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Half Term Storytelling at The Story Museum

I will be telling stories about animals from all around the world every day in half term, Sat 13th Feb – Friday 19th Feb, from 11am – 1pm at The Story Museum, Oxford.  This is part of their new ANIMAL exhibition, which will be wonderful!

As part of this exhibition, my novelist sister, Nicky Singer, is also going to be running a writing workshop for 8 – 12 year olds on Thursday 18th Feb.

Yin and the Art of Not Doing

I spent a lot of this early Autumn doing nothing: lying down in bed, asleep or awake; sitting very still in a chair in the sun. I had a disturbance of the inner ears, which made movement or concentration of any kind difficult. My doctor helpfully offered the word ‘disequilibrium’ to describe the brain confusion that resulted from any exertion. On the other hand, as long as I sat or lay absolutely still (and I was calibrated like a fine spirit level to know when this blissful moment arrived), I felt fine.

Stillness

Not doing

Go deeper

Beyond not doing

No thought ripples the pond

Empty

Full

My usual world of list-ticking business turned upside down. I cancelled things. The children ate baked beans. We all watched a lot of children’s TV. When the girls were at school, I sat in the sun and watched the blackbirds eat our unpicked grapes. My days became not a question of ‘How much can I get done?’ but ‘How softly can I be? How little can I disturb myself?’

I spent a lot of time musing about balance – or the lack of it – in my life, and in the world. The balance between being and doing. The balance of Yin and Yang.

Imagine a garden. Here are some of the things the gardener does:

Weeding, sowing, watering, thinning / choosing, killing pests, pruning, tying up, cutting down, harvesting, picking, mulching. All good and useful Yang Doing words.

Except, as yet, there are no plants. Not until we add the yin words, the ones that (at the risk of sounding like Neil from The Young Ones) nature does for us.

Incubating, germinating, sprouting, rooting, growing, budding, blossoming, fruiting, decaying, composting.

We cannot make our garden without any of these things. Sometimes we have to do something, but we also have to trust, to wait, to notice, to accommodate, and simply celebrate and be grateful. Or, at times, to surrender and accept our losses. These are all Yin qualities of Being.

In my life, and in our culture, the Yang qualities are so much more celebrated, that the Yin ones can feel invisible. They are also mistakenly thought of as passive. Is a seed lying in the ground – waiting for its exact moment to explode into life – passive? Or do we just not know what it’s up to? What about a flower offering itself up to be pollinated?

I find it sad that our culture is so locked into economic progress and productivity that we are only really allowed to stop when we are ill (or dead!). We are like a garden that is constantly weeded, sprayed, fed and harvested, but not given any time to incubate, grow and blossom. What would the world look like if we could bloom into the exact shape and form that we naturally have? What would we create, if we could allow our ideas to germinate? And as a parent of tired children, I wonder what an education system that took this seriously would look like?

Now I am ‘better’ I am struggling to keep a sense of balance while I go back to the endless round of doing, and feeling that it’s not enough. Again! And yet . . . sometimes I do remember, and I become a little more compassionate with myself, with my children, with friends being sleepy, or unproductive, or ill. And despite my conditioning (much like yours) to ‘Look busy, Jesus is coming!’ I am beginning to truly value my time ‘within’, and trying to live according to the terms of my own unfolding. It won’t pay the bills, it doesn’t bring success or prizes, because mostly the world isn’t set up to even notice. But perhaps it can bring something else – that lovely Yin word that speaks of a brimming vessel: fulfilment.

 

Slow Books – Melting Islands, Arctic Bears and the State of Publishing

When I saw the play Island at the National Theatre, it made me cry.  I cried because the story was sad and true – it’s about a melting island in the arctic.  I cried because the story was beautiful, and beautifully told.  And I cried because it was written by my sister, Nicky Singer, and I was proud.

It’s such an important story, that Nicky naturally wanted to revisit it as a novel – since being a novelist is what she’s always done.  So she wrote the book, and felt that the last pages were some of her best writing ever.  But when it came to publishing,  there followed a tale that would make you weep tears of frustration.

And so I want to share Nicky’s own telling of that story – how the novel was deemed a ‘quiet book’ (i.e. not going to earn a load of cash for the publishers in a difficult financial climate) and how she decided to do something about it by starting a Kickstarter campaign.

