Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Thirteen Ways to Look at a Fence

There are some poems where the imagery is beyond me. Last night a friend of mine was sharing with us his morning of creative writing in a workshop. They read through “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens. He dug out his copy from a bag of stuff and handed it over to someone to read aloud.

XII reads “The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.” It feels like something that might come out of a fortune cookie. That said, the last fortune cookie I read was “You have to be in it to win it”. I would rather have had Wallace’s two lines. It has that mystic mantra feel about it.

My friend also told us they had been issued with homework of a kind – to write a poem about fences or borders. I thought I would combine the “Thirteen ways of looking at…” with the fence. The images are obvious there’s nothing to analyse really.  I just thought about fences and 13 ways I look at them.

that which marks out the boundary
of what will be mine when
the mortgage is paid in full

my warning to you
that you are trespassing and
I will prosecute

something to sit on when
coming down on one side or the other
brings no clear benefits
and makes enemies

it rips the wool off
a sheep’s back and then
waves a white flag of surrender

think Canute by the sea commanding
the waves to come no nearer
then think cows in a field
and the fence

steel yarn
like loosely knitted garter stitch
stretched and nailed between
two concrete posts

wrapped around a building site
knocking on the doors of the young and foolish
saying, “Are you coming out to play?”

wood and whitewashed
an afternoon’s work for
Tom Sawyer’s friends

permission granted for
weeds in my garden
to crawl into next door’s border

a declaration of love
to keep you safe from

splinters of rust
biting my fingers
making me cry

invisible perhaps but
Montagues and Capulets can
never marry

always the reminder
that I’m not free

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Spandex Love

I have just finished with the Poetic Asides November Poem A Day Chapbook Challenge.  I am one poem short of the thirty required. As ever I am amazed when I read back through the collection how much they reveal about my hidden world. Sometimes I’m not sure I like what I see.

This poem – Spandex Love – was something not hidden but hard to admit to. Life has not been its easiest over the last month or so.  I’m aware that my troubles are not big ones in comparison to what other people face.

There’s that bit in the marriage vows where each person says “for better, for worse” and “in sickness and in health”. There’s no small print at the bottom with all the exceptions listed.  There is not a “get out of jail free” card that comes with the marriage vows. I wonder if we consciously take on board exactly what we’re saying and think “the worse won’t happen to me” or “sickness will not come near us”. On our marriage day we are at our most optimistic. Having said that though, the wonderful man who married Joe and myself spoke in his address to us about seeing death on the road and how, as a couple, we were as close to divorce has we had ever been. He talked about the dying as being something daily – always dying to self to allow our marriage to live and flourish. There are troubles which fly up, that can’t be avoided no matter how strong out faith is, and have to be dealt with.

How do those who face the worse or have to meet sickness head on do so with love? When loving someone becomes hard what happens next? Is it still love if there are gritted teeth involved?

It has been a month of watching my husband struggle with health issues. Yes, I know, a month is nothing. You’ve been doing it for years. Too often irritation and sharp words have peppered my landscape. There is, or perhaps more accurately was, a knot of anxiety. The “what ifs” piled up like traffic on a motorway when there are road works. And then there was the guilt that inevitably plagued me. I shouldn’t feel as if I’m not sure still love him. What? After only a month of “worse”? And when much “worse” is down the road somewhere.

I sat with God, as I have a habit of doing, or perhaps it was Him sitting with me, as He has a habit of doing when I’m too unhappy to seek Him out. Too often I expect a slap for my failures and a sharp rebuke.  Most of often I get a God-cuddle and a gentle word of encouragement. He tells me a truth that I withhold from myself – that He loves me. He lifts the heavy yoke I have put upon myself and sets His yoke on my shoulders with His assurance that I never carry it alone. We sweep away the dust that has settled, the dirt that has become engrained in my spirit and share a new picture of how things will be.

With this is mind I wrote the poem

Spandex Love

love is like Spandex, don’t you think?
every time it stretches
and spans the gap between
what feels to be impossible and
what turns out to be achievable
but can it tear? I hear you ask
if love becomes tired and dry,
rigid and inflexible, it snaps
keep love warm and soft
with laughter and shared tears

Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Own Soil

I was reading Ezekiel 37:12-14 from a small book of common prayer.

