After the trauma of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the east of Japan there was an increase in the number of philosophy cafés. Strangers were meeting to talk, share experiences and attempt to comprehend the meaning of the disaster, the physical and emotional impact that it brought to their lives. Philosophy was seen as a powerful tool because it involves discussion and asking questions. Dialogue was valued as an important lifeline after food and fuel. On our recent cultural learning exchange in Tokyo we heard of many examples where older people came together in dialogue with their peers and those from other generations in salons and café spaces to reflect upon specific concerns and pre-occupations; to uncover solutions to particular problems. The cultural space offers the opportunity for encounter and conversation.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that our shared Meet Me at the Albany project in southeast London happens in the café of our partner’s theatre space, the Albany. Meet Me is an arts project, a social project, a project about dialogue. Dialogue between artists and people. People in their sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties.
In an attempt to both understand and communicate the Meet Me structure I found myself clumsily (and literally) weaving a metaphor: a basket of hazel twigs and coloured wool. Each interlaced, colour-coded skein represents a named individual: participant, artist, volunteer, producer or manager. The ‘basket’ becomes a holding ground, a resonant space for thinking and doing: a space within which to openly and transparently attempt to make sense of our often rapidly changing circumstances, and those of the world that we find ourselves in.
What happens when the ordinary and familiar assumptions that we have used to navigate our way through a lifetime no longer ring true? What happens when a life long partner is no longer around, when simple feats of washing and dressing become complex balancing acts, when strangers make fleeting visits to offer ‘care’ ? In these, often lonely and anxious moments, it is no wonder that we are consciously or subconsciously drawn to acting out a familiar script, the story reinforced by media stereotypes and wider societal fears. “If the wind changes, you’ll stay like that”, my mother used to say.
Medical science may have given many of us an extra decade but there has been little thought given to the rites of passage needed to ease, or bounce, us across the threshold into a new possibility of ourselves. There are few societal ‘docking points’ within which we can gently place old toes in new waters. So in the cafe every week people come together to meet and gossip, to think and do.
Maybe it is the urge to find meaning and create form within this shared process that detonates such a torrent of creativity. Art tumbling out from this precious collision between knowing and not knowing. What makes life worth living when we’re old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? asks Atul Gawande in his book Being Mortal. How indeed.