What’s next? Everything.

Being in the ‘place between’ stories can get (too?) comfortable.

Place between stories

Place between stories

After several years of discomfort and kicking the constant quest for meaning and recognition via one’s profession, something settled. My life led me gently back to basics, and fulfilment came from simply doing things that came naturally. Walking, gardening, drawing and painting, writing, cooking, tending the home and relationships. That was all going on when I was focused on my work as well, but it was my work which established my rhythms, and now it is the day itself, the earth’s cycles, and my body.

The long periods of deep uninterrupted focus needed to progress on my book resulted in new insights and excitement as previously unrelated areas began to reach out across ideological space and contact each other. The book is also an excavation of sorts, and I am undertsanding better where I’ve arrived and how I got here.

In the meantime, I joined a neighborhood traffic action group and worked with them for 2 years. Our successes led to the town council wanting to work with us, and now several of us are involved with plans to take what we’ve learned to other villages. Added to our weekly meetings are also planning meetings with the municipality.

Then one of the people I was working with on that project is involved in a regional version of Let’s Gro, an alternative festival held in Groningen. I went to the first meeting for ‘Let’s Win'(short for Winsum, a largish town close by) and suddenly found myself in a group where for once, I wasn’t the only one interested in transition, and alternative forms of art and community building. It was just amazing, inspiring, and the dynamic of the meeting captured my imagination, highlighted my research on my book, and also let me see what my contribution could be as far as facilitating more creative approaches in a number of areas.

So, oops, I have another project to be committed to. All of a sudden, I can’t just take off on my Pieterpad walks, but have to schedule them between ….meetings! My life is suddenly full of meetings! And more responsibility! Is this truly the direction I wanted to move in?

One aspect of the place between is that while you are waiting for what’s next, the possibilities seem endless. I guess one reluctance is that when things start to take form again, I have to make choices, and all of a sudden things get narrowed down again.

So I’m thinking about these things now. It seems that this social engagement is a natural outgrowth of having pulled back out of society for several years. I now feel called to share some of the things that have become clear. And I definitely want to collaborate. So these needs are being filled by the path my life is taking at present. But I am reluctant to let go of the long easy (well,not always) days of doing what I want when I want, and having time to really listen and reflect.


Let’s Gro- an Inspiration Festival


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?

2 books of hope and promise

I’ve just finished two books within days of each other, which have left me reeling. It was good to read them together- Charles Eisenstein’s, ‘The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’, and Charlotte du Cann’s, ’52 flowers that shook my world, a radical return to Earth’.

I read them as a reader, but also as a writer, feeling the discomfort of my own unborn book prowling around the edges of my consciousness, prodding weak spots in my defences, looking for a way out-  while I look for a way in.

When I received these books several weeks ago, on my 64th birthday, I held them both in my hands feeling hope and promise. I chose them because I sensed they would tell me something I needed to know, that taking the journey with both these writers, I would be brought to a new level in my own understanding. I was hoping their passages would give me the courage to set out on my own journey back to my true heart. And they have.

What struck me most about these two writers was how true their discoveries rang for me. And that this truth was a product of them both having navigated one or more difficult periods, falls from professional acclaim, periods of invisibility, loneliness, directionlessness, and humility. And that neither of them have arrived at some perfect all-knowing condition where they will tell us what to do. They both have been hurt and both still have issues to work out. Their travel reports don’t chart the territory that  I have to navigate, but they tell me I’m on the right journey and it is ok that right now I’m walking in a land with no signposts.

It seems that the books we are getting and perhaps need most now are by real people, asking the same questions that are on  our minds, but asking them from a new perspective. Not theoretical, but rooted in a hard won knowing of their place in the world and in their own internal landscape. And that this is perhaps their greatest gift, that they have faced down obstacles of low self worth, isolation, criticism, to emerge whole with a story to tell. A story that can help each of us do the same.

I know I haven’t gone into the subject matter of either of these books in this post, that is for another time. These two books’ gifts to me were of two very different people and their journeys to find their own truth. And their compassion and clarity in describing the movements of their innermost hearts lights the way for me as well.

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.

Leadership and helping part 3 – From heroes to hosts

Leaders, from Heroes to Hosts

From ‘Walk Out, Walk On’:

Leaders in some of America’s largest institutions are changing how they lead. They’ve given up take-charge, heroic leadership, choosing instead to engage members of their community in difficult social issues…

The Art of Hosting is a philosophy, including a number of tools which host a variety of conversational processes used to resolve conflicts, develop strategy, analyse issues, and develop actions. People are invited to work together on what really matters to them, and in doing so they will own it and take responsibility for it.

One of the reasons this approach works so well is that when a leader eventually leaves the project, rather than it collapsing for want of a strong, charismatic focal point, it continues because it has a base among the participants. Let’s look at this in practice:

Columbus, like any major city, is a collection of institutions locked in hierarchy and politics trying to do useful work…the institutions and problems that leaders in Columbus took on: hunger, healthcare, homelessness, law enforcement and more- were huge, seemingly intractable problems encased in giant immovable bureaucracies.

Like ‘start anywhere, follow it everywhere’, the leaders didn’t start by trying to tackle the entire system, instead, they started small and invited people to come together to explore a good question.

And rather than focusing on curing a problem, in this case, ‘How do we change the poor healthcare system in our city?’, they asked,’What should be the purpose of the health care you want and need for this city and its future’. This was discussed in a 120 person (including representatives of all stakeholders)  world café (a conversational tool of Art of Hosting where small groups around tables discuss a point then rotate to other tables through the room, so that at the end, many discussions in many groups have taken place).

The existing system is built on illness management. The central conclusion from the world café was,’We want optimal health’.  The conversation moved from troubleshooting to how can we produce wellness in our communities. And how can we make this a personal responsibility.

The program which emerged was called ‘Our optimal Health’, and residents, healthcare workers etc in each of several counties were invited to explore ideas around a new and different system. Some of the initiatives which grew out of these meetings were:

  1. In Clintonville, residents set up a parallel health system consisting of small local modules, each containing 5 doctors and 5 nurses.
  2.  Also in Clintonville, a number of Health Block initiatives are being explored, instead of a crime watch, you have a health watch where neighbours pay attention to each other’s well being.- they might invite each other to join a walking club, or spread the word about yoga classes, check on seniors and home-bound residents, recruit local dentists to provide free care for neighbours who can’t afford it, or enroll volunteers to transport people in need to medical appointments.

These people aren’t waiting for the government to do it. They are ‘Changing the national conversation by experimenting locally and inviting others into the conversation’.

…Leaders learn to trust that everyone has gifts to offer, and that most people want to work on behalf of something greater than themselves. Leaders and those they work with take on large-scale, intractable problems and discover they are capable of solving them.

In future posts I’ll be reflecting on how these ideas are affecting how I think about my role as a teacher, as well as a participant in local change. Your thoughts on how you lead or teach are welcome.

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.