I first met Lizzie in 2007, when, after moving from Brisbane to Wollongong, a new work friend invited me to join a small, informal choir that met weekly in someone’s garage. Pregnant with my first child, in a new unfamiliar place and steeped in grief after the loss of my own mother just six months earlier, I was fragile, lonely, and seeking friendship and some kind of balm to my pain that wasn’t talking, sobbing or looking at childhood photos.
I was by no means a singer. I would say I wasn’t even good at singing. But at that point, amongst a chaotic emotional landscape of motherlessness and motherhood, being good at it wasn’t of concern to me. I was too fragile to care.
This small group of 10 strangers became a presence of delight, joy, and wonder each week. We sang folk tunes, old rock’n’roll, country songs—sometimes beautifully, often badly. My grief had a release, space for utter joy and sadness all at once. We slowly got better at figuring out how to harmonise, and by doing so, it became a weekly anchor point around which life happened. And life sure did. Babies were born. Loved ones died. Each Tuesday night we sang. Almost 13 years later and the muscle of singing, of falling into harmony, is now so natural to us that it happens completely without any self-consciousness.
It was through this group that Lizzie and I first met and then later combined our community development backgrounds and founded a social enterprise, with the premise that people needed to share skills and that as we are all learners, so are we teachers. We wanted to share what we were experiencing in the back-shed singing group; we wanted to help others find people to sing with, or draw with or garden or bake bread! We realised that the reasons for people come together in community are most appealing and motivating when delight, wonder and play are at the centre.
So, Rumpus was born. A skillshare platform that gives ordinary community members the chance to share skills, and people the opportunity to find and experience delight, seek out new interests, learn fun stuff.
My 20-plus years as a social worker had meant I’d seen the broken, dysfunctional end of all of our civic and social systems. Young people fleeing violence, living with psychosis, schizophrenia, eating disorders. People living with chronic illness, depression and in poverty. In these contexts, delight and wonder don’t rate a mention. Survival, and meeting basic needs is the priority.
After seven years of this work with Lizzie, seeing the community that cemented itself around Rumpus, and over 10,000 people who’ve connected through learning, I truly believe that experiencing delight, awe and wonder is a vital basic human need.
Right now, we are six weeks into facilitating an eight-week pilot program on mental health and creative practice. Each week, like our singing group, an unlikely cohort of people join together. What they share is a reality that their mental health is a daily struggle, with anxiety, depression, PTSD making themselves felt in some way, every day.
There’s Matt*, who’s struggling with the pressure to find work due to relentless anxiety and depression, since being bullied by his manager in the job he’d had for 12 years. And Sue*, who very nearly doesn’t make it each week, overwhelmed with panic and an inability to get out of bed.
Each week we invite a professional artist to show them their practice. We’ve drawn comic characters with a graphic illustrator. We’ve learnt creative writing with author Helena Fox. We’ve played with clay—finding ourselves lost in the moulding, smoothing, making, not wanting to stop. We’ve paid attention to what happens when we lose sense of time, become lost in the “flow”, just making, creating and being playful.
“This group has absolutely changed my life,” Sue tells me. “I get out of bed quicker. In the past, I’ve had to go everywhere with my husband—I couldn’t be alone. Now I’m catching the bus here. I’m drawing everyday. I’m watering my plants. I can’t tell you how amazing that is for me.”
The group members exchange messages between sessions, check in and share stories on how their garden is going, how they are finding ways to take delight, even for a moment, in each day.
There is no doubt that recovery from mental illness requires an all-in approach of support, therapy, sometimes medication. But it really also needs moments of delight. We all need them. And when that falls to the bottom of our list, as a culture and a society, then we forget how to find and create them.
We have lost our memory, as a culture, that dancing, drawing, singing were all natural actions we did before we could read, write and talk.
These creative practices have the power to shift our sense of ourselves. The research tells us they actively reduce stress hormones, and help us to process trauma. They calm our anxious brains, rewire us for connection, another basic human need. They help us to not feel alone in the world, to feel awe at beauty and small wonders even when everything can feel hopeless.
Being good at them isn’t the point. The point is, and the science agrees, they are good for us.
So why not prescribe dancing to cure depression? Or cooking for joy to calm an anxious brain? Or singing to process grief? Our work is being called pioneering, but in fact, is just a return to what our ancestors knew, in their bones, and what every culture around the world has preserved and recorded: that art, creativity and creative expression are within us all, and keep us alive.
Caitlin Marshall and Lizzie Rose are the co-founders of Rumpus, a non-profit social enterprise based in Wollongong, NSW. MakeShift: Creativity on Prescription is a pilot program by Rumpus. Find out more at therumpus.com.au