Holding the hope and fear about climate change. A dialogue with Fern Smith of Emergence.
Last November’s COParty22 at Volcano Theatre celebrated the anniversary of the signing of the Paris climate change agreement and also showcased some of the fantastic projects happening in Swansea. Inspired by the event I decided to meet up with one of the organisers, Fern Smith from Swansea-based Emergence….
Going to COParty22 with a few friends I didn’t know what to expect initially, other than there would be chocolate brownies made by Judy Roots. This seemed to be enough to propel a car full of women through the drizzly lanes of Gower, to the bright lights of Swansea. There was also the promise of artivism, food, drink, dancing, films, live music – and GOOD news! The evening was a celebration of the incredible grassroots projects happening in and around Swansea – from local food growing & community energy schemes to eco-villages & new news networks. The event gave these local initiatives a voice for the evening. There was luscious food from Judy, drumming by Abertaiko Drummers plus belly dancing from Joanne Langley and Ronnie Kerswell O’Hara. Representatives of each group spoke to the audience about what they were doing, what they hoped to achieve and more interestingly, what was motivating them.
The initiatives were Awel Aman Tawe, Cae Tan, Nazma Botanica La Viver-Revival, Down to Earth, Vocal Eyes, Swansea News Network, Gaian Ecovillage, Swansea Enterprise and Energy Scheme, The Environment Centre and Art-ivism. There was time to meet and chat to group members after the talks, to ask questions, make connections and see how to get involved. The evening rounded off with music to dance to. It felt like a party with a conscience; a bunch of people who are actively making a difference whilst getting on and having a good time. Who said changing the world had to be a drag? I came away feeling inspired and surprised at some of the interesting projects that were going on in Swansea that I wasn’t aware of.
Following on from the COParty 22 event, I recently met Fern Smith who was one of the organisers. I wanted to know more about her initiative ‘Emergence,’ and the story behind its’ conception. The Emergence vision is to ‘consciously seek to embody the values we treasure in a hope that a more creative, caring and compassionate planet might be our next evolution, revolution, or re-revolution.’ A tall order, but one that Fern seems to be calmly and tenaciously pursuing. We had an intense discussion about many things. Here I have pulled together what is relevant to give an overview of Emergence. I have included some dialogue that we created together which illustrates what Emergence is all about.
In the beginning
Fern studied Psychology and Industrial Relations at university. She became interested in the art of wellbeing and life satisfaction which was not properly addressed on these mainstream courses. So, began a path of self-education, fueled by an interest in feminist politics and the momentum of following her inner curiosity. As she put it, ‘Sparking off ideas through learning and following the sparks.’ She set up Volcano Theatre 30 years ago with her long time friend and collaborator Paul Davies. They wanted to make a forum for the radical ideas and radical politics that were being spawned during the Thatcher era. It was also important to them to talk about and look at alternative ways to live. ‘How do we live on the planet and develop a relationship with it?’ was a question that occurred again and again.t
FS: We always felt that we didn’t just want to make experimental conceptual theatre, we were tapping into the same energy that birthed punk. DIY. Not asking for anyone’s permission to do stuff. That visceral energy and excitement that if we don’t like something we can change it. Our dream was that people who had never been to the theatre, could come to one of our shows and feel ‘Wow,’ that was interesting. We enjoyed performing it too.
JW: Like a resonance that they (the audience) felt too. If other people feel that resonance, then they can feel the spark and excitement too?
FS: Yes, it was always a head-heart, an energetic thing, a resonating experience. We performed in other countries where people didn’t understand the words exactly. Almost like a common humanity, a beating heart that was at the centre of our work.
Grief and transformation
After Fern’s mum died in 1996 she felt ‘taken apart’ and had to massively readjust her world to absorb the changes that were wrought in her life. She began to explore the transformative power of grief and could see how it linked to her transformative work in the theatre.
FS: I’d always been interested in the power of theatre and art to make transformation on a body level. If I went to an art exhibition I knew I was cellularly different afterwards.
