Quietly loved

A Book of Ours, Projects

Today’s sessions at the Booth Centre were both popular and the big, bustling groups added more to the ever-growing Book of Ours.

On days like these, the little details can easily get lost in the busyness. And it’s these little, intimate details that are in fact the key to this book. If you look at almost any page you’ll find self-revealing moments of extraordinary power and poignancy. Here is someone writing of their spirituality, a little description of a personal saint, over there is a gloriously colourful autumn leaf, with the words, “On the quiet, I’ve always September” nearby. Here is the date of someone becoming homeless, and over there a recent marriage proposal. Here is love, there is abuse.

 To sit with people as they make these tiny worlds and talk about them is moving beyond words. We come along to these sessions as anything but “teachers” — quite the reverse. Over and over again, we learn.

April 1-15th 

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, with people who have experienced homelessness — at the Booth Centre in Manchester and other support centres. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more.

 

Supported by HLF.

The Deluge

Projects, War Widows Stories

War Widows Quilt

 

Deanna Selby

We were working at the National Memorial Arboretum, on a table loaded with quilt squares and art materials and the paraphernalia of writing. Outside the rain deluged, sending showers of droplets through thickets of trees.

Today’s workshop brought a remarkable little gang of people. Out of the awful situation of being widowed and grief,  friendship has come — an amazing friendship between them. They wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for shared disaster. The bond that they have is evidently special. When we met they were joking with each other, gently poking fun. But when they worked they were in earnest and they encouraged one another to open up and then shared their feelings and supported each other. A lot of friendships never get to that stage, walking with one another through the darkest times in order to get to the light. The gift that out of something terrible something special has come.

 

Norma

One woman had worked with us before and it was she who brought her two compadres. She brought them because they were her friends and she felt it might help them. And so we pitched into talking and making poems and making art and talking again. This was a conversation about loss that went very deep — you could see the pain on their faces as they discussed it. But they had hope, they trusted and understood one another, encouraged each other to experience the sadness, because it leads to release.

And then, gently, came tears.

It is always a matter of great delicacy when somebody cries in a workshop with us. Not because crying is in anyway wrong, in fact sometimes we welcome it. But it is also a sign that things are connecting very deeply, there’s a big upswell of emotion. This needs to be respected and acknowledged but not always discussed. Sometimes when there are tears, a little quiet is what’s needed next.

When she went outside for a breath of fresh air, her friend said, “She needed a cry and now she needs time alone.”

And she nodded to herself, as if recognising this fact in her own experience. Allowing space to grieve, rather than shutting it down.

Between working with our participants, we talked with interested and engaged members of the public. Many, many people came up to our little table to have a look and also to talk. They were full of compliments for the work and for the bravery of the women who made it. We are told that there were 600 visitors that morning, many of them passed by our table, many of them looked and listened — and shared their own stories, of times when they too were swimming amongst the wreckage.

 

Slow rollercoaster

A Book of Ours, Projects

The Book of Ours is growing into itself.

 

Each week, a handful more images and more words. This isn’t fast work, it needs to be slow and intricate. If you contribute to this book, you sometimes need to dive in deep and take time to look inside yourself, to record carefully and then report back. Or perhaps it’s a gentle meander, like going for a pleasant walk, but still it takes time.

Every page is wreathed in flowers, trees, the detail of many tiny worlds. Every written line has been hard-won, too. The experiences they record are often hard — and then reshaping them as a poem or prose also takes hard thought.

Bella and Chris @boothcentre

Making this work is not only an act of self-expression, it brings relaxation, companionship, laughter, empathy too. These are all words I’ve heard used today, as people describe the process of making. Here are some snapshots from the day, in both photos and words.

In the morning, one of our “regulars” at The Booth Centre was making a piece for a friend who’s just died. The funeral was in the afternoon. We talked about Scottish James and gradually a piece was written for him, which will be inscribed into the Book of Ours. As he wrote, his face was shadowed and he took many pauses to reflect, silently. Once we’d done, he shook my hand and gave a brisk nod.

“Nice,” he said.

Andy @BoothCentre

One of the artists hadn’t been in for a while, due to personal circumstances. He grinned from ear to ear when he came in the room. We told him he’d been missed, we’d been concerned.

“I’m here for the full day,” he said. “I’ve missed you. I’ve missed this.”

He sat down, picked up a pen and got to work, drawing as if his life depended on it. The colours that erupt on his pages are dazzling, gorgeous, sunshiney. In between working he told us about being bounced between accommodation, falling through gaps in the system, struggling to find space for his life to continue.

“I don’t know how I manage to keep positive,” he said. “But somehow, I do.”

