the ‘tipping points, the cultural creatives, economy transformers, paradigm shift’ etc. He was asking if these new buzz concepts didn’t leave behind some valuable things. He said that there are certainly things in the  ‘old’ paradigm worth holding onto- but to voice that is a new taboo because, ‘everything has to change-  it all has to go into the tipping-machine’.

My neighbours are just normal people. They take care of the old and ill in the street, work in the community gardens, keep the local billiard club going- they just do these things naturally. They don’t sign petitions for women’s rights in the Middle east, they just do the shopping for the woman next door. They don’t know that you can lease a recycled pair of jeans, but they hardly ever waste things because ‘that would be a shame’. They don’t start a social media community, but they do volunteer work for their community centre.

They like nice, good things- the garden, children, friendship and warmth. And they work together for the benefit of their school, street and billiard club.

All of this completely ‘person-centred’ and ‘sustainable’.

Do they even know that?

Jeroen Jansen Director of the ASN Bank

It is what I keep coming back to: being here fully. Taking time to do the things that need doing well, caring for the home, the garden and others.

And the questions about where my art does or doesn’t fit in aren’t really the relevant ones, though I admit that matters of recognition and success still come up as a result of  being a professional artist all my life.  But I sense that my answers don’t lie with identifying too much with either the transition community or the ‘old’ career ways, but with sending roots down into myself, anchoring in my own story, as well as the local area.

And as far as my painting goes, it is, like Tai Chi, my discipline; it is something I can go  deeper into every day forever, and be led to layers of discovery and insight. It is where I come up against myself, and am lifted above myself at the same time. Du Cann emphasises internals. Questions of success and recognition, or having a visible task, of standing out either here or in the transition community are externals and all depend on validation from outside.  How do we validate ourselves inside? seems to be the task at hand.

Cultural evening

this is a continuation of ‘Funny old thing, Transition’.

So how does a person in transition- I don’t have a job, I’m not engaged in any projects now, I make art but don’t sell it in galleries or the internet, I’m writing a book that is hard to describe about art’s intrinsic worth, I don’t have any career goals – how do I profile myself in a network gathering?

You might ask, ‘Why even go to such a thing? ‘, good question!!  Well, part of my intent in getting out of my little world here and taking part in projects like the re-purposing of the school, was inspired by Bert Mulder’s contribution to the excellent book, ‘Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in times of change’. He exhorted us artists to stop whining about being on the fringes, and instead, make an effort to claim our place at policy making tables; communicate clearly with other disciplines; and stand up for our worth as professionals in culture. It is good advice.

We were asked to bring publicity for ourselves in the form of folders etc to lay on a table. I agonised over that- what, after all did I have to sell? I finally put together a folder with 2 questions on the front:1  How is making art relevant in the face of huge, insolvable global problems;  2 If art is a gift and not a commodity, how can an artist survive in a market economy?'(the well known Lewis Hyde quote slightly shortened).

Inside I mentioned past work in the arts, design, etc. And spoke briefly about my philosophy of being an artist in transition in a time when new narratives are needed etc.I ended by listing the kinds of projects I’d like to collaborate on.

The centre spread was a collection of recent oil paintings oil pastels and calligraphy.

That felt good and honest.

Rende and I got all dressed up and came into cocktail hour setting of a room full of artists, restaurant and B&B owners, gallery owners, local politicians, etc. There were people we knew and in all it was a mildly companionable evening with on or two a few new connections.

My feeling at the end was slightly let down and more than anything, uninspired.

This was a gathering of people with something to sell. Basically, small business owners, many of whom knew each other, drinking a glass of wine and doing some hobnobbing and networking. Everyone there was concerned about profiling their business, and not really interested in others except in terms of furthering their own causes. There was one person who is involved in a great community building project, but he is an artist turned hard-nosed businessman out of necessity, and our conversation was broken off when a politician butted in and my friend turned his attention to the obviously more profitable contact.

It was an utterly unstimulating and uninspiring gathering.

I guess this is a side of transition we have to face – taking part in groups with no interest in or knowledge of the wider picture. I will keep going to these kinds of evenings because there are some people I like, and because even though I don’t have an elevator speech (and don’t intend to!) I belong to this local community. To get anything accomplished, I have to be seen to be part of it, and in my own way let people know what my skills are.

6 months later:  Scratch that last paragraph, I don’t have to put myself through those kinds of  things anymore. I’ve reached the conclusion that this kind of ‘networking ‘is fruitless. And was I ever delighted to find confirmation in Austin Keon’s excellent , ‘Show your work’, when he says:

It is actually true that life is all about ‘who you know’. But who you know is largely dependent on who you are and what you do…’Connections don’t mean shit’, says record producer Steve Albini. ‘I’ve never had any connections that weren’t a natural outgrowth of …what I was doing anyway.’ Albini laments how many people waste time and energy trying to make connections instead of getting good at what they do, when ‘being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.’

Amen!

The heart of the machine

Once I had an unrequited love and I suffered fittingly. It took 2 years from the time I decided to stop the involvement,to finally be free of it.

I woke up every day of the first months in all consuming emotional pain, with no idea how or if it would ever end.

