“Once, there was a city that was 3 towns, it lay between the Plum Tree River and the mighty dark Tamar. Born on the Southern Farm down by the Sound, it had grown and grown, and perhaps because of its mighty Sound, or perhaps because it had grown and grown, it had sent adventurers out across the oceans, to conquer the peoples and resources it found, and been destroyed over and over, from the Bretons who burnt it, to the bombs which blitzed it.
Mighty power it had and it had lost, over and over, through the ages, through dealing in the wool and minerals from the nearby Dartmoor, to the slaves from far off distant places, the creation of munitions, and folk who weren’t afraid to use them, and all the while it grew and it grew….
Till one day the Janners* awoke, as if from a dream, and they looked about them
And saw great unemployment, rising fuel bills, changing weather, and they knew; it was their time now, time to do something,
At first they looked about their great beloved city, wounds and all, and knew they loved it dearly. Then they felt the enormity of their task, overwhelmed they did the things we all do when the task is great and we cannot see the way forward, some tried to do too much all at once, others seemed to do very little, and sometimes they quarrelled. Time went by and then they began to realise; change starts small, and it grows and it grows, like Sutton became Plymouth. Heartened, they looked around for a small place to start, and found …themselves.”
I visited the great south western city of Plymouth just before the Winter Solstice, a visit I have been looking forward to. I have been curious to observe my relationship with this settlement of 250,000 people change over the years that I have know it through its proximity to Totnes. I began with, I think, a commonly held view in Totnes that it was not a pleasant place to visit; it is large, sprawling, its rows of houses can be seen on the hillsides long before you enter the city, and its centre is sixties concrete and clone shops. It juxtaposes the ancient streets of Totnes with its specialist local shops and population of just 9000.
It didn’t let go of me though, this historic maritime city, with its natural harbour, the Sound, the famous Hoe where once Sir Francis Drake played boules till it was time to face the Armada, and the quaintly preserved old Barbican. The oddly incongruous Merchant’s House, the one ancient building still standing in the city centre, would draw me time and time again, calling me to understand a thing I did not yet see.
And then, my being unaccustomed to arriving there by car, when I entered the city by another way the day my partner came to visit and we looked for a place to leave his car, I saw something that woke me up. As we walked the lower, town ward, side of the Hoe, to gain the high place where the Sound is fully visible, stretching out before the city like its luminous aquamarine, sometimes stormy, moody steel grey skirts, we came across a sight that shocked; for those of you who don’t know this city well, you may not know of the War Memorial, nor of its immensity.
I certainly had not known, its white walls stand with no compromise; you cannot see it and not be drawn, with that strangely morbid fascination, that need to know the terrible truth, of what happened to our ancestors, not so very long ago. We walked, my partner and I, around those walls, and read from them the names carved there, of all those who died in the two world wars of the last century; strange it seems to be writing that, just 10 years on from the twentieth century, but so it is, we are in a new age. What is so striking about this, I hear you ask, doesn’t many a town and city have such a memorial, and yes, I reply, for sure they do, but this great white edifice took us almost an hour to read, so many they were that died in defence of our country, died for what, died for whom? For their city alone? I think not. The prejudice of a lifetime lifted from me in that moment; I put myself in the shoes of those long dead ancestors, and the sense of duty, the pain, and the horror they must have experienced, and I grieved. I grieved for the things we are driven to do, in the belief it is the only thing possible at the time, and I grieved too for the city on the Plum Tree River, and what it had lost.
Not just fathers, grandfathers, sons, and lovers, it lost its very heart; in the blitzing of the docks the ancient buildings of this settlement’s centre too were almost all lost, razed to the ground, and I recall my father and his sister’s fear of fireworks, and the half told, half too fearful to be mentioned, tales of the terror of hearing the bombing of Manchester, the hiding, the powerlessness, the utter desolation of the land they called home being facelessly attacked.
After the grief, for me came pain, the pain of having rejected an entity because of its dressing, without acknowledging the wound, and hurt, below. How deeply, deeply this belief sits engrained upon our very being, to feel repulsed by the outward signs of that which is hurt; from the bloody mucous stained bandage on the soldier’s body, to the layers of quick fix emergency post war buildings, and the rejection of those psychologically wounded by their experiences, labelled as “difficult people”, their desperate cries for help seen as something to run from, to block out, to exclude, and in extreme cases, to lock up and punish.
