Like a shadow or a friend


Here’s a poem about kindness by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye.  She spoke elegantly and movingly at a NAPT conference several years ago.  Her premise in the poem, that kindness is in proportion to sorrow, feels relevant to this week.

Thursday night and I’m at Ty Newydd, the last home of David Lloyd George, parts of which date back to the sixteenth century, now the National Writers Centre for Wales. I’m sitting in a little room in front of the deep-silled window overlooking the garden and the sea beyond, the great curve of Cardigan Bay from the Lleyn across to Harlech, clearly visible earlier in the week but today, lost in the mist that was curling over the fields.  It’s dark now, there are smells of cooking from the kitchen, voices in the dining room downstairs, laughter in the library next door, smokers joking outside.

Tomorrow’s the last day of what’s been, again, an intense, stimulating and heartening week.  There’s a sense of community among an extraordinarily diverse group and I’m thinking back to an event I went to last week, back in Kent, hosted by People United, an arts organisation that exists to explore how, inter alia, ‘the arts can create the conditions for kindness’.

It took place at Turner Contemporary in Margate and was billed as a ‘Living Room’.  We sat in small groups on comfy cushions and easy chairs, drinking tea and eating biscuits whilst being gently invited to discuss progressively deeper questions.  We were first asked to talk about our values – in my group, courtesy, hospitality, freedom, time for others, tolerance, respect came up – other groups had other lists.

Then, the two invited speakers spoke at length in response to these questions.  Tom Crompton is a Change Strategist at the WWF and talked about the way art and values interact, reflecting and informing each other and how values, intrinsic and extrinsic are often in tension with one another.  Values, it seems are universal, every culture coming up with a similar pallette.

Dorothy Cross, the artist who has a fascinating show currently at Turner Contemporary, spoke about the ‘troubling’ nature of art and tensions between the desire for creating the new and valuing the old.  She doesn’t like the word ‘community’, saying it can be taming. She also prioritises solitude, working alone on a beach in Connemara.  And yet her work fosters a deep connection with the natural world. Tom suggested that the artist risks seeing herself as different.  Dorothy talked of the restlessness implicit in the making of art and the desire for transformation.

And so on.  My pen stopped working and our conversations became more circular and the ideas of collective and individual endeavours, generalities and specifics started to blend – from definitions of ‘art’ to the circumcised penis on one of crabs cast in bronze by Dorothy.  Then we had soup and fresh bread and went home, in my case, stimulated to write some poems and to reflect more on how my values manifest in my own practice.

And this week seems to have exemplified much of the discussion.  The group is quite large, so Graham and I have repeated each workshop with a different permuation of people.  Each experience has been quite different, even as the content was the same.  The writing has been individually generated but there’s a collective consciousness manifested in surprising coincidences of imagery and approach.  And kindness has permeated everything – cooking, washing up, sharing resources, conversation, lifts, deep permissive listening, especially in the workshops where we bring our common humanity to the table in the form of poems, stories and reflections.  Not every week here is quite as kind – in other years, there have been more arguments and friction, storminess and challenge.  This year, people have shared stories of great sadness and I wonder whether, as in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, the kindness is in proportion to the sorrow.

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, and I’m grateful for yet another week, here in this beautiful house and all the many kindnesses given and received.  They won’t change the world but I like to think they’ll create small ripples beyond the uncharacteristally calm sea of Cardigan Bay and this little corner of North Wales.