Nicky’s Blog

There are three days to find the remaining £1,000 for Nicky’s campaign.  Would you like to be a backer?  The first level of backing is just £5.  For £15 you get a first edition of the book, so it’s just like a pre-order really.  Or. for £500, you could have her come to do a day of bespoke workshops / talks in a school.  See more here:

Nicky’s Kickstarter Campaign

If you can help in any way, I’d be very grateful.

Moon Time – a book whose time has come

This week sees the publication of the second edition of a book by Lucy Pearce that’s close to my heart: Moon Time – Harness the ever-changing energy of your menstrual cycle.

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I met Lucy in her role as commissioning editor of Juno magazine, in which some of my articles have been published.  She’s a great networker, and a powerful voice for women.  Her new book is poised to make some waves in the world, and I am cheering her on. In my view, anyone who helps women – and eventually men – to understand the power and the wisdom of the female cycle is a revolutionary.   Just think for a minute – How different would our world be if we honoured and valued all the seasons of a woman?

When I was growing up it was The Curse. At school it was a mess and a nuisance. When I was at University no-one mentioned it. When I started working at a psychiatric hospital as a young dramtherapist, I met a MALE psychiatric nurse, who befriended me and told me about some books I should read. (Blessings to his previous girlfriend, whoever she was, she must have been cosmic.)

So I read The Wise Wound, and I read Her Blood is Gold. I was blown away by a new way of looking at my cycles. Until then I had thought of myself as binary, either ‘on’ (having a period) or ‘off’ – being normal. Or, worse, as a defective man: mostly normal, but with a blip once a month when I was a bit weak and useless. Now I understood that at any time I was somewhere in my cycle. Like the moon. How different that felt.  And I read that in indigenous cultures, ‘moon time’ was a time when women would retreat to their special lodge and spend time together, dreaming, resting, singing.

I wrote a song called Moon Time, but I was too shy to play it in public. I wrote another song called She is Gold (with reference to Her Blood is Gold), which was about being premenstrual.

“Sometimes, all you can do is lie down on the earth,

And wait for the river to come through.”

RiverShe Is Gold became the title track for my solo album, but I don’t think anyone understood my oblique references. My brother actually quoted from this song in a speech he made at my wedding . . . little did he know!

Now, traveling around the month with my cycle is a natural part of my life. I cherish my Moon Time as a time to rest and dream. I tend to feel tired and heavy, but more centered and unflustered. I don’t rush about getting things done; I try to let the busyness wait.

I currently run a creative mentoring group for 12 year old girls, calling themselves The Wolf Clan. Recently, I was excited to share with them this way of looking at menstruation. I used stones and shells on a circle of black cloth to represent the cycle of the moon, which they related to easily. Then I mapped the menstrual cycle onto the moon cycle. I also told them a beautiful Native American story, which I found in Lucy Pearce’s book. It tells of how Grandmother Ocean and Grandmother Moon conspire to give women an opportunity to let go of all the negative emotions and heartache that they took on for their children, their families, their tribe.

The story, told by Nicolas NobleWolf (another MAN I notice) ends:

So ever since then, every woman has a time each moon cycle when she embodies the power of the moon and flows the cleansing of the ocean. We call this the woman’s time of the moon, or moon-time.

It is each woman’s responsibility to take the time when she is in her time of the moon to purify. It is the responsibility of the men to give the women the opportunity to do so.

Amen and Aho to that. And huge thanks to Lucy for her courage and vision in bringing this work forward.

The book launches on Friday 5th June, and if you buy a book on the day, you can access some special deals of the type that Lucy’s good at.

http://dreamingaloud.net/moon-time-bonus-features/

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Strong Like the Water

What is an empowered woman like?  I keep returning to this question and wondering.  What is the nature of feminine power?  Is it different from masculine power?  Do we have any models?

A year and a half ago I went to a Women and Earth Retreat, at Pistyll Rhaeadr in Powys.  The long weekend was run by Annie Davey and Hilary Kneale (see http://www.thenatureeffect.co.uk), at a campsite next to a magnificent waterfall.

