Urban Seed part 2: Working on the margins in suburbia

~ DESTINATION NINE: NORLANE ~

Urban Seed seeks to connect wherever there is need, and Geelong’s Norlane is what they have found

pics-745As our exploratory trip of experiencing intentional communities nears its end, I am thankful that things worked out the way they have in terms of travel planning. Our last couple of communities are both very short stopovers, and while this leaves us with little more than a superficial glance into the lives of those who have often sweat blood and tears to be a part of their unique lifestyle, it comes at the right time for us when our information/road-weary selves are willing to forego “immersive experience” for “highlight version”. We are the first to admit that we feel that we are missing an opportunity with these last two groups, but perhaps it was the failure in our planning of doing too much for too long. Regardless, even experiencing a couple of days at a place like Urban Seed’s Norlane community in Geelong gives us 1000 times more value than simply reading about it.

pics-750If you have been reading previous blog entries of mine, you’d know about our (also) short visit to Urban Seed city outfit in Melbourne’s CBD. There, the focus was on working within a difficult urban space to support homeless folks doing it tough. In Geelong, Norlane is that type of infamous suburb that all cities have, where much of the crime takes place and the rest of the city’s inhabitants likely take efforts to avoid. Being a Christ-centred faith community, Urban Seed’s natural place to exist in this place on the margin of society, living in amongst the Norlane families who have experienced generational poverty and have given up feeling included in “normal” society.

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The young and exuberant Urban Seeders of Norlane

pics-757The Norlane crew is a young bunch who occupy an old Baptist church as well as the attached hall and house. Moreso than the Melbourne group, they make me feel rather old! With everyone floating around their 20-somethings, it still never fails to impress me how people at their age have taken on such “mature” tasks like volunteering without pay to care for others, raising families in very challenging environments (and seemingly succeeding), managing difficult situations with violent locals and crime issues, plus counselling and supporting a wide cross-section of people including those with mental and physical disabilities. Like my own life, I still see one’s 20s as a time to explore, mess around and not be too serious, getting my act together once I hit my 30s. And by 30s, I really mean 40s.

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Anyway, I digress… the space that the Norlaners occupy is an encouraging community gathering place, very loosely holding onto its “church” look and feel in favour of something that allows anyone from the community – faith-based or not – to feel comfortable and welcome. Groups stage meetings here, there’s a weekly food exchange (the “People’s Pantry” where locals pay a nominal semi-annual fee to stock up on donated food) pics-747plus lots of sharing feasting opportunities where many people from the community come for a free feed and a chat. Like in the CBD location, all “staff” are live-in volunteers who are 1,2 or 3-year internships, with the four people (I almost called them “kids”…gosh, I am getting old) currently residing in the intern house managing the programs and reaching out to the community when they can. Many of the programs revolve around food, and wherever possible, the intern group – Steve, Cherie, Sarah and David – coordinate the meals, etc. while bringing community members in as much as possible to “own” the administering of the event, again eliminating the “hand-out” mentality. Beyond the interns there is Simon and Kaylene pics-752who would be the other “official” Urban Seed staff (for lack of a better word as they are encouraging the lines being blurred between them and there rest of the community) who are the “elders” of Norlane’s outfit (in their 30’s I suspect, but the term elders is not meant to be disrespectful as they come in with considerable knowledge and wisdom of how to do and not to do community based on their own lengthy experiments).

Many other households contribute a great deal to the community hub as they gain acceptance with existing residents, plus – most encouragingly – former Urban Seed interns who finished their residency but felt compelled to continue the work they were part of despite being a fairly challenged neighbourhood in terms of crime, poverty and violence. Interns Sarah and David grimly regaled us in the various unsavoury encounters the community have been victim to such as: two of the interns’ cars being stolen, the continual (even mid-day) risk of physical attack when pics-758walking to the train station, the marking of houses with dogs in the yards so that they might steal them, shops that could no longer service the area after being repeatedly robbed, and so on. On my second afternoon there, I was walking the dog (keeping him close!) and two plain-clothed police (I presume? They had guns) came busting out of a yard straight towards me before veering a few metres to my left to leap onto a young lad in baggy trousers who was promptly handcuffed and shoved into an unmarked car. There was lots of yelling and other people beating a hasty retreat from the house I was now in front of as Kito and I continued along, agog at the front-row-seat activity before us. Not something we had come across in the comparatively closed communities we had been visiting to date! Despite all this, we were also told of encouraging changes within the community since they’ve been there, and a sense that they are helping bridge the divide between different groups of people here.

