By Sandy Burgham
As I turned 50 and made the commitment to live more purposefully, rather than reactively and washed down with wine, I became increasingly interested in expanding my mind. I was also keen to regenerate some of the brain cells that had been decimated by youthful endeavours and buffed away by workplace stress and ambition.
First stop, university. I have previously written about the trials of entering this institution at midlife, and struggling with even the online enrolment system, let alone finding a lecture theatre in a deeply coded campus. I still relish in the learning, and have cut my essay writing time in half by cottoning on to youth-inspired tricks of the trade that younger students seem to have been born knowing, like how to reference an essay properly, or even best use of the library’s resources (I tended to buy books as needed).
My second stage of mind expansion has happened more recently. I’m experimenting with the idea of a salon. Not the hair or day spa kind, but the salon as part of the philosophical movement of the Age of Enlightenment of 17th and 18th century Europe, particularly in France. These private gatherings were both social and intellectual, where matters of importance were shared and debated. In France, they were almost exclusively hosted by women (salonni.res) in their homes. The salonni.re would curate a guest list to discuss the selected topic, and then preside over the gathering, effectively acting as moderator and facilitator. What piqued my interest was the salon being one of the few places where women were able to attain a leadership role, while also being educated, albeit informally. But it was also the role of the salons as channels for revolutionary thinking, and influence in cultural-political matters, that really inspired me to start my own.
We‘ve all noted the paradox of social isolation in the age of screen-based social media. Perhaps an unexpected outcome of this is that the value of face-to-face engagement has increased dramatically. And when many bemoan mainstream media becoming more sensationalised and commercialised, the need for civic engagement has also become more pressing. Have you also noticed the exponential growth of TEDx events globally?
On a smaller scale, the rise of dinner groups, and even restaurants like Mt Eden’s Ika, where patrons enjoy a stimulating presentation from a thought leader while dining, points to the demand for this kind of engagement. A friend who had been hosting a restaurant-based salon for some time encouraged me to do my own version, as part of creating a social movement of people conversing on matters that count. When I met — name-drop alert! — Gloria Steinem earlier in the year, she spoke of conscious-raising circles of the 1960s being a key part of the women’s revolution. So, I thought, we need more revolutionary thinking. And revolutionaries need space to think.
As luck would have it, my office in central Auckland was once a cooking school, so is set up for experimental thinking and doing. In recent months it’s turned into “The Revolution Room” — groups of people getting together to discuss revolutionary thinking on a particular subject. It’s early days but I think I’m getting the hang of it. So far we’ve had two sessions devoted to the housing crisis, each with about 25 participants bringing different interests, viewpoints and professional perspectives. I seem to have no shortage of people who either want to attend, or want to start a revolution in their own backyard about an issue they care passionately about.
Next week I’m going to my friend’s salon to discuss “the individual’s pursuit for greater meaning, purpose and well-being in living”. Can’t wait. And given the current unbelievable success of an uneducated buffoon against a far more experienced and intelligent female candidate in the US election race, The Revolution Room is getting into gear, planning two more sessions to explore both gender, and specifically, masculinity. Like the slogan that adorns my environmentally-friendly shopping bag, “I might not change the world but am hoping to be an accessory”.
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson November, 2016