Today I learned of the death of a great friend, a woman of this City who was a mum, grand mum, teacher – and for me – a spiritual and cultural mentor that not only changed my life, but the lives of hundreds and probably thousands of people, by explaining ways to express ideas, and pass them on.
Only some teachers have this profound ability, and Claire was particularly gifted; she influenced her pupils, of all ages, in subtle and inspirational ways. I must turn to The Tao to describe the way Claire operated as an educator:
Therefore, the master acts without doing anything,
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
I met Claire under the most bizarre circumstances, the kind of circumstances that compel one to respect destiny. I was living in Brunswick Square at the time, and a neighbour asked me to find a women’s writing group. I ended up in The Jubilee Library, looking at a hand-written card giving information about a group that met regularly just off the Old Steine. We went and the neighbour soon gave up; it was all about poetry… but for me that group was special… and Claire who ran it, changed my life.
With a core of about five or six writers, and a couple with enormous talent, I found that my life expanded; the group gave me creative and spiritual sustenance of a kind I never knew existed. Claire had the ability to bring out the very best in us all. Apart from her poetry, which was beautiful, I found the writing of Pauline Suett Barbieri and Rikki Hennessey particularly fine, and I read Rikki’s beautiful words to this day.
Every time we met, Claire would give us some homework — a poem to write about and we would read our stuff aloud, listen to Claire and compare and contrast. The subjects chosen were unusual… they varied from umbrellas to ‘the road to hell’. My output varied from blank verse to dreadful doggerel. Before I joined Claire’s group I had a real aversion to poetry. Today, I look at my library and see that there are more poetry books there than anything else, and all thanks to Claire. Not only that, I have just browsed my old ‘homework’ file on my computer and discovered that I wrote 154 poems under her gentle guidance… but 154 is nothing. Today I have an on-line library of over 100 funeral readings (all poems) and a massive library of poetry used for everything from weddings to Mayoral Council Meetings. Thank you, Claire.
Claire was a person with her own views, nearly all of which resonated with my own. When we met recently we bemoaned the current political scenario, and looked at it from many angles. She knew very well what she did and didn’t like; yet in the poetry group she had infinite patience with us if we found things difficult, helping the more anxious students by offering words of kindness, much to the irritation of some of us, who were much less patient. She was compassionate, insightful and always soft spoken. She also taught students with learning disabilities, and I can imagine she was brilliant.
She leaves behind a lovely family – Tim, her delightful husband, who is also a gifted poet, Matthew and Katie, and a grandson.
By opening the door to a skill I didn’t even recognise in myself, Claire empowered me and, I believe many other people.
Just over a week ago, in my capacity as Chaplain to the Mayor I realised I had to say something about the massive weight of responsibility faced by the Councillors today. Available time was limited, but it was important to let the Councillors know that they were appreciated. I wrote a short poem that (apparently) worked well, across all parties. This poem would never have existed without Claire. Here it is.
In Times of Uncertainty
Dedicated to all the Councillors of Brighton and Hove
In times of uncertainty
Good people happen.
The hungry are fed
The weak nurtured
Gardens are cultivated
But it is not easy
In moments of uncertainty
So much of what you do
Seems indiscernible and yet
It is not; unassuming service
Changes lives for the better
It brings gifts beyond compare
As you put your hand to a small pronouncement
As you touch a household you do not know
A gesture of compassion brings immeasurable change
In times of uncertainty
We need you
We are your community
This is our City
I am that street dweller
These children are yours
And so, we are in your hands
Held in your hands… and your heart
And thank you so much Claire Shelton-Jones…