Tuesday 25 September 2012

The Lavender Hill Mob

It's 9am and there is no one on the beach. I'm about to set out by foot, bus, train and tube to the Battersea Arts Centre on Lavender Hill and I have leapt into the sea spontaneously for a last-minute dip. I have been swimming in this sea all summer long and can hardly bear to part with this feeling of fluidity, this physical immersion in the wild elemental world. The swells are long and slow and I am floating, gazing up at the sky and clouds. The sea town bobbing in front of me.

What's the word, I ask the morning, that I should take to the conference?

Open, the day replies mildly, as the horizon stretches in all directions and the clouds move with the wind ever westwards.

Afterwards I cycle down the sleepy high street, towards the farmer's market, where Brian has four kinds of home-grown chilli waiting for our next Happy Mondays Community Kitchen meal - a Mexican fiesta. I sing as I go up the hill:

Porque cantando se alegran cielito lindo los corazones
Because, sweet sky, singing gladdens the heart.
key one: finding the key
Vilcabamba, Ecuador, 1992. She was Night and I was Dawn. I was deliberating. We were enacting a drama, induced by the cactus, known as San Pedro, the keeper of keys.

"You can have it like this," she said and wrapped me in a big black cloak. "Or you can have it like this" and she opened the cloak and there in front of me were the shiny faces of my friends, laughing. It felt as though that decision was the simplest and the most profound thing I could make in my life. It felt as if it could turn the destiny of the whole planet around.

"I'll have it like this," I declared.
"Bring it on," she said.

Battersea, London, 2012  He is feeling and I am thinking. We are enacting a drama in a workshop on creating happy and healthy human cultures. Sophie Banks is asking us to express the extremes of opposite states and then to let them go.

"What did you experience?" he asked me afterwards. They are the same, I replied. I looked at you and I saw me. Thinking and feeling make the same shape. They are either closed down, or they are open.

The opposites are not feeling or thinking, or male or female, or action and reflection, but the state in which we operate. When we rush around the room, heads down, closed, defensive, self-obsessed, we live in a restrictive world where time is running out; when we slow down, get in pace with our hearts and the natural rhythms of the earth, looking at each other, related, connected, open, we find ourselves in another world. We are open to possibility, we are open to change.

That was a small key moment at the Transition Network UK confererence 2012 on Lavender Hill. And it gnawed at my heart all weekend, like a little mouse.
key two: set and setting
During this last fortnight the Social Reporting crew has been covering the Conference in all its aspects. We decided to preview, report and reflect on the areas that we were involved in and some of those that surprised us. During the break on Saturday morning, we met at the media hub and decided which workshops we were going to attend, so we could report back on as many as possible. As well as Sophy's workshop I put my hand up for When Transition Says No, facilitated by Ben Brangwyn, which featured the real-life stories of Transition Heathrow and their squatted community (Grow Heathrow), Transition Town Totnes with the local No to Costa Coffee campagin and Transition Cowbridge with anti-fracking activisim in Wales. In between I'm looking after the Transition Free Press stall, running an editorial session at Open Space, talking with all the people I now know in the movement and on the lookout for this year's surprise theme.

Two years ago at Seale Hayne it was the Stoneleigh Lecture which rocked the halls and woke everyone up to the economic crisis; last year in Liverpool it was the tale about los indignados, told to us by Transition Barcelona, which presaged the global Occupy movement a couple of months later. Here in Battersea I'm missing the kickback time and outdoor spaces afforded by both those residential events. This year the main conference is almost a day shorter, and we do not breakfast or have supper together. I'm aware however that it has a different set and setting, where instead of feeling like an outsider, I feel completely at home.

We  are not in an agricultural college or an ex-Catholic seminary teaching college on a campus, but an arts centre on a high street in my home city, that once housed official Council offices. It's not an academic but an ex-civic space that now resounds with music and dance. We're singing and dancing too on land that was once lavender fields. We're singing with Ines, we're watching a caberet, put on by poets, journalists and film makers and we're dancing wildly to the band. We're writing a poem together and laughing. I've written the first line:

By the composting toilet I sat down and wept
key three: layers
I'm looking for the story in amongst the noticeboards and conversations, the shafts of sunlight filtering through the coloured glass roof. The title of the conference however is not about narrative, a fluid and linear sequence in time. It's about a vertical shape contructed in space. We are building resilience in extraordinary times - a resilience, I'm discovering, that is constructed in layers. Strips of meaning laid on top of one another.

In Sophy's workshop we begin with a traditional milling exercise: walking around the room slowly and deliberately, looking each other in the eye, then fast as if we were late for a meeting. Eyes down, locked into ourselves, pushing everyone out of the way. Then she outlines a Native American teaching about coming from upright or deteriorating mind. This is a teaching from the Six Nations confederacy, which gives us a blueprint of how to shift from a warmongering mindset to one of inter-tribal co-operation. Layer three comes from psychological work with trauma, where it's recognised that in extreme circumstances human beings split into two parts - an outer part that deals with survival (gotta do, gotta get on) and an Other inner part, which holds the traumatic experience and all the feelings it engendered.