Photo by Zane Licite
Photo by Zane Licite

At that time, as a mother of two small children, trying to keep my creative practices alive, and keep some money coming into the family coffers, I was feeling more than a wee bit weary, and yet I felt such a strong drive to make waves in the world.  I travelled with this question: how can I step more fully into my power?  It was the element of water that spoke to me in reply.

On the first bright, clear morning, we walked up the river valley to a mountain lake, and spent time sitting quietly by its shore. After a while, I bent low to the water, and noticed a tiny sound.  Droplets of water were rolling from the soft moss into the lake. As I listened to their delicate music, I marvelled at how these sweet droplets were made of the same stuff that filled the great lake, and which had, over millennia, carved the entire valley. I was put in mind of the daily tasks of mothering, which in themselves are so small, yet which add up to something great.  ‘Take heart’, the droplets seemed to say. ‘Each sandwich made, each sock hung up to dry, each goodnight kiss is a droplet that partakes of the great lake of love, which has huge power.’  This put me in mind of Mother Theresa’s advice that we should not pursue “great deeds” but rather “small deeds with great love.”

Later on that day, we chose the spots on the land where we would be alone for the next twenty-four hours.  My place was sheltered by a sycamore tree, right by a stream. All day and night, the stream sang to me.  I couldn’t see where the source of this flow was, it just endlessly poured by.  I often sang along, and a little ditty emerged: “From deep within, your blessings flow. You are the spring, you are the flow.” In a world where I am regularly looking for affirmation from outside (a good pay packet, an award for achievement, preferably both), this was a beautiful reminder to look within for both affirmation and inspiration.

Within the last hour of our solo time, the sky grew overcast, and it started to rain.  I was glad to pack up my sleeping bag, and head for shelter, warmth, food and company.  By the time I woke up early the next morning, it had been raining for 15 hours. As I wandered from the tent towards the shower block in my anorack, I became aware of a roaring sound. Looking up, I was stunned by the sight of the waterfall in full flow.  What had been a graceful, white, maidenly fall of water when we had arrived, was now a thunderous, red Mumma in full power. I abandoned any thoughts of showering or breakfast, and headed straight for the waterfall.  “YOU WANT TO SEE POWER?” she yelled, “I’LL SHOW YOU POWER!”

Photo by Zane Licite
Photo by Zane Licite

Here was charge enough to pound rock, and carry away trees: a vivid demonstration of what happens when millions of those little drops of rain from upstream run together.  I kept a wary distance, but got soaked anyway.  And a new song started forming in me . . .

Mother you call us home,

And all our journeys are as one,

And when we flow together,

Then we are strong.

 

We are strong like the water,

And our power is the flow.

Every sister, mother, daughter,

Come on and let your passion grow.

 

For the water knows no stopping,

And the water knows no pain,

So bring your burden to the water,

And be free again.

 

I’ve spent more than a year pondering the teachings from this retreat. I went with a question about power, and came home with an answer that was all about nourishment upstream.  As a woman, especially a mother, it’s easy to run dry.  Yet those little drops of love – a sandwich here, a kind word there – fill us up again, ready to flow, effortlessly.  To be really powerful, we need really good nourishment upstream. And we are even more powerful, when individual tributaries meet.

Starting a monthly women’s circle last January has given me a tangible sense of what magic can be unlocked when women make a commitment to collaborate, celebrate and nourish each other. This is far from the Patriarchal idea of power, in which for me to be lifted up, someone else has to be subjugated. No, this is what the American activist / author / ritual-worker Starhawk defined as “power with” rather than “power over”. Individually, we each have our cycles of giving and needing to receive. If we carry on giving, we burn out. But by leading collectively, we take our turns to serve, and be served, as the need arises. In this way we flow together. We are strong like the water. And, as the water has been showing us abundantly over the past three months in this country, that is very powerful indeed.

Kismet meets Peggy Seeger

This year, the band I’ve played with for twelve years, Kismet, had an unexpected opportunity to work with Peggy Seeger, a musician whom publicists are fond of describing as a “folk legend.”  We played together in a  fund raiser for Pegasus Theatre last month, and the experience has left me feeling both honoured and affirmed.

