This wild and precious, human life


You may have noticed, I’ve not been posting here lately. That’s because, after some life turbulence, I’ve returned to this question, yet again:

“…what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver

I’m not like some people, who know exactly what their work is, who have a clear and direct vocation. I don’t have one ‘thing’ I’m here to do. Or, rather, my ‘thing’ is being with what is, together; finding out what could be, together; uncovering stories around what is, and creating new ones, together.

This has in the past found fulfilment in community development, participatory action research, massage therapy, ceremonial work, spiritual coaching, storytelling, youth work, and teaching; in paid work and volunteer work and workers’ co-operatives and self-employment.

But what is its fulfilment now, at this point in space and time, with me as I am, in all my frailties and glories?

I’ve given myself that question as homework for the next few weeks and months, and I’ve started to notice prompts and hints in the world around me that are helping me to explore it.

For example, this morning, I read this post by Heather Plett, about what it means to ‘hold space’. In it, she talks of the space which we hold — when we hold such space deeply — as ‘liminal space’. She describes liminal space as:

…a period in which something… has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place. It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. [To which I would add hope, excitement, playfulness, and creativity — Elinor.] …

Holding that kind of space is one of the most sacred acts we can do for each other. When we do it, we are standing on holy ground.

This feels absolutely key and core to my work in the world. When I am my strongest self, this is what I do: I create and hold this kind of space, this kind of container for whatever needs to unfold. Healing, deepening, transformation. Joy, grief. Being with what is. Creating what will be.

It is a loving, caring, unconditional, and non-attached place to be. There is a deep mothering and midwifing power to it. Even though I have neither given birth nor adopted or fostered a child in this life, the energy of Powerful Mother flows through me.

This is not an easy energy for me to accept, and an even more difficult one for me to allow to flourish. But I know that for me to fulfil my purpose, it is an energy that I must learn to accept and embrace. 


Lambing storms and blackthorn blossoms

Blackthorn blossom, 26th April, 2014, by Dryfe Water.

Here in Scotland, it often snows in April: brief and sudden blizzards, covering the hills and trees in white, and the sky in grey. Then, within hours, or sometimes in minutes, all is sunny and green again.

These are called lambing storms, because they usually happen while lambing is in progress. They also happen around when the blackthorn trees come into flower, the first tree blossoms to emerge.

Blackthorn blossom, 26th April, 2014, by Dryfe Water.
Blackthorn blossom, 26th April, 2014, by Dryfe Water.

Together with the pale fleeces of the sheep and lambs, this can create a monochrome environment, reflecting a land coming to life, yet still held suspended.

I often feel the same way, at this time of year. I wrote this song, titled Blackthorn, in April 2007, during a spring when the snow stubbornly stayed throughout the lambing season, and my sense of being suspended along with it:


The arrival of spring

New lambs, by muffinn, used under Creative Commons license

Despite the snow and hail we’ve been getting here in my valley over the past couple of days, spring has most definitely arrived. Daffodils are blooming, catkins are swaying, and birds are singing. There are even some lambs in the fields nearby!

New lambs, by muffinn, used under Creative Commons license
New lambs, by muffinn, used under Creative Commons license

I held a spring equinox ritual for some friends on Friday, and in my research for the event, I came across reference to 25th March as the old Scottish ‘new year’ — or, more accurately, the first day of spring — when the people celebrated by driving off the Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, to the cold hill and mountain peaks.

But the Cailleach is not only the Scottish Queen of Winter; she is also one of the race of giants who formed the earth, and in one of her stories, it is she who makes the first day of spring happen…


The creation of a story

On Saturday, I spent the day in Dunblane, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre Storytelling Development Day. There was a packed and thought-provoking programme, with discussion of our relationship with the stories we tell, ways to approach work with funders, community projects, and schools as storytellers,  and the relationship between oral tradition and literacy.

I was put in mind several times during these conversations of a story I created and told last autumn, as part of a partnership between the Dig It! 2015 project of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, The Surgeons’ Hall Museums, and myself as an apprentice of the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The story was created to highlight tattoos at the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, mortuary art at Greyfriars Kirkyard, and also included a cursing bone from the National Museum of Scotland (shown below).

cursing bone - National Museum of Scotland
Cursing bone – National Museum of Scotland

I started with the tattoos: from a 19th century sailor, and an army deserter (which you can see here and here — behind links in case you’re squeamish!). I researched these tattoos’ background, the place of tattoos within the British navy at that time, and came across a particularly striking (and gruesome) story about tattoos and the spread of syphilis.