For me my love of Plymouth started there, at the moment when I really saw the cause of the dressing I could not stomach, I saw the life that had ceased to flow smoothly in this place, for it was wounded, battle scarred…but it was not dead. It was alive, and its very soul called out to me to help, to redeem it, to give it voice, so that in the naming of its pain it might be healed. To this day I feel this calling, and every cell in my body responds, as a mother would to a child, as any of us can, when any piece of our common shared organism, the earth and all who dwell in and on her, is hurt and needs attention.
It echoes through me as I write, the rightness of what I feel moved to write, the need to name the wounds, so that we might heal. Not just the battle scars that manifest in post war emergency buildings, but the social consequences, the families brought up in such homes, by parents psychologically scarred by generations now of unnamed fear; the victim-aggressor pattern playing out over and over, in an endless cycle of repeated pain and shame, the un naming of their pain perpetuating their suffering, their symptoms punished, and their innate wisdom dying unheard and lost to us all.
We transition not if we are unable to heal our wounded; if we leave them to fester, or amputate them, we ourselves become wounded. We cannot get there by awareness of what we do to the planet, and to protect our creature comforts alone. We cannot transition without a deeply felt acknowledgement of the pain, the hurt, the wounds, which we have gathered on the way. There is a crucial piece to this great movement we are in that should not be forgotten; it lies in the honouring of the wisdom of all who live, and their contribution to the whole, however unskilful or unsightly they may currently seem to us.
I came then, yesterday, to the city of Plymouth, by invitation, to tell stories and play a game. Small things those, I feel this thought may be floating out there amongst some of you. How can stories and a game be great things when there are Big Things to address? And my response again, it is by beginning with ourselves that we make a difference, and nobody expects a seed to be a tree overnight, oaks don’t get to be oaks through any sense of urgency, a fine wine doesn’t mature in a year or two, nobody expects their four year old child to be planning strategy and worrying about the future. We know that deeply valuable precious things take time, need nurturing, and yet, why do we, as adults, feel so often compelled to act out of a sense of urgency?
My question here is if we are acting out of a sense of urgency, are we really taking the time to be sure we are taking with us all that we need? Stories connect us; to our past, to our present, and to our future. Without them we are nothing. Games teach us how it is out there in the real world; teach us how we are in relation to that world, and how we are in relationship with others.
I came then to play the Quest, it’s an interactive community game, we start out as individuals and we choose our skills, then we become aware of others around us and form a community, and then we gather resources. Pretty soon challenges arise and we have to meet them, using our shared skills and resources. Sometimes we find we cannot get there alone and we go out to visit our neighbouring communities and see if we can learn new skills from them in exchange for teaching ours, and sometimes we agree to share resources like land, and exchange finite resources for what we need to make our community sustainable. Sometimes too we find that working together with our neighbouring communities we can have an even richer and more fulfilling life.
It mirrors life, this game, and it is always fascinating to watch the groups form and begin to work together and the different flavours of the solutions, all of them deeply practical, caring, inclusive, and deeply thought through, considered, negotiated, and how every voice is heard and recognised for what it brings. The rules are few; the law of two feet, and that you cannot trade if both do not gain equally. The rest is implicit in the structure of the game, first everyone is equal, all have three skills, chosen with passion, then the community forms, and only then are resources chosen, together, and with agreement of all. Any other rules are made up as we go along and the group suggest them. We avoid the temptation to go for “the magic porridge pot” solutions, and remain within the magic of what the power of community can achieve.
Some groups placed themselves firmly in the realm of the concrete; I heard one refer to Stonehouse, one of the city’s three towns. Others placed themselves on the Scilly Isles, finding it easier to work from an area they could clearly define. A question arose from another group, what about the indigenous peoples there? But no, the group had chosen to work with the image of an island only, to explore the territory of what was possible within that scenario, to help them to work within boundaries that were clear, to help them see clearly, for as many living in a city context of transition, the question of where boundaries lie is a challenge in itself, the edges are blurry and can easily distract from the task of focussing inward first in order to be able to be outward facing with an identity, so as not to become subsumed and lost; overwhelmed.
