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How We Are Upheld
Neighbours / LifeHouses / Conversation with Bayo, Vanessa & Stephen
The cats are drunk on spring, and I don’t blame them. The sudden arrival of the sun has me sitting on the porch, squinting at the screen as I type, because after so much winter, it’s impossible to keep indoors on days like this. It won’t last – there’s snow forecast for early next week – but while it does, they sunbathe in the gravel of the drive, or wander the garden in the early evening, not even hunting, just mesmerised by all the birdsong.
Two weeks ago, in another season, I was still slowed by the tail-end of some virus that Alfie had brought home from school when I joined Bayo Akomolafe, Stephen Jenkinson and Vanessa Machado de Oliveira for an evening at the Stoa. Maybe that’s how it needed to be. ‘It’s no bad thing, if you show up fragile,’ a friend had said the day before.
There’s a passage I love from Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish intellectual of the early twentieth century. It comes from a letter to his sister-in-law, Ilse Hahn, and I first met it in Gather the Fragments: A Book of Days, compiled by Alan Ecclestone:
You know, you needn’t feel bad because you lack the power to ‘tell yourself the whole truth’, for once, for your own good. Believe me, no-one has this power; no-one can help themselves. Though the world is full of people who try to make themselves believe that they can, they succeed no better than Münchhausen did when he tried to pull himself out of the mire by the scruff of his neck. Each of us can only seize by the scruff whoever happens to be closest to him in the mire. This is the “neighbour” the Bible speaks of. And the miraculous thing is that, although each of us stands in the mire himself, we can each pull out our neighbour, or at least keep him from drowning. None of us has solid ground under his feet; each of us is only held up by the neighbourly hands grasping him by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next man, and often, indeed most of the time (quite naturally, since we are neighbours mutually), hold each other up mutually. All this mutual upholding (a physical impossibility) becomes possible only because the great hand from above supports all these holding hands by their wrists. It is this, and not some non-existent ‘solid ground under one’s feet’, that enables all the human hands to hold and to help. There is no such thing as standing, there is only being held up.
Well, I can tell you that I felt upheld in the company of these three and the gang of friends and strangers who showed up to listen and ask questions on a Friday night.
In a couple of weeks from now, The Work in the Ruins will be underway, the five-week series bringing together readers of At Work in the Ruins to explore the themes of the book, make connections and see where it takes us. There’s over sixty participants signed up already, between the two groups, and fourteen countries represented at the latest count. There’s still time to sign up and join us:
As I prepare for that, one thing that’s been on my mind is a piece that Adam Greenfield wrote the other week. In ‘The LifeHouse: Distributed community support centres for the Long Emergency’, he’s thinking about how the underused places of worship that exist in towns and cities across Britain and much of Europe could find a new role in the troubled times around and ahead of us:
The fundamental idea of the Lifehouse is that there should be a place in every three-four city-block radius where you can charge your phone when the power’s down everywhere else, draw drinking water when the supply from the mains is for whatever reason untrustworthy, gather with your neighbors to discuss and deliberate over matters of common concern, organize reliable childcare, borrow tools it doesn’t make sense for any one household to own individually, and so on, and that these can and should be one and the same place.
There’s something in this proposal that sits at the crossing point between many different things that I’ve lived and worked with and written about over the years. I’ve been talking to Adam about these connections and I’ll probably write a follow-up to his piece – but meanwhile, do read the whole thing, and I’d be interested in hearing what you make of his ideas. Maybe there are clues here to some of the kinds of work to be done among the ruins of our inherited traditions and institutions?
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