A final snapshot. Two of the writers involved today had to go early, for various unavoidable reasons. Both of them complained bitterly as they left. They didn’t want to leave, it was being forced on them, too soon. Like waking up too early, from a dream that hasn’t finished yet.

 

It is the morning, the mourning

In the morning. Mourning. It’s sad,

The word we use to start

Every day is a word for

Death. Get on the rollercoaster.

It is the morning, the mourning.

 

Group poem

 

April

 

Let the ice melt everything

A Book of Ours, Projects

Farewell to Jon, still seeing everything

Farewell coldness, let the ice melt everything.

 

Something about today made it a quiet one at the Booth Centre, the frantic buzz of the last couple of weeks had quietened. It was a gentle, reflective atmosphere upstairs in the art space too. We sat at a table with at most eight people gathered around it at any one time. Moments like these are ideal for exploring the deeper layers in ourselves, for seeing what’s there, and perhaps for sharing.

Roy writing

Today’s workshop was poetry only. Most of our working days are a mixture of art and writing, but this one was expressed in pens and paper and ideas. Which brought out a different quality in people; using language rather than gesture, vocabulary rather than colour. It also brought with it intimacy. We talked about things that slide under the surface of the everyday to remain hidden. We wrote about loss and about the losing of things we’d like to see the back of. And as we talked, we wrote. A group piece, extracted here. And individual poems too. Six line poems, six words per line. Enough limitation to bring focus, enough looseness to let it flow.

 

In the lunch break I met someone who’s often worked with us in the past. Bandaged up to the elbows on both arms, cheeks puffy and bruised. This familiar face grinned at me when I to join in the writing, “Can’t mate. I’m hoping I’ve got a place in rehab today. But thanks for asking.”

I said I hoped the place came up, that it all worked out. Bandaged arms, pyjama trousers, bruised cheeks. I’ve thought about that short encounter the rest of this afternoon. About that smile. It was as if I was a messenger from a far off world that’s thought of fondly, but currently unreachable.

“Join us again, when you can,” I said.

The reply: “Thanks for asking. I mean it.”

 

Farewell sweet love, you won’t be alone

Farewell everyone supposed to be home.

 

From Ballad No. 4, group poem

 

The kindness of gangsters

A Book of Ours, Projects

Our project a Book of Ours at the Booth Centre is a kind of seismograph, measuring tremors. Some workshops are stable and we make work in tranquillity, others bring earthquakes. Today we started with the earthquakes. We had someone screaming out their anguish at the top of their voice. We had verbal aggression. We had tears, of course. We heard a heartbreak from everyone there, or so it felt.

But we also witnessed many small victories and it’s those I want to honour. The slow determination of people beaten down by violence, addiction, depression, fear — and yet still they bring themselves here to focus on these fragile pages. And, more and more, they listen to each other, help each other through the bad moments.

As I write this now, after the latest session, I can still see one particular person, who until last week was living on the streets, beset with drugs and mental health difficulties, with their face full of peace as they paints. Their page is a rich weave of colour, image, writing. Each element is part of a little world, into which they dive, and into which they invites us. This page is one of the most fought-over spaces I’ve ever seen. Some weeks they manage to join us, to work on it more. Other weeks they’re missing in action. To have them with us today was not just a personal win for them, but the winning out of hope over despair, art over violence, living over ending. We keep score of such things.

Today we also had a return visit from one of our occasional group members. Many of his stories of street living are too harsh for him write, just the telling leaves him shaking. But he did make the poem below, that gives the title to this blog post. It’s about the arrival of hope, just when you think all is lost. And how the cavalry sometimes arrives from unexpected places.

When he’d finished working on the poem, he was insistent it acknowledged not just himself, but also the other seven people sleeping out on that street that night. He checked it over, nodded his approval. “It’s my tale,” he said. “It’s good.”

 

 

The Kindness of Gangsters

 

Faces.

Simple fact: you’re lying there, pavement

Looking up, watching faces.

Tales of good to evil to evil to good.

The Gangsters of London

Heard our tales.

The Door Boss of London and his boys

They were giving out fish and chips

Pulling up in the flash car, giving positivity

From a 4 by 4.

Giving money, maybe felt guilty, listening to the

Tales of people sleeping on Russel Street

Tales of good to evil to evil to good

Babies born in doorways.

 

Me, I’m

Not just telling the tale, I’m living it

Whilst looking up at the stars — and tell me

What are they looking at?

These walls are recorders for history

The girl selling oranges got stabbed

And the baby’s brought to rest.

Faces,

I’m looking up

Every person is a face, has a heart.

The Gangster of London

Maybe was homeless himself

Tales of good to evil to evil to good

The Door Boss of London

Came in his car. Put his boys out

To look after us, to give. Love.

