We all write our names of slips of paper, then drop them into the bottle-green velvet bag. We all pick out a name, and write on the slip of paper what colour of the rainbow that person would be, and why. Then we share the positivity. Some people are sunshine yellow, because of their enthusiasm. Others are blue for calmness, pink for their loving hearts. Even if they are new to the group, like me, they are still gifted a colour and the benefit of the doubt. I am white, for clarity and honesty. It’s a positive version of judging a book by its cover, and I’m surprised at how touched and buoyed up I am by this simple exercise.
This is just one of the ways in which things are kicked off each week at the MAP Project, a very lively and welcoming support group at ARC Stockton that engages anyone having mental health issues through Mindfulness, Art and Poetry – and a whole heap of friendly enthusiasm. Their strong focus on positive reinforcement comes directly from personal experiences of anxiety and depression, and they are creative, practical, committed practitioners of inclusive kindness.
One member has set up her own support group for people living with invisible illnesses, so I visited them too. They meet up just for a Wetherspoons breakfast and a chat, twice a month. The tales they told me of ways in which they have been able to help others was an inspiration, literally – I have decided that part of the show will be the creation of an ‘instruction manual for compassion in action’, turning examples of kindness that have been donated to the show into a set of (sometimes strangely specific) instructions. For example – ‘take someone black tights and cigarettes after their mother dies’.
If you’d like to contribute an example that can become an instruction, please take my survey, and be as detailed and specific as you can!
I filmed the second of my two Imelda poem-films for the show today.
This is Imelda before:
And this is a chocolate cake:
And this is the aftermath:
In recent months, parts of my home town have suddenly sprouted technicolour crochet placards, hearts and flowers, much to my delight. Many have exhorted me to ‘Love Where You Live’. One has begged me ‘Please Do Not Feed The Seagulls’. But it was when I saw the instruction ‘Be Kind To Each Other’ that I knew I must find these mysterious yarn bombers and talk to them for the show. What does kindness look like to a ninja knitter?
It turns out their kindness is of the practical variety. Small actions taken consistently, thoughtfulness, neighbourliness, an awareness that what you do in the public realm affects everyone around you. There Is No Such Thing As The Dog Poo Fairy. They are not ones to get too sentimental, or overstate the case for compassion in their own friendships, but is undeniably there, expressed in concrete terms – helping with interior decoration, cooking meals, and of course their collective creativity.
Now, I am sworn to secrecy about the group’s identity, they are fully anonymous (although they will talk back to you if you message their Facebook page). They met at a local neighbourhood planning meeting, all of them having been active in local governance and/or community projects for many years. These are the people who will get down to the nitty-gritty of local improvements – what the signage should look like, where the speed limit should be reduced, who parks where and what to do with that bin. They care enough to bother with interminable meetings, inevitable in-fighting and the hell that is committees.
But they were also disillusioned and disheartened by it all. Bureaucracy is frustrating at the best of times, and nothing was getting done. They wanted to take direct action, to show love for their town, brighten things up for their community, and spread a message of kindness. So now, if you are lucky, you may spy them in the dead of night, hats pulled down low, collars turned up high, toting their stepladder and staple gun. They are not teenagers, they are mums and grandmums, and bloody fabulous with it.
Another day, another chance to meet people and talk kindness, this time over tea, coffee and a lot of cake!
I think that some of the stories about kindness and compassion that people tell me, in discussions or via my survey, will end up in the show transformed into instructions for how to behave. So if we take the rather lovely stories told to me yesterday by members of Real Life Options in Hartlepool, possible answers to the question ‘what shall I do with my compassion?’ might be:
When your neighbour falls over, help him up and take his shopping home for him.
Lend your housemate your pens when she needs them.
Look after your brother when he’s ill or feeling bad, be sensitive to his moods.
Volunteer as a cleaner at a kitchen showroom every Thursday.
Help out with the tea and bingo at the old people’s residential home next door.
The most interesting thing for me about these examples is not that they are unusually kind, but that they are all actions done by adults with learning disabilities. I was expecting to ask them about kindness and to hear about people being kind to them – and I did, they spoke about their friends and helpers. But I wasn’t expecting them to be agents of compassion themselves, which just goes to show how narrow my mind is. Super-glad to be put right on that score, and to have a great conversation with the care workers present about how doing things for their client may look kind, but standing back and allowing them agency, autonomy and challenge is almost always the most compassionate thing to do.
Give up your power, empower someone else. Yes.
Imelda is my alter-ego. She’s the troll under my Bridge of Sanity, she’s a mostly-dormant sub-routine, she’s development so arrested she has a rap-sheet. Little id-dy creature, she is not me. Except when she rises up from the depths like Godzilla, and eats me whole, with her slappable stupidity in matters of the heart.
