The stories I love are old

So why do I feel I have to deliver something new?

Image by Dustin Scarpitti on Unsplash

I'm attending a Scottish Storytelling Apprentice day next week. A big part of the day is telling and receiving feedback on a 10 minute story -- or ten minutes of a story. I enjoy this part of the day a lot, and learn as much from observing others' tellings as I do from feedback on my own. 

But every time, I forget I need to have 10 minutes of story ready to go until the week before, when the reminder email comes round, and every time, it causes me intense anxiety. In fact, it's increasing over time.

It seems that the more stories I gather, the less I feel I have to offer. 

Ridiculous, untrue, but I feel it just the same.

I don't know where it comes from, but the idea that I have to always have something new to offer in order to be of value is deeply embedded in my psyche. 

This morning, I looked out of my bedroom window on a strange and wonderful sight: 

-- the field stretching from our house to the hill from which our water comes is its usual green, fading thistles drooping over the otherwise well-cropped pasture; 

-- at its edge, a stand of spruce trees; 

-- above, a grey sky, waiting for sunrise to brighten it to blue.

And between sky and earth, behind the trees, a white mist, like batting, draped over the form of the hill, ending in a line, near the foot of the hill, as straight as any in nature can be. 

It is the Cailleach's headscarf, lower to the ground than it would normally be found (it usually graces the peaks of bens and mountains), but unmistakable.

The Cailleach's story, the story of her solitary, exhausting, creative existence, her forming of the very land itself, is one with which I am intimately familiar. It is as old as the Scottish hills themselves. 

This is the story I will tell at the Apprentice day. 

I do not need a new story; I do not need to pressure or force myself. I have this story: this gift of land, and ancestors, and tradition, and oracy, that I have a duty and a responsibility to share in my turn, in my own unique way, one thread in a tapestry woven over millennia.


Image by Dustin Scarpitti on Unsplash


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9th November, 1989

A West German man uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall as a souvenir. A portion of the Wall has already been demolished at Potsdamer Platz.
A West German man uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall as a souvenir.
A portion of the Wall has already been demolished at Potsdamer Platz.

It's a grey Thursday afternoon in November, 1989. 

I've finally got my college room organised to my satisfaction: single bed pushed lengthways against the window; side table at the foot, holding my hifi and a small lamp; big wooden desk and chair in front of the noticeboard on the adjacent wall.

I've got the radio of my hifi on, tuned to Radio 4, listening to the news. Amongst coverage of the ambulance crew strikes in London, and continued commentary on the vote at the Church of England Synod to allow the ordination of women, comes the news that the Berlin wall has fallen.

I'm immediately seized by wild joy. I get up on my bed and bounce up and down in front of my window, whooping. I've been part of the peace movement for the past seven years, marching and sitting and writing letters and praying. 

This is what we have been working towards, hoping for, for so long: the end of the cold war, the fall of the iron curtain, the cessation of pointless hostilities and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The sun comes out. I sit on my bed, breathless and grinning. In that moment, I am assured of the justification of hope: we shall overcome.

Looking back now, I love that 19 year old me, so joyful. And I grieve for them, for the disillusionment that was to come. 


Image credit: SSgt. F. Lee Corkran, DoD 


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“…their message of no message across the millennia…”

This remarkable, profound, and challenging piece of writing by Sam Kriss is well worth reading from beginning to end. 

Its fundamental point, at least as I understood it -- that our attempts to understand the distant past and its remnants, from our viewpoint as blip-in-human-history, are futile, and that listening is all we can do -- puts me in mind of a poem I wrote back in 2006, as a reflection on the experience of visiting Castlerigg stone circle in Cumbria. 

I'd visited Castlerigg a lot over the three years previously. It was only a short detour off my route home from team meetings in Ambleside, and after my first visit, I was hooked. 

I don't usually feel very much at stone circles. They are majestic, extraordinary, amazing achievements of human will and ingenuity, but most of them lack any kind of energetic or spiritual pull for me. Castlerigg is different, and I tried to capture some of the awe, inspiration, and loss I felt there in this poem:

Castlerigg

We weave our way between the sheep --
trailing wool from their necks, as if a shepherd
had begun peeling it off in pieces, and then
given up -- and lean against this rock
among rocks resting on bedrock,

a titled circle, bringing earth to sky.
Smooth stone stands in for human
forms short, tall, moss- and lichen-cloaked,
volcanic glitter covered but not dulled.
Did it shine for those who placed it here?