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pics-781There is something appealing about being a part of a close-knit community who are trying to do something good and important to truly improve the lives of people who have had a pretty shit time of it and need a glimmer of hope to get them through life. On top of it for them, their unified Christian faith further binds them close as they journey together. I would struggle being part of this potentially powerful experience as the downside for me is the “social worker” aspect of people care for which I am not interested or cut out for, plus their spirituality isn’t where I am personally at, something I imagine that would be fairly integral to both this particular community and their ability to fight through the challenges they face. In that regard, I am thankful, humbled and awed by people like the Norlane Urban Seeders, who embody the servant-hearted characteristics of Jesus, plus epic fortitude, patience, grace and good-humour. I will continue to do my part in different ways to hopefully have a positive impact on this world, and I am glad there’s folks like the Urban Seeders to play their vital role!

Find out more about Urban Seed at their website.

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Letters of concern

I recently had an email conversation with someone about corruptible actions and thinking in our society and why making positive change in the world is critical, albeit challenging. To me, this type of conversation illustrates the type of thinking that is common these days when trying to get people to consider change. People think that one person’s voice isn’t strong enough to be heard so what’s the point in trying, whereas I believe that change can happen but each individual has to have the strength and courage to move against the trends and face possible backlash for supposed unpopular thinking. Here’s how the conversation went; it all stemmed from my opinion that the whole Royal Wedding is a blown-out spectacle which celebrates the vast gap between the monarchy and celebrity with everyone else, lavishly spending money on a diversion from the UK (and the world’s) much bigger problems (I was probably feeling a bit grumpy to equate these things so adamantly, but I don’t think it’s untrue):

~ Correspondent:

…it’s nice to see some happy news from Britain as they have had lots of negative news in the last few years. Who cares anyway if this is what makes people happy! ….your opinions…makes you sound very preachy/lost your sense of humour…

~ Me:

Just because I don’t agree with the “distraction” of spending huge amounts of time, money and effort on some out-dated show of wealth and pomp doesn’t mean I’ve lost my sense of humour.

This wedding is just another example of how people get sucked in to spending tons of time and money because of “celebrity” and “glamour” which is a HUGE part of why everyone in the Western world is quite complacent that this has become “normal” activity and someone like me is a freak if you think otherwise. I find it frustrating. Had the monarchy said publicly that they were deliberately scaling back this multi-million dollar wedding production so that they could support a good cause with the money that they would’ve wasted on nothing but a showy display of excess, then I would have been right there to support them. But they didn’t and this is just more rich people throwing their money around and giving everyone else an excuse to do the same.

Do you ever just sit and wonder why you live where you do or have what you have while many people – most people – in the world don’t have the same? Should we in the Western world feel that it is our right to be able to live the comfortable life of excess? Why are we so privileged? And yet, that’s exactly what people think; they don’t give a second thought to buying a new giant tv or expensive car because what’s important is themselves. If everyone just shared this wealth around a bit, the world wouldn’t exist with such extremes and so many people wouldn’t be living so miserably.

This wedding itself isn’t just the problem I have with all this but rather the cynical corporate marketing, television and broadcasting, celebrity-idolising, glamourising and bandwagon-jumping that goes along with it. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of problems being ignored because everyone is having such a grand old time.

