Friday, July 4, 2008

"The answer's yes. What's the question?"

Yesterday provided something of a relief from feeling a bit beleagured, as I travelled up to St Pancras station, the Eurostar terminal, to meet Tony Webster whom we had asked to speak at one of our conferences this weekend. Although the conference was cancelled, Tony didn't cancel his trip to UK from the depths of rural France where he and his partner Lyn have lived for the last ten years, and where they have established the Open Door project in Civray.

I hadn't really met Tony in the flesh, not to have a real talk, although we met briefly at a meeting in London several years ago. I wasn't sure I would recognise him, so we arranged to meet under the big, bold, brassy and unmissable sculpture of two lovers in a 'glad-to-see-you' embrace that marks the rendezvous spot for travellers and those waiting for them off the train (see image top right).

My own take on the sculpture was intially that it was rather grotesque, disproportionately huge, and not in particularly good taste. However, this impression was softened by my hearing a middle aged woman say to her husband, "Oh! It's lovely!" Unaccountably, I saw it, for a moment, through her eyes. It was tender, romantic, unabashed and - well - lovely. Perception is - well - in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps, on that occasion, my beholding was not as implacably firm as usual. Its grip was loosened by some quality of simple awe and pleasure at what she saw in an unknown woman's voice.

Tony and I have exchanged emails for several years now, and he regularly sends news of the Open Door project, including an entertaining and informative newsletter, packed with happenings, events, and practical advice and guidance on surviving French bureaucracy, aimed at the many expatriates (and French locals too) who live in Tony's part of France, and avail themselves of the services offered by Open Door. These services include social functions like a women's needlework group (Tony calls it "Stitch and Bitch") a weekly informal coffee morning, a large English-language library, advice on administrative matters like benefits and finances, and how to negotiate with local 'fonctionnaires'. Tony and Lyn, with some help from volunteers, also provide a listening service for people in trouble. To a large extent I gather that the informal hospitality and comradeship of the Open Door is a safe portal of entry for people who need support in a variety of crises, from sudden bereavement or illness, marital breakdown, money problems, depression, addictions, alcoholism and the rest.

From modest beginnings, Tony and Lyn's project has grown steadily and 'organically', largely because of their enterprise, energy, commitment and openness to what life throws up. As their service has expanded and particularised, the couple have embarked on the training of volunteers, developing their listening skills, with extension training available for suitable candidates in basic counselling. Tony's outlook on helping is summed up in the phrase he used to describe his response to enquiries, some of which are from people who feel tentative, anxious and uncertain of both how to frame their worries and what any reaction will be: "The answer's yes. What's the question?"

It was a lovely, refreshing experience to sit in this generous man's company, listening to his enthusiastic talk, his infectious chuckle (despite the Jurassic Park groans of arriving and departing Eurostar trains from adjacent platforms), and getting to know him better. Despite his vitality and focus on the welfare and happiness of others, Tony's life has been far from easy, nor has his partner's. Both of them have been deeply touched by the support they got from Ray Wills several years ago, although they never met face to face. Tony described Ray's help (in the form of as a personal letter) as being like an encounter with a dearly-loved uncle, in its intimacy, solicitude and "knowingness" of what would meet their need. Since that time, the Buddhist Hospice Trust has been Tony's sangha, and he has archived all Ray's correspondence, copies of Raft, and Inner Work School letters received: a humbling and touching tribute, hard to live up to.

It is a great pity that Tony's experience, and Lyn's, as social entrepreneurs (and more) was not heard by a wider audience, but he has assured me that he will be willing to speak at a future meeting of ours, and I am determined to make that possible. Although Tony hasn't asked, I would like it to be known that the Open Door (Association La Porte Ouverte) will be pleased to hear from people who may be able to help, either financially, or in other ways (for example by donating books). I can supply Tony's postal address to anyone who writes to me. I shall advertise any visit by Tony Webster at which he may talk on this website and in our forthcoming Newsletter.

As for myself, I have learned a lot from talking with Tony, and from his warmth. What sticks in my mind is his phrase, "The answer's yes. What's the question?", because it is an unconditional affirmation, a declaration of totally open generosity, a ready gift of no-agenda. If there is any kind of compact we as a Trust can make with what comes, this should be its by-word, and I will do what I can to live up to that in the days ahead.

The charming pen-and-ink drawing at top left is of the Open Door project in Civray.

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