I came to it with almost a spirit of apathy clinging to me. There was no eagerness to be in God’s presence, but a kind of gritted-teeth crawl with some part of me knowing that things get restored in the presence of God. I was stirred to reword the prophecy and as I did so, I felt myself speaking these words over myself.

·         There will be an opening of what you sealed, what you buried.  Of all you called dead and allowed to crumble there will be a new beginning.

·         There will be a rising up, a resurrecting, if you will, a shrugging off and a leaving behind of the death shroud.

·         There will be a taking by the hand, a leading back to His land of promise to the soil that God has given you, a resettling and a planting in that place where you best thrive and flourish.

·         There will be a giving and an imparting of My Holy Spirit to you, bringing a fragrance of life that spills over, a breathing in and a breathing out of His life inside.

·         There will be a knowing that God has spoken and an understanding there is no part of life where God doesn’t act or move.

There is a sense in which this is past history – God has done these things already. There is also an awareness that every day is new and old manna will not do for a new day.

Amen. Let it be so.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

God's Boundaries

“I, the Lord, define the ocean’s sandy shoreline as an everlasting boundary that the waters cannot cross. The waves may toss and roar, but they can never pass the boundaries I set.” Jeremiah 5:22

Earlier this week, our church family was talking about boundaries, about what they were and why they were needed.  We were encouraged to share our insights. We talked about the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We also talked about the tendency that some churches, or Christians, have to set a boundary where God doesn’t place one.

A number of years ago I lived in Cyprus and attended a Brethren Church.  A young couple in the church were married and weeks later showed their wedding photos to everyone. No one really commented on how lovely the bride looked or how handsome the groom was. They focussed on the number of wine bottles on the table. As they counted the bottles, their lips took on a thin disapproving line and their eyes narrowed. The guest list wasn’t confined to members of the church but an extended family and friends’ network. The rule of the church, unwritten as many of these things were, was a teetotal existence. That the breaking of it at a wedding bothered so many – that bothered me. A few years later my best friend there was a science teacher. The two of us broke the law over many an evening, cooking a meal together, drinking a bottle of wine, watching a Greek soap opera on TV with English subtitles.

What really came to mind when asked about boundaries was the one where God sets a boundary for the sea. Very often when the Bible talks about the sea, it’s not usually about pretty shore lines and tranquil waters. The flood that carried Noah’s ark was not pretty. The Red Sea that brought down the Egyptian army was not tranquil. The sea often seems to be all about what is dangerous and cruel. It was seen in ancient Hebrew culture as a symbol of evil and of chaos before God brought order to the world.

Dangerous and cruel, evil and chaotic – and God has set the boundaries of it.

I have to say that these last few weeks have been difficult. If I have sung praises it has been through gritted teeth. I don’t for one minute suppose that my difficult times have been any worse than anyone else’s but mine are mine and bad enough.

Part of the problem lies in my overactive imagination. I am, at times, often perhaps, a worse-case scenario kind of a girl. The glass is not just half empty but there’s a mere mouthful of water in the bottom of it, I’m in the desert and said water is dirty. There’s a sand storm brewing in the east and a hoard of the screaming dervishes in the west. And don’t forget the onset of sunstroke because I dropped my hat somewhere. That kind of girl.

It give me great encouragement that even if the sea isn’t evil, God sets the boundaries on what can happen to me and my household. I’d like to think there is a limit to the bad stuff that conme upon me. (And then I remember Job, those limits lifted and those things he had imagined, the bad stuff, happening – but then, what mazing revelation he had about God at the end!)

Whatever. God is firmly in control.

It has been encouraging to know that over the last few weeks I have seen answers to prayer. I have gone into God’s presence time and again with a heavy heart. Perhaps I have complained a lot and been quite miserable company for God. I have listened to Him make right all the elements in my scenario with His view of things.