I guess I can call myself an activist these days as I don’t mind being a bit preachy as long as someone occasionally listens. I try not to be too judgemental, but as soon as you take off the blinkers and really look at the world, you can’t help but feel this way. I want to make a difference. I desire change. I want people to be able to have both personal enjoyment but also really, truly care about their fellow global neighbour and the planet we live on and actually take action against injustices. If everyone did their part, we’d all be a helluva lot better off.

~ Correspondent:

I fully sympathize with your activist stance. The problem lies with the human race itself. If you compare the earth to a healthy cell, then the human race can be compared to cancer, and the cancer is growing exponentially. We are an overwhelming force that is mowing down everything in it’s path and it’s virtually impossible to stop it. The fact is that once those loveable people in the Third World get their hands on the same goodies that we in the Western World have, the planet will start deconstructing even faster than it is now. For the last several hundred years every successive generation has been more spoiled (if you want to call it that) and destructive than the previous one. Concepts such as “religion” and “progress” have driven us down this path.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that I understand the problem but, while I admire the work of activists everywhere, I think that it’s going to take something cataclysmic to turn things around.

~ Me:

The feeling I get from you seems bleak: are you saying that humanity should throw in the towel as we can’t fix ourselves anyway? While it is a challenge to see positive potential from a world that cherishes materialism and rampant excess, I believe we need to use the idea that every lit bit counts and that some of the biggest revolutions the world has seen have come from as little as one person (eg. Gandhi). If we just give in, then we’re all doomed to living a very dark, joyless existence so why not just kill ourselves now to avoid having to live in such a world?

I’m sure you’d agree that there are many wonderful things in the world and life that are worth standing up for and preserving, and it’s that kind of motivated and positive thinking that needs to propagate broadly throughout all people. In order for that to happen, people need to be reminded of their obligations to their fellow humans and to the rest of this one planet we have at our disposal, and start showing respect to it at the expense of some short term pleasures. Sure, they may have to give up the odd possession to ensure that we’re not overburdening our resources, but that gaining back of one’s integrity through self-restraint will ultimately be more rewarding than the material possession. Of course, it’s hard to show someone that money isn’t everything and that they can gain a lot more out of life by looking into other areas.

You might think that the Third World is doomed to making the same mistakes as we have, but I think the opposite: we have a huge opportunity to show them the err of our ways, but it requires each person to make a small sacrifice in time, energy, money and willingness to confront those around them to make the change happen. I really like the saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” as it so aptly describes where those improvements have to stem from: you. And me.

Throwing in the towel in my book is unacceptable if for nothing else than to have respect for this planet. I’m the same as you when it comes to the human race: we are a cancer that has ravaged the planet and who treat each other terribly. I’m not always a huge fan of our species. I have a lot of respect for other species and their ability to not impose themselves beyond certain boundaries. The trouble is, we need to rely on our species to do the hard work to make the world a better place for them, and then, in turn, for us. But like the animals, I believe that there’s a lot of people not being given a fair go either and so I’m a big proponent for equality: for people’s working conditions, wealth distribution, basic needs and well-being plus their general right to have a life filled with security and love.

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What do you think? Am I out of line to press these issues or is it high-time people start opening their arms and embracing positive action and try to make the world a better place? If we stop fighting for something more, something better, then what’s the point to our very existence?

Struggling, but kinda not…

Just a quick note on simple living when you’re a freelance artist and always kind of broke: it’s better than being kind of broke but with a mortgage, kids, a massive credit card debt and other sizable monthly expenses! That’s what I’ve been telling myself of late as I struggle to find work and am just getting by financially. If I had any lifestyle other than a simple one, I’d be forced to get a job I didn’t want, working too many hours and becoming a slave to my work and my debt. I might get myself out of debt, but then I’d be working too much, lured into spending frivolously, and then so the snowball grows…

Anyone reading this who makes a decent living financially is probably thinking I’m an idiot, suffering when I could be working in order to pay for the “good things” in life. There are times when the idea of greater financial security sounds appealing, and perhaps I just need to organise myself a bit better still, but the hardest part I struggle with that scenario is the working/commuting for 1/3rd of your life (plus sleeping the equivalent) and just squeezing in the real living we should all be doing. And by “living” I don’t mean shopping, I mean spending time with family and friends, following hobbies and creative pursuits, being altruistic and helping the needy or at least people around your community, being healthy with lower stress and greater chance to be relaxing and enjoying life – the real good life.

The great thing I’ve learned about my new lifestyle is when I get in a financial pickle, getting myself out of it is 10 times easier when the hill is not so insurmountable, like it was in the past. I’ll admit that sometimes I just want to go out and have a nice meal or just not have to think so carefully about my cash-flow, but when I think about the sheer number of things I have on my list of hobbies that I’d like to achieve/finish, I could never go out again and still not get through half of them! On top of that, I want to be able to spend time with my girlfriend or other friends at the drop of a hat and not be stuck at work, only fitting people in in evenings or weekends. I live for flexibility in my life!

Anyway, I’ll tighten my belt this week, push through a couple of pending jobs to get paid, and then a relatively small sum will carry me through for a couple of weeks. In the past, that same amount would last me half as long or less.

Actions + words

Sometimes I think it’s easy to say but not do (when really you should), while other times you do but don’t tell (when really you should).

I find it’s so easy to either say or think that I should be doing something a certain way (like being more ethical, doing more exercise, helping people, eating more healthily, being more pro-active with many things, stopping unproductive behavior…to name a few), but then get stuffed up when it comes to putting these things into practice. Conversely, some activities are easy to do (eating unhealthily guilt-free, spending too much time on Facebook, enjoying the company of friends), even ones that might have been difficult in the past or are sometimes difficult for other people too (living simply with less stuff, earning less, shopping a bit more ethically/organically/fairly, focusing more on other people than myself), but don’t get talked about.

For example, today I woke up with a wretched pain in my back from an albeit long, 13-hour workday shooting a wedding yesterday. Fair enough, I was on my feet nearly the whole day, but the pain was made worse due to my aversion to exercise. Even simply doing a few crunches every day will strengthen my torso and keep my back from bearing all the load. I know this stuff, but I don’t just do it. A few minutes a day will save my ongoing pain and yet I just can’t get myself to expend the effort. I even say these things to myself while sitting in the kitchen eating a block of chocolate (Fair Trade chocolate, at least!). Sigh. These words are something that need some action attached to them!

On the contrary, I have surprisingly easily slipped into a low-consuming life, becoming quite adamant about staying away from consuming holy lands (aka. shopping malls), taking a hard line about racking up credit card debt, building my own furniture, being careful what I eat and how much I eat out, and being satisfied in general with less. While I act this out every day, it wasn’t until very recently that I’ve been talking up this lifestyle (in this humble little bloggie-blog!), something I still feel a bit funny about though as I am not pretending to know what I’m talking about.

Perhaps what I’m trying to decide is when is it important to just act with no words, when is it good to have words but no action and when do you need both?

I’m always quite happy to lavish my lovely girlfriend, Heidi, with lots of thanks and praise for guiding me into this more responsible world of frugality and giving, but she has learned with her lifestyle choices that sometimes actions need to speak for themselves. As I believe she quite rightly assumes, people are very reluctant to be told that they are doing something wrong and should change; they need to just see how it works for someone else and feel inclined to question why you do what you do. Seeing that this way of living or things that you’re doing makes them happy or less stressed or just feels right, might incite them to do it themselves, or at least ask more questions. One can always hope that if it’s a good thing, the idea or action will cascade through to their friends and so on and so on

Maybe words and actions are both required sometimes though; I was just reading from a brilliant and well-written book The Rough Guide to Ethical Living, and they suggest that it’s all well and good to eat organic, shop Fair Trade and make other ethical decisions about where your food and products come from, but sometimes the action of making the right choice needs to include a message that communicates what you’re doing. Simply making the choice doesn’t specifically tell one brand or retailer why you’re not shopping with them (if it’s due to their brand/product being seen as having poor production practices, eg. treatment of people or animals, poor emissions, or marketing practices); you need to not only make the purchase, but indicate what your problem is with the other brand/product. Even more ideal and impactful in terms of acting and telling is to cut your own carbon emissions then writing to your local MP and “encouraging them to lean on the government to pass legislation which requires everyone to reduce their greenhouse emissions.”