IMG_0536As we met to discuss our programme and rehearse together, there was much to learn from Peggy’s stagecraft and professionalism.  I appreciated her pots of sharp pencils and rows of lever arch folders of Repertoire A – G and so on.  “Who keeps your repertoire?” she asked us, and we looked at one another abashed, thinking of our dishevelled filing systems.  Interesting how we tend to imagine that great musicians are all about inspiration and pure talent, and forget that good organisation and attention to detail plays its part.

Kismet has always worried a bit about having a mixture of soft songs and full-on instrumentals.  Peggy taught us that you can place opposites next to one another for great effect.   “Do you have any funny songs?” she asked us.  Err . . . we laugh a lot in our rehearsals, but the humour tends not to make it into our songs.  Luckily Jon had a comedy number in his back pocket, “I can’t believe it’s not a real pub”.  With the encouragement of Peggy, who is up for anything, Kath realised a long-held dream for comedy dressing-up on stage . . .

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We followed this song up with our most hard-hitting number, and it worked just fine.

Working together with Peggy, we chose material that reflected themes we both cared about, so clearly songs about women, and about the earth featured.  We each sang a song about our mothers, both of whom had died young, as it turned out.  She sang Woman on Wheels, about a school headmistress cutting the fences at Greenham from her wheelchair.  I sang Love’s Song, a song I’d written on retreat, grieving the loss of the wilds, but feeling connected to all things.  They were rooted in different places, but felt like two sides of the same coin.

Standing next to someone great on stage, it is easy to feel daunted, to imagine yourself less.  Yet Peggy is too smart to allow that to happen.  Instead she draws you out.  Being around her, you feel bolder, you pull your socks up.  I recognised the temptation to see her as a role model, and yet that would be wrong, because she is so much herself, she can only encourage you to be that too: yourself, and more of it.

Peggy is someone who’s lived long and suffered, someone who works hard, and continues to keep bang up to date with the latest issue.  While the media wants to focus on her past and her famous connections, Peggy seems very much in the present.  I deeply admire her integrity.  Whilst her song-writing craft is superlative, it’s always the message that matters.  I’ve often spoken of the need for and the importance of elders.  Well, as a song-writer, a musician, a performer and also as a human being, I’ve found one in Peggy.  Since Kismet is a late maturing band, never going to provide a youthful poster girl for the music industry, I’m glad to be sharing a stage with a woman in her 78th year, showing us what riches age and experience can bring.  If this is what the future holds for Kismet, it doesn’t look so bad.

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Kismet is currently recording a new CD, due out in 2014.  For more info visit http://www.kismet-music.co.uk.  To join the mailing list, email info@kismet-music.co.uk.

A New Story for Halloween

This Summer I went to the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, (http://www.museumofwitchcraft.com/) and left full of emotion.  The museum is a bewildering hotchpotch of Wicca, Druidry, Astrology, historical fact and cultural references, plus a case of instruments of torture.  It was these that made most impact on me.  Whatever ill may have been done by witchcraft (and I don’t doubt that it has) for me the bigger story was how women’s wisdom, spiritual strength, and connection to the land, has been so feared by the Patriarchy and Church that thousands of women were persecuted, tortured and killed on trumped up charges.  As a result, we no longer have a cultural icon of a woman in her own power.  A wizard is a man who wields magic, but this word is not an insult in the way that ‘witch’ is.  The word ‘evil’ need hardly be added.

Image Scold’s bridle

I am very aware that the work I choose to do making ceremony available to people outside of the church, and calling on the sacred by the names of the Goddess, would have made me a prime candidate for burning, had I lived in other times.  So this is personal.  And, as a mother of two girls, I decided that they would not grow up with this stereotype unchallenged.  Straightaway I realised that the woman referred to as a ‘witch’ in a very nice Barefoot picture book I was reading them, was actually just a greedy old woman.  Every time we got to the word in the book I changed it, and told them why.  I was feeling pretty pleased about my small cultural activism, and then we got home and discovered that Penny’s class would be focussing on Hansel and Gretel this term.  My hackles rose.  It’s not that there should be no stories with evil child-eating women in them.  They are great fun to tell, and after all, the children outwit her and she gets her come-uppance.  It’s just that I don’t want my children to think they are the only powerful, eccentric females to be found in the woods.

