In September I was afforded three particular experiences that have made their mark in me.
I went to Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. Georgia is a little country that has spent the history of its existence being surrounded by much larger empires that took pleasure in invading Georgia and making it their own.
The majority of Tbilisi’s streets are cobblestone. You can still see the remains of the Medieval city walls, below the level of its current streets. Hot health-giving mineral water bubbles up through the city. Persian carpets are still sold on the same street, called “carpet street”, that the caravans of the Silk Route sold their wares from.
I had the pleasure of helping to facilitate over 60 people engaged in thinking together about the use of art to oppose tyranny. Naturally enough this topic attracted mainly two types of people, often they were both at the same time: artists, and people committed to the freedom of the individual and the rights to personal choice and self-expression.
Among other things, we were exploring how people’s choices and actions are often, if not always, motivated by how they feel about something – which feelings, in themselves, are motivated by the assumptions people are making at any given moment.
We were exploring how artists help to translate, and articulate our human emotional world. How artists enable us to be moved, shaken, spoken to in a language other than reason’s.
Without it being explicitly contracted for, I was honoured to observe so much of a thinking environment being co-created by the participants: a space of deep respect for each other’s very diverse perspectives, and a genuine interest in hearing the thoughts of others as well as proffering ones own.
As I assisted, from the background, the groups to articulate ideas using art-forms to influence behaviour such as activism and voting, I saw how human minds connect and separate according to our capacity to stay interested rather than become threatened by ideas different to our own.
I observed, I think, that connected is what we are, and that separation is something we make happen. That collaboration is what we long for and isolation is what we retreat into when we don’t understand, and cannot accept that we do not.
Upon my return I finished reading M Train by Patti Smith. This is the second book I’ve read by this author.
The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.
Smith’s perpetual observation of life is expressed through an immaculate, reverential and yet mischievous grasp of words. Her absorption of what is happening, without resistance, left me enveloped in what life might actually feel like if I was always present to the connection, and never ejected by a sudden urge to make what is happening wrong.
My being moved by both these experiences raised a dilemma for me. Smith is a consummate artist. Her articulation of every passing shape evokes such a sense of intense communion with life for me that I longed for the experience of being in her world long after the book had ended.
And yet, the idea of personal freedom of choice and self-expression, if approached rationally, suggests the very opposite of communion, and perhaps can result in our focusing almost solely on what divides us and where we differ than it does on where we meet.
My third experience was the two days of the Foundation Course I had the pleasure of teaching in Cape Town last week. From our opening round this group of 10 diverse and previously unknown to each other people fell headlong into a profound experience of trust and connection that enabled deep vulnerability and the kind of authenticity that lights the fires in every soul in the room. We constantly asked each other: “how can this be possible?” So deep, so connected, so soon, so easily?
So I am entering October with a sense of optimism and feeling blessed. We are living in a world gone mad. But I am encouraged by what I have seen, and I am grateful for the caretaking habits for humanity that I have had the opportunity to be part of.