This is sound advice; I think I’m going to get into the habit of regularly writing to retailers (like, Coles – boycott Nestlé!), writing to brands (like, Nestlé – irresponsible marketing practices!) or MPs about a variety of green/sustainability things. I hope anyone reading this can challenge themselves to put into action at least one thing that they have been telling themselves to do but haven’t acted on it; or conversely, if you’re doing something great but no one knows about it that’s ok but you could be influencing a whole lot more people with being a bit more pro-active with letting them know about it! But don’t listen to me (yes, listen to me! heehee).

Not Buying It

I’ve just been going through a mini bout of poverty: no jobs rolling in, Christmas costs just past, bills to pay, etc. So I’m down to a few cents in the ol’ bank accountaroodle. But it’s all good. Great actually to be firm with myself about delving into credit just so I can live comfortably rather than tightening up and just doing less, spending less and eating what’s left in the cupboard Not Buying It book cover(it’s surprising how many meals you can make when you think the cupboards are empty! In fact, during my housesitting period, I chucked out countless boxes worth of old food from people’s cupboards that could’ve saved them $$ heaps on buying new stuff when they didn’t need to…anyway, that’s another story!).

Coinciding nicely with buying less and just dealing with it, Heidi and I have started reading a book called Not Buying It by Judith Levine. It’s started off a bit doom-and-gloom as many of the books I’ve read of late about climate change and unsustainable practices are, but it looks to be an interesting read as she chronicles a year of her life not buying anything that is “non-essential”. She keeps a chronological journal that shows how she does through a whole year of reducing her consumeristic behavior.

In general, but especially when money is hard to come by, I like this thinking. I’d love to try doing a whole year of buying only “essential” stuff but I imagine it’d be hard. With less income rolling in, I guess you’re forced into that kind of action anyway, made even more obvious when you see how homeless and under-developed nations live like this all the time. Of course, this sort of “experiment” is the extreme as most of us don’t choose to live such a hard life, but I suppose if we all pulled back just that extra bit and reconsidered the true necessity and impact of every non-essential thing we buy, we’d be making some headway with the global crisis.

Learning to cope with less…

One of the hard parts to living simply if, like me, you’ve chosen to do so with a career that is spotty in terms of work plus you’ve decided to work less so that you can devote more time to other projects and community, is when you run low on funds. Even with my monthly costs halved from one year ago, I still need to bring in a surprising amount of money to cover the basics plus business expenses. Sometimes I wish I could live in a cheaper country! Australia is probably one of the most expensive in the world… (well, 15th in the world, apparently)

The coping part becomes difficult when you run low on funds for the basics but you’re still trying to wean yourself off the need to spend money on diversions when you’re bored. Take this evening for example: tv is rubbish, don’t feel like reading (I read a lot these days), been in front of the computer too much (though, here I am right now!), not feeling like doing anything creative, already had a couple of walks today and was a bit too dark to go for a skate. What would be fun is to go to a movie, go to a pub or at least grab some wine to bring home, go for a drive, etc. all of which require money (fuel tank is empty on car). That said, maybe it’s just the mood I’m in as I did reel off some non-money stuff that I might normally do but just don’t feel like it. I guess that’s the point: if I had the money, when I’m bored then spending is the (so-called) answer to alleviating the boredom.

I will just have to learn not to think that money is the better option when I’m needing something to make life more interesting or occupy my mind. Perhaps I just need an increased arsenal of non-money things that I can automatically turn to, a list of which I haven’t done yet. Money is easy when you have it. The lazy option. I have to realise that simple living isn’t doing nothing as to spend less, but rather being clever with my time and ideas in order to make best use of the extra time I’ve been afforded. It does require perhaps extra motivation to live this different lifestyle as I am admittedly someone who can slip into cruise control just cuz it’s easier than trying.

