‘Get real’ is an idiom I have never had positive associations with. Its expression passes judgement, conjuring as it does images of one finger-pointing, eyebrow-raising human shadow on a pedestal towering over another.
It was a phrase uttered with disapproval by my dad when I told him that I wanted to ‘go grassroots’ and – belated cringe – ‘change the world’. The same imperative was used on me by a friend when I cheated (after two days of dating, no less) on a mutual friend at university, telling her incredulous eyes that I didn’t think he would feel too wounded by the experience. It was often muttered under their breath when I was explaining to older friends my imaginings of future planetary exploration. It’s also been a phrase that my harshest critic – myself – has found rattling around her brain in response to utopian notions that perhaps were, in retrospect, a tad far-fetched. Alas, I’m not going to put an end to human suffering single-handed.
Occasionally I wonder if perhaps the fact that people don’t use that disapproving phrase on me any more means that I have fulfilled my utopian dreams at an early stage of life, and I deserve a pat on the back, or that I’m now fully present and manifesting genuine reality. There is a third option to consider but I’m still working on it, alongside my rocket mission to Mars.
In my defence to all the critics above, getting real is exactly what I was doing. Experiential learning – making mistakes, attempting, losing, redirecting – is an integral part of human nature. We just need to be careful of it, particularly when in a position of responsibility, where we must make honourable choices on behalf of others. Our choice is based on a combination of experience, conscious reasoning and validity. A wise voice, or group of voices, helps us along the way to making an appropriate and just decision. (Tony Blair, mark my words.)
A good friend of mine lost her mother recently, and as we talked about it subsequently, I observed a change in her. My reliably unpredictable friend was now transformed into a community-orientated individual, just like her mum had been. Ultimately I realised she had become incredibly prudent. Her mother would be so proud. I began examining other conversations with friends to see if she was an anomaly, but I realised that at some point we had indeed all ‘got real’. Somewhere along the way we had accepted the journey of life with its dips and dives. Still unashamedly liberal in the non-political sense, certainly, but practical too.
The process can never be forced, but is often realised through shared experience
The death of another is unfortunate common ground where we do get real: an eventuality shared as we place a value on life, stepping away from the mundane and reflecting truly on the person and the relationship that we have lost. We re-evaluate what’s important, and attempt to realign our daily actions to what we considered special about that person – what was important to them – in order to bestow honour. My dad began growing vegetables, and adopted my grandpa’s annual family marmalade-making sessions, in order to keep his father’s memory alive, a man who marvelled at self-reliance.
Getting real can happen without a bereavement, yet cross-generational appreciation appears to hold the golden egg, shaping a values-led, sustainable society. For 21-year-old Emily Cummins, it is utilising the hammer, and skills, her grandpa passed down to her in his garden hut to go on to create a solar-powered fridge that is now used in Africa. Memories of yesteryear, where play had an element of danger and fertilised ‘grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions and intuitive leaps of imagination’ allow modern society to accept more easily Gever Tulley’s Tinkering School vision, the American summer camp where children from eight years old operate power tools in the creative process.
Reskilling, where practical proficiency gets passed on, is at the core of the Transition Town movement. It has played a vital role within the recent knitting comeback. It is how the newly established London Orchard Project – where native fruit trees are planted to promote urban food-growing, home-cooked food and its preservation – operates.
‘Aren’t we lucky!’
I live by my granny’s catchphrase. For someone like me, who has never been confident with a hammer or crochet needles, getting real does not always require a tangible end product. It can be found within your spirit, the result of helpful counsel or a consistent prompt.
I recall a stranger, an elderly lady, that I shared a carriage with on a sleeper train overnight. I had just resigned from my job, not sure what route to take next, and just before the light was switched out we chatted and I mentioned my quandary. I hadn’t quite shaken the ‘staying grassroots’ notion after spending stints in India and Africa, including during civil conflicts, which, I might add, felt very real. This lady revealed that prior to retirement she had worked for 30 years on the frontline of war-torn regions in Africa for an established NGO.
She urgently shared her experiences and conclusions with me. Fleeing your own people to live a simpler albeit often challenging life, charging ahead with change elsewhere, is not always appropriate. ‘It’s just putting a sticking a plaster on the problem, rather than stitching up the injury and preventing it from happening again,’ she mused. She insinuated that there was great change required within my own country that had the power to ensure positive results globally, change within political, economic and social systems. Change within the media. Change within consumerism (fair trade). Change through farming, localisation and diverse communities.
While these were simply the words of a passing stranger on my travels, it was her personal legacy to awaken the minds of individuals closer to home to feel empowered, capable of having a voice and changing habits as a result, collectively and honestly. In the darkness of that night-time journey I considered her words, and she convinced me to find my own expression. And so I got real. I stayed home.