Living without money for 13 years

Twenty-two years ago Heidemarie Schwermer, a middle-aged secondary school teacher just emerging from a difficult marriage, moved with her two children from the village of Lueneburg to the city of Dortmund, in the Ruhr area of Germany, whose homeless population, she immediately noticed, was above average and striking in its intransigent hopelessness. Her immediate reaction was shock. “This isn’t right, this can’t go on,” she said to herself. After careful reflection she set up what in Germany is called a Tauschring – a sort of swap shop – a place where people can exchange their skills or possessions for other skills and possessions, a money-free zone where a haircut could be rendered in return for car maintenance; a still-functioning but never-used toaster be exchanged for a couple of second-hand cardigans. She called it Gib und Nimm, Give and Take. It was always Schwermer’s belief that the homeless didn’t need money to re-enter society: instead they should be able to empower themselves by making themselves useful, despite debts, destitution or joblessness. “I’ve always believed that even if you have nothing, you are worth a lot. Everyone has a place in this world.”

But the homeless of Dortmund seemed not to take to Schwermer’s plan, few ever turned up to the Tauschring. Some, they told her angrily to her face, felt that a middle-class woman with some education would never be able to relate to the circumstances of the dispossessed. Instead it was mainly the unemployed and the retired who began, in snowballing numbers, to flock to the Tauschring, their arms full of things that had been lying around their homes unused for years, or skills that they possessed but no longer exercised: retired hairdressers volunteered to cut the hair of out-of-work electricians, who would wire their kitchens in return; retired English teachers gave language lessons in return for the services of a dog-walker. The point was, not a single pfennig changed hands.  The Tauschring grew exponentially, was written up glowingly in a couple of local papers and turned into something of a Dortmund phenomenon. Its success also prompted Schwermer to ask serious questions of herself and her way of life. “I began to realise that I lived with so many things I didn’t need. So I decided that I wouldn’t buy anything without giving something away. That’s how it started. Then I began to really think about what I needed, clothes for example, and noticed that I could easily get by with what I could hang on ten coathangers. Everything else I gave away. I had so much stuff in the house that was superfluous. Getting rid of it was a relief.”

After a while even her vast collection of books began to assume an excessive presence in her home and one day Schwermer marched to a second-hand shop with her entire library. “The woman in the shop was upset. But I felt that giving them away was a good thing. I love books but I knew I had to get rid of them. I didn’t miss them, which surprised me. I just wanted to pare things down to their essentials.” What had, in part, led Schwermer to her conclusions about “stuff” was a year of psychotherapy after the breakdown of her marriage in the mid-1980s. It was a difficult year, she remembers: “I was in floods of tears nearly every session, but at the end of it I felt so happy and decided that I wanted to live more simply. I also wanted to pass on what I learnt in therapy to other people, and that’s when I began to train as a psychotherapist.” Other things changed. She took up meditation and began to realise how dissatisfied she was in her job. “I was always ill with flu or had backache and never realised the connection between my physical symptoms and my unhappiness at work.” In the wake of setting up her Tauschring, she began to experiment with other sorts of jobs on the side. “I was working in a kitchen for ten deutschmarks an hour and people were saying to me, ‘You went to university, you studied to do this?’ But I thought, well, every person has an intrinsic value, why should I be valued more for being a teacher or a therapist than for working in a kitchen?” (Read the whole article on scott.net.)

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