My glass isn’t half empty or even half full. It is always overflowing. It’s living water. It I am in a desert I am making it a place of springs and wells for others who follow in my path. I can raise my hands towards the sandstorm and, as Jesus rebuked the waves of the sea, I can do the same to my sand. I can meet all dervishes that whirl and send them spinning into the abys. And the sunstroke?  Ah, Son-stroke cures all.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Me Before You

Here am I naked before You
Without the make-up to conceal the defects
Without the mask to cover the flaws
Nothing to hide

Here am I silent before You
No feeble excuses to explain my failures
No vain boasts to embellish my achievements
Nothing to say

Here am I laying before You
My dented armour and battle worn shield
My songs of triumph and every golden crown
Nothing to prove

Here am I reminded before You
That Your sacrifice once for all time
Was always sufficient to secure my redemption
Nothing to add

Here I stand receiving from You
Transformation from glory to glory
Expressing Your likeness, revealing Your image
Everything being made new

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Horses For Causes

I have a guest writer! He is a horse with a cause and a love of carrots.

“Hi, my name is Dillon, not so much a horse for a cause, at only 13.1 hands high I am more a pony with a purpose.

I have been at Soar Valley Western Stables since I was 2 years old, boy did I have some issues. I trusted no one. Someone tethered me as a foal so as I grew, the head collar I had on at the time didn’t so I now have scars around my head. Do you think after that I was going to let any one touch my face!
Sharon and Malc have been kind, considerate and patient. They helped me overcome my fear and pain. Now I repay that kindness along with the others in the herd to help people of all ages, of all abilities and disabilities to feel good about themselves.
Our work is not hard, we are fed, groomed and looked after in a way that's maybe alien to other horses. Whilst I live in a natural as possible environment, we are cared for and so loved by all our visitors. Some of our visitors do not speak, they make funny noises and they make strange hand gestures but because I trust Sharon and Malc, I know that they will not let any harm come to me.
My job is to stand and be groomed (you cannot beat a plastic curry comb over a rough winter coat!) and to walk with people to build their confidence. Horses look to humans for leadership (they think that they are taking the lead but I know different), for children I will happily let them ride me. I am multi skilled and from the amount of treats (usually carrots) I am much appreciated.
Whilst I am one of twelve equine delights, I must give a mention to the canine members of the team. Red the dog is always around to wag his tail and again make everyone relax. He had a very rough start in life and like me was cruelly treated as a youngster. For people who have serious anxiety problems, Red will sit down at their side and demand attention. His calm but clown like behaviour makes everyone laugh and installs confidence and trust. His friend Mae joined the family two years later, she also loves to be fussed.
We know our job and we do it well, please visit the web site catch up with Horses for Causes on Facebook, on you tube Horses for Causes Equine Assisted Therapy, you can see us all acting as horses do, otherwise contact Sharon on 0775 3639228 or Malc on 07710 386498, we all look forward to meeting you.”



Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Saint Mel

“I saw your wife last night…”

We are not talking about a clandestine meeting in some seedy motel.  I was seen at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church at their All Saints Day Mass. I had been invited by a young friend of mine who was playing the organ. All Saints Day is about remembering all the lesser known saints that don’t have their own special day. The day after, All Souls Day, is for the rest of us who never became official saints, although technically, according to the Bible, we are all saints.

My friend asked me today whether I had enjoyed the service. I had to admit that I thought they over-did the incense wafting. I looked up at one point to a hazy view of what was happening at the front of the church. My friend said he would pass on my comment.

“I didn’t see you there.”

The conversation continued at my husband’s workplace.  I was there, he wasn’t and some kind of explanation was required.

Quick as anything my husband had his answer ready. His name being Joseph, he had an assigned saint’s day, March 19th, Joseph being Jesus’ dad. Come March 19th Joe would be attending mass. All Saint’s day – that was for the unknowns. Mel, he said, didn’t have a proper saint anyway.

Every so often the world goes name crazy. Coke bottles have a name – even really obscure ones like Horatio – but they never have Mel or Melanie. Candle holders, bedroom door signs, foldaway carrier bags, mugs, cards, “Do Not Disturb” signs, pens, pencils, coasters – and all manner of personalised things don’t come with a Melanie label. It would come as no surprise that there are no Mel saints either.

Except that there is one!

The man went away back to his desk. He might have had proper work to do but he googled “St Mel. He tracked Joe down just minutes later waving a sheet of printed paper.

There was a St Mel. Not a St Melanie. Wrong sex altogether but I’m not fussy.

St Mel has connections with the saints’ big names – St Patrick – he who banished snakes from Ireland.  Mel was his nephew and one of his companions who helped to evangelise Ireland. He didn’t have his own place until Patrick built a church at Ardagh and appointed Mel as the bishop.

