Archives for category: Kindness

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…of my arrival in NYC.

Someone at work today asked me what I have learnt over the past year. And so, what follows is a reflection on this question.

  1. Change. It suits me and I seem to have adapted pretty quickly. A good thing, I guess, although I do wonder whether my ease at readjusting at least partly results from closing the door too firmly on the past.
  2. Resilience. I have more of it than I had thought. Getting through many moments of existential loneliness has shown me this. And reassured me that I can do it.
  3. Aloneness. Life is really about finding my own meaning for myself. No matter who or what I am surrounded by, ultimately it is just me, and me.
  4. Mothering. I am not sure how I would have felt about this if I still lived in London and on the same continent as my daughter. As she heads towards being 21, I hugely miss the acuteness of my role in her life, while at the same time reveling in the joy of seeing her growing up and away, and happy in a world of her own making. I wish that there weren’t so many miles between us. And no experience in my life will ever match the wondrous time we continue to spend together.
  5. Joy. Moments that often surprise me, happening when least expected and triggered by the simplest of things – nature, people, music, art.
  6. Music. Joining an ensemble here with my cello has given me so much. Being able to “make” music with others is one of the best of things. I also now have a piano, and the very many hours I spend playing music and listening to it always rekindles a vitalness within.
  7. People. Last and not least. From casual and random interactions to the kindness of friends – new and old – I have come to truly appreciate the joy of a peopled life, something I did not value enough before.

And so, here I am. On to year two, with a little trepidation, but mostly excited and hopeful.

 

CQ

 

 

…which is a quote from Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, novelist and essayist.

But her question does not in any way relate to her hugely impressive CV and achievements. Rather, it stems from her encounters with healthcare professionals, which has prompted her reflections on the extent to which she was seen as an individual in that context, as a person rather than as ‘just another patient’.

The writer was recently invited to deliver the Humanism in Medicine lecture at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) annual meeting (http://humanizingmedicine.org/anna-quindlen-advises-physicians/).

Quindlen’s question – “Do you know who I am?” – arose from her experience of two separate medical encounters, both involving anaesthesiologists. The first was patronising (my judgement call), and left her doubtful as to whether he knew anything about her or about her previous history.

The second encounter was a positive one:

“Only a short interchange, yet in some fashion she knew who I was.”

Quindlen continues:

“And I assume she was at least as busy as her male colleagues.”

But gender distinctions are not the point. Instead, what Quindlen wants to get across is that she felt ‘seen’ by one professional, and not by the other.

“She was professional, and she was kind. Oh, what a combination that is in what often seems like a cold and inhuman world.”

Quindlen sees the problems in health care – patients feeling ignored, isolated, patronised – as part of a larger societal problem. Power relationships wherever they occur, and which too often underlie the doctor-patient encounter, ‘foment fear and mistrust and alienation’. She speaks of the ‘MDeity’, doctors as little gods, and is surprised how pervasive this remains, despite huge technological and other advances.

Quindlen’s conclusion is that in the end, the person – the patient, the sufferer – seeks and needs ‘the human touch’, to be seen as an individual, and to be considered as such.

She ends with advice for the doctors she addresses:

  • Try to be present in the moment
  • Acknowledge uncertainty
  • Practice empathy
  • Try to be kind

CQ

This is the title of a documentary film that I saw today, the final day of the UK Jewish Film Festival, at the Tricycle cinema.

What a cinematic gem it is, a profoundly moving and authentic piece of art, which is so affirmative, and reassuring, of the goodness that humans are indeed capable of. And more importantly, a goodness and a genuine caring of the other, which transcends that most divisive of forces, religion.

The film tells the story of Albanian Muslims who protected Jews from the Nazis in WWII. Unlike almost all other countries, Albania welcomed Jews during the Holocaust, and we hear the stories of some of the very many Muslim families who sheltered the refugees, despite the inherent dangers to themselves, as well as the those of the Jewish people and their descendants who, as a result of the humanity they received, managed to survive the war.

Albania was the only country where the number of Jews increased from pre-war, approximately 200, to post-war, approximately 2000. It remains a relatively poor country.

Albanians see themselves as just that – not as Muslims or Orthodox or Christians – but as the people of Albania, and all of whom share and enact Besa, an honour code that offers assistance to all those who knock on their doors looking for help.

Besa: The Promise is a gripping and humbling story, which concerns a nation that lost so much during WWII and even more so in the subsequent communist years, but which nonetheless holds steadfastly to the notion of kindness and and generosity towards those in need, irrespective of religion and creed.

CQ

A first experience for me, this festival, seemingly the largest european film festival, is on at various venues in London until November 17.

Thus far I have seen two great films.

Firstly, The Lady in Number 6, which introduces us to Alice Herz Sommer, who, at almost 110, is the world’s oldest pianist and holocaust survivor. She is truly inspirational. Charismatic and engaging, her optimism and enjoyment of life is uplifting. She is grateful for her life, all of it, the good and the bad, and for every day that she continues to experience. At 109, she enjoys life and people hugely, and continues to devote time and self to her greatest passion, playing the piano:

‘Music saved my life and music saves me still.’

