Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Graceful Death, Big Society, and the mundane littleness of love

I'm a wordy person, but sometimes the words take a while to come. We went as a family into Birmingham yesterday to see 'A Graceful Death', an amazing exhibition of paintings by the extraordinary Antonia Rolls. At its heart is a set of paintings of the last few weeks, days and final day of the life of Antonia's own partner, Steve - and of herself, as she begins the journey of loss and living 'after Steve'. The exhibition has since grown to include others who have been near the end of their lives, and those who they have left behind.

Looking at the pictures, and reading the stories, was a profoundly moving experience. The gracefulness - and in some pictures, golden glory - of the journey through death, somehow shines out of, and surrounding, the inescapably tissue-delicate fragility and raw vulnerability of the dying person. And in the pictures of bereavement, the absence, the isolation, is stark. A triptych of pictures moves from Antonia sitting on one of two chairs, near a pair of Steve's slippers, to two empty chairs with the slippers, to just the slippers on their own, in one corner of a gaping, empty space.

But it was a tiny, simple diptych that lodged itself in my head and heart. One of Antonia's self-portraits: on the left, a solitary, lonely figure; on the right, the same, but with a teapot and a cup of tea. A mundane moment, physical action, of familiarity and continuity, of survival and self-care, of resilience - even of hope, as Antonia describes it herself.

Why was I so drawn to this one? So seemingly trivial, unemotional, alongside the much bigger, more dramatically profound, images of dying and death itself? Perhaps a bit of a personal connection - most of my own encounters with death are in conversations with bereaved family-members; 'what do i do now?' is often one of the questions I'm trying to help them wrestle with; and yes, we do get through a fair amount of tea, as we talk through everything from the emotionally cataclysmic to the most mundane detail.

But I want to speak up here for the vital importance of the mundane detail in the bigger picture.

On the road between our house and church, there is a house with a garden wall. A man - white, possibly Eastern European, in his 60s, quite possibly single - is out there most days, if it's dry, patiently restoring the wall with a painstaking attention to detail. A true labour of love. I've passed him many times, on foot or in the car. I've smiled. But it was only recently, with Rafi on his bike, that we stopped, because my 3-year-old son decided to, to admire the man's handiwork. And it was only when we stopped, and tried to begin a conversation, that we discovered that the man was deaf. So with makeshift sign language, we told him we thought his wall was great. And the broadest of smiles cracked across his face. From impressionistic labels and background scenery, that man began to emerge for me as a neighbour I could learn to love.

“In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” Mother Teresa hits the nail squarely on the head. We can only ever love, not in big generalities, but in and through the little details of life. And it's the little details that nurture and sustain our relationships, and nurture and sustain us when those relationships are lost or broken.

In a seminar this week, on 'Urban Ministry in a Climate of Austerity and Unrest', there was hardly any talk of 'big projects', and much talk of small 'micro-actions' of enacted hope, of 'everyday faithfulness', of 'mundane holiness'. This is the domain not just of the possible, the realistic, in these tough times, but of the vitally necessary. What we need to keep going are relationships of trust, friendship, love. Real, genuine community. And that's where 'Big Society' is fatally flawed. Because it's not about 'big', it can't be. We should have learned by now that 'big' is to be treated with serious suspicion. We are learning now that 'big' does anything but love - quite the opposite, in fact. We need to re-focus on 'little'. And that may well often start with a cup of tea...