Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Comfort of Community by Philip Ralph

Fern and I have two small dogs. They are called Jaffa and Betty.

We’ve been away for the past five days at various events and workshops and had to find somewhere for the dogs to live since, annoyingly, the world isn’t terribly dog friendly and we can’t take them with us wherever we go. All of our usual dog minding options were full or unavailable and we were beginning to panic when we remembered Canine Comforts near Rhossilli on the Gower near Swansea.

You see, the problem with our dogs is ... (do bear with me, this isn’t all going to be about the dogs, I promise. You might even begin to discern that I’m using them as something of a metaphor later on cause I fancy myself as a bit of a writer) ... that they are a feisty couple of so-and-sos. Both of them are some form of Jack Russell terrier cross and they can be a real handful. Jaffa in particular – and I’m sure she won’t mind me saying this – can find it very trying meeting new dogs. She always has to get right in their face or up their bum, the fur on her back standing to attention, indicating clearly that if the new dog doesn’t back down pronto then things could get a bit growly and bitey. Canine Comforts, unlike most dog kennels, houses dogs together in one big pack – they sleep together at night and run about together during the day. So, it was with a due sense of trepidation that I delivered the two dogs there last Wednesday night...

How did they get on? That’s where the metaphor bit comes in and also the dramatic suspense. Now, don’t just skip to the end to find out if they survived or managed not to rip their pack mates limb from tiny limb. There’s method in my madness. Read on to find out more...

While the dogs were enjoying Canine Comforts, I headed to London to meet up with Fern at the launch of our friend Lucy Neal’s new book, Playing for Time

Lucy, former director of the LIFT Festival, co-creator of Case For Optimism and stalwart of Transition Tooting, has been a lynchpin for us here at Emergence over the last five years. She spoke at the second Emergence conference in Swansea; was at the heart of the planning and delivery of the first Land Journey and Summit at CAT nearMachynlleth in 2012; and facilitated and walked the Gower Way as part of the Walk That Reconnects last September. She’s been working on Playing for Time for the past two years. I won’t say too much about it here since Fern is going to blog all about it next week but, suffice it to say, if you’ve found your way to this blog and are even a tiny bit interested in the arts and sustainability, then you need to read this book.

The launch event was held on Thursday night at the beautiful Free Word centre in Clerkenwell. The many collaborators and artists who had co-created the book alongside Lucy had been there all day together, celebrating and marking their achievement, before a larger launch event in the evening to which I was invited.

Here’s the thing though – I was really terrified about going...

I’m 44 years old. I look like an all-in wrestler. People scare me.

To be more specific, large groups of people gathered together at social events scare me...

And small groups, to be honest...

In fact, ANY group of people, no matter what size, gathered together socially gives me the almighty collywobbles. The jitters. The heebie jeebies. You get the idea...

This is a bit of a bind since I’m really committed to the idea of community and recognise it to be crucial to the whole movement surrounding the changes we need to make to create a liveable planet for future generations. It’s the separation we feel from each other, the suspicion we feel about each other, the doubt and fear, that leads us to attack each other and to jealously guard – and waste – valuable resources. We literally need each other to survive.

But, as I said in my last blog, I don’t like change. I like staying firmly in my comfort zone and what that means to me usually revolves around being on the other side of a closed door from most of the people in the world (and eating a pastry based food item whilst watching a DVD boxset...).  But, recognising that my need to stay in my comfort zone has lead me to a much smaller, sadder life in the past, I know that I have to bite the bullet, put down the pasty, and get out there and be with people. And, of course, whenever I do, I discover that people are, by and large, bloody lovely. And indeed so they proved to be at the launch of Lucy’s book.

In fact, I’d go further and say that it was a room chock full of some of the bloody loveliest people one could ever hope to meet. Passionate people. Engaged people. Committed, dedicated, creative, funny, enlightened and inspirational people. Everywhere I looked. 

And therein lay another problem for me...