One of the groups had come up with a solution to reclaim the Plym, but were also aware that if they allowed it to regain its natural fertile floodplain, on which they could perhaps grow rice they would flood the railway line! The river valleys in this region are famous for their fruit growing, the Tamar Valley strawberries renowned across the SW, and the plums from whence the Plym won its name. To reclaim the river valley feel s crucial somehow, and here we begin to see that not only did great things came of our ancestors’ endeavours, but we can see the mistakes they made too, in their belief that resources were infinite and that to do things quickly is a always a good thing. Where would they have built the railway, I wonder, if they had really stopped to think things through, from all perspectives? What lessons might we learn from this; in our situation today, where we act out of a belief that there is little time and act out of a sense of urgency?
A discussion ensued, at the end of our game playing, about the role of agriculture, it started with a resource they had missed, there was no “bull” card in the game pack, and it opened out into a permaculture or agriculture debate. Probably, we need both, at least in a transition period. On the subject of resources another card that will be added to the Quest, thanks to the input of Transition Plymouth, is “bees” and Sue read from the Transition page of Positive News the tale of the community owned bee hives in Sustainable Bungay.
Sue had another contribution to make too, she had brought pannaforte; a most delicious sweet made of cocoa and nuts in a sort of toffee and candied peel cake. I had heard from organiser Janice Lyons that Transition Plymouth had celebrated its now strong core group with a traditional food feast where they had hunted out mediaeval recipes and prepared them, candying their own peel for the pannaforte, and ate frumety, corn cooked for hours and hours till it is mushy with a sweet jelly at the bottom.
If the warmth of relationship and the delicacies they brought to the Transition Tales event were anything to go by they must have had a truly delicious time. I ate homebaked warmed mince pies, and the tastiest, moistest fresh home baked scones I have ever eaten, spread with the best jam I have ever tried, blackberry from last autumn “picked from reaching over the back fence”.
I am asked if I’d like to take a pot of homemade jam home with me & am thrilled when I discover it is the still almost full pot of that very same blackberry jam. With promises to send me the recipe for pannaforte, and the description of frumety still whirring in my mind I pile into Janice’s tiny car with 4 others and we head off to the station, almost as packed as a South American vehicle, though we don’t have anyone hanging off the fender.
In the train heading home I realise that frumety must be like the corn desserts traditionally eaten in Brazil at the festas juninas (June Parties); harvest time. I realise other things too, the gift it is to be invited to meet each and every transition group that I have; how much I learn about what transition is, every time I hear a story, play the Quest, have a conversation, listen to the questions. This time has been no different. Dave Lyons, of Transition Haddingham in Buckinghamshire, old Plymothian, down to visit his mum, invites me to tell stories at their two years old party in January and says how hard it is nowadays to find a Transition Network speaker. He says something else, which has been on my mind too
“How do you get Heart & Soul into Transition?”
It delights me, to hear this question, spoken by one who is honest and open about his part in this enquiry.
“We have a heart and soul woman, in our group” he says, “she’s like a second mum to me” but all the same, because Dave is, by his own admission, quite focus driven, and he initiated the group, and because the several other male members are also focus driven, the heart and soul voice rarely gets heard. The woman holding this role finds it difficult for a space to be made in which to speak. Dave’s question to Transition – what tools are there to help groups with this? For me this question hits home on many a level. I answer Dave as pragmatically as I have an answer for; that we have, as a result of a recent creative collaboration, brought together a working group of facilitators to create a series of new courses on Groups, and how they work. I ask Dave if he thinks his group would like to pilot one and he answers in the affirmative.
The question has me thinking closer to home too, often finding myself as a heart and soul representative in a focus driven environment when I am at work. This is not to say that I cannot be focus driven too, I can, and very much so, but that comes for me, at least in a Transition context, after having ensured that other things are attended to first, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past, to hide the wounded under the carpet, to be trodden on and hurt still further. I can answer this question from a personal level, I know it from my years of experience of teaching multi cultural groups, I know it from my experiences of being in community meetings where I live, and I know it from transition meetings too; a group of people are only able to touch on heart and soul if these elements are worked with first. The first activity, exchange, meeting of the people at the start of the meeting sets the tone for the entire meeting. If the first thing done involves thinking with the head, be it from the chair, facilitator, or simply the first person to speak, any opportunity for meaningful heart and soul contribution is likely to be lost.
This is not perhaps the way it always has to be, but it is the way it seems to need to be in our times right now, for if we let Head start the proceedings it allows judgement in, and judgement, for many of us is prejudiced (pre-judged) and means that anything not originating from the intellect is considered of less value. From this assumption the person holding the role of Heart finds s/he has no voice. In a recent conflict situation one of the parties later asked the people who hadn’t spoken up at the time, in defence of either party, or simply to name what was happening, why they hadn’t spoken, and those of us who hadn’t spoken turned out to be all those who would have probably actually shifted something had they spoken up at the time. We were all of us quite clearly those more easily on that occasion able to tune into the non verbal, and the heart, had not been triggered by the words spoken or the manner in which they were spoken, and were representing the other side of the coin, the part of the conflict that hadn’t been heard. So why hadn’t we spoken up? We were in a situation where the facilitator was coming from the Head, and the voice of dissent was one trying to express the Heart. The conflict arose because the person attempting to hold the Heart position was not able to express himself skilfully, came over as aggressive, and was told to stay quiet, not by one, but by several people who were in focus driven mode.
This escalated, obviously, but it also effectively silenced every other person in the room that was holding the Heart perspective; they had seen once again what happens if Heart tries to match Head. Of course that is not always true, but there are judgements and assumptions rife in this area, for we have a bloody history of dealing with those that express this type of intelligence if it is not in agreement with what the Head of the status quo thinks. We once again, cannot imagine we can transition successfully, and by successfully I mean to a healthy world in all respects, if we are not growing afresh from our roots, and there are, tangled in our roots, some very tricky dynamics to unravel. The sooner we name them, the sooner they will shift. The root of the word “courage” is heart, and that is what we need now, very much so, if we are to face our past together, so that we can move towards the future together.
I wonder, as I sit here and write, if this is not the key cause at the bottom of Transition group conflict; the urgency that sends some scurrying for the immediately safe controllable outcomes of Head decisions, and the awareness of the bigger picture that send others messages to move slowly, so as to include all the pieces, not always so immediately safe feeling or controlled, but in the long term, infinitely more sustainable. We sit, of course, in the stories of our ancestors, of how quick thinking and action saved them from predators. We also need to remember that we have just had a history of thousands of years of war and persecution of those that think differently. A transition future for me will not be complete if we are not prepared to look at these stories, and check how they are informing our beliefs and actions right now in the present. That takes Heart, and time.
Can we afford the time?
Can we afford not to? The consequences of moving forward without having everyone on board are familiar to us; the disempowered remain disempowered, the resources remain with those in power. Social unrest gets stronger, resource wars… sound familiar?
Do we have to repeat this story? Or can we step out of it and envision something quite different? The ability to change our world, as we in transition are well aware, involves being able to vision how we’d like it to be. If we are still seeing images of the old story then there are questions we need to be asking ourselves about our own personal story and how that informs our ability to vision. We will bring about the changes we see; if we see civil unrest, is it because we know deep down that we are forgetting something; that the balance of equity needs to be addressed alongside our twin drivers of Peal Oil and Climate Change, if it is not, then are we not playing directly to the tune of The Mad Max scenario?
Equity? What does that word actually mean? I have seen it recently in the context of getting a mortgage, “shared equity” for I have all my working life lived debt free, and within my means. This means I have no equal voice when wanting to have a home of my own. My principles put me in an inferior position in our society. This word has its root in equality, and when I use that word what does it mean? It has so many levels; and I would argue that it starts for us, in transition, by remembering that we are working with Head, Hands, and Heart, and each need equal voice. If we ensure that each are equally represented in our steering group at all times our decision making will be truly transition. If one is dominant then we need to be taking a good hard look at our group, are our quieter members holding key pieces, what are we doing as a group to ensure that all voices are heard? What sorts of behaviour changes are required from each member? How can the group be supportive of this process?
If anyone has any thoughts about this that they would like to share, from personal experience, I would love to hear from you. It would be valuable input into the courses we are developing for How to Work in Group.
With many, many thanks to Janice Lyons, Janner*, of Transition Plymouth for persevering when things were tough and for manifesting a strong and supportive group, and inviting me to share tales and play, and in doing so sparking into life the train of thought I have been following for not a little time.
*Janner – local word for a person from Plymouth