How do we get through?

A Book of Ours, poetry

How do I survive? It’s a question that everyone has to face, at some point, especially in these plagued times. But people who have experienced homelessness, and the support networks around them, give a lot of thought to it. Perhaps some of their answers will be useful to you, right now. 

This workshop at the Booth centre asked people for their survival tips. They jotted down their answers and then read them the top of a backing chanted by everyone in the room: “How do we get through?” The first suggestion is in the word “we” – you need other people to help and in return help them.

I’m looking at the poems right now, with their shopping lists of survival. First, as Mr Darwin once suggested, you need to adapt, to change. Connect to the deeper forces of life – breathe, follow your instincts, find joy in the power of life. Look after your resources (food, friends, shelter, morale). Be careful whose “truth” you listen to. And most of all, create calm inside yourself so that panic doesn’t stop you thinking clearly.

The poems for the Book of Changes are developing into chanted songs, like the old mediaeval Gregorian chants but with more than a hint of contemporary rap music mixed in. The first two weeks of making A Book of Changes have centred on people’s personal experience, formed into poems. This week we worked together as a group, bound together by the music that we made, chanting, clapping, stamping, banging on objects. Glueing us all together was songwriter Matt Hill, in the Booth for the first time since February. 

Then we discover a talented rapper in our group and so we explore finding rhythm in our spoken words…

Matt: “Covid measures mean we aren’t allowed to sing inside. So instead we head back into history to the early Middle Ages when monophonic chanting was the music of the moment. Our monotone voices chanting in unison, with no harmony or melody, suddenly seem relevant and powerful. The repetition of the phrase “How do we get through?” adds weight to this important question. Then we discover a talented rapper in our group and so we explore finding rhythm in our spoken words.”

For me, the whole session was shot through with many tiny moments of intimacy and tenderness. I was deeply moved to hear our support worker Harriet’s words, which felt like they’d been offered many times, in many desperate moments: “Just make it through the next 5 minutes. The 5 minutes after will be easier. I promise.” 

Perhaps most beautiful and mysterious of all were the instructions on survival given in Polish, Lithuanian and Finnish languages. I don’t speak any of those tongues, but the magic of the sounds seemed to suggest many meanings, many possibilities, and although we translated them to English, the words themselves hummed with a different music…

Volunteer Sue Dean took the photos and made these notes about the workshop: “An uplifting session. We started with learning to clap a basic beat. Then putting a word at the start and end of the beat, but continuing it in a round. The group enjoyed hearing a beat form from their own hands. An upturned plastic box was used for a drum, and a mandolin for the riff. We then wrote small poems or lyrics of experiences or memories. The whole group clapped and sang the basic beat while individual lyrics were recorded. The group music-making was a massive success – people still chattering about it over dinner and as they left. Shakespeare – if music be the food of love play on!”   

The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.