How like a sunstruck fire then, or
a glistening dragon's spine,
curled around its horde.
But these many hues of green, the brown
of earth and dung, the mineral, the clouded greys,

these are no different: the shades
the nameless builders saw who cut
and placed this stone, I see

and my view tilts, a vertigo
of generations, footstep upon footstep,
massing under the empty hills. I feel:

their grief for those who breathe, that we
are not yet married to the land,
joined in union with the loam, communion
with the layers thick of lives
and deaths gone before;

the heart-soreness of living
that history cannot erase, only
remove to such distance, alone
the voices of stone can be heard,
and cannot be translated.

We hear only the wind around our hoods,
the bleating of sheep,
see only a curio, a wonder,
dry and bare: the bone
and blood and flesh are gone.

© 2006 Elinor Prędota


Image credit: photograph by Prof saxx


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The country diary of a queer, anarchist witch: robin and wren

robin and wren

I'm currently sitting in front of a window that goes all the way to floor level. As usual, every now and again as I'm sitting here, birds come up close to the window, trying to get into the space they can see through the glass, or sit on the fence a few yards away, looking in sceptically. 

Just now, a wren came along, flying low to the ground, and hopping every now and again, along the length of the window, sitting on the window ledge for a moment before flying off.

The birds in these parts are incredibly large, compared to other places I've lived. It's bound, in part, to be the fluffing up of feathers against the chill of the wind, but even taking that into account, we have some beefy birdies. I've always put the rest of it down to the sheer quantity of insects available for them to eat over the summer. 

(To which I say, eat away, little birds, eat away! The fewer midges to bother me the better.)

It means I always second guess myself when I see a wren. In all the other places I've seen wrens, they've been tiny, truly tiny. Here, they're almost the size of sparrows, so I always double check the features that make it definitely a wren. Pale and dark variegation on the wing? Check. White bar above the eye? Check. Tail tipped up perpendicular to the ground? Check.

Amusingly enough, just a few seconds after the wren went on its way, a robin appeared on the fence, big and round, with his beady eye looking at me. 

Why amusing? Because the wren and the robin are important birds in English, Welsh and Irish folklore, with a strong relationship to one another.

The wren is known as the king of the birds, and its name in many European languages means king, king-bird, or little king. This may be because, according to legend, the wren became the highest flying of all the birds when he hitched a lift on the back of an eagle, then launched himself from it's back to fly just a little bit higher. This legend also illustrates the wren's fabled cunning.

The wren is both protected from, and associated with lightning, as well as with oak trees, and the deity Taranis. If you steal a wren's egg or a baby wren, your house will be struck by lightning. The same may apply if you mess with a Druid, as druids and wrens are closely associated.

The robin has much more Christian legend associated with it. One version of how the robin got his red breast recounts how he sang in Christ's ear as he hung on the cross, to distract him from his suffering, and that drops of Christ's blood landed on his breast, permanently marking him. Another version tells how he tried to stop up the wound in Christ's side with his breast, and that is how it was stained red. 

Yet a third story tells of the robin's merciful nature: out of pity for the souls trapped in Hell, he would carry water to them in his beak. In the process, his breast was burned by the fires of that place.

Another story of the robin and fire also brings in the wren. In this tale, the robin stole fire from heaven, and caught fire himself as he brought it to earth. In gratitude for this act, all of the other birds gave him one of their feathers, to cover over the areas where his own had burned away. In the robin's enthusiasm, he did not notice the tiny wren in the crowd, got too close, and so the wren, too, caught fire. The singe marks can still be seen on the wren's wings today.

The robin and the wren are also brought together in a whimsical tradition that if a dead person be left unburied, the robin and wren together will cover over its body with leaves. 

The most famous story of the relationship between the robin and the wren, however, is not one of cooperation, but of conflict. In this tradition, the robin is associated with the rising of the new sun at the winter solstice (around 21st December), and the wren is the old year, which must die for the new to be born. In some tellings of their tale, the robin kills his father, the wren, and gets his red breast from the wren's blood. 

This could also be the origin of the Medieval tradition of hunting and killing a wren on St. Stephen's day (26th December) by stoning. Supposedly, this was in remembrance of the stoning of St. Stephen, but it is easy to see how it could have a more Pagan origin, in the killing of the old year to allow the new one in.

Thankfully, this is a tradition that died out some time back, although 'The Hunting of the Wren' is a festival still celebrated in the Isle of Man, and various places around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with a wreath or other object taking the place of the wren.