The first part is always in control, and the second lurks underfoot, threatening to upset the apple cart at all turns. In order to avoid re-experiencing the initial trauma the controller projects all the dark and dangerous stuff onto other people. That's the black sheep in our families, our disloyal friend, whole sections of society in the down-there place, those "difficult" people in our Transition initiatives.

Me and you.

Layer four is our challenge: how do we move from Dominator Culture towards Partnership Culture? How do we take the good things from our deeply felt experiences and our smart, outgoing, pioneering selves, and join those fragments together?
key four: the talking shop
The Sunday High Street group process, devised by artist Ruth Ben-Tovim, starts with a word we write on a small blackboard and place in a chalk circle we have drawn around ourselves. What makes you joyful? she asks (communication and the earth I write). The exploration then opens out to a storytelling exchange with our immediate neighbour (about a white lion who find his home in the Arctic, about a community meal cooked for fifty people each month), followed by a discussion with eight people in our neighbourhood about mapping our street (leafy, friendly, sharing and interconnected), then finding partnerships in the Transition Town Anywhere, based on eight categories (communications), setting up a business in our High Street of Dreams.

Teen and I teamed up in the Communications corner. We were the first shop to open (No 19), and Teen was one of the torch bearers who ran down the High Street to declare it open. The Talking Shop was a media hub and literary cafe downstairs, wth an office for the Transition Free Press upstairs.

"We'll be too busy to do food," advised Teen as my plans for the cafe extended wildly. As it happened however we found ourselves next to a Community Kitchen and we soon knocked a door through our adjoining walls, so we could share custom. Sorted swiftly, with a minimal shop front, Teen went out to have a cigarette and I went to the media hub (real one), to send my menu notes for Monday's Mexican fiesta. When I returned the High Street was in full swing and I walked around the cardboard town, talking to people, asking questions, listening to their set-up tales. For a moment it was like being a kid again at the seaside, building sandcastles and spaceships that take you all the way into the future.

"Would you like an ale?" asked a familiar voice.
"Do you have cider?" I asked. "I can't drink beer."
"Oh, yes," Rob replied, and handed me a cup. I laughed as I peered inside and found it was empty. For moment I thought it was real. I had forgotten the joy of imaginary games. It's not often you get the chance to let go and be in play with 300 people. I loved the inventive things everyone was doing with all that newspaper and bamboo sticks, all those joyful exchanges of which I was a part. But inside I was troubled too.

"Gisse job," I said to Fiona from REConomy, standing next door at the Town's Job Centre.
"This is for people with skills," she explained.
"Communications is a skill," I replied. "We're setting up a media hub and a local newspaper."
"You need to go to the Bank," she said.

I went back to mind the shop. Communications is a skill, but in the imaginary and the real job centre there is no paid work for communicators. There were only two of us in the room who were doing the job. We were skilled journalists, social reporters, and already had a national Transition paper for sale. "Comms" in the conference was represented by the workshop on Spiral Dynamics given by Nick Osborne, but there was no formal focus on our relationship with the media, or indeed becoming the media. Even though the mainstream and alternative press have a key role in shaping the mindset of the collective there was no place for those of us telling the story of our extraordinary times.

This post has taken a long time to be published. Partly because my fellow reporters have already written so clearly and comprehensively about the event. But partly because something happened there I didn't really want to look at. I wanted to write how wonderful the conference was. Because it was. There was a high octane buzz and an ace feeling afterwards that we were a network of people throughout the world, working towards a future that had nobility, meaning and heart. But there was this other feeling I found as I stood at The Talking Shop I couldn't ignore - a feeling of redundancy.

I am not a builder. I am a storyteller who makes meaning in time. I go where the story takes me. I go where I am welcomed and where I am valued. It's not an individual decision, it's a group decision.

In my Transition initiatives I organise community blogs, press releases, newsletters, bulletins, speakers and sometimes am that speaker myself. I am the one who asks awkward questions in meetings, keeps a record, relates the bigger picture - from the Network to climate change - that frames all our small local moves. For the past five years I have written hundreds of blogs in praise of everything I see and experience in this extraordinary movement. I have found the words - all the words, the bitter, the joyful and the true. I have given them freely. In one initiative, I am excluded, in the other I am welcomed. Communications is understood as vital to our resilience and has helped keep us together where the other has fallen apart. It's not because I am a wonderful and important individual, it's because I'm working with a crew that knows the work of communications is vital if we want to create a partnership culture. Communication is what brings those fragmented parts of ourselves and our world back together. A key that opens the door.

Because, sweet sky, singing gladdens the heart.
Because, dear readers, I sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept.

Pictures: words and people from the project In Your Own Skin, showcased at the Cabaret and being crowd-funded this month (Katheryne Trenshaw),; mosiac bee on the floor of the Battersea Arts Centre (Laura Whitehead); writing up a blog at the media hub (LW); communications board at the High Street group process (LW); our sunflower-shaped neighbourhood (Mark Watson); Martin from Asda with the pre-processed carboard (Ruth Ben-Tovim); newly minted Bristol Pounds, our Transition Free Press front story, launched on 19 September.

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