JW: Yes, and how important it is to have those experiences because with all the cutbacks in the art sector there is less opportunity to do that. Art and nature are the things that keep you going, aren’t they really? They shake your cells rather than have that deadened affect that society can sometimes create.
FS: Connecting to imagination and creativity and a deep sense of potential growth and transformation in ourselves is one of the most radical things that we can do.
New systems for new times
Training in massage and cranio-sacral therapy followed, but in 2009/10 Fern took a year out from her theatre and therapy work. She was awarded a fellowship from the Clore Leadership Programme to develop her own journey/training and mentorship. She discovered Schumacher College, doing two short courses there, Eco-facilitation with Jenny Mackewn and Leadership in Times of Chaos with Margaret Wheatley. Other courses were pursued along similar lines. More questions were birthed from the knowledge that was being absorbed during this intense period of personal growth.
JW: I’m probably a similar age to you and our generation was very much taught to be proactive, to demonstrate. If something was wrong, we believed that eventually we would be listened to. Reading Margaret’s book ‘So Far From Home,’ she talks about the fact that there is a sense of loss felt today because things haven’t quite worked out the way we thought they would. She acknowledges that the world is a dark place and she’s saying that there is a lack of hope, not in a gloomy doomy way but being realistic and that’s what I liked about her book because you can be too rah-rah in this time now. So, there’s a loss there, isn’t there? You’ve done ‘this’, ‘this’ and ‘this’ but ‘that’ hasn’t happened? Do you feel that?
FS: Yes, I’m very interested in that sense of loss and the idea of change. But often change means death as well. I must let that go or the death of who I was; in a shedding and letting go, to be able to move forward.
JW: And fear, lots of fear because you’re treading into the unknown.
FS: So, then you think, can we create a group process using these ideas of transformation and change? Systems Theory being that you are the whole together, you create the system rather than one person with all the knowledge passing it on to the rest of you. How does a system survive? It has to have a boundary to let things out, and it also needs a boundary that can take things in.
JW: And to grow?
FS: Yes. With a group of people or a human being, there needs to be a sense of integrity to say, ‘I can hold myself together, without falling apart,’ but if there’s too much rigidity there’s no learning, no sharing and in a way, the more a system, cell or a person is under attack the more the boundaries are going to say, ‘I’m not going to let this in.’
JW: Which is what you get now. I feel society has become more rigid over the past few years.
FS: It works short term. It’s a very good survival strategy because it doesn’t let the stuff in, but what builds up is the toxins and so on.
JW: And the frustration of being told what’s what all the time.
Little steps, big leaps
The earlier theme of loss continued as we discussed how many people today, feel pole-axed by a general anxiety and despair about the state of the world and that the problem of climate change can seem overwhelming, or even a lost cause. I grew up imbibing the message, ‘The personal is political,’ meaning, your actions can make a change in the world. Now, it sometimes feels as if we have moved to ‘The personal is apocalyptical.’ There is a collective shame for what we feel we have done to the earth. A grief for our planet and society. I sometimes feel I am grieving in a similar way to the way I would grieve for a person that I love, who is terminally ill. Like many others, I am unsure of a way forward or what will work anymore.
FS: I always think what can I do in a small way? Working on every single level, working in the community? Something Margaret Wheatley talks about is us as midwives and saying each of us has different gifts (to contribute) and each of us can create in a different way. Whether you work in big business or somewhere smaller you have something to offer.
JW: So, do you think it helps to take smaller steps to change because everything has got so big, hasn’t it?
FS: Yes, and I think that contributes to that sense of powerlessness and overwhelmed feeling. People go, ‘This is so big I just cannot do anything, therefore, I will do nothing.’ So, either going into, ‘Well, I’m just going to party until the world blows up,’ or ‘I’ll fly all over the world,’ in other words, ‘My actions are not going to make any difference anyway.’
JW: ‘I’m just this little person.’
FS: Yes. I became interested in that sense of the old paradigm and working in that way, and then the quantum reality that small actions can create a big impact. Small actions the world over in every single area can create massive waves of change. A few people have said to me in the work that I’m doing, ‘Oh, well it’s too late anyway.’ I feel I need to hold those two realities and if I’m talking to someone I can say, ‘Is that useful to keep having that as a mantra. It’s too late?’
JW: Also, if you keep saying something you start to believe it.
FS: Maybe it’s also not holding a positive mantra all the time, though. ‘Positive visions for a sustainable future,’ is a line that I used to use for Emergence. There are many projects that are solutions-focused and doing amazing work but there’s something about holding those two things, ‘Yeh, it is too late and we are co-creating something that is different and new with new possibilities.’ I’m trying to understand this myself really. I’m not saying, ‘Oh don’t tell me any bad news, I’m going to stay positive and just keep repeating every day, ‘I can do this, I will do this’. That, as we know, leads to burn-out.
How to reach the disenchanted
I was interested in how Fern gets her message across. She has a way that doesn’t involve overloading people with terrifying information, that they don’t know what to do with. She, therefore, avoids unleashing our old friends, doom and gloom.
JW: So how do you get this slow unfolding message out there?
FS: It’s putting it into action. So, almost not telling people what we’re going to do.
JW: So, the experience rather than the talk.
FS: Yes, can we take these ideas and if we organize something can we as a group of organisers, walk our talk in a way where we’re creating relationships, working with one another? Let’s stay with uncertainty. We don’t know what might happen here.
JW: The wisdom of insecurity?
FS: Yes. There’s so much beautiful vocabulary around that negative capability. My brother said that what you are doing is being comfortable in an uncomfortable place, developing the skills of negative capability. How do we feel comfortable in an uncomfortable place? It’s a process, so we can’t feel that all the time.
JW: Yes, that living and breathing in that uncomfortable space without becoming ill or totally disenchanted or distracted (as there’s so much distraction today isn’t there?). I like the idea of what you are saying about the more practical way of applying your ideas.
Our health, Our earth
In 2015 Fern wasn’t sure whether to go to the Paris COP talks or not, but knew she had to do something, whether it was in Paris, or Swansea, to mark the significance of the talks and the urgency of the situation. The Emergence events became more focused on issues of climate change and how that related to people on a personal level. We discussed the link between personal health and global health which is particularly poignant to us now as individuals, and for the planet.
FS: Well it’s always been the same issue really; the health of us and the planet. How do we live now when things are fragmenting and possibly falling apart?
JW: So, there’s that whole link between us, our lives, and the outer life around us. The planet as a living breathing thing, not separate.
FS: Maybe more how I treat my body, if I treat it in a certain way and I treat the planet like that or a friendship that way, what’s going to happen? Can I have conscious intention? Margaret Wheatly says, ‘How can I not bring more fear and anger into the world. And if I can live my life by doing these two things, then; what a life?’ It may seem a little thing at first.
JW: Well, that’s a big ask, isn’t it? Really, it’s almost like the planet has got burn out. I know so many people who have problems with their adrenal system because they have gone too far, pushing themselves over the edge and the planet has got burn out too.
FS: That’s a very interesting way of looking at it.
JW: It feels like with the old paradigms, the old way of thinking we have pushed ourselves and the world into this state.
FS: Yes, too many toxins.
JW: And we almost think it’s gone so far, how can we get it back? No chicken soup for the planet we’re just not doing it (nurturing the planet).
Hope and Fear
Fern described what is probably the hardest thing to do in life and yet the most liberating if it can be achieved. Living with uncertainty and still feeling the joy.
FS: And again, it’s going through hope and fear. Maybe it’s not just exhausting ourselves by bouncing back between hope and fear (about climate change) but looking at the Tao, the ancient teachings. How are we going to hold those two thoughts because one of them is not going to do it anymore? Initiating despair and then galvanizing people into action by telling them how bad it is and how scary it is, is not right. How do we hold those two and the possibility of a third thing which no-one knows what it is and that can come through? It’s not something that we can intellectualise and say, ‘this is coming through’. It’s like body-work it’s experiential, we should embody it. The mind cannot hold those two parts, but the body can.