“What the hell” – I couldn’t stop myself from asking in a slightly Sex & The City type way – “am I doing here?” Because I may do some work with Emergence and I may feel passionate about these issues but I’ve never walked the walk and talked the talk like the people around me that night. These people aren’t waiting for a politician to tell them it’s okay to go and make connected, relational, valuable, useful art that connects and inspires their communities. They’re just doing it. And as the evening went on, my feelings of inadequacy faded away to be replaced by something much more useful. I realised that these people around me – the ones I was so afraid of – were my community. I stopped feeling inadequate and felt inspired instead. If they can do it, then so can I. I came away feeling fired up and engaged and ready to tackle change head on. And I drew that strength from being with people who don’t whinge and moan about the world and do nothing. They act. They do. They make. They create. I want to be in their gang. I want to be part of their community. And, slowly but surely, I think I am.

If that weren’t enough, Fern and I then traveled to Cambridge where we were part of a wonderful weekend called Way of Council and Community, lead by the force of nature that is Pip Bondy

Pip has made teaching and sharing Council her life’s work and it shows. Small of stature but huge of heart, her strength, compassion and wisdom are remarkable. Like Lucy’s book, I recommend her and her work to those of you with questing souls and fearless hearts. 

Way of Council is a ceremonial form of deep communication and listening that derives from tribal cultures stretching back thousands of years. It is intuitive, open, heartfelt, passionate, and – you guessed it – utterly terrifying. Pip teaches the practice of sitting together in circle with our fellow humans and really truly speaking and listening from the heart to what serves in that moment. It might sound a bit woolly, yoghurt-weavy and new-agey but, believe me, it’s anything but. It’s primal. It’s grounded. It’s pant-wettingly scary. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run and, try as I might to be funny and frivolous so everyone in the circle would think I was a great guy, the reality of the experience is that I had to tell the truth. And the truth hurts.

The content of the weekend – what we all shared with each other – is confidential, quite rightly. But I can tell you this: I went into a room in Cambridgeshire and met strangers. I was scared, terrified even, and way way WAY out of my comfort zone. And I walked out of that same room two and a half days later – you guessed it  – part of a community. We had spoken from the heart and listened from the heart, we had laughed and we had cried and we had come to know each other not as strangers but as fellow travellers. We had broken down the barriers between us and come to recognise that we are all scared, all lost, all searching, all grieving, all joyful, playful, delighted and thrilled to be human animals in this time and place.

(Okay, park your materialist, First World cynicism and go with it. Believe me, no-one is more surprised than me to be on this journey but I am so very glad that I am. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, my friends...)

After the weekend was over, dazed and not a little confused, Fern and I travelled home and went to collect the dogs. And what did we find? (METAPHOR KLAXON!!!) Our two dogs – and yes, even fiery Jaffa – had, after initial fear and doubt, fallen into deep and warm community with their fellow species mates. They had played together, they had slept together, they had eaten, chased, barked, scrapped and cuddled together. They had broken out of their comfort zones and were a community.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere...


In recent years I have become fascinated by the etymological derivation of words. The true meanings behind the words we use in everyday life carry great hidden messages for us if we only care to look a bit deeper. Most recently I have been thinking a lot about the words community and comfort. 

As I said above, comfort for me is a solitary experience and I wonder if it may be the same for many people in our solipsistic, materialist culture. But once we push through our comfort zones and fears around other people we are, more often than not, rewarded with a real sense of belonging and warmth. And that’s not surprising since the etymological derivation of ‘Community’ boils down to ‘Together we are one’.

But here’s the kicker and the real life lesson for me from the last few days. The comfort zone I am so scared to leave... the solipsistic, solitary experience of closing my door and sprawling on the sofa with a pasty... the desire to remove myself from the company of others because I feel inadequate or lost or threatened by their company... I think I may have got it all wrong...

Because you see, the etymological derivation of ‘Comfort’ boils down to a really fascinating notion –

'Together we are strong'.

Like my dogs, I’m going to remember that the next time I face meeting strangers. I think it may well make me see things in a new light. I think it might offer me real comfort to continue doing things that scare me in this particularly scary time in human history. I think it might make me feel less alone. And I hope it does for you too.  

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