Creating community out of the ashes

Janet (branding)The last time I appeared in The 3rdi, I was nurturing the therapeutic women’s network based in Birmingham, The Red Tent (Heart of England), my first effort to use the skills which were going to waste after I was diagnosed with bipolar and lost my teaching career, too fragile to handle the secondary school classroom and its rigours.

The Red Tent has now being thriving for five years, and has given all of us who take part, whether by attending our monthly get-togethers or via email, Facebook or phone, a wonderful sense of belonging and being loved and accepted just as we are. Our conversations are open, honest and always look forwards. We resist the urge to criticize each other or spend our time blaming other people for our situation, whatever it happens to be. Our ‘no bitching’ ethos is incredibly powerful, and we have all benefited from emotional healing and renewed vision. We encourage each other’s independence and creativity, and many a woman has blossomed as a result.

With the Red Tent’s magic carpet under your feet, you can prepare to set off on adventures! And when I look back over the past five years of my own life, I can tell you that magical things have happened for me too. Sometimes the leader, if she or he is prepared to trust Life, receives the biggest blessing (but don’t tell anyone, they’ll all want to be in your shoes!) As long as your motivation is right. I still very strongly believe in the servanthood-leadership model.

Once everything had been literally stripped away from me, I learnt that valuable lesson I think we all benefit from learning (though the process can be very painful): be yourself. If your life collapses like a house of cards, pick a better building-site, better workmates and sharper tools. Use the best stone you can quarry out, dig the foundations deep, and don’t build in a rush! Friends who tell you ‘Pull your socks up: nobody will want to know you if you’re down like this!’ Let them go. They’re probably saying it because they only want you when you’re functioning and giving them what they want. And if your face doesn’t fit, find a new place where it does! Create your own life, even if it takes a long time. You don’t want to risk a second false start. Well, I certainly didn’t: I was already 50 and had no time to waste.

There you are: I may have saved some of you three years of psychotherapy! The particular type of psychotherapy I benefited from was ‘schema therapy’. If you don’t know what that is, it’s the process of naming and removing the masks we wear. We put them on to protect ourselves, especially in childhood and adolescence, when we’re confronted with a situation that’s too difficult for our bare-faced self to cope with.

My top schema was this: ‘I feel lonely, so I’ll go out and find one or more people to be with. I put on my best face. I make friends/start a relationship. I can’t maintain my best face and so inevitably disappoint the person(s). They leave me. I’m lonely again, so I’ll go out.’ And round and round I would go, ad nauseam. Now I’m my real self all the time, wrinkles and all (!), and only people who like me will come alongside and become team-mates and friends. Together, we can then create something so wonderful that others are drawn to it too. Wherever people are being real, you can be a safe haven.

When I lost my income, I had to move house. But where I am now, I’m surrounded by people who love me, whatever my state of mind. It’s enough to know that out of mutual respect we all try as hard as we can, and we’re there for each other, no matter what. The person I hear that from most often is my husband Terry. We met here, discovered a shared desire to foster a spirit of neighbourliness in our little community, fell in love over a bowl of Irish stew at a St. Patrick’s Day party, and were married last September. We’re currently doing up the community garden, and running a lottery-funded Social Inclusion Project for the over-50s in our rather nice suburb of Birmingham. A different version of The Red Tent, but the ethos is the same. At the heart of our activities is our IT Club, which has been going since last summer. We acquired our own (embryonic) website just last week. We call ourselves the Ring of Friends. And I’ve just become Age UK’s new Internet Champion, tasked with encouraging other older people to learn or revive their IT skills and get online. More than ever, I believe, people need a sense of belonging, and of pride in the local community.

IT Club Oct 2012 2

The day I decided to start recreating my life was such an important day. I still remember the smile on my psychotherapist’s face when I ‘got it’ at last! Someone asked me recently if I regretted that it took half a century to get my life on the right track, but what I think is this: I’m just grateful I got the opportunity. Some people go their whole life without making sense of things. And I do believe that making sense of things, for oneself and for others, is in essence what creativity is for. I wish you a liberal sprinkling of magic on your own creative journey.

Jan Tchamani. You can see us at

3 Comments on Creating community out of the ashes

  1. Anne Casey // April 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm // Reply

    Thanks for this Jan, it made me smile, especially when you told us how you fell in love:() It’s a great story of how strong we can be, but only when we are being truly authentic. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. karen birch // April 4, 2013 at 7:59 pm // Reply

    Wow. Five years. Doesn’t time fly and great to hear that Red Tent continues to grow. And a garden project too. I’m part way through a permaculture design course so if I ever find myself down your way …!

  3. mark stammers // April 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm // Reply

    Just in one year of the garden and social development at Grove Rd Jan and friends have made wonderful, positive changes to the character and mood of the houses and residents.

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