Wealth reduction and appreciating what we’ve got

This is just a thought that popped into my head so I’m going to explore it a bit and see what comes of it: people with more money buy more stuff. Yes, I know, a revolutionary thought, hey?

Well, though it seems blazingly obvious on the surface, I was thinking that money – however you come by it – breeds a type of laziness once you have a certain amount of it. Now, it may take a lot of effort to make the money in your work or career, and we all need to get certain essentials in life that cannot be acquired secondhand or made from scratch, but it seems that once you’ve hit a certain earning (and perhaps “busyness”) threshold, then if something needs repair or has “fallen out of fashion” or performs a very specific task that could be done by something else but we decide we “need” that particular tool for the job, well then we just go out and buy a new one.

For example, in the realm of repairing an item, I’ve seen it happen often that someone who can afford to replace an item will not bother mending a fixable item, but will effortlessly replace it. The earning threshold they have achieved has now put them in the mindset of “why should I bother to spend the time/effort to fix this (and it’ll look unappealing then anyway), when I can go out and buy a new/better one?” While this might be true of a well-worn item that you’ve had for decades and is overdue for a replacement, it often is the case with an item with only superficial repair needs, but it’s the time it takes and the effort required which determines the fate of this otherwise intact item.

It’s all a bit lazy and I think accounts for a lot of our society’s waste of resources (see the important and entertaining Story of Stuff for what I mean). That laziness, I believe, stems directly from that financial threshold that this person might have achieved from a number of reasons:

1) they may work so much that they claim that there is no time to spend on repairing something. They also have “better things to do” with their time
2) they have a status to maintain with peers so an aging or obviously repaired item will simply look tatty in amongst their swishy other stuff
3) there is a certain power or thrill in being able to wield this financial prowess at will. Picking a brand-new item fulfills our society’s need to buy and consume

To me, this all boils down to having too much money. You always hear stories of people who started small, living it tough but working their way to bigger and better things. While that’s truly honorable in some ways, it reflects our mindset in our society that success is all-important and we see those early days as a necessary evil en route to financial freedom, comfort and wealth. What I don’t understand is why those early days are considered a negative to get through as quickly as possible? It’s in those early days of honest labour and frugal living where we probably make our most genuine relationships, where we value every dollar we earn, where we respect others who are in the same boat as us and where we are anything but lazy. Take that ultimate goal of becoming wealthy out of the picture and just be happy living at that level all the time, and suddenly the mindset changes.

In terms of buying stuff versus fixing stuff in this context, the solution is to reduce our need for greed. If we realise that time for ourselves and relationships should come first, and with that extra time we will also slow life down to a meaningful speed, then we’ll time to do other things than just work. This will cascade to a lower income which will allow for less flamboyant spending. However, that appreciation for what we have will return, and we will be happy to repair something when it needs it as our focus will become less about our stuff and more about the increased time we will be able to spend with friends and our own projects. Our improved relationships with family and friends will lessen the need to supplant that part of our lives with stuff and a sustainable level of wealth more similar to your friends will negate the need for showing off as the relationships will be rich enough to overlook such trivialities.

Beyond that, due to our withholding from buying stuff we don’t need, our impact on the planet will be vastly lessened which will ultimately lead to a better world. Increased recycling of goods through hand-me-downs, selling secondhand goods and people just holding onto what they have longer, will greatly reduce the number of factories being built for new items, resulting in less pollution, fewer resources being used in production and lessen the waste of items going to landfills.

The sea of benefits of this type of sustainable living attitude over the selfish and wasteful attitude that seems to be gaining strength around the world seems to be obvious, but we are still hampered by our governments and money-hungry corporations breeding us into money-lusting monsters.

Within my own life, it wasn’t until I pulled back from this supposed allure of making as much money as possible and being seduced by the shiny new toys in the shops, that I realised how much richer, slower and more fulfilling life can be. And that there’s a great satisfaction in building or repairing an item over buying something new!