Photograph by Shane Porter

Weeds growing up through the cracks in the pavement is a fractal assertion of life revealing itself through the cracks of civilization. My neighborhood is indicative of that, and this year’s Festival of Life in the Cracks (March 10) coincided with a meteorologically beautiful day, one of the first of spring’s blessings of warmth and sunshine.

On a typical working day, most “normal” neighborhoods are empty, their residents off working to pay for all the stuff in their fine homes. My neighborhood, on the other hand, is full of life. People are in the streets, walking and biking, wholly ignoring the hierarchy of vehicular traffic. My neighbors are out and about, getting stuff done and hanging out. I had the pleasure of washing and wringing my clothes outside in the bright sunlight and warm breezes, and hanging all on the clothesline to get that fresh earthy smell that cannot be extracted from a bottle. After my work was done, friends dropped by, hearty beers in hand, and we sat on the porch, talking, relaxing, spending time reinforcing the ties that bind our community together.

The blighted areas of Springfield, Illinois, are a microcosm of the ruins of cities like Detroit. The neglect and abandonment of our neighborhoods by those to whom we pay taxes is evident. And these feelings are reciprocated. What is the point of being a citizen in a city that doesn’t claim you? We are well aware that we have only each other to rely on. A tornado ripping through our city four years ago with its subsequent FEMA encounters made that obvious. If it were not for the good will of my friends and neighbors, who knows where I’d be; still waiting for FEMA assistance, maybe?

And yet, there is life everywhere. Nature is reclaiming the pavement, the falling down houses, and empty abandoned lots. The people who remain here are here for the long haul. Poor people are well aware of the economy of the community, even if most of my neighbors do not know what that term means; it flows freely from their hearts. When you have not money to purchase the assistance and care you need, you use the time you have to assist and care for others, and they reciprocate. It’s security that life in civilization cannot buy, especially now that we are in the horribly depressed phase of our bipolar economy.

A neighborhood filled with people on a traditional work day begs the question: how do these people get by? How do they pay their bills? It is increasingly challenging as the economy tanks, with middle class people lining up to take jobs that were formerly the sole purview of the poor—minimum wage service jobs. Many people here survive on government handouts, be it in the form of social security, disability, or welfare. Many people work nontraditional jobs (like metal recycling or giving plasma), have start-up companies in the black market (many people currently in prison were merely trying to make a buck and support their families), or live exceedingly frugal lives.

Last year, I made less than $2000 from my job, but I want for nothing. Most people here live in a similar fashion. We get by the best we can with what we have. Many live by the mantra of the depression-era grandparents who raised me: use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. We are scavengers, opportunists, and we share the bounty. We are producers, not consumers. We create abundance by our ability to share what we have. It’s an odd thing, coming from the money economy, where scarcity is the model. There is only so much pie to share, and each person for themselves! The competition is fierce, and if you can’t compete, too bad, you die. In contrast, the economy of community is based on abundance. There is pie for everyone, and more pie can always be had because we had the forethought to plant orchards. The more we share, the more we each have and are willing to give.

We don’t each need a lawnmower; one will suffice for many families. Actually, we don’t need lawnmowers at all if we plant gardens to nourish ourselves and the entire community of life. Bioconcrete in the form of the American lawn is a delusion of idiocy; it makes no sense. One of the blessings of creating a new paradigm in the crumbling ruins of the old is the ability to throw out things that make no sense and replace them with things that do. Observation and feedback are excellent tools in paradigm building. Need generates its own power, and this is where our hope lies: we are what we want to become. There is nothing more adventurous and rewarding than real life.

The challenge is creating systems of living for ourselves, cultures and rituals that provide for our needs. It is quite difficult, being raised without an understanding of what a viable human culture could be like—being raised in a culture of not understanding. Our reality is constructed by our beliefs, reinforced by our rituals. Many people now believe that working, consuming, and dying is the way to go, and they reinforce this belief by their daily patterns of working and shopping. Somehow they’ve become slaves of a system that makes no sense, and is indeed, killing off the basis of life itself.

Waking up from this entrancement and becoming aware that options exist has given me opportunity and motivation in my own life. As hobo poet Vachel Lindsay remarked, “I am further from slavery than most men.” This has been an unexpected gift from downshifting (dropping out) from mainstream consumer culture and exploring what can variously be called simple living, “green,” diy, urban homesteading, welfare and poverty, community, or even paradise. As Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted, we must expect the unexpected, or we’ll never find it.

The wealth we hold may not be obvious. Indeed, it takes an eye for beauty to see the wealth that abounds in my neighborhood. Our wealth lies not in consensus reality dollars, but in our collective security and abundance. We have each other, and we will always have each other. As governments fall short on cash and their enforcers (police, zoning, etc.) disappear, our freedom increases. We use this freedom to create realities that make sense in light of the world we inhabit. We invite homeless people to squat the houses that are falling down from neglect. We scatter seeds of plants that nourish ourselves and the community of life in vacant lots and alley ways. We rediscover handy skills in the dumpster of history. We raise animals and build structures that do not fit into zoning’s view of safety, but that do fit into a paradigm of making sense. We raise our children with the knowledge that another life is possible, and provide them the tools they need to make a living in the economy of community.

“Disintegration and renewal are happening side by side—calamity and fertility, rot and splendor, grievous losses and surges of invigorating novelty. Yes, the death of the old order is proceeding apace, but it’s overlapped by the birth pangs of an as-yet-unimaginable new civilization.”

—Rob Brezsny

There is life in the cracks, for which we are ever thankful. These pioneering plants and people are the seeds of a new paradigm, of what comes next. Life explodes into fecundity and abundance, emerging from the cracks with a fierceness beyond compare. It is a birthright our culture seems to have forgotten, but through the magic we create in our daily activities, we illuminate our culture’s collective blind spot. We discover the strength of ourselves in the love and care we share with each other. Who knew life could be such an adventure? Who knew life could be so sweet?