Paying attention

Flying away

Yesterday, I sat in a shady garden, watching a blackbird hen splashing about in a bird bath. I was drinking tea with Isabel, a dancer and musician, and Biant, a tabla player and social worker. We’ve been friends for nearly 30 years, but hadn’t seen each other for a while, so I was listening to them talk about their recent work.’White Cane‘ is a site-specific work led by partially-sighted performers, in which participants listen to a public place in audio description, music and text they receive through headphones. It was inspired by Isabel’s experience of caring for her late father, who was blind and increasingly deaf. Despite these disabilities, he had loved and practiced art throughout a life shaped by music, touch and the Welsh language. I have rarely met a person of more intense feeling and generous spirit.

Isabel’s work, like Biant’s, with whom she has so often worked, developed in the territories where art, disability and wellbeing intersect. We worked together sometimes in the 1980s, when these ideas were less developed than they are now, and we all benefited from the freedom we had to explore and learn. Recalling those experiences, we recognised a similar pattern.

We began knowing nothing. Sharing creativity with other people who usually had far more life experience than we did, meant listening, to them and to our own hearts, trying, listening again, adjusting. After a time, we did know something. We had a practice, ideas, experience. We had resources to draw on. We started to think – perhaps because others expected it – that we knew what we were doing. We became, each in our own small way, expert. And then, in our fifties, we began to understand how evanescent was that expertise, fading as morning mist in the sunshine. We began to understand how little we knew, and how unwise it was to rely on it anyway.

The confidence of grand gestures seems alien to me now. I’m interested in the personal gesture, contact, vulnerability. I want to make space, not take it. Isabel spoke about the intimacy of the artistic and human experiences she shared with her father in his final, confined years, and I saw how Hamlet might be bounded in a nutshell and yet count himself a king of infinite space. This art is invisible. It exists only in a meeting of minds. You have to be present, not observing but participating.

So, because we live in a culture that discounts what it cannot see and touch, assess and quantify, it is not just undervalued – it is invisible. In their ignorance, the books are silent. Like us, when we mistook ourselves for experts, they don’t know what they don’t know. Never mind. What matters is still the touch of daughter’s fingers on her father’s hand and the sound recordings she brings to connect him with his family, friends and the world.

Undisturbed by our conversation, a robin basks in the sunshine.


  1. It’s the small, small things. The tiny, the personal. That you need to stop to behold and appreciate. This is a beautiful piece of observational and thoughtful writing.


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