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on Fri 27 Jan 2017

 “In order to reach the place, you need not only

 to step out of your home, but also out of your ways of looking...”*

These are the first two lines of a poem that was written up on a house wall above where we stood marvelling at a little stretch of a very green-looking Melaan: a historic canal strolling slowly through the old city of Mechelen. And one that has made a historic come-back because early last century the Melaan shared the fate of many other waterways that were seen no longer useful now that transport had moved to the streets. Sometimes they were just left to dwindle away swallowed by their own sediments and the sprawling cities. Sometimes fate was a bit more direct like with a stretch of the Melaan that used to float through the heart of Mechelen: in 1913 it was filled with earth and turned eventually into a car park with the sleepy stream buried underneath until nearly 100 years later when it was uncovered again in an attempt to bring back something lost – a vital artery? A reason to slow down? Stop, breathe, look?

So there we stood and looked and heard: the stream, the poem, the city's buzz, our own buzzing thoughts. This was a 'skills swap' that turned into something much bigger – an opening, a consolidation, inspiration, gift, generosity. It had started in Brussels in 2015 where some of our team met Fanny at the 'Conflict Matters' conference': talking about our facilitation work we instantly found a lot of connection and were interested both in the cross-over but also in where our practice differs. In the middle of a packed and hectic conference programme we had to make up our minds quickly and decided to exchange expertise for expertise: Fanny visited us in London last year to run a ½-day workshop for our team on the ideas and foundations of deep democracy. Which seems to be very much about uncovering those currents that are buried underneath sprawling debates – it's about making other views visible and slowing down conversations to breathe more life into them and reach decisions where everyone feels included.

This time it was us to return the visit and share some ideas and praxis of our creative facilitation; we had decided to use photography as a tool and strangely, we had picked a quote by Jonathan Swift, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible” as our anchor for the workshop – creative expression is the art of communicating things that cannot be put into words, that fall beneath words, that go or stay invisible. This seemed now, as we were standing by the re-discovered Melaan underneath a poem about the art of looking like things had got carried away a bit with themselves.

Or maybe a reminder about how powerful an intention can be? We had made a similar discovery the previous afternoon when Fanny took us on a walk through Brussels showing and sharing some of the complex layers of the history of this city. One of the traditional sites just off the main square is what local people call 'The Holy Sleeper': a sculpture of Everard 't Serclaes, a 14th century citizen of Brussels commemorated for his successful recovery of the city from the Flemings. Legend has it that touching this sculpture of him lying down with his dog by his feet brings luck: the hero's arms and his dog's nose are particularly fortune-rich. And indeed, just in the few minutes of us looking at him and his dog forever peacefully asleep in one of Brussel's busiest street we were fascinated by the number of people that came up to him and rubbed his arm or the dog – and we decided that 'when in Brussels do the Brussels' plus who would ever want to forgo their chance of luck, so went ahead and gave the dog's nose a gentle rub. Of course it worked. As Lily Cole once said, “happiness is not about being lucky, it's about realising how lucky you are” we instantly found ourselves in a conversation reflecting how fortunate we felt being on this trip in each others' company with rich conversations under a crystal clear frosty winter sky – and somehow we carried this awareness through our trip. A sense of gratitude for what could easily be seen as 3 days unpaid work but were really three invaluable days full of transformative conversations, new insights, deeper understanding, rich new connections, experiencing a truly genuine hospitality, sharing stories and nurturing hope.

And maybe gratitude is infectious: three of our 11 participants used that word to name one thing they take away from our workshop and one participant said she felt “happy that all other participants and even people in London work on things like I [sic]”.

We made sure that we walked past the Holy Sleeper once more on our way back through Brussels to London just to make sure we've topped up on that intention for our return to London.

* The poem was up there in Flamish but thanks to our very versatile private tour guide we were able to work out an English translation:


The Place


In order to reach the place, you need not only

to step out of your home, but also out of your ways of looking.

There is nothing to see, and that you must see

to leave everything to what has been.


There is here. There is time

to have left something behind the day after tomorrow.

That you have to care for today.

For mortality.

Herman de Coninck, 1994



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