Image credits: "robin" by jans canon, and "Wren" by John Benson, both used under license CC BY 2.0.


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My grandfather’s story

My grandfather's ID from 1945

My grandfather, Władislaw Zbegniew Prędota, was born in the tiny village of Bilcza, in southern Poland, on 18th October, 1921. He didn't complete school, but did join the Aviation School in Bydgoszcz in his teens. It was during a leave of absence for sickness that German forces invaded Poland.

What comes next is an incredible story of fortitude, persistence, and sheer bloody-mindedness. He joined the Polish Army, was captured by German forces, send to a labour camp, escaped, joined the Resistance, was captured and sent to several further labour camps twice more, and possibly escaped twice more, before at last sending the final months of the war in Dachau.

Liberated by the US Army in April, 1945, he eventually settled in England. The ID card above is from that period, detailing his time in the Polish forces under English command from 1945 to 1947.

I am working on a telling of his story, not just of his valour, but of the way in which he built an ordinary life after the war, yet never forgot his family in Poland. If you'd like to hear about my progress, about the joys and challenges of turning a real life into a storytelling performance, and of how working on it is changing my relationship with my grandfather, become a patron:

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The country diary of a queer, anarchist witch: gathering meadowsweet

Today has been my first day back in the swing of everyday life since teaching at Witchcamp in Shropshire. It's mostly been made up of unpacking and laundry, but I did make the opportunity to gather some meadowsweet while it's in bloom. 

A meadowsweet plant seeded itself in my berry bush bed last year, and I've let it stay there, as an easy access source of flowers and leaves. (Otherwise I have to wander into soggy hillsides and past Roman nettles.) I went out to gather some this afternoon, in clear sunshine. Of course, as soon as I started picking it started raining; however, that's a complaint / contemplation for another day.

Meadowsweet was used in Culpeper's time "...to stay all manner of bleedings, fluxes, vomitings and women's menses, as also their whites...". Gerard also suggests it for eye irritation. 

Medicinally, in modern times, its prime use is for pain relief, especially to relieve cramps of the smooth muscles (gut and uterus). It is gentle on the stomach, and is also a mild astringent, which makes it an excellent choice for diarrhoea, and for heavy, painful periods. It can also help to bring down fevers and has been suggested as a treatment for ulcers — although those with sensitivity to salicylic acid should proceed with great care, and the advice of a fully qualified medical herbalist. 

Emotionally and magically, according to both Gerard and Culpeper, it makes "a merry heart". It falls under the influence of Venus, and is therefore useful in spells for love, money and beauty, especially where a gentle action is required. It is a specific for softening the heart of someone who has it out for you, and is generally good for peace, happiness and harmony. 

It is also a good herb for sweetening the atmosphere of a space. Traditionally, it was added to the straw used to keep floors of great houses fresh. The stalks and seeds, when burned, have a scent very like sweetgrass, which suggests it can be used for similar purposes. 

Meadowsweet has a wide range of culinary uses. It can be made into a very tasty cordial, and is often added to mead and herb beers. It goes very well with strawberries and with milk, and can be used in rice pudding, creme brulée, ice cream, panna cotta, and many other dishes.

It also has mythical fame in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, as one of the three flowers used by Math ap Mathonwy and Gwydion to make a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, when his mother could not be tricked into lifting her curse on him. Said wife, Blodeuwedd, is a figure of great fascination to me, and part of a broader storytelling work in progress, giving voice to women from myth and legend who were created by or for men.


Important note: none of the information provided in this piece constitutes medical advice. Please do your own research, and consult a qualified medical herbalist if in any doubt.


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Bird messengers, bird messages

A European buzzard gliding in a blue sky, photographed from below.

This morning, I started my day (as I have for the past three days, and hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future) by greeting the Guardians of the east. I do this by facing east, engaging my attention, using my voice and my body, and resting in stillness.

As well as paying attention to what I am doing, and the Great Beings with which I am communicating, I also pay attention to the world around me, alert for any signs and portents. These often come to me as animal visitors -- although I am always aware that animals are not primarily here for my edification: they have their own lives and goals to pursue.

This morning, I noticed two birds in particular.

First, a dunnock, which looked at me curiously from the fence during my vocal and bodily prayers. 

Dunnocks are what bird-spotters call LBJs ('little brown jobs'), but despite this, they have their own quiet charisma. The brown line above their eyes makes them unmistakeable.

The one I saw was far more sleek and delicate-looking than the one in this picture: it is summer here, so it didn't need to puff itself up to keep warm, which is what the one in this photograph is doing. 

The folklore surrounding dunnocks is charming. According to Tony Locke

"By day it is a happy little bird that tries to outdo every other bird with its song. However, at night particularly at midnight their sad and tender songs are said to reflect the cries of unbaptised babies that have returned from the spirit world in search of their parents. The dunnock’s blue-green eggs were regarded as charms against witches' spells when strung out along the hob. They were especially good for keeping witches and spirits from coming down the chimney."

I take this as an invitation to me to pay attention to the balance of joy and loss in my life (a constant theme), and to refresh the shields around my home.

After I had finished my prayers and was resting in stillness, a common buzzard flew into view (like the one pictured in the header to this post), and proceeded to hover over the hill which stands to the east of my home. 

It glided high in the air for a while, then brought in its wings slightly, took an upright 'stance', and fanned out its tail -- a pose for selecting prey. 

After a moment, it returned to a hover, then glided down a little lower and returned to its hunting pose. It repeated this twice more, before dropping, silently and, to my surprise slowly, onto its selected prey. 

There is no folklore around common buzzards, so I derived a message for my life from this encounter purely from the buzzard's behaviour. What I took from it is this. There is no need to rush. Look at the situation from far away as well as close up. Be still and pay attention. Once you have decided, act calmly and without hurry to achieve your goal.

Of course, another person seeing those exact same birds, in the exact same place, would be bound to interpret them at least a little differently. That is as it should be: no sign, symbol or portent has an entirely fixed meaning; each instance of its arising has a different context, and therefore different significance. 

Just like stories, just like poems, just like art.

Header image: "Common Buzzard" by John Plumber. Used under Creative Commons license.

Dunnock image: from The Folklore and Traditions of the Irish Hedgerow.

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All we ever have is now

A brief memoir of sociopolitics and illness

Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” 

Gandhi didn’t say, “Then you start all over again.” 

He probably should have.


“Are you better?”

I get that question a lot — from friends, from acquaintances, sometimes from family members.

In fact, I was asked that question just last week. When it came, I was tired, hungry, aching, and low on cognitive function; also, stressed, full of anxiety, and falling over the lip of depression. For long moments, all I could do was look at my kind, concerned neighbour with my mouth slightly open. Then I scoffed, and told her that I don’t get better: I have bad days, and not so bad days, because I have chronic illnesses. 

I’m not usually so ungracious in my response. I know the question is kindly meant, a request after my state of wellbeing. But it’s also a challenge, an unconscious demand that I fit the narrative  of progress; all too often, it sounds like, “Aren’t you better yet?” and underneath that, “How dare you still be ill?”


I’m  awake, lying in bed, muscles full of lassitude, eyes drooping. The sky is light, or it is cloudy, bright with stars, or pitch black, or blue and sunny. 

I don’t know what time it is. I don’t know what day it is. I drift: on exhaustion, on pain, on a deep, persistent ache in my  chest and gut that has no physical cause. 

I close my eyes; I open them. A minute has gone by — or is it an hour, or a day, or a night? 

Time is irrelevant. There is only now.


One  of the most pernicious ideas in modern and contemporary thought, especially liberal and left-wing thought, is that positive change happens in a linear fashion, that society goes from bad to better to good to best. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is couched in a rhetoric of revolution, or one of incremental progress, the foundation of that rhetoric is the same: things get better over time.

But sometimes (often; always) they don’t. Sometimes, things get better, then they get worse, then they get better. Sometimes, things get worse, then they get better, then they get worse. Always, some things are getting  better, and some things are getting worse. There is no smooth trajectory of improvement.

I grew up in the English Midlands. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I used to love the idea that things were always getting better, that all is for the best, in the end. It really seemed that way, for a while. Yes, through the 1980s and early 1990s many things got worse: HIV and AIDS arrived, killing a generation of gay and bisexual men, and sex workers and intravenous drug users of all genders; the unions were smashed, public services were sold off to the highest bidder, social housing was sold off to private buyers, carpet-baggers were all over the formerly mutual building societies; and a pointless war was waged in Iraq without the public’s consent. But on the other hand, the Poll Tax was defeated; women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people were demanding — and getting — more respect; the Cold War was over; HIV and AIDS treatments became more effective; and by 1997  “Things could only get better”*.

Except they didn’t.

After an initial flush of hope, New Labour turned out to be Tories in disguise. Amongst other things, they brought in Public Private Partnerships and Private Finance Initiatives, which continued to privatise the profits and socialise the costs of public services, while hiding everything from the public, we who were supposedly being served by these arrangements, under watertight commercial confidentiality agreements. 

