Alchemy for beginners

Photo credit: Chris Fort

Photo credit: Chris Fort

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to write a book about generosity.

It was probably predictable that this would bring my own less generous moments into wincingly sharp focus. Since starting, I’ve caught myself suggesting that we reduce a monthly gift to charity, that we turn down a slightly inconvenient request for a favour, and that my closest family members go away and leave me alone so I can concentrate on writing about kindness and inclusiveness. 

Despite the fact that I admire rather than exemplify it, I have been drawn to the subject for a long time and the more I study it, the more convinced I am that the practice of generosity has got to be a solution to some of the most difficult issues we face. 

Admittedly, being generous with our time, attitudes, bank accounts and affections was always going to be a good thing. 

It’s not rocket science: but it might just be alchemy.

Generosity has the power to cut straight to the heart of a situation and change it when reason and argument and eloquence fail. It lowers defences, bridges gulfs, deepens trust, heightens connection, and makes the other a friend. It can take the base metal of self-centredness and transform it into something unexpectedly, ridiculously good – often magically much greater than the sum of its parts. 

On a simple level, there is the generosity that responds with provision to a perceived need. Someone spots a lack and is moved to fill it. This can often be beautiful to witness, like the person who gave their umbrella to a homeless person sitting on a pavement and walked on through the driving rain. One person realises they are seen; the other realises there is much more to see outside the confines of their own experience, and their gaze lifts and extends.

When generosity grows to become a significant part of a person’s character, everyone benefits. I know how much I value those friends who love lavishly and don’t count the cost, whose homes are open and whose kindness is contagious. I have the privilege of living next door to someone like this, and my family – in fact, our whole community – are blessed, and in turn breathe a bit more freely and share a bit more readily and rise a little higher to match the kindness standard she has set.

But in some unexpected situations, generosity can floor us. 

In the fevered and fearful atmosphere that has followed the killing of an unimaginably high number of black US citizens by the police, division and distrust seem to have opened up chasms in communities. 

Against this backdrop, a black mother of two recently saw a white police officer in a city park. She stopped her car, got out with both her children and approached the police officer – to ask if she could pray for him and for his safety. 

Unwarranted, courageous and extravagant generosity has the raw force to right wrongs and reverse vicious circles.

There’s a joy in generosity, an unrestrained, feisty, fighting response to life’s pain. It has, in the writer Marilynne Robinson’s words, ‘a grand laughter’ in it.

This makes me think of the day a few weeks ago when my friend Jenny and I met in a London cafe and resumed our conversation from where we’d last left it, months before. We talked, as parents of teenagers, about boundaries and expectations. She asked wryly, with raised eyebrow, what I used to get up to as a 15-year-old. The answer – ‘handbell-ringing’ – was met with one of the best and most brilliant laughs I have ever witnessed. Joy coursed out of her, along with tears, wave after wave as the people sitting next to us shifted uncomfortably in their seats and the traffic inched along outside and I knew I was witnessing something I would not forget. 

There are many facets to generosity I want to explore, but I know that one of the chapters will look at generosity in friendship, and I will write about Jenny. About friendship that weathers storms and provides shelter in them, that gives you a place to belong, that tells you that you are loved on this earth.

In the scheme of things, life is short. Let’s allow generosity to make it sweet.




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Song for an old friend

Tomorrow I'm going to spend the day with Jo. Geography, jobs and family life mean we don't see each other so often. 

But when we do meet she often gives me a present that she has made herself. 

She is a lawyer and a historian with a sharp mind and impressive qualifications. She also loves to make things, and once told me about her new City law job and her experimentation with eighteenth century marmalade recipes in the same conversation. She is awesome.

Last time we met she pulled a present out of her bag for me, and I unwrapped a beautifully frilled scarf in autumn colours, layer after tumbling layer. It took me a few minutes to realise she hadn’t picked it out in a shop. It was complex and must have demanded considerable skill and time - and she had made it for me.

Over the years of our friendship she has also made a framed cross-stitch of my initials, a soft patchwork blanket for my daughter, and the most elegant green gloves (my favourite colour, she checked). 

As for me, my children have had to brave some humiliating moments in the nativity outfits I’ve ‘made’ for them. I’ve occasionally semi-successfully sewn up a hole in a jumper but I can't knit, crochet, sew or stitch.

So I thought about what I could give her. 

And I decided to write her a present, and you are reading it.

We met on the day we arrived at university for interview as seventeen year-olds, sick with nerves. Shown into a common room where we would spend the next two days waiting with hundreds of other candidates, we turned to each other and struck up conversation. 

Talking quickly and without really stopping, we managed to make each other laugh, even though I felt I was drowning in the depths of teenaged self-consciousness, surrounded by people who seemed effortlessly impressive, articulate and confident. 

Some returned from their interviews full of the effusive feedback they’d received. We went off, hearts beating, mouths dry, palms sweating and returned to each other, limpet-like, with an unspoken knowledge that we had, in each other, found someone to trust.

At the end of the two days we said goodbye, not really expecting to see each other again. I left for home feeling drained and hollow, not wanting to return, much less thinking I would.

The next time we saw each other was in a press of human flesh in the Horse and Jockey pub on the first day of freshers’ week. Disorientated and friend-free, I was pushing my way through the crowd of new arrivals. So fresh in my memory it seems it will never fade is the image of a hand reaching out to touch my arm as I passed. It was Jo, and I stopped and we didn’t leave each other’s side for the night. Or for many days to come. 

That first year is now a blur of fragmented images and sounds. Dancing in Jo’s room as we got ready for the nightly trip to the bar, ploughing through texts in the library, plates of pasta in the middle of the night, painfully early starts for rowing on the river, emotional upheaval as love lives flourished and waned, the drips of sweat that condensed and fell from the ceiling of the college dining hall during dance nights. Essay crises, love-life crises, confidence crises, hormone-driven angst, exhaustion, elation and belly laughs.

We shared a house in the second year, and boyfriends and new friends took us in directions away from each other but we always returned to each other’s company for laughter, for reassurance, for support. 

I had to leave college in my third year to live in France and work as a language assistante. The tearing I felt as I left was almost physical, and when I returned Jo was gone, living hundreds of miles away, studying law. I was still at college, one of a small number of fourth years left after the tide of our peers had moved on. 

She studied law in York and then practised it in London. I volunteered at a charity in Oxford and started working in fundraising. She bought a flat in the city; I became a mother in a little Cotswolds town. Our lives were different in pace, in shape, in style, but she came to cuddle my baby in the sunshine and I went to her wonderful wedding as she married her delicious husband, and they knocked us dead on the dance-floor.

So my present is a song of friendship that builds over years, of the unspoken trust and bone-deep understanding that comes from knowing and being known, from the shy 17 year-olds we once were to the women we now are. 

I am so proud of Jo. She bursts with life; she is generous and outrageous and thoughtful; she is feisty and funny and loyal.

Last year we met for lunch and drank and ate and walked and talked of jobs and family and travels and dreams. We talked about things that are very hard, and things that are very good. Children we’re proud of, husbands we love, roles we play, workloads we manage, homes which frustrate us. She sent me an email afterwards, which I have kept in my inbox, its subject line simply: ‘Wonderful day!’

So this is my song for an old friend. I sing it so that she knows she’s known. And enjoyed. 

And loved.



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