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 að 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.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Heroes and Heroines

I have a Pinterest page. After the initial enthusiasm of finding and pinning pictures, it’s not something that I visit that often. One of the few boards I have is labelled “Heroes and Heroines”. I wonder that someone hasn’t told me off about my gender specific political in-corrected-ness.  It’s not a big board. They have to meet stringent requirements to get on it. Andy Murray is there for being a great tennis player and winning Wimbledon.  Brian Cox is there for being a scientific gentleman who doesn’t deride people who believe in God. He is also easy on the eye. Scully from X-Files is also there. I know she is not a real person but I like the courage that she displays going into dark places ahead of Mulder.

Aung San Suu Kyi is also there – and I haven’t yet unpinned her, but I’m coming close to it.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent years under house arrest in Myanmar. She had been campaigning for democracy, the right to vote and to have the result of elections respected by the then military-led government. Justice and freedom from fear were key issues. Her Buddhist faith was the source of her strength. She ticked all the boxes and took her place among my heroes and heroines.

Some would say that the person she was under house arrest, the person then that had no power, is different from the person she is now.  There were elections in 2015 and her party won 71% of the vote. The military government didn’t surrender all of its power, but much of it. Aung San Suu Kyi, prevented from taking a seat in the new government, took a back seat. Htin Kyaw might be the official leader but everyone knows it’s Aung San Suu Kyi who wields the power.  Justice and freedom have not been as evident as expected.  Some are calling for Suu Kyi to return her Nobel peace prize while others, Desmond Tutu for example, are asking her to live up to her prize-winning status.

No great political change happen easily and perhaps it is too soon to start pointing fingers. Ethnic conflicts have simmered and exploded for decades. The Rohingya Muslims have never had an easy time but now they seem to be crossing the borders into other countries, homes burning behind them. Some would lay the blame firmly on an army crackdown. Others would point to the Muslims themselves as wrecking villages and burning homes.  Still others would insist it’s all fake news. Through it all Aung San Suu Kyi has remained mostly silent and rarely given interviews. In the absence of “nothing” people are inclined to invent their own “something”.

Psalm 82 talks about men in power, or the “gods”, and what they called to do.  Leaders whether they recognise it or not are given power by God to act in his stead.

“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the need; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (V3-4)

I was thinking about her apparent   I remember Tim stirring himself to win that third set and the fourth too to level the match. He was on the way to victory but he didn’t win in the end. The last set wasn’t even a contest. The effort it took to level the match had taken all of his reserves. He didn’t have enough left for the last set. Apologies to Tim if I have got it wrong.
reluctance to act. Back in the tennis world before Andy Murray there was Tim Henman. There was a match. It could have been a semi-final. It could have been Goran Ivanišević on the other side of the net. Tim was two sets down and it might have been match point.

Perhaps the same is true of Aung San Suu Kyi. All of the resources she possessed were used up long before she became the behind-the-throne leader of Myanmar. Levelling the match, getting the military government to agree to free elections – that might have been all she should have done. What happened next might have been someone else’s burden. Tim Henman stepped back to let Andy Murray pick up the racquet and ball. Letting go and graciously moving aside is never easy to do. Not to trust people to do what you consider to be the right thing is also never easy to do – the whole delegating thing.

Such a weight of expectation is put upon one set of shoulders. We expect our heroes to do it all for us and sometimes we don’t become the heroes that we ourselves are capable of being.

Coming to the end of our resources happens to us all. But should it? In a sense, as Christians we should not be using our own resources in the first place. God’s resources are endless. We never come to the end of them.

I don’t want to think I have come to end of the resources God has for me.

I don’t want to be a one-man show but a part of a team.

I don’t want to hold on to the baton when I should be passing it on to the person coming up behind me.

I don’t want to be rubbed off someone else’s Pinterest board of hero and heroines because I did something unheroic that wiped out everything good thing I had accomplished.

I want to become all that I am capable of being – In Christ – no more and no less.

