The cup of sugar challenge was the first community challenge I ever undertook. It was a set up by a friend of mine who knew how much I was enjoying exploring the social barriers to neighbourly interaction. The text below is a modified version of what I wrote as a the prologue and epilogue bookends to my PhD.
It turned out to be a lot harder to ask for that sugar than the rose coloured visions of 1950s suburbia suggest.
At the beginning of 2013, I wrote in my research journal, about the intersection of this research and my own life in a suburban neighbourhood.
She handed me the tin with a hug. It was my birthday and people kept arriving with delicious looking cake. But Tessa had done something different. Rather than handing over a cake on a plate, she handed me a cake in a tin. An uncooked cake, in a tin. A tin with all the ingredients for making white chocolate and blackberry ‘blondies’. All the ingredients that is, except for one cup of sugar. ‘That’s right!’ she said enthusiastically, ‘It’s a community cake. You have to make it by asking a neighbour you don’t already know, for that cup of sugar!’ My heart sank. Why did I talk about sharing with neighbours so much! I thanked her, trying to hide the resentment I felt at being given such a challenge.
As the weeks and, finally, another birthday passed with the cake unmade, I cursed myself. How hard could it be to ask an unknown neighbour for sugar when this is what I think about all day? Why is it so hard to reconcile my idea of neighbourhood sharing, with the practice? (Research Journal 2013).
Some weeks passed before I made another entry...
I’ve only got one more day until I hand my full thesis draft to my supervisor… I think that tonight is the night I have to go and ask my unknown neighbour for that damn cup of sugar. To be honest I’m terrified. It makes me realise just why all my participants said they’d just go to the shop. Who am I to ask a favour of a neighbour when I have money in the bank and a shop down the road? How can I justify the asking? (Research Journal, February 2013).
I remember the angst I felt and the fear that I would be reduced to some kind of quivering, gibbering, needy neighbour mess in the eyes of my community. As one of my PhD participants so aptly observed, “In some ways, it is harder to receive with an open heart, than [it is] to give with an open heart”.
As I stood in the doorstep ready to leave the house, empty cup in hand, I knew that I would have found it a lot easier if I had been offering the sugar rather than asking for it.
Finally however, I managed to gather the courage and ask an unknown neighbour for sugar. Taking a deep breath I knocked on the door of a house just three doors down the hill. It was opened by a woman in her fifties, who looked at me suspiciously.
I raced back up the street and ran in through the front door shouting ‘I did it!’ At that moment I felt so in love with the world, and embarrassingly I felt tears in my eyes. How could I have been so afraid of asking? I didn’t explain to the neighbour why I wanted the sugar, nor make excuses about why I hadn’t gone to the shops (I had toyed with the idea of lying and saying I had something on the stove and thus no time to run to the corner store). And yet she gave so freely, and looked so pleased that I had asked.
And you know what? I don’t think she thought any less of me for asking. Truth be told, I think she was too busy being pleased at her actions as a lifter; as she shut the door behind me she said ‘No need to return the sugar, you can just have it’. I think both of us walked away feeling content.
Yet that cup of sugar, that moment of kindness, that shared experience of generosity, took me over a year to make happen, so caught up was I in a particular construction and understanding of socially appropriate behaviour in my street.
The kind of world I want to live in is one in which I and those around me, are not afraid to ask for help. The single biggest thing I can do to ensure this kind of world is to have the courage to ask.
I’m proud that for one day, in my neighbourhood, I was a leaner and a lifter.
What will you ask for?