This gave me the germ of the story, which I then developed to connect it with the cursing bone and the graveyard. Eventually, the story took my protagonist, Jack, from Scotland to Portsmouth, from South America to Japan, and back again.

It was a very interesting process: very different from telling a traditional tale. Not only was I creating a story from scratch, but also in partnership with the needs and requirements of partner organisations, who wished to highlight certain elements of their work. It was much more akin to my previous work in social research and community development.

I share a little bit about the process with Joshua Graham below:

And here is the story itself. I hope you enjoy!


Thinking about death

Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat

There is a lot of sudden transition in my life right now: my partner is making fundamental changes in her life, I have had to abandon my PhD, and, in under a week’s time, I will be conducting the funeral service for a member of my family, whose death was not unexpected, but came long before anyone might have wished it.

As part of facing these various upheavals, and the grief that is inevitably arising, I have been researching myths, legends, and traditional tales about how death came into the world.

Moon and banana

In a tale from Madagascar, the first humans are faced with a choice between dying and renewing like the moon — shrinking and growing on a monthly cycle, until the end of time — or dying and renewing like the banana tree, which has many, many offspring, but then shrivels and becomes bowed, and eventually dies.

They liked the idea that they would live forever, but they thought that it might become terribly lonely, and so they chose to die and renew like the banana tree, and have the pleasure of children and grandchildren*.

A choice between life and sex

Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat
Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat

In southern America, one indigenous tale I read once** tells of how originally all peoples were immortal, in both body and spirit. But because people enjoyed sex, and had many children, the land became overfull with humans. There was not enough space or food or water for all the peoples — human and otherwise — to live comfortably together.

The grandmothers and grandfathers held a council to decide what to do. Some were willing to give up sex and having children, in order to make life liveable for all. Most, however, wanted to keep sex, children and to have a comfortable life.

Clearly, this was untenable. The wisest of the council, realising that convincing everyone to give up sex and children was never going to happen, went deep into the forest, questing for an answer. After many days, they came to a great river, which they knew they must cross to find what they were seeking.

The river was wide, and deep, and wild, and some of the grandmothers and grandfathers were not strong enough swimmers to cross it. They were dashed against rocks, or drowned as they were overcome by the waters.

When those who survived finally reached the other side of the river, they were met by the Spirit of the land: of the forest, and the river, and all of the plants and animals with whom the humans shared space and life. They put their difficulty before the Spirit, and It told them, “You already have the answer you seek.”

The wise grandmothers and grandfathers looked at one another in confusion. “Spirit,” they asked, “what do you mean?”

“In the waters of the river,” the Spirit replied, “some of your number have met with the solution you have sought. Its name is death. Through it, you may continue to enjoy your bodies, and bear children, yet not become too many in number for this land to hold.”

And the Spirit touched each one of them upon the head and heart and belly, and gave them the gift of death.The Spirit carried them safely across the river, and they carried death back with them to their settlement.

As people began to die, one by one, a great sorrow came over the people. The wise grandmothers and grandfathers felt just as sad, but they were also relieved, for they knew that now, they could enjoy their bodies, and each other, and the company of their children, and their grandchildren, without fear for the future of life.

Death learns love

The final tale of death I want to share with you isn’t a tale in words, but a short, wordless animation, about how death feels about its work in the world. I think it is rather beautiful. It is also very sad — get your hankies ready:

The Life of Death from Marsha Onderstijn on Vimeo.

There are also versions of this tale from the islands of the Pacific and among many groups of Australian Aborigines.

** I cannot remember where I read this story, so it may not in fact be from southern America. I will also, inevitably, have changed the detail of it through my recollection and retelling.


How the story of the year begins

Today, there were hints of sunshine and blue skies… but not for long.

A slightly skewed photograph of a field, hills and a small wind turbine, all with a layer of snow.
The slightly skewiff view from my office this afternoon.
The same scene, but the hills are blotted out by falling snow.
There was more snow to come.

Here in Scotland, the weather over the year follows the story of the Cailleach (also known as Beira) who is Queen of Winter, the joyful, solar Angus, and Bride, the Queen of Summer.

Their tale is a dance of love, longing and loss; this is how it begins:


Join me for more of this tale, and others, as we make our way through the year. You can get a simple RSS feed, or receive updates by email by filling in this little form: