Approaching the silence

We travelled the sharp and bending curves of the road until we reached our final stop. A secluded meadow with a glorious backdrop nestled within the Wales countryside sits a Gypsy wagon. Our home for a few days courtesy of some true and brilliant friends. After setting down our things and placing our belongings around our new home, we talked about living a nomadic life. Us two, treading soft footed through villages and fields as we lived the simplest of lives. A simple and wholehearted life. Imagine that.  

In contrast, like many of you my normal life is different. I sit in my worn out armchair, writing and researching “stuff “. Papers spread all around me. I dip in and out of words trying to finish plans and reports. I drink far too much tea and coffee. I am never finished and always on catch up. I spin a long line of plates. I face challenges daily. 

I read hardship stories of pain and despair in the news. I have my own. I see and hear starkness. Dark gloomy nights hang over all of us. Turbulent times. Angy times of opposition. Opposing paths. Miscommunication. Lost friends and lost family. Opposing truths. At times despair. Some of us are sick with rage. Moments of huge contrast. Overwhelming kindness housed beside unkind words and doings. 

It’s become exhausting trying to stay connected in a way that is good for us all.  

The fabric of engagement and connection is a complex and layered one. It has its own itinerary about how we enter into its dance and connect. My work takes me down the path of connection through weaving and shaping layers of matrix systems, thinking, discussions and debates. At times, I have wondered why on earth I do this work. 

We know that history plays a huge part in how we engage and interact. Who I am, my story, our experiences as well as our collective relationship to the thing, the place the purpose and everything. A delicate and fragile history will resurface if we don’t respect it, understand it, hold it with love and care and acknowledge it. The Good Friday agreement is one very good example. History has forgotten already. You would think that we don’t need reminding about it but we clearly do. We have stories. Some of us have memories etched and printed on us across generations. Yet, here we are. Change brings with it a casual dismissive regard for the past. It doesn’t fit the new story. 

Yet, history itself tells us that we always pay the price for that thinking. Once we disregard the past as irrelevant or inconvenient we are destined to make new often fatal errors. It is a horror to watch. 

Yet, I hear cries across social media.

“Why do people always bring up the past. It’s so unnecessary”.

Our collective archive of history. The very thing for learning, understanding and growth.  

One of my first ever arts development programmes involved teaming up with a small group of like minded people to research and develop our thinking. One evening, while we collated and gathered paperwork, my colleague turned to me and said:

“See, this is what it is all about Carrie. Life is a series of letters and notes passed from me to you and from you to me and onto someone else. Passing information from one to another, back and forth. Over and over. Forever.”

I laughed politely but felt its sting. Is that it ? A bunch of notes between us all. Information and sharing more information. Data and more data. Back and forth. Registering information over and over in different formats. Telling each other stuff. 

Our notes gives shape to our plans. We do need the research and thinking in order to know what’s missing and why. To ask big questions. To find out THE question. To confirm if its wanted and needed. We need it so that we can ask. 

We question and re-question our language. 

“Let’s all be authentic.” 

“That’s authentic, that there. Look, see how authentic it is.” 

“I don’t think that it’s authentic enough.” 

“How can we measure whether its authentic or not ?” 

“What do we mean by authentic ?`’

Suddenly, authentic is not the word. It will be a new word to communicate and pass notes back and forth with. We will use new words that replace the old words. The new words are better, more current and more responsive to change and how things are right now. The old words are irrelevant. Sometimes for good. 

So, with that in mind, where in our thinking or passing of notes and data do we make space for love and honesty. Where in our weird systems thinking or energy mapping and community growth do we make room for critical awareness, self empathy, connection and emotional health. Do we make time for this in our project planning or reporting. Self kindness, common humanity and the struggle of everyone. What is the point of any of it if we don’t bring that to the table. 

