The Generositree about town

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for the Generositree, with a return to Hackney Downs, a workshop in Eastbourne House Arts Centre and a debut in Brockwell Park, as well as an invitation to Buddhafield Festival in July! (Buddhafield is vast and glorious and deserves its own blog entry, but briefly said – I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of it!)

I’ve started hanging paper cranes and swans from the tree and offering them to passers by, which has been great for introducing them to the concept. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received (and passed on) some pretty amazing gifts – including an Evil Eye pendant, and some lace knickers! The communication that happens is revealing and humbling. Instead of hurrying past, people stop, chat, exchange, play, and inspire. Some of the people I have met have been:

– a Headteacher on her lunch break. She said that she would get the kids at school to make paper cranes to hang on their tree of good deeds – which she would now call the Generositree!

– An Italian woman who said she wants to learn how to meditate, and will use the swan I gave her as a reminder.

– A little boy who gave me the star sticker, which his teacher had given him.

The lovely Anna Marie Franklin came along to Brockwell park to sing, frolic and take video footage.

Even when I’m not actively standing in the park and singing around the Generositree, it seems to be working its magic… Last week, I transported it in pieces from Brixton to Walthamstow (stopping in a few shops along the way), and then back to Hackney. Literally everywhere I went, people wanted to talk about it (even on the tube – where Londoners typically avoid contact at all costs).

Probably the best instance was when bus driver asked me about it as I got on. I said it was an installation for a performance art piece. He said, driving away, “Can you explain it to me? I’m not that good with art…” So I told him the idea – that I exchange small gifts – anything – with people, as a way to start dialogue, and make connections. He said: “Huh. I guess it’s working then, even now!”

These connections remind me of a post that went viral a few weeks ago, about a woman in a niqab and a drag queen sitting next to each other on public transport, minding their own business. (The American Conservative angle: “This is Liberals’ vision of America…” The Liberal angle: “Actually, yes it is! A diversity of people leaving each other alone!”)

I understand that (and hooray for the amazing responses to the above post!). London can be full on, and sometimes I just want to shut out the barrage of noise and advertisements. But there is something about the Generositree that feels gently countercultural in the fact that it doesn’t subscribe to the “mind your own business” ethos. It actively cultivates an attitude of not just talking to strangers, but exchanging with them, playing with them, and – if I’m very lucky – getting them to sing with me.

The Generositree makes a public appearance!

I took the Generositree to the park this afternoon – I thought it would like to be with its own kind. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures as I didn’t want to worry about looking after my phone while I was in this experimental phase.

To get things moving, I hung on it things that in some way represented gifts I had been given:

  • A hairbrush with a painted handle, from the Ukraine.
  • An origami swan
  • A sprig of ivy
  • An Anubis mask
  • A bit of yellow string
  • A card

I set up, and began vocalising – found I was “singing” more than using extended technique. Kids and dogs were particularly interested in what I was doing, and were great to play with – vocally and in movement. The Generositree attracted a lot of interest – and the vocalising felt like a very natural thing to be doing.

I had a couple of noteworthy interactions. The first was with a pair of street drinkers. One of them immediately asked me if he could have the mask. This presented a sort of dilemma, as I had originally wanted to give things to people… but there was something in his manner of asking which made me reluctant to give that to him. So I played with him. I asked him what he would give me in return. Whether he would sing. He was half-hearted. I wanted real person-to-person engagement. I wanted him to get out of himself, out of his wants and his desire to manipulate, and engage with me. If he had, the mask would have been his. As it was, he got annoyed and left. His friend stuck around though, and we chatted for a while. I gave him the origami swan. He gave me a hug (and a pound – though I hadn’t asked for money).

Another guy stopped while I was having a break, and asked what it was. I told him about the project, and he said, “You’ve chosen an interesting spot to do this. You know Andre Previn used to live right over there!” Then he spent about 15 minutes telling me all sorts of local history connected to the park, to the area. I found out that there’s a river running underneath the park, that three sisters were hanged as witches from a tree over in the corner, and that the council is are talking about turning the historic bowling green into an orchard. That kind of giving knowledge and time is such a powerful form of generosity, and I feel really grateful to him for stopping to chat. I used the idea of the underground river as a way into the next improvisation.

Altogether, the experience gave me a few points for reflection about generosity, engagement, and my own practice.

  • Generosity isn’t about giving people whatever they ask for. It’s about meeting the other person with a sense of spaciousness.
  • I would like to have more things to give – it felt wonderful to be able to give the man a swan… and I would have liked to give the man who told me about history something as well… but I didn’t think he’d want a bit of yellow string.
  • I had not so much a feeling of being observed, as a feeling of observing. It’s fascinating how people react when you’re doing something unusual in public. Who engages, who looks away. You could do a whole study on it.

I’m now looking forward to the Generositree’s next outing!