As one of the co-producers Chris Branch stated when he introduced The Lady in Number 6, this is not a film about the holocaust, but about one remarkable person.

Secondly, Orchestra of Exiles, which was preceded by 15 minutes of wonderful live music (violin, including the very moving title track to Schindler’s List). Again, this film was much more about the good achieved by one person rather than a documentary about the holocaust. The Polish violinist Bronislow Hubermann rescued many of the world’s greatest musicians from Nazi Germany and eastern europe in the mid 1930s, facilitating their exit to Palestine, which led to the creation of the now world-famous Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Two things struck me while watching both films: the extraordinary goodness and kindness that exists in humanity and which can sometimes be easy to forget, and the power of music to enrich and to transform both the lives of individuals and of nations.

CQ

 

This play is currently on at The Tricycle Theatre London, and what an absolute gem it is.

Written and performed by Colman Domingo, A Boy and His Soul is the story and ‘soundtrack of a boy’s coming of age in ’70s and ’80s Philadelphia.’

Jay, the central character, rediscovers the vinyls of his youth in the basement of the house he grew up in. As he replays the records, each track frames a memory and a chapter in his life. The music that he was born into was that of soul:

‘My Soul Music is my sanctuary, y’all…Soul Music is my life.’

We hear music from The Three Degrees, Switch, Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin, amongst many others. I have never really been a soul fan. I think I might be now.

Finding it unbelievable that his parents abandoned this music of memories, Jay queries:

‘How could they leave this music behind? A lot of albums were warped and damaged but they still had glory on their grooves.’

Against the backdrop of soul music are played out the lives of Jay and his family, and the importance of music for all of them. For Jay’s mother, Edie:

‘In an instant, with just the sound of a song, I saw my mother’s thoughts leave the modest backyard of the low-income row house…With just the sound of that song, I saw my mother leave poverty, and worry, and sadness, and hopelessness of being a black woman on welfare in 1978 with three children who makes a little money cleaning houses…’

Speaking of his pop, Clarence:

‘My stepfather Clarence is what I would call a con-negro-seur of Soul Music.’

Jay’s sister, Averie, takes control of her own words:

‘I’m a Nigga! I don’t put on no airs for nobody, I like my music loud and my men tough as HELL.’

And finally, his brother Rick:

‘My brother Rick would be in his bedroom primping for his pimping to the sound of the Isley’s.’

The script is funny, often hilarious. It is also tender and sad, and ultimately very moving, particularly towards the end, as both Pop and Edie near the end of their lives:

‘Maybe, my pop a strong black man didn’t have a way to cope with my mother’s diagnosis. Instead maybe he desperately wanted to leave this earth, before the woman that he loved grew more ill and he was left to deal with the deck that he had been dealt.’

Domingo is extraordinary. He owns the part and revels in the performance. Consequently, so does the audience. Domingo mesmerises and seduces you into his world, one that is imbued with soul, in every sense, and with hope.

From Edie:

‘Just because you wish for it don’t mean it won’t come true. Just Believe. Hold tight and hold open your hands!’

CQ

This film, by the documentary film maker Marc Isaacs, is an absolute gem, a must-see.

Perhaps I am biased, as someone originally from Ireland who has lived in London for many years. But I believe The Road is essential viewing for anyone living in London, and not only there. It is the story of belonging, of loneliness, of searching for meaning and identity, in essence a depiction of what humanness might be about.

The road Isaacs focuses on is the A5, as it enters London and continues north from Marble Arch, through Kilburn, Cricklewood, and further towards Edgware.

Isaacs focuses on a handful of immigrants, both recent and long-arrived, dotted along the route. Their stories vary, yet converge on a fundamental common issue – leaving one’s homeland (and loved ones) behind. At the outset, Isaacs reflects on the reflective in-between-space such leaving creates, and as we see throughout the film, this questioning never goes away.

Billy, the Irish labourer, who now has too much time to reflect since retirement, which can only be handled through time in the pub, has been in London for more than 40 years. Yet he still feels that he has not fitted in, isolation and loneliness at least partly contributing to his alcohol problem: ‘a day later and a pound shorter’.

This is a poignant, moving, and melancholic film. It is also at times very funny. Isaacs treats the individuals he films with much gentleness, and is always unobtrusive. This is their story, not his, and you get the sense that the film genuinely cares about those portrayed.

Being, belonging, making our mark, is a large part of how we define ourselves. The Road will encourage you to reflect on this, and more, and to perhaps go about your life with a little more generosity and humility.

CQ

I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.

CQ

The Pier was the second film I saw at this weekend’s Irish Film Fest. [Actually, it was the third, as this screening also included the short film, Pentecost, which was a gem].

I am not sure even now what I thought of The Pier, but nonetheless, there are some things that may be worth noting.

The first is a personal one. I had no idea that the film was located in and around Schull, my ‘spiritual home’. Thus, recognising the area, and the locals, was a wonderful and warm surprise.