JW: So, the body is like a bridge, a link between the two.
JW: Or almost like when two things are coming together, like alchemy. The body is the…
FS: The container. Yes.
JW: For those two things to be shaken up together.
FS: So how can we have resilient containers, because with this fusion the container must be so powerful? It’s such a powerful chemical reaction.
JW Yes, it does need that.
FS: How can we strengthen the container so it’s not rigid and we smash it?
JW: We need a new skin but it should be porous. Like when you pull up an energy shield (a meditation technique) to protect yourself, it’s a breathing thing. When I worked in prison I felt the need for that because the energy was so intense, yet there were lovely things as well, which I didn’t want to lose.
FS: Our need is for simple answers. If I pray enough, if I meditate enough, or if I stand in a demonstration line long enough, or if I sign enough petitions; that will be enough. Realising that those things can’t work anymore. It’s not about losing all hope going into despair and staying there, but it is a sense of, there is birth and there is death and how can we tolerate that? We are sitting with the potential death of the planet, how can we tolerate that and go on living, not just survival but living with love and beauty.
JW: Emergence has got that sense of birth, the name, the birthing process that is unpredictable and amazing but you don’t know what will happen because it’s such a powerful process.
FS: I feel about this (our meeting) like it’s been a dialogue. You saying things like the burn out of the planet and me thinking, I’ve never heard anyone say that.
JW: Like a conversation?
FS: Even more. I think dialogue goes deeper than chatting or a conversation. Interesting too, that you are coming from the same background, trauma-body work therapy. You create the container working with people that way. It’s almost like you see resonance in a different way than a climatist or an activist would. So, the dialogue is different. At the heart of everything, the Emergence events are dialogue. Is there a coming together? A possibility of a meeting? A sense of wisdom or knowing, coming between two people? In a way, it’s emergence again.
JW: And speaking the fear, because, with fear, it can be so paralyzing, so a lot of people are pinned by it and pretend that it’s not there. As a therapist, you would encourage people to look at it. ‘It’s really freaking you out, put it on the table and let’s pick it apart and examine each bit. This is a part of you and you need to get to know it.’
How to get our cells singing
Fern’s talk of a permeable container resonated with me in true Emergence fashion. The connection we made through talking and creating a dialogue reached me on a much deeper level than a lecture from an ‘expert’ on climate change telling me what is wrong and what to do or not to do. Maybe we need to consult our own ‘inner-expert’ that we have been conditioned away from, to navigate ourselves through this difficult time. After all, we are all the keepers of our own knowledge and experience drawn from being beings on this planet.
I reflected on our dialogue and can see what Fern is getting at when she talks about experiential theatre/art initiatives and how the Arts can achieve that. It’s similar to what writers are constantly told, ‘Show, not tell.’ Show what your characters are like, how they act and behave, don’t tell your readers, as it is then; that they become more three-dimensional because people experience the highs and the lows of that person’s reality.
The familiar term ‘Lone Wolf’ was used to define people who were developing a more conscious lifestyle and working on their own personal development in the latter part of the 20th century. Things have moved on now and the lone and lonely wolves need to come in from the cold and lie by the communal fire. Tuning into the Earth’s reality, however scary, could be the touchstone for our mutual healing. We all know on some deep level that there are elements of hope in fear and of fear in hope. They are as interconnected as birth and death.
It is perhaps time now to connect on a global group level and develop a sustainable honesty as to where we are all at. Holding the fire and the ice, one in each hand and allowing ourselves to feel the terror and joy of being truly alive.
Jan Wigley is an experienced Counsellor/Therapist with Play Therapy skills who works with children and adults. She is also a therapeutic foster carer of many years, who specialises in trauma and attachment disorders. Having completed an MA in Creative Writing, she is now doing more writing, narrative therapy and storytelling.
Emergence – Fern Smith
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