“Acting upon the apostolic precept, he supported himself by working with his hands, and what he gained beyond bare necessities, he gave to the poor.”

That’s not a bad example for another Mel to follow. One doesn’t have to be a big named saint to do saint-worthy stuff.

St Mel’s Day is February 6th. It has become a day to celebrate being single and all the good things about it.  Apparently one sends a St Mel’s Day card to oneself and hosts a party for all one’s single friends. Isn’t it nice to have a day like that instead making single people feel tthey are deficient in some way?

I wish, in my single days I had known about St Mel.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Real Dulsie Bridge

“O Lord, what great works you do! And how deep are your thoughts.” Psalm 92:5

I often get accused of using words that no one understands. There may be a simpler way to express an opinion, using the words my listeners are familiar with, but there is such a rich vocabulary out there that I refuse.  The dictionary every year drops out words to allow new ones in. Sometimes the words that hang on in there lose their original meanings and become something else. Language evolves and I understand that. I just like words and lots of them.

This morning as I was reading Psalm 92. I had a notebook and pen, a couple of commentaries and devotionals and I make notes. As I came to this verse the words “Dulsie Bridge” came to mind. Some things don’t get dropped out of the memory. I wrote this in a Faithwriter’s Weekly Challenge.

One Saturday, Joe and I went for a drive. We began at Nairn with a late breakfast and then as the weather wasn’t particularly nice for walking, we went for a car drive. We picked up a tourist information leaflet at the local office. It contained directions for a car drive in the area. By following the instructions we would see things that we would never just bump into.

Several miles along the route was the sign post for the Dulsie Bridge. There was no picture in the leaflet, so we were not sure what we were looking for. We have seen some nice bridges in our time.

The “bridge” was beside the road. It was very humped back with a turf top to it. There was no water going under it, the river having been diverted by engineers at a later date perhaps. We took the required amount of photos - me on the bridge, Joe on the bridge, me standing next to the bridge and so on. It was a nice bridge!

Imagine our surprise when a mile down the road we came upon the real Dulsie Bridge! It was even labelled! The road dropped down towards the bridge that spanned a huge chasm, and then climbed up steeply on the other side. It was a real feat of engineering. The two bridges were incomparable - the other must have been an old drover's bridge!

We looked at each other and laughed thinking of the photos we had taken!

If we had not continued with the drive after seeing the old drover's bridge, we would have never realised that we had missed the real Dulsie Bridge. Seeing the real thing, we knew that the first bridge wasn't it.

When we know what the real thing looks like, we realise that what we thought was "it" really wasn't at "it" all. The real thing is much more impressive.

There are a lot of people who think they know what the Christian life is like. When they are confronted with the real thing, it is so much more impressive! Some people may think they know what God is like. When they are confronted with a real encounter with God, there is no mistaking Him!

This morning I wasn’t thinking about what the Christian life is like or not but what God is like. I have a feeling that what we label as God’s great works don’t really come close to what they are about. Rather than allow scripture to define them, we define them according to our own experience. Perhaps because we live less vibrant lives than we ought, our concept of those great works fall short of what they really are. We limit our perceptions. God is not allowed to demonstrate His great works because they make us feel uncomfortable.

The depth of God’s thoughts? I’m not sure that we are willing to dive that deeply. We imagine, all too often, that God thinks like we think. Scripture tells us otherwise – but we don’t live scripture very well. We soften and dilute to make life easier and forget to be radical. We seem to have lost the ability to turn the world upside down by taking God at His word.

I felt a little bereft this morning.  A little bewildered. I find myself, perhaps, in a comfortable place and wonder what happened to the risk.

I was talking to a group of young people this week about the changes that we had been through over the last twelve months. Some were taller. Some were more confident. Some had new family members or had moved house.

I shared how I had lost courage. I noticed it particularly in driving places. Last year Joe and I went to Yorkshire for a second time. The first time the hills, the unfamiliar roads, getting in and out of cities, driving in the dark – none of these things alarmed me. Last year – it was a different story. I wasn’t as courageous then as I had been. I admit I have dodgy eye-sight and a need to update my glasses – so, yes, I had reason to be wary. Deep down I lamented my lack of courage.

