A Quaker's Blank Canvas

9th November 2023

Do you ever sit in front of a blank piece of paper and despair? What to write, how? All I would say is Give yourself time. The right kind of time: the sort filled with no thought at all, no concrete plan or aspiration. A bit like a Quaker meeting, in fact. I promise you, something will come.

I make that rash promise because as both an artist and a writer/poet, I sit in front of a sheet of nothingness, a staring-at-me-empty canvas all the time. What shall I do, how do I start? There's the pen or the brush or the keyboard, waiting. And I too wait, as I patiently listen to some 'quakerly' silence, have something almost like a meeting by myself. Sometimes my fingers just start typing the first words with no end to the sentence on my mental horizon. Or I grab that brush, choose this colour and the other one there, start mixing, for no reason at all.

Or I might be sitting quietly minding my own business, when suddenly I notice that weird itchy feeling of something deep inside me brewing up, bubbling away, wanting out. It could go on for days. There's a poem in the pipeline, I just know it. Any moment soon it will coalesce, condense or somehow get its act together and I'll say Ah, yes, I can see it now. At other times, the pipeline is resolutely empty for days, even weeks at a time.

It's a bit like that in Quaker meeting. You find you have 'dry' times, when you sit and wait for – let's call it inspiration – and absolutely nothing comes to you out of the...forgive me, poet's hat on: out of the fertile void. And what is that strange place that isn't a place and is both empty and full of everything possible?

Now you might think it's 'your subconscious', or that it's down to 'intuition'. Yes, a perfectly good way of putting it, fine enough words. But not really a definition or explanation either. The mystery remains. But that's OK. As a group, Quakers are quite relaxed about things being inexplicable. What counts is the experience, and what it makes you do.

We wait for what I'd call the genuine inner experience before we act for the best. I say genuine not because I think we have false inner experiences – what I mean is that it comes from real depth, not just somewhere near the top of your head: I want to do this; it should be done like this; I have been told it needs to be x and y and be finished by z. Too often we act because we think we should, or let others think it for us, when we should be going deep, waiting patiently for what that depth throws up – sometimes positively chucks at us: not just as a complete surprise, but much against our previous inclination, zapping carefully laid plans, making us unpopular with the neighbours.

We may describe it, in the old phrase, as something that is 'laid upon us'. Or we may call it a 'Concern', yes, with a capital C. Always it derives from something beyond our own willing and desiring, from a place that is 'true'. Other words or phrases might catch it: essence; non-partisan, without fear or favour; open-minded; ready to lay aside the old, predictable, safe; putting aside ego; overcoming deep-rooted conditioning and indoctrination; being receptive to the unknown; following a 'leading' (another old Quaker term we continue to use); or 'letting go and letting God' – a phrase that has just presented itself here as wanting to be typed...a bit against my own will, I have to say. But there it is. –

And so the painting turns out to be something unexpected. And the poem veers off what I was beginning to think was its course and lands softly, or with a good thump, in a totally different place. And now I stare at these wonders of creation – and I'm not saying they're wonderful, as such, but they are what they need to be, for now – and I feel that in whatever minor way, I've done the right thing.

The same applies when, ignoring some verbal abuse, I stand in the street handing out XR leaflets: that too, in its insignificant way, has come from the deep-down place that says Now this!

You're never sure when you may feel the inner urge to act, quite possibly counter to your own interests, despite fear, despite the neighbours glaring as you head off with a placard on a long stick. We cringe, but we do, because we genuinely must.

The many people around the world, past and present (Quakers among them), facing prison with such courage: that sort of bravery and conviction can only come from real depth – whether you see it as your Inner Light, hear it as your still small voice, or meet it as the inspiring blank, the apparent nothing that contains everything of worth.

Angela Arnold – Oswestry Quaker Meeting and North Wales Area Meeting