On the way to a meeting the other day, I listened to this. A great listen on the BBC “Only Artists” to Julie Hesmondhagh and Tony Walsh. The two talk and compare experiences of growing up in working class Britain. A wonderful dance of a conversation. Both entered the space with a whole hearted love of the arts. It was great to hear their stories which really resonate with my own experience. Sometimes, its one teacher, a parent, a family member/mentor who notices and encourages you. That connection and paying attention. Acknowledging and respecting who you are and your history. Just offering choice, connection and a chance to examine the earth in a different way. 

Perhaps, its bringing back the whole hearted approach to our working and passing of notes to one another. Put the love back in because we need it more than ever. 

Over to you. 

Civil Society and the arts

“Beware those men, the jokers and the tricksters and the clowns. They will laugh us into hell”.

Russell T Davies character Muriel stated in the final episode of Years and Years.

O gosh, an amazing drama which shows us a stark and terrifying picture of the world as it falls into a hell of our own making.

So, I want to talk about Civil Society.

It involves all of us. It is where “we come together” as a community for a purpose or maybe something useful… Maybe it’s the street parties, community groups, arts, events, community litter pick ups, connecting through good things, taking part in resistance -we are civil society. Right now we need it more than ever. The world and the community we live in is a divided one. Our democracy is questionable at best. Many of us feel threatened or scared, vulnerable or angry. Some of the voices in our community have turned to anger and division. There are also growing tensions between different communities often inflamed by the media. Politicians are at best creative with facts and often rail against community desire and voice. We are tired, we are scared and we are desperately seeking change.  

From rural to city, from rich to poor, from old to young power, powerlessness is a growing feeling that unites many of us. To add to our woes, austerity and an unequal society has created wider and deeper divisions within this place we call home and how we connect and work together for the better.

Ok. Stay with me. It’s going to be OK.

I recently attended a Civil society futures conference with Julia Unwin. The event held a lens up to the social tensions, stories and challenges we are all facing in our daily lives.

“We gonna leave” a good friend told me recently. “As soon as our passports are through. We have had enough of this country. It isn’t safe for the kids. This country has gone to hell. I don’t recognise it anymore”.

It is a depressing and recurring statement that I have heard and engaged with since Brexit began. I even entered into it myself for a short as I flirted with the possibility of moving back to Ireland with my family. That is until I realised how hard a move that would be for me and my family. 

But, the conference shared stories of civil society and communities bringing about change and coming together and that is what keeps me here. We were reminded of stories about how communities have forged partnerships to strengthen society through difficult times.

From the people who left their homes in the early hours with armfulls of food, clothing and gifts to those left homeless at Grenfell Tower to the small groups of people who stood picketing in the pouring rain for days to protect their beloved local libraries from closure. Or the people wrestling with the changing tide of freak weather reports to help a neighbour with comfort and support as they scoured through the rubble for precious ornaments and family treasures. Maybe you are one of the growing numbers of people who peacefully protest about climate change by making small and large gestures of resistance to raise awareness and bring about change. These moments occur despite everything that is happening around us. These moments occur with difference and sometimes because of it. These moments. 

As a community of people we want and need to have agency over things that matter and mean something to us and our families. What the civil society future report finds is that a deep connection and trust for everyone involved remains a key thread to our future. There is still desire for a sense of place, connection, collaboration and coming together.

Yes of course, the political landscape feels more and more out of reach for many of us. One person at the conference said “This change will have to come despite the government. We cannot rely on them anymore, that’s finished”.

“Yes but people have been saying that for years” said my neighbour. “Nothing new there”. Yes, that is true. Hear we are now in our call to rise up. 

However, what really struck a chord for me in the report was the notion of kindness. A call for a different language. A different language of engagement and questioning. Time for us to become more emotionally articulate with our interactions and intentions with one another. How our engagement and decisions have far greater depth and impact than we realise. To change for the future, requires all of us to consider kindness, courage and commitment as our anchor. It should be our anthem.

It made me think of a local authority that I once visited. It had placed its housing team in amongst the open space atrium. It was more cost effective. An atrium where families, individuals and staff mingled in amongst the clatter of coffee cups and the chatter of a public space.