I offered to go in and tell a story to Penny’s class.  After much inner debate, I decided to make up a kind of Hansel and Gretel / Crescent Moon Bear mash up, with apologies to Grimms and to Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  Here it is, in brief.

*             *               *

We all know how the story begins: the cottage near the woods, the weak father newly married to the conniving stepmother.  Winter approaching, and the lack of food.  The children overhearing the stepmother convince the father to take the children into the woods and leave them there, to be eaten by wild animals.

Image

We know how the children survive the first time by the wit of Hansel, who throws white stones behind them, so that they can find their way home in the moonlight.  A few days later, the children overhear the plot to abandon them in the woods again, and this time the door is locked against them.  But what if at this point, Gretel said to Hansel,

“There is somewhere we could go.  We could creep out of the downstairs window and go to the house of the wise woman.  Maybe she could help us.”

“You mean the witch?  You know we’re not allowed there.”

It was true.  None of the children were allowed down the track that led to the house of the wise woman, for fear of her magic.

“I know.  But what other choice do we have?”

What if they slipped out in the night, and found their way to her door?  Perhaps an owl flew in front of them and encouraged them on.  They saw smoke coming from her strange hut.  They knocked at the door, trembling, and a face as old as mountains greeted them, invited them in.  By the light of the fire, she made them a hot drink with herbs they didn’t recognise, and heard their story.

“We wondered if you could make a potion to make our stepmother kind.” Gretel ventured, looking at the bunches of herbs drying upside down from the roof, the racks of bottled ingredients on shelves.

The old woman grunted, looked Gretel deep in the eye.  Then she went to her stores, reached up to the top shelf, took down a jar, opened the lid and sniffed.

“That’s a pity,” she muttered.  “I’m all out of the most essential ingredient: hair from the great bear who lives in the forest.  Unless, that is, you would be brave enough to go and fetch some for me?”

And so the story continues, in a form some of you will recognise from The Crescent Moon Bear.  The children take bags of provisions, and go deep into the forest, tracking the bear.  When they come near, they leave out food for it, and gradually are able to come closer, until the day when they stay right beside the food and reach out to touch the great beast, and take one of its hairs.

With the hair safely stowed in a leather pouch around Gretel’s neck, they return to the house of the wise woman.  She tests the hair with her teeth, and smiles her broad and toothless smile.  Then she drops the hair into the fire, where it burns with a wisp of smoke.

“Do not worry,” she says gently, observing their horror.  “You have no need of a potion.  You are not the children you were when you first came here.  Go back to your father’s house, and you will see what you will see.”

Taking their leave of the old woman, the children return to their home, to the warm embrace of their father.  Their stepmother, however, shivers as they look through her and through her, and before Spring comes, she has packed her bags and left.

*          *            *

At the end of the storytelling session, the children made drawings.  Bears and jars of ingredients on shelves abounded, although many of the children couldn’t shake the image of the candy house from their minds, and drew it even though it didn’t feature in my story at all.  One child had drawn a stick woman with a pointy hat and a big smile.  I asked about this and was told, “It’s because she’s a good witch.”

Clearly, it takes more than one story to reverse the oppression of centuries.  However, it felt like a good beginning.  That day, I left the classroom with a big smile too.

The Sacred Art of Litter Picking

The Sacred Art of Litter Picking

“Picking up a can

From the river

And then another

On and on

It’s like a devotee

Doing countless rosaries.”

These words are from Dominique Mazeaud, an artist who for seven years from 1987 conducted “The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande,” picking up litter from the river for a day, on the same day each month.[i]  I can’t claim to have been so diligent in my litter picking, but I do resonate with her blend of art, ritual and activism.