It is not my surroundings that should make me comfortable but the knowledge that I am secure in God. Whatever the adventure, whatever the risk – I am safe in His hand.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Someone Whispered

It was after late night shop window blinds were winched down
After lively conversations on balconies were muted
After echoes of boots on wet pavements dissipated
After curtains shifted in the cool breeze of an open window
Someone whispered

Four courtyard walls, a dozen flats and a chimney of space
A dark square of sky, a scattering of stars, a light drift of cloud
The scent of a dozen meals cooked and the fragrance of wine
The last bars of a song, water from a shower, the low rumble of a washing machine
Someone whispered

We met in daylight, the tenants, glancing and guessing, awkward dances in hallways
We watched each other, reluctant to speak or ask, or look the other in the eye
The names we never knew, because we never asked, never tipped on our tongues
Strangers sharing bricks, cement, a wrought iron gateway and a dozen post-boxes
Someone whispered

Night after night after night
Someone whispered
English, not Spanish
A woman, not a man
At night time, never in the day
Someone whispered

“She’s praying,” said the woman from the top floor as she folded her washing
“It’s her brother’s flat,” announced the man who lived opposite, cigarette between fingers
“He’s in hospital with cancer,” added the young man wheeling his bike into the porch
“Dying,” disclosed the old woman from the ground floor, crossing herself swiftly
Someone prayed

We listened, chairs pulled up to windows, eavesdropping on a conversation
She prayed a storm of words, rebuking tumours the size of an egg, declaring healing
Asking for anointed conversations over cups of coffee on the hospital veranda
Seeking peace, finding anger, raging at God who kept His distance, then saying “sorry”
She prayed

We thought if we were God we would answer her prayer, perhaps
We thought the brother would get the all clear, perhaps
We thought we should say something if we saw her, perhaps
We wished someone would pray for us the way she prayed for him
So we prayed

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tales by the Real Fireside

I think I was willing to be talked out of going last night. Storm Brian had been in the news and the clouds were gathering. It was Strictly night on TV and I was all for being cosy on the sofa. However, having been involved in some of the workshops I felt I needed to see the whole thing out - the final result of four weeks of a creative workshop. I grabbed a brolly, a torch and a camera set to night-time pictures and headed off.

The meeting point was the carpark at Great Glen House, the dropping off point for my husband on a morning. The Crofting Commission shared the building with a number of other organisations. Last minute details – I inserted my hearing aids, stuffed spare batteries into my pocket – quite how I planned to change the batteries sitting on a log, in a forest, under torchlight I hadn’t worked out but like the good girl guide I used to be, I was prepared. The dozen or so people at the carpark wore rucksacks and walking boots and had that fit and healthy look about them. They probably didn’t even know they were missing Striclty.

A fifteen minute walk was promised. I had fretted about this. People in general tend to walk a lot quicker than me. Although I began the walk quite near the front, I was trailing behind towards the end. There were fairy lights decorating the path every so often, and although we were not encouraged to use our torches, I kept mine on, pointing to my feet. I have a feeling that in daylight I might have quailed at the path. It was steep, but only being able to see a foot-span spotlight ahead of me I couldn’t see how steep, or how long we would be climbing.

Tea, coffee or hot chocolate were on offer at the fireside. There were logs to sit on, with a mat to cushion the rear end against the rough bark. A canopy had been fixed, spanning from tree to tree. Had Brian brought his rain, we would have been dry. The fire was burning bright surrounded by a ring of stones. Through the trees, way down below us, the lights of Inverness sparkled in white, yellow and orange.

The stories began.

It didn’t take a lot of imagination to feel transported to a different era. It was as if a family or clan had gathered by the fire. We were perhaps missing the oldest generation. The youngsters sat beside mums and dads, bedtime postponed for a little adventure.

I’d heard most of the stories before as part of the storytelling workshops. It was different hearing them in the middle of a forest, late at night, in the firelight. I could almost see the fairy folk drawing near, enticed by a good tale, enthralled and listening just out of view. I imagined there was a sigh among them; that people had returned to the forest not to walk dogs or chop down trees, but to gather and tell tales, like they used to once upon a time. I thought about this present generation of people not here, playing death-dealing games on the computer or a dancing somewhere under strobe lights. This story telling event was something of a unique experience.  It was a soul feeding opportunity.

