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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

An t-Eilean

I would like to think that I simply turned up on the wrong day. Had it been a sunny day the promise to “thrill the senses” might have been met. It was a wet day, grey clouds, damp under foot and a day for digging out the tartan brolly. But, no, I don’t think a change of weather would have made a difference.

I was in need of activity. Days before, my husband had been buying new pairs of trousers. He had been delighted to drop down two waist sizes. I personally think those two waist sizes had somehow crawled across the bed one night and wrapped themselves around me! I thought a walk somewhere might me feel less heavy.

It was not a dry, sunny day. I reminded myself that I had a sketch book to fill and maybe there was something somewhere that was aching to be drawn in pencil. I use the word “drawn” in its loosest sense. I headed for the University of the Highlands and Islands buildings having parked the car a walking distance away.

“An t-Eilean – a fusion of sculpture, building and garden - a unique open air space built into a lochan at Inverness Campus, is a facility for everyone to use for events and performance as well as a unique meeting place.” The words were on a board at the end of a wooden walkway. The performance I was thinking about was an outdoor poetry reading event sometime next summer.

Light might indeed fall through “the spaces within the walls creating an ever changing interior” but I wasn’t looking at the walls and there was no light to fall through the spaces. I wasn’t looking at the walls at all but at the tree in the middle of what was really a very large concrete box. The tree wasn’t planted in its own little oasis of green lawn but surrounded by a patchwork pattern of small wooden or ceramic slats. The floor was pretty. The tree standing in the middle was anything but. Around the sides of the tree, at four compass points were concrete poles, less than the height of the tree. The tree was tied to the concrete poles with metal cords. It reminded me of a scene in King Kong where the monster is subdued and shackled in a strong iron frame. The tree was shackled. OK there might have been some safety issues that needed to be addressed. No one wants a tree falling on them.

If trees could have cried, this one would have been weeping. If there had been an apocalypse and this was the last tree standing on all the earth – I could see the value in protecting it with a fence of concrete slats. But it was not art. It was torture.

The board boasted about natural landscapes and regard for the environment – and they did that to a tree. What were they thinking?

They gave the building a landscaping award. It might not have been that one building, but the whole campus that won the award. Yet again, humankind pats itself on the back for wrenching something away from its natural environment and placing it in a man-made cell. The tree was out of its natural environment. Yes, it had roots and would no doubt grow to a grand old age – but does that mean it will flourish?

A friend and I, over a cup of coffee, talked about how we could liberate the tree. We didn’t come up with an action plan. Dousing it in petrol and setting it alight, bringing its solitary life to swift end seemed plausible after the third cup of coffee.

I thought about natural environments.

I thought about my natural environment. I’m not living in my natural environment. The minute I begin to feel to comfortable with the world, I will have lost something precious. God created me to live in His presence. He is my natural environment, yet sin has twisted things so much that being with God feels, at times, unnatural. Like the tree, I am, perhaps, shackled to a world that doesn’t honour God. I am surrounded by boundaries that are man-made.

The comparison is a little forced, I admit.

Psalm 84:5-7 reminds us that unlike that tree that can do nothing to change the place it finds itself in, I am not so powerless:-

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.”

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Third Commandment

I have a bone to pick with you,”
The Lord Almighty says,
“An issue that can’t be ignored
Its burden on Me weighs.

“A case has come before My throne
And you stand here accused
My name, My nature, precious truth
You clearly have abused

“You call Me “Shepherd” – rightly so
Who watches o’er His sheep
Who leads them on the narrow path
To mountain pastures steep

“You say I am your “Prince of Peace”
Who stills your every storm
I am to you the “Bread of Life”
I nourish and transform

“I am “Almighty”, “Lord of Hosts”
And power rests in My hand
I’m “God Most High” and “Holy One”
Before Me none can stand

“A covenant I’ve made with you
Bestowed on you My name
I’ve called you Mine, adopted you
On Me you have a claim

“All these titles giv’n to you
And none an empty name
Each filled with truth to light your way
Your walk with Me to frame

“You know the truth but live as if
Such things were never true
You lurch and stumble, never claim
The promises for you

“A shepherd? Yes, but not allowed
To carry you from harm
Almighty? Yes, but never called
To wield My strong right arm

“Your bread of Life? Of course, but still
On crumbs you make a meal
Your Prince of Peace? You're not at rest
No quiet stillness feel

“My child, My name you take in vain
Your actions slander Me
You speak a truth, but live a lie
Walk blind, though you can see

“The world looks on, perceives a “truth”
A distant deity
If you are what they must become
They want no part of Me”

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sketch Ness

I booked myself on an urban sketching walk for this morning. The local museum was celebrating the Festival of Architecture. They had secured the services of couple of artists to “encourage participants to take a fresh look at the architecture of Inverness and to encourage creativity and skills in a supportive environment”.  Inverness apparently has hidden gems that need to be discovered and sketched. Sketchbooks and a variety of pens, pencils and pastels were provided for those who didn’t bring their own.

There was a map of the intended route – a 35 minute walk round some of the back streets looking at “Ross & Macbeth buildings”. There was a lack of context about the buildings or the architecture. A brief history lesson, a short power-point presentation telling us what features to look out for perhaps, might have come in useful.

The day was not as dry as we would have liked. No fat raindrops fell heavily, splattering on the pavement, but it was damp. It was light drizzle. I had an umbrella, in the car, at the top of a long flight of steps where the carpark was. If I had known we were heading up those stairs I wouldn’t have popped around the corner to the shop to buy a cheap umbrella, which wasn’t as cheap as I would have liked, or became embroiled in a sharp tongued encounter with the assistant who gave me the wrong change.

I didn’t know anyone on the walk. They were keen. They were more experienced than I was. And I was kind of glad that I had left my hearing aids at home so I didn’t have to talk to anyone.

We stopped at the bottom of the Raining Stairs and it had been raining. Little exercises of ten, five and two minutes had us scribbling away. One of the artists looked at something I had drawn and said, “Brilliant”. My husband looking at that same picture over tea and cakes later said, “Is it a Dalek?” It was the two minute picture of a slab of concrete next to the stairs decorated with some round stones.

At the top of the stairs the view was something different. Buildings and walls had been demolished to leave a view of the castle, albeit behind a metal grid fence festooned with “Keep Out” signs. A couple of blocks of flats are being built.

Another opportunity to sketch something. I chose the end of a row of terraced houses with an interesting array of chimney pots. I had picked up a red brush-tipped pen and began my lines. What I saw with the eye, and what I drew with the pen didn’t quite match up. If it had a water colour feel to it – that was the rain which was falling in earnest. I scribbled with my pencil and smudged the lines to create some grey clouds!

We walked around to the college at Midmills. It has been closed and most of the buildings have been demolished. It used to be the Inverness Royal Academy once upon a time. The listed part of the building which is still standing, all boarded up, is being turned into a creative hub of artists’ studios. The rest of the grounds will be given over to more blocks of flats.

I think this was where I gave up trying to sketch anything recognisable. The pencil wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. I had started too high on the paper and couldn’t fit the tower in. Everything was hidden behind fences and trees and high grass and drawing a picture of a bike next to a lamppost looked more inviting. I felt we were getting in the way of pedestrians using the pavement. The umbrella wasn’t helping any.

I was doing the heavy sighing thing when a fellow sketcher drew near.

“As if anyone can draw under these conditions,” she muttered. She went on to tell me that sketching was something you needed to keep doing daily. The eye and the hand improved their coordination in time. She flicked through her book to demonstrate. Even those early sketches were good but I could see improvements as she moved from one page to another. Drawing daily was the secret – practice makes perfect. I thought about the two years I had done “O” level art in school many years ago and how I really hadn’t improved as the weeks went by. Maybe I just didn’t have the artist’s eye.

“Just give me words,” I said, “and I will write you a poem. A pencil and a sketch pad are not my media.”

“You write poetry?” she asked.

We strolled down the hill, the others pulling ahead as we talked about poetry. She had had a couple of poetry books she had self-published. She had a friend who had written short poems with very simple sketches. I told her about my books. The morning had brightened considerably for both of us and it had nothing to do with the weather. We had, apparently, made each other’s day.

The final stop of the morning was the Victorian Market and another series of sketches. My husband recognised the ceiling arches and admired the picture I drew of an umbrella. I tried to draw the shop front of the jewellers where we bought my engagement ring. My husband insists I was chanting “rubies and diamonds” and rubbing my hands together as we entered. I dispute this claim.

What did I learn today? Nothing about architecture. Nothing about Ross and MacBeath. Nothing much about the technical know-how of sketching. I learnt that I’m not that observant. That I really can’t draw. That it’s refreshing to do something other than the usual Saturday things. I learnt how easy it is to find and make new friends when you put yourself out there.

Thank you, Margie, for being there this morning.