She gets her own slot in the new show, because compassion starts at home, and the trouble with that is – who here really likes all of themself? But I don’t want to ‘be’ her when I perform, so I plan to hide under the table while I play a film of her poem. Luckily, I know a very talented film-maker. Laura Degnan and I will be spending a couple of days this month out and about in Hartlepool and beyond, making two of my poems into films for the show. In preparation for this I have bought the following items: a ‘High School Sweeheart’ curly wig in strawberry blonde, a vastly oversized pink floral nightdress, a vastly oversized fleece cape with a sleeping-cat-head hoodie bit, and an enormous chocolate cake. Now, doesn’t that make you want to see the show?!!
After she has her moment in the spotlight, I will be asking the audience for words of kindness. In my opinion, what she needs is not tea-and-sympathy kindness, but some tough love, a little bit like these wonderful words of advice to wibbling narcissists everywhere. As one respondent to my teensy survey has said, when asked about kindness received in their life:
“Several good souls over the years have pointed out and guided me towards the truth of certain key situations in my life. Telling the truth hurts a little (like when you give blood and the staff say “Sharp Scratch!) but it’s best to hear it. Then you can make informed choices, take ownership of your life.”
The Trouble With Compassion will have its first outing as part of Crossing the Tees literature festival, with dates at Hartlepool Library, ARC Stockton, and Middlesbrough’s Rainbow Library.
This time last week, I was immersed in silence at the Friends Meeting House in Darlington, thinking about compassion. I’m sure that if I were a Christian I would have found my way to the silent worship of Quakerism by now, it appeals to something very deep in me, probably the same thing that has been sending me off to Buddhist retreats for the last eight years. I appreciate the way Quakers think profoundly about very big issues indeed – conflict, war, refugees, tolerance, peace. Their writings emphasise inclusion, welcome and bridges between faiths. I think this is an expression of compassion.
We had a very lovely time talking and eating the homemade carrot cake someone had kindly made. Everyone engaged with my fumbling questions with great integrity and thoughtfulness, but I’d like to share one anecdote here in particular, because it really illustrated for me the challenge and beauty of acting compassionately.
A man goes into his regular pub and finds to his dismay that there is printed material on the bar containing racist and anti-refugee jokes. He is boiling over with indignation and anger towards the two barmen, who he had previously thought of as friendly, welcoming people. He doesn’t know how to confront them, how to argue with them, how to defend the victims from this attack. He shows the ‘jokes’ to a friend who also drinks in the pub, and asks him how he would handle it. The other man goes up to the barmen and says “I have known you two for years. You are always the first to help people round here when they need it, I know you are kind. Why are you refusing help to these other people when they need it most?”
I don’t know the outcome of the story, and to a certain extent it doesn’t matter. Of course it would be wonderful if the barmen suddenly had epiphanies and stopped fearing immigrants, but I suppose it’s more likely they would have retorted with some ‘charity begins at home’ position. But for me, it’s an example of how to be in the world and actively engage with divisive issues on a personal level – without compromising on the aim of compassion for everyone.
Of the taxi-using population of Teesside, 92% are kind. Of the remaining 8%, half could learn to be kind, and half are too far gone. I know this because I spent last Saturday in Stockton Library with a flipchart, and a very chatty taxi driver sat down and told me so. I asked him about kindness quite generally, but he spent a good deal of effort quantifying his experience of punters, so I feel I should respect his percentages. I also very much respect his adamant position that judging people too quickly is very wrong – they will always surprise you if you give them time to relax.
I’m genuinely bucked up to think I live and work in an area of 92% kindness, but I’m a little concerned at what constitutes kindness to my compatriots, based on the examples they gave me at Stockton Library. Bearing in mind they might not have wanted to unburden their most profound moments to a random person when they were only there to borrow a Mary Berry cookbook, nevertheless there was a lot of very small kindnesses mentioned. Smiling at people, chatting to neighbours, and above all else holding doors open for people – this is just common courtesy, surely? When did a held door become the acme of tender-heartedness, the definitive gesture of humanity? People say ‘it’s the little things’, but forgive me if I carry on looking for something more than just the absence of rudeness….
You could help me figure out what kindness really looks like, and if it’s different to compassion, by taking my teensy survey.
The show is playing at ARC in Stockton on Thursday 16 June, it’s Pay What You Decide, so a no-risk proposition! Reserve your seat here.
Up next : carrot cake and compassion with Quakers!
Hail and gratitude to everyone who followed my otter madness throughout April! You will be pleased to know that I have celebrated my first successful NaPoWriMo by going to see real life otters at Blue Reef. They were adorable, and very, very stinky.
Now I enter another month of ridiculousness as I try to write a show to go with my poetry collection, including lots of research conversations, field trips, filming of poem films, and of course writing of blog posts.
The theme is – KINDNESS AND COMPASSION. Some may say I haven’t been very kind to myself by leaving myself with so little time to complete a show that is booked to start touring on 11th June. They would be very right. You can help me!! I have a little survey thingie here, it’s only four questions, fancy giving it a go?
I will posting up interesting web snippets as I go along, but if you’d like to keep abreast of performances then you could join me on Facebook.
The picture featured is the contact sheet from a great morning messing around with my friend and colleague Suzi Corker, who is a great photographer and will be doing my posters. Which photo do you like best? (Be kind, remember!)