Looking back on that process, I see that the only way I got over it was to develop into another person. To try to change from within the paradigm which caused the problem in the first place was useless. No act of will could take away the hurt. I did everything I could to help myself get over it- introspection, keeping away from him, dream work, meaningful personal rituals- they all helped. By increments. But it was time and personal growth which changed me and ultimately freed me from the obsession.

Now I can recognise a similar situation coming from a mile away, and I am more aware of the danger. And though I’m not immune, I’ve changed in ways that  make me less prone to recreating those types of situations.

I believe that some of the same principles can be applied to larger change processes, which are in essence matters of consciousness change. Many of us are now awake to the worldwide systems collapse taking place economically, environmentally and otherwise.

There is a huge groundswell of counter movements at grass roots level building alternatives to the inefficient mess so much of the world is in today. There are slow food and organic movements, a growing interest in permaculture, Earthships, non- traditional arts, new models for education, medicine, and community. In short, everything which is sustainable, resilient, clean and harmonious, as opposed to the corrupt, soulless, and violent society we’re living in.

It is tempting to refer to all that is wrong with the world as  ‘Empire’, and I’m hearing the term increasingly. But I feel it is useless to be against anything because a stance against, creates ‘other’. And that violates the principle of oneness/interconnectedness upon which the new emerging paradigm is based.

I recently read a post by Vanessa at Vivid questioning the point of activism if we were acting against the very systems we work for and gain our sustenance from. We all use and depend on technology for everything from social contact to making art. She saw no way out of this dilemma inside the precepts of the existing paradigm.

Like my healing process years ago, it is rather a matter of slow development out of being the type of person who is totally(unconsciously)  interdependently entwined with the existing system, to someone representing and building a new alternative.

This is a process, a slow process. As Jeppe says,in the meantime, we need to learn to live in the heart of the machine- he doesn’t say in the brain, or bowels of the machine, but the heart.

I think that a great thing for us to do would be to become the heart of the  machine. We are already doing it, by being aware that we need to change our internal environment first. I know some peace activists, for example, who are constantly at war with everyone around them. So we need to heal our shadows as much as we can so we don’t project them onto the ‘other’. And this peace and friendliness radiates out onto our relationships, we create stable, kind, inclusive bonds. And these reflect out onto our communities and so on.

From there we plant our gardens, create our rituals, help plan programs to heal our communities, write our articles, have our gatherings, create beauty , healing, renewal, together.

It is a cliché, but we can, we must become the change we want to see. When do our views inadvertently cancel someone else’s out, when do we act superior, when do we provoke conflict? I see the need to evolve into the kind of person who carries honesty tempered with kindness, peace as well as critical analysis, willingness to engage to balance my resistance in getting involved.

It is work, it is grace, it is slow, it can happen in a blink.

You meet him (her) on the street, and say hi, and it is clean, free, and clear-  you walk on.

Art holding time, new companions on the journey

Art holds time like a vase  Oil pastel and calligraphy collage

Art holds time as a vase  holds water  (Ben Okri)   Oil pastel and calligraphy collage

As I’ve mentioned before, here and at my other blog, artcalling, I’ve recently stumbled by grace into a web of connections which makes sense to me and supports what l I believe in.

My journey away from the established art world started decades ago, but ‘where to now?’ was always the pressing question. Among colleagues who urged me to exhibit even though I no longer believed in the gallery system, friends who urged me to ‘make more of those and sell them’, and countless other coaches and mentors who all agreed that I could ‘succeed’ if I would only do more to promote myself; not one person truly understood that the ladder they were urging me to climb was up against the wrong wall.

And anyway, I wasn’t the least bit interested in climbing, I wanted to walk in the sunshine with friends of my heart, and do my soul’s work in community. Somehow that just didn’t fit the business plan, nor did it have a price tag.

All of us who have long sensed the old world collapsing, yet had no intimation of what the new might be, have at some point realised that we were alone. In the company of others still functioning in the operating paradigm, the isolation was complete, at least for me. It was not only physical, but spiritual and emotional and psychological. And the self doubt at finding oneself an outsider when one only wanted connection, was at times paralysing.

So, as Cat wrote in  her introduction to my guest post, when we begin to find each other –

Thrill and relief spill over at the renewed discovery of not being alone, of finding unexpected others who can listen deeply to us in the place between stories, because they are somewhere that is like that themselves.

One common thread in most of the new connections I’ve made over the last 3 months has been ‘Dark Mountain’. I want to write about it because I’ve spent a lot of time at various sites and am in conversation with several people involved with this…what can you call it, not a movement, not a form, but let’s say – a crucible for loosely holding a multitude of transitions and visions. A place where creators of all kinds can acknowledge the shifting grounds of their disciplines, themselves and the world, express it, and connect with others asking similar questions.

I’ve been profoundly nourished by what I’ve read. And rather than try to express it in my own words just now, I strongly recommend starting with Jeppe’s post about Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation festivals, the last one of which was held in Wales in August. If you stay with what he has expressed so eloquently (it is a long post, but rich in content and meaning), and go back and follow some of the links, a new story will emerge, and you will be able to understand what so many worldwide are starting to get a glimpse of; and by writing, making, centring, transitioning, gardening, tending, gathering, nurturing, building, conversing-  together are birthing.