Monday, September 11, 2017

"Inspired By Poland" Poetry

give me a room
give me a table
give me a sheaf of printed paper or a mobile phone, perhaps 
give me a row or two of plastic chairs
give me your company
give me silence
give me an ear turned toward me
give me a heart that beats
give me just a moment of your time

I will give you
my tears of joy…and sorrow
I will give you
a glimpse of my heaven…and hell
I will give you

I will give you a poem

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Leaf on the Wind

Was it just two weeks ago I was whirling around the Sunset Café arms and legs flailing? Expressive Movement was back on Friday. I had enjoyed myself so much the last time that I was prepared to sacrifice a poetry night for it. The Pol-UK celebration of Polish poetry happened without me.

The evening began with me thinking of Cyprus. I’d lived in Cyprus for a number of years and got used to Cypriot timing. They may wear watches on their wrists but they pay little heed to them. A meeting planned for two o’clock doesn’t happen at two o’clock but more like half past or quarter to three. I have a strong punctuality gene. I chaff at the collar when things don’t happen when they should. Yes, I need to chill but I take seriously the fairy godmother’s admonition to leave the party before midnight and I visualise my coach reverting back to its pumpkin origins.

There were fewer participants this time around. The coffee consumers were given the choice between staying and joining in or finishing their coffee and moving on. No spectators were allowed – even down to a sweet, aged lady with her shaky legs and her wheeled walking frame. Lizzy opted to join in and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. She is never one to stand down from a challenge. She chortled her way through the opening warm-up of walking around the room. While the rest of us speeded up, or slowed down and did our best impressions of slow-motion running, Lizzy kept up a steady pace.

We did the circle in and out and jazz hands but there was more grunting and growling this time around. I was reading this morning in Psalm 81:1 about singing and shouting to the God of Jacob. There is so much we could do with our voices that we don’t do. Sometimes a grunt or a growl best expresses what’s going on inside – although I still like words! I was thinking about the stories of men heading off into the woods, peeling clothes off and shouting to the heavens as some kind of therapy. Do they really do that?

Gabriela issued us with balloons to blow up. We partnered off. The idea was to put the balloon between us, chest to chest, and tango around the room. I partnered with Marcin, a tall and energetic fellow. I’m sure the bent knees frame would have won points on Strictly, but he didn’t have much choice on the matter. That close was too close for me. My personal space was invaded. A bigger balloon was required. We tangoed. We were supposed to talk about the experience afterwards but even with his fairly fluent English and my absence of Polish it made for a stilted conversation.

Keeping the balloon between us meant that was had to adapt to each other. We couldn’t just do our own stuff, arms and legs flung about. We had to shift posture and think about what the other person was doing – and the balloon. It made me think about how I cooperate or not in the real world. We live in a world where we insist on having our own way, doing our own things and meeting our own needs. Dancing a tango with a balloon between us, I was aware of how my actions impacted on Marcin and his on mine. There was a constant watching and adapting, shifting and accommodating, re-balancing and maintaining connection. It was interesting. At this point in the evening we were also quite warm and sweaty so neither of us wanted to be too close!

We sat down, or lay down, for a while, listening to something quieter. It was cello music with a lifting, lilting, falling and rising kind of melody. If we had have been given paper to draw something I would have drawn a tree and leaves falling, caught in the breeze, dancing and drifting down. It reminded me of a poem I wrote years ago during a workshop:-

“Come play with me, little leaf,”
says the wind
tugging it gently from the branch
“I’ll be “it”
and chase you
In eddies and spirals.
I’ll draw you upwards
Close enough to touch the sun
And stroke the clouds
I’ll carry you in the
palm of my hand
I’ll toss you
like a father tosses his child
Let’s play
You, me and thousand other leaves
Till bed time comes
Then I will gently set you down
On the flagstone path
And sing you to sleep

I often think of autumn with sadness. As much as I love the changes in colour I see it as the precursor to winter and darkness, bare branches and an absence of life. I don’t enjoy dark mornings, short days and long nights.

