veggie stew cooking on a fire
communally cooking a meal in the Digbeth Community Garden

Some things that have occurred this past week that have made it clearer than ever to me that we need to pause and recognise how connected we are to one another: ongoing ignorance when it comes to looking at the systems that enable police murder and the willingness to hold up carceral and punitive justice systems, even when police are the perpetrators, our local park being left covered with litter after one sunny weekend day (see also: drunk people screaming in the street at 2am outside my window), learning more about how our gut bacteria have complicated social interactions with one another, watching this talk, our government cutting overseas aid budgets while funnelling money to their mates, reading about how food is produced and processed in Britain, seeing the first bee of spring.

A really common thing that clients come to me with is a feeling of being less connected to other people than they would like to be. Or they have something they dream about doing, but they are scared of even starting it, because they worry that they can’t do it alone and don’t feel like they have communities that will hold them. They’ve heard someone talk about the importance of community, but they don’t feel like that’s something they can access. It’s true, we cannot do hard things all on our own. Having community helps us do hard things. Traditional business and personal development folks talk a lot of talk championing individual success, but individual success is an illusion because it erases all of the (often unpaid or under-compensated) care work that goes into keeping us alive and keeping our societies going.

My “success” doesn’t just come from me. It comes from the lineage I am situated in. From my ancestors, who survived so that I could be born. From my teachers, past, present and future. From the communities that hold me. From clients. Our lineages aren’t just our ancestors, but those we are in relationship with right now (even if we don’t yet know it) and those who will come after us. Right now, I live with my parents and my dad brings me cups of tea while I work and receiving his care directly contributes to my success. The people who make the music I listen to while I work that soothes my nervous system, the people whose labour produces the food that I eat, the politicians who brought the National Health Service into being so that people in my country get access to free healthcare, the plants and fungi I see when I’m out walking, all of them (and many more) play a part.

All of which is to say – none of us exist in isolation, either from other humans and from the planet and its non-human inhabitants. Traditional economics and neoliberal capitalism like to think of people as items in a spreadsheet, each person acting independently of every other (probably because interdependence and emergent properties are difficult to model mathematically). This is the kind of vast oversimplification that brought us to where we are, but we don’t have to accept this model. Even our bodies are coalitions of cells. We cannot exist in isolation from our gut bacteria. Possibly my favourite science fact is that human bodies contain more microbes than human cells. Our bodies contain about 39 trillion bacterial cells and only 30 trillion human cells. These bacteria only make up about one kilo of our bodyweight, though, because they are so tiny. We share our microbes with our children, our pets, other people we touch. We still don’t know much about human/bacterial relationships. The mitochondria that give all plant, fungi and animal cells energy evolved from bacterial ancestors that were absorbed by other cells, so when we look at it that way, all of our cells rely on other species. Animals survive because plants can capture energy from the sun and turn it into sugar. Humans are animals. We cannot separate ourselves from nature or from the cultures and histories we are embedded in.

How connected humans feel with one another depends on how we look at the world around us, on whether we look for evidence of connection to the wider collective or focus on our individual lives. I can only speak for myself, but I live in a society that prioritises individualism, and increasingly so. I grew up moving back and forth between the UK and the US and Britain used to feel much more communitarian that it does now. My parents live on Edinburgh’s south side and since we moved here in 1997, we’ve seen our neighbourhood transform from tenement flats mostly inhabited by older, working-class Scottish people who all knew each other at least by name, to AirBnBs and student lets managed by letting agencies. Four branches of supermarket chains have opened and the smaller shops like greengrocers and newsagents have mostly closed and been replaced by takeaways catering to the more transient population. Our neighbours in the building come and go and my elderly parents find themselves taking responsibility for tending to repairs and negotiating with landlords who prioritise turning a profit over the welfare of their tenants. The connections between people are less visible, and conflict is more common.

I have been precariously employed for my whole career, faced with a choice of moving every three or so years in order to keep doing the work I wanted to do. That lack of attachment to place has left me prone to feeling unrooted and somewhat apart from others, wherever I am, less willing to put emotional labour into relationships that may not last. Unless I deliberately challenge these thoughts, I tend to default to self-sufficiency, to struggling in silence in order to avoid being a “burden” on others. Talking to others, I know I’m far from alone in having these thoughts. When I look for the ways in which I am connected to other people and to the non-human world, however, I feel connected. It’s that simple and it also isn’t simple, because it requires so much unlearning and healing. Opening to receiving care is an ongoing process for me, but I wanted to share two tools I developed to coach myself, and that I am beginning to use in coaching partnerships too.

I call these care maps and care loops and they are not a product of my ideas alone. I see other people talking about similar ideas, and that makes me feel like I am onto something with this work. A lot of personal development work takes a cue from the wider mainstream ideologies and focuses explicitly on the individual, but I think situating ourselves in the ways we are connected to each other is one of the missing pieces with coaching work. Care mapping is my name for the process of situating ourselves. What relationships (human and non-human), places, groups or experiences are we connected to? How do we want to feel connected? Where are we resourced or lacking? What makes us feel cared for? What can we offer? Asking these questions of each other in a coaching partnership and producing visual maps is one way to start to think differently about connection. Every time I have done this process, people think of resources and relationships that they had overlooked. This can be as granular or broad as desired. You can map out a specific relationship, map relationships in a group, organisation or movement, or look at wider connections to other living beings, ancestors and the planet. I think this mapping process works especially well for building solidarity in social justice movements and identifying shared causes, issues and solutions that work across groups of people.

Care loops came to me last summer. I was newly arrived in Birmingham and I started volunteering in a community garden as a way to meet people and find my place. As a group, we cooked a meal using only ingredients we had grown in the garden (this turned out to be veggies and mushroom stock made by one volunteer from some fungi), completing the loop. A dear friend who was shielding gave me courgettes from his garden and I made courgette cookies from them and then biked back to his house to share them, and again, it felt like something was completed and, again, that felt really good and like we were caring for each other. My neighbours gave me a bag of Polish pickles that I hadn’t tried before and I gave them some smoked tofu to try. In all of these cases, these interactions took place outside any kind of market, and did not (to me at least) feel transactional, but rather mutually sustaining. I started to look for more of these stories of loops and started seeing them all over the place. One friend told me about how volunteering in a foodbank during lockdown was supportive to their mental health. Another friend who is unemployed does childcare for friends who have children and benefits in similar ways. One of my neighbours can’t have a dog, but sometimes borrows my dog while I am working.

I’m in process with developing both of these concepts and embedding them in my practice. Where I’m at right now is seeking more examples of how networks and loops of care show up for people, opportunities for conversations on this topic and clients interested in exploring these tools with me in low-cost research sessions. If any of this resonates with you, you are welcome to get in touch, I would love to talk more.