 

Anonymous

(This tale could be told by any of the seven men sleeping on Russel Street that night)

Karen

Karen

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, (‘A book of ours’) giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

A swallow over his heart

Projects, War Widows Stories

Lois and I are currently working on the quilt and poetry for War Widows’ Stories and wanted to share some of our thoughts and writing from the wonderful session in Edinburgh with the War Widows’ Association

 

A swallow over his heart

With a scroll engraved with

My name, when he was 18.

 

Kathleen Cahillane

 

Kathleen Cahillane signature

Kathleen Cahillane

 

The Edinburgh group workshop for the War Widows quilt and poetry was a subtle sharing.

Twenty people sat around the table, bringing a mixture of expectation, grief, anxiety and excitement. It’s a strange thing to ask people to look at one of the most painful things they’ve ever experienced and turn it into a piece of creative work. A big ask, as they say. In this workshop we invited a group of War Widows to write and embroider about widowhood.

The intention was that they’d make work about the things that keep them going, the survival strategies. As it happened, many brought the rawness of loss to their writing and their artwork. They’d decided to dive in deep, even before they arrived. I was between two women, both of whom had lost husbands in Northern Ireland, both of whom had already written down some ideas about how to explain this terrible mystery in their lives, to others and perhaps to themselves.

The writing they made was very direct, giving dates of death and looking at what had happened square on. But events like these aren’t so simply explained. The echoes continue and continue. A child looks like their missing father. A particular day is loaded with dread. The absence is huge, too big to deal with all at once. The need to carry on for family is paramount, grief gets brushed to one side and stays unhealed…

As people worked, there was a gentle hubbub of conversation. They settled into the rhythm of the sewing and writing and shared experiences with their neighbours. Little stories of details that had been forgotten started to emerge. A camping trip, a tattoo, two children on their father’s shoulders.

It’s often with little things that the big things are said:

 

Farmer

 

A hard worker, carrying

Two little boys and a lamb

In his hood.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our hope.

 

I courted a B Special

I married a UDR soldier.

He died Royal Irish

Loved and being loved.

The Lord watches over our

 

Going out and

Coming in. In my beehive hair

I had no idea.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our future.

 

Joan

 

joan B pocket

Joan’s pocket, embroidered by Lois

 

 

The tears are close to our eyes

War Widows Stories

We’d like to thank the War Widows’ Association in Northern Ireland for inviting us into their precious twice-yearly meeting and making time for us when they were meeting with old friends, planning events, and sharing news. To be present  in one of the meetings is a privilege. It’s a group of friends, but it’s also a group of people grieving. The tears are close to everyone’s eyes. And then there’s a layer of politics. And of history too, the resonance of war.

Alberta

Over sandwiches and a cup of tea we talked about the weather, about memories of childhood — and then suddenly we were discussing a man being killed and his child running away from the scene of the killing covered in blood and shattered glass. How do you say all this, how do you deal with all this? At the end as we were getting ready to leave, Alberta our host answered the question, “Hugs.”

And yes, love is one answer among the many we heard. One of the widows said, “Here people hug me. But when I get back home I’m on my own with my life again and I go on a downer.”

A lot of the groups we work with include people from all walks of life, they’re brought together by a circumstance, for instance people who’ve experienced homelessness, or dementia, or widowhood. They’re suddenly talking to each other, in ways that unlock great emotion, sometimes it’s compassion, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes joy.

Today we passed from table to table, introducing some art and poem ideas and simply talking. Although there is no “simply” here. To be a widow is not simple, it is as complex as every individual in the room, with their many triumphs and tragedies. And of course, a shadow presence is the word “Troubles”. The conflict that still echoes through this place, and through many of the people here. How to even begin to put such a knot of loyalties and grievances to rest?

 

Ann

The project that we’re collectively making is a quilt. Many of the squares that make up the quilt carry the names of the widows and their husbands, and dates of birth and death. Other squares are pockets, which are embroidered with a few words, giving a part of a story, or a line from a song. Within these pockets is memorabilia, things that quietly commemorate, poems, letters, scraps of cloth. They are both present and hidden.

Making art or poems together allows deeply layered conversations to happen, sometimes finding expression for what’s only partly known. It’s what needs to happen first. Today was not a day for making, it was preparing the ground. When people left the room, many of them took squares with them to work on at home.

 

Heaven is my home(ann)

What will come back, how will those extraordinary moments we shared be re-made in word and stitch? Anne and Margaret talking about faith and love — “Heaven is my home.” Or Violet, with her eyes sparking, as she sang a line of a song that her husband used to sing to her, “Send me the pillow that you dream on
So darling I can dream on it too…”

 

Thanks to Alberta and Mary for inviting us to Belfast. Thanks to everyone who attended the War Widows’ Association meeting for making us feels so welcome and sharing your time, your creativity.