Kindness - it seems such a lightweight word to use for the deep and soul-strengthening love and warmth I've been experiencing this last week; from friends, from acquaintances, from strangers these last weeks have been a lesson in love and letting go of former loves.
Perhaps it is the lot of writers, those that are deeply interested in people and in making connection with others that we feel keenly. Or is perhaps feel too keenly but then stand back and use the observations as material. Writers as psychic vampires? Hmmm, a little close to the bone that one.
So, kindness, or at least one story out of the multiple kindnesses shown to me these past days.
We set off midmorning on a radiant Hanoi autumn day. For once the pollution had lessened and a weak sun was shining through the tall trees lining the streets of the French Quarter. In golden light, the old French era villas and the packed chaotic shop-fronts, set in what were the gardens, seemed like a setting for an art film.
Out through the suburbs, past the frantic building sites of the expanding capital, out over the new bridges spanning the Red River, our taxi bobbed in the flotsam of new cars, ancient trucks, swarms of motorbikes, and southwards we drove. After turning west, within five hundred metres we were back in real rural Vietnam. Another fifteen minutes, a left turn and we were in a village in timeless Vietnam.
Along narrow alleyways lined with high brick walls, at the end of a short steep drive to a garden compound set below a high wooded hillside with an enormous Buddha atop, we stopped. A few steps through high gates and we were into a garden courtyard. And into paradise. And there, for a too short day, in the company of four generations of women - Tram Meo, her daughter, her mother, her grandmother, and with Tu Huong, an artist friend and neighbour, I reconnected with nature, with kindness, and with the old Vietnam, the Vietnam that keeps me here.
Over a lunch of simple traditional food, the ingredients from the garden, the conversation was in three languages, all spoken badly, all said with such sincerity it didn't matter. Tram sometimes translated but often we all juggled sentences between English, French and Vietnamese.
"Excusey-moi, Chi ting Viet, a little." And for emphases, gestures and laughter and smiles.
And at that table, in the golden light penetrating the fruit trees, the tall hardwood trees, shining on the terracotta tiles, with the old timbers of the traditional wooden house radiating warmth, a magic spell overtook us and out hearts opened and out friendships were formed.
We spoke of loss - the recent loss of Tram's father, the four years since loss of my husband. We spoke of our work - their art, my writing. We spoke of the pain of separation, fears for our children and again we spoke of art, of painting, of painting with brushes, of painting with words, of making pictures in lacquer - Huong is one of the foremost lacquer artists in the country - and then it was mid afternoon and still we were spellbound by the light and the place and the love. Yes, love. Total strangers, yet a connection as deep as the history of this country held us in an enchantment that will never leave me.
And there was more to come. "Please visit my garden studio," Huong said.
So once again in the little taxi, we set off, Tram, her mother, Huong and myself. Huong and I are of the same generation. As an artist, she has a dedication that astounds me. Abandoning her comfortable city life she lives simply, and she sits and breathes in her garden - a wild garden, a garden with a mind of it's own, and she draws, she paints, exquisite art that collectors vie for.
And she sells as little as possible. When she needs money to live she will reluctantly let an art gallery takes a few pieces. And when she receives a grand commission for a lacquer piece ( which can take a year to execute) she works at it, puts everything into it, but she prefers to just sit, observe the sun and the rain and the seasons of the flowers.
Huong wanted to give me a painting. I was so surprised. So thrilled. And I accepted.
There was no feeling of, "No I couldn't possibly..." Such a silly, false convention to employ when a gift is given freely, in friendship. "It is better to give than receive" Come on! How can you give when the person will not receive with joy and true gratitude?
This work, on mulberry paper, is a more a meditation than a painting. The flowers seem suspended in a veil of early morning mist. They shimmer in an almost abstract dance. There are strokes in charcoal, blushes of colour in paint, and a top finish of white hand ground seashells normally used in lacquer works. the whole is translucent. And spare. The flowers on first look are flowers, then butterflies, then spirits; the spirit of the artist, the spirits of women, the spirit of my beloved Vietnam.
Thank you Tram Meo. Thank you Dang Tu Huong. Thank you Tran's mum, grandmother, daughter. Indomitable spirits all.