This time I was thinking of something more settled, a kind of welcomed parting of the ways between branch and leaf. I thought not of the leaf clinging on to the branch, desperate for more days, but surrendering peacefully knowing that it had played its part and done what it had been asked to do and that being enough. Yes, I know I am putting feelings into things that don’t have them. Sometimes we cling to things when we ought to be letting go. As I listened to the cello music, I let go. I let myself be settled that in some area of my life I had played my part and done what I was asked by God to do. I suppose that with retirement around the corner the future isn’t mapped out into school days and bells and holidays like the past has been. I suppose creative movement is proving to be more than moving the body but involves moving the mind too.

We were reluctant to end the night. One last exercise became one more. We had inhaled and exhaled a sense of well-being and were reluctant to let go.

I think what I like about these evenings is that they make no urgent demands upon me. I’m not required to give more than I feel able to give. No one looks disapprovingly at me if my arm is in the wrong place, or it’s the wrong leg I step forward with. No one asks me to be something other than who I am. I like that! It’s a rare thing.

I look forward to the next time.

Thank you, Gabriela, Marcin and the rest of the gang for so much fun.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The Master of My Future

I picked up a copy of “A Shorter Morning and EveningPrayer” from a second hand bookshop.  There are times when my quiet time can become predictable, not boring, just predictable.  I fall into a pattern and sometimes I’m not as engaged as I could be. Someone else’s words, hymns and prayers can help to move me into something new and different.

I don’t know the tunes to the hymns so I treat them as poems. The poet in me pays attention to meter and rhyming schemes. I make notes for future reference. Here are a few lines from this morning:-

Your peaceful presence giving strength
Is everywhere
And fallen men may rise again
On wings of prayer

I am a praying person. I don’t always end in a place of peace at the end of my prayer. Maybe I rush out the God’s presence too quickly and don’t loiter long enough for the peace to come. Perhaps I am to swift to tell God my side of things, to get something off my chest assuming that in the speaking it out in His presence the peace will come. I don’t wait for God’s wisdom to deal with it.

The psalm for today was Psalm 86.

“Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (v11)

All too often it’s other things I fear, not God. It’s not with a crippling or paralysing fear, but with a low-level knot twisting somewhere inside.  

One of the lines for intercession read:-

“You are sole master of the future – keep us from despair and the fear of what is to come.”

I forget that God is the sole master of my future – or of the future of the people I care about. I begin to think my future or their future rests on me. Yes, I have a part to play. I have a responsibility that I must take seriously, but what happens or what doesn’t happen doesn’t rest on my shoulders alone. There are burdens God asks us me carry but when they get so heavy that the shoulders drop and the legs drag I can be certain that I carry something more than the God-assigned burden, or I am not using the resources He’s given me.

Another section for the day came from Isaiah 33

“Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning? Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion, and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil.” (v14-15)

We live in a world that sometimes feels like a consuming fire – a world where God’s people are mocked and God himself downgraded to superstitious nonsense. I don’t do the extortion bit or the bribes bit, but I watch the news. I can’t stop my ears from the hearing about the plots of politicians and world leaders. I can’t shut my eyes from the evil that happens at the hands of some people. I don’t contemplate my own evil plans but I live in a world where I have to deal with someone else’s evil.

I know people who don’t watch the news because of the lack of positive press.  The media are the people who are crafting the world they want people to see and believe as reality. So, not everything printed is to be believed.  But neither is it all to be dismissed. Our prayers need to be informed prayers and we can’t stick our heads into the sand and pretend a perfect world.

It is in the reading and the watching that I take on burdens that God never intended me to carry. The solution is not to stop reading or watching the news, or to subscribe to a charity’s newsletter to get my information. 

I need to build into the prayer times the truth that God is sole master of the future. As I lay before God the troubles of a burning world I also surrender the despair and the fear of what is to come – these things that tie the knots inside.