Back in March, I put out a call to clear up a tributary of Boundary Brook that runs along Barracks Lane, as part of OxClean’s Spring Clean.  A group of 12 adults and 8 children turned up.  We picked up 25 bags of rubbish and recycling, and it was fun.  The kids were passionate litter pickers – tapping into some ancient foraging instinct, combined with an attraction to all things shiny, and the blessed permission of adults to dawdle and poke things with a stick.

litterpickMarch13There was a bit of competition about which of us would have the honour of donning the rubber waders and delving into the murky pond, just off the cycle path.  The lucky winner pulled out bed linen, a pair of shoes, and several large slimy parcels of undelivered newspapers.  Meanwhile, I picked up the detritus of various kinds of drug-taking nearby.  It made me sad and tired, wondering about the lives of the people who had sought their highs there.  I felt motherly towards them, as I picked up their rubbish.  I sent prayers for them as I worked.  When we had done what we could, some of us stood together and called on the spirits of the place, giving gratitude, and asking that this small gesture of care and reparation be carried out on the winds to the wider world.

There is something very beautiful about litter picking, when we approach it not out of resentment or guilt but as an act of love.  As you clear a place, you give it the gift of your attention and you become intimate with one another.   If it’s your home, you find things you’ve lost; you put things in place; you clear your mind.  If you temporarily take responsibility for a public space, you become more intimate with your neighbourhood, and the other creatures and humans that share it.  In turn, you begin to feel a greater sense of belonging.

A home or a place that has been cared for is very generous with what it gives back.  You can feel this as soon as you go into a home or garden that is well-loved.  Whenever I go back to the place we cleared in the Spring, I feel welcomed.  Over time, perhaps a place cared for in this way could transform from being a patch of ‘wasteground’ to a sacred grove where you could come for inspiration.  I am not talking about gentrification, only loving the margins for being exactly what they are: a haven for wild things and people on the edge.

Our ancestors brought, and indigenous people everywhere bring, offerings of herbs, flowers, fruit, songs and dances to the spirits of a place, knowing, as we tend to forget, that their survival depends directly on the bounty of the earth.  I also like to bring these things, or make something of beauty from found objects there (ala Andy Goldsworthy) as a gift for a place.   But offerings come in many guises, and in this age, I think what’s most needful, in our back streets and right across our earthly home, is the gift of paying attention, clearing up and taking care.

However you do it, litter picking is good fun, especially with kids.  It makes a difference and it makes you feel like you’ve earned your lunch.  Litter picking with love, let’s call it the Sacred Art of Litter Picking, is deep work, which brings healing to the wild margins and streams both within and without.  In a wonderful slip of the tongue my friend Ally Stott, who is organising a litter pick on Saturday in the same place (see invitation below) just told me she’d been thinking about clearing up ‘this piece of mind’ for a while.  I think I might join her.

This blog is also being featured on The Nature Effect blogspot: http://www.thenatureeffect.co.uk/blog.php?id=18 

An invitation from

Ally Stott, Brigid Avison and Chris Cullen

Dear friends

The first week of October has been chosen as `Earth Care Week’ by the Insight Meditation community of teachers, who met this summer to discuss, among other topics, how those of us practising the Buddha’s teachings could find appropriate responses to the environmental emergency we are living through. Both teachers and sanghas are invited to create their own ways of taking part in this. The new and beautiful website, www.oneearthsangha.org, is acting as a hub for suggestions and specific plans.

One of the teachers invites us to leave our world `as clean as, or cleaner’ than we found it (see link below). With this inspiring intention in mind, there will be an opportunity, on Saturday 5 October, to come together informally with other practitioners and like-minded souls for an afternoon of mindful litter-picking. This will be framed by time together for reflection and sharing in one of East Oxford’s most transformed spaces, the community garden in Barracks Lane.

Here is information about this event. There is no need to book, and everyone with an interest in meditation and caring for the land is warmly invited.

When Saturday 5 October, 2—5pm with optional picnic lunch from 1.15pm (bring your own)

Where Community Garden, Barracks Lane, off Cumberland Road, East Oxford OX4 2AP (see www.barrackslanegarden.org for directions). The site for the litter pick is a piece of neglected and abused land about 10 mins’ walk from here – the ground is uneven underfoot, possibly muddy

What to bring

– suitable clothing for several hours outside

– protective footwear and gloves for picking up litter

– some plastic bags

– whatever food and drink you might need; we will return to the Garden after the litter-pick, and you may want to bring a flask of tea

We look forward to seeing you there!

With metta and gratitude

Ally Stott, Brigid Avison, Chris Cullen


[i] (Read more about this project in Suzi Gablik’s wonderful book, The Reenchantment of Art)