In contrast to all of this, someone would occasionally hear that their housing has been denied or changed. The person waiting impatiently for someone to appear with good or bad news. In public. In full view. The meeting would involve the positioning and repositioning of chairs as everyone involved took their seats. I imagined the housing officer staring in silence, willing their case number to comply with change. The housing officer poised and waiting to offer alternatives and a paper sheet of numbers and contacts. Then empty seats as the chairs are abandoned.

Yet, this was the now preferred method. It may have made perfect financial sense to move the more accessible service to an open space but it now felt like a service that was unkind and publically witnessed. It had the potential to place the most vulnerable in full view. How would they rate that service ? Kind. Tick box 5, Unkind. Tick box 1. Humiliated. Tick box 1. 

If our future involves all manner of discoveries involving technology and the very way we work and engage with one another, then how are we proceed without kindness.

Imagine this:

The rush of language and definition for different social groups. “What shall we call those people?” “I know, let’s call them “hard to reach”. It is in the end, no way kind.

I dipped into twitter today to read the news. It could really do with some generous acts of kinds in language and behaviour. How do some of these interactions contribute to a kind, courageous and committed society. I leave feeling as though the divisions and gaps in society are like two huge husks colliding with one another in slow dry battle.

So, if it is our behaviours and practices that can and will shape the future how can we proceed ?

People are asking more questions. This is good. People are disruptive. This is good. People are provocating. Also good. Do I need to ready my Irish passport to abandon this country. Not just yet. For the artistic community, who isn’t here and why ? Do I need permission to be here and if so WHY? There are lots of organisations and individuals who are showing us a commitment to question and do things differently. Do they provide the solutions for society ? If you are involved in local arts and health could your progression be the answer ? Do we need to balance the power out of buildings and into open spaces and into smaller unknown spaces ? Where do local authorities fit in and how can they support us better ?

Additionally, I think the challenge we are seeking is both external and internal for the arts sector. I have witnessed small organisations bringing radical and innovative change precisely because they are the small organisation. The impact and the ripple effect they are having can be far reaching. So, we do have power. If very small organisations are pushing forward then we can make a huge difference in civil society. However, we can move forward exhibiting, modelling kindness in our own community as well as the wider world.

Here is the PACT from civil society futures aspirations:

  • Power – sharing power and using power to help everyone play a full part in the things that matter to them
  • Accountability – being accountable to the people and communities we serve
  • Connection – broadening and deepening our connections with people and communities
  • Trust – staying true to our values and investing the time and resources in activities that will help build trust in the sector

https://civilsocietyfutures.org/

http://civicroleartsinquiry.gulbenkian.org.uk/news

https://www.thersa.org/

Everyone is talking about it…

This morning, my father sat down in his usual spot with tea in one hand and over buttered toast and jam in the other listening to his raspy untuned radio. It’s a ritual that he repeats every morning.

Today, the voice from the radio informed us that more and more of us are taking solo holidays to manage and support our wellbeing. A mocking tone in his voice, the presenter talked about how ridiculous we have all become as a nation.

Some of us are taking holidays to get away from the people we love. To reboot and repair ourselves.

I have read lots of threads from parents seeking any kind of private time away from their families. Nothing new really. There are hilarious stories about adults retreating to toilets to escape the constant requests from children or partners. We mock and joke about our desire for private time. In contrast, some of us regularly share photos of solo trips around the UK or beyond.

But, increasingly we are a nation of lonely people with growing referrals to gp surgeries for people experiencing isolation.

I recently completed a study about a local area and its “wellbeing” as a community. It is a fascinating concept. What began as a study about young people and their wellbeing, quickly became an exploration of community wellbeing and how we as a collective people work to support one another. It is virtually impossible to explore and develop plans to support children and young people’s wellbeing without looking at the whole picture. With half of all mental illness beginning by the age of 14, its gonna take a village, a town, a community to work together to support one another better. Shockingly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds.

