sharing

hope: an update

ask not what

Recently graffitied by locals, the old health centre in Todmorden, west Yorkshire has lain empty for years while the multinational corporation that owns the site decides what to do with it

Coming face to face with the fact that tens of thousands of people in our city are going to bed hungry can be gut wrenching, as I wrote in my last post.

The danger is that it can also be overwhelming, and it is only a short step from feeling overwhelmed to sinking into despair.

Back in January I chose HOPE as my one word for 2013. I thought  then that I knew what it meant but here we are at the end of November and I have realised that it is a lot more difficult to pin down than it seems.

When I taught English to speakers of other languages I found that sometimes the easiest way to explain the meaning of a word was to give its opposite. So far, my understanding of real hope is mostly around the fact that it is ‘not-despair’.

Despair rarely achieves anything. It paralyses us at exactly the time when we most need to be doing.

But where despair results in paralysis, real hope not only leads to action, it is often birthed there.

I used to think that hope came first and then you acted because you were hopeful. It sounds logical but this year I realised that I had it the wrong way round. The more you act, the more you grow in hope.

When Incredible Edible Todmorden co-founder Mary Clear ripped out the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Food to Share’, I am sure she did not think of herself as a prophet.

But her action demonstrated another key aspect of hope, which is imagination.

Despair is like a fog. It clouds our vision and numbs us into thinking that things can never be different. We need prophets, poets and seers to pierce that numbness, stimulate our imagination and remind us that there is always another way of doing things.

We also need to recognise that these visionaries are walking among us, living life beside us. They do not (necessarily) have long beards and sandals.

 

plaques

Incredible Edible plaques made by Linda Reith

Mary’s action gave people a new way of seeing things, a way to re-imagine the world. It was one of the jumping-off points for the whole Incredible Edible movement.

I have taken several friends to Todmorden and they all come away seeing land differently. They send me texts saying things like: ‘I’m noticing bits of wasted space all over my town. I keep telling people we should plant some food there.’

Runner beans in a Todmorden cemetery

Runner bean plants in a Todmorden cemetery

The point is not that we are going to solve world hunger, or even UK hunger, by handing out free vegetables. Of course we’re not. The point is to shift people’s perceptions so they can imagine a different way of doing things.

It’s about helping people realise that there is more than one story to live by, and then it’s about demonstrating a way to take the first few steps into that new way of being in the world.

One woman I interviewed for our book about Incredible Edible told me she used to think growing food was ‘a whole other world of strangeness that could never have anything to do with me’.

Then she took on one of several raised beds that Incredible Edible has built at her son’s school and now the two of them eat home-grown, fresh vegetables for nine months of the year. Not only that but they have saved money, made new friends and grown in self-confidence.

What I see in Todmorden is that actions like growing food lead to more actions like, say, signing up for a class to learn how to cook that food and then, for some people, actually teaching other people how to grow and cook things.

You can’t predict exactly where these actions will end up. Someone who spent an entire winter helping another Incredible Edible co-founder, Nick Green, build a rabbit proof fence is now learning about advanced permaculture and training apprentices to become market gardeners.

The point is to start.

And once people start, they grow in imagination and they develop real hope – and who knows where that might lead?

They like to say that Todmorden is the town of the example. They’ve been living the Incredible Edible story for the past six years and literally thousands of people have visited the town to see what they are doing.

One of the reasons I am so determined to get our book about Incredible Edible out into the world is that I think it has the potential to inspire people who can’t make the trip to Todmorden to get started on a different way of doing things in the place where they live.

A way that will build community, increase skills and even benefit the local economy. A snowballing of hope, if you like.

People have been massively supportive of the campaign we’re running with Kickstarter to raise enough money for the first print run of the book. I am truly grateful for the people who have already pledged money and overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the messages of encouragement.

However, we need more of that support to translate into cash if we are to reach our target.

I’d be so thankful if you could spread the word as widely as you can and – if you are able and you haven’t done so already – pledge a bit of money towards it. 

You can pledge as little as £1 and it’s all perfectly safe. If we don’t hit our funding target, nobody pays a penny. Also, I won’t be making any money personally out of the campaign.

Thank you!

The Kickstarter page is here.

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the power of free

I’m trying to read a news story about some people whose lives were so desperate that they climbed into a boat and attempted to escape to Italy. The boat capsized and most of them drowned.

All the time I’m reading, there’s a flickering on the side of the screen: it’s a moving advertisement from an online shop where I bought a dress almost a year ago.

I want to focus on the article, the picture of coffins in silent, accusing rows; the doctor describing the Mediterranean sea as a cemetery. But the dresses won’t stop tickling at the edge of my vision.

There’s a battle going on inside my head now: concern about the the vanished migrants is actually having to compete with a whole load of worry about whether I’ve got the right clothes to wear for an interview next week.

Sometimes the endless battering from the god of consumerism just wears you down.

I’m reading about people who literally had nothing and now they don’t even have their lives, but I’m still managing to feel anxious about whether I’ve got enough clothes.

Last time I wrote about how growing food has helped me face down the god of consumerism and remove some of the anxiety that prevails in our society today, the anxiety of not having enough or even of not being enough: personally I’m quite vulnerable to a suggestion that new clothes will make me more acceptable.

Sometimes though I think we need to join with others to take a stand against these kind of lies.

And one thing that seems to work really well is when people get together to give out free food.

Last week, for example, the anti-food waste campaign Feeding the Five Thousand organised a free banquet in the centre of Edinburgh.

5kEdinburgh

Volunteers cooked 7,000 meals entirely from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was a powerful, prophetic stand against the mentality of scarcity. Apart from anything else it was a reminder of the excruciating irony that a system which is fuelled by convincing people they do not have enough, simultaneously creates the conditions for mountains of food to be thrown away.

On a smaller scale, there’s an organisation called – appropriately enough – Abundance, which started in my home town of Sheffield.

Every autumn, Abundance volunteers go out around our lovely city, harvesting fruit that would otherwise rot. There is literally tons of it.

Then they give it away – to people on the margins who find it hard to access fresh food, and to organisations that benefit the whole community, like libraries. Places that exist for the common good.

I went on my first Abundance harvest the other week. An elderly couple who no longer have the physical agility to cope with their enormous damson tree called us in. Younger, braver volunteers than me shinned up the tree and shook the branches and hundreds of damsons thudded onto an outstretched tarpaulin below.

tree climb

After we had given the couple who own the tree enough fruit for a few crumbles, we shared the softest among ourselves for turning into jam that night and sent the rest back to the Abundance offices to be distributed later.

damsons

The whole experience was fun, it built connections, it was nourishing in every sense of the word.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, the theologian Walter Brueggemann writes brilliantly about how the mentality of scarcity, a mentality that operates through anxiety and fear, militates against the practice of neighbourliness. It makes us defensive rather than generous and leaves us exhausted and cynical with nothing left over to contribute to our communities.

Brueggemann maintains that we have to make repeated, deliberate departures from the forces that want to trap us into this culture of not-enough.

Joining with others to give away food is, I think, one way of making that kind of departure.

Of course I’m not arguing that food should always be free, or that people shouldn’t be paid for their skills in food production. But there’s something about giving it away from time to time that releases us, if only temporarily, from the anxiety of not-enough and frees our imaginations to embrace the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.