Winter blues

It's snowed quite a bit, here at home, and more is forecast. We're up to 38cms (15") so far. This means we're stuck at home, until a thaw. 

It's not so bad (as long as the power stays on). We're warm, and have food, and I have reading and writing and art and knitting to do. But it's also scary, and combined with the exhaustion that's overtaken me the past few days, I have fallen into a slump. I am not reading or writing (well, there's this). I'm not creating art (not quite true; I did finally finish a painting), and only knitting in fits and starts.

I am definitely suffering from what medical professionals refer to as "low mood". I feel anxious, and am full of negative thoughts about myself. But I'm still here, and still glad you're here with me.



A place for grief

This is a self-portrait of sorts. 

In the second week of December 2017, I took part in a selfie challenge in a Facebook group I'm a member of (Amy Walsh's Tactical Imagination Club). One of the challenges was to share parts of ourselves that don't normally get expressed, to blur the lines between fact and fiction, actuality and archetype, past, present and future. 

This isn't a picture of who I am, but of who I could have been. 

These pointe shoes are 30 years old, and have survived countless moves, as well as a house fire. I keep them because they remind me of my first ballet teacher. That ballet teacher was called Mandy. 

Her story is not a happy one. I created a telling of her life a couple of years ago, and told it to a small group. One of them could barely keep himself from laughing.

I haven't told it again.

She had been dead for 8 years by the time I bought these shoes, and her death effectively ended my path to becoming a professional dancer. I have so much grief and anger wrapped up in these shoes, so much loss and longing. But, like the shoes, that grief and anger, that loss and longing, is somewhat musty and dusty and faded. 

I know the place of all that worn, old feeling, I tell myself: on an altar to the dead. And that is where it stays. 

The thing is, though, that feelings are only ever in the present. If I grieve, I grieve now; if I rage, I rage now; if I long, I long now. And that grief, that rage, that longing make their way into my work -- my stories, my art, my yarncrafts, my teaching -- because they are what I have to work with. 

Many people believe that suffering is a necessary prerequisite for art. I disagree. Choosing to be with and to engage deeply with one's suffering creates the potential for art; lead does not turn to gold all by itself. 

But by the same token, choosing to be with and engage deeply with any experience -- 'positive' as well as 'negative' creates the potential for art. It's just that there is usually more motivation to engage with 'negative' experiences, because they don't feel good, and we want them to change, stop or go away.

It is not the basic material that creates art but the way the artist works with that basic material. The same is true of life and living.

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Country child in the city

I was born in South London (pronounced “Saaarf Laarndun”), in the area of Lewisham. You can't get much more urban than that; I was raised in England's second largest city. And yet, since adolescence, I've felt ill at ease with city life.

My (limited) studies of French philosophy helped me see I wasn't alone in this experience. Durkheim had a word for my situation: l'anomie – the feeling that I lacked community. Sartre had a word for it, too: la nausée – the sense of despair I felt at the world's indifference to my existence.

I got the first intimations that a different life was possible at Glastonbury Festival in 1993. I was volunteering with West Midlands CND, holding fort at the left luggage tents around various of the fields along with my fellow activists. As a volunteer, I was on site for nearly an entire week. I was in a place where I could connect directly with the shape of the land, the state of the ground, the way earth became trees became sky. 

There was nothing but earth and grass on the ground, nothing taller than a sound stage on the horizon. Not only that, but the people...

Whether it was being released from the nine to five into a long weekend of free-wheeling festival living, or getting to hang out with their friends and enjoy their favourite music live, or the availability of the healing field, people were for the most part what I had always dreamed people could be -- what we should be: loving, generous, happy.

This was my first taste of feeling part of a place, being in relationship to a place -- and a community -- rather than being a disconnected dot, scurrying about a Tarmacked surface. It was an experience which shaped my ideas about how I wanted to live.

At first, my focus was on finding a humane, human community, based on reciprocity, mutuality and generosity. I found it for a while in workers' and housing co-operatives, but I had yet to develop the perspective and the personal resilience to deal with the conflicts of personality, perspective and priorities which inevitably arise when working and living in a group -- even a group whose members share ideals. And we were still part of the atomised city, still surrounded by l'anomie and la nausée.

I gave myself a break from idealism, and simply followed life where it led me for a few years. Where it led me in 2000 was to a wee cottage in an isolated rural parish in southern Scotland, along with my partner and our dogs. This was where that different life began to emerge: not from the people I surrounded myself with – there were precious few of those around! – but from the relationship I developed with this new land.

I spent a great deal of time outdoors in that first year in our new home, just noticing. My tools were a curious mind, open senses, and waterproofs. I came to know what rain looked like from a distance, and how to tell if it was coming our way. I learned the scent of clover and moist earth in sunshine. I thrilled at the sight of herons almost within arm's reach. I began to recognise wild plant and animal neighbours which were new to me: vetch, water avens, blueberry, St. John's wort; buzzard, sparrowhawk, hare, red squirrel.

And in coming to know the land and all of its living peoples, I also gradually came to know the spirit species which populated it, too: the devas, the sidhe, the very substantial elements. Above all else, I came to recognise the presence and actions of the Cailleach, of Angus, and of Bride, the legendary shapers of the land of Scotland.

Through this process I have found community with my fellow beings I have learned not only how to listen to and hear the non-human inhabitants of this land, but also how better to relate to the humans in my life. This is because being in relationship with the more-than-human has enabled me to land ever more fully into myself.

Being in relationship, I know that I am not alone, that I have a place, that I am at home, right here, right now. This takes the anxiety and the pressure out of every interaction I have with other humans, whether they are family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances or distant bureaucrats. Through knowing myself connected to the land and its all-species, more-than-human tribe, I also know myself connected to my human kin.

L'anomie and la nausée are gone. While I still experience seasonal depression, I'm hopeful I now have the skills and tools to ensure that, even if I find myself living in a city again, their kind of existential angst will never return.

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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:


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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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:


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 " 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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