I had prepared my own story to tell. Indeed I had been telling it to myself in the car as I drove to the carpark. Having missed two of the workshops, I had missed my chance at making it on to the storytellers list. I didn’t mind. There will be another time to tell that tale.

The final story was new to me, a Welsh legend that involved a farmer, his son and a dark stranger. It was a tale of magic and dangerous deals. The boy and the dark stranger, a magician, turn into a variety of animals and fish as the one pursues the other. It was only when Merlin was identified as the son that I remembered the sequence from “The Sword in the Stone” cartoon. Someone once said that there are only six stories out there in the world. The thousands that are told change names and settings and quests – but they are essentially the same story.

I was thinking about last night, the climb up to the forest, the fire, the tales, the hot chocolate, the descent back down to the carpark – and how I had almost talked myself out of it. The threat of Storm Brian, the lure of Strictly and longing for comfort. Had I listened to that voice telling me not to go, I would have missed out on the event.

What other things do I talk myself out of doing?

There is so much to deter, distract and divert my attention and my energies. I don’t want there to be a pile of treasure in heaven I can never claim because I never climbed the hill, sat on the log in front of a fire and listened.

Imagine if no one had gone with Jesus to the tops of mountains, heard and seen the things He wanted to share the record in the gospels would be that much shorter, much less vibrant and challenging, paler somehow.

 We don’t climb enough mountains. We are too obsessed with picking them up and hurling them out of our way.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

“Being Ourselves”

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” Ralph Waldo Emerson

A couple of years ago I challenged myself to write a poem a day during the advent season. For some of the poems it was simply about writing something as opposed to writing nothing. I could tick the box and say I did it. When I look back over the few lines I am amazed that sometimes they are not just lines at all, to fill a space, but they contain a truth.

Heaven’s King

Heaven’s king comes down
Jesus at ease in His skin
touches a leper

I love that phrase “at ease in His skin”. There are too many surveys and polls around that reveal how much we are not really at ease in our skin. There is too much out there in the world presenting us with images that we rarely match up to. We are not allowed to be at ease in our skin unless it is size zero and blemish free.

Today I met with the “Poetry in Motion” crew to explore what it means to be ourselves. They were running a series of workshops around the Highlands as a part of the 2017 Mental Health Arts Festival. The venue was the Glenurquhart Library in Drumnadrochit, just off to the right of Loch Ness before you hit Urquhart Castle on the left. Amazing building.

There were a couple of warming up exercises and a fistful of prompts to play with. We are the sum of all the places we have ever visited, the memories that we hold inside, our hopes and dreams, the people whose lives we have touched and what floats our boat or sinks it. Who we are isn’t always what people see us to be.

There is a spiral staircase in the library that leads to desks littered with computers and a panoramic window that looks out onto the distant hills. A couple of banners hang from the ceiling. Two words decorate them “stones” and “people”. I didn’t consciously think about either word but they must have registered somewhere in the creative part of my brain.

I did Geography “O” Level at school. In my day it was not human Geography as in towns and cities and pollution and poverty. It was the structure of the landscape – mountains and valleys, rivers and rainfall. I fell in love with the word “isthmus” and I knew that Fort William had the highest level of rainfall never thinking I would ever visit the place.

As I looked through the window of the library I wished I could remember all I had been taught about how the mountains came to be like that. It was something to do with glaciers and the ice age and plate tectonics – the movement of earth’s crust, sometimes pulling away, somethings pushing together and piling up.  There’s a limit to how much we can play around with the landscape to make it do what we need to when it comes to roads and railways. We seek out the natural passes rather than blast our way through. We tend to build according to the contours.

That’s the landscape – the “stones” but what about the "people"?

It didn’t seem to be a difficult jump to start thinking about people and how they got there. Not how they got there according to evolution or the birds and the bees of sex education. (Remind me to tell you about the trains and the tunnels and dropping off presents). How people got there as in how they ended up living the lives they live and the internal firing of thoughts and feelings. Is there a human equivalent of plate tectonics and glaciers that shape and form us?

Over a cup of tea we talked about how much of being ourselves is written in our DNA and how much we are shaped by our environment. Philosophy on a Saturday morning! It really was an interesting discussion with no right or wrong answers.

