Keep soldiering on…

The funding application says no. It’s only hours later that the disappointment causes the tears to flow. I’m not surprised really, it was a go at something, a chance, an opportunity to keep trying to go forward, to do something and achieve something. Keep soldiering on as my history teacher used to say. You hear it all the time; you’ve got to grab the opportunities, it’s a numbers game, just keep on trying, keep on, keep on.

And yet, that is why the tears keep coming. In so much of the trying to go forward, there are seemingly endless knockbacks and failures. It feels like an eternal treadmill. I know how lucky I am, this accident of birth and all the myriad of world events that shape the fact I live and exist, now and here. But it’s been fucking hard too. No, there are no bombs falling on me or my loved ones, I have an education and so far, my health. Maybe it’s a midlife crisis, maybe it’s the total crisis of everything, crushingly heavy in my head and heart.

It’s hard to know where to begin. I, we, have been terribly poor in our lives (for Western standards), but that’s not now, although our situation still feels precarious. I’ve watched the Ted talk about poverty and the choices presented to the poor. It’s shameful being on benefits in the UK. In my case, it was hidden from many of my colleagues, they assumed with my capabilities came the cash. But it didn’t.

I remember fighting with the benefits office to retain my volunteer positions when I was made redundant for the second time. Volunteering was a waste of time in their eyes, it wasn’t actively looking for work, despite the fact that most of my independent paid work came from these circles. I remember so many times, the banks charging £30 for going into the unauthorised overdraft by a fiver or less. Sobbing in the aisle of the supermarket because shampoo was so expensive. The one-bed flat getting smaller and smaller as our two kids grew. One colleague feeling embarrassed when I went to her house and she assumed we had a big, beautiful house and garden too. The kindness of the people at the foodbank, sitting with a cup of tea and a biscuit and their pitying, caring smiles.

One time in the UK, I got involved with a local Poverty Truth Commission. The basic premise being that by sharing the stories of those with lived experience of poverty to those in power, we can help shape policies that will improve our situations. We sat, five poor people in the Coop supermarket’s community room, feeling embarrassed ourselves and listening to the facilitator explain the point of the work and their desired outcomes. They wanted us to stand in front of many people I worked with, to soak in the shame and explain what being poor feels like. I felt a duty to get involved, but the time needed for the process was too much with my other voluntary commitments and in the end, I don’t think any of us completed the course. Stand up and speak about the shame, it’s not easy you know, although they think it is.

Above all of this stress there is the big external crisis. That of our beautiful planet. The forty plus years they’ve known about the crisis and how they’ve doubled down on producing their wrecking fossil fuels. They aren’t stopping. My tears flow for this so much. The only thing I can do, each and every day, is commit to this issue, but again, it’s so fucking hard day in, day out.

The calls are getting louder now, more warnings, heavier reporting and yet still, the kickbacks from those with vested interests. I’m not alone in feeling incredulous at the situation. The climate scientist Peter Kalmus tweets my fears daily, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot write books, Greta Thunberg bravely says it like it is, so many more clever people and all their energy. Hundreds of thousands of people march in the streets with signs of simplicity, clear messages calling for rationality. Why is it so hard then for the policymakers?

I wish that I had the money to have the ear of politicians, to set up Forums for the Future, Citizens Assemblies, councils of wisdom bringing Children’s Fire to the fore. There is so much money washing about this planet, yet focussed entirely on the wrong stuff. What is money anyway but a contract between one party and another party to pay for something? No different from bartering in carrots and yet, the ruler of so many heads, constantly seeking to grow the capital without factoring in the raw materials.

Over the last twenty years, my work in the environment and sustainability sectors increasingly had to bend towards the valuation of nature. I made a small contribution to the National Ecosystem Assessment phase two in the UK; a major study seeking to understand and provide the value of the benefits provided by nature to all of us. I feel now, as I did then, that this process plays into the hands of economists, providing an ability to weigh one benefit against the other, it’s cost/benefit ratio simplifying decisions down to a spreadsheet.

At a conference once, I listened to an economist making these claims, explaining how we had to follow these rules and value our parks to ensure their futures. I raised my hand and asked whether this process does reflect the value of our parks correctly, or whether, like Schrödinger’s cat, as soon as you start to undertake these calculations you are changing the value of what you are looking at. I was dismissed with a wry laugh and the comment “try selling a poem to the financial director of any organisation and you won’t get far”.

I wish I had had the wherewithal at that moment to come back and say no, you are wrong. The joy of the poem, the song, the painting, lies not with the lines on the page but the depth it touches the soul of another. There is no value in that, and yet it is the greatest value that an artist can achieve.

The value of the garden lies not in the cost of the paving, or wall or hedges and plants, but in the peace that can be found by resting on the bench. Our planet’s value lie not in the rocks, or ores, or sands but the grounds beneath our feet upon which the soil grows inch by inch. The value of the forest, not in its timber, but in the clean air, the way the water is held by the roots after rain, the life that calls it home and the joy as we walk through it. It’s method of replenishment bound to death and decay, growing the richness of mycelium beneath it’s overstory, circulating nutrients, circulating life.

A community garden once in Brighton burned brightly in its short life. Starting with a single plant pushed through a wire fence of an old petrol station, the community quickly took over the plot. The landowners allowed the ingress on the understanding that we would leave when the site was to be developed. The next few months were busy on that site, in came the planted tyres and ramshackle painted pots, planted with colour, busily visited by the insects around.

Adjoining the site was an empty flat, which was subsumed by the project and subsequently housed a steady stream of local homeless people, who became the caretakers of the site. I visited often, taking tea with them and resting in the space. I talked with these people, they spoke of the joy the garden gave them and importantly, the sense of purpose they now felt, including the respect that this informal position had afforded them. When the time came to relinquish the site, our community held hands and sang songs, the energy was beautiful and pure. What value can be placed on that? I don’t think any spreadsheet or clever calculation can ever really, truly account for what we felt or how it has continued to influence my life with its memory.

I am still crying as a write this. Just a few stories from my life, just one life and a lucky one at that. Yet still feeling like it’s one step forward and two steps backward. There is a dog barking in the night and I can hear an owl deep in the dark. I won’t mind when my body returns to this earth, but I worry deeply for the future.

We need storytellers and poets, film-makers and artists, to cut through the noise, and there is so much noise. The TV is filled with adverts for shiny new things, nothing I want and nothing I need. Tonight I will nestle down between my two daughters, still young enough to want to sleep in my bed. I am so, so lucky, I must fight for their, and all our children’s futures.

Tonight my project feels a long way away. Tomorrow is another day. Somewhere, from a place they have not yet tried to value, I will find some more strength to keep moving forward. I don’t know if what I’m doing is right anymore, after a while rejections and disappointment will knock your confidence. Yet I know I cannot give up. Instead of a standing start, it’ll be another long crawl, like the pilgrimages of the devoted.



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