The film itself, written, directed and starring Gerard Murphy, was a more mixed experience. It tells the somewhat familiar Irish story of the ‘prodigal’ son (Gerard Murphy) returning home. He is summoned back from the US with the news that his father (Karl Johnson) is dying. He duly returns, only to find that his father is not dying, after all. He appears hale and hearty, and as cantankerous as ever.

Although he is dying, actually and imminently. We later discover that he has lung cancer, a diagnosis he eventually shares with his son. This prompts a grudging reconciliation of sorts between the pair, which is at times touching and moving. However, the father’s role is too much of a type, a caricature of sorts, that of a truculent, difficult and bitter man, who mostly engenders little in the way of sympathy or empathy. Murphy’s character is more likeable, and understated. A confused and dour sort, his moments of kindness, particularly towards the local pair of children who seem practically orphaned, are endearing.

Religion, and atheism, get a nod too. It is Ireland, after all…

The realisation of imminent death brings out the best in the old man, perhaps too predictably, and at times slightly maudlinish.

But this is not a tear jerker. I am not sure one connects enough with the protagonists to go that far.

CQ

The Irish Film Festival is on this weekend at The Tricycle cinema, and I was at the screening of Ballymun Lullaby last night.

The film had its premiere at the Dublin Film Festival last March, and has been released in Ireland. This was its first screening in London, and appropriately it happened in Kilburn. We were also treated to a flute duet by Ron and Tara (both in the film) beforehand, and a Q&A afterwards that also included the director Frank Berry.

The film opens with archive footage from RTE on the history of the Ballymun estate. The estate, ‘Ballymun flats’, was built in Dublin’s Northside as a solution to the acute housing shortage of the 1960s. The area suffered many social problems, particularly drug-related in the 1980s, and, as Ireland’s only high rise flats, became synonymous with deprivation, a label that it has never shaken off. Today, it is an area of regeneration, with most of the tower blocks demolished and replaced by houses.

The film centres on a music project, led by Ron Cooney, which has been active in the area for over 15 years. Ron’s mission has been to bring music into the schools and lives of the children of Ballymun. Passionate and charismatic, Ron tempts them into a world they would not otherwise experience. We follow Ron and the children as they prepare for and perform music specially composed for them (subsequently released as the CD Ballymun Lullaby) by Daragh O’Toole, who incorporated lyrics written by the children themselves.

Amazingly, just the director Frank Berry and a single cameraman shot the documentary, the making of the CD and its aftermath, without any funding initially, which only came through when filming had finished. The entire project comes across as a labour of love by all those involved.

As Ron commented afterwards, ‘Art is’. In many ways, the documentary highlights the fact that the music project is not just about the music itself, but more about the possibilities of what music can do, how it can add something, often indescribable but certainly meaningful, to lives. It is also about the people, the community of Ballymun who supported and encouraged their children to enter a world they never experienced themselves. Most notably, it is about Ron Cooney, who is extraordinarily committed and kind and funny. The kids love him, and now we do too.

Magic.

 

CQ

One of those books that I want everyone to read…

Philippe Claudel’s work (Monsieur Linh and His Child. Philippe Claudel (Author) and Euan Cameron (Translator). Maclehose Press, 2012) is almost palpably sad, and deeply moving, a portrayal of humanness at the sharpest edge of suffering, yet also about how affecting and critical real friendship can be. Cliched it may sound, but the kindness of others truly has the power to transform the experience of suffering.

The novel is about the elderly Mr Linh, who we meet as he leaves his homeland with his baby granddaughter, his only remaining family:

‘The old man’s name is Monsieur Linh. He is the only one who knows this is his name because all those who knew it are dead.’

The child is just six weeks old, and Monsieur Linh’s only goal in life is to care for her and to keep her safe:

‘Nothing else matters but his little girl. He wants to look after her in the best possible way.’

Which he does. She is also his link with his past, his homeland, and his dead family. Her eyes:

‘…are the eyes of his son, they are the eyes of his son’s wife, and they are the eyes of his son’s mother, his dearly beloved wife’

In a strange country and city where he does not speak the language, Monsieur Linh is overwhelmed by people, strangers, and anonymity. He has come from a village with just one street, where everyone knows everyone. Now, he is lost, and bewildered by the strangeness of this new world, where ‘nothing is like anything he knows.’

His epiphany comes when he meets the recently widowed Monsieur Bark. Also lonely, the men strike up a friendship, although neither speaks the other’s language. The friendship grows through gestures and acts of kindness. Language is not essential for understanding the sadness of others, for appreciating a depth of melancholy that is beyond words.

The friendship with Monsieur Bark becomes pivotal to Monsieur Linh’s life and survival. Inevitably, the relationship is threatened by external monsters – the city, beaurocracy, and strangers who fail to consider and to understand Monsieur Linh’s plight. However, just as he unwaveringly devotes all his energy and attention to his beloved grand-daughter, so now he turns his attention to his friend and to the friendship that means so much. Kindness wins out in the end.

A parable of sorts, this short narrative is never cloyingly sentimental. Rather, it leaves you with the belief and the hope that we humans can truly help one another, and make a difference to the suffering of others. This may sound pious, and the book, like many parables, is a work of fiction. Yet, this matters not.

Read it, weep, and consider…

CQ