We settled down to write something inspired by our notes and observations.


landscape shaped and formed
by wind and weather
the earth’s crust shifts
sometimes pulling away
sometimes piling up and over
mountains and valleys fashioned
rock, soil and lochs
ice age evidence
too much to dismantle
we build beside or near
curbed by contours

people shaped and formed
by family, friend and foe
the heart’s crust shifts
sometimes love bestowed
sometimes love withheld
our joys and sorrows fashioned by
words spoken, or swallowed
too much to dismantle?
we fight or surrender to our DNA and
build who we want to be

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Land of Forgetfulness

“Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?”

I was reading Psalm 88 last night and these words in v12 caught my attention. I know too many people who have fathers or mothers who have been diagnosed with dementia or something like it. A horrible disease that strips away all that really matters in life – the connections we make with one another. I wrote this poem years ago. It came to mind as I thought about the land of forgetfulness.


She was mugged
Not in broad daylight
Not watched
By the unblinking eye
Of a CTV camera
No grainy pictures
Of unidentifiable yobs
Snatching a handbag
And pushing her to knees
Leaving her trembling

She was mugged
Not on a crowded street
Where people pretend
It's not their business
And hide behind
Carrier bags and trolleys
And only after it's safe
Do they reach out
To help her back to her feet
Leaving her shaken

She was mugged
In the safety of her own home
No balled up fists
Or snarling threats
Just the silent destruction
Of neurons and pathways
In the brain
The relentless dismantling
Of memories and thoughts
Leaving her confused

Now she sits in a nursing home
Folded in a red chair
Frantically picking
At a blanket that covers
Her knees
Blue clouded eyes
Searching for familiar landmarks
The lines erased
Between then and now
Leaving her adrift

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

More Tales by the Fireside

We have a rule in this house that runs along this line – if you’re too sick to go to work, you are too sick to go to anything else that might be happening that day. I broke that rule yesterday. It was not an accidental breaking or a realising after the event kind of thing. It was deliberate. If I was not as old as I am I might be grounded. Actually, I have grounded myself anyway. Had I felt yesterday as poorly as I feel today I’m not sure I’d have been up to any rule breaking at all.

The second session of the “Tales by the Fireside” storytelling workshop was yesterday evening. I will miss the third session and maybe the grand finale of actually telling any story around a campfire in Dunain Forest.

Last week we played with kennings. This week we explored the art of storytelling itself and drew storyboards.

It would appear that in many parts of the world the art of storytelling is becoming extinct. Today when people meet together around a story it’s all played out on a cinema screen. It’s just you and the action sequences and no connection with the hundred or more other people in the same room.  A story may be told but they have done all the work and you are an observer of it rather than a participator in it. Disney provides all the bottled-milk happy endings we need and really doesn’t encourage us to chew real food.

Even bed time stories are read rather than told.

A story was compared to boat, with the storytellers being the crew and the listeners being the passengers. Perhaps it was an apt comparison seeing as we were on the Loch Ness Barge and the session was hosted by the Scottish Waterways Trust.

To be a storyteller, rather than a story reader, there are certain elements that must be included in the narrative:-

·         Choosing the right story to tell
·         Finding the bones of the story and fleshing it out
·         Knowing your beginning, middle and end
·         Finding your own way of telling the story and working out what you are comfortable doing
·         Tapping into that dream state people enter into when they hear a story and giving the listeners all they need to involve their imagination
·         Crafting the story with pace and drama, song and silence and rhyme and repetition
·         Paying attention to body language
·         Making effective use of props

Knowing that we were going to be looking at stories I printed off a children’s story I had written a while ago – “The Laughter Thief”. I’d revised an earlier version of it to make it child friendly. I’d written the story but yesterday was the first time I had read it out loud to anyone. It was nice to give it a life it had never had before!

Not only was the story read out, but I got the chance to “tell it” too. We were encouraged to draw out a storyboard - picking out the bare bones of the story in pictures and phrases. With this in front of us, with these clues about what happens next, we were given the opportunity to tell our story.

There were a couple of other people for the workshop. One of them told a story about a stonecutter who was unhappy with his life and envied others. Magic transforms him into all the things he thinks he would rather be until he comes full circle and realises his own stonecutting life is the best.

The other man told a story about birds in a competition to find out which of them could fly the highest. After reading the story and creating his storyboard he was able to tell the story.  A first telling did not allow for enough of the crafting that comes with really knowing the story well but it was a start. We discussed what could be added.

