This past Sunday, I slept out in the Cambridge Commons. Why do we love the sleep out so much and why is it so powerful? I love the sleep out, but I am always cold and the next week is always a tough one. But there is still something about the sleep out that is powerful beyond measure. When I set up my tent in the Cambridge Commons, I felt as if I had returned home. I was surrounded by some very good friends I hadn’t seen in about a month. By placing the tents on the commons, we transformed it into a place of camaraderie because we were all working to see a Just and Stable Future on this planet by fighting against the dangers of climate change. I am in a class this semester entitled “Sacred Space.” In this class we examine different spatial archetypes and their characteristics. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the spatial archetype of a threshold. A threshold is literally defined a the piece of metal or wood underneath a door frame. However, this concept embodies much more than that. I was assigned a paper, which asked me to use an experience to understand the idea of a threshold. By using the threshold to understand the sleep out, I gained so much insight into why they are such powerful, effective, and emotional experiences. Here is my understanding of our sleep out on the Boston Commons through the spatial archetype of a threshold.
Threshold is defined as an entrance or a doorway. However, the word symbolizes a concept that expresses much more. The doorway represents things such as changes in life and separations from public and private space. We understand the world in terms of thresholds: birthdays, holidays, and new school years are all examples. By viewing the world through the spatial archetype of a threshold, greater insight and understanding into experiences can be reached.
Last semester I was involved in a seven week sleep-out. Students, community partners, and clergy members across the state of Massachusetts declared they would not sleep in their homes, which are powered by dirty energy that is killing our planet, until the state repowered with 100% clean electricity. Every Sunday, the campaign conveyed for a sleep-out on the Boston Commons, literally across the street from the State House, to show our legislators we wanted change.
Naomi Klein in her article “Fences of Enclosure: Windows of Possibility” looks at her life and notices a theme of fences. She describes fences as “barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders … even keeping politicians from enacting policies that make sense for the people who elected them.” Klein describes the world as crossing new thresholds of more fences and more enclosure. She continues, “It is also about feeding the market’s insatiable need for growth be redefining as “products” entire sectors that were previously considered as part of “the commons.” These ideas inspired our sleep-out. We felt as if the world was taking place around us and not recognizing our concerns with the status quo. “The commons,” our environment, which is our foundation for life, was being treated as a “product” and the earth and the human way of life is in danger as a result. Our leaders were not responding to these dangers, so we decided to take a stand.
Tents on the Boston Commons, not a sight you see very often. People walking by always asked the same puzzled question, “why are you sleeping outside on the Boston Commons?” We always responded in the same manner, “we are refusing to sleep in our dorm and homes until Massachusetts repowers with 100% clean electricity.” Sleeping out on the Boston Commons was an amazing feeling. Being surrounded by people who also felt the world was in serious danger, created a strong sense of camaraderie. Sitting, playing guitar at two in the morning, it felt as if the city was taking place around us as we just sat and watched, and looked at the stars. By our last sleep-out on the commons, over 25 legislators endorsed our call for 100% clean electricity in the state. Over the course of these seven weeks an incredible threshold was created.
The commons was no longer just a public space. In “Hosting The Divine: The Kolam in Tamilnadu” by Vijaya Nagarajan, the tradition of the kolam in rural India is examined: “the kolam is a design that exemplifies the ritual importance of the threshold; it parts the inside from the outside, the protected and “safe” world of the home from the more dangerous, vulnerable and unguardable world of the outside.” Our tents were the equivalent to the kolam. Just like the kolam is placed on the threshold to establish private space, the tents were placed on the common to fight for a cause, to break down the “fences” that Naomi Klein refers to. In the process, the commons became a welcoming, familiar, inviting environment that was no longer simply a public space, but instead an incredible atmosphere containing various experiences and emotions.
This event also signified many thresholds in my life. It was my first semester in college in a new place where I didn’t know anyone. The sleep-out gave me a connection to this new state I was in and to people who were also interested in spending their time in college fighting to stop climate change. Additionally, despite its name, the Boston Commons, it is illegal to be there after 11. By sleeping on the commons I received five summonses to court for trespassing. While all the charges were dismissed, this was a new threshold in my life because it was the first time I submitted myself to the risk of being arrested. I was leaving my innocent childhood behind and symbolically entering the “criminal” world.
The threshold is a powerful concept. It is defined as a door, but upon further examination it is much more than that. Thresholds are intimately tied with the process of social change. To create social change, spaces need to be created where new ideas flourish and the status quo is affected. Examining the sleep-out through the concept of the threshold brings new understanding to the event and why it was so powerful, both in its creation of a new space but also in its ability to break down “fences” and create new thresholds for the way the world operates.