Here is a teaser from Jeppe’s site:

During the last two years I have been exploring Dark Mountain partly in the capacity of being a researcher. The conversations and mutual reflections I have found myself involved in have taken me far and wide in search of some way of answering a question: “how do sustainability narratives shape lifeworlds within grassroots innovations?” I see now an almost beautiful naïvety about my question – in the implicit assumption of change-the-narrative-change-experience – but through the contours of the conversations I have had I also see the beginnings of an answer. (And I see a deeper value in the naïvety because it was not just an unquestioning naïvety but a sincere and foolish naïvety.) The trouble with the answer is that it involves leaving behind the frames of reference in which the question was formulated (for a while I thought that was a problem but it really is just the way that paradox holds the key to a transformation in viewpoint). Rather than ‘changing worldview’ by applying a new story with a different set of assumptions to the world, we begin to relate differently to the world by deepening and establishing new relationships with its multitude of inhabitants. Then we can begin to hear what stories they have to tell and practice giving voice to a different kind of story altogether.

Start anywhere, follow it everywhere

One of the key concepts revealed in the visits to 7 communities by the Walk Out Walk On authors is the power of small individual actions to radiate out and change large systems.

Starting anywhere and following it everywhere is illustrated best, I think, in the chapter on Joubert Park, South Africa – during apartheid, a lush, sequestered recreation area for whites. When apartheid ended, things changed.

After decades of being prohibited by apartheid from living in the city center, in the 1990s blacks from all over South Africa and beyond migrate to Johannesburg seeking opportunity. With the city’s train station nearby, Joubert Park is the first port of entry for new arrivals in Johannesburg.

The change is sudden and dramatic, bringing a surge of crime, homelessness, prostitution and drugs.

In this park, shootings, HIV and homelessness ruled. It is still a derelict area in many places, but not all. Here is what happened.

The first small act

Photographers, seeking their livelihood realized that people wouldn’t come to have their pictures taken if the park wasn’t safe. They formed a small band of neighbourhood crime watchers- nabbing muggers and sending photos of stabbings to the police. Their efforts led to a reduction of crime and the possibility of children being able to play safely in certain areas of the park.

Day care centre

Most of the preschool children in this area, for safety,  spend their days in the inner spaces of the tenements. Several women took the initiative to create a day care centre in the park-  Lapeng Day Care, the first ever child development centre for black children.
But caring for 65 children daily wasn’t sufficient to create a systemic shift in the welfare of local families. The Lapeng team started to invite parents to participate more actively in the care of the children, offering them courses in math, literacy, science etc. Teenagers began to drop by to teach the younger children simple math and art. This initiaive grew into the Lapeng Family and Childhood center.

The arts

Originating in the belief in the powerful effect the arts have in building self-esteem and in connecting youth to their culture, the Ziyabuya Festival, a celebration of indigenous culture and arts was born. And this was followed by the establishment in 2002 of the Creative Inner City Initiative (CICI) to give inner city youth the chance to express through the arts, to build the capacity of local artists, and to connect them in the trust that these networks would create a local web of support. This has been successful.

Mathibedi Nthite, one of the Lapeng team who helped launch CICI noticed how many parents at Lapeng had arrived from rural areas and yearned to be able to grow their own food to feed their families. This need was recognised by others and the GreenHouse project was born.

The GreenHouse Project

Claiming land on which to grow crops, repurposing derelict structures- this project , too began with small hands on actions. It was started with the conviction that people once knew how to grow their own food, build their own houses, deal with their own waste. It is based on an holistic approach to environmentally friendly city living.  The aim is to empower people so they know they already have the knowledge they need to survive and thrive. Food is grown which also feeds the day care centre and school, there are learning projects in sustainable building and agriculture, there are compost toilets in the buildings, as well as a recycling centre.

Thriving network of organisations

Now in Joubert park there is a thriving network of organisations, including what we have just named as well as a Youth Empowerment Network, Neighborhood network, a Public Art Project.

It started with the small act of photographers figuring out how to secure their livelihood. As the park became more secure, people’s attention turned toward the children; with day care established, people could focus on the parents; as the parents learned to read and obtain employment, attention shifted toward the youth. And so on. No one planned this process. The professional problem solvers would hardly have recommended that a start up child care centre begin teaching adults mathematics, or that a ragtag band of entrepreneurial photographers become the catalyst for system wide transformation.

Nonetheless, a conversation that began among a few men led to a level of collective engagement that would transform Joubert Park from resignation and despair to hope and possibility.

This is the pattern of systems change: We act locally, inside the intricacies of a place. We achieve success in one area, and then we notice where to pay attention next.

 

Sorry this is so long, I didn’t want to break it up into parts. This story is such an inspiring example of how to approach a situation, even as dire as this, in terms of possibility rather than problem solving.

My next questions will concern how I/we, in our own comparatively well off lives, can apply the wisdom gained from this story.