I was working with my own story that I knew well enough. It wasn’t about learning it off by heart but using the clues on my storyboard to move from one scene to the next. I tried to act it out as I went along. It was a lot of fun. It is also a confidence thing too. From reading to telling allowed me to be more creative as I went along. It also allowed the listeners to pick out what they saw as what was important in the story.

Of course, being related to the best storyteller that ever lived, my big brother Jesus, helps. Time will tell whether I have inherited from Him the trick of telling a good tale.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tales by the Fireside

“Do you think you can tell what the character of a person is like by looking at the books in in the bookshelf?”

The man was poking about the room, picking up objects and putting them down. The room was the ground floor of the Loch Ness Barge on the Caledonian Canal - a place I had always wanted to explore. It was the venue of a story telling workshop co-hosted by the Scottish Waterways Trust. What better place to be but on the water?

It’s not the kind of barge that I grew up with living close to the Grand Union Canal in rural Northamptonshire. It might have started that way before they added decks to it.  It began life in 1937 as a steam powered dredging barge. It dredged for a decade or so before being transformed into a sea food restaurant. It now exists as an artists’ studio. How cool is that? Every so often the barge heads off up river, navigating the series of locks. We talked about whether a life on a boat meant that you avoided having to pay council tax.

I am an addict. There is no getting around it. A venue, a workshop, a note book and pencil and the opportunity to write something is all the lure I need.  

"Tales by the Fireside” is a series of storytelling workshops with the aim of creating stories about resilience and reclamation. Over the three weeks we will be creating the stories and learning how to tell them. The final event will be a fireside event at Dunain Community Woodland. Under the canopy of trees, beneath the sprinkling of a million stars perhaps, we will perform the stories we have written if we want to.

We talked about stories and why people tell them. I had a heads-up on this one being something of an expert on stories told by religions to pass on truth.

We talked about what makes a good story. It is something more than the content. The whole presentation side of it is full of tricks and traditions, the opening lines, the sweeping gestures and the theatre of audience involvement.

We got down to the first task – writing kennings.

I don’t know how I have got through my creative writing life without knowing about kennings. I make use of them frequently but never knew there was a name for them.

The word ‘kenning’ comes from the Old Norse verb aĆ° kenna, which means ‘to describe’ or ‘to understand’. Rather than use the word, the noun, the poet or the writer replaces it with a two word phrase that describes its nature or character. In epic Norse poetry the sea becomes the “whale road”, blood becomes “battle sweat” and an axe becomes a “bone breaker”. They are riddles in compact form, and sometimes you make the audience work a little to work out what they are.

We were left to come up with our own kennings. Maybe you can guess what some of these things are supposed to be.

A tongue licking tail lasher? – a dog, of course.
A wearer of many days? – an old person
A slip of silver scales? – a fish
A spell spinner? – a wizard
A spinner of thread? – a spider
The unblinking stare of the watcher of the night – the moon

OK you probably could do better. Feel free to post me your suggestions.

The next task was to use them in a story about a person or an object and a challenge to for them to overcome. The inclusion of kennings was a given. Some people, in my opinion used too many and there was no story to follow. The tutor praised everything. I am never sure I like merely being praised.

A boy, bone short and six summers old, set out one day when the yellow faced sun squatted in the corner of the sky.

“I shall catch myself a fish and eat a glorious meal,” he said.

The clever slips of silver scales, knew all about fishing rods. They knew how to avoid the hooks of poisoned promise.

And that’s as far as I got. I had planned for my squatting sun to crawl across the sky to the other horizon while the boy failed to catch a fish. I planned for my wearer of many days to pass on some sage advice. The boy chooses to think he knows better and ends up standing beneath the unblinking stare of the watcher of the night, as the slips of silver scales swim by. The nouns are supposed to be replaced with the descriptions, so the boy, the sun and hooks shouldn’t really be named. I am aware of that. For a first attempt it’s not bad.

This is all about me rehearsing for my retirement next summer. I will be filling my days with things like this. This is my practice run. There has been some talk in the household about a dog and about a PhD and about the absence of an ironing pile and the presence of a clean kitchen floor.

Who am I kidding? Even without the retirement rehearsal I would still be doing these kinds of things. Tomorrow it’s expressive movement at the Spectrum Centre.