I shared my personal experiences with the group to help members relate fully to the experience of being honest about their lives. I reminded them that we are all different and we could be seen or perceived differently from how we see ourselves. But every one of us has an opportunity to turn things around with the help of others and our own efforts. We can reach out for help from the Cotton Tree without imagining that Cotton Tree is an answer to all your life questions. It is here to listen and help.

I’m glad the group has grown and is growing in understanding. Respect is given to people who express their views, even when there’s disagreement. I am so honoured. 

Thanks Michael

The storytelling group is healing and growing. On Monday we had another powerful meeting on zoom. As usual, we checked in with each other at the beginning and sent good wishes to absent friends. We offered each other health tips and a couple of us tried standing on one leg. A good exercise for improving your balance!

Michael pointed out that we were already exploring the question of this session: how can we help ourselves and each other? The conversation became more serious as we thought about pride, fear and the difficulty of asking for help. What help do we need? What help can we offer?

Occasionally a member gets the impression that we can solve all their problems. Of course, we can’t. We can do our best. We can think creatively about obstacles in an effort to overcome them. But solve all problems? Absolutely not.

Most members understand this very well. The Cotton Tree has an amazing team who put in long, exhausting hours, often well beyond those they are paid for. Janet, our manager, recently devoted her entire Sunday to hiring a van, collecting beds, sofas and shelves from a flat in central London, and driving them to members’ homes in East London. It’s tempting to describe her as ‘tireless’, but like any other human being, Janet is often tired! This doesn’t stop her from working at weekends and late at night.

Other staff members, volunteers and trustees work incredibly hard to help our members and allow the Cotton Tree to grow. Their efforts are generally recognised and appreciated.

The group has been coming together in the realisation that, despite our differences, all of us are human beings with human limitations. The Cotton Tree was founded on the question, “how can I help?”—a question that was put to Michael when he was a homeless asylum seeker by one of the current trustees. This was the moment that the Cotton Tree was born (or conceived), though no-one knew it at the time.

We try to help our members, and we need them to understand that sometimes we need their help. Desperate as members sometimes feel, staff and volunteers don’t want a barrage of texts pinging on their phones throughout the night. If we turn our phones off, we don’t want to find 50 texts when we wake up. If we say (and mean) that we can’t provide something they want, we don’t want to be told, “I don’t take no for an answer.”

All human beings need sleep and rest. At one level, we are exactly the same. As Shakespeare said, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The storytelling group includes people of different ages, races, cultures, walks of life. Our members are dealing with some of the most profound challenges a human being can face, and it isn’t easy for them knowing that staff and volunteers generally have more comfortable lives.

It’s our capacity to listen across differences and share our humanity that makes healing and growth possible. We feel the warmth of people’s courage and honesty every time we meet. Some are more fortunate than others, but everyone has suffered. We are so lucky to have Michael, who has lived through unimaginable traumas and emerged whole. He is an inspiration to us all.

This baby cotton tree has received TLC (tender loving care) for over 6 months and it’s growing! If you’d like to join our Grow-a-cotton-tree scheme, we can provide seeds, compost, a pot and plant food.

Please contact Ruth on [email protected]