Article
Community
Culture
7 min read

Think little: what villages teach about coming together

Elizabeth Wainwright explores the frustrations and encouragements of village life, real and virtual, and finds a need for communion.

Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer, coach and walking guide. She's a former district councillor and has a background in international development.

A miniature tableau depicts a band performing at a concert as people dance and others watch from a marque.
A miniature village fete, Élancourt, France.
Frédéric Bisson, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since the birth of our daughter in May, I’ve been thinking about the village that it will supposedly take to raise her. I’m curious about where - or what - that village is today.  

A meme I saw on social media depicted Tom Hanks in his role in the film Castaway, edited so that instead of being alone on a desert island, he was walking through an empty city shouting:  

“IS ANYONE OUT THERE?”.  

The creator, a mother, had added a caption:  

“Me trying to find the village that was supposed to help me raise my children”.  

I clicked on the comments - there were hundreds of responses of all kinds:  

“Hyper independence is a narrative that is pushed on mothers” / “the world our grandparents and parents grew up in no longer exists” / “our lives are too busy” / “there is no village” / “the village is there but it takes work / “I struggle with ‘it takes a village, because for those of us who don’t have one, it highlights feelings of isolation” / “loneliness and isolation are a reality of our modern way of living, mothers especially feel this”. 

It seemed that other mothers were thinking about their village – or lack of it - too.  

My husband and daughter and I live in an actual village in rural Devon. In the summer, we went out into the garden, and - hearing a noise from the back of the house - turned to see one of our neighbours at the top of a ladder fixing a broken roof tile. Another neighbour was standing at the bottom of the ladder holding it in place. We hadn’t asked them to fix it - we’d only mentioned needing a new roof tile in passing. My heart swelled. Though not directly caring for our young daughter, they were easing the load by caring in the way they knew how. 

Online community is vital for me, and it is also lacking. Physical local community is vital for me, and it is also lacking. 

That act of neighbourliness made me wonder whether the village that will help raise our daughter is the literal village we live in. Here, there are people who care for this place and the people in it. Here, there is soil into which I can plunge my hands, anchoring me in this time, this place, amongst these people, all of it working to create a web of interdependence and care which I hope will steady us all in the face of a burning and unknowable future. But we’ve only been here a couple of years, and our stories don’t yet intertwine with the roots of the place. That takes time, and interdependence takes my little family being the village for others as well as benefitting from it. And there are days when I feel I have little capacity to reach out to others.  

Living in a small rural village can also be hard. A welcome is not guaranteed, relationships often have to bridge real difference. And whilst historically the village was a physical place with clear edges, family roots, and familiar neighbours, that’s now not most people’s reality. My husband and I have lived in various places over the years, our scattered friends part of our journey still, even at a geographic distance. Whether or not a scattered village is possible, it knows me in a way that our local village does not and perhaps cannot. It is part of a social fabric that will weave around our daughter, despite not being immediately accessible day to day.  

Or perhaps the village is increasingly virtual, made up of likeminded connections we draw near to online. Here I find not hands-on help, but understanding, ideas, encouragement, and a sense of possibility, even amongst people that don’t know me especially well. I find sustenance here, but I also know I close off real life encounters - and a more nuanced and unfiltered understanding of the world, of difference, of community - by investing in self-selecting online communities. And I want my daughter to encounter difference, to know that people can love and be loved even when they are nothing like her.  

Online community is vital for me, and it is also lacking. Physical local community is vital for me, and it is also lacking.  

They invite me to wonder but also to ‘think little’ as farmer and author Wendell Berry advocates, at the scale of this person, this relationship, this place.

And so I wonder what the village is, what it is becoming, and how we find it. Because whilst we’re told it takes a village to raise a child, in practice we often move to follow jobs, we live in isolated units and hear messaging that praises individualism and self-sufficiency and being able to do and have it all. And it can be as hard to call on the village as to find it in the first place - it can even be hard to accept the help of the village when it’s right there offering itself to us, so strong is the pull to look like we’re holding it all together, or to not burden others (I say this from experience). So we carry on trying to do it all ourselves.  

I find myself turning to ancient things for guidance. The Christian idea of communion – a table, bread, and wine shared in community – is beautiful to me, both in how it is practiced and what it represents. Bread and wine grow and are consumed in a particular place, at a particular time. The community that shares it is knowable, together at this particular time in the world. That this entrance into faith depends so much on place and time feels significant. Communion could easily be a mystical, cerebral, hard-to-grasp idea. But crucially it’s also personal, accessible, locatable. And church - not the idea or the institution but the local gathering place - can be a place where we find this access too, as can gardens and fields and food; tethers that remind us of this created earthy peopled world. To me, these things call me back to living here and now. They invite me to wonder but also to ‘think little’ as farmer and author Wendell Berry advocates, at the scale of this person, this relationship, this place. There is a tendency to think big when it comes to solutions to world crises when perhaps thinking little - at the scale of the ‘village’ - is more actionable, more sustainable, more appropriate – a solution that works here might not work there, and that’s ok. Berry says in multiple thoughtful ways that ‘what we stand on is what we stand for’. His is a call to know place, to invest in place, to be in place, despite (and perhaps because of) the challenges that come with doing so.  

I think the local is going to become more important - calling us to find our way back to community in a time of division and overwhelming global challenges. 

‘Thinking little’ might happen in a street, a church, a garden, a neighbourhood. A place where we can root into literal or metaphorical soil, where isolation can turn to relation, where interdependence becomes easier to live out. It need not be an either/or between this and geographically distant or online communities though - I think online spaces offer their own care in the world as it is. But the communion table shows me hospitality as well as mystery, and Jesus – whose body communion draws us closer to – shows us a truth built locally, relationship-by-relationship. It calls us to the challenge and beauty of caring and being cared for in our own here and now. 

Perhaps the early Christians had it right by being deeply invested in place, and in something beyond place too. They lived locally whilst acting globally and spiritually, ready to leave if the call should come. They were ready to build the church, person by person into something whole. God, after all, calls us to be a collective, to love our neighbours and in return, to feel love. I think the local is going to become more important - calling us to find our way back to community in a time of division and overwhelming global challenges, when faceless corporations would rather we relied on them than each other. As part of that, I think it’ll become important to engage with local civic bodies too, to all feel able to take part in placemaking and decision-making, especially when national government seems increasingly out of touch (my time as a District Councillor has given me a whole new lens on what living locally means). 

Working out what the village might mean – as a mother, a citizen, a neighbour – as our daughter grows is an ongoing journey and it’s a theme I’ll return to here. But what I know is this: that I want us to be part of an ecology of care. I want us to offer and more graciously receive that care. I want us to be like the trees outside my window: linked together, rooted in place whilst reaching upwards and outwards to the light that is sometimes hard to see, but is always there.   

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen