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A Magazine for Sheffield

“What if when is now?”

Ahead of hosting a Festival of Debate event called Sheffield: We Can, Susan Hunter Downer explores activism, learning and wisdom.

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John Cameron

Double macchiato makes your eyeballs go black and fills your mouth with milky froth. A wild imagination doesn’t stop the palpitations.

We’re in Waterstones cafe, Orchard Square, Sheffield, a place where people sink into bucket chairs and leaf through thick books they haven’t paid for, while groups of grey-haired women rest their breasts on sticky tables and rave about PhDs. It comforts me to be in a place that sells ideas that begin with a tingling sensation in the spine and grow into thoughts and words. Words are deeds, and sometimes they’re good deeds.

I’ve ordered a pot of herbal tea and my friend Jonathan treats himself to a double macchiato. The idea that such a bullish drink could be called a treat feels alien, even to a woman who has been known to take her chocolate absolutely black.

I leave my tea to brew while trying to dry my face, drowning in both rainwater and the liquid contents of my bottomless menopause. He leaves his coffee to rest and pretends not to notice. We talk about the challenge of creating systemic change when you don’t understand how the machine is built or where it lives or why it’s so damn greedy, lazy, ignorant, cruel.

‘How would you survive in a world that was dangerously out of balance?’ I don’t ask.

‘How do you make power when all you have is yourself?’ he doesn’t reply.

I take my first sip, using every ounce of my imagination to taste lemon and ginger. He stirs a sachet of demerara into his toy cup. Only the froth makes it look half full. I want to tell him to drink up before the bubbles burst, but that would be crossing into dangerous territory. It occurs to me that safety isn’t overrated but some kinds of comfort are.

We swap stories of burnout among people who sprint until they collapse. Sometimes they’re called activists and sometimes citizens, depending on which books you read. They fight gods who demand too many human sacrifices. Sometimes the sacrificed die in faraway places, sometimes they breathe with our collapsing lungs.

There are schools where you pay to learn that some people’s lungs need to collapse so that they can fit into smaller spaces – and schools where it’s free to learn that we need each other to survive.

Systems fall gradually, then all at once. I know this because I listened to a podcast about the Ottoman empire while simultaneously watching American Gods. But what rises in their place?

‘What if we’re at a tipping point?’ I don’t say.

‘Is fight, flight or freeze an automatic response or a choice?’ he doesn’t reply.

In the moment, you react. When you have time to think again, you can act again, with intent that might, or might not, be the same as purpose.

‘Think anew. Do different,’ instructs Jonathan.

‘Politicians deal their cards in small change,’ I reply. ‘We need to build the machine that says: Card Declined.’

I think:

The language of catastrophe is enchanting, but I cannot live without hope.

We can use our collective power to make something better than this.

I want to do different.

I blink and Jonathan’s cup is empty. From the heady brew of caffeine, warm milk and decades as a citizen, he conjures the concept of ‘dynamic balance’, moving his hands in smooth circles and soft planetary tilts to explain that life-balance isn’t a see-saw. It helps to know that excessive weight in the head doesn’t necessarily send the tail sky-high.

‘We can’t control everything,’ I say, worrying that all I can do is deal with whatever is crushing my spine and poking holes in my gut. Maybe it’s a book, the birth of an idea.

‘Perhaps burnout is inevitable and all we can do is find spaces to recover, or maybe not,’ he says, ever the academic.

We talk about possibilities.

A universal basic income for activists.

Activism that is sustainable, sustaining, joyful.

RDG Kelley said we need to know what to build and how to build it, not just what to break.

Do we all want to build and break the same things? I was once on a course that included a session called Burn Shit Down. The Daily Telegraph took it personally and the hate mail poured in. One man’s shit is another man’s privilege. Lesson learned.

My second attempt at lemon and ginger is even more unconvincing than the first, but I appreciate its efforts at hydration. In the spirit of acknowledging limitations without being self-limiting, I suggest that perhaps we can avoid burnout by working together. No-one has to take on the world alone. Isn’t that what it means, or could mean, to be a citizen?

A few weeks ago I watched an Avengers film. Evil dresses as a natural disaster because insurance companies don’t have to pay out for that. It overturned cars, set the sky on fire and turned buildings into rubble.

No-one counts the bodies. There are no mortuaries in Avengers films. Most people flee or are crushed and disappear as if they were never there. It’s all so bloody clean. The survivors passively, gratefully wait to be saved.

In a world of heroes our role is to perish, without knowing what hit us, or accidentally survive and trust a higher power to deliver us from evil. In my imagination, the Incredible Hulk hires me at twice my usual rate to inscribe headstones with the words: perished, clueless. It’s a job for life.

I believe:

There is a leader next door, down the street, around the corner.

Citizenship is an act of learning and doing – learning by learning, learning by doing, doing by learning, doing by doing.

What if we, the not-yet-dead, gather our shattered selves and build a world where we take an active interest in each other’s survival? Not everyone would have to think the same, do the same or get involved. But we’d need to organise and think strategically.

‘Some things make us feel better but don’t change anything,’ I say.

‘If you’re going to drink coffee, do it properly,’ Jonathan replies. He doesn’t slur his words.

There’s a screenwriting book in which the author famously declares, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ He means that no-one has got it all figured out. There’s no magic formula. It’s an adventure.

I live at the confluence of double booking and forgetting. I’ve nowhere else to go. Compromise comes with conditions, limited energy, an ageing brain. The solid bits floating in the tepid liquid at the bottom of my teacup might or might not contain all the disputed flavour. I’ve heard that cups can overflow but I’ve never seen it happen.

I was once betrothed to myself but it didn’t work out. This time will be different. I don’t need to pretend that I’m ‘the one’ or that I have everything (anything) under control. I want to talk because conversation is education, imagination, hope, and it’s urgent. As teacher and author Thomas Hübl said, healing is in the collective. Intelligence is in the collective. Within our bodies we contain millions of years of wisdom.

‘Hope rises gradually, then all at once,’ I say.

Jonathan looks at his watch and replies: ‘What if when is now?’

Learn more

On 18 May 2024 at Common Ground Community Centre, Susan Hunter Downer will host a Festival of Debate session called Sheffield: We Can to bring people together, share ideas and make room for joy.

Tickets are free but registration is required.

Common Ground has a ramp from the Woodstock Road entrance, no steps in via the side door and there is a disabled toilet off the hall entrance.

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