Then came the second Iraq war, the illegal one, for which no-one has yet to be held legally accountable. If the first Iraq war made me doubt democracy, the second made me downright cynical. Things weren’t getting better, they were just going on the same way as  they had for hundreds of years — war for profit, profit for war, and the  people united and easily controlled through fear and hatred of The Enemy. 

On the back of 9/11, the second Iraq war, and the  ongoing, never-ending “War on Terror,” racism and xenophobia increased, and while things got better for some LGBT people (mainly cisgendered, white, homonormative, abled, comfortably off, gay men), misogyny started running rampant once again.

When the “It Gets Better” campaign** started, I made positive sounds on the outside, but inside, I alternated between grim laughter and rage.


Time trickles
like a speeding hare, bolts past
like treacle. It makes me
dizzy, head spinning, waiting,

still and
waiting,

waiting
for this moment,
any moment,
to come within reach.


I have very few childhood memories of being entirely happy, entirely  healthy. I began to experience symptoms of depression at 8 years old,  and of fibromyalgia at 12. I was finally diagnosed with depression when I  was 37, and with fibromyalgia when I was 41. I also strongly suspect that I am neurodivergent, with many signs throughout my life of having  inattentive ADD and being autistic.

For three decades, I struggled to understand, and to cope with, two chronic illnesses and neurodivergence. In my early adolescence, my parents took me to a homeopath, and dosed me with endless vitamin and mineral supplements. As a teen, I was tested for glandular fever, for hypothyroidism, for  goodness knows how many other ailments and maladies. According to all the tests, which my doctor undertook again and again, I was perfectly fit and healthy. 

Yet under the veneer of my appearance as an abled person was a disabled person, whose needs were never acknowledged -- not even discovered, let alone met.

My lowest point came in 1987. Or was it in 1990? Or was it 1996, or 2007, or 2014? 

My best days were in 1989. Or was it in 1992? Or was it 1994, or 2000, or 2009?

Having chronic illnesses means my life doesn’t fit the tidy narrative of challenge, action, crisis, integration, triumph, the ‘universal story’ of progress. There is no beginning, no end; no single challenge to overcome; no single crisis over which to triumph. There is only the  messy in between, in which narrative and time stop and start and jump, flashing forward and backward, but never landing in the same place twice

A friend once said to me, “The most radical thing you can have is a long memory.”

We were talking at the time about the political consciousness — or lack of it — of our  university students, a few years ago, when I was well enough for a while to work in the world. We both remembered the British Miners’  Strike, she all the more vividly as the child of a County Durham mining  family. And we had both learned, in our political upbringing, about the General Strike, the Jarrow Marches, going back and back in British labour history to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. 

I don’t often think of my life with chronic illnesses as in any way radical, but it is; it is. I  have a long memory: I remember having better health than I have now, of being able to do more; I remember having worse health than I have now, of being able to do less. 

Always, I have dwelt in the liminal land between wellness and illness, between society and loneliness, neither productive nor unproductive, sometimes nurturing, sometimes needing nurture, never able to be placed by either capitalism or patriarchy into one box or another.

There is no progress in my health, and there is no cure. All I have to do is look back into my past experience, to look at my life as a whole, to confirm that that is true. I do not know what is to come, but it would be foolish of me to imagine that the future holds anything different. There is no point in me planning for a life that relies on my wellness, when that wellness is a pipe dream. Looking back, I know that I must plan for life with me as I am, not as I could wish to be, not as the “It Gets Better” narrative would have me be.

There is no salvation coming. There will be no revolution to right all wrongs. There can be no end game, no final roll of the dice, no ultimate victory or defeat. 

Understand, this is not, this is never a counsel of despair.

Because there is still today, with its struggles and joys, its choices and responsibilities, its love and fear. We live now, even as we are  informed, bolstered, uplifted, and warned by the stories of the past. 

Time is irrelevant. The future is non-existent. The past is made of memory.

There is only now.


Footnotes:

*  “Things can only get better” is a pop song by D:Ream, used by New  Labour in the 1997 British general election, which heralded the beginning of the party’s 11 years in government.

** A crowd-sourced video campaign started by Dan Savage in 2010, aimed at giving LGBT young people a message of  hope in order to prevent suicide.


Image credit: 'To the classrooms' by Marten Bjork on Unsplash 

Title from 'All We Have Is Now' by The Flaming Lips


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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:

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