From speaking to members of the community, the overwhelming comments where that people do like to connect with one another. Slow down and take time to notice.

Just talk. Connect. Take notice.

Share stuff and be kind to people.

Check in with your neighbours, the ones that you see and the ones that you don’t.

#Worldmentalhealthday

Are there any violins?

I find myself in a slight predicament this week. My daughter wants to learn an instrument. A violin. The girl would like to learn the violin. We have spent a long time arriving at this decision, talking about different music, styles and interests.

In my time at school, (a long time ago) music lessons were the other. The class tables were shaped in a horse shoe to face our music teacher with an assortment of musical instruments lined up in front of us. Our poor music teacher was a man of musical passion with a class full of students who did not follow his rules or his passion for play. Instead, he faced mockery and ridicule on a weekly basis. I had no violin lessons or even thought to ask if I could.

So, fast forward to the last ten years and I found myself managing a music inclusion service. I went on to work with Wiltshire Music Service and then the MusicHub for Wiltshire; Wiltsire Music Connect. We are all musical. We can all respond emotionally to music. We know that early communication between parent and child is musical, improvised musical language. It’s a bonding relationship for us.

I could tell you stories about my lack of musicality to back up my old belief. Somehow, I let those stories or past experiences define my engagement with music as I grew up. For me, the breakthrough came with play and interaction with my child. My daughter used to hum to herself when she was being breastfed. We started singing together. As a 7-year-old she still hums to herself when she eats, particularly if it is a good meal. She continues to sing and interact with music. It now shapes a lot of our time and we use it to take notice, tell stories and share good times and laugh a lot.

So, here I am with my own 7-year-old who wishes to learn an instrument. It can be quite daunting to find out how to help your child with this, especially if we carry a voice in our head that tells us that we are ourselves are not musical.

So, here are some tips from one parent to another:

  1. Finding the instrument that they like. We watched lots of youtube videos. We went to a couple of music shops and held instruments and talked to the staff and asked lots of questions. We spoke to friends about their children’s musical journey. We listened to different types of music. We read this book: “You are awesome” by Mathew Syed. It’s not about music at all but about learning something new and getting good at it. There are a lot of youtube videos out there showcasing very talented children. It’s important to remember that they practised A LOT to become good. Finding the right instrument for your child can be difficult. Age is a big issue for when to begin and how to hold your instrument so do your research with your child.
  2. Speak to your school. This might initially be someone on reception but could also be the class teacher or the music lead for the school if they aren’t sure. If you see another child from the school with their parent/guardian with a musical instrument stop and ask them about it ! Depending on what’s available, you could explore one to one teaching or there might be a small group they could join for instrument learning lessons. If not, ask your class if there is anyone interested in the same instrument and go from there.
  3. Cost. You could be entitled to a reduced rate depending on your circumstances. Always worth asking either the school or your local music service or hub for advice and support.
  4. Instruments and hiring them. In fact, try to do that first as it will be very costly for you if you fork out a lot of cash for a new instrument only for your child to state that it isn’t working out for them. Again, if you have spoken to your class or other classes and there are a number of you wishing to learn a particular instrument this could help encourage the school to explore further. Get in touch with your local music hub or music service and ask advice. Get to know your local music shop. They are great spaces to meet and network. If your school simply cannot support the instrument that you want, you might want to consider private tuition in your home or a tutor’s home. Again, ask your music service/hub for advice or your local music shop/musicians union.
  5. Safety first! It may be uncomfortable to ask if someone has a DBS but you simply must especially if you opt for out of school tuition. It should have been issued within the last 3 years. You can go to the Disclosure and Barring Service for more advice. Regardless if another parent is having lessons with this person, ask to see their DBS for yourself. It’s not enough for someone to say they have it or to presume that everyone else checked for you.
  6. What to expect and what to ask for I think a lot depends on your child and how they like to learn and how the music teacher teaches. It is vital that you listen to your child about the kind of music that they are into and finding the best match for your child. Have a read of The Music Education code.
  7. Practice. I remember one of my dear friends who is a music teacher telling me that actually the purpose of a private music lesson is to check learning and to assess next stages and provide encouragement. This lesson is nothing without practice. So, actually the far more important element is the practice in between lessons.
  8. Trial lessons. I can imagine that for some children it just doesn’t work out with some instrument or some tutors. It is worth asking if you can review it after a couple, to check in and consider next steps.
  9. Take part. How about you enjoy it with them! Maybe venture into new territory and learn an instrument as well. A friend told me recently that she was teaching a parent and their child to learn the piano. It sounds excellent and really supported both parent and child to develop and grow their learning in the same space. Sounds good to me.

Right, off I go to explore violins…

The passing of time

The summer is slowly disappearing from view leaving behind it as always an unfinished to do list of wishes and aspirations. Our summer was broken into three parts. We travelled to Spain. We are quite a tight unit and although G played with other children and we chatted occasionally to other parents, we generally kept it very much about the two of us. We hung out in old towns, sought out local communities, swam a lot, drew a lot and read a lot whilst laughing our way around the local area.

Stage two of our summer holiday was spent supporting my mother through her hip operation. The operation was a success but recovery takes a long time. Things have changed for now. There is a slowness to our house, our movements and our activity are more considered. Stage three involves any remaining summer fun where possible coupled with preparation for a new term at school. Six weeks feel hardly enough time to gather oneself before a new academic year begins.

But this year the passing of time has played on my mind. Three generations living under one roof, each requiring care and support for sometimes the same but different things. We mark out the seasons with a little poem or book or a collection of found objects. We move furniture to accommodate changing weather and seasons. Time passing.

Our final activity towards the end of the summer holidays is to work through all of G’s toys and clothes, discussing and discarding what is no longer needed or wanted. She is at an age now where she is able to laugh at herself and her 43 soft toys and objects which hold much desire. She is happy to make room and pass on some of these items to others. A building block with the trace of teeth marks, a first doll with all of its ragged appeal and remaining twirls of hair or a makeshift toy with re-purposed parts from broken bits of wood. All moved to feature in another story.

Another year and we have completed this task. G is marking out her height on the wall. A new uniform is ready, shoes bought and preparations are in place to ensure that the first day of JUNIOR school is smooth. And so, we watch the aging process in my house. I watch the passing of time with my daughter and my parents at either end with myself sandwiched in the middle. The passing of time. The change of seasons.

Back to work, back to a new season, back to the future. Off we go people.

The language of democracy in the arts

Recently I have begun working in my local community. It is a first. I have never entered into any working arrangement with or alongside an area that I live in. I feel slightly shy and a bit nail bitten about the proposition of my private home space and working life space rubbing alongside one another for any period of time.

It has got me thinking…How democratic are we with the communities that we are working with ? How much are they involved in deciding what, how, where, when things happen ?

I met the local history group who were really passionate about all things local. They were keen to show me photos of forgotten times, contrasting the old and the new and remarking about what had been lost, changed or torn down. They operated as detectives, exploring, sharing, shaping and piecing together moments in time. They all referenced and acknowledged, involved and offered advice to one another. One person was very keen to explain the history of hedgerows and the number of species living in them while another drew gasps of excitement for road signs and pathways. Another provided a vast array of maps which detailed moments of history, land ownerships, bridle paths as well as family homes. How was it that the local history group were able to engage me about a subject that I felt that I could participate with ? In an area that I didn’t grow up in. Quite simply, they used language that didn’t confuse me. They didn’t refer to me as hard to reach, difficult, troublesome or other. They made me welcome. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They didn’t bowl in with language that I didn’t understand. They simply showed me a variety of ways that I could take part or not whilst stating clearly that there were loads of areas that “we” could explore or not and that they were learning as well. Everything was negotiated and decided as a group. Anyone could join. They seemed to operate quite well, democratically even. They aren’t funded, they aren’t governed and they aren’t paid.

What on earth has any of this got to do with my work ?  After all, I can’t live on air so I need to be paid. Often my work is funded and governed. So, how much of our relationship with language and democracy within the arts is shaped by our funders and the policies that we create to manage ourselves?

“EVERYONE is so goddamnit hard to reach!” I remember one artist saying to me after a long exhausting day.

I know many organisations who have spent lots of time researching and developing a funding proposal. They have worked hard to develop partners and new providers in new areas. But still the numbers are low. Does it matter? Maybe the art form wasn’t quite right. Maybe the timing was off, maybe one of the partners folded (I have personally experienced this!) or maybe the entire youth service has ceased to exist, (I have also experienced this!) or maybe we just didn’t have time to build some of the key areas to help it grow. Or maybe no one wanted what was on offer or didn’t quite understand what the offer was. After all, most communities have their have own view on arts and culture.

So, If we are to talk about working democratically with/for and alongside communities surely we need to admit that we have a sometimes flawed, back to front, upside down approach. Surely we should start by developing a language alongside these communities that they feel part of ? Enough of the elitist language?

I have worked with communities that are incredibly rich with culture and arts but maybe this culture wasn’t “HIGH art” or “HIGH quality”. Therefore it needed some help to really engage. Make it proper.

“But we already have a cinema. We already show films that our community want.”

Or

“They came in with a bunch of new artists to work with our artists. People who we trust, who we knew. It felt like we were being told how to do it. We didn’t even ask them to come here”

The above is a real quote that has stayed with me from the last few years. It does feel a little like we are in danger of turning into missionaries with that kind of approach.

Not very democratic. Certainly not authentic.

Maybe we need to be more like the hedgerow local history lady in our approach with communities. Gentle, timely and clear that we are just as passionate about arts and culture as she is about hedgerows.

Certainly, go where we are needed but also where they want us. Don’t complicate language and embrace ALL art forms and culture. After all, our notion of what is arts and culture is shifting and we need to change with it.

Different art students

tina

Recently i met a young man and his family. He was clearly gifted and talented. The family were in awe of their son as he continued to dazzle people with his natural talent and passion for the arts. They were completely behind him in his pursuit for creativity and voiced their desire for him to follow his dreams. It was a wonderful and supportive situation to witness.

But it did make me think about his future and other young people like him as they progress through school, college and university.

What about the exclusion of the arts and creative subjects from the new English baccalaureate for secondary school children and how it is already impacting on young people?

What about young people who do not have this support system at home or school?

What happens to their dreams?

In the last year, i have visited a number of secondary school in the UK. On each occasion and for a number of different reasons i have seen a decline in the availability of creative subjects. Some young people have expressed concern about the course content while others have stated that the subjects that they are interested are simply not available to them any longer.

Put simply, those young people who wish to continue studying creative arts are having to reconsider their options and their dreams.

So, if we continue down this route where state schools are not afforded the opportunity to pursue creative subjects, will art degrees become the home of the wealthy?

Are they already?

Friends of mine who currently work as arts lecturers in universities in the UK have spoken to me about the social mix of young people in their lectures. We are already seeing a wide range of young people in terms of nationality at universities but art degrees are far less mixed in terms of class.

It is nothing new that working class families are less likely to access higher education but that those that do take part, the practical core subjects remain the favourite. I remember a friend of mine telling me that his parents would only allow him to go to study art at university if he trained to be a black cab driver on the side.

I don’t know, maybe it is sensible to always ensure that there is a safety net when there isn’t one at home.

I remember my career adviser suggesting that exploring hairdressing was a more realistic goal for me. Tongue firming in cheek this seemed like a ridiculous suggestion given my unruly locks but the reality is that those without that parental safety-net tend to opt for more